Emma Newlands finds Ottawa’s people and places have a story worth telling as a taster trip of the city’s culinary treats leaves her hungry for more
Ottawa boring? Not a bit of it, says mayor Jim Watson, who makes it his business to get out and about to discover a city full of people and places, each with “a story worth telling”.
I can certainly echo his verdict of Canada’s multi-layered capital after a pleasingly food-centric visit as the nation celebrates its 150th anniversary.
After arriving early in the evening, I check in at the Andaz Ottawa Byward Market, the first branch of the Hyatt group’s luxury boutique arm to open in Canada. My spacious room’s corner location commands panoramic views of the city, and the rapidly darkening sky contrasts with the cheery expression of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stamped on a biscuit that has been left out for me.
The next morning, I head out to have a look at the local landmarks, which I later realise are visible from my room, including the silver-spired Notre-Dame Cathedral. Dating from 1841, it has benefited from a multi-million-dollar renovation beginning in 1999 and manages to look both traditional and futuristic as it glitters in the sunshine.
On my travels I spot several of Canada’s distinctive Maple Leaf flags blowing in the breeze and I walk through Major’s Hill Park, past blossoming trees and a statue of Ottawa’s founding father, John By, who lent his name to its former moniker of Bytown.
I also pass the parliament, where a free yoga class is held in the grounds every Wednesday, and it’s then time to return to the hotel, the height of which makes it a breeze to locate.
We set off on a tour of bustling ByWard Market, Ottawa’s top tourist attraction, led by the Andaz Ottawa’s executive chef Stephen La Salle, who introduces us to BeaverTails, the city’s famous beaver tail-shaped pastry, and we try the classic cinnamon sugar version, much lighter than it looks and positioned in a magical midway point between a Yorkshire pudding and a crêpe. I later learn that former US president Barack Obama sampled a BeaverTail in 2009 on his first official visit to Canada, and the company’s annual use of chocolate spread apparently equates to the weight of 67 moose and 11 beavers.
That evening, after cocktails at the hotel’s Copper Spirits and Sights bar and roof terrace on the top floor looking out over the city, I’m able to tick off another Canadian classic with poutine – chips with cheese curds and gravy – at dinner in the Andaz’s feast + revel restaurant on the ground floor. Dishes such as a rich braised Ontario lamb shoulder, potato fondant and whipped curd are counterbalanced by lighter choices such as vegetarian cottage pie made with lentils.
Breakfast next day means bagels, and at Kettleman’s Bagel Co, which is open 24/7, 365 days a year, you can see the “Montreal-style” bagels being made: rolled, boiled in honey water and then cooked in a wood-burning oven. I probably shouldn’t have been hungry after the previous night’s meal, but the “all dressed” bagel – sesame seeds and onions, with tart dill pickle cream cheese – is a winning combination that proves too tempting.
Some necessary respite from the eating is provided next with a tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival, the largest of its kind in the world. Founded in 1953 and showcasing more than a million tulips, it came about after Dutch Princess Margriet was born in Ottawa during the Second World War and celebrates the historic royal gift of tulips from the Dutch to Canadians as a symbol of international friendship. More or less interestingly, depending on your viewpoint, it opened with a performance by Liberace in 1972, and in 1987 marked the debut of 12-year-old singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette.
Stretching out in every direction are tulips in a host of bright colours – including a red and white Canada 150 Tulip reflecting the colours of the national flag – and there are hordes of visitors admiring the blooms.
After the buzz, a more tranquil environment calls, in the form of Purple Urchin, a natural skincare company in Ottawa’s Chinatown, which supplies the toiletries for Andaz Ottawa and takes its name from the fact that sea urchins clean the sea floor. We get a peek behind the scenes and a chance to sample its products, the most memorable for me being the cocoa butter coffee body scrub, which smells good enough to eat.
My chocolate and coffee fix is delivered in a more socially acceptable form with a visit to Hummingbird Chocolate and Equator Coffee, both also Andaz suppliers, the former owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team who run regular behind-the-scenes tours showing their impressively innovative and effective DIY methods for turning bean to rich, smooth bar.
At nearby Equator Coffee, with its roastery and café, we enjoy a pick-me-up, which is more than welcome after the previous evening’s Andaz Salon event. Designed to give guests a taste of local culture and community, we had met charismatic pop artist Bex, an Ottawa local with Dutch heritage, who created the Canadian Tulip Festival’s One Tulip One Canada flag icon and whose artwork was displayed around the room.
After a final lunch at seafood restaurant The Whalesbone, including freshly shucked oysters, it’s time to head off to the airport, full of regrets that we didn’t have time to see everything the city has to offer, from museums to day trips to the likes of Thousand Islands an hour away, and a whole host of 150th anniversary celebration events throughout 2017.
After our taster trip of Ottawa’s treats – boutique-style hotels, bagels, blooms, bars of chocolate and BeaverTails – it’s hard to disagree with Mayor Watson that the city “continues to shape itself and evolve into a place that offers something for everyone”. And as it steps out of the shadows of higher-profile Canadian cities like Toronto, we’re certainly left with an appetite for more.
King rooms at the Andaz Ottawa Byward Market start from Â£150 a night. Standard guest rooms cost from about Â£115 in low season (Nov–April) and Â£140 in high season (May-October).Andaz Byward Market, 325 Dalhousie St, Ottawa, ON K1N 7G1, Canada (+1 613-321-1234)Air Canada flies from Heathrow direct to Ottawa from Â£585