New pooch in charge.
Making a dash through Ottawa last week — on the trail of royals, tulips and whatnot — I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Stewart, the newly installed house-dog at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
“Come meet,” one of his many minders urged me as I was having a look around my temporary digs at the so-called grande dame of hotels in Canada’s capital. In a town where “face-time” is everything — a mantra in politics and beyond — how could I say no N? Operation Hound!
And so we went, crossing the lobby, as well as passing the portrait, at one point, of Charles Melville Hays, the man who initially commissioned this Chateau — head honcho of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway company. The one who did not live to see the opening of the hotel in 1912 (110 years ago this spring) because, mere days prior while sailing from England with some furniture, he sank, courtesy of an ill-fated vessel called the Titanic. Perhaps you have heard of it?
But we digress. Lolling peacefully somewhere in the bowels of administration, there I have spread—the easy, breezy, luminously furred Stewart. Tail in overdrive. Layout: lovely. I have arrived just days ago, I was told. In the thrust of a career change, in fact. The spiffy black Labrador, who will be handling an array of miscellaneous hospitality efforts at the Laurier, previously completed four years of training with Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind. His heart, alas, was in hotels.
Move over, Justin. There is officially a new star in town. And given the hullabaloo in Ottawa, in recent months, perhaps the only being up to the task of bridging the partisan divide. In this, a grandiosity of a hotel that has welcomed everyone from Shirley Temple to Winston Churchill, over the decades — and which found itself closed, for the first, time during the pandemic — the Stewart Era had officially commenced.
Not the only one making themselves at home, during my days in the capital, as I found. Princess Margriet of the Netherlands: Exhibit A (serving as kind of an opening act for Charles and Camilla, who were expected in town days later). A déjà vu, you could say, in her case, since she was famously born in Ottawa during the Second World War when Canada shielded the Dutch royals. As a token of esteem, her country sent tulips to Ottawa after they were free, and have continued to do so every year, ultimately reaching its apotheosis in the Canadian Tulip Festival, an annual showcase of some 300,000 tulips.
“Canada welcomed my family in the Second World War. It is the country of my birth, and it is my second home,” the septuagenarian princess said at the official opening, decked out herself in floral colours, her very presence nodding to the orgy of tulips all around Commissioners Park, flocks of happy families and gung-ho out-of-towners enjoying the remarkably high May temperatures.
Yes, and no. The princess was, of course, only half-right about the fine printery of her birth de ella, which actually makes for a quirky asterisk in the rolls of royal history. True, her mother, Crown Princess Juliana, officially popped her out in this city, but — in order to protect the line of succession to the throne, a guide reminded me — the maternity ward she was placed in was given the unusual distinction of having the same legal footing as many foreign embassies. That is to say, all those years ago, a tiny patch of the Ottawa Civic Hospital was declared international territory so that a newborn princess could retain her right from her to the Dutch throne.
There were plenty of those, as I wandered over to Rideau Hall that same afternoon for a private tour. Sweet! It really is a fascinating spread, a ramshackle of Canadian history. Glenn Gould’s actual piano, for one, in one nook, sitting spectrally near a wall of stain glass. A one-tonne chandelier hanging smack in the center of the grand salon, a gift from Britain that has got to be the biggest such fixture in all of the land at 80 bulbs and 12,000 crystals.
Arriving through the front hall, I took some time looking up at the various portraits of the various Canadian-born governor generals who have called this place home, all the paintings done up in varyingly distinct styles, before being ferried through various Downton Abbey-style corridors into a room that contains the portraits, likewise, of all the British governor generals that came before them. This, in the so-called Tent Room, the most jaw-dropping of spaces in possibly all of Ottawa. Resembling a big top, with the stripes of a classic popcorn box, it was created by Canada’s third governor general, Earl Dufferin, a bit of a party boy by all accounts. The ballroom also, amazingly, doubled as an indoor tennis court, for some time.
It was the grounds of Rideau Hall that really hit a particular chord with me when I wandered through them soon after. Vast and meandering, they are open to the public — cyclists and strollers keeping company with the wandering geese you might catch — and/or the occasional fox, too. Laden with elegant sculptures, here and there, I was particularly moved by the names associated with many of the trees — one, planted in 1989, by Nelson Mandela, another via Jackie Kennedy in 1961.
Having come to the capital on a whim — it had been on my mind to do so after the cloud of the occupation in the city earlier this year, in part, to show some love — I was happy to just take it all in. Having enjoyed some good meals while in town, too — I went to the sleek, buzzing Riviera one night, the more hushed, culinary adventurous North & Navy another — it is, in the end, the history that draws you to Ottawa. And the unexpected greenery. Spring was here. And the capital was looking fine.