Ottawa on Foot

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Canada is the nicest neighbor a country could have, although Americans might not take the time to visit. However, there is a lot to see, the currency doesn't dominate the U.S. dollar, they speak English and it's quite different from America.

Photography by the authors

Canada sits above us as the nicest neighbor any country could have. We’re indeed fortunate to have it on our doorstep. Yet it takes time to visit Ottawa. Americans may feel Las Vegas or Orlando is closer even when it’s not.

More’s the pity because there is a lot to see and it’s quite different; it’s even, er, foreign. But you’re not going to be mugged there or have your pocket picked. And they speak English, eh? Their currency doesn’t dominate the U.S. dollar. Plus, they have an unusual phenomenon for North America: they have a lot of mid-price hotels that don’t seem set on gouging visitors.

Ottawa comes as a series of small treats that all add up. First, although the city has a population of 900,000 and the general area has 1.2 million, Ottawa has a small town feel.

“We are a Goldilocks city — not too big not too small, just right,” says Jantine Van Kregten, the director of communications for Ottawa Tourism.

What that means, she explains, is that Ottawa has all the amenities of a capital with more national museums than a comparable city would have. And, in addition, visitors get impressive value and fun — from the proximity of Quebec province on the northern side of the Ottawa River to the convenience of the Rideau canal all the way southwest to Kingston for water trips.

And Ottawa has a past.

Visitors are going to find history here even if they’re not looking for it, starting with our hotel, the Lord Elgin. There have been many Lord Elgins. One famously gave some small change to Turkish soldiers who were burning temple pediments at the Parthenon on a cold night in Athens. Elgin then carried off to the British Museum the chunks of marble they were about to burn. Our hotel was not named after that Lord Elgin but the one who had been Governor General of Canada in the mid-1850s.

The bust of Lord and Lady Elgin displayed in the lobby was sent over from Britain for the opening as arranged by McKenzie King, the former Canadian prime minister. It came in 1941 on a naval destroyer sent by his friend Winston Churchill!

As if to commemorate this, the Lord Elgin’s general manager, David Smythe, takes down from the wall the celebrated photograph of Churchill shot by Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa. The photographer famously posed Churchill with a cigar in his mouth then snatched it out to get that typically pugnacious look.

Visitors choose hotels more for their location than their history. The Lord Elgin wins there, too. It is situated downtown, a five-minute walk to the Gray Line On Off Bus and a 10-minute walk to the Houses of Parliament.

The Gray Line Bus is worth its ticket. Most museums here are almost too far to walk to, although many of the other attractions are well within range. The airport and train station are both about a 20-minute cab ride of $40 to $50 but we found the city 97 airport bus very adequate — it dropped us off two minutes from the hotel.

Ottawa’s tributes to its heroes, the Valiants Memorial, circles the north end of Elgin Street as it runs into Wellington Street. “It pays homage to all those who have … so fundamentally shaped the Canada of today.”

In the War of 1812, Laura Secord (top left) brought warnings to a British outpost that it was about to be attacked. Matron Georgina Pope (top right), a pioneering army nurse, was the first Canadian awarded the Royal Red Cross for conspicuous service in the field and the first matron in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. She returned to the battlefield in 1917.

The men in the middle row are three of several Canadians with the Victoria Cross for Valor: Corporal Joseph Kaeble, VC, MM (posthumous award 1918); Major Paul Triquet, VC 1943; Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, VC (posthumous award 1944).

Then there are other heroes. The young man with curly hair, seemingly in his prime, has a face that shows the determination that allowed him to run his cross-Canada Marathon equivalent every day for 143 days on an artificial leg. Terry Fox is not a war hero, just a sarcoma survivor who refused to give up and ran across Canada from Newfoundland until pulmonary metastases forced him to stop. He raised $600 million dollars for cancer research and, even dying at the age of 23, became immortal in the eyes of the Canadian public.

But the statue that all locals apparently know about is Hamilton MacCarthy’s 1915 version of Champlain, the explorer who founded the city of Quebec in 1608 and explored the Ottawa River in 1613.

What they all know is this experienced explorer is holding his astrolabe upside down — not his fault but the sculptor’s. We go off to the Astrolabe Gallery on Sparks Street downtown to understand what this means. Owner John Coles has been trading in antiques since 1969 but has only a miniature gold one on display. We ask him about the artist’s Champlain error.

He smiles and says, “The sculptor caught Champlain throwing it away! He found it didn’t work upside down.”

Ottawa sits on the south bank of the Ottawa river, a name derived in 1855 from the Algonquin tribal word adawa meaning “trade” — an accurate description for the way of life in the French-Irish settlement that developed after Lt. Colonel John By of Britain’s Royal Engineers created the Rideau Canal. The canal was Upper Canada’s defense against the threat of military action by the United States, the enemy in the War of 1812 — a war that interests Canadians seemingly more than people in our country.

A totem pole stares out at visitors in ByWard Market, a rambling place that’s one of the oldest farmers’ markets in Canada and also the home of great but unassuming restaurants. They range from La Bottega, with only 24 seats in a back room the size of a pantry in a family market, and Beavertails, which doesn’t even have seats but instead has an endless parade of customers lined up all day for its pastries, to the funky Play Food & Wine at 1 York Street, which focuses on “small plate and casual dining,” and the more elegant Courtyard Restaurant at 21 George Street, housed in a heritage (and allegedly haunted) stone building.

Nearby is the famous 2003 spider. “Maman,” stands 30 feet tall on eight bronze legs apparently inspired by the mother of Louise Bourgeois, the artist. The spider carries 26 Italian marble eggs below its belly — eggs that are poorly seen in our image taken in front of the National Gallery of Canada. More easily understood is the “Tin House,” a restoration by artist Art Price of the tin façade of the 1961 house of tinsmith Honore Foisy.

A walk west along Wellington Street takes you past Parliament Hill, less than a 15-minute stroll from our hotel. Canadians may be more interested in the trappings of political power than visitors, but the Library in Parliament — with a reading room based on the one in the British Museum — has been called the most beautiful room in Canada. The great fire of 1916 would have destroyed the entire Victorian Gothic building had a library clerk not managed to close the library’s massive iron doors in time.

The National Capital Commission publishes a free 50-page illustrated booklet Streetsmart Promenart available at the airport and across the street from Parliament Hill. It explains almost all the public art you will walk past.

When it starts to rain we see the Gray Line On Off Bus and realize Ottawa’s museums are calling. And that’s another story.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.