As a parent travelling with an active child, I opt for destinations that offer the full package. Flying from South Africa last year, my 11-year-old daughter Ally and I were to spend a week in New York before taking the two-hour flight to Ottawa for a family reunion. My Canadian cousins and I were renting a cottage at a historic fishing lodge in the Gatineau Hills, a couple of hours north of the city over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. While New York is always guaranteed to be fun, our quick, side trip to Ottawa was the real highlight of the holiday, especially for Ally.
Once considered a stodgy town of drab civil servants, Ottawa is now a cultural, foodie and outdoor hotspot, as well as Canada’s political centre. Situated in English-speaking Ontario, but facing French-speaking Quebec across the Ottawa River, bilingual Ottawa provided the full package I was hoping for in spades.
On arrival, we headed to Chateau Laurier, a historic hotel built in neo-Gothic and French Renaissance styles. It was opened in 1912 by its namesake, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier. One of my grandfathers sat on Laurier’s knee as a boy, and my other grandparents had honeymooned at this hotel, so Ally and I had sentimental reasons for staying there.
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It’s also the best location in town. The castle-like edifice is situated in central downtown and our room overlooked the Rideau Canal, Ottawa River and Canadian Parliament buildings. The advantage of staying there was that thanks to the complimentary bicycles the hotel provides its guests, Ally and I could cycle or walk everywhere, making it the perfect base from which to explore the city without having to hire a car. The hotel has the kind of cavernous hallways and sumptuous chandeliered lobby that mean parents can relax in style and kids can explore à la Eloise at the Plaza.
With so few days in the city, we quickly got to work seeing the sites. First stop was the Moshe Safdie- designed National Gallery with my cousin Anna, who’d worked there as a guide. She showed us the highlights, as well as the startling views of the Parliament buildings, which can be seen from the atrium atop the gallery’s entry ramp. The atrium echoes the design of the 1876 Parliamentary Library, which is framed by its windows.
A favourite spot was the Royal Canadian Mint, where we glimpsed rolls of silver and gold from which commemorative coins would be pressed. They were worth millions of dollars, so security was tight. We had to book to go inside, which we did at the tourist office opposite Parliament. We watched an assembly line running behind thick glass. Instead of widgets or cookies on the conveyor belt, gold coins paraded by. A highlight for Ally was lifting the solid gold brick that was guarded by a dedicated Mounty.
No trip to Ottawa is complete without a tour of the Parliament buildings. Our guide spoke about the history and architecture and explained the basics of the Canadian Parliamentary system which, like that of so many Commonwealth countries, is modelled on Britain’s. Highlights of the tour included the historic library and public gallery, where we watched a Parliamentary debate. Ally was delighted to discover her great-great- great grandfather’s name on several brass plaques. He had been a Cabinet Minister in several of Laurier’s governments a century ago.
Ottawa, with its magnificent public buildings and location at the convergence of the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River, is a place for dramatic vistas. One of the best can be enjoyed from the middle of the Alexandra Bridge, which spans the Ottawa River. There are stunning views of Chateau Laurier, Parliament and the mighty river flowing below the cliffs.
The bridge takes you to Gatineau, Quebec and the distinctive Canadian History Museum. Short on time, we opted to visit MosaiCanada, a temporary horticultural show beside the river, on the recommendation of our hotel’s concierge. He’d been spot on! We marvelled at a series of mammoth plant sculptures inspired by Canadian historical and ethnic themes to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday, which was being celebrated that year.
Thanks to its French roots and international focus, Ottawa has a sophisticated and varied restaurant scene, with every kind of cuisine, from French, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Thai and Moroccan to craft beer and pub grub. Ally and I sated a sushi craving at Genji Sushi.
For breakfast we walked to Wilf and Ada’s, a neighbourhood diner, where we devoured omelettes. Ottawa offers a dizzying mix of fine dining and cheap eats. Want a java? Try Bridgehead, a Canadian version of Starbucks that originated in Ottawa.
In preparation for our Thanksgiving weekend reunion, we needed to provision enough grub for more family members than you can shake a stick at. Luckily, Ottawa is a gastronomic hotspot and the Byword Market is a mecca for fresh produce and rare Canadian cheeses and is home to a profusion of both upscale and downscale restaurants. It’s also where you can buy a beavertail. Confused? A beavertail is the hind appendage of Canada’s official animal (emblazoned on the Canadian five cent coin), as well as deep-fried dough, shaped – unsurprisingly – like a beaver’s tail. We bought the edible type.
Our excursion into the Gatineau Hills for Thanksgiving was a welcome break from sightseeing. Like the American eating fest, Canadian Thanksgiving is an iconic holiday focused on family and food, always including too much roast turkey and pumpkin pie. Due to the early onset of the Canadian winter, it’s celebrated a full month to six weeks earlier in Canada than in the USA.
The Gatineau Hills are a favourite weekend escape for Ottawa’s and it’s easy to see why. The autumn drive was stunning, with leaves ablaze in red, yellow and orange and the village church spires belying Quebec’s Catholic roots. Rambling McKeeby Lodge, situated on a secluded lake, fit the bill for 23 family members and friends wanting to kick-back, cook and eat. If we hadn’t been eating so much, we could have fished, hiked and canoed and, in winter, skied, snow-shoed and snow-mobiled. I limited my physical activity to a swim, and the lake was surprisingly warm for October.
On our last afternoon in Canada, we drove past 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of Canada’s Prime Minister. Ally and I kept an eye out for Justin Trudeau in running gear, but we had no luck. Despite this, our Ottawa trip was wonderful and we want to return to catch sight of Mr Trudeau and do all the activities we didn’t have time for.
SAA flies direct to New York seven days a week. From there connect to Ottawa with code-share partner and Star Alliance member Air Canada.