Destination of the Week: Ottawa
Canada's capital city embraces its natural environment -- where else could you ice skate to work in March and bicycle past 300,000 tulips in May?
Sat, Sep 12, 2009 at 09:29 AM
Straddling the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, Ottawa is often overshadowed by its larger, more well-known neighbors, Toronto and Montreal. Though its description lacks big-city superlatives, Ottawa is an interesting, exciting and green alternative to Canada's other urban centers.
The green is easy to see in Canada's capital. Aerial photos of summertime Ottawa reveal a tree-covered landscape that would seem suburban if it weren't for the unmistakably urban architecture poking through the foliage. Not even the legendarily frigid Canadian winters are void of natural charms. Waterways used for boating in warmer weather are converted into skating rinks, and outdoor festivities continue year-round, regardless of the ambient temperature. There are more than 60 annual festivals in the Ottawa metro area each year.
Sure, the subtle quaintness of Ottawa might disappoint those who've already been seduced by Toronto's diversity or Montreal's Euro-American vibe, but the capital city offers one of the most pleasant and user-friendly travel experiences in northern North America.
Ottawa's Minto Suites Hotel is one of 33 hotels in the city that consider themselves "green." Aside from the usual features that come with such a label — such as in-room recycling bins, reliance on florescent lighting and high-efficiency appliances — the Minto has some rather unique features. Its saltwater swimming pool doesn't rely on chemicals for cleanliness, for example, and, the hotel provides bicycles, free of charge, to guests who want to ride around this bike-friendly city.
The palatial exterior of the Chateau Laurier, a hotel run by the Fairmont group, hides an environmentally friendly interior. In addition to its recycling and efficiency initiatives, the Laurier has a "Green Meeting" program that encourages and facilitates green business travel and low-impact conferences.
The great green outdoors
Gatineau Park, on the Quebec side of greater Ottawa, is a massive natural space with more than 100 miles of trails. Bikers, runners and hikers descend upon the park during the summer, and groomed cross-country skiing trails offer anyone with cold-weather attire a chance to escape the indoors during the wintertime. Despite its suburban location, Gatineau offers a true glimpse of Southeastern Canada's wild side.
Commissioners Park, in the heart of Ottawa, lacks Gatineau's wilderness feel, but is home to one of the country's most stunning gardens. More than 300,000 tulips set the stage for the annual springtime Tulip Festival, a citywide celebration that lasts three weeks and draws half a million visitors. Other public spaces, such as the Garden of Provinces and Territories, host annual festivals and give the city a decidedly green landscape.
Ottawa has an expansive public transportation system. Buses and rail lines make it easy to get around year-round. A regional rail network connects Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Because these cities have good public transit networks, it's possible to tour urban Quebec and Ontario without having to once step into a car.
Ottawa's compact size and user-friendly layout make it an ideal city to explore on foot. Many of the city's attractions are in the vicinity of the Parliament buildings. Ottawa Walking Tours offers guided two-hour sightseeing strolls in downtown Ottawa.
Bicycles are another form of convenient, low-impact transport in Ottawa. There are nearly 100 miles of bike paths throughout the city, and many roadways are bike-friendly. Even pedaling through the downtown area is relatively safe and straightforward.
January wind chills make walking and biking uncomfortable at best. But Ottawans have adapted to the climate. The Rideau Canal is cleared of snow regularly and once it's safely frozen, it becomes the world's largest skating rink. The "Skateway" is 4.8 miles long and is used by many locals to commute to and from work.
The ByWard Market is another of Ottawa's walkable attractions. There are almost 100 different boutiques, galleries and restaurants in the neighborhood, but the centerpiece, especially for local-food aficionados, has to be the market itself.
Unlike most of its Saturday-only kin, ByWard is a continuously running farmers market. There are more than 100 vendors during the warmer months and more than 20 are open year-round in the indoor section of the market. This is one of the best places to experience the tastes of Canada's locally grown scene. Nearby Sparks Street is another major commercial strip with historic architecture and modern boutiques and restaurants. The area is exceedingly pedestrian-friendly and boasts a self-guided walking tour.
The Ottawa Jazz Festival, which draws international musical talent, and Winterlude, a celebration of winter complete with snow-related events and ice sculptures, are the most well-known of Ottawa's 60 annual festivals. But the Art of Being Green Festival, held in early June and hosted with the help of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, is a major draw for environmentalists. The proceedings include speakers, exhibits, vendors and performers, with topics generally themed around renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases. The Art of Being Green is held in Lanark Highlands, an hour southwest of Ottawa.
Other events, like the Lumière Lantern Festival and the annual Dragon Boat races, bring revelers into the city's outdoors.
Ottawa doesn't often boast about its green features. The city's breathable air and alternatives for carless commuters speak for themselves, Its green urban landscapes and multitude of outdoor activities complement the natural charms of Canada's capital city.
Tulip Festival: jpctalbot/Flickr
Music Festival: David.R.Carroll/Flickr
MNN homepage photo: Jpctalbot/Flickr