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Board—but never bored—in Ottawa

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postedOctober 2, 2018

Spoiler alert:

“Ottawa has a lot to offer for group travel.” —Cory Mace
“A really livable city with a cool vibe.” —John McGlade
“I’m already working on a program for 2019.” —Debra Asberry
“The truth is: Ottawa left me speechless!” —Paul Larsen

I don’t know if it’s wrong to tell you upfront how this story ends, but I don’t want to build phony suspension. And unlike Paul, I am certainly not speechless.

I was in Ottawa in August for the NTA Board of Directors meeting, and I was only too happy to get to know the destination after each day’s meeting—and happier still to stay an extra couple of days.

From the comments of board members above, you’ll note I’m not the only one impressed with the Canadian capital.

My Courier colleague Gabe Webb wrote about Ottawa last year, covering the city during Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Gabe gave readers a good look at some of the museums in Ottawa, which make the place an ideal destination for students, but also for adults wanting a deep dive into the country’s history, art and culture.

So I asked Kelly Dean of Ottawa Tourism, who hosted the board meeting (and me), to connect me with other experiences. And she did. During my four-day visit, I went on a city tour, a foodie tour, a drinky tour, a bike tour, a ghost tour and a boat tour.

I also cruised around the splendidly located Lord Elgin Hotel, which served as headquarters for the board meeting. The hotel gave me a front-row seat to a daily parade of soldiers, pipers and a regimental band marching down the street en route to Parliament Hill for the 10 a.m. changing of the guard. The sprightly procession is held from late June through late August.

Parliament Hill is an easy walk from the Lord Elgin, as are many museums, stores and a wide variety of restaurants and bars. Amber Van Der Hoeven, CTP, the hotel’s tour and travel sales manager, has used her vantage point to witness the city’s shift.

NTA board photographing Parliament
Photo by Bob Rouse

“I’ve been in Ottawa for six years and have seen so many changes,” she said. “We have young entrepreneurs who have created fun and funky restaurants, bars and coffee shops.”

Because I sampled so much of Ottawa’s culinary and beverage selections, I also consumed a good bit of coffee.

During my first meal in the city, at Riviera on the lively Sparks Street, I watched all the dishes being prepared mere yards away from my seat at the bar. The diner was delicious, and the experience was captivating.

I had more firsthand food encounters when I nibbled my way through the ByWard Market District on a gourmet food tour with C’est Bon Cooking. The cooking school and sightseeing company offers seven tours—six by foot and one by bike.

During nine stops through the eclectic neighborhood, I sampled everything from standout grilled chicken and pork barbecue to sweet gelato and sour beer. And talking with the artisan/entrepreneurs who create the tastes was, well, icing on the cake.

I also tipped a glass or two during a tour with Brew Donkey, which offers custom and scheduled tours, plus pick-ups. On the Y-East End Tour (get it?), we sampled the products of two craft brewers and one distiller. My companions on the tour were all locals, and by the end of the day, I felt like a local, too. I would provide more tasting details here, but my notes got a bit, uh, wet.

I followed the straight and narrow path better during my bike tour, which I enjoyed along with several NTA board members. Ottawa is as bikeable as it is walkable, and we wheeled around town getting good looks—from new vantage points—of the city’s cool buildings, inviting neighborhoods and the popular Rideau Canal.

The canal connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River, 125 miles away, but for folks in Ottawa, it’s a recreational waterway lined with downtown parks and bike paths. And during the winter—from January to late February or early March—nearly five miles of the canal turn into the largest naturally frozen skating rink in the world. Ottawans and visitors alike lace up their skates, said Jantine Van Kregten of Ottawa Tourism.

“It becomes part of the transportation system,” Jantine told me. “They include skating conditions on the daily traffic reports.”

National War Memorial changing of the guards
Changing of the guard at National War Memorial (Photo by Bob Rouse)

The weather during my late-summer stay was steamy, but it was much cooler the evening that our NTA group strolled up to Parliament Hill and sat on the lawn to watch Northern Lights: Sound & Light Show, an informative and stirring pictorial presentation of Canadian history, artistically projected onto the main building of the parliamentary complex.

I got an additional dose of history—and spooky lore—during a Saturday night walking tour with Haunted Walks Inc. Our black-cloaked guide, Natasha, led us along the canal and through streets and alleys, detailing accounts of apparitions seen in old churches, schools and other buildings.

My most unexpected moment in Ottawa was when Jantine took me to a spot on the Ottawa River—Remic Rapids Park—where a man has been balancing rocks for more than 30 years. Each spring, John Felicè Ceprano creates a series of sculptures by stacking fossilized rocks he collects on-site.

Throughout the summer, people sit on park benches and watch him from a short distance. They breathe while he heaves. Some of the rocks are quite large, but so are John’s biceps. On the day we were there, he had a helper who assisted with lifting extra-large rocks. That’s understandable, as John is 70-plus years old. You can read more about the artist here:

I said I won’t cover the many museums in Ottawa, and I won’t. But I will say that when I return to Canada’s capital, I will spend more time in those attractions. And when I spend more time in the Canadian Museum of History—which we toured for about an hour—I hope I’ll be led by Shalina Gouin, a 10-year veteran interpreter at the museum.

Her enthusiasm for Canadian culture is infectious, and after hearing her tell the story of her country’s people, I was rendered, I admit, speechless.

For more information about Ottawa, contact Kelly Dean or go to

*Bold, linked text indicates companies that are NTA members.

Top photo: Fireworks over the Ottawa River and Parliament
Photo by Neil Robertson