A great hotel any time of the year. But especially wonderful on a Canada Day weekend.
The Fairmont Chateau Laurier is a Canadian institution that has one of the most iconic settings in the country. It rests alongside the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Just the other side of the canal you’ll find the glorious stone of Canada’s Parliament buildings.
Many rooms at the Laurier have views of both the canal and Parliament. If you’re lucky enough to have room 202 like I did this past weekend, you’ll also get a view of the Ottawa River and the Gatineau hills of Quebec to the north.
Because it’s so close to Parliament Hill, and because it’s sandwiched between The Hill and the hugely popular Byward Market area’s shops and restaurants and lively bars, the Laurier is a wild scene on Canada Day. Crowds gather inside the lobby to gawk at the high ceilings and to soak up the feeling of a 104-year-old hotel built in an era when people built not just pretty buildings but solid ones with care and craftsmanship and style to spare.
The outside portico, which faces busy Wellington Street, also is a fine place to gather to get away from the hot sun and meet friends on the way to the Canada Day festivities. In the odd year when nature doesn’t completely cooperate, such as this past Friday, the front door and covered area serves as a great spot to get out of the rain. WHen the skies opened Friday afternoon around 2:30 p.m., hundreds of folks huddled under the portico to stay dry and engaged in an impromptu version of “Oh, Canada.” And how nice is that?
You have to be a guest at the hotel (lest they be overrun), but the outdoor terrace restaurant at the hotel, called Le Terrasse, is one of the best spots in town to watch the 10 p.m. fireworks show. You can see the exploding lights reflected on both the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal’s waters as you soak up the view of both Parliament Hill and the graceful lines of the hotel.
La Terrasse also serves a fine meal on Canada Day. My wife and I tasted fine salmon topped with a fig jam and also a huge portion of shaved prime rib on a fresh bun with crispy onion bits and an optional cheese sauce.
Even better is the breakfest buffet at the main restaurant, Wilfrid’s. There’s a fine selection of cereals and smoothies of all kinds and colours, as well as fine cheeses, cold cuts, creamy Swiss birchermuesli and fresh fruit. I wouldn’t have minded some fresh Ontario berries but didn’t see any. On the other hand, they did have eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans (for the Brits, I suppose), sausage, back bacon and, for a nice touch, lovely roasted vegetables.
Perhaps the best part of breakfast is chatting with Jimmy, the guy in charge of cooking fantastic omelettes and either sweet or savoury crepes. The guy is a whirlwind behind the counter, a 100-pound (I suspect) dervish who keeps up a constant patter with guests in a lovely, sing-song voice and is quick to smile or laugh. He’s been at the hotel for 15 years and is one of the symbols of the Laurier, for sure. A true delight.
I also recommend high tea or a drink at the bar, called Zoe’s. It’s a fine bar that serves classic Fairmont-style cocktails, including an old-fashioned with both rum and bourbon for a slightly different take. You can sit at the bar or over by the windows overlooking Wellington St., which is probably where the politicans sit when they want folks to notice them. I didn’t have tea this time but I managed it on my previous visit, nibbling on lovely sandwiches and chocolates and fruit pastries and sipping on a fine glass of champagne. There’s a wide array of teas available, some of them quite exotic.
I didn’t get a chance, but the hotel has a large gym with the latest workout gear, and also a fantastic, Art Deco-style pool with atmosphere to spare. You also can book a massage, and they have lovely bikes you can use to cruise the city or ride along the Rideau Canal or the Ottawa River, which has a fine bike and walking trail in the shadow of Parliament Hill.
I haven’t seen all the rooms at the hotel, but I can safely report that they’ve done a great job with their recent renovations. Our room was traditional but modern at the same time, with a fantastic king-size bed, a blue-green sofa, a pair of deep red chairs and a big-screen TV that was ideal for catching up on the Blue Jays’ weekend highlights. The bathroom was quite good-sized for an older hotel, with a large tub and a great shower and plenty of storage space. As well as those lovely Rose 31 Fairmont bath products I like to steal. I mean borrow.
I hadn’t heard the stories before, but prior to watching the fireworks on Friday night I got a rundown on the hotel’s history from PR woman extraordinaire Deneen Perrin. She told a group of journalists that when the hotel was being built they wanted to get the shiny, gold copper roof to turn green quickly. Rather than rely on Mother Nature alone, word is they asked workers to pee on the roof, or to pee in a bucket so folks could pour the acidic liquid on the copper to get it to change colour. Presumably this was away from the sidewalks, or perhaps they offered up umbrellas to passersby below.
Perrin also related the sad story of the hotel’s American architect, Charles Melville Hays, who designed the hotel using granite blocks, white Italian marble and light buff Indiana limestone aand then returned to Britain. He was due to arrive in Canada for its opening in 1912 but, sadly, chose the Titanic as his method of transportation from England, where he was visiting. The hotel opening was delayed a few months but still opened its doors in 1912.
On a happier note, world-famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh lived here for 18 years and also had his studio in the hotel for many years. You can see some of his most famous photos on the walls of the hotel, including renowned portraits of Winston Churchill, Pablo Casals and Ernest Hemingway.
Celebrities who have bedded down here for the night include just about every famous Canadian politician you can think of, as well as Yo-Yo Ma, Santana, Shirley Temple, Bryan Adams and Nelson Mandela.
The Fairmont Chateau Laurier paid for my room and meals. Transportation to Ottawa was provided by Ottawa Tourism.