Tiptoe Through the Tulips – Canadian Tulip Festival, Ottawa

Tulips in bloom.  An annual rite of spring.  And in Ottawa, the city celebrates with a three-week festival.  The Canadian Tulip Festival in its 60th year for 2012 is another rite of spring.  But it’s not just about the blooming of the flowers or marking the season.  There is some very interesting history behind the tulips in Ottawa.

The tulip festival celebrates a 70+ year friendship between two countries.  In 1940, during the Second World War, Princess Juliana of The Netherlands and her two daughters came to Canada to be safe from the fighting and to provide a place where the work of the government of The Netherlands could be carried out if need be.  While in Canada, Princess Juliana gave birth to her third child, Princess Margriet.  In order to provide her with Dutch citizenship, the government of Canada permitted a room in the hospital to be turned over to the Dutch temporarily so that Princess Margriet could be born on ‘Dutch soil’.  Upon returning to their homeland after the war, the Dutch government sent a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada in appreciation.

Those bulbs were planted around the city and soon began to garner quite a bit of attention.  The first official tulip festival was held in 1953.  The idea for the festival came from photographer Malak Karsh; younger brother of the, perhaps, more well known Yousuf Karsh.  Originally put on by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, the festival now goes by the name Canadian Tulip Festival and is organised by a dedicated group of people who work hard throughout the year to bring visitors and local residents a terrific event.

Topiary in Clarendon Court, Byward Market. The sculpture represents the design of the new logo for the Canadian Tulip Festival – Embrace. The sculpture represents the long-lasting friendship between Canada and The Netherlands. The shape of a heart with the leaves crossing in an embrace is topped by a red tulip representing Canada and an orange tulip representing The Netherlands. To the right is one of the wooden tulip sculptures that dot the city.

For 2012, the festival has been expanded and several of the local Business Improvement Areas have been included.  In addition to the main plantings in Commissioner’s Park at Dow’s Lake, Major’s Hill Park behind the Parliament buildings and Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau; businesses on Elgin Street, Sparks Street, the Byward Market, Little Italy and Chinatown have become involved.  According to Najwa Farhat of the organising committee the goal is “to bring the festival back to the people, back to the city and back to its roots.”  In addition to the planted tulips, as you walk through different parts of the city, you will see tall, wooden sculptures of tulips painted in different themes by local artists.  There are also large, elaborate topiary sculptures which provide additional interest around the city.  In future years, the goal of the committee is to expand the presence of the festival into more of the communities  throughout the city.  Said Miss Farhat “Ideally we would like to include all of the BIA’s and have them all involved in the tulip festival.”  A new addition to the festival is Capital Sounds which is a listing of live performances happening throughout the city during the festival that visitors can check out in addition to the tulips.

Festival organisers also offer you the opportunity to purchase tulips for your own garden.  The ordering page on the Festival’s website has information about the available varieties.  The Blumex puts on a very nice display of colour.

In all, there are over 1 million tulips planted from more than 100 varieties.  Most of the displays are in Commissioners Park and Major’s Hill Park.  Across the Ottawa River in Gatineau at Jacques-Cartier Park there are also beds of tulips planted.  The Jacques-Cartier Park is within walking distance of Major’s Hill Park.  The city of Gatineau will also be more involved in the festival beginning in 2013 and beyond.  Those million bulbs don’t include the involvement at the local community level.  The Canadian Tulip Festival is truly a city-wide celebration.

The job of tending to the beds and caring for those million tulips belongs to the National Capital Commission – the official gardener of the Capital Region.  The NCC plans the beds, chooses bulbs and tends the beds.  To ensure there are tulips for visitors to see throughout the duration of the festival, varieties are chosen that are early, mid and late bloomers.

Visitors to the Canadian Tulip Festival read about the different varieties on display.

There is a lot of planning that goes into choosing which varieties will be planted.  According to Mario Fournier of the NCC, “we want short, we want tall, we want early and late, we want different colours.”  Each year upwards of 2/3 of the existing bulbs are switched out for new varieties, explained Fournier.  So visiting the festival more than once means you won’t see the same tulips every year!  In addition to different varieties, bulbs may be switched from bed to bed to create different combinations of colour.  The NCC website has a wealth of information about the tulips and a graphic that shows all of the varieties that will be on display.  The palette will change each year.  The NCC website is a terrific resource for planning any trip to the Ottawa area!  One variety that is not shown on the palette but that is prominently displayed in Major’s Hill Park is the Van Gogh.  The Van Gogh was planted for 2012 to celebrate the exhibit of the tulip’s namesake that will be on at the National Gallery from May 2 through September 3.  The NCC also hosts a group on Flickr where you can share your own photos of the region and view those from others.

The NCC is experimenting with planting other types of bulbs in combination with the tulips for different looks, including daffodils and hyacinths.  Climate change is also playing a role in how bulbs are chosen.  Fournier said that due to the gradual warming temperatures, in the last several years more later varieties are being chosen to help ensure there is something in bloom for the entire duration of the festival.

Canada still receives 20,000 bulbs annually from The Netherlands, according to Fournier, and under a new agreement signed between the two countries upon the death of Princess Juliana, that gift will continue in perpetuity.  The majority of those bulbs are planted in the Princess Juliana bed which is the first bed in Commissioners Park near the corner of Queen Elizabeth Drive and Preston Street.  3,000 of the bulbs are given to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where Princess Margriet was born.

The Van Gogh Tulip appears nearly black or deep purple in shadow, but in the light its true deep maroon colour becomes apparent.
Impressionistic image of Van Gogh tulips.
Artist working ‘en plein air’ at Commissioners Park

Where to Stay:  Situated in the heart of the downtown, Arc The.Hotel places visitors perfectly.  Just a few blocks south of Parliament Hill and walking distance to Major’s Hill Park, the Byward Market and many of the other places of interest in Ottawa, the city’s first boutique hotel is a wonderful home away from home.  I sat down with Colin Morrison, General Manager of Arc, to talk about the property and its interesting name.

Arc The.Hotel


The hotel opened in 2000. It was designed from the outset to be a boutique hotel - Ottawa's first. According to Morrison, the concept was to be something cutting edge in the city. To be like nothing else that existed in the Ottawa accommodation landscape. The name comes from the logo that evokes an arc and the .hotel was conceived to play on the 'dot com' boom taking place at the time the hotel opened.

The rooms are well designed and make great use of the space available. You don't feel like you're in a stuffy, cramped hotel room. The rooms and public spaces have been designed using soft earth tones with hits of more vibrant colour. Morrison explained that the design is very much still as it was when the hotel opened which is a testament to the timelessness of the design theme.

King bed room in Arc The.Hotel


One of the intents of the concept was to keep natural elements as a part of the design. Morrison explained that "We have a lot of dark wood but it's all grain wood. It's not hard a hard lacquered surface and the natural elements of the tree stumps complement that design theme." In different public areas of the hotel you will see tree stumps that have been carved and used as a part of the design. "They're just unusual enough to be a conversation piece", said Morrison.

Public meeting area


Lounge with tree stump tables.


Two other ways that Arc works to set itself apart from other hotels is with its service and its food. Morrison explained that they're not selling a hotel, they're selling an experience. The little things that the hotel does to make guests feel more at home. As a small hotel of 112 rooms, they are able to provide this higher level of service. As an example, the evening turndown service isn't just an issue of turning down the sheets and putting a chocolate on the pillow. The turndown service can be a full housekeeping if that's what needed. I was pleasantly surprised to see a ripe, green apple and a bottle of water in my room when I returned after having been out for the evening. Asked what he could tell to prospective visitors about Arc in one sentence Morrison said "Expect the unexpected... in a positive way." The service exemplifies that statement. As does the food. The executive chef of the hotel is part of the Gold Medal Plates competition for 2012. The coffee that is served is roasted exclusively for Arc and can't be bought anywhere else. The food is very high quality.

I had breakfast in the hotel two mornings of my stay. The first morning I ordered their Trio Santé (Healthy Trio). It's a dish comprised of house made granola, yoghurt and fresh fruit. The granola was far superior to anything you'd buy commercially and really made the dish. I was told that I also had to try the French Toast and did on the second morning. You've heard the expression 'from the ridiculous to the sublime'? Well this French Toast is ridiculously sublime. Not at all what you would expect (in a positive way) when you think of French Toast. The bread is a cranberry focaccia. After dipping in the egg wash, the bread is rolled in a cinnamon/oat mixture before cooking. It comes topped with maple syrup and an orange compound butter. The balance of tastes in the dish is excellent. The slight sourness of the cranberries combined with the hint of bitterness in the butter from the orange combine well to offset the sweetness of the maple syrup. The coffee is a lighter roast which makes it a bit more acidic and bitter tasting than darker roasts. This too matches well with the sweetness of most breakfast dishes and would also match well with saltier, savoury dishes. It's a very good cup of coffee.

Rates are very reasonable, rooms are well decorated and laid out, there is a spa and fitness facility. Service is exceptional. High speed internet service is truly high speed. Arc is a terrific hotel experience - a home away from home.

What to Do:  Aside from the tulips, there are many other things to do in Ottawa.  Numerous museums and galleries can be found, many in the downtown area.  Three ‘hidden gems’ should be considered.

The Currency Museum might, at first thought, seem an odd concept for a museum.  But it is fascinating.  The displays trace the history of the use of currency in many forms throughout time.  Not just in Canada but around the world and dating back to several centuries B.C.  Did you know that playing cards were used as currency?  Or that, in the past, each chartered bank in Canada issued its own currency?  Housed in the Bank of Canada complex, just west of Parliament Hill and across the road from the Supreme Court building, the museum can be accessed either from Sparks Street or Wellington.  Admission is free.  It really is a very interesting look into the history and use of currency.

A short drive from the downtown core, The Canadian Aviation and Space Museum really should be a must stop.  It may not get the attention of some of the attractions in the downtown but it should.  The drive is very picturesque.  Winding along the Ottawa River and through wooded parklands, it would be spectacular in the fall.

The main museum building houses a variety of aircraft that have been used in Canada throughout history.  From early, cloth-covered, wooden planes to modern helicopters and jet fighters.  A second building, accessible on the guided tour, has aircraft that not only have been used in Canada but by other countries as well.

The stories that go along with the machines make the tour even more interesting.  The staff are very knowledgeable and will take the time to explain all facets of the history of the planes, how they were acquired by the museum and how they are restored and cared for.  You can even arrange a flyover in a helicopter or vintage biplane.

The museum recalls not just the history of aviation but it is also a history of humanity, of human interaction and mobility; both in war time and peace time.  In that context, the museum is not just an aviation museum but a human history museum.

At the south end of the downtown, just off the 417 highway is The Castle.  The Castle is the Canadian Museum of Nature.  You’ll see why it’s referred to as The Castle as soon as you see the building.

Fully reopened in 2010, after a seven year renovation that closed various parts of the museum at different times, Canada’s natural history is traced in the exhibits.  From prehistoric dinosaurs to modern day birds and animals as well as minerals.  Unlike the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which houses exhibits of world history, the Museum of Nature concentrates on Canada.  Like the ROM, the Museum of Nature incorporated an element of modern architecture into its renovation.  On the front of the building, a glass tower has been erected.  Unlike the abomination that was cobbled onto the ROM, the glass tower on the Museum of Nature integrates very well and evokes a historical element of the building as well.  When the building was constructed a tall, limestone tower was included.  Too heavy for the structure of the main building to support, the tower began to tear away at the building and had to be taken down.  The new glass tower was designed and constructed so that no stress was put on the main building.  With the reopening in 2010, the museum is touting ‘The tower is back’.

There is a special exhibit from New Zealand on whales and the history of human/whale interaction running from March 2 through September 3, 2012.

Nightlife:  Ottawa has a vibrant nightlife and something for all tastes and ages.  Café Paradiso on Bank Street offers fine dining and live jazz.  Musicians perform on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.  The food is very good and the music is wonderful.  Definitely recommend checking it out.  The night I was there, Roddy Ellias and Mark Ferguson were performing.  These are two extremely accomplished musicians who have played with some of the greats in the jazz world.  If either are playing when you’re in Ottawa, make arrangements to go see them.  The restaurant offers a warm and inviting atmosphere for a nice dinner and great music.  Sadly, Paradiso closed at the end of June/2012.

A little further south, on Elgin Street is Maxwell’s Bistro.  Maxwell’s has a very nice restaurant on the main floor.  Upstairs is the lounge where the music happens.  Wednesdays the house band, Johnny Vegas and his All-Star Band perform.  Thursdays a different band each week is featured.  Friday and Saturday there is dancing with a DJ.  The night I was there the Chocolate Hot Pockets were playing.  This is a quartet of young, very talented musicians who put out exceptional tunes with a jazz/soul/R&B feel.  If you’re going to be in Ottawa, find out where these guys are playing and go see them!  You will enjoy yourself.

Thanks for reading and coming on this vicarious tour of Ottawa and the Canadian Tulip Festival.  You can share your own experiences below in the comments section, Tweet us or join the conversation on our Facebook Page.  Feedback is always welcomed.

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