If you’re one of those people who’s been lured into a winter holiday that screams: “Get away from it all!” only to find crowds of braying ski enthusiasts and a squabbling family in the cabin next door, then Ontario, Canada could be the perfect retreat. With 270 snow-covered parks and 250,000 frozen lakes, there are plenty of hideaways, with only the occasional inquisitive moose for company. Snowshoeing through postcard-perfect scenery, icy evergreens and vast frozen lakes, there wasn’t a soul in sight – bar the rare howl of a wolf and the crashing of deer through bracken. The brochures promised a winter wonderland, and with breath-taking views as far as the eye can see from lookout points, it wasn’t a disappointment. Woodpeckers tapped noisily on trees, beavers had built ramshackle lodges on the lake, and foxes had left footprints in the blankets of powdery snow ahead. It’s a seven-hour flight to Toronto with Air Canada, and another three hours up to Algonquin Park, which nestles in the centre of the province. The aptly-named Voyageur Quest cabin proved a real experience in back-to-basics living. The rustic retreat was set well off the beaten track, where Little House On The Prairie meets the gingerbread man. With no electricity, mobile phones, TVs or radios, guests are taken out to enjoy activities like snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing and ice-fishing by day, while night brings hearty fayre, saunas and conversations around the blazing fire. After a lunch of home-made bread, salads and cold meat topped off by mouth-watering sticky toffee pudding, we headed out with our guide to explore the nearby lake on a pair of cross-country skies. The day was rounded off with a spot of tobogganing and later, when darkness fell, we howled for wolves across the lake. Naturally, the only reply we got was the echo of our own high-pitched wails. It’s a cliché, but there’s something about the snow of Ontario that really brings out the child in you. Feeling adventurous, we created our own ice rink by digging up snow on the lake and went skating by moonlight. We also dug out a makeshift igloo to sleep in overnight. The following day, it was time to try a more hands-on adventure – dog-sledding. Anyone expecting to kick off their snow boots and enjoy the scenery while being pulled along in a basket by a pack of hounds was in for a rude awakening. We were taken to a field filled with 350 yapping hounds, the noise of which put Battersea Dogs Home in the shade. Worse still, we had to drag each of our six over-excitable mutts on their hind legs to harness them up. Not for the faint-hearted, this. As soon as I’d mastered my controls (whoa for slow down, gee to turn right and ha for left – not that they took a blind bit of notice) we were galloping along snowy trails with the wind rushing past. It was all worth it. The scene was so magical, I was half-expecting Santa and Rudolph to trot by. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. You have to keep your new pedigree chums under control or face a tangled mess of paw, tails and rope. You also have to jump off the basket to help the poor hounds uphill (if you don’t, they’ll stop and turn around to look at you imploringly). As I huffed and puffed up hill, it occurred to me I must be barking mad. Ontario is great for anyone who wants to try out a variety of winter activities without the commitment of a dedicated skiing holiday. Better still, many of Ontario’s best parks are only a few hours from the bright lights of Toronto so if you find yourself missing civilisation, you can always head back to spend a few days in the comfort of the city. But once you’ve had a taste of this winter wonderland, you may not want to leave.
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