Great Skates: Holidays on Ice

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Prehistoric Finns glided across frozen lakes on flattened bones. By the 14th century, the Dutch were strapping on steel blades to race on canals. The modern world embraced the sport with innovation, bringing curling, hockey, and the Zamboni to the surface. Technology extended the icy season with indoor rinks, but true romantics still spin under the stars.

1. Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Canada. It’s the world’s largest ice rink—equal to 90 Olympic-size rinks. What’s more, when frozen, the Rideau Canal is a slippery superhighway to the heart of Ottawa’s warm-spirited Winterlude festival, held over three weekends in February. After working glutes and quads, head to Ville de Gatineau for the Snowflake Kingdom, the continent’s largest snow playground.

2. Somerset House, London. It’s been many years since the mighty Thames has been tamed by ice, but the courtyard beside London’s neoclassical Somerset House overlooking the river becomes a dreamy rink in wintertime. First, tour the adjacent Courtauld Gallery for masterworks from Fra Angelico and the French Fauves.

3. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. For a patriotic tour of duty, scan the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives before crossing Constitution Avenue and hitting this rink on the National Mall. Warm up with hot cocoa in the cozy café and then take a spin around the Sculpture Garden, featuring a giant typewriter eraser by Claes Oldenburg.

4. Zócalo, Mexico City. A geographically improbable block of ice makes for one of the world’s hottest skating rinks in December and January. It’s safe to say that the great Aztec ruler Moctezuma did not foresee figure skating in the sunny center of his capital city Tenochtitlan, but the modern-day Zócalo, which occupies the same space, is a plaza of surprises.

5. Tjörnin Lake, Reykjavik. On frigid winters, Reykjavik’s city lake becomes a swirling center of death spirals, pancake falls, and hockey matches. Après-skate, take a dip in a geothermally heated hot pot at Vesturbæjarlaug pool. Fire and ice: what a combo!

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