Getting a taste for delights of Ontario

Ben Woods follows in the footsteps of royalty and visits Ontario in Canada – a tourism gem waiting to be discovered.

'There is one problem with holidaying in Canada,' a friend tells me before I leave. 'There is always a part of you that wishes you went to America instead.'

This is Canada's problem.

America is a safe bet; a well-established piece of muscle in the tourism industry which guarantees satisfaction for similar prices.

But with the recent royal visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge thrusting Canada into the public spotlight there was chance for the country to differentiate itself from its American neighbour.


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I was in Ottawa – the nation's capital in the Canadian province of Ontario.

And as well as keeping a close eye on the royal couple, I was also keen to peel away the hysteria associated with the royal visit and have a sneek peek at what the nation had to offer.

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The first stop on my trip sees me taking a 15-minute drive from downtown Ottawa to experience an institution with an important story to tell.

Hugging the shoreline of the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a 100,000 square metre building with a treasure trove of five million artefacts.

From the outside, it is easy to see why it warrants its accolade as an architectural masterpiece.

The dramatic curves and sweeping stone make this colossal construction appear warm and organic, as if its existence was fashioned from a length of wood rather than carefully pieced together by cranes.

However, it is not until you step inside the building that you truly appreciate its sense of scale.

Reaching 50ft high in a vast space flooded with natural light is a collection of 43 genuine totem poles.

This is the grand hall, the jewel in the crown of museum, and the place where the Canadian aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal marked his work with a canoe-shaped ceiling.

Currently, the space is home to a pair of exhibitions which capture the lifestyles and spiritual practices of the first peoples of Canada.

The exhibition presents itself well, and does a good job of creating an atmosphere evocative of the time with the shadow-shrouded spaces mimicking those of an aboriginal long house.

And as I delve deeper, it becomes clear just how dense the museum is.

Endless rooms are filled with films, displays and guides talking you through the finer points of Canadian aboriginal history.

Although the museum is dense, its message is simple. At its heart is a desire to mark a significant place in history for the first people who settled in Canada. After all this is a country built upon its divided Anglo-French identity.

And it is a message which appears just as clearly in the building itself, as it stands as an icon for aboriginal heritage on the opposite side of the river to the Canadian parliament.

Leaving cultural conflicts behind me, I head back across Alexandra Bridge in search of my own experience with the natives of modern Ottawa.

My quest leads me to the Byward Market, where I meet up with my guide from C'est Bon Cooking who provides exclusive hand-to-mouth tours of the capital's food scene.

I imagined the term 'hand-to-mouth' being used lightly, but I was wrong.

Within a few seconds of reaching one of the oldest and largest markets in Canada, I am handed a tray of bulbous strawberries by a woman running a local fruit and veg stall.

Biting into one, I am immediately struck by how juicy they are. They are sweet, delicate and full of flavour, providing a shining example of the benefits of locally-sourced organic food.

Our stop at the first stall is a brief one, but this is a busy working market.

We continue up the street, weaving in and out of people as we talk, stopping intermittently at nearby greengrocers to pop a cube of rich goats' cheese into our mouths, or a piece of cucumber seasoned with truffle salt.

Part of the success of this market is down to a scheme called Savor Ottawa, which is committed to ensuring the produce of Ontario farmers find its way into market and on to the plates of Ottawa's restaurants.

Its dedication to 'good food', and the farmers who produce it, has put down the building blocks for a food scene which is rapidly developing in the city, and is sure to flourish in the future with pioneering and award-winning restaurants such as Play Food and Wine and the Courtyard Restaurant.

However, if you really want to experience the growth of Ontario's culinary scene then you need to flee the confines of Ottawa and head towards its heart lands on the island of Prince Edward County.

The area is renowned throughout Canada for its lush scenery, stretching lakes and giant sand dunes.

But venture a little further and you will also discover it is a hub for Canadian wine, boasting more than 25 wineries throughout the region.

The perfect place to explore this stunning area is from the small city of Kingston.

Not to be confused with its Jamaican namesake, the city is beautifully set at the head of the St Lawrence River, which feeds directly into Lake Ontario.

It is important to establish that this is not Ottawa. Kingston is compact and quaint, and feels more like a middle-English town with the charms of a Mediterranean marina.

What it does offer, though, is a unique shopping experience of boutiques and small street markets, as well as one of the most prolific museums of military history in Canada – Fort Henry.

This 19th century fort, built during the war of 1812, sits on the outskirts of Kingston on the opposite side of the river, giving unsurpassed views of the city.

Its main attraction is to be found inside the walls where a band of re-enactment performers continue to run the fort as it once was, with parades, cannon firing and all the histrionics you would associate with army colonels and their need to shout at their men.

Museums and tours provides much of what there is to do in Kingston, and if you fancy something different to cleanse your pallet with, then it is easy to it find an hours drive away.

Take the free ferry, which runs daily between Adolphustown and Glenora, on Highway 33, and you will find yourself in the midst of Prince Edward County.

My journey sees me heading off the beaten track in search of The County Cider Company.

One criticism which could be mounted at the island is the difficulty you have in finding some of its prime destinations. An adventurous spirit and a little patience is definitely needed here.

But walking into the tasting room with a heady glass of cider makes it all worthwhile.

Cidermaster Grant Howes tells me that his unique batches of cider comes from his ability to operate through the searing Canadian summers and the bitterly cold winters.

What he produces as a result is a variety of tipples, from the fresh crisp experience of his County Premium Cider, to the sweet sensation drawn from his new his ice cider, crafted from Russet, Ida Red and Northern Spy apples.

In a similar vein to Grant, 10 minutes drive away, the Waupoos Winery also uses the stark contrast in weather to create its own selection of red and white wines.

If the County Cider Company provided a rustic setting to get up close and personal with its products, then this winery is positively refined.

For wine buffs, this place is heaven but even for a novice like myself, there is still plenty to capture the imagination.

Its maple iced wine, concocted from its own maple syrup stores, demonstrates the ambition and innovation which is associated with the wine-makers of the island.

It is this sense of ambition and innovation among stunning scenery which suprises you when you visit Ontario. You wonder why you have not heard of it before, and why you have not chosen to visit there.

Because in many ways, this part of the world still remains a gem hidden from the tourist trap, while still managing to hold all the excitement, adventure and relaxation you need on a holiday.

With this in mind, it seems fitting that the last leg of my journey should take me to the spot in Ontario where these superlatives come into their own.

As a rule, ferry tours had never really been my style, but hopping on to this three-tier vessel to explore the Thousand Islands was an experience I did not regret.

This is Canada at its most spectacular.

Here, wide-stretching water meets tiny land masses which have been transformed into holiday home locations for the nation's elite.

Looking out from the side of the boat, there is a sense of both awe and wonder when viewing these decadent properties. One towering mansion, perched on thinly-spread island, has a bridge which sits on the cusp between Canada and America.

And this site alone proves to me that Canada has what it takes to rival its North Western neighbour.

Because much like the wines sitting in the cellars of the Waupoos winery, Ontario is tourist destination which is coming-of-age quickly, and it will not be long before it establishes itself as a prime location for the masses.

FACTFILE

Flying there

Canadian Affair Flights – flights from London Gatwick to Ottawa (August prices) start from �598 return per adult. Visit the website at www.canadianaffair.com

Staying there

The Westin Hotel, Ottawa – rooms start from �116 (179 Canadian dollars). Log on to www.thewestinottawa.com

Residence Inn by Marriott Kingston Water's Edge – studio rooms start from �129 (199 Canadian dollars). Visit www.marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/ygkri-residence-inn-kingston-waters-edge

Places to visit there

Fort Henry in Kingston – www.forthenry.com

Byward food market tour – www.c'estboncooking.ca

National Gallery of Canada – www.gallery.ca

Canadian Museum of Civilization – www.civilization.ca

The County Cider Company in Prince Edward County – www.countycider.com

Waupoos Winery in Prince Edward County – www.waupooswinery.com

For more information

Visit Travel Ontario – www.travelontario.co.uk

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