If you’ve never experienced a real winter before – not those drizzly subtropical Februaries, but a real snow-and-ice Alberta winter – you probably have some expectations: Cold. Slippery. Dark.
Sure, winter can be those things. But it can also be these things: Playful. Beautiful. Cozy. Bright. Illuminating. Fun. And perhaps most unexpectedly for those who tend to freak out when the thermometer inches downward: Magical.
At the right winter time and in the right winter place, that is the word that come up again and again. There is magic in winter.
So we’ve compiled a list of magical winter moments that can be found in Alberta. These aren’t specific places or activities, rather they are moments that, if everything falls into place in just the right way, that feeling of winter magic will wash over you.
One practical note first: The key to these moments is being comfortable and warm! If you aren’t prepared for those moments, your cold toes will sap away the magic. So be prepared.
What is it? Ice Magic is an annual ice-carving competition that takes place every January at Lake Louise.
Winter wonderland moment: After lunch at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (that’s a magical moment in itself), you pull on your puffy jacket and warm hat and step out the back. The lake is frozen and people are ice skating, and the whole world is a marshmallow. You watch ice carvers from around the world creating amazing works of art, then sidle up to the ice bar and touch a hot chocolate with Irish cream to your lips just as a horse-drawn sleigh slides by with bells jingling.
Where the magic happens: Ice Magic, the annual ice-carving competition takes place at Lake Louise in Banff National Park every January.
Also see: Banff’s SnowDays.
Ice castle magic
What is it? Silver Skate, a winter fest in Edmonton’s river valley that has evolved from a Dutch-inspired ice skating event into a loving celebration of winter.
Winter wonderland moment: It’s late afternoon, and dusk is already settling in (yeah, it gets dark in Alberta early. That’s what makes it fun!). You remove your warm hat because you’ve just finished ice skating and your body is buzzing with heat and, man, does that chilly air feel good. You clomp through the snow taking in snow sculptures and enjoying music and warming drinks. The lights flick on, and a little further down the path you see something that catches your breath: the ice castle, a maze of water frozen into unimaginable shapes and illuminated by coloured lights buried inside the ice. Hello, perfect selfie.
Where the magic happens: Edmonton’s Silver Skate Festival takes place every winter in the capital city of Edmonton.
Also see: Edmonton is known as festival city, and that applies year-round.
Magical ice skating
What is it? Skating on Bowness Park in Calgary.
Winter wonderland moment: You’ve done a few laps of the lagoon, passing figure skaters, show-off teenagers, parents pulling bundled kids on sleds and the young lovers holding mittened hands. In need of a break, you follow the sweet smell of woodsmoke to a firepit on the edges of the ice, find a warm spot and take a load off just as a friend reaches over and hands you a hot chocolate to enjoy while the snow accumulates on your head.
Where the magic happens: Bowness Park located in northwest Calgary.
Also see: Other great places to ice skate in Alberta are Calgary’s Olympic Plaza, Edmonton’s City Hall, Lake Mildred at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, and, if you get the right conditions, Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park.
What is it: The perfect beverage after the perfect ski day.
Winter wonderland moment: It’s 4 p.m. and you just finished the last ski run during a day in which you totally nailed that rolling section that initially scared you. Now, you plop down in the lodge, pull off those ski boots and your feet breathe a sigh of relief. Your hair is wild and scratchy from your helmet, your feel-good pheromones and buzzing and, outside, the light is fading as the snow starts falling – powder day tomorrow! The server places your favourite cocktail down in front of you, made with local vodka or gin or whisky (or all three). You raise a glass to the rest of your group of awesome friends who you seem to love even more right now, and you take that first sip.
Where the magic happens: Alberta’s many ski resorts, including Lake Louise Ski Resort, Banff Sunshine Village, Norquay, Marmot Basin, Nakiska, and many more.
The magic of tubing
What is it? Sitting in a giant inflatable tube with several of your closest friends and sliding down a speedy track.
Winter wonderland moment: You’ve heard about this tubing thing, but you’ve never tried it until now. A human conveyor belt carries you up the slope (fittingly, it’s called the magic carpet) while you nervously giggle along with your friends at the other tubers barreling down the hill beside you. At the top, the attendant eases the three of you onto a tube. Your eyes catch each others in anticipation as the attendant pushes you over the crest of the hill with a spin and you head downward fast, screaming with a mix of pleasure and fear the entire way. You ease to a stop at the bottom and, without a word, all of you bound toward the top for another ride.
Where the magic happens: Many of Alberta’s ski resorts offer tubing, including Lake Louise Ski Resort, Banff Sunshine Village, Norquay, Marmot Basin, Nakiska, Winsport and more.
Ice walking magic
What is it? Walking up an icy river to see beautifully frozen waterfalls and formations of ice.
Winter wonderland moment: You’re walking on a frozen river – don’t worry, the ice cleats are keeping you upright. Snow is falling, muffling the sound so all you can hear is the laughter of your friends and the occasional bird call. You stop for a moment to marvel at how a waterfall has frozen in mid-tumble off the side of a with more shades of blue than you thought existed. Then, you round a corner and there above you, hanging from the ice, is a group of ice climbers impossibly ascending a wall of frozen water.
Where the magic happens: Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park, Grotto Canyon near Canmore, Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park.
What is it? Hiking snowy trails with specially designed footwear that keeps you from sinking too deeply.
Winter wonderland moment: After a couple of hours of hiking in the snow, the Thermos of warm food offered by your guide smells unbelievably delicious. As you eat, your friends good-naturedly tease each other about the morning’s adventure when you see a glint on the eye of your guide. It’s your cue: your friends bound into chest-deep powdery snow that explodes in a soft cloud. After a few romps, your friend catches your attention just as she shakes a nearby tree, releasing a pile of snow that falls on your head with a rush of air drowned out by everyone’s laughter, including your own.
Where the magic happens: See here for some of Alberta’s best winter hiking locations.
Hot chocolate magic
What is it? A festival in Calgary celebrating the strangest, most creative and most delicious hot chocolate offerings you’ve ever tried.
Winter wonderland moment: It’s been a buy day of sightseeing, and your legs are getting sore from all the walking. You open the door and the warmth and aroma are as welcoming as home. You find a seat, shed a few layers of clothing and make your selection. You touch your cheeks to warm them just as the delivery is made – a hot chocolate like you’ve never encountered: made with vanilla, pistachios and topped with a fresh cannoli – or maybe orange blossoms or root-beer white hot chocolate. You bring it to your lips and take that first sip.
Where the magic happens: The YYC Hot Chocolate Festival takes place every winter in Calgary, and includes dozens of restaurants and cafes around the city.
Also see: Events & Festivals – a full list of happenings in the big cities of Alberta.