Canada’s National Capital Region – also known as Ottawa-Gatineau – balances its role as the heart of the nation with a charming small-town atmosphere. Canada’s High Commissioner to Singapore, HE Heather Grant, shares her top cultural and culinary attractions back home.
Celebrating the chill, Canadian-style
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Rideau Canal is a focus for activity in Ottawa. There are bike paths and jogging paths along it; you can also kayak, canoe and take a boat ride in summer. In the winter, the water freezes and 7.8km of that canal becomes a skating rink that’s the highlight of the three-week-long Winterlude festival usually held in February, which attracts Canadians and international tourists from all over. There are fireworks and music, and parks along the canal or in downtown Ottawa host all kinds of activities, like tobogganing, ice sculpting contests, and even a bed race where participants run while carrying a bed. It’s lots of fun.
Step into an artistic sanctuary
The architecture of the National Gallery of Canada (www.gallery.ca) was inspired by our Parliament Buildings, and was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. The gallery hosts a mix of artistic genres and major international exhibitions. I like wandering through the Canadian collection, which has works by my favourite artists, like Emily Carr, and Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. The latter artists were inspired by the impressionists, and their works mostly depict the Canadian landscape. The gallery also has beautiful spaces: lovely interior courtyards and high ceilings that let light flow in. You can just sit there and enjoy how peaceful it is.
Peek into the heart of power
When I was in school, I worked as a parliamentary page, and I never tired of looking at the carvings inside the Parliament Buildings. Outside, as part of the buildings’ neo-gothic architecture, there are a lot of gargoyles and grotesques in the stonework. Inside, there is beautiful woodwork and stonework, and paintings and carvings representing different aspects of Canada – our industries, our natural resources, our animals… People can go on tours of the Centre Block, where they will be shown the details. In the summer evenings there is a sound and light show: lights are projected onto the buildings, and the show is about the history, people and culture of Canada.
Off to the market
ByWard Market (www.byward-market.com) started in the early 19th century and is Ottawa’s original public market. You have small producers using local ingredients to make food items, artisans making unique items, fashion designers, artists doing silkscreen printing – nearly anything can be found there. A lot of people go there for brunch, but I like to putter around the shops. There are lots of coffee shops here, where I like to read a book or meet a friend.
A taste of Quebec
Les Fougeres (www.fougeres.com) is a small house near Gatineau Park in Quebec which has been converted into a restaurant and a store. The owners sell gourmet items like artisanal cheeses from Quebec, oils and vinegars from around the world, as well as their own specialities. The restaurant does seasonal, regional cuisine. I like the Salad Fougeres which consists of greens, goat’s cheese and home-smoked bacon lardons and a very tasty vinaigrette. I also like the cassoulet, which is made with duck confit and pork sausage – it’s a heavy comfort food that I like to eat in winter.
Small plates, big name
Rene Rodriguez, who recently won on Top Chef Canada, is the chef at Navarra (www.navarrarestaurant.com). I like to say that I knew about the restaurant before he won the title! It has a Mexican-inspired menu and serves tapas and interesting plates. Restaurants like Navarra use ingredients that are locally sourced and seasonal, so what they serve depends very much on what they find in the market at that time of the year. I particularly remember having a beef tartare that was very fresh and had good flavour. The place is not huge and you do need a reservation. I usually go with friends for appetisers and small plates.
A spot of tea
Chateau Laurier was built in 1912, and is one of the grand hotels built to serve visitors travelling by railway that you find all across Canada. Within the hotel is Zoe’s Lounge, which serves regular afternoon tea and champagne tea, as well as Canadian afternoon tea which includes items like ice wine-marinated fresh strawberries, truffle-scented domestic goat’s cheese, and maple pastries. Afternoon tea at the Chateau Laurier is great for celebrations or just spending time with friends. It’s a very elegant old-world environment, and people like to get dressed up for tea sometimes, but you don’t actually have to.
Where to break bread
I love the rosemary bread by Art Is In (www.artisinbakery.com), a cafe-bakery. The name sounds like “artisan” if you say it fast. Art Is In started as a bakery; the cafe came after. They make the most delicious bread, and a lot of the higher-end restaurants in the Ottawa-Gatineau area use their bread because it’s absolutely fantastic. They’ve also got great pastries and sandwiches. The cafe is in the Wellington West neighbourhood, and it’s actually located at a former container-loading dock. If you like, you can sit outside on makeshift chairs on the loading dock.