Monday 27 April 2015

Where to Stay in Ottawa: Fairmont Château Laurier

Charles Melville Hays was a man with a vision. Born in Rock Island, Illinois, he arrived in Canada as General Manager of the Grand Turk Pacific Railway, with a mandate to improve the balance sheets of the railway’s shareholders. His plan included completing a railroad to the Pacific. He also envisioned the building of stations and luxurious hotels in all major cities. The flagship hotel was to be in Ottawa.

Fairmont Chateau Laurier
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Hays got to work hiring Montreal firm, Ross and MacFarlane, to bring his dream to life—a structure in the style of a grand château that combined French Renaissance with the neo-Gothic vertical lines of the Parliament Buildings next door. No expense was spared to make the hotel truly luxurious. Materials and furnishings were brought in from all over the world. Unfortunately, Hays never saw his vision materialize. The hotel, which was scheduled to open on April 26, 1912, had to be delayed. On April 14, 1912, Hays, who was returning from a business trip in England on the Titanic, perished.

The Château Laurier, named after then Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier, finally opened its doors on June 1, 1912. It had 306 rooms, priced at $2 per night, and was one of the first hotels to offer indoor plumbing. It was an instant success.

Fairmont Chateau Laurier
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Today, Fairmont Château Laurier remains a Canadian icon and an Ottawa landmark. Many notable guests have stayed here including King George IV, Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, and Princess Diana, to name just a few. Two former Prime Ministers, Richard Bedford Bennett and Pierre Trudeau lived here. Famous photographer, Yousuf Karsh, lived in the hotel for 18 years. His studio, from 1973 until 1992, was on the sixth floor.

On a recent visit, our room was on the 4th floor, Fairmont’s Gold Level.

Fairmont Gold Floor
Gold Lounge photo via
Fairmont Gold offers several complimentary amenities including private check-in and check-out, free internet and hors d’oeuvres in the Gold Lounge each evening. On one of the evenings, the scent of bacon filled the air. To my delight, I discovered bacon-wrapped scallops under a pretty silver dish. 

Fairmont Gold also includes deluxe continental breakfast, which is served buffet style. It features cold items like muffins, cereals, bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon. Hot items such as scrambled eggs and quiche are also offered. 

For further feasting, there's Wilfred’s and Zoe’s Lounge.

Wilfrid's Restaurant
Wilfred's photo via
Wilfred’s, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, is an awarding winning restaurant offering regional Canadian cuisine. It dishes out items like Confit Duck Leg Cassoulet and Bacon Lardon and Mushroom Stuffed Quail. Included in the dining experience at Wilfred’s, are great views of both the Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Locks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Ottawa long enough to enjoy dinner at Wilfred’s. Next time…

Zoe's Lounge
Zoe's Lounge photo via
Zoe’s Lounge is the place for an evening cocktail, but its claim to fame is its Afternoon Tea. Professionally trained servers wheel a large tea cart to your table, then proceed to explain the distinctive taste and origins of the tea. Choose your favourite from 15 gourmet selections and watch it go from the canister to the teapot, right at your tableside. 

Zoe’s offers Traditional Afternoon Tea ($35) or Canadian High Tea ($40). I opted for the Canadian High Tea, which comes with fresh strawberries soaked in ice wine, along with everything else you expect in an afternoon tea: scones, clotted cream, mini sandwiches, and pretty pastries. The lounge itself is beautiful, with its chic décor, glowing chandeliers and a glass adorned atrium. 

Ballroom photo via

Ottawa is a city to be explored on foot, with all its major attractions within walking distance. Fairmont Château Laurier’s central Ottawa location makes it easy to do so. To learn more about the Château Laurier, pick-up an iPad at the front desk and take a tour. Tip: Do not look down at the screen as you follow your virtual tour guide through the various halls and rooms of this glamorous and historical hotel. 

Thursday 23 April 2015

The Diefenbunker: Of Spies and Espionage

In a small town, approximately twenty-five minutes outside Ottawa, below a non-descriptive steel structure, lies an incredible piece of history.  

Seventy-five feet below ground, in Carp, Ontario, is the story of espionage, spies and a country’s survival plan during the height of the Cold War. This is Canada’s Cold War Museum: The Diefenbunker.

The entrance 

Shelters designed to ensure the continuity of government in case of a nuclear attack, were authorized in 1958, by then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker.  Across Canada, a total of fifty such shelters were built.

The facility in Carp was the largest. It’s four-stories deep, with enough underground storage for food, fuel, fresh water and other needed supplies, to accommodate 565 people, up to one month, without requiring additional supplies from the outside. The shelter was capable of withstanding a nuclear blast up to five megatons from 1.8 kilometers away.

Tunnel entrance

Walking through the long, dark, damp tunnel leading to the bunker’s main entrance, I feel a chill and it isn't from the temperature outside. There’s an eeriness to the place. What it was. What it was constructed for. I’m a child of the Cold War. I was a paranoid kid and I lived in constant fear of a nuclear attack. It's no wonder I feel cold.

There was no bunker on the city-street I lived on. None that I was aware of, anyway.  I resigned myself to my ultimate demise, were a nuclear attack to happen. But, unknown to me at the time, there was a shelter where important people, with big responsibilities would be whisked into for safety. Canada would continue to be governed. I’d be doomed, but the country would go on. That’s life.

Most of the corridors look like this

Once inside the facility, I feel like a kid again: A kid with a map on a scavenger hunt, skipping through 300 rooms and exhibits, so full of engrossing history, it’s hard to leave.

Prime Minister's suite


Rooms, such as the Emergency Government Situation Centre, the External Affairs Ministerial Office, The Bank of Canada Vault and the Prime Minister’s Suite, have been restored to their original condition. Many other rooms have been converted to exhibits of the Cold War era. Don't be in a hurry to leave. Take your time wandering through them. Read the stories. 

Operating room

Operating room equipment

“Wow! An operating room.”
“Look, the dental office.”
“Oooh, let’s find the gold vault.”

CBC Emergency Studio

Without any hesitation, I can say, I’ve never had so much fun in a museum and that’s because The Diefenbunker is not a typical museum. It’s historical, yes. But it’s the intrigue of the era: the spies, the double-agents, the people who simply disappeared never to be heard from again, the arrests, the trials and the jail sentences that followed.

Fantastic stories behind the exhibits

I survived the Cold War (the Doomsday Clock still haunts me though). The Diefenbunker allowed me to relive moments I’d long since forgotten. Quite simply, this place is awesome! If you haven’t been, you really should.

There are public and group tours available throughout the year. Also, special programs are available for kids. They will learn about espionage, crack codes, make spy gadgets, dress up, and go on a mission in search of the elusive "Agent X".

Sign me up!

The museum is open year-round Monday to Sunday 
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It reads:
In 1952, using falsified American papers; a man entered Canada and became

 David Soboloff. He was in fact a Soviet spy, trained to imitate a normal Canadian

citizen and run operations in the U.S. Unfortunately for his Soviet handlers,

he fell in love. He and his lover went to Ottawa and turned themselves over to the

RCMP, where it was decided he would become a double agent for Canada. Soboloff

was recalled to the Soviet Union unexpectedly and was never heard from again.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Visiting Ottawa: 10 Things To Do

Ottawa is Canada’s capital.

Not Toronto. Not Montreal. It’s Ottawa, a city of just over eight hundred thousand people, sprawled along the Ottawa River with Gatineau, Quebec across the waterway. Oui, c’est vrai!

Ottawa buzzes with politicians politicking, senators spending way too much money and journalists informing the nation of all the shenanigans 'on the hill'. And everywhere, flags bearing the red maple leaf, hang from buildings filled with government employees, running government business and keeping the country moving forward. Well, at least that’s what we hope they’re doing. 

Yes, Ottawa is Canada’s political hub, but there’s so much more to the city, as I discovered recently during my 72-hour sojourn. It simply wasn't enough time. There's so much to see and do in a city filled with museums, art galleries, historical sites, upscale restaurants. The list goes on. With spring in the air and summer just around the corner, it's time to start planning. Here then is my list of the:

Top 10 things to do in Ottawa

10. Visit the Peace Tower

The Peace Tower is the bell and clock tower located in the center of the Parliament buildings. You need to line-up and go through security (similar to that of an airport), but this is a minor inconvenience considering the halls you’ll be wandering through. 

An elevator ride will land you right in the tower. As the elevator whisks you up, look for the large bells that chime at noon. Once you’re off the elevator, a 360-degree view of Ottawa and Gatineau await you. Look carefully upwards through the glass-panes and you’ll actually see the tower clock’s face. Atop the tower, the Canadian flag flaps in the wind and is changed every day, Monday to Friday.

9.  Enjoy Dinner at Le Cordon Bleu Signatures Restaurant

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Canada’s only Le Cordon Bleu campus is located in Ottawa providing courses in cuisine, pastry and boulangerie to students from all over the world. Located in the culinary institute is, Signatures restaurant. Dinner here is an experience not to be missed. Set in an elegant mansion, with winding staircases and crystal chandeliers, one can’t help but feel grand.

Under executive chef, Yannick Anton, the menu is unique and creative using local, seasonal ingredients. It features choices like, seared deer medallion with pine nut and fir jelly crust, millie feuilles of celery root and artichoke, deer osso-bucco ravioli and roasted figs in Saskatoon berry. For dessert try, royal gala apple, poached in duminot ice-wine, ginger sponge, praline ice-cream, pine nut granola, ginger cremeux, hot apple cider anglaise, praline crisp, apple chips.

Your dining experience will begin with an amuse-bouche. And from then on, just sit back, relax and wait for your meal to make its grand entrance into the dining room and onto your table.

8. Check Out the Shops of Sussex Drive

Sussex Drive is where you’ll find Ottawa’s high-end shopping area. Here are shops like, MaiYa Pearls, where you can work with a designer to create your own unique piece of jewelry. Or drop into Kaliyana boutique, which offers innovative pieces for women by Canadian designer, Jana Kalous. 

Located within an easy walk of all major downtown hotels, you can shop. 

7. Shop and Eat in ByWard Market

photo courtesy of
From Sussex Drive, meander on over to ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets. Don't be in a hurry to leave. There is so much to see and do here. Within the market area, you’ll find museums, cafés, specialty food shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, pubs, and so much more. It’s both an indoor and outdoor market, with vendors selling items like fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables and all things maple syrup (pick-up the maple butter). 

6. Eat a BeaverTail

You’re in Ottawa! Of course, you must have a beavertail, those delicious deep-fried pillows of dough served warm and sweet with a dusting of sugar or a spread of Nutella. Their latest offering features maple syrup and bacon. I couldn't resist. Each bite is filled with sweet and savoury deliciousness. 

You’ll find a year-round kiosk in Byward Market. Pick up a beavertail, grab a cup of coffee, sit yourself down and watch the world go by.

5. Pamper Yourself at a Luxurious Spa

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Ottawa offers plenty of options for a day of pampering. 

Holtz, one of the most luxurious spas, is located right downtown. It offers holistic treatments, medispa services and anti-aging therapies to balance body, mind and spirit. Award-winning Santé Restaurant is also on site.

A little farther afield, ten minutes from downtown Ottawa, by Gatineau Park, is Nordik Spa-Nature. It’s the largest spa in North America with seven outdoor baths, eight unique saunas, an infinity pool, a restaurant and lounge

4. Stop and Smell the Tulips

photo courtesy of
The 2016 Canadian Tulip Festival runs May 12-23. It’s the largest festival of its kind in the world and celebrates the friendship between Netherlands and Canada. In 1945, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulip bulbs, in appreciation of the safe haven that members of Holland’s exiled royal family received during World War II in Ottawa, and in recognition of the role which Canadian troops played in the liberation of the Netherlands.

Today, with over a million tulips in fifty varieties blooming in public spaces across the National Capital Region, the highest concentration of tulips can be viewed in the flower beds of Commissioners Park, on the banks of Dow’s Lake, where 300,000 flowers bloom.

3. Have an Adventure on the Ottawa River

With the Ottawa River as its backyard, there’s no better place to have a whitewater adventure. Canada’s beautiful urban capital is home to three whitewater rafting companies: Wilderness Tours, RiverRun Rafting and OWL Rafting on the Ottawa River. All three rafting companies were awarded the prestigious, “Ontario Signature Experience” designation in 2014. 

2. Enjoy Afternoon Tea at Fairmont Chateau Laurier

Zoe's Lounge
image via

Is there anything more civilized than afternoon tea? (No!) Afternoon tea is simply one of those pleasures that must be indulged in.  Zoe’s, in the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, with its chic decor, glowing chandeliers, and a beautiful glass adorned atrium, makes you feel quite regal.

A server wheels the large cart filled with teas from around the world to your table. Choose your preferred blend and watch it be prepared for you, tableside. A three-tiered platter filled with freshly made scones, egg and salmon sandwiches is presented. Tiny pastries line the upper tier.  For the next two hours, sip, munch and simply enjoy this most British of traditions.

1. Learn About Espionage at the Diefenbunker

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Twenty minutes outside Ottawa, in a town few have heard of, Carp, is an underground cavern where time stands still. The Diefenbunker Museum, named after then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, is an underground 4-story bunker designed to withstand a nuclear blast. Its construction was authorized by Diefenbaker, in 1958, at the height of the cold war. Built into it is an operating room and a dental office. A large vault designed to hold the Bank of Canada’s gold reserves is located on the lower level. Large storage areas were built for food, water and other essential supplies. 

The bunker was built to accommodate 565 people for up to one month without receiving additional supplies from the outside. As you make your way through the facility, you’ll learn about spies of the time and consequences of such activities.

The Diefenbunker is an awe-inspiring piece of Canadian history not to be missed. You’ll go home anxious to conduct further research on an era that was filled with tension and intrigue. 

Monday 6 April 2015

Five Unusual Canadian Foods

Canadians are an interesting lot, with foods all our own.

We fuel up on double-doubles and timbits, while fantasizing about our next poutine fix, and searching for the nearest BeaverTails location. And by the way, how far in Nanaimo?

With the melting of snow comes spring, a time when we begin to make plans for the family road trip. It’s the time of year we dream of roaming this vast country in search of the best food on the planet. Not ordinary food mind you, that’s too dull. I’m talking about interesting made-only-in-Canada food.

So if you're up for a culinary adventure, head across this great country of ours and fill up on some of the more interesting Canadian foods. From east to west, here’s a list of five not-so-mundane Canadian foods.

Cod Tongue

image via en-corporate.canada.trav

This is not exactly tongue, but rather a gelatinous bit of flesh from the fish's throat. If you’re from Newfoundland, you know what it’s all about. For everyone else, these are little morsels, which grew out of necessity – a tiny bit of fish that could be had for nothing, by anyone willing to remove it from the many discarded fish heads lying about on the fish docks. But times have changed, and today, cod tongue is a coveted delicacy served not just in mom and pop dinners, but also in high-end restaurants across the province. Cod tongues are usually battered and fried, and served with an array of toppings, including scrunchions, salted pork fat which has been cut into small pieces and fried. And everything tastes better with pork fat on it, I say!

Blueberry Grunt

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This sounds like something that would talk back to you.  In fact, it’s something to talk about, indulge, then talk about it some more because it is a scrumptiously delicious treat. This is a sweet Nova Scotian dessert that dates back to the earliest settlers. It’s made by gently simmering together blueberries, sugar and water. Then, top the mixture with homemade dumplings; wait 15 minutes, dig in and enjoy. I’m not sure if the ‘grunt’ comes from the sound of blueberries bubbling away in sugar, or the sound you make after the satisfying event of eating this dessert.


This moment of absolute deliciousness is brought to you by the chocolate banana BeaverTails pastry via @hershey_333 on IG
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BeaverTails, or Queues de Castor in French, are deep fried, crispy, tasty goodness shaped to resemble a beaver’s tail. Once removed from the hot oil, they are dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Several other toping options are available, like chocolate and whipped cream. These true Canadian delicacies gained world-wide attention in 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ottawa and stopped by ByWard Market with the sole purpose of indulging in a beavertail.

Prairie Oysters

Rocky mountain oysters.jpg
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A well-known dish in the Canadian prairies, these delectable tidbits are not oysters at all, but rather a testament to your culinary explorations---calve, bull or buffalo are castrated (there are reasons for this, but that’s another story). The removed testicles are then peeled and membranes are removed. They are sliced, breaded, fried and voila. Pop them in your mouth and don’t even think about how they landed on your plate.

Nanaimo Bars

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A dessert that is sweet, delicate, delish and requires no baking. Where do you find it? Nanaimo, British Columbia of course. There are different varieties or flavours of the Nanaimo bar, but the basic version consists of a wafer crumb-based layer, topped with a layer of light vanilla or custard flavoured butter icing, which is then covered with melted chocolate. This luscious dessert is now popular around the world, and when you see them in Laos, be sure to wave your Canadian flag.

What's your favourite Canadian food?