May 31 – June 4, 2012: Two nights on the California Zephyr had been just right. Three nights on the Canadian was maybe one too many, and I was eager to get off after breakfast on the last morning. Unfortunately, the Canadian ran late, so not only was I stuck on the train developing cabin fever, but I would miss my connection.
The good news was that there were several later trains from Toronto to Ottawa (as I knew when I made the reservation), and Via Rail had the re-booking process well organized. The bad news was that we were not quite late enough for lunch on the train, arriving around 1:00 pm, and the food options in Toronto station were absolutely awful. All I found was bad fast food, and hardly anywhere to eat it. After the pampering on board the train it was doubly depressing. (Note: if you’re going to eat in a Canadian train station, make it Montreal.)
In addition to the late arrival and the bad food, I also wound up on a bus for the last leg into Ottawa. The Canadian ran on rails belonging to Canadian National, but that last leg to Ottawa used Canadian Pacific rails, and although their strike had been settled, the rails were still being checked. Could have been worse, could have been Canadian National on strike! Still, I was feeling sufficiently harried that I took a taxi from the station to my Ottawa B&B. (Maybe I had gotten too used to being pampered on the train, but it wore off, I took public transport back to the station the day I left.)
This was my first visit to Ottawa, and I had quite a list of things to do, plus I had fortuitously arrived the weekend of the annual Doors Open Ontario, when lots of usually closed buildings opened for visits. Unfortunately, the weather failed to cooperate, being cool and wet for my entire visit. Plus, I hadn’t shaken the bug I had caught in Victoria. I did manage to see a fair amount (in fact, I impressed my landlady), but I have enough left over for another visit, especially for that special weekend.
The guidebooks give Ottawa short shrift. You can buy whole books on Montreal and Quebec City, on Vancouver and Victoria, or on regions like the Rockies or Nova Scotia, but Ottawa just gets a chapter, if that, in the big Canada-as-a-whole books. And even then you have the feeling that if it wasn’t the capital the authors would have left it out.
I found that a little odd. It’s true the city isn’t as big as Vancouver or Montreal, or as romantic as Quebec City, but it has no shortage of interesting buildings, plus a good museum and a river. I actually preferred it to Quebec City, which I had found over-commercialized and over-run with tourists. My B&B was a distinct improvement over the one in QC, too. I had a comfortable bedroom, with a large private bathroom next door (and a bathrobe and slippers), excellent (if overly sweet for my taste) breakfasts, and a good supply of books and drinks. The owner was efficient and friendly, but unfortunately is planning to get out of the business.
The B&B was just off Elgin Street, near a covey of cafes and restaurants (don’t miss the edamame with parmesan at Izakaya), and a useful bus route, although in good weather the heart of downtown was walking distance. Whatever the weather I would have spent time in the Ottawa Museum of Civilization (on the other side of the river in French speaking territory), although after the Victoria museum some of it felt redundant. I was intrigued by a special exhibition on the Maya, and of course the building itself is worth seeing.
But without the rain, and free entry for Doors Open, I might have skipped the National Gallery, and there indeed I thought the building, and lunch in the glass-wrapped Cafe l’Entree, the best part of my visit. I was especially annoyed by the tiny “No photos” signs stuck on the doors, which I missed on my way in, the door being open. I get really annoyed with people who ignore those signs, but if they aren’t obvious…
I took advantage of Doors Open, and its free (but inconvenient) shuttle bus to visit several embassies. I had a nice chat with the diplomats on duty at the Hungarian and Croatian embassies, both countries I had visited last year. They were in older buildings downtown, while the Irish Ambassador’s Residence, in the embassy district further out, was almost aggressively modern, and that of the Swedish Ambassador, with an enviable perch above the river, suitably Scandinavian. I also took a look at a rather nice apartment building, a very nice Christian college, and Laurier House, home to former Prime Ministers Laurier and Mackenzie King, but skipped the tour of the Fairmont as there was a 40 minute wait.
So Quebec City may be more glamorous, and Vancouver and Montreal certainly have more to do, but I thought Ottawa had a quiet charm of its own. Not a “must revisit” destination, but certainly a “would revisit”.