Four Days of Exploring During the Tulip Festival

Canada’s capital has become one of my favourite getaways. At 4.5 hours of driving it’s pretty close to Toronto, it’s easy to get to and there is always a lot going on. For years I have been wanting to go to Ottawa during it’s world famous Tulip Festival, but 2006 was the year I finally made it.

I arrived mid-afternoonish this past Thursday and started my explorations right away. My first day was totally dedicated to cultural discoveries. From the beautiful neighbourhood of Sandy Hill I walked downtown to attend two interesting photo exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography: “The Street”, exploring the interplay of the public and private domain as it unfolds on our streets, as well as “The Painted Photograph”, huge photographs by three different photographers that have been enhanced with painting techniques to create almost surrealistic effects. Then I had a chance to do a little photography of my own around Ottawa’s War Memorial and the historic Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

My late afternoon was dedicated to learning about antiquity at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Canada’s most popular museum. I visited the “Petra – Lost City of Stone” exhibit which taught me about the fascinating desert city of Petra and the ancient culture of the Nabateans. Then I took in an IMAX presentation of “Greece – Secrets of the Past” where I learned about the astounding achievements of ancient Greek culture and the cataclysmic volcanic explosion of the island of Santorini. For dinner I had a chance to sample something truly unique: aboriginal cuisine at Sweetgrass Bistro. I sat down with one of the co-owners, Phoebe Sutherland, who filled me in on how she came up with the idea and how she turned her dream of owning a restaurant into a reality.

After a good night’s sleep and a tasty breakfast at the historic McGee’s Inn I interviewed two of its owners, Judy Armstrong and Sarah, her son’s wife. Two generations of Armstrongs – father, mother, son and daughter-in-law, got into the bed and breakfast business together and 3 years ago they purchased one of the largest and most historic bed and breakfasts in Ottawa. Their story of determination and inter-generational collaboration is inspiring.

Friday was allocated to an exploration of nature. I started early with an excursion to the Canadian Museum of Nature to explore a special traveling exhibition: “Fatal Attraction” – the art of animal seduction. Then I was off to Ottawa’s nature playground: Gatineau Park, a huge nature area just 15 minutes away from the Parliament Buildings. It’s a favourite spot for hikers, mountain bikers, downhill and cross-country skiers, snow shoers, campers and anyone who wants to get away from the city to explore nature.

In the early evening I started to explore Major’s Hill, one of Ottawa’s prime public spaces and one of the official Tulip Festival locations, featuring the International Tulip Friendship Village, the Artisans Marketplace, strolling entertainers, the Family Zone and the Get Out! Ottawa Citizen Concert Series. But my relaxing discoveries had come to an end and butterflies started to set in: I was going to be interviewed live on air for the 6 o’clock evening news by Max Keeping, one of Ottawa’s most illustrious personalities. In addition to being Ottawa’s most popular news anchor, Max is a real champion of the community and attends about 200 charity and community events a year. Over the years he has helped to raise more than $100 million for worthy causes and received many distinguished awards, including the Order of Canada.

Well, I think the interview went okay after all; Max and his team were a pleasure to deal with. After all this excitement I went for a much needed dinner at Bistro 115, one of Ottawa’s favourite French-Canadian restaurants. I sat down with the owner Suzanne Lafrance who shared with me stories from her 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry and how even a devastating fire could not hinder her and her husband’s entrepreneurial aspirations.

On Saturday I went on an unusual excursion: the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield Steam Train, brainchild of a local entrepreneur in Gatineau, just on the other side of the Ottawa River. An authentic steam engine, built in Sweden in 1907, complete with coaches from the 1940s, takes its passengers through the scenic landscapes of the Gatineau River Valley. I sat back in the luxurious comfort of the Club Riviera coach and enjoyed the leisurely train ride to the historic village of Wakefield in Quebec. And during our two-hour lunch break I explored one of the most historic buildings in all of Wakefield: the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa, a former gristmill from the 1830s, turned into an upscale hospitality establishment. Finally I explored the Casino du Lac-Leamy, one of the official locations for Ottawa’s Tulip Festival.

Sunday I started off with a visit to see the Flotilla on Dow’s Lake, a parade of uniquely decorated boats along the Rideau Canal, one of the signature events of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival. Then I looked for one of the organizers and I found Benoît Hubert, the Executive Director of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival, who was able to give me more background on this unique event, incidentally the largest festival in Ottawa and the largest event of this kind in the world.

After a lovely stroll along Dow’s Lake I reached my next destination: the Canadian Agriculture Museum which is also an experimental farm. I watched the Sheep Shearing Competition and in a meeting with a number of women who knit, spin and weave, I learned a lot about wool and how it is processed. I even met a lady who takes dog hair and turns it into various garments. Then I got a tour through the Canadian Agriculture Museum which included the cattle barn, the small animal barn as well as a collection of historic tractors and farm implements that illustrate the innovations that have made farming so much easier during the last hundred years.

Throughout my 3.5 days in Ottawa I met a lot of people and talked with a variety of hospitality entrepreneurs, representatives from different attractions and event organizers. It’s the collection of these people who all contribute their expertise and effort in creating an appealing travel destination. Ottawa has become one of my favourites since there are always so many things going on and every season offers new activities.

At the end of my explorations I capped the day off with Ottawa’s special pastry delight: a Beavertail, in Commissioner’s Park, another official Tulip Festival location. A fitting ending to a packed spring weekend in Canada’s capital.

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