Make Ottawa your next holiday destination

When CARPNews FiftyPlus invited me to write about Ottawa, I was thrilled. Ottawa is the place I have lived longest in my middle-aged life and I like practically everything about it.
Because you can find information on most of the tourist stuff, such as museums, art galleries, concerts, etc., through your hotel literature or travel agent, I’m going to concentrate on my own favourites. I hope you’ll find them as charming as I do.But first, the weather. Spring’s just around the corner, and it’s a gorgeous time to be in Ottawa. Many readers may know about the Festival of Spring, when our 3,000,000 tulips burst forth.

My personal favourite floral awakening is the crocus bloom at the East Block of Parliament Hill. Although hot water pipes under the lawns help these little beauties get a headstart, it’s a sure sign that winter is over. For fans of flowering crabapples and lilacs, you’ll find them in bloom around the second and third weeks of May. (A hint about clothing: take everything from shorts to woolly jackets; sun-hats to umbrellas.)

Everyone here takes advantage of the great outdoors. Ottawa, being quite small, is a stroller’s and cyclist’s paradise, but in summer therere also cruises on the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal, kayaking and canoeing, yacht clubs and more. Laid-back music lovers will find open-air theatre, jazz, blues and folk concerts — even a chamber music festival. While you’re out and about, visit the “cat colony” near Parliament Hill’s West Block. The kitties, which have their own little houses on a cliff, have been taken care of by Ottawa seniors for many years. Ask a Mountie to direct you and drop a loonie in the donation box for the felines’ food.

When you’ve finished with your furry friends, wander eastward to the By Ward Market, an open air farmer’s market, with lots of boutiques and cafes. Another treat is touring the gardens and greenhouses at the Governor General’s residence. Call toll free 1-800-465-6890 for further information. Autumn is also a great time to visit, and it’s worth venturing a little further than the city’s boundaries. For example, the maples in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec – a short drive across the Ottawa River — are simply spellbinding. The National Capital Commission, which runs the park, calls the beautiful display the “Fall Rhapsody.” I call it heaven. Autumn weather is beautiful as well — bright and crisp, with brilliant blue skies. Just bring cozy sweaters, a windbreaker, gloves — and an umbrella.

It’s also a perfect time to get to know the city, as the tourist crowds have, for the most part, gone but people are still out shopping, sitting at outdoor cafes, and just relaxing. Take a bus or taxi to The Glebe area, about a mile from the downtown core. You’ll find excellent clothing — we’ve seen the PM himself shopping here — antique shops, second-hand bookstores, arts and crafts, and lots of places to sit.

Yes, Ottawa is cold in wintertime, but it’s usually a dry and bright cold. Visitors from balmier climes are advised to dress in layers, i.e., light turtleneck, sweater, and a coat that covers your rear. Don’t forget a warm scarf, winter gloves and a hat that to protect the ears. A word of warning: although the downtown streets are well cared for, they may be slippery at times, so keep the high-heeled boots at home.

My winter favourites: the Christmas lights on Parliament Hill, from Dec. 7 to Jan. 14, are enchanting. There’s also an open-house viewing of holiday decorations in Parliament Hill’s Centre Block. Winterlude, our two-week festival, is held mostly on the Rideau Canal, the world’s longest skating rink, on weekends from Feb. 2 to 18. Alternatively, when Parliament is in session, pop up to the Centre Block and watch politicians throw insults at each other during Question Period. It’s free.

If shopping’s more your style, there’s an enclosed mall called 240 Sparks, and the Rideau Centre, a huge complex, both of which are close to the hotels. You can spend a day shopping and dining and never have to venture outside.

Eat, Drink and be Merry Speaking of dining, there are hundreds of great restaurants from which to choose. The gourmet gamut runs from sheer elegance to the downright fun, such as Ottawa’s own Beaver Tails (gorgeous fried pastries with a choice of toppings), or “poutine” — fries, gravy and cheese curds. Personal favourites: for that extra special occasion, try the beautiful Capital Club in the Delta Hotel. Polonus, hidden on the second floor at 87 George Street in the By Ward Market, serves super East European cuisine, but watch those Polish liqueurs.

At Bank and Sparks Streets, you can eat Montreal smoked meat and sinful cheesecake at Dunn’s Deli. In The Glebe area you’ll find lots of coffee bars, but if you want something more robust, try Irene’s Pub at 885 Bank Street, a cozy place voted, “Ottawa’s best neighbourhood pub.” For Asian food, go to Somerset Street; for Middle Eastern fare, try Elgin Street. For Italian, there’s Little Italy at Preston Street, but you’ll need to take a cab. Check with your concierge for distances and reservations.