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Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, illuminate the sky above Pickerel Lake in Quetico Provincial Park, which was recently named a dark sky preserve.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Light Show

The Northern Lights might look magical, but their appearance is pure science. When electrically charged particles from the sun enter our upper atmosphere, the Earth’s magnetic field redirects them toward the North Pole. That collision visually manifests as beautiful “dancing” lights that are most easily spotted in the auroral oval, the region surrounding the Earth’s magnetic pole. And wouldn’t you know, between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the accessible land under this oval is located in Canada.

Some of those spots are easier to reach than others, which means there’s an aurora experience for every travel style. In Ontario, they’re often visible on Manitoulin Island (about 1 1/2 hours from Sudbury) and Pukaskwa National Park (3 1/2 hours from Thunder Bay), both of which are great getaways for families.

Churchill, Man., is accessible by train or plane – and since it’s billed as one of the top three places on the planet to catch the Northern Lights, it’s well worth the trip. If you’re into little luxuries, check out Frontiers North, a local tour operator that offers midnight excursions in heated “tundra buggies,” custom-made all-terrain vehicles.

And for adventurous types, Newfoundland and Labrador’s remote Torngat Mountains National Park is firmly in trip-of-a-lifetime territory. The park sits on unspoiled mountainous terrain that has been an Inuit homeland for millennia, and is one of the best places in Canada to spot the Northern Lights. Arrange your trip through Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station, which provides accommodations, logistics and planning support and even local Inuit bear guards and guides. The Base Camp is currently closed. Information about booking and experiences can be found at thetorngats.com.

Making Tracks

Snowshoeing has been growing in popularity for years, but during COVID-19, interest in the sport spiked, and for good reason. It’s low-impact, relatively inexpensive and inherently distanced, making it the perfect cold-weather pandemic pastime. Better yet, in many cities, including Vancouver, you don’t even need to go anywhere to try it.

Whether you’re visiting Vancouver or it’s your home base, figuring out where to get your snowshoe on is easy. Grouse Mountain resort, which is located just 15 minutes from downtown, offers five snowshoeing trails, including the beginner-friendly Blue Grouse loop, the more difficult Dam Mountain, the Thunderbird Ridge route (a short but occasionally steep backcountry loop), and the Snowshoe Grind, a winter version of the famous Grouse Grind, the short but steep hiking trail that Vancouverites flock to during the warmer months. The resort offers lessons for snowshoeing newbies who’d like to take up the sport. Plus, there are fun tours to choose from, such as fitness-focused excursions that take intermediate and experienced snowshoers on walks, jogs through the resort’s backcountry accompanied by a seasoned instructor, and awe-inspiring after-dark jaunts where you can stargaze under the full and new moon. This winter, don’t miss the resort’s Light Walk, a forest pathway that’s lit by twinkle lights. Enter through a glowing light tunnel, then follow the snowy paths for a magical nighttime stroll.

Admission to the mountain is $61 for adults, $34 for children or $161 for a four-person family pass, which includes round-trip travel via the Skyride and access to all current attractions (except skiing and snowboarding). Snowshoes are available to rent and there’s no additional charge for the Light Walk, though tours are an added cost and require preregistration.

People skate on the Rideau Canal, with the temperature at about -15 degrees Celsius in Ottawa, Ontario on Jan. 22, 2019.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Ice, Ice Baby

Canada is a country of ice rinks, but if you really want to get your skate on, nothing beats skating trails, icy outdoor paths that weave through snowy forests or large properties. At 7.8-kilometres long, Ottawa’s Rideau Canal is likely our most famous skating trail, but there are plenty of other options to explore. Here are three favourites.

For date nights: Shipyards Park in Whitehorse

The rollerblading path at this public park converts into a skating trail when the mercury drops. Even better, fire pits and warming huts dot its length, perfect for a romantic mid-skate snuggle.

For the whole family: Perth Outfitters in Perth, Ont.

Rent skates from Perth Outfitters, a popular recreation centre located on the bank of the Tay River in Perth, Ont., then take a twirl along its 400-metre groomed trail or hit the shinny rink for an impromptu hockey game with the home team. When it’s time for a break, head over to the log cabin club house, which has outdoor firepits and delicious hot chocolate on offer.

For nature lovers: Patinage en Forêt in Lac-des-Loups, Que.

A three-kilometre loop that cuts through the snowy foothills of Gatineau Park, this skateway is the perfect combination of forest bathing and staying active.

Winter Warm Up

The words “hot springs” tend to conjure visions of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, with its pastel turquoise water, or the tiered pools at Turkey’s Pamukkale, but Canada boasts some pretty great springs, too. In fact, wellness lovers should take note: there’s a Hot Spring Loop in B.C. that makes for the most relaxing road trip ever, with stops at six hot spring resorts in the province’s Kootenay Rockies: Ainsworth, Canyon, Fairmont, Halcyon, Nakusp and Radium Hot Springs (though the latter is currently closed for renovations).

Ainsworth is owned by the Yaqan Nukiy people of the Ktunaxa First Nation and boasts a large lounging pool, stream-fed cold plunge and a horseshoe-shaped cave lined with stalagmites and stalactites. Canyon has two springs on offer, while Fairmont has three, a 39 C soaking pool and a swimming pool and dive pool that are slightly cooler. Halcyon’s four soaking pools overlook Upper Arrow Lake and the Monashee Mountains, while Nakusp bills its two pools as the finest hot springs in the province thanks to their speedy filtration. The resort’s hot pool completely recycles its water within 30 minutes, while the warm pool recycles its water within two hours.

Like all hot springs, these steamy pools are the result of geothermally heated water rising from the Earth’s crust to the surface. This water is often packed with dissolved minerals, and it’s purported to have all sorts of health benefits. These claims are as yet unproven, but we do know one thing: a good soak is super soothing.

Movable Feast

Is there a better way to explore a new city than to hit up its culinary hot spots one by one? If so, we haven’t found it – and clearly Stratford, Ont., agrees, because it has curated a chocolate-focused culinary tour that offers visitors a chance to treat themselves and taste the best of the city at the same time.

The Chocolate Trail is a 22-stop tour of Stratford’s best bakeries, shops, breweries and other small businesses, including Boar’s Head Pub, Junction 56 Distillery, Snapping Turtle Coffee Roasters and Small-Mart General Mercantile. Each one has a different chocolatey treat on offer, from a gluten-free brownie with fudge sauce, berries and French vanilla ice cream at the Boar’s Head to retro chocolate bars at the Mercantile.

All visitors have to do is stop by one of four participating locations (Destination Stratford, Bradshaws, Small-Mart or Werk Shop) to pick up a pass with six vouchers for $30, which can be used at any of the participating shops. Then, they can easily pop into their favourites to score a chocolate product – and sometimes even chat with the makers themselves. (And yes, you can buy multiple passes if you’d like to try more than six places.)

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