THE first time I was in Canada I was 18 year old. I spent a week in Vancouver playing basketball with the Dublin team.
For me it was like spending seven days in a movie -- cool kids, amazing city, Oreo biscuits and the biggest fridge ever in the house I was staying. I cried for two days when I got back, at one stage sobbing to my mother: "I HATE Dublin ... I waaaaant to live in Canada."
More than 20 years later, I was back in Canada for a holiday. This time headed to Ottawa and Kingston.
I had the funniest flight from Toronto to Ottawa. The air hostess started her safety announcement with, "If we get into difficulty you'll hear these words: 'Stop screaming and put the mask on.'" She was a hilarious introduction to Ottawa, the capital of Canada. There are close to a million people living there and it is rated with the second-highest standard of living of any large city in the Americas. No wonder the Irish are going in droves.
The first place I visited was Parliament Hill, where government sits. It is a stunning piece of architecture and you can take a terrific guided tour.
My favourite room was the library; a beautiful, large, circular room built in the mid 1800s. It houses 17 linear kilometres of books. The colours are magical -- old bound books giving off autumnal hues.
Eating out, tasting the local cuisine and finding local markets ensures that I always return from my holidays a fuller person. After 'The Hill', I tagged along on the C'est Bon Cooking Food Tour. We walked bout 2.5km and, during that time, we looked at food, we tasted food and we bought food to take away, too.
Ottawa has a wonderful food market, the ByWard Market, near the canal. Colonel John By, a British Military engineer, who essentially set up Ottawa, planned this market from day one. It is a fabulous place to stroll around and see what the farmers from outside the city have brought in.
The apple stall had cider, cider vinegar and apple wood chips for the barbecue. It seemed there was nothing an apple could not be a part of!
From the market we walked to many fabulous food outlets -- The Italian deli that is an Ottawa institution, the grungy Tea Store that sells more than 300 variations, and restaurant Play -- a trendy eaterie where you get two plates for $20, from steak tartare to yummy nachos.
If you visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization, you will learn about the 620 communities of indigenous Canadians who have different cultures, languages and traditions. Through installations, photos, paintings, artefacts and friendly, smart guides, you can learn about the changing relationship between Canada's First People, as they are respectfully known, and the settlers.
Religion, politics and racism have dealt the indigenous communities blow after blow, and the museum brings us a startling account of how they have dealt with it. You cannot but be moved.
Half an hour east of Ottawa, you can try white water rafting, while three and a half hours west is Algonquin Park -- a spectacular place of wildlife, lakes and seemingly unending beauty. But for the end of the holiday I ventured to Kingston, just an hour and a half drive from Ottawa.
Kingston was the original capital of Canada, but it was considered too vulnerable to American attack. It is a quaint town with old buildings and a garrison you can visit. The garrison is a little twee, but the 19th century soldiers who work there are actors and stay in character at all times, so you can giggle along with the experience.
There is a lovely hippy feel to the place, and I liked it.
After Kingston, I headed to the island of Prince Edward County, a 45-minute drive and a beautiful ferry crossing to a stunning small island, on which I now want to live.
The island encompasses less than 700 square kilometres and if there was ever a place that took you away from the worries of the world, Prince Edward County is it.