It's not what you would expect to find in the middle of a snow-clad forest: A 126-metre suspension footbridge, Ontario's longest, straddling a hillside ravine. But it's not the surprising span that grabs my attention. With my one-year-old daughter on my back and snowshoes on my feet, I'm more concerned with the eight centimetres of timber, and 25 metres of oblivion, between myself and the valley floor.
The suspension bridge at Scenic Caves Nature Adventures is, of course, perfectly safe. As I cross, I take note of its massive concrete foundations and thick steel cables. I gaze out over Georgian Bay, taking in what locals tell me is a 10,000-square-kilometre view. Then I quicken my pace, just a little, when a sudden gust sends tremors along the handrail.
In other words, forget Cineplex or Chuck E. Cheese: There's plenty of off-the-beaten-path family fun and adventure to be had across Canada as March Break and Ontario's first February family holiday approach. Think spelunking in Newfoundland, kite acrobatics on a frozen Quebec lake or whale-watching off Vancouver Island.
Here are eight of the newest, and niftiest, excursions on offer this winter:
Snowshoeing by the caves
Tired of lift lines and wind burn? A day trip to Ontario's Scenic Caves Nature Adventures ( www.sceniccaves.com) provides an ideal break from downhill skiing at the nearby Blue Mountain and Talisman resorts.
The caves themselves are closed for the winter, but groomed snowshoe and cross-country ski trails deliver 22 kilometres of tranquil woodland scenery, capped by a trek across the towering suspension bridge. There's a warm-up hut along the way and a trailhead chalet offering snacks and equipment rentals. And new this season, the park has teamed up with the region's Highlands and Wasaga Nordic centres to offer a pass to all three cross-country parks for just $25.
Last - but definitely not least -- the whole family can soak tired muscles at the one-year-old Le Scandinave Spa (scandinave.com), where an assortment of outdoor pools range from steaming to chilly.
Toronto to Tremblant
At long last, the "drive from hell," as it has become known among Greater Toronto Area skiers and snowboarders, can be avoided with ease.
Porter Airlines' ( www.porterairlines.com) new service out of the Toronto island airport takes about 70 minutes to reach Quebec's Mont Tremblant, one of Eastern North America's top snow destinations. Flights depart on Saturday mornings at 7 and return on Sunday evenings, ensuring two full days on the slopes. And a flight has even been added on Feb. 18 for the Family Day long weekend.
The service, which starts at around $200 for return flights, runs until March 30. A shuttle bus carries passengers between Tremblant airport and the shops, eateries and hotels of the Alpine-style resort village.
Be a skinny-ski Olympian
If your gold-medal dreams have been trumped by that pesky day job, at least you and yours can glide along the same cross-country ski trails as real-life Olympians.
Visitors to B.C.'s Callaghan Valley, a 90-minute drive north of Vancouver, can sample the Nordic facilities for the 2010 Winter Games now that Whistler Olympic Park ( www.whistlerolympicpark.com) is open to the public.
The new venue offers 35 kilometres of groomed trails, five kilometres of which are lighted for night skiing. Imagine you're surrounded by cheering fans as you pass through the biathlon and cross-country stadiums. However, gold medals are not included in the $32 family day pass.
Meanwhile, should other adventures call out to you, head to Callaghan Lodge ( www.callaghancountry.com), a short snowmobile or dogsled ride from the Whistler resort village. This is more than a rustic cross-country ski hut: Among other packages, the Snow Play Day ($269) features a one-hour dog sled excursion, and the overnight Cabin Party ($369 a person) includes tobogganing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing by moonlight.
Whales in Tofino
If you think it takes too long to commute to work, consider the Pacific grey whale: Each spring, an estimated 22,000 of them swim along the west coast of Vancouver Island on their 16,000-kilometre round-trip journey between Mexico's Baja Peninsula and the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.
To mark this incredible passage, the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet host the Pacific Rim Whale Festival ( www.pacificrimwhalefestival.org) from March 15-23.
In addition to free public viewing stations at the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse and Pacific Rim National Park's Wickaninnish Centre, charter boats and floatplanes offer a wide range of whale-watching excursions.
The towns are also hosting cultural events such as a
(human) synchronized swimming performance, a concert by Juno Award-winning folk performer Ian Tamblyn, and - wait for it - the 13th Annual Chowder Chowdown.
Kites over the white stuff
Believe it or not, there are some good things about chilly winter winds. Take Saint-Placide, Que.'s annual Festi-Vent ( www.festi-vent.com), the largest winter kite festival in Canada.
On Feb. 23 and 24, dozens of professional kite enthusiasts from Canada and around the world will send scores of colourful creations into the sky over Lac des Deux-Montagnes: giant airborne scuba divers, massive prayer flags, rainbow-coloured acrobatic kites - the list goes on.
The fest also features kite-making seminars, a midway and myriad food vendors (read: plenty of poutine).
Scary snow sculptures
Quebec's Parc Monts-Valin ( www.sepaq.com/pq/mva/en), a three-hour drive north of Quebec City, gets scary amounts of snow - nearly seven metres in some spots. It seems fitting, then, that one valley in particular is known for its "phantoms and mummies," trees so laden with snow that they resemble these spooky characters.
Fully equipped chalets and igloos are available in the park for overnight stays, while a Phantom Package includes a shuttle bus ride to the foot of the Vallée des Fantômes, mountaineering snowshoe rentals and a boxed lunch to share with the spooks. The cost is $58 for adults and $42 for children aged 6 to 17.
A snow train to Jasper
Getting there can be half the fun, as demonstrated by the second running of Via Rail's Snow Train between Edmonton and Jasper ( www.viarail.ca). The five-hour ride in panoramic domed viewing cars winds through miles of Rocky Mountain scenery, which is motivation enough to buy lift tickets or book ski lessons and rental equipment through the train's Marmot Ambassador, a liaison to Jasper's Marmot Basin ski resort.
But there's more to Jasper than skiing. At the historic and luxurious Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge ( www.fairmont.com/Jasper), a new Family Day Weekend package, available from Feb. 15 to 18, is capped by the Sno-Ball, a winter carnival with musical entertainment, tobogganing, skating and snow-carving.
Rates start at $349 a night, based on double occupancy and a three-night minimum stay. (Children 18 and under stay free in room when sharing with parents.)
Caving on the Rock
If you're planning a ski trip to Marble Mountain ( www.skimarble.com), remember that a surprising diversion is available just below the snow. Explore Newfoundland's year-round cave tours ($79 a person; www.explorenewfoundland.com/day_caving.htm), kick off with a hike or snowshoe down the Corner Brook Gorge, followed by one kilometre of sliding, shimmying and crawling through the Corner Brook caves. A twisting network of limestone chutes and caverns, the caves were carved over millennia by the Corner Brook Stream. And the names of some of the cave's formations - Dinosaur Teeth, Rat's Crawl and Whale's Back - should give you an idea of the adventure involved.
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