For all three of us it was our first trip to Canada, and what better introduction to this beautiful country than a visit to the capital city Ottawa. I would be travelling with Rachael and Mike, two seasoned travel journalists that I clicked with from the off. Rachael was writing a piece for the consumer lifestyle magazine Woman, while Mike was representing the regional giant Trinity Mirror. What excited us most was that we were set to be in Ottawa for Canada Day.
After a swift check in at Heathrow’s recently refurbed terminal 2, we took to the skies with Air Canada at the very manageable time of 12.35pm. A pleasant lunch, the latest sci-fi flick and an afternoon tea later, and we touched down at 3.15pm local time. The team at Ottawa Tourism had advised me that they expected us to disembark the plane, clear passport control, collect our luggage, catch a cab and make the transfer to our city centre hotel all within 45 minutes. I seriously doubted that this would be possible, and I was right. We in fact did all of this in just 40 minutes, if only all airport arrivals could be that easy!
Our accommodation during the five night stay would be the 429 room Fairmont Chateau Laurier. Built at the turn of the century in a French neo-gothic style, the hotel dominates the Ottawa skyline. The building is truly stunning and we could have been forgiven for thinking we had just arrived on the set of an elaborate fantasy film. My room was luxurious and comfortable and kitted out with the latest state of the art facilities. However, like the building throughout out it maintained a sense of Edwardian charm and elegance, as though we could have been aboard the first class decks of the Titanic. The sad irony is that Charles Melville Hays, who commissioned the original hotel, never got to see the finished hotel because he was one of unfortunate souls to go down with the Titanic.
For dinner that night we headed to the Courtyard restaurant where we met our fantastic host Jantine from Ottawa Tourism. The Courtyard restaurant was a stone’s throw from our hotel and tucked away in a lovely nineteenth century cobbled square surrounded by delightful pubs and restaurants. Over a delicious French meal we discussed our plans with Jantine for the big day ahead; with so much happening on Canada Day it seemed that our biggest challenge would be deciding what not to do!
The next morning I was up early and headed straight downstairs to Wilfred’s restaurant where I met Rachael and Mike for a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, toast, waffles and maple syrup. All three of us were dressed from head to toe in red and white and were sporting temporary maple leaf tattoos. To my relief the first thing I noticed when we left our hotel was that everyone else was dressed like us, and I mean everyone! Even at 9am the streets of Ottawa were buzzing with crowds of good natured revellers out to have a good time. We, along with what seemed like everyone else in Canada were making the short walk to Parliament Hill for the start of the official proceedings.
Parliament Hill is home to Ottawa’s impressive Parliament buildings. In the large space that occupies the area directly in front of them a huge stage had been put up complete with enormous screens. It was here that we were treated to a stirring and address by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper before watching a live concert involving some of Canada’s best known rock, pop and country artists. Next we made the short walk to Confederation Park to soak up some of the family friendly atmosphere and to catch a couple of acts that were performing at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.
Despite only having met Jantine the night before she invited us to her house for her traditional Canada Day BBQ. Over mountains of delicious food and refreshing local craft beer we were introduced to her friends and family who were undoubtedly some of the most welcoming people I have ever met. After lunch we made the short walk across the Ottawa River into Quebec and headed for Jacques-Cartier Park. Here there was a great atmosphere with another music stage, huge inflatables and stalls selling every kind of sweet treats imaginable. Everywhere people would wish us Happy Canada Day and complete strangers seemed genuinely interested in speaking to us. Very quickly I was getting a sense that it wasn’t just Jantine’s friends that were super friendly; it was everyone in Ottawa.
After returning to Parliament Hill for more live music and a fantastic flyby by the Canadian RAF Snowbirds, we headed back to our hotel to watch the Canada Day fireworks. We were lucky enough to have privileged access to the roof of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier which provided one of the best vantage points in the city. The firework show didn’t disappoint, it was a real spectacle to see the whole of downtown Ottawa lit-up, choreographed perfectly to classical and rock music. As we had a final drink in Zoe’s (the hotel lounge and bar) we looked out the window to watch the crowds of red and white flow past into the night. It was clear that the atmosphere was still buzzing with partying set carry on until the early hours.
In the days that followed Rachael, Mike and I loved exploring Ottawa and the outskirts of the city. Mike’s highlights included the fascinating Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of History National and a self-guided craft beer tour of the lively Byward Market. Rachael meanwhile enjoyed a scenic cycling tour of the city with Escape Bicycle Tours, a gastronomic walking tour of Little Italy with C’est Bon Epicurean Adventure and visit to the very impressive National Gallery. Some of my favourite activities included a stroll through the beautiful Gatineau Park, a spooky ghost walk with company Haunted Walk and a captivating tour of the historic Parliament buildings. However we all loved the Nordik Spa, which is North America’s largest spa. After all that celebrating and site seeing it provided the perfect opportunity to unwind.
All three of us were blown away with the food on offer throughout. From local street food such as sweet ‘BeaverTails’ to high end dinning, Ottawa caters for every taste. Play Food and Wine was one of our favourite restaurants, it serves a huge variety of excellent tapas style dishes each paired with a recommended wine. Another fantastic meal was had at The Albion Rooms in downtown Ottawa. We had rustic yet contemporary dishes washed down with delicious signature cocktails.
All too soon our time in Ottawa was up. We had only just touched the surface of the attractions and activities on offer in this vibrant city. What we all agreed that Ottawa is one of the most welcoming places that we had ever been to. It isn’t just the fantastic museums, galleries, architecture, food and nightlife that make Ottawa great, above all it is its people.