City's dualities mean more to do Cultured mix: Situated in an area that spans two provinces -- Ontario and Quebec -- Ottawa offers the old and the new, French and English, urban bustle and country quiet.

October 01, 1995|By Nick Charles | Nick Charles,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

If it weren't so darn pleasant, Ottawa, Canada's national capital, would be certifiably schizophrenic.

This two-language city combines the cultures of France and England and garnishes the mix with a hefty measure of indigenous Canadian character -- friendly to a fault and antiseptically clean.

Situated on the border of the province of Quebec, at the confluence of the Rideau, Gatineau and Ottawa rivers, the area in which the city lies is often referred to as Canada's Capital Region because it spans two provinces (Ontario and Quebec) and two cities (Ottawa and Hull).

Further testament to its split personality is that while Ottawa has urban, cosmopolitan aspirations -- there is a two-block Chinatown west of the city center, and Somali can be heard on city streets -- it is at the foot of the sprawling wilderness of Gatineau Park to the north, in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec.

The city's architecture is a mix of elaborately detailed ancient and glossily austere contemporary, nowhere better epitomized than at historic St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, which is half-encased by a modern building.

Very self-contained -- the Rideau Canal separates the city into east and west -- the city's attractions are easily accessible on foot, by bicycle or by public transportation. Try the trolleys, efficient and quirky.

After the 10-minute ride from the rather small Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, visitors are greeted at the mouth of the downtown area by a statue of Terry Fox, the young runner who made a marathon trek across Canada to raise funds for cancer research before his death.

The Byward Market is centrally located and offers shopping and restaurants. There are 29 museums, including 12 national museums and institutions, in the region, and most of them line Confederation Boulevard, called "Canada's Discovery Route," which links Ontario and Quebec.

The two must-see institutions are the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The former, founded in 1880 by the Marquis of Lorne, the governor-general at the time, is now housed in a spanking-new futuristic facility -- which houses at its heart the reconstructed 1888 Rideau Street Chapel in its entirety. Beginning in the fall, the National Gallery is showing a major retrospective on Canada's Group of Seven. The group -- Frank Carmichael, Lawren S. Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and J. E. H. MacDonald -- held their first collective show 75 years ago.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization, inventively designed to look like an overturned canoe, lies on the shores of the Ottawa River on the Quebec side. It traces Canada's development from the Vikings to the present day through vast folkloric, ethnological and historic collections.

If social satire and political cartoons tickle you, try the Canadian Center for Caricature, a one-of-a-kind repository. It has more than 20,000 drawn cartoons and caricatures of Canadian history and people from the last two centuries.

In recent years, Ottawa has stepped up a campaign to woo visitors to a place long considered picturesque but sleepy. Not content with being a starchy civil-service town, which for the most part it is during the day, Ottawa is developing a reputation as a frolicsome destination -- but one that is safe and welcoming to families. Though its night life has a way to go before it approaches the headiness of its twin city, Hull -- everything in Ottawa shuts down between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. -- there are more than 60 festivals and carnivals that are making it a must-stop in the Great White North.

When Ottawa shuts down, there is a mass exodus to Hull, where after-hours joints don't close until 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. Promenade du Portage is the main boulevard. Try Chez Henri, an upscale disco, or Au-Zone, a down-scale dance bar.

Too often when Americans think of their neighbor to the north, they envision cosmopolitan Toronto or seductive, Francophone Montreal. But Ottawa offers relief from typically frenzied urban centers and caters to both noise and quietude.

If you go . . .

* Where to stay: One of the few older, no-star hotels left in $H Ottawa is the Somerset House Hotel, and it's reasonable at $34 to $62 per night. On the top end are the modern and spacious Westin Hotel or the classic Chateau Laurier, the castle-like structure at the mouth of the Rideau Canal that is a landmark in its own right.

* Where to eat: Though Ottawa's twin city, Hull, has the reputation of having the best restaurants in the area, Ottawa itself does have an eclectic range. For native cuisine, nothing comes close to the Eager Beaver, where wild game is always in season. The French influence is apparent at both the swank Claire de Lune, located right next door to the Eager Beaver, and La Crepe de France, which specializes in -- what else? -- crepes and has a patio bar and glassed-in terrace.

Information: Call the Canadian Consulate General at (212) 596-1601. You can also reach the Ottawa Tourism and Convention Authority at its toll-free number, (800) 363-4465.

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