This past Thanksgiving I sat on my parents living room couch like a giant blob after filling my face to the brim with turkey, fixings, Beaujolais, Pumpkin Pie and Cognac. I gazed into the fireplace (eyes totally glazed over: in a food coma) and brainstormed where I wanted to go on my next culinary adventure (with plans to travel during the Family Day Long Weekend). I had great fun showcasing Prince Edward County and Niagara-on-the-Lake as culinary tourism destinations in 2011 and was looking for my next adventure. I pulled out a map (aka google map search because I loath paper cuts) and looked at a few locations that were easily accessible from Toronto. I didn’t want to spend hours of my three short days off in transit. I also really wanted to fly with Porter Airlines as I had heard so many great things about their service and phenomenal lickity split travel times. I was excited to take the wee ferry across to Toronto Island and enjoy actual food and booze on a domestic flight under 60 minutes in duration (because that happens, like, never).
I selected Ottawa, the Capital of Canada to enjoy the cities famous Winterlude Festival. I had been to Ottawa once before during my winter break in third year University. You can see a few pictures of that budget adventure here. I traveled with a school mate. We grabbed discounted tickets on Via Rail, stayed at a hostel and ate beaver tails and poutine. Most of my memories of that trip are rather standard: running around museums, checking out the Parliament and feeling frozen as an icicle most of the time.
This time around I wanted to do things a bit differently. Times had changed and I was happy to be swapping communal living for a boutique hotel and street food for fine dining. I worked with Jantine, Ottawa Tourism’s Director of Communications to coordinate a culinary adventure that would leave me satiated and pleasantly patriotic. Coincidentally I was fortunate enough to meet her in person at Ottawa Tourism at Roots on Bloor in early January. I also received recommendations via twitter from some of Ottawa’s top food writers and bloggers. With my short list of “must eats” I created a detailed itinerary with the help and coordination of Ottawa’s top restaurants.
I decided since it was Family Day Weekend it was imperative that I invite a family member to enjoy the culinary adventure with me. Over the Christmas holidays after doing most of my research I asked my father if he would be interested. He immediately said yes, and promised not to snore too badly. I responded by advising him to bring comfortable elastic waistband pants.
I hopped on the Bathurst Streetcar after work on Friday February 17th and bolted south, all the way to the cusp of Lake Ontario where I transferred onto a little ferry boat that putters across to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Once at the airport I quickly grabbed my flight ticket and whisked myself through security (where the staff actually smiled at me, so odd). The departure lounge was packed full of people. The furniture here was so unexpected as it was actually designed for comfort. People sat in comfy chairs in front of little coffee tables eating complimentary smoked almonds, shortbread cookies and tea. This whole free snacks and drinks “thing” has totally changed the standard of air travel (for Torontonians at least). I overheard several people mention that they arrive to the airport an hour early just to enjoy a snack and drink before their flight! I chuckled because I actually did the same thing (and encourage you all to arrive early to enjoy this part of the Porter Airlines experience).
Our flight was short (under an hour) but we were served beer and wine as well as a little snack pack filled with potato salad, chicken wrap and Lindt chocolate. Once in Ottawa we grabbed a cab and soon found ourselves standing in front of The Arc Hotel. During check in we were served two glasses of champagne which we sipped all the way up the elevator to our room. There was a lovely welcome letter from the hotel, a bottle of wine and a few chocolates on our bed which I gobbled up enthusiastically.
Over the course of the weekend I reviewed five of Ottawa’s top restaurants:
Feasting took up most of our time but we did get the chance to discover a bit of the city and enjoy a few Winterlude activities. We spent our first morning wandering around the Parliamentary grounds where we had the opportunity to check out a beautiful view overlooking neighboring Gatineau Quebec.
At The National Gallery we enjoyed the Canadian classics (Group of Seven and bits and bobs of indigenous work) as well as two special exhibits. My father pointed out a portrait by Fredrick Hagan who was an artistic mentor to my late Uncle Tom La Pierre. Through their passion for paint they became good friends. I have very fond memories of my Uncle Tom who is known in the Canadian art world for his avant garde masterpieces. Several of his paintings can be found in collections at The National Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario and other municipal collections across Canada.
We enjoyed two of the special exhibits: “Made in America 1900-1950,” was composed of over 100 photographs which celebrate the contribution of American photographers to the history of art in the 20th century. The famed, “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange haunted me as I stared intently and floor boards creaked beneath my feet. The other exhibit entitled, Christian Marclay: The Clock is a 24 hour film which evokes the wonder and illusionism of more than a century of cinema through a captivating 24-hour lopped video that plays in real time (the clocks on screen are the exact same as the time of day it is playing). This remarkable production compiles thousands of film references to time and timepieces creating a compelling moving image illustration of the minutes of a passing day.
Over the course of the weekend we made several visits to the Byward Market neighborhood, where many of the cities best restaurants are located. At the corner of the market sits a Beaver Tails shop (an iconic must try Ottawa treat) which serves up piping hot pastries tossed in cinnamon and sugar (best complimented by a cup of hot cocoa) to massive lines of hungry families and sweet tooth addicts.
We checked out two Winterlude activities on Sunday: a fantastic ice sculpture gallery at Confederation Park and Snowflake Kingdom at Parc Jacques-Cartier (que the hyperactive children). Later in the afternoon, in an attempt to get out of the cold to thaw our finger tips we parked out butts at Empire Cinemas to watch the Oscar nominated film, Albert Nobbs. Glenn Close amazes as a woman living her life in disguise as a hotel waiter. It was nice to lose myself in a storyline for a few hours. Escapism is the ultimate form of relaxation.
On Monday morning we headed back to the Ottawa airport where I enjoyed a cup of Refresh Tazo tea. Thankfully it was a clear day so I was able to stare out over hundreds of ice covered lakes during our Toronto bound flight. I arrived back in T.O. to a bleating sun and blue skies. As I grabbed my luggage from the moving carousel I could not help but laugh as a Porter Airlines advertisement featuring their raccoon mascot in Ottawa stared down at me. With my bag in hand I ran to the ferry bound for the city and smiled. How convenient is it that Toronto and Ottawa are a nice hop, skip and a jump from each other?