A Winter(lude) Interlude

It’s cold.  It’s snowy.  It’s windy.  It’s cloudy.  You’ve got the mid-winter blahs.  What better reason to have a party and celebrate winter?  And that’s exactly what Ottawa does with the annual Winterlude festival.

Beginning the first Friday in February and running for three successive weekends, Winterlude is now in its 34th year and is a celebration of winter.  Taking place in three main locations, activities can be found for everyone.  There’s the ice sculpture competition which takes place in Confederation Park.  Teams of two come from countries around the world; including hot weather countries like Mexico, to take part in the competition.  They have 30 hours over 3 days to complete their ice art.  A panel of judges determine the winners and this year, the winning team received a $3,000 prize.  You’re able to get quite close to watch the carvers at work.  The intricacy of the designs and delicate nature of some of the pieces is quite stunning.  In another area of Confederation Park there is a display of the ‘One Block Challenge’.  Carvers were given a single block of ice to work with and had to come up with a design out of that block.  It really is amazing what these men and women can do.  The tools they use are pretty hard core.  Chain saws, grinders, drills and blow torches are all a part of the arsenal.  What they’re able to fashion out of frozen water with these tools is a sight to behold.  You can see a fun timelapse clip of one of the ice carving teams on the Video page.

Also being celebrated this year is Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne) and there is a large sculpture dedicated to the Queen and her 60th anniversary on display as well.

Ice Sculpture – Spider & Mosquito

In Gatineau, just across the Ottawa River, Jacques Cartier Park hosts the Snowflake Kingdom where there’s a snow carving competition and all kinds of fun activities for kids big and small (adults fit the big kid category too). The Ice Hog family – official mascots of Winterlude – live in the Snowflake Kingdom.  They’re supposed to hibernate in the summer but they may have been napping when I was there because I didn’t have the pleasure of making their acquaintance.  Similar to the ice carving competition, snow carvers create massive relief carvings in huge banks of snow.  The designs are bigger than life size, some reaching easily 30 feet into the air.

Rideau Canal Skateway – The World’s Largest Skating Rink

You can also don skates and glide along the Rideau Canal Skateway which is billed as ‘the world’s largest skating rink’.  One thing to keep in mind if you’re crossing the skateway on foot is that it can be crowded and there are skaters of all skill levels.  Some won’t be able to stop or turn to avoid you and some simply won’t stop or turn to avoid you.  You need to be the one watching out for others when crossing on foot.

There are numerous other events that take place during Winterlude as well.  On the opening Friday, a stew cooking competition was held in the ByWard Market among local restaurants.  For $10 you could sample all the stew you could eat.  A different, and welcome, take on the oft-seen ‘chili cookoff’.  For the first time this year the organisers of the Ottawa Jazz Festival held a Winter Jazz Festival during the opening weekend of Winterlude.

Opening ceremonies take place in Gatineau at the Museum of Civilization on the Friday evening and are capped off with a spectacular fireworks show.  This year’s theme celebrated the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.  The fireworks can be seen from many places.  The best spots are the Museum of Civilization and Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau and Major’s Hill Park in Ottawa.

Events and activies continue throughout the opening weekend and for the next two weekends, ending February 20.  The skateway on the canal is open during the week.  Ottawa Tourism offers packages for Winterlude and has options for families and couples.

One of the things you’ll see in several locations is BeaverTail stands.  What’s a BeaverTail?  It’s fried dough.  It’s dough that’s stretched flat to sort of resemble a beaver tail, fried and then you can get any of several toppings.  One of the more popular is a cinnamon sugar mixture.  Chocolate is popular too.  They’re similar in concept to a funnel cake or a churro.  Unlike those two which have no leavening agents, the beavertail is a yeast based dough so it puffs up more.  It’s decadent and it’s a must when visiting Winterlude.

Getting There:  Travelling by car it’ll take you about 4 1/2 to 5 hours from Toronto.  From Montreal it’s about 2 hours or so.  Air Canada, WestJet and Porter all fly into Ottawa.

Getting Around:  Ottawa is a terrific walking city.  All of the Winterlude sites are withing walking distance to downtown.  Confederation Park is right in the downtown area along the banks of the Rideau.  Gatineau is about a 20 to 30 minute walk from the Parliament buildings which are located at the north end of the downtown.  Many of the other major attractions are also in the downtown area.  The National Gallery is just across the road from Major’s Hill Park.  The gallery has a terrific permanent collection and hosts numerous high quality touring exhibits.  In the spring of 2012, a Van Gogh exhibit is opening.  The Museum of Civilization is in Gatineau just across the Alexandra Bridge and the same 20 to 30 minute walk from Parliament.  Ottawa also has a very good transit system and for those attractions that aren’t walkable, transit can get you there.  During Winterlude there’s the Sno Bus shuttle that will take you from site to site.  Best bet is to stay at a hotel in the downtown or ByWard Market area, park the car and walk or take transit.  If you’re walking, do note that the north side of Rideau Street between Dalhousie (in the Market area) and Sussex is a major transit hub with many routes stopping here.  You’ll be fighting crowds much of the time so crossing over to the south side of the street will help avoid this.  Alternatively, you can walk a block north on George Street.

Ottawa is also a great city for cyclers.  There are plenty of reserved cycling lanes and you can also cycle along the canal.

Where to Stay:  All of the major chains have properties in Ottawa.  There are also a number of independent boutique hotels.  I stayed at one such boutique hotel, the Byward Blue Inn and can highly recommend it.

Byward Blue Inn

The Byward Blue Inn is located in the ByWard Market area of Ottawa. It's location, on a quiet, residential street is perfect. It's convenient to the Market area and downtown Ottawa for getting around but it's just far enough off the main street area that sounds from the street don't disturb at night. The bed was very comfortable and supportive.

The rooms are very tastefully appointed and are decorated differently so if you stay more than once, it's quite possible to have a different look to your room. This gives the Inn a more intimate feel than the typical chain hotel. All but four of the forty-six rooms have a balcony or terrace affording guests the opportunity to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine in the open air. In the summer, a number of travelers will bring bicycles and keep their bikes on the balconies.

Another thing that sets the Byward Blue apart is the original art that's hanging throughout the property. All of the public spaces and most of the guest rooms have original art which adds to the intimate, more personalised feel to the Inn. Says Robert Laidlaw, owner of the Inn "We are definitely a much friendlier place. We have guests who've come back 30 and 40 times"

Guest room

The Byward Blue isn't your typical 'corporate meeting' hotel, but the Inn does welcome groups and does have a number of groups that come back each year and use the sitting room and dining room for group meetings. "We have groups come back year to year and can cater in lunch or dinner", explains Laidlaw.

Included in the room rate is a full breakfast which includes coffee, tea, juice as well as both hot and cold items. In the afternoons, a coffee/tea service with light snacks is offered and this too is included in your room rate. Rates are very reasonable, starting at $89 in off season. During Winterlude the base rate is $129 which is still a terrific deal. Their Rates page has all the information. Parking is extra. If the garage underneath the Inn is full, there's a large public garage right next door with rates about the same as Byward Blue's.

Something else that sets the Byward Blue apart and adds to the 'home away from home' feel is the way you get into your room. At the Byward Blue you have an actual key. There's something very satisfying about turning a key in a lock and hearing the solid thump of a deadbolt compared to the electronic whir of the typical card-key entry. Personally, I hope they keep the room locks that way.

Sitting area

Where to Eat:  As with any large city, there are countless restaurants, bistros and eateries in Ottawa.  Your hotel can likely recommend some places.  I experienced a few.  The Metropolitain Brasserie on Sussex offers French style food and specialises in seafood.  The selection of draft beer is pretty weak, particularly considering they call themselves a brasserie.  The price level of the Metropolitain doesn’t exactly fit with the concept of the brasserie either.  It is not an inexpensive place to eat.  My bill, including appetizer, main, 2 beer and coffee was $62 before tip.  The food was good.  I started with an asparagus appetizer.  The asparagus was cooked nicely and had good flavour.  I would have liked a bit more of the vinaigrette that accompanied it as there was very little on the plate.  My main was a bouillabiase.  The broth was very flavourful and there was a terrific amount of seafood.  I did have a very lengthy, about 20 to 25 minute, wait between my appetizer and main.  The Metropolitain does understand that cappuccino is made with foam (a lot of places, particularly in Toronto, don’t).  As a single, I was seated at one of the bars.  Sitting at the bar provides the opportunity to see more of the staff interaction than when seated at a table.  In general, staff interaction was good.  There was one particular waiter who was a bit of a jerk to the bar staff.  Can’t say if he treats his customers similarly.  The restaurant also has an oyster bar.  The shuckers smell each oyster that’s opened before putting it on the plate for service.  Having had the experience of a bad oyster on a plate, this is a good thing to see.  Overall, while the food was good and the service I received was fine, the price point and confusion of expectations when I went in seeing the ‘brasserie’ name and what I found, along with the wait between courses would lead me to not go back and say that it doesn’t provide good value for money.

The Highlander Pub bills itself as ‘Ottawa’s Premier Scotch Bar’.  And it does have a healthy scotch menu (over 200).  They also have a very nice selection of craft brewed beer.  I tried the fish and chips.  The batter on the fish was light and very crispy, which was nice to see.  They fry haddock which is a light, flaky white fish.  The fries are properly done and have good flavour.  All of the wait staff are dressed in kilts.  Service was pleasant and efficient.  Another time in Ottawa I’d probably go back.

I also ate brunch one morning at a small place in the ByWard Market called Benny’s Bistro.  The bistro is in the back of a boulangerie called The French Baker and I had the chance to sit down with chef Scott Adams.

Benny's Bistro

Benny's is a 30 seat restaurant in the back of The French Baker and has been in operation for about 10 years. They offer a daily breakfast and lunch as well as brunch on the weekends. The goal in the food is to offer local and organic where possible but with a realistic approach. "We feature local, seasonal menus using the realist approach to local in Ottawa", explains chef Scott Adams. "We feature products from local farmers where possible, I love to support local farmers if they have a great product and it's compatible with our pricing." Adams takes a similar approach to using organic ingredients, "I'll use organic if it's a better product but I'm not going to buy organic just to say it's organic."

Benny's Bistro

The style of the food is grounded in French cuisine but not the heavy, classical French style. It's French technique but with a modern, lighter take. While chef Adams' training is French, he bristles a bit at the pigeonholing of Benny's as a French bistro. Says Adams, "we're more of a modern, Canadian bistro and the style is drawn from all of the influences we have in Ottawa." All of the dishes feature a raw ingredient to lighten and provide textural contrast.

In the mornings on weekends, coffee and pastries from the bakery out front are offered. The kitchen opens for brunch at 10:30 and the bistro closes at 2:30. Brunch at Benny's is popular so get there early to avoid having to queue up. On weekdays, breakfast is served from 8:00 till 11:00 and then lunch from 11:00 to 2:30. Reservations aren't taken on weekends but are through the week. Reservations are recommended from Wednesday through Friday.

French Baker Boulangerie

I arrived for brunch at about 10:00, got my table and enjoyed a cappuccino before brunch service began. The coffee was excellent and Benny's does know that cappuccino is made with foam. For brunch I had a maple cured pork loin on a potato gratin, topped with poached eggs. The plate was very well composed, clean and was very appealing when it came to the table. The pork had good flavour, the potato was very nice and the eggs were poached perfectly.

Pricing is reasonable. My total bill was about $20. The bistro is licensed and offers a selection of both Canadian and imported wines. Service is very good and friendly with none of the pretension that you'll find in some French establishments.

Benny's is a most definitely a recommended stop on a trip to Ottawa.

What to do in Ottawa:  Unfortunately Ottawa has had a reputation in the past of being a stereotypical ‘government town’.  It was considered boring, with not a lot to do and where the sidewalks rolled up at 5:00 when the government workers went home for the day.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is plenty to do in Ottawa.  Tours of Parliament are available and the website has all the information.

In addition to the museums noted above, there are several other terrific museums in Ottawa tracing Canada’s history and heritage.  The Ottawa Museums website has listings, information and links to the respective sites.  The Currency Museum is one that is particularly interesting.  At night, the ByWard Market area has several clubs to check out if that’s your pleasure.  For the blues aficionado, The Rainbow on Murray Street in the Market is a good spot.  Small, cozy and with live music afternoons and evenings.  The night I was there they had a $12 cover which isn’t unreasonable.  And the joint was hopping with a really good band playing.

Ottawa also has a wonderful variety of architecture and walking around the downtown just studying the buildings can be interesting.  There are some terrific photo opportunities to capture reflections of older architecture in the glass facades of newer buildings and to combine old and new in other compositions.  It really is a great opportunity for photographers to get creative.

If you prefer the warmer weather, then heading to Ottawa in the spring for the annual Tulip Festival may be more to your liking.  There is a fabulous Canada Day celebration as well as numerous other events and festivals throughout the year.

And there you have a quick tour of Winterlude and Ottawa.  Winterlude makes for a great weekend getaway for a couple or family or even for someone travelling as a single.  Have you been?  What did you think?  Feedback always welcomed and encouraged.

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4 Responses to A Winter(lude) Interlude

  1. Great work, Robert. If I was going to Ottawa, I would certainly give the Byward Blue Inn a try. I might have missed it but I don’t think I saw a price range for the room and extras. I’m very much enjoying living life vicariously right now and wish I could have tried a beavertail, tubed and skated on the canal. Thanks for bringing the experience to life.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed it. Rates are very reasonable, starting at $89. Higher in busier seasons. For example, the base rate is $129 during Winterlude. The only thing that’s extra is parking. Breakfast and afternoon tea are included. Their Rates page has all the information.

  2. Great blog, Bob. Makes Ottawa sound a lot more interesting than it was thirty years ago, when I lived there. Nice pics, too!