Cedar smoke is billowing out of the box my cocktail arrives in and I hear my friend say, “Quick! Grab your camera. This would be a perfect Instagram story.”
But, frankly, I’m gobsmocked (and, yes, sadly, too slow) as I watch my server pull my drink, called ‘the Statesman,’ from its smoker box and with a ceremonious flourish, place it in front of me as my girlfriends and I gather for a nightcap in Zoe’s, the chic lounge inside Ottawa’s fabled Fairmont Château Laurier.
tap here to see other videos from our team.
I’m spending a luxurious long weekend sleeping under the multi-towered roof of Ottawa’s landmark hotel, known fondly as ‘the castle,’ and at the moment, feeling quite regal myself, I understand the appeal the hotel held for legendary portrait photographer, the late Yousuf Karsh, who lived here in Suite 358 for 18 years.
Asked why, he reportedly replied: “Well, why not? Look at where I’m staying.”
Sleep with history
Stepping into the Château, with its dreamy turrets and limestone corners holding pride of place in Ottawa’s downtown, is like stepping into well-loved pages of history. Opened in 1912, the grand old ‘railway hotel’ has hosted royalty, heads of state, celebrities, dignitaries and global guests. Canadian prime ministers R.B. Bennett and Pierre Elliott Trudeau both lived here. The CBC broadcast here for 80 years. Countries have had embassies within its walls. Steps from Canadian government, it’s been called the third chamber of parliament for the politicians who roam its corridors. On my visit, there’s a conference of Canadian mayors, and someone says they spotted Rick Hansen.
Location, location, location
The hotel enjoys an enviable location. It’s steps from many of the city’s top attractions including Canada’s Parliament Buildings, the Rideau Canal waterway, the bustling ByWard Market, the National Arts Centre, Sparks Street pedestrian promenade and the shops of the Rideau Centre (in case you want to go for “a walk” and come back with some new baubles.)
Nine days before the Château’s planned April 26, 1912 opening, Charles Melville Hays, Grand Trunk Railway general manager and visionary behind the Château, died in the sinking of the Titanic while returning from business meetings in England. Out of respect, the opening was delayed until June 1, 1912. Although Hays didn’t see his dream to completion, some say his spirit lives on within the walls, watching over to ensure all goes well.
With its opening, the hotel changed the face of Ottawa (which hard to believe was once a bawdy frontier town named Bytown), giving the city a new elegance. At $2 million, no expense was spared: granite blocks, white Italian marble, light buff Indiana limestone, copper for the roof, and inside, a travertine marble staircase with brass railing, Czechoslovakian crystal. Rooms were priced at $2 ($2!) per night and were among the first hotel rooms to offer indoor plumbing. A 1929 expansion added an Art-Deco pool with brass heat lamps (Pierre Elliott Trudeau liked to swim here), an additional 240 rooms, and a change from an “L” into a “U” shape.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh Prime Minister, and hotel namesake, officially opened the hotel, but it’s said he nearly didn’t. A renowned French sculptor had created a bust of Laurier for the lobby. On opening day, workmen dropped the statue, chipping the nose. Unaware of the mishap, when Laurier saw it, he noted it must be fixed before the opening or he would not be there. Officials told him of the accident and assured him the nose would be repaired (it was), and Laurier was the first to sign the register.
Modern day fun
While history oozes from every corner, make no mistake, the Château Laurier is very much a modern hotel with modern amenities. Many guests make it home base for Ottawa’s festivals and special occasions. During my visit, I saw an eight-year-old revel in a princess tea party birthday celebration, and a gaggle of well-dressed teens hamming it up in the lobby.
Buttermilk and cherry scones drenched in mascarpone cream and house-made strawberry jam are reason enough to book in for the well-loved afternoon tea at Zoe’s Lounge, named after Lady Zoe, Sir Wilfred’s wife. The tea menu (think traditional with a modern touch) changes several times a year, and comes complete with Lot 35 Fairmont specialty teas (try the Grand Bazaar Spice, a spicy chai-like tea) and a tiered tray of goodies, with options such as Moroccan curried egg pinwheel sandwiches, smoked salmon crepe, braised beef tarts and decadent bonbons.
Hotel within a hotel
From more standard Fairmont rooms to swish suites, the hotel offers a choice of accommodations, including the Fairmont Gold ‘hotel within a hotel’ experience. If you can swing it, it’s well worth the indulgence: Fairmont Gold has its own reception and check-in on the hotel’s fourth floor, as well as a lounge with included extras such as complimentary evening canapes, an extensive buffet breakfast, and an honour bar.
How to win at Ottawa's Winterlude
Much more than just desserts: meet Château Laurier pastry chef Anne-Marie Milk
Join in 50 years of fun and community on Ottawa's Rideau Canal Skateway