Adults were smiling; kids were happy. Somehow, the City of Ottawa has managed to turn the dreariest time of year into one of the liveliest and most rewarding for both locals and visitors.
Shakespeare was not fond of winter’s “icy fang,” but this season in the nation’s capital has become a joyous party highlighted by the three-week extravaganza called Winterlude.
The 33rd annual celebration of winter wrapped up Monday a myriad of events designed to please young and old. From glittering and complex ice carvings (28 professional ice sculptors from around the world brought their saws and talents to Ottawa) to sleigh rides and ice slides in Jacques Cartier Park’s Snowflake Kingdom, the National Capital Commission makes sure that outdoors is “in” as more than a half-million visitors enjoy the merriment that envelops the city as thoroughly as the blanket of snow.
This year’s glittering opening ceremony of Winterlude included a fireworks extravaganza celebrating the 100th anniversary of Parks Canada. Fired from the full length of a bridge spanning the Ottawa River, the 20 minutes of inspired pyrotechnics were especially dazzling because of the co-ordination with an original music soundtrack and the reflections from the frost-covered ground and river.
The best part of a winter break in Ottawa isn’t confined to its February festival. For years, we’ve wanted to put on blades and enjoy the world’s biggest skating rink — the Rideau Canal. From the locks next to the historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel (ready to celebrate its 100 anniversary next year), the smooth skating surface runs almost eight kilometres. Along this UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors will find skate rental shops, chalets for changing and several outlets featuring maple syrup lollipops and Beaver Tails, a unique cinnamon and sugar pastry confection that started in Ottawa and now has branches across the country.
On a bright, crisp Saturday morning we joined hundreds of people of all shapes, sizes and skills to enjoy one of the defining characteristics of being Canadian – skating on the Rideau Canal while munching on a Beaver Tail.
In recent years, Ottawa has become an exciting year-round destination. In winter, outdoor activities are still plentiful but the Parliament Buildings, the many museums and, especially, the lively culinary scene make a visit to Canada’s capital extremely rewarding.
There’s no charge to visit the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings wa hose lofty spire dominates the Ottawa skyline. After passing through security (just like at airports but friendlier) we took an elevator to the top of the Peace Tower for an extraordinary vista of the city, the Ottawa River and the Gatineau hills on the Quebec side.
A knowledgeable young guide then took us through the main rooms — the green-clad House of Commons, the red-clad Senate, the magnificent parliamentary library (the only part of the building to survive the fire of 1916) and the solemn Memorial Chamber, a small room with stained-glass windows where Books of Remembrance list the names of all Canadians who died in the service of our country.
Canada’s war effort is also remembered and honoured in the Canadian War Museum, the national museum of military history. Done with reverence and respect, this huge new building and its displays span hundreds of years, from the earliest armed violence to the latest skirmishes in the Middle East. From captured German tanks and Hitler’s staff car to realistic depictions of the gassing at Ypres, this museum is a must-visit for anyone interested in Canada’s role in world conflicts and peacekeeping.
Some displays are done with humour to appeal to young people.
The Ottawa area clearly has the best collection of museums in the country and you could spend days and weeks visiting them all.
The Museum of Civilization on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River spans the whole course of human history. But there’s also the Museum of Science and Technology, the Aviation and Space Museum, the glass and granite National Art Gallery and even museums devoted to contemporary photography and currency.
The tiny Bytown Museum, located in Ottawa’s oldest stone building next to the Rideau Canal locks, is worth a visit for its depiction of Ottawa’s early years.
All this skating and museum hopping made us hungry and we found Ottawa’s culinary scene to have evolved dramatically over the past decade. The centre of this gourmet grotto is the ByWard market, established as a farmers’ market in 1826 by Ottawa’s founder, Colonel John By.
Now encompassing a 12-block area just off Sussex Drive, this part of Ottawa is bustling with life 12 months a year with a huge variety of shops and vendors.
With more than 1,200 farms within the city limits, the emphasis here is on local and fresh. Restaurants, in particular, have embraced this local theme and built a huge following as a result.
We enjoyed a fantastic meal along what locals call “Gastro Alley.”
Murray Street Restaurant is owned and operated by two Atlantic Canadians, Paddy Whelan from St. John’s and Cape Breton native Steve Mitton. Named one of Canada’s Top 10 New Restaurants by enRoute Magazine, its menu changes daily depending on what’s available from local farmers.
We savoured a slow-smoked pork shoulder that was tender and flavourful as well as samples of the restaurant’s signature charcuterie, including elk terrine with dried cherries and hazelnuts, smoked head cheese terrine and a delightful in-house smoked duck breast. A perfect end to a delightful day.
A long weekend in Ottawa proved to be an ideal winter break for us. Judging by the number of visitors in town, many with kids, we weren’t alone in heading for staid, old Ottawa and its new reputation as a happening place.
John and Sandra Nowlan are Halifax-based travel and food writers.