Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top five Ottawa secrets

Ottawa is one of those tourist towns with a pretty standard circuit of sites. Visitors tend to come and check the iconic places--the ones that show up on stamps, money and calendars--off their list. Parliament Hill--seen it. Rideau Canal--done it. Big spider at the National Gallery of Canada--check.

But as anyone who lives here knows, there's more to this burg than meets the eye. As a local since 1983, I humbly offer my top five Ottawa secrets.
  • The cat man of Parliament Hill. By all means, take the official tours of Ottawa's most famous site. But when you're done, stop by and say hi to Rene Chartrand, the retired lumberman who cares for the colony of feral cats that lives in the woods between the West Block and the Centre Block. He's even built cat-sized replicas of the Hill's buildings to shelter his feline charges. If you're a cat lover, leave a donation to cover Chartrand's cat-care expenses, which tote up to about $6,000 a year.
  • Wellington Village. Sure, the Byward Market deservedly gets lots of press as a great place to shop and dine. But this neighbourhood on the west side of downtown (centered on the intersection of Wellington Street and Holland Avenue) is a popular haunt for locals, who come here to shop for fresh veggies at the Parkdale Market, nosh on lox at the Ottawa Bagelshop and check out the latest plays at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. (The term "Wellington Village" is a recent creation of real estate agents; if you get a blank look when asking for directions, ask for "Hintonburg" instead.)
  • Bike path along the Rideau River. Ottawa is famous for its large network of recreational paths. Visiting cyclists usually head to the admittedly gorgeous paths along the Rideau Canal, which snakes from the foot of Parliament Hill to Hog's Back Falls, just south of Carleton University. On beautiful summer days, though, these paths can be jammed. Avoid much of the traffic by picking up an equally beautiful route a few kilometres to the east. Begin near Rideau Falls, off Sussex Drive near the French embassy, and continue south along the Rideau River through residential neighbourhoods and quiet parkland. You'll eventually reach Hog's Back Falls this way, too. It just takes 12 kilometres instead of eight.
  • The Newport Restaurant. Headquarters of the Elvis Sighting Society (actually, a tongue-in-cheek group of public-spirited locals who raise money for charity), this unassuming diner is crammed from top to bottom with memorabilia related to the King. The pizza is pretty good, too.
  • The Bank of Canada Building. A glass cube designed by Arthur Erickson to enclose an earlier building, it's home to my favourite indoor garden in Ottawa. You can't miss the Yap stone, a giant stone disk (now ensconced in the garden's pool) once used as currency on the Pacific island of Yap. The Currency Museum, also in the building, is a surprisingly fascinating place to while away an hour or two. Apparently, playing cards signed by the governor were once used as currency in cash-strapped New France. Who knew?

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