Chalk it up to my Dutch roots — I’m a sucker for tulips. After a brutal winter, they are the most welcome of blossoms in my garden, signs that spring has finally arrived. So it took little coaxing to visit the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa, where the cheerful blooms form a four-mile swath of vibrant red, yellow and purple along the Rideau Canal.
Upon arriving, I got swept into these colors, like so many do, and photographed the tulips for an hour. Later, the flowers beckoned me to Commissioner’s Park, where 80 percent of the city’s vibrant tulips grow against the sparkling backdrop of Dows Lake. Children laughed and buskers played music as I watched painters work their easels, depicting the park’s flowers on canvas. There’s just something about the simplicity of such a stroll past tulip beds that draws nearly 600,000 visitors each May.
The festival traces its roots to 1945, when Dutch Princess Juliana presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulips in recognition of the refuge the city offered Dutch royalty during World War II. Those 100,000 bulbs number 3 million today.
Although the festival takes its name from the flowers, there is a decidedly intellectual angle. In Major’s Hill Park, celebrities and statesmen give lectures in Celibridée, a forum honoring the power of ideas. But I headed for the International Pavilion, where more than 20 embassies and international organizations set up booths, making it hard to ignore the international friendship at the heart of the festival.
The air hung with the scents of unfamiliar spices, and crowds of families buzzed inside the blue and white striped tent. I sampled hot Dutch fritters and savory Turkish kebabs before strolling past delicate Russian nesting dolls and flowing Japanese calligraphy. The unfamiliar sounds of Kuwaiti stringed instruments and drums finally drew me toward the Friendship Stage, one traditional concert among many that fill this tent every day.
There’s no shortage of international flavor, but I wanted to sample some typical Canadian snacks while in the country. Commissioner’s Park is the place to go for local food booths selling poutine, the classic Quebecois dish of french fries, cheese curds and brown gravy, as well as Ottawa’s own Beaver Tails. The deep-fried dough left my lips and fingers covered in butter, sugar and cinnamon.
Traffic is crazy during the Tulip Festival, but then traffic is always a little crazy in this capital city. Although bus service ($3) covers all of Ottawa, I booked a room at Chateau Laurier, following the lead of most visitors and staying downtown, where walking is easy and Peace Tower keeps you oriented.
But before heading in for the night, I took a final walk past the tulips of Parliament Hill, drawn to shoot my favorite flowers at twilight. There’s plenty to occupy your mind at the festival, but the tulip is, after all, queen of the show.
Admission to most activities is free; tickets to Celebridée forums cost $10-$80. Visit tulipfestival.ca or call 800-66-TULIP for more information.