If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you probably think that all I do is gallivant around the globe. If only that were the case! The truth is, like most other adults, I spend the vast majority of my waking hours from Monday to Friday at work. Luckily, my job is in Ottawa, the city where I grew up. I say “luckily”, and I truly mean it! I love living here. Ottawa has an unfortunate reputation of being a “dull government city filled with boring people who never go out or do anything really.” Now, I’ll admit that you’re not likely to ever see me out clubbing or bar hopping, but that’s just my personal preference. And for the record, Ottawa has an excellent nightlife for party animals, and plenty more to offer for homebodies like me.
Many visitors to Canada travel down the 401 from Montreal to Toronto, and bypass Ottawa completely. This is a huge mistake, in my (totally biased) opinion. I think they’re missing out on an essential part of Canada. Also, I adore having guests from abroad, so I have a vested interest in promoting my city. A good time to visit Ottawa is anytime. We have four distinct seasons, and each one provides ample opportunities for fun.
For me, summer in Ottawa really starts on July 1, Canada Day! All the downtown streets are closed off, and the area turns into a massive party zone where the unofficial dress code is red and white. Events are held throughout the day on Parliament Hill, at Confederation Park and at Major’s Hill Park. I usually spend the entire day hanging out with friends and running into people I haven’t seen in years. At night, there is always a free concert and fireworks display on the Hill. I have wonderful memories of every Canada Day from early childhood up until today.
Since our country is part of the Commonwealth, we sometimes host royal visitors on Canada Day. On July 1, 2011, shortly after they were married, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came out to the party. I had to stand by a fence for 10 hours under the boiling sun without drinking anything (so that I didn’t have to go to the bathroom), but I managed to take some amazing pictures.
An array of other activities take place downtown throughout the summer. Every Wednesday at noon from May to September, Lululemon sponsors a free yoga class on Parliament Hill. At about 11:45 a.m., you can see hundreds of public servants and other downtown workers walking up toward the Hill carrying their mats. The instructors lead a basic class that anyone (even dinosaurs!) can benefit from, regardless of experience.
The Ottawa River is famous in North America for having some of the best rapids on the continent. Wilderness Tours and Owl Rafting are based in Foresters Falls, Ontario, about an hour from Ottawa. Both companies offer one-day and two-day rafting trips, and they also provide camping and cabin facilities. In July 2014, I went rafting with some visitors from Austria, and we had a blast. We took a 12-person raft, which was fun enough. But if you want a more intense experience, an eight-person or six-person raft is a better alternative. You’re far more likely to flip over, which is one of the coolest parts of any rafting trip.
This past summer, my friend Natasha and I went on a one-day riverboarding trip with Esprit Rafting, a company based in Davidson, Quebec. I had already tried the sport in New Zealand, and I was eager to give it another go on the Ottawa River.
We spent the morning getting used to our boards and navigating through somewhat gentler water. Our guide showed us how to “surf” the rapid by crouching on our boards and catching a wave. I took many shots at it, but wasn’t very successful. Natasha, on the other hand, looked like a pro after only a few attempts.
In the afternoon, the rapids were far more extreme. Between rapids, we would float along the river. When the current picked up, we would form a chain behind our guide. He would then release us into the rapid, and the water would basically have its way with us. It was like being in a laundry machine. I finished the day with only a few bumps and bruises, but poor Natasha banged up both her knees.
Our guide gave us two very memorable instructions:
– “This next rapid is called the Butcher’s Knife. It’s named after the sharp rocks in the middle. Make sure you follow me and stay to the side.” Okay, will do!
– “If you find yourself careening into the rocks, hold your board up and use it as a shield.” I actually applied this technique in one rapid when I fell off my board and started hurtling toward the rock face. I managed to kick away from the rocks in time to avoid a crash, but it was a close call!
When all is said and done, riverboarding on the Ottawa was one of the best experiences of my life to date. It’s no secret that I’m a total thrill-seeker. I’ve been skydiving (Mission Beach, Australia, December 2008) and bungy jumping, and I’ve spent the night in a pod on the side of a cliff. Riverboarding is right up my alley. I’m delighted that I can get a proper adrenaline rush so close to home. If would go again in a heartbeat!
I firmly believe that every good city should have a waterpark, and Ottawa finally got one in 2010. Calypso Waterpark in Limoges, Ontario, is a 30-minute drive from downtown. The park has some of the tallest and fastest slides in North America, so naturally it’s a good fit for me! I’m perfectly happy to spend an entire day charging up stairs and racing down slides.
One of things I appreciate the most about Ottawa is its proximity to nature. The entrance to Gatineau Provincial Park is only a half-hour bike ride (or 15-minute drive) from my apartment in the city. The park has fabulous bike paths, which I often use during the summer.
Every Sunday morning from the end of May to the beginning of September, the city closes all the parkways in Ottawa and Gatineau to car traffic, and you can cycle or in-line skate on the road. I do a giant loop that takes me down the full length of two parkways, and I use the bike paths that snake through the city to travel between the roads.
In all my years of travelling, as I have seen some mind-blowing scenery. But in terms of sheer beauty, nothing rivals Gatineau Park in the fall. The colours are just incredible. If you want to see the park at its finest, your best bet is to visit Ottawa in the first two weeks of October.
I know some of my friends who have never visited Canada in winter think -1 °C is unbearably cold and -10 °C is just plain extreme. In Ottawa, that’s the average temperature range from December to March (see this Rick Mercer sketch). And it can get a whole lot chillier! However, let me assure you, even the wildest weather is manageable. For instance, I wear long johns under my work pants so that my legs don’t freeze while I wait for the bus. On windy days, the frost glues my eyelashes together, and I use my hands to pry them open. When freezing rain turns the city sidewalks into mini skating rinks, I put spikes on my shoes to create traction and avoid the inevitable pratfall. One especially frigid day last winter, my fingers froze inside my gloves, and I couldn’t grip my keys hard enough to open the front door of my building. Fortunately, one of my neighbours arrived and let me in before I turned into an icicle.
I’m not really selling Ottawa in winter, am I?
Don’t be afraid! If you choose to come here between November and March, you’ll have a terrific time trying out all the activities the city has to offer. And it feels so good to sit in front of a fireplace or in a heated apartment after a day of playing in the snow. It’s lovely to get outside on a fine winter’s day and motor down the 7.8 km-long Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest skating rink. To treat yourself, you can stop at certain spots along the route to buy a beavertail pastry and a hot chocolate. If you can manage to dig out your money, make the purchase and skate back to a table without toppling over and spilling your drink everywhere, you feel a fantastic sense of accomplishment 🙂
As I mentioned earlier, it can get cold. Like, I-can’t-feel-my-face cold. So bring a good coat and scarf! Or buy them here. There’s really no reason to let glacial weather stop you from having a good time. Personally, I relish skating on the canal on evenings when the temperature dips to -20 °C. The ice is usually pristine, and you have the whole place practically to yourself. Plus, I like to skate as fast as possible, which helps keep me warm. When the wind is blowing hard, you feel as though you’re flying down the ice. It’s a bit like skating on a treadmill when you’re moving against the wind, but it makes for a great workout!
The Rideau Canal is the centrepiece for Winterlude, a three-week festival held in February to break the winter blues. The young (and young-at-heart!) can also head over to the Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques Cartier Park on the Gatineau side to enjoy ice slides, tubing, dog sledding and other winter shenanigans.
Gatineau Park has some world-class winter trails. After a nice snowfall, there’s nothing better than strapping on a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes and venturing out into the woods. Ottawa receives an average of 235.7 cm of snowfall annually, so you’ll have many chances to give these activities a try!
Some of the local ski hills offer a tubing option. I’m a big fan of Ski Vorlage in Wakefield, Quebec, a 30-minute drive from downtown Ottawa.
Decent toboggan hills can be found in virtually every neighbourhood. One of the best hills is near my parents’ house in Kanata. This year, we had freezing rain over Christmas, and the hill turned into a massive ice slide. We were whizzing down that thing at top speed. My bum hurt for four days afterward, but it was totally worth it.
When I was growing up, my family would spend every Saturday in winter at one of the ski hills near the city. Most of the hills have night skiing, so occasionally I would also hit the slopes on weekday evenings with the school ski club. In my adult years, I haven’t had as much time to ski, but I figure that I’ll get back into it eventually.
Western Canadians tease us because our hills are so puny compared to their mighty mountains. I say that I’d rather have tiny hills than no hills at all! Besides, all the skills I learned at the minuscule hills around Ottawa have served me well at resorts in France, Austria, Montenegro, Ukraine and British Columbia.
Whenever my friends from abroad show me their pictures from their trips to Canada, they always seem to produce several dazzling portraits of squirrels. Sometimes, they even have a two-page spread dedicated to the rodents. Personally, I don’t understand the fascination, but whatever floats your boats!
The highlight of springtime in Ottawa is the Tulip Festival in May. Over a million tulips are displayed throughout the city to celebrate the bond forged between Canada and the Netherlands during the Second World War. The largest displays are found at Dow’s Lake and Major’s Hill Park.
Although we’re all travelholics in my family, we’re also keen on bringing the world to us. It is such a joy to rediscover our city and country through the eyes of tourists. Over the years, my parents have hosted our Czech relatives, friends of our Czech relatives, visitors from Western Europe, foreign students, and even a girl who was stranded at the Ottawa airport (where my mother volunteers). I want to carry on that hospitality tradition. I know that, when I travel, I love staying with families.
My family members can provide services in several languages: English (all of us), French (me and my mother), German (my mother), Czech (my father and mother), Russian (my father) and Japanese (my father). My brother lives in British Columbia, but he’s occasionally in town. He speaks English, Czech, Portuguese and French.
I have another very special family member. Uyen lived with my parents for a year as a foreign high school student in 2005-2006, and afterward she stayed in Ottawa to attend Carleton University. She got her Master’s degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, then came back to Ottawa to launch her career. She is now a permanent resident of Canada and in a few years she will be a citizen. We are incredibly proud to be her official Canadian family, and I’m thrilled to finally have a sister after begging for one my entire childhood.
This year is particularly special for the city. Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday, and Ottawa is going to be rocking. So if you’re thinking about coming to see me, stop thinking and come! Now is the perfect time to experience all the wonders of the nation’s capital.
I hope to see you soon! J’espère vous voir bientôt !