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Discovering Montréal this Fall

Canada's second largest city is a charming mix of modern and historic. A friend of mine once described Montréal to me as the North American version of Paris. Though it's true that both are sophisticated cities that care deeply about good cuisine, shopping, and culture, after spending some time in Montréal, I think the comparison doesn't do justice to the Canadian metropolis. For one thing, Montréal is a heck of a lot cleaner than Paris. And stunning fall foliage is far more abundant in Canada than in the City of Light. Plus, there's that value factor: The weak U.S. dollar still goes a long way in Canada, making Montréal a far bigger bargain for U.S. travelers than pricey Paris -- especially during the fall and winter off-seasons. And though I'm willing to admit that the museums in Montréal are never going to challenge the Louvre or Musee D'Orsay, there are still plenty of top-notch things to see and do here.

Where to Stay

The Montréal hotel scene runs the gamut from quaint B&Bs to business hotels to boutique properties. The city buzzes with business travelers during the week, which means discounted rates are almost always available on weekends at the city's larger hotels. In addition, until October 31st, Tourism Montréal's website (www.tourisme-montreal.org) is offering 2-night "Sweet Deal" packages that include hotel deals, attraction and shopping discounts, and an option for a third night at half price.

B&B lovers and budget travelers can try one of several reservation services in the city, including Montréal Reservation.com (tel. 800/917-0747; www.montrealreservation.com), which books B&Bs and apartments; and Downtown B&B Network (tel. 800/267-5180; www.bbMontreal.qc.ca), which will help you locate a B&B that suits your tastes in various locations throughout the city).

The Delta Montréal, 475 avenue President Kennedy (tel. 877/286-1986 or 514/286-1986; www.deltamontreal.com), boasts a great location on a quiet block close McGill University and the big department stores on rue St. Catherine. Originally designed as a condominium building, the hotel features huge, comfortable guest rooms (many of which have balconies, though these are not kept as clean as they should be), and large bathrooms with lots of counter space and June Jacobs spa products. Note that there's no size differential between the standard and premier rooms -- the latter are located on higher floors and feature a slightly upgraded decor. Though the hotel caters primarily to the business crowd, the big rooms, an on-site childcare facility, the indoor pool, and the reasonably priced spa (I saw a number of vacationing moms making a beeline for a massage) make it very attractive to families as well. The cost of a double room runs from C$159 to C$450 ($128 to $384), and a variety of discount packages are currently available through the hotel's website.

On the outer edges of the downtown area (though within easy walking distance of the Metro), the Hotel du Fort, 1390 rue du Fort (tel. 800/565-6333; www.hoteldufort.com), offers a good deal of value for one's dollar. The boutique hotel's clean and comfortable accommodations range from spacious standard rooms to incredibly large suites. All rooms offer a host of amenities, including vanity tables with lighted make-up mirrors, spotless bathrooms, and compact kitchenettes with microwaves and mini-fridges. The staff was highly professional if a trifle aloof. One warning: The buffet breakfast is very mediocre, so if breakfast isn't included in your rate, it's not worth the extra expense to dine in the hotel -- eat elsewhere (there are dozens of cafes within walking distance). Rates until October 31st run from C$125 to C$250 ($107 to $213), but discounted rates and packages are often available through the major hotel discounters and the hotel's own website.

Making the Museum Rounds

If you're a museum fan and plan to visit most of the major attractions in the city, then the Montréal Museums Pass is a good buy. It offers free admission to 30 museums and attractions throughout the city, as well as 3 days of unlimited public transportation. The pass costs C$39 ($33) and can be purchased at any participating attraction, at both of the city's tourist offices. For information, call tel. 877/BONJOUR or 514/873-2015, or surf the Web to www.museesmontreal.org. Also, be sure to stop in at the Infotouriste Center on 1001 rue du Square Dorchester, or the Tourist Information Center at 174 Notre Dame Street East. Both offices often have coupon booklets offering discounts on museums, attractions, shopping, and dining.

Opened in 1860 (though in its current home only since 1912) the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts), 1379-1380 Sherbrooke Street West (tel. 800/899-6873 or 514/ 285-2000; www.mmfa.qc.ca), is one of the oldest art museums in North America. Spread across two buildings (the original neo-classical pavilion sits across the street from the newer, ultramodern Jean-No¿l Desmarais Pavilion), the collections span everything from European Old Masters (a highlight) to Impressionists (including an unusual still-life by Renoir) to Canadian Art (the Group of Seven works are particularly good) to the decorative arts (a few interesting pieces, but nothing particularly exciting). Admission to the museum's permanent collection is free. Temporary exhibitions here are usually well executed and worth the C$12 ($10.20) admission fees (half-price on Wednesdays from 5pm to 9pm). On September 22, a brand new exhibition focusing on the artists of Provence, opened; it includes top-notch works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne and others.

One note: The interior staircase in the Moshe Safdie -- designed Desmarais Pavilion, though undeniably attractive, is also undeniably annoying to traverse because of the half-depth staircases. I highly recommend taking the elevator to the top floor and working your way down -- descending the staircase is a lot less irksome than vice versa.

The McCord Museum of Canadian History, 690 Sherbrooke St. (tel. 514/398-7100; www.mccord-museum.qc.ca), counts more than 1.3 million costumes, artifacts, photographs and other historical objects in its possession. Objects from this treasure trove are featured in the museum's sole permanent exhibit, Simply Montréal, which offers insight into the city's diverse population, climate, and lifestyles. You'll also find well-mounted exhibitions that are changed once or twice a year; open until spring 2006 is the charming Growing Up in Montréal, focusing on the children of the city. If you have kids, I'd rate this the best of the Montréal history museums for children. The café is an excellent spot for a quick bite or a light lunch. Admission is C$10 ($8.50) for adults, C$7.50 ($6.40) for seniors, and C$3 ($2.55) for children ages 6 to 12.

Strolling the Old City

No trip to Montréal would be complete without a visit to Vieux Montréal (Old Montréal), the city's historic district. The narrow cobblestone streets and historic architecture remind some people of Paris, though the streets are far cleaner than what you'll find in the City of Light. I spent a most enjoyable day in this atmospheric neighborhood, strolling, shopping, museum hopping, and people watching (park yourself at one of the many cafes on place Jacque Cartier for the best view of the local hustle and bustle). While you're in the area, stop in at the Tourist Information Center at 174 Notre Dame Street East for up-to-date event info and a good map.

On the eastern edge of Vieux Montréal, the Sir George-Etienne Cartier National Historic Site of Canada, 458 Notre-Dame Street East (tel. 800/463-6769 or 514/283-2282; www.pc.gc.ca/cartier), often flies under the tourist radar, but is a very worthwhile stop. Known as the Father of Confederation, Cartier (1814-1873) was a Quebec lawyer and politician who was one of the main forces behind the formation of Canada. Though the exhibits focusing on Cartier's professional achievements (and Canada's early history) are interesting, the highlight here is the exhibit focusing on the domestic life of his family. The current one examines the lives of Cartier's two daughters and features entertaining recorded commentaries in both French and English, excerpts from the girls' diaries, and exact recreations of the rooms of the house as they appeared when Cartier's family occupied them. Actors perform various re-enactments of Montréal life within the period Victorian settings at various times during the day, and the museum staff is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Admission is C$4 ($3.40) adults, C$3.50 ($3) for seniors, and C$2.50 ($2.15) for children 16 and under.

Housed in an 18th-century building that was the first in Quebec to be classified a historical monument, the Ch¿teau Ramezay Museum, 280 Notre-Dame Street East (tel. 514/861-3708; www.chateauramezay.qc.ca), was once home to Montréal's governor. One notable visitor to the house (in 1775, when American forces occupied Montréal during the Revolutionary War) was Benjamin Franklin, who ultimately failed to get the locals to support the colonists in their battle against Britain. Today, the museum is filled with an assortment of historical artifacts, artwork, and other memorabilia. The best exhibits are those housed in the cellar's original vaults -- they depict recreations of the everyday life of Montréal's citizens in the 18th century. Admission to the museum costs C$7 ($6) adults, C$6 ($5.10) seniors, and C$4 ($3.40) children under 16. Even if you're not a museum fan, do take a stroll through the charming Governor's Garden (admission is free) in the back of the house.

Hitting the Attractions at Olympic Park

Housed in the seriously renovated 1976 Summer Olympics' velodrome, the Montréal Biod¿me, 4777 Pierre-De Coubertin Ave. (tel. 514/868-3000; www.biodome.qc.ca) is a unique, ecologically focused attraction that entertains as it educates. It realistically recreates the flora, fauna, and climate of four distinct eco-systems: a tropical rainforest, a Laurentian forest, the St. Lawrence marine coastland, and a polar region. Some of the thousands of animals you might encounter as you walk through the various environments include Canadian lynx, puffins, endangered tamarins, caimans, sloths, beavers, piranha, porcupines, sea cucumbers, and penguins. This is an attraction that's truly great for all ages. Admission costs C$11.75 ($10) for adults, C$9 ($7.65) for seniors, and C$6 ($5.10) for children ages 5 to 17. Discount admission packages that also include entrance to the nearby Botanical Garden, Insectarium and Montréal Tower are available; check the website for details on the various package offerings.

I'm a major fan of botanical gardens, and the 185-acre Montréal Botanical Garden, 4101 Sherbrooke Street East (tel. 514/872-1400; www.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin) is one of the largest and finest I've ever toured. It's home to over 22,000 species of plants and is open year-round, though it's best visited during fall, spring, and summer, when the outdoor gardens are in bloom. Highlights of the over 40 gardens and greenhouses you'll find on the premises include the beautifully landscaped Chinese Garden; the peaceful Japanese Garden; the colorful Orchid Conservatory, the Garden of Weedlessness, filled with miniature Chinese penjing trees; the First Nations Garden, which highlights Inuit and Amerindian knowledge of plants; and the Arboretum, which offers exceptionally beautiful fall foliage viewing. Admission during high season (mid-May through October) costs C$11.75 ($10) for adults, C$9 ($7.65) for seniors, and C$6 ($5.10) for children ages 5 to 17.

Adjacent to the Botanical Garden (and included in its admission price), is the Insectarium, 4581 Sherbrooke Street East (tel. 514/872-1400; www.ville.montreal.qc.ca/insectarium), an insightful and well-presented look at the world of entomology that's a major hit with the kid set. I'm no fan of creepy crawlers, but even I found this two-level museum worth a quick look.

Hunting for Bargains

The favorable exchange for U.S. travelers means you're guaranteed a discount on prices in Montréal stores, but don't expect too much of a bargain when shopping in the city. The quality of merchandise is generally high and prices don't differ that much from any major metropolis. Thanks to the sizeable VAT (15% -- and unlike the VAT in Europe, the one in Canada is not included in the price tag), you won't pay that much less for items than you will at home. You can, of course, redeem part of the VAT upon leaving Canada. If you plan on making major purchases in Montréal, be sure to pick up the Tax Refund for Visitors brochure available at the airport, tourist info centers, and many shops around town.

Also available at the airport and tourist info centers is the Official Shopping Guide of Montréal, which describes various shopping opportunities throughout the city and features a very good map of the Underground City, a subterranean shopping bonanza of more than 1,500 stores, cafes and fast-food joints, where you can mall-hop without every hitting the streets (a big plus in bad weather). The guide includes some decent discount shopping coupons for Visa cardholders.

If you like to window shop, take a stroll down rue St. Catherine, which is home to a plethora of shopping malls. The malls are linked to Montréal's famous Underground City. Top department stores include La Baei a.k.a The Bay (www.labaie.com), Les Ailes de la Mode (www.lesailes.com), Centre Eaton de Montréal (www.centreeatondemontreal.com), and Place Montréal Trust (www.placemontrealtrust.com).

You can also browse to you heart's content in the boutiques tucked in along the narrow streets of Vieux Montréal. While you're in the area, pop into the shops inside the Marché Bonsecours (www.marchebonsecours.qc.ca), an atmospheric retail center housed in a domed building that was once home to Canada's parliament.

Nightlife in Montréal

Montréal's tempo keeps a steady beat, even after the sun goes down. For good info on the city's nightlife, check out Tourisme Montréal's website (www.tourisme-Montreal.org), or www.montrealplus.ca. Another helpful info source is Montréal Scope, a free weekly booklet filled with events info, club listings, and other useful items; it's available at the tourist offices and at many hotels and attractions in the city.

The city's best English-language theater, the Centaur Theatre, rue 453 Saint-Fran¿ois-Xavier (tel. 514/288-3161; www.centaurtheatre.com), is offering a 2005/2006 line-up that includes several premieres by notable Canadian playwrights. Tickets range from C$26 to C$41.50.

As this was written, the world-class Montréal Symphony Orchestra (www.osm.ca) was in the midst of a labor dispute that resulted in the cancellation of its September schedule. Talks between management and the performers were ongoing, so check the website to see if the orchestra is up and running when you're in town. Placido Domingo is scheduled to guest-conduct in November.

For a good martini (over 50 varieties to choose from -- the chocolate one is pretty tasty) and live music in a retro atmosphere, head to the Latin Quarter's Jello Bar, 151 rue Ontario est (www.jellobar.com). Thursday's, in L'Hotel de la Montagne, 1430 rue de la Montagne (www.thursdaysbar.com) is a veteran "meet" market for professionals that features an upstairs pub and a downstairs dance club. The immense bi-level Club Dome, 32 rue St. Catherine (www.clubdome.com), offers state-of-the-art lighting, a number of bars and lounge areas, and a great sound system. For trendy chic (and a strictly "cool set" fashion code), head to the aptly named Upper Club, 3519 Blvd. Saint Laurent.

A Capital Adventure in Ottawa

Canada's capital is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2005 and has never been more attractive to visitors. Set right between very Francophone Quebec and Anglophone Ontario (and within easy reach of most of the northeastern and mid-western U.S.), bi-lingual Ottawa is a hidden gem with an almost split personality-half government metropolis, half charming town. After a couple of days spent exploring its many offerings, I was struck by the city's resemblance to two other capitals: Like Washington D.C., it is the site of Canada's government and many of its national museums and heritage attractions; and like Victoria, British Columbia, it is a charming walker's paradise set off a major waterway, with parks and gardens seemingly tucked in every corner. Unlike those two cities, however, Ottawa's managed to stay (undeservedly) off the major tourist radar, so it's not as crowded other major Canadian tourism centers. And thanks to the U.S. dollar's continuing strength in Canada, it offers great value to U.S. travelers on a budget.

Places to Stay

As Canada's capital, Ottawa is very much a government town, so you can usually get seriously discounted rates at hotels here on weekends, when politicians and business travelers exit en masse. In addition, Tourism Ottawa (tel. 866/644-1234 or 613/599-0279; www.ottawatourism.ca) is offering a selection of excellent package deals through December 31. Depending on the package you choose (they start at C$111/$95 per person) you'll get 2 nights accommodations, admission to several major attractions and museums, discount shopping coupons, and several other extras.

The main draw of the Novotel Ottawa, 33 Nicholas St. (tel. 800/668-6835 or 613/230-3033; www.novotelottawa.com), is its excellent central location, just a block away from the Rideau Centre and the Byward Market, and a short walk from many of downtown Ottawa's major attractions. The cheerful rooms are a bit small, but are in good condition and offer the usual array of amenities you'd find in a business-class hotel. Note that you can often get good deals on this hotel through its website and the major online hotel discounters (I got a room here for a mere $75 a night during the summer high season).

I love historic hotels and often despair at the new wave of chic minimalist lodgings springing up everywhere, most of which have all of the charm of a hospital room. If you also like your hotels to sport a little character (and your budget is plentiful), then the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, 1 Rideau St. (tel. 800/441-1414 or 613/241-1414; www.fairmont.com), an Ottawa icon and local institution (the hotel opened in 1912), will delight. The location -- right off the Rideau Canal, across from Parliament Hill -- can't be beat, and the level of service is appropriately up there. The hotel's elegant public rooms evoke the early 1900s (worth a look, even if you don't end up staying here), the indoor pool still sports its original Art Deco styling, and the guest rooms feature an old-style Victorian decor (though you'll also find all the usual modern amenities). The comfortable guest rooms range in size from small to spacious. If it's in your budget, opt for a roomy Deluxe room with a view of Parliament Hill (C$249/$212 to C$279/$237), or one of the recently renovated Fairmont Gold rooms (C$299/$254 to C$329/$279), which features such added amenities as DVD players, evening canapés, and free breakfast. The hotel offers several discount packages on its website.

If the Chateau Laurier is out of your pocketbook range, a lower-priced indulgence is the afternoon tea offered at the hotel's Zoé's Lounge. The elegant and ever-so-civilized event offers a choice of three different categories of tea, ranging from the Traditional English (C$24/$20.50) to the Champagne (C$49/$42). If the prices seem high, they are almost half of what you'd pay for a comparable experience in London, but no less authentic. Once you select one of 13 loose teas (wheeled to you for inspection on an antique tea cart by a white-coated server), you'll feast on finger sandwiches, yummy teacakes, and incredibly good scones. Reservations are required (tel. 613/241-1414); ask for a table with a view over Rideau Street and you'll be treated to great people watching.

Hitting the Top Attractions

Ottawa is home to a plethora of world-class museums and historic attractions. You could spend 3 days here and only scratch the surface of the city's many offerings.

Whether you choose to explore on your own or by guided tour, I highly recommend stopping in at the Capital Infocentre, 90 Wellington St. (www.canadascapital.gc.ca), just across the street from Parliament Hill. It's loaded with brochures (the most useful being the latest issue of Where Ottawa -- be sure to grab a copy), maps, and other tourist information. Interactive terminals here will help you customize a touring itinerary, there's a short video presentation that gives you a rundown of the city's major attractions, and a friendly and expert staff is on hand to answer questions.

If you have limited time in the city, I recommend taking Gray Line's hop-on/hop-off "Discover the Capital Tour" (tel. 800/297-6422 or 613/565-5463; www.Grayline.ca/Ottawa). The company's double-deckers and trolleys stop at more than 15 of the city's top sights (including some of the outlying attractions that aren't within walking distance of the downtown core), and the tour guides (most of them enthusiastic and well-informed locals) offer up lots of fun and useful tidbits along the route. And the price is right: Tickets are good for two days and cost C$30 ($25.50) adults, C$27 ($23) seniors, C$20 ($17) children 5 to 11, and C$85 ($72.50) for a family of 4. Tours depart from the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe streets, a block south of Parliament Hill.

It's not quite the Palace of Westminster, but the Neo-Gothic architecture on Parliament Hill is photogenic, and the central Peace Tower (with it's enormous clock face) does remind one of Big Ben. Composed of the East, West, and Centre blocks, the Hill is home to the Canadian legislature and dominates the landscape of downtown Ottawa. A walk of the grounds here is a must and a very enjoyable experience; a booklet featuring a self-guided walking tour of Parliament Hill is available at the Visitor Welcome Centre at the base of the Peace Tower or at the Capital Infocentre across the street. Free guided tours of the interiors (the Senate and House chambers, and a few historic rooms) are offered (from September through May, head to the Visitor Welcome Centre to book a same-day, timed-ticket tour -- arrive early because tickets are limited). Note, however, that schedules often change at a whim, some areas can be closed to visitors at various times in the year, and security is understandably tight (be prepared for lines). For up-to-date information, check www.parl.gc.ca. If you're pressed for time, a I'd skip the interior tours. Tip: If you do nothing else, walk behind the Centre Block for a fabulous view of the Ottawa River.

Do take the time to walk along the Rideau Canal, the historic 125-mile waterway that runs through the center of Ottawa before making its way to Kingston, Ontario. Though the canal makes for scenic strolling (and some good photo-ops) year-round, it's especially picturesque in winter, when it turns into the world's largest skating rink. Fun Fact: Many visitors assume, wrongly, that the canal (and the many other places in Ottawa that bear the name Rideau) was named for some historic personage. In actuality, as amused locals like to point out, the name game started in 1613, when explorer Samuel de Champlain thought the waterfall that emptied the canal's waters into the Ottawa River looked like his living room curtains (rideau is French for curtain) and named it accordingly.

I have only a superficial interest in military history but, the Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place (tel. 800/555-5621 or 819/776-8600; www.warmuseum.ca), opened in May 2005, was a major surprise. This exceptionally well-curated museum ended up one of my absolute favorite experiences in the city. Set on the western edge of downtown Ottawa (a nice walk in good weather from Parliament Hill), the museum examines the impact of war on a personal, national and global level through the use of artifacts, art, interactive displays, a huge number of military vehicles and weaponry, and video presentations. The museum is both emotionally affecting and educational. It's also an architectural wonder in its own right -- a lot of careful planning went into the environmentally sensitive structure (part of the building is made of recycled copper from Canada's Library of Parliament), which is constructed so that each year at 11am on Remembrance Day (November 11), the sun illuminates the headstone of Canada's Unknown Soldier in the museum's Memorial Hall. And if you look at the North Fin on the exterior, you'll find the words "Lest We Forget" inscribed in Morse Code (in true Ottawa fashion, it's spelled out in both French and English). Admission is C$10 ($8.50) adults, C$7 ($6) seniors, C$4 ($3.40) children 4 to 12, C$22 ($18.75) for families; admission is half-price on Sunday and free on Thursdays from 4pm to 9pm.

The Museum of Civilization, 100 Laurier St. (tel. 800-555-5621 or 819/776-7000; www.civilization.ca), housed in an architectural wonder designed by Douglas Cardinal (who also designed the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian) is deservedly Canada's most visited museum. It's also the largest, and I easily spent half a day here wandering the various exhibits. The First Nations displays (including the world's largest indoor collection of totem poles) are first-rate. Other highlights include the Canadian Postal Museum (who knew stamps could be so entertaining?); the amazing Canada Hall, which lets you walk through exhibits charting 1,000 years of Canadian social history; a fabulous interactive children's museum; and an IMAX theater. And the two very friendly Canadian Mounties posing for snapshots near the ticket office were quite the hot ticket as well. Admission to the museum only costs C$10 ($8.50) adults, C$7 ($6) seniors, C$4 ($3.40) children 4 to 12, C$22 ($18.75) for families; admission to the museum and an IMAX film costs C$17 ($14.50) adults, C$14 ($12) seniors, C$10 ($8.50) children 4 to 12, C$50 ($42.60) for families. Discount packages that also include entry to the Canadian War Museum are available.

You can't miss the 30-foot bronze spider that marks the entrance plaza to The National Gallery of Canada, 380 Sussex Drive (tel. 800/319-2787 or 613/ 990-1985; www.national.gallery.ca), home to the world's largest collection of Canadian art, as well as numerous American, European, and Inuit works. Highlights include the reconstructed interior of the 18th-century Rideau Street convent chapel; the Modern Art collection (you'll find paintings by Dali, Mondrian, and Warhol); a wonderful selection of Group of Seven works; the Renaissance Era paintings (including works by Bronzino and Lotto); and the Impressionists collection, which includes works by van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Cezanne. The temporary exhibitions here are usually worth the extra admission fee (a well-staged exhibition of British drawings is on view until November 20, and includes works by Turner, Constable, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti). Admission to the permanent collection costs C$6 ($5.10) adults, C$5 ($4.25) seniors, C$3 ($2.55) children ages 12 to 19, and C$12 for a family of 5.

The castle like quarters of the Canadian Museum of Nature, 240 McLeod Street (tel. 800/263-4433 or 613/566-4700; www.nature.ca), are currently in the midst of a major renovation (not projected to finish until 2009). The museum, however, is closing its exhibits on a rotating basis so that some remain open during the refit. In addition to diorama displays of native Canadian animals, a great special exhibit (open until March 2006) on Ice Age Mammals is well worth seeing -- be sure to view the accompanying High Definition video presentation in the museum's theater (the video runs at scheduled times throughout the day -- check the schedule upon entry or call in advance). Best of all for budget travelers, museum admission is currently by suggested donation only, so a visit here won't be hard on your wallet.

If you've ever wanted to lay your hands on a pure bar of gold (it's heavy!), head to the Royal Canadian Mint, 320 Sussex Dr. (tel. 800/276-7714 or 613/993-8990; www.mint.ca/royalcanadianmintpublic). This is the original branch of the Mint, founded in 1908 and housed in a veritable castle. Not only can you lay your hands (alas, temporarily) on that gold bar, but you can also take a tour that gives visitors an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the making of collectors' coins (minting for general circulation takes place in Winnipeg). The boutique on the top floor sells some of the merchandise you'll see being made on the floor (and the salespeople are both knowledgeable and affable). Tours cost C$3 ($2.55) adults, children under 6 enter free; admission is half-price on weekends. Tip: Head here in the late morning or early afternoon on weekdays if you want to see the craftsmen in action.

To Market, To Market

The charming ByWard Market (www.byward-market.com), established in 1826 by Ottawa-founder Col. John By, is the oldest continuing farmer's market in Canada. Set along cobblestone streets and courtyards just a block behind the Chateau Laurier, this bustling marketplace is the perfect place to pick up picnic supplies and local crafts. You can browse the market stalls and boutiques, have a meal at one of the many cafes, grab a beer at one of the bars or nightclubs, or just people watch.

Tip: If you do have the munchies while you're strolling the market, head straight to the BeaverTails stand (www.beavertailsinc.com) at the corner of George and Williams streets. The yummy BeaverTail -- a large, sweet, whole-wheat pastry shaped like a beaver's tail -- comes in many flavors, though you can't go wrong with the traditional version topped with cinnamon and sugar. Don't leave town without trying one.

If you prefer more traditional shopping, try the Rideau Center, 50 Rideau St. (www.rideaucentre.net), a giant mall right off the market, in the heart of downtown. The center features 170 stores, restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and a movie theater. If you want to pick up a cheap souvenir, your best bet is to head to the Sparks Street Mall, Canada's oldest pedestrian shopping street, set between Elgin and Lyon streets.

After Dark: Ghosts and Gargleblasters

Like a good ghost story? Try one of the evening tours run by Haunted Walks Inc., 73 Clarence Street (tel. 613/232-0344; www.hauntedwalk.com). On the 90-minute Original Haunted Walk, a black-caped, lantern-carrying guide serves up a plethora of well-researched stories about ghoulies, ghosties and other spirits that reportedly haunt various locations in downtown Ottawa. It won't necessarily make a believer out of skeptics, but it's fairly entertaining, good for families (the kids on my tour were enthralled), and a fun way to stroll the city after dark (you cover about 1.5 miles). Other tours focus on haunted pubs, the Carleton County Jail, and other supernatural aspects of the city. Special Halloween tours are offered in late October. Tours range from C$10 to C$15 ($8.50 to $12.80) adults, C$10 to $12 seniors ($8.50 to $10.20), and C$5 ($4.25) for children (note, however, that children aren't allowed on any of the pub walks). Tours depart from the company's ticket booth at Sparks and Elgin streets.

If club hopping is more to your taste, head for the ByWard Market area, where you'll find a number of hip nightspots. Chief among them is Zaphod Beeblebrox, 27 York St., (www.zaphodbeeblebrox.com) an Ottawa institution named for a character in the cult-favorite The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (be sure to try a Pan Galactic Gargleblaster or one of the other spaced-out cocktails). This unpretentious and unflashy spot features live music, DJs, and the occasional A-list headliner (the Rolling Stones were shooting a video here when I was in town).

Thanks to its British underpinnings, Ottawa is home to a host of English-, Scottish- and Irish-inspired pubs. If you want to hoist a pint on your evening out, try the very English Earl of Sussex, 431 Sussex Dr., just across from the U.S. embassy and renowned for its large selection of beers and ales; or the often-crowded Heart & Crown, 67 Clarence St. (www.irishvillage.ca), which serves up live Celtic music and a huge variety of brews in the Byward Market's "Little Ireland." D'Arcy McGee's Irish Pub, 44 Sparks St. (www.darcymcgees.ca) was named for one of Canada's Founding Fathers (he was assassinated on the spot on which the pub now sits). Most often populated by tourists and politicos, this establishment features live Celtic music and a very authentic atmosphere (the handcrafted interiors were designed and built in the Emerald Isles).

If you like to court Lady Luck, you can head across the river to the Casino du Lac Leamy (www.casinos-quebec.com) in Gatineau. The restaurants are top-notch, and the casino's theater offers up well-staged musical reviews and headliners such as Jose Feliciano and Petula Clark. Unfortunately, the gaming facilities are nowhere in the same league as those you'll find in Vegas and the property itself isn't particularly glitzy -- though you may not find that a negative. The easiest (and cheapest) way to get here is via the public bus (C$3/$2.55 one-way) that makes several stops in downtown Ottawa before heading off to Gatineau (ask your hotel concierge to give you directions).

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