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by Colleen Friesen
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Queen Victoria must have been a pretty savvy woman.

Sure, she had good advisors, but ultimately, on December 31st, 1857, it was up to the 38-year old Queen to pick the capital of the Empire's colony. Ottawa, a hinterland city that still held pig races in their muddy streets, seemed an odd choice. It was far away from the colony's main cities, Quebec City and Montreal in what was then called Canada East, and Kingston and Toronto in Canada West.

Photo 4. Parliament

But with the Rideau Canal serving as a vital transportation link, lots of forest to protect it from possible American invasion, a tactical hilltop location overlooking the Ottawa River, and most importantly, strategically placed between the French and English speaking populations, the designated city quickly grew into its vision as a capital.

As I checked into Ottawa's castle-like Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel, I found myself thinking about the Queen quite a bit. Given the royal surroundings and the view of Parliament Hill, I was sure she would have been impressed.

It was October when I visited. I had come to visit Hanna, my late friend's 18-year old daughter. I wanted to give her a break from her residency life at the University of Ottawa. Besides, it was time for the next generation to learn the art of living well.

Hanna settled into one of our suite's wing-backed chairs, "Nice," she said. "Very nice."

Saturday morning looked like a perfect day for a bike ride. We went to the front desk with a bicycle rental brochure.

"Your room number please?" The young woman scrolled through her screen, "As a member of the Fairmont Presidents Club, you won't need this." She gently removed the brochure from my hand. "I'll call the valet to bring up the complimentary bikes."

Photo 5. Cycling the Rideau Canal

Soon, we were wheeling our lovely white BMW bikes along the canal path. The leaves were flames of crimson, pumpkin and gold, swirling and cracking in the stiff winds that gusted off the canal. Briefly the skies darkened and gritty snow spun around our heads and then, just as quickly, it changed back to bright clouds and sun.

At Dows Lake we turned back to the hotel. It was time, as I'm sure the Queen would have agreed, for high tea at the Chateau Laurier.

Photo 1. Chantal & the Tea Trolley

Our table was near the window. Overlooking the bundled pedestrians on the street below made our spot all the more comforting. The server came with the large tea trolley. "Are there any teas you prefer?" With each of our answers, she measured loose tea leaves into a silver tea cup so we could inhale the fragrance prior to deciding. "If you like this, I'd recommend trying this other one too."

Finally, we made our decisions. Hanna chose the apricot and peach blend. I picked my favourite scent of bergamot. Soon I was sipping the Fairmont's own special Earl Grey blend.

Photo 2. Hanna & the Art of the Pinkie

The three-tiered trays arrived. Truffled egg salad sandwiches, lightly-smoked ham and brie, salmon pinwheels... the tiny sandwiches started to add up. Then we moved to the upper tray; salted-caramel chocolate tart, poppy seed cake, the crusty softness of a macaroon...

Groaning, we finally quit. After all, we were planning on attending the Poutine Fest on Sparks Street that night. I was sure even Victoria would have stepped out with the commoners for a piping hot plate of poutine.

Photo 3. Poutinefest!

The weekend went by too fast. There was shopping, the National Art Gallery, the Parliament tour, the Byward Market, art galleries and the foot-tapping gospel Sunday brunch at Fatboys Smokehouse.

But we both agreed that it was Saturday night's dinner that topped the chart. At first I had been skeptical at the restaurant's concept. Mexican and Asian cuisine? It sounded gimmicky with a great potential for disaster, but it had come highly recommended.

The halibut in the fish taco starter was crisped in a thin skiff of tempura batter and placed on soft thin pancakes. I consider myself a fish taco aficionado, but these were the best I've ever tasted. The sashimi outdid the tacos, the green papaya salad topped the sashimi and when I tucked into the jasmine rice and butter curry lobster, I nearly cried.

Life, like stormy weather, can knock you sideways. So when those skies clear, do yourself a favour...spend a little time living like royalty. Visit the city where Canada started. Queen Victoria knew what she was doing. Ottawa is capital.


PHOTOS: by Colleen Friesen

1. Chantal & the Tea Trolley

2. Hanna & the Art of the Pinkie

3. Poutinefest!

4. Parliament

5. Cycling the Rideau Canal

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