Proper enjoyment of Ottawa in the winter requires an “if ya can’t beat it, join it” attitude similar to the one demonstrated by the dozens of partygoers who attended an outdoor Winterlude party hosted by The Grand Pizzeria & Bar and Cobblestone Tours in the heart of the ByWard Market on Friday night.
With temperatures hovering in and around zero, it was an easy night to be outside this time of year. Adding to the fun and festivities were the big, fluffy snowflakes that swirled in the soft glow of the outdoor lighting.
One could argue Ottawa residents got more than enough exposure to patios during COVID-19, but The Grand Ice Bar is unique. It features a fully sculptured ice bar that was serving seasonal cocktails and samples of craft beer from Calabogie Brewing that night. The heated area, which includes a fire pit surrounded by sheepskin-covered benches, is open on the weekends throughout Winterlude. The popular festival ends next Monday, by the way.
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The party was originally scheduled for Friday, Feb. 3 to kick off Winterlude but an extreme cold snap forced a one-week postponement. The DJ equipment and photo booth just weren’t hardy enough to function properly in those kinds of temperatures.
On hand was Étienne LeBlanc-Cameron, co-owner of Cobblestone Tours, which gives bus tours of Ottawa and Gatineau in the winter. It launched just over a year ago.
Cobblestone’s main kiosk is at 74 George St., right next to The Grand. The restaurant has been very supportive of LeBlanc-Cameron and his business partner, Léon Dufour Harris. The enthusiastic and affable young men are also the new owners of Lady Dive Tours and Gray Line, which they bought in 2021. They take visitors around Ottawa and Gatineau on their amphibus and double-decker buses during the warmer months.
“We love the partnership we have with The Grand,” LeBlanc-Cameron said of restaurant co-owner John Borsten and Sofia Santiso Borsten, the latter of whom is on the board of Ottawa Tourism. “They’re always supporting us at Cobblestone and, in the summer, Lady Dive.”
Speaking of supporting other businesses, LeBlanc-Cameron recommends Ottawa Tours by Taf for those looking for guided tours by foot.
Business at Cobblestone Tours is good, he said. “Compared to last year, it’s night and day,” added LeBlanc-Cameron, who had to deal in 2022 with the weeks’ long trucker convoy occupation in the downtown core.
A section of Wellington Street across from Parliament Hill still remains closed to traffic a year after the unprecedented occupation. It’s expected to finally reopen as early as next month. While LeBlanc-Cameron’s tour buses have been able to get through, the closure has created a lot of headaches in terms of traffic and changes to the company’s bus routes and audio guides, he acknowledged.
Cobblestone offered partygoers a quick tour Friday night of the ByWard Market area on its toasty-warm vintage trolley bus. Experienced guide Rudy Wagner had plenty of interesting tidbits to share about the district. Did you know Château Lafayette on York Street (also known as “The Laff”) is the city’s oldest tavern, established in 1849? Or that there’s a three-year waiting list to get married at the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica on Sussex Drive. “First you book the date, then you find your mate,” joked Wagner.
The big challenge this year with Winterlude has been the weather. Unseasonably warm temperatures have meant no skating on the world’s longest skating rink.
“Everybody’s sad that the Rideau Canal Skateway is not open but there are so many other activities,” said Ottawa Tourism’s Jantine Van Kregten of the ice sculptures on Sparks Street, the Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau, the Winter Pride programming and the BIG BANG Festival at the National Arts Centre. There was also the Winter Celebration that took place this past weekend at Rideau Hall.
As far as hotels go, occupancy is better than in 2022 and 2021 but it hasn’t caught up to 2020 Winterlude, said Steve Ball, president of the Ottawa Gatineau Hotel Association, which serves as the voice for the hotel industry in the region.
“The canal is the main draw,” he acknowledged. “Let’s face it, people come back here year after year after year to skate on the canal, so this will be a softer Winterlude than we’ve had in the past.”