Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ottawa Calling: Canal Skating, Beavertails, and a Cold North Wind (guest post by Chris)

Our first evening in Ottawa we found ourselves in front of a goofy photo of President Obama in the Byward Market before dinner. Obama had just purchased a maple leaf cookie and stood surrounded by employees at the Le Moulin de Provence bakery as he proclaimed, “I love this country!”

Like Obama, I too love Canada. Growing up in Williamsville, outside of Buffalo, Canada was a constant presence—from the trips to the beaches and amusement park at Sherkston, to the occasional forays to Niagara Falls, to the television stations streaming in different shows and lots of hockey. And, of course, when I became of legal age, the Canadian beers that were a mainstay of our local bars—Labatt, Molson, O’Keefe. Since we’ve lived in Vermont, our family has made many trips to Canada—usually the short trip to Montreal, sometimes just Sheila and me, other times with Faye and Isabel. We enjoyed a wonderful two week vacation to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and Sheila joined me for several days at a conference in Vancouver. But I had never been to Ottawa—nor had Sheila or Faye. (Isabel went with her 6th grade class from Bristol Elementary, before everyone needed passports.) 

We had heard great things about Ottawa’s winter carnival (Winterlude), and had twice planned a family trip only to have to cancel due to illness and weather too warm to skate. But this year we made it. As we drove into the center of Ottawa after lunch on a Friday, we were struck by the beauty of our hotel, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier

and the buildings of Parliament Hill. 

We checked in, got some friendly advice, and headed to the nearby Rideau Canal Skateway, billed as the world’s largest skating rink.   

We had an hour or so skate, just finding our legs, so to speak. It was crystal clear, however—indeed as clear as the ice sculptures we’d soon visit—that we weren’t native skaters. 

Nearby Confederation Park was home to a wide array of beautifully carved ice sculptures, some made by professionals, and others by local citizens working away with chain saws. 

The cold soon started to catch up with us, and we headed back to the hotel to warm up.

Dinner was nearby at Play, something of a northern tapas restaurant. We each ordered two small plates—I enjoyed a mussel dish and some gnocchi with short rib and Swiss chard. 

Both Faye and Sheila started with a fig salad, 

followed by a hanger steak for Faye and Arctic char for Sheila. 

I also eased in to the excellent Ontario craft brewing scene, with Ottawa’s own Lug Tread Ale from Beau’s and a Muskoka Mad Tom IPA, while Sheila enjoyed some Argentine red. Then it was back to the warm chateau as the temperature headed for zero—excuse me, -18 C.

The next day started out with coffee and pastries at Bridgehead, a fine local chain. 

We then strolled through a quiet downtown (it was Saturday morning) and on past the Supreme Court building and the Parliament Hill complex. As we changed into our skating gear, the sun came out and the blue sky helped offset the cold. 

We skated a confident 6k this day. Not quite Canadians, but at least respectable winter people. Before finishing our skate, Faye and I enjoyed “the” local delicacy—a beavertail (Sheila had a taste). 

This glorified fried dough came with a variety of toppings, but Faye had been advised that the best was sugar, cinnamon, and lemon, so that’s what we had. 

It was a great treat after a good skate, but I couldn’t shake the last vision of a beavertail from my mind as I bit into the dough. It was of our late, great Golden/Lab Cooper, in the rear view mirror, running after our car at full speed with her jaws gripping a real beavertail, pulled from a frozen carcass she discovered on a hike. 

After completing our skate, we headed over to the Byward Market for lunch and strolling in the numerous shops. At the end of the afternoon, we met our friend Zohra for coffee. We served as Zohra's host family when she attended Middlebury several years ago, the first Afghan woman to do so. She is now attending law school at the University of Ottawa, with plans to return to Afghanistan.

A cold walk brought us to Town, our dinner restaurant. It was a hip scene and we like to think we blended right in. 

I enjoyed another Ottawa beer (Dominion City Two Flags IPA) with my pork loin. Faye and Sheila enjoyed ricotta cavatelli with oyster mushrooms and kale pesto, and some Italian red for Sheila. We all agreed that if Town were located near Bristol, we’d be frequent visitors. We then made the walk back to the hotel, cutting through Confederation Park to see the ice sculptures at night and take in some of the (literal) Sub-Zero DJ.

Sunday morning brought a blizzard, more cold, and wind. It was winter in Canada, after all. We had planned some more skating, but given the weather and the drive back, we grabbed a quick breakfast at Moulin de Provence and were on our way. Before our trip we had read that Ottawa was the second coldest capital in the world, and it lived up to that reputation.  I’m very much looking forward to my next visit, but it may be in the summer. Oh, and that trip to Ulan Bator, the world’s coldest capital—that definitely won’t be happening in the winter.

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