Hot on the heels of Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla's Jubilee tour, we jetted to Canada's capital city Ottawa in the province of Ontario to see what all the fuss was about, and we became absolutely smitten. Here's why…
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Once direct flights resume, the flight time from London to NYC is just over six hours. I flew with Air Canada and sadly, my flight was slightly longer on account of direct flights not in operation post-pandemic. Therefore, I landed in Toronto and had to catch a quick internal flight to Ottawa – just be prepared for the usual fatigue from jetlag.
Ottawa city and the Rideau Canal
The Ottawa River
A quick cab ride from the airport and what strikes you first about Ottawa is the beautiful Rideau Canal amongst the surrounding area. The canal itself is a staggering 202 kilometres long and connects Canada's capital city of Ottawa to Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River at Kingston.
I was also informed that in the winter months in Ottawa, this turns into the world's biggest ice skating rink with commuters even taking to the ice whilst grabbing a hot chocolate and an infamous 'Beavertail' (more on those later). Suffice to say, it's a beautiful city, and when Parliament Hill looms into view you can't help but stare at the stunning skyline.
Where to stay
The Elgin Hotel
If you require somewhere centrally placed to explore all that Ottawa has to offer, then Lord Elgin in downtown Ottawa will meet your needs. It houses a modest gym and a decent pool for those who need their fitness fix.
If you're into running or cycling, you can also step outside the hotel and explore one of Ottawa's extensive trails in two minutes - Ottawa RentAbike will help you with your steed of choice. The rooms are well-equipped, it's extremely well-priced for the location with wistful views from the upper floors, and it's a firm favourite with families.
Breakfast is a buffet option, but if you want to get out and about early then there are a barrage of coffee shops where you can get your caffeine and cake. Sitting in Confederation Park, opposite the Elgin, with your morning sustenance will kickstart your day just fine.
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For those looking for a little more opulence, then a quick stroll across the road and opposite Parliament is the stunning The Fairmont Château Laurier, where a photo of Winston Churchill hangs in the lobby. It was taken on 30 December 1941 on Parliament Hill after Churchill addressed the Canadian Parliament about the war effort - and photographer Yousuf Karsh plucked the cigar from the Prime Minister's mouth just before taking the photo, which led to the famous scowl!
The rooms are beautifully appointed and the outside terrace is the perfect place to imbibe a cocktail or three whilst overlooking the canal and staring off into Quebec.
Trying popular Ottawan cuisine
I'm an avid foodie and being delighted by new cuisines in another locale is as important as the flight to me; without it, the holiday doesn't happen. Ottawa did not disappoint. I was gleefully informed by an ex-Montreal resident that the city had really elevated its game in the last few years, and although I couldn't compare, I can attest that a bad meal wasn't on the menu in Ottawa. My wallet equally didn't take a beating, although the option to splurge is there if you're so inclined!
Beyond The Pale offers incredible food and drink
For the BBQ and beer fanatics amongst you, Beyond the Pale brewery doesn't suffer from that typical craft brewing hipsterism. There is a phenomenally good pilsner they make themselves and the sauce-soaked pulled pork is so sumptuous you'll be disappointed once your meal has ended.
The Whalesbone is famed for its oysters
Another notable moment was at The Whalesbone where freshly shucked Oysters take on a new and invigorating life with a plethora of habanero sauces. A vinegar shaker craftily refilled with whiskey so you can 'clean' your shell with a few shots was also very welcome if the mood takes you.
For a more refined affair, then 1 Elgin Street at the National Arts Centre should be on your list. Nestled right on the canal, you can enjoy some delicious wines and fabulous contemporary Canadian cuisine whilst you watch people and yachts nestle into the banks opposite. The patio also has a retractable roof so don't fret about retreating indoors if the weather decides to ruin your al fresco plans.
The Ottawa sign in Byward Market
If you still haven't been sated by the dazzling array of food options, then a trip to Byward Market where all things food and drink are combined will surely satisfy you. Here you can flit from one independent producer, bar and restaurant to the next all within stumbling distances.
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If you want to get real immersion, then a tour with the brilliant Stefanie from C’est Bon cooking will guide you through Persian, Mexican, Canadian and a host of other flavours to give you a real hit of the Ottawan food scene. Don't fret, there are tastings on offer in every location you visit so it could be wise to forgo breakfast beforehand.
Stefanie also insisted we sampled dishes which simply must be eaten whilst in Ottawa. These are the world-famous poutine (french fries and cheese curds slathered in gravy) where variations are plentiful – my favourite was at the Clarendon Tavern where the addition of duck breast elevated it to a transcendent level.
Beavertail is beloved for its pastries and sweet treats
The other is to grab the aptly named and perfectly formed Beavertail. Be warned, queues form very early and stupidly late for this Ottawan sugary staple and there are a variety of toppings to keep you coming back to expand your waistline. For me, admittedly not the biggest lover of pastry, the simplicity of cinnamon, sugar and a lemon wedge can't be compared.
Action and adventure
Kayaking on the Ottawa river
If the feeling of adrenaline coursing through your veins is vital to your existence, then Ottawa is a perfect spot to explore all the heart-pounding rushes you could desire. From white water rafting to ziplining there is a buzz for everyone.
The latter is available on your doorstep in Ottawa at Interzip Rogers; the interprovincial zipline which straddles Ontario and Quebec. Twelve hundred feet long and one hundred and twenty feet high, it's an incredible view and I couldn't wait to hang precariously over the bubbling water below. It's also suitable for both young and old adventurers alike if they can climb the stairs and heights don't convert them to a shivering wreck.
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If throwing yourself down an inflatable raft through stomach-churning rapids is more your style, then take a trip to OWL rafting on the Ottawa river. Not only will the scenery take your breath away, but so will some of the rapids. Not for the faint-hearted, this is bucket list stuff and with the option of camping, you can ensure you have plenty of recovery time after you've battled through some gnarly stretches of white water.
For the concerned amongst you, there are different intensities to cater for beginners or those who need to work up the gumption. Sadly, time issues meant I couldn't partake (yes, really), but we did manage to have a delicious lunch on the river which meets all rafters once they finish their experience. A little bit of postprandial kayaking also fulfilled my need to jump into the deliciously welcoming waters of the Ottawa river.
Arts, Indigenous culture and Parliament Hill
The National Gallery of Canada is home to some masterpieces
On a day when the sky decided to throw a huge deluge of rain at the city, I wandered over to the impressive National Gallery of Canada. Its looming figure is both incredible and admirable as is the artwork contained within its walls. If Matisse, Picasso and other delightful finds inside don't make you marvel, then getting lost in its wondrous corridors absolutely will pull at your lost chords of artistic inspiration.
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You also cannot leave without experiencing Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet. Forty speakers are placed around the rebuilt Rideau Chapel, each with a unique voice that sing Spem in Alium gloriously. It will elevate you to a heavenly place and it's breathtaking.
Recognising Indigenous culture is high on Canada's agenda, and therefore, I had to visit Mādahòkì Farm (meaning "share the land" in Algonquin Anishinaabe). There's a petting park for the kids, a marketplace and wild trails to explore, but the key thing about this endeavour is learning and experiencing. It's a safe space where Indigenous communities can reconnect with the land through both healing and wellness programs and it's also the permanent home for seven endangered Ojibwe spirit horses. They're doing incredible things here, you need to experience it.
The Parliament Hill skyline
A right of passage whilst being in Ottawa is a tour of Parliament and the House of Commons. It successfully manages to dominate the skyline without feeling like an oppressive authority figure as it gazes down on Ottawa. Its main building and stunning library are sadly shut for a decade whilst it is modernised. Don't let that deter you, however, as the House of Commons now occupies an old courtyard and it is stunning in its reconfiguration.
Parliament Hill during the evening
If you stick around until dusk you'll also experience the Northern Light Show on Parliament Hill. Its blissful animations projected onto the building accompanied by a cinematic soundscape impart the good times and turbulence of the nation's history in both English and French. It's a great way to conclude a day in Ottawa and the consistently large crowds it pulls only add to the atmosphere.
Finally, and for something completely different, I have to mention the raucously hilarious dinner show Oh, Canada Eh?. As I discovered (to my horror!), there is some audience participation, but it's all in good jest… eh? If you don't get picked on, then sit back and enjoy traditionally Canadian fare as the cast serenade you with varying degrees of slapstick and hilarity. Bring your sense of humour, leave any inhibitions at the door and get lost in ridiculousness.
An Ottawan's opinion
One aspect of this tour that I think will stick with me is the immense pride Ottawans have in their city, coupled with the notion that it's still a work in progress. Compared to the urban sprawl of Montreal or Toronto, it's discoverable by foot or bike, and simply getting lost in the city will result in uncovering little gems and quaint neighbourhoods.
For me, I would love to come back in winter if only to see how they survive in the crippling cold. I did hear that a simple mixture of ice skating, hot chocolate and an unlimited supply of Beavertails seems to keep Ottawans in high spirits!
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Air Canada offers daily connections from London Heathrow to Ottawa via Montreal, with Economy fares starting from £652.16 inclusive of all taxes and 1 x checked bag (subject to change). Find out more at www.aircanada.com.
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