Wh-Ottawa-nderful Place

Every family has its happy place. For many, it’s Disney World. For some, there’s nothing better than a Caribbean cruise. Others prefer visiting national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. I have a friend who is never happier than when he takes his kids to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

My family’s happy place? Ottawa, capital of the ever-charming nation of Canada.

This is a somewhat odd choice for us in that (1) Danielle and I aren’t city people at all, even a little, (2) I am a deep admirer of national parks and want to bequeath to our kids a John Muir-level wilderness admiration via our vacation destinations, and (3) a capital is the hub of a country’s politics, and I prefer to get as far away from politics as possible on vacation.

But the capital of Canada is a city for people who are not city people. And magisterial dwellings and delightful museums aside, Ottawa is no Washington, D.C.

What initially drew us to Ottawa was more pragmatic than anything else. Last year we planned to take a 4th of July trip, but we wanted to avoid holiday crowds and holiday lodging prices — not to mention holiday explosives that wake up sleep-resistant little boys. So we decided to leave the United States on Independence Day, an act which I’m pretty sure can get you charged with treason in certain corners of the country (or at least get you pilloried on certain corners of the internet).

I studied some maps and quickly learned that there are areas in Canada that are easier for us to get to than Maine and half of Vermont. Who knew? So I found a quaint B&B in the Ontario countryside outside of Ottawa, and what followed was one of the most pleasant, low-key, refreshing vacations we’ve ever taken. (Not to mention the first 4th of July in a decade where we didn’t have either our wee child’s or our wee dog’s sleep threatened by the sound of cheap Chinese explosives sporadically detonating outside our house until the wee hours of the night.)

We loved our “Ottawadyssey” so much that 15 months later, the very next time we planned a just-the-4-of-us vacation, we booked a return trip — this time during autumn, and this time right in the city itself. And that 4-day visit exceeded all of our high hopes. Canada, in my experience, has a way of doing that.

So why do we love Ottawa? Let me count the ways.

  • There are no garish billboards on any of the highways we’ve traversed in Ontario. In fact, there are no billboards at all. None. Just a clean view of the lush Canadian landscape. And in Ottawa, a clean view of the city skyline. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.
  • Speaking of billboards, you know those blue signs on U.S. interstates telling you which gas stations and fast-food joints can be found at each exit? Well, Canada has blue signs along their interstates too. But none of them advertise junk food or chain restaurants. Instead, they list informative and/or delightful points of interest, such as a glassblower and an art studio along with these other actual charming places:

~ Hall’s Apple Market & Maize Quest

~ Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm

~ Mrs. McGonigal’s Fine Mustards

While I’m driving down the interstate, I’d much rather be informed of Mrs. McGonigal’s locally sourced mustards than Mr. McDonald’s mass-produced meats. In fact, I’d take Canada’s food signage over ours in a (non-artery-clogging) heartbeat.

  • Canada is clean! Squeaky clean. Startlingly clean. Everything we saw, from the city to the suburbs to the countryside, was well taken care of.
  • The people of Canada all seem happy and balanced. That’s not uniformly true, of course. Suffering and discontent exists everywhere. But it’s noticeable to me, and even striking, how much less furrowed the average Canadian’s brow seems to be than that of the average American in 2019. I was struck during both of our visits by how easy it was to strike up a pleasant conversation with strangers, including those who had no vested business interest in being friendly to us. There is a natural charm in Canada that is disarming.
  • On a side note, you know what’s also disarming? The fact that far more people are dis-armed. Canada may be a bit chillier than the U.S., but maybe it’s because Canadians don’t pack nearly as much heat.
  • Ottawa is one of the only million-person cities I’ve ever visited that didn’t immediately make me feel agitated by the crowds and disoriented by the traffic. It’s an easy city to navigate, and I only heard one driver (one!) honk his horn in the 7 total days we spent there. You don’t realize quite how much you appreciate civility until you’re suddenly surrounded by it and realize that’s a feeling you haven’t had in a while.
  • Herbivorous dining spots are easy to find, and we found both the workers and the patrons of these restaurants to be quite amiable. We ate dinner at Grow Your Roots Café during both Ottawa visits, and each time a different set of young-ish, genial strangers came over to our table and chatted warmly with us and our kids. And I have to say, it kind of made us want to be their neighbors.
  • The museums are magnificent! The parks are pristine! Rideau River is radiant! Is that enough? Do you still need one more?

In conclusion (and because I just can’t help myself), I’d just like to say that if I was working in the Canadian Department of Tourism, I would suggest this as an official slogan for Canada’s capital city.

Ottawa: You Oughtta Wa-nder Up Here for a Visit

I’m sure glad we did! Now we know that Canada is our home — and our happy place — away from the happy place that is our home.



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