Family Travel: The CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada

VIA Train Ride to Toronto

This summer my family and I decided to take trips closer to home, so on the August long weekend we took the train to Toronto, Ontario. It was my daughter’s first time on the train and between the comfortable seats and free WiFi, she is already asking when we can take the train again!

Although we had driven through Toronto several times, we had never spent quality time there.  My daughter had heard about the CN Tower and has asked many times when she could see it. She had also heard a lot about Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and has wanted to see it for “years!” So, needless to say - she was excited for our trip to Toronto.

So, off we went. Our first must-see stop was the CN Tower. We went in the evening, which is a quieter time to go if you are trying to avoid lineups. They are open until 11 pm most nights, so later in the evening is a great time to watch the sun set and to admire the lights over the city of Toronto. The line ups during the day can be extremely long – and the line you see from the front doors is the security line (so have your bags, etc. ready to be checked).

CN Tower Toronto

Then there is another line once you purchase your Tower Experience tickets. This line can be up to another two hours, but you can purchase Timed General Admission for the Look Out Level, which gives you a specific date and time for an expedited trip up. I highly recommend this purchase – especially if you are travelling with young kids. You can purchase tickets online ahead of time as well, which is a great time saver.

We did not visit the SkyPod, but it definitely has the best views of the city as it is the highest observation level; however the floor to ceiling windows on the Look Out Level satisfied our ten year old’s curiosity level. The glass floor on the Look Out level was the biggest highlight for my daughter. She loved walking on it, sitting on it and kneeling on it - trying to make out what she was seeing below. She also thought it was cool to see the sharks that circle the roof of Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada.

IMG_5516.jpg
Glass Floor CN Tower Toronto

If you plan on visiting both the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, take a look at the “Sea to Sky” pass – it covers admission to both attractions at a lower price than paying for them separately.

View from the CN Tower Look Out

View from the CN Tower Look Out

We went to Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada first thing on a Saturday morning. If you go on a weekend or during a peak period, such as summer or March Break, I recommend going when doors open or in the evenings for a less crowded experience. The busiest hours are 11 am to 4 pm during peak dates, but even then, you will be in awe of this aquarium’s galleries and programming.

Jelly Fish - Ripley's Aquarium of Canada
Ripley's Aquarium of Canada

Although it may look small from the outside, this aquarium features sea life from all across the globe including Canadian waters. My daughter, who enjoys fishing, loved seeing a big bass swimming about in the Canadian Waters gallery. Between the Rainbow Reef gallery, which is filled with colourful tropical fish we had previously only seen in Disney movies, and the Dangerous Lagoon filled with a wide array of sharks, turtles and sting rays, this aquarium is a feast for the eyes! The moving floor in the Dangerous Lagoon moves you through a glass tunnel where visitors can watch ocean life in motion. You will feel like you’re truly underwater. We loved it so much we did the Dangerous Lagoon twice!

My daughter was curious as to why the sharks in the Dangerous Lagoon didn’t eat the other sea life. We asked a staff member who told us that the sharks are lazy and in the wild don’t eat very often, and because these sharks are in captivity they know they will be fed, so don’t feel a need to exert energy hunting when they know where their meals are coming from.

Dangerous Lagoon - Ripley's Aquarium of Canada

The aquarium experience comes with many educational facts, displays and an interesting “Life Support Systems” gallery that teaches visitors how they keep the tanks clean and the fish and other creatures healthy.

Shark at Ripley's Aquarium of Canada

Visitors of all ages will love Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. There is so much to see, do and learn while there. It’s definitely an attraction I can see myself returning to!

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada

When was the last time you took a trip up the CN Tower? Have you visited the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada recently? Share some of your favourite memories from two of Toronto’s biggest tourist attractions with us – we’d love to know!  

**Special thanks to CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium for their hospitality and assistance in writing this post. Views are my own. 

 

Family Travel: A Trip to Washington DC

KITC would like to welcome back guest blogger, Stephen Johnson.. Stephen Johnson is an Ottawa writer who loves to write about family travel.  During the summer, you will most likely find him and his family at a local fair or festival.  During the winter, a beach in Mexico is a likely bet.  

National Air and Space Museum

National Air and Space Museum

It is impossible to see everything that Washington DC has to offer in one, two or even three trips. The number of museums and historical monuments is simply overwhelming. Our family recently took a trip to DC and here are a few of our tips and highlights to maximize your time.

The best way to get around DC is by metro or bus. The first thing you will want to do is buy a SmarTrip card which you can load up for rides on the Metro or bus. A great way to get around the national mall is by city bus known as the DC circulator. For one dollar, the bus will take you to most of the major sites including the Smithsonian museums and monuments.

For a more in-depth visit to the city, our family would recommend taking the BigBus Washington DC It is a hop-on hop-off bus service that has three routes. We took all three routes and felt we had a much better appreciation of the city. The bus routes are enhanced by audio guides that give an explanation of the sites.

National Air and Space Museum

National Air and Space Museum

Most people visit DC for all the great museums. All of the Smithsonian museums are free and most do not need any advance reservations. We made it to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. Both museums could warrant an entire day on their own.

We decided to also visit two museums that had an admission fee since they looked so interesting. We started at the Spy Museum which aptly covers all things about spies. The museum presented the material in a fun and hands-on manner making it accessible for all ages. By the end of the visit, I didn’t know who might be watching me!

The second museum we checked out was the Newseum. As you might imagine, the Newseum is all about all things news and how the news is reported. Outside the museum, a visitor is greeted by cover stories from newspapers around the United States and the world. We started our visit by checking out the Berlin Wall display. The exhibit has the largest unaltered portion of the wall outside of Germany. It was a great introduction for our son, David, to history before he was born.

Photo of Berlin Wall at Newseum

Photo of Berlin Wall at Newseum

We then moved on to the terrace that gave a stunning view of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capital building. The day we visited, there was a vibrant bbq festival taking place on the Avenue reminding us that DC is a city outside of just museums and politics.

Terrace at Newseum

Terrace at Newseum

Other highlights of the Newseum included the Pulitizer Prize Photographs Gallery and the News Corporation News History gallery that gave a chronological overview of how we have collected and shared the news through the centuries.

I would recommend the museum for adults and older children who are interested in current events. David is interested in history and politics thus the Newseum was a perfect fit.

One last tip I will share is eating in the U.S. capital. Near the national mall and the Smithsonian museums, it can be difficult to find an abundance of restaurants. Most museums do have food options but we did not try any. We really liked going to Union Station which is a completely remodelled train station. It has many food and shopping choices plus, it has the splendour of a turn-of-the-century train station.

A great place to start any trip-planning for Washington DC is at Destination DC: www.washington.org

David received assistance from Destination DC for the purpose of this article; all views are his own.

A Surprise Staycation at Bookstreet Hotel

The last-minute planning for a staycation started when a pre-planned long weekend trip to Washington was cancelled and my entire family was disappointed. All of us were looking forward to getting away.

My husband and I scoured the internet for ideas on what we could do that were not too far away and that wouldn’t cost a lot of money (we’re still counting on a trip away-away sometime soon!). I then remembered the Brookstreet Hotel. Located in Kanata North, my daughter had taken swim lessons there through Aqua Life Swim Academy and absolutely adores the place (especially the outdoor musical instruments located outside the hotel’s front door). So, I went online and took a look at what they had to offer.

Brookstreet Hotel

Without hesitation, I booked the “Summer Family Package” – the perfect family getaway package!

We didn’t tell my daughter what we were doing. Instead, my husband and I secretly packed our overnight bags (including our swimsuits!) and late Friday afternoon, I told her she and I had to run out and pick something up for her dad at the Brookstreet Hotel. As I mentioned, she adores the place and was eager to go back, even if it was just to pick up a package for her dad. When we got there, I told her we had to go to a certain floor to get the package. When we arrived at the room, my husband was already there and left the door a bit ajar, so I just walked in and said, “Hi! How are you?” My daughter was confused and initially did not want to leave the hallway, but then slowly made her way in when she heard her dad’s voice.

She was still confused, but then noticed the suitcase and a Brookstreet backpack on a bed and excitedly asked, “Are we staying here? REALLY?! YAY!” And then jumped up on her bed to take a look at her complimentary backpack that included a Brookstreet water bottle (which is valid for free soft drinks when dining in Options, Perspectives or Ironstone Grill) and tokens for the hotel’s Zone 525 Games Room. The games room features an interactive floor game, arcade games, video games and a movie theatre!

Golf course view

My daughter could hardly wait to change into her swimsuit and head to the Brookstreet’s outdoor AND indoor salt water pools. We spent a long-time swimming that evening – the water in both the indoor and outdoor pools is so warm, you won’t want to leave!

Brookstreet Hotel Pools

Once we were done swimming, we headed back to our room, but not before my daughter was greeted by Buzz, the hotel’s mascot. At nine, she was trying not to be excited, but she had a hard time not smiling when she saw him. Buzz can be found buzzing around between the hotel’s lobby and the Flex Fitness Studio a few times during weekends, which is a fun addition to any family’s stay!

Brookstreet Hotel Indoor Pool

After a quiet and comfortable night’s sleep we enjoyed a delicious breakfast buffet at Perspectives. This breakfast is not your typical hotel breakfast – think smoked salmon, waffles, fresh fruit salad, gourmet cheeses, yogurts, pastries, bagels, and so, so much more!

After breakfast we headed to Blackbird Falls Mini Putt for a fun 18-hole game. My daughter liked this course because it looks easy, but it is actually challenging (she also loves that there is so many ‘water holes’).  

Black Falls Mini Putt Brookstreet

We then went to the games room where my daughter used her tokens to play the “grabby thingy” and won three stuffies – much to my chagrin. Afterward, we headed back to the pools, well, I sat in the whirlpool tubs… and then in the sauna.

We also took a look at the outdoor ping pong table, outdoor chess and chequers tables near the outdoor pool area, as well as the kids play rockers. Needless to say, a family with kids of all ages could easily spend a weekend – if not more at the Brookstreet Hotel.

Families can also look into various activities that take place during the weekend. The weekend we stayed, there was a movie night being hosted on Friday night in Zone 525 (the games room) as well as an ice cream inspired “B Creative” craft Saturday morning. The hotel also offers complimentary bicycles, helmets, locks and cycling trail maps for all guests!

Zone 525 Brookstreet


The Summer Family Hotel Package includes so much, it is truly unlike any other hotel I have stayed at and it really felt like we got away – even if we live just minutes down the road. The package includes:

  • One night’s accommodation
  • Family Pass for Blackbird Falls Mini Putt
  • A ‘Brookstreet Backpack’ for each child including:
    • A Water Bottle (Free soft drinks when dining in Options, Perspectives or Ironstone Grill)
    • A Surprise Kids Activity
    • Tokens for the Zone 525 Games Room
    • 15% discount in in Perspectives Restaurant, Options Jazz Lounge or Ironstone Grill (a voucher is given at check in that can be used throughout your stay)
    • A Freezie or Popsicle for each child (a voucher is given at check in to pick up the treat from the B café)
  • Access to their indoor and outdoor saltwater pools, including a kid’s wading pool
  • High-speed WiFi
  • Parking in their secure underground garage

We will definitely return to the Brookstreet for another staycation – my husband and I are also looking into indulging in the Couples Getaway package!

Have you stayed at the Brookstreet Hotel before? What was your favourite part?  

Marshes Golf Course BrookStreet Hotel

Visiting the Montreal Biodome

My family loves weekend road trips. My daughter loves staying in hotels (especially those with pools) and more so, she loves exploring new places – and we love surprising her. So, we recently surprised her with a weekend road trip to Montreal.

The focus of our trip was the Montreal Biodome. My daughter loves animals, nature and loves learning about different habitats, so we knew she would love the Biodome. We had heard it was a great place to bring kids and was the kind of educational, interactive activity that would keep nature-loving kids busy all day.

Montreal Biodome

The Biodome, the Insectarium, the Botanical Garden and the Planetarium make up what is called the Montreal Space for Life, which is the largest natural science complex in Canada. It is situated in Montreal’s 1976 Olympic Park, which my husband and I found fascinating on its own. We spent most of our time trying to figure out which event was held where before looking it up on the Internet.

What is the Biodome?

The Montreal Biodome has four different ecosystems– the Laurentian Maple Forest, a Tropical Rainforest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Sub-polar regions. Within each are plants and animals native to each ecosystem. There are also interactive tablets and signage that explains what a particular animal or plant is and how they fit into that particular ecosystem.

Under the St. Lawrence

Under the St. Lawrence

You start your journey through the Biodome by walking through the rainforest, which is quite warm and humid. If you look up you will find sloths sleeping in trees, tamarins and marmosets swinging from branch to branch, and numerous tropical birds singing and flying about. 

The rainforest was my daughter’s favourite ecosystem because it was a “where’s Waldo” of trying to locate the different species that were housed there. There were also a variety of tropical plants and flowers, many of which we were encouraged to touch and smell.

A Capybara calls the Rainforest in Montreal's Biodome home.

A Capybara calls the Rainforest in Montreal's Biodome home.

Following the rainforest you are led into what can be a much chillier eco-system depending on the time of year you visit – the Laurentian Maple Forest. We were at the Biodome in late fall, so this area was the same temperature as outside, which was quite a shock after being in a hot rainforest. The animals here are more familiar to us Eastern Canada folk, but it’s a great place to get up close with some of our local wildlife, such as the porcupine, Canada lynx and the raccoon.  Our favourite part of this area was the river otter that was so curious and playful he constantly wanted to jump and swim and see who was there to watch him. He was adorable and was definitely a memorable part of our day.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence was a fascinating area for those interested in sea life including seeing how big an Atlantic Sturgeon really is! The shore part of this area had birds swooping right over our heads (watch out for bird poop!) and in the underwater area we were able to see sea urchins and jelly fish as though we were at a larger aquarium.

Sea star

Sea star

The area I was most amazed at was the sub-polar region. Although it wasn’t as large as the other areas it had two of my favourite species – Atlantic puffins and penguins. I had never seen a penguin in person before so it was fascinating watching them dive, swim and waddle around.

Sleeping penguin in the sub-polar ecosystem in Montreal's Biodome

Sleeping penguin in the sub-polar ecosystem in Montreal's Biodome

All said and done there are more than 200 hundred species living in the Biodome. I hate seeing animals in captivity and really hope these animals were rescued or bred in captivity… but to be honest, I don’t know. All of the animals do look well cared for and their habitats are clean.

We would definitely go back to the Biodome. My daughter had a great time there and her only wish is that it was bigger. In addition to the ecosystems there is also a room downstairs called the “Naturalia” where kids can learn more about the animals from each ecosystem. My daughter liked this room because there was a skull of a two-tusk narwhal, which apparently is pretty rare.

Puffins

Puffins

The Biodome isn’t open late (which I hope is to give the animals a rest). The price point is reasonable in comparison to other science centres and zoos. Adults are $19.75 each plus tax and children ages 5 to 17 are $10 each plus tax. Residents of Quebec cost a little less and their also family rates available.

In addition to the Biodome, we also went to the Insectarium, which was part of a package price, but was nearly the same price as the Biodome. After being at the Biodome, where we learned so much and saw so much, the Insectarium was a disappointment. It was quite small and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa houses similar displays of encased bugs and overall, we left feeling as though we didn’t see anything we hadn’t already seen before. After the many interactive and live exhibits at the Biodome, the stationary exhibits at the Insectarium seemed to repeat themselves over and over again. Next time we will visit the Planetarium instead, as we have heard great things about it.

Colourful Bugs at Montreal's Insectarium

Colourful Bugs at Montreal's Insectarium

The Olympic Park was under construction when we went and the weather wasn’t ideal for walking around too much, but all of the Space for Life buildings are within a 10-minute walking distance and you can even go up the Montreal Tower, which is 165 meters, for a birds eye view of Montreal. I would love to go back in the summer and explore the Botanical Gardens as well, which apparently has over 30 impressive outdoor gardens and greenhouses. You could easily spend a day or two exploring Montreal’s Olympic Park.

Tips for an easy trip to the Biodome:

1) Pack a lunch and snacks – there is a café and cafeteria on site, but the prices aren’t great and the food isn’t the most child-friendly (at least it wasn’t when we were there).

2) Bring a twoonie for the locker – if you are travelling in winter, do yourself a favour and put your winter coats, etc. in a paid locker. It will make exploring the rainforest ecosystem a lot more comfortable and enjoyable.

3) Use your GPS and plan your route – we found finding parking confusing, so thank goodness for our GPS! And Google Maps. If you’re a planner and like to know where you are going then don’t forget your GPS (or Siri) – it will make travelling around Montreal much easier, especially during rush hour.

4) Know their hours - like many museums, the Biodome is typically closed on Mondays (the exception being some holidays).

Prince Edward Island: Canada’s Family Vacation Hotspot

Confederation bridge

Confederation bridge

My husband and I fell in love with Prince Edward Island long before we said our matrimonial “I dos” in Brackley Beach twelve years ago. When we visited the island as a couple, we would read all day long on the many picturesque beaches and take in as many lobster suppers as we could. Now that we are parents, and St. Ann’s Lobster Suppers is no longer in operation, our trips to Prince Edward Island have changed to become more family oriented.

If you are planning on taking a family vacation to Prince Edward Island, I promise that you will instantly fall in love with the rolling hills, friendly locals and of course, the red sand and red dirt. Every one who visits the island has their own unique experience. For my family it is in a quiet, private cottage overlooking the sand dunes of Brackley Beach and includes a lot time on the beach and eating a lot of fresh seafood (so, maybe not that much has changed over the years). ;)

Based on my most recent trip to the island, here are some tips on where to eat, where to play and where to take pictures while in Prince Edward Island:

Where to Eat in PEI (in the summer)

Many restaurants on Prince Edward Island are seasonal (only open during tourist season), meaning their food is fresh and full of local flair!

I am a huge fan of Richard’s Fresh Seafood located in Stanhope within Prince Edward Island National Park. Their lobster roll is good, but so is their scallop burger and fish sandwich! And if you like local PEI potatoes – well, you get a lot of homemade fries with every order.

But if you are looking for mussels, I highly suggest the Blue Mussel Café in North Rustico. Their mussels are cooked to perfection! And their appetizers are delicious – especially their Seafood Chowder Poutine.

Our favourite lunch spot is the PEI Preserve Company in New Glasgow. Their homemade preserves and scones are second to none. Top that with a cute view of the Gardens of Hope and River Clyde and you will instantly fall into vacation mode. They also have 40 types of tea from all over the world – perfect if you’re a tea drinker.

Top left - me sipping beer from PEI brewing company at the blue mussel cafe; from bottom left to top right: pei preserve company, dorion's fisheries; olde village bakery in north rustico; richard's fresh seafood and a wall in blue mussel cafe.

Top left - me sipping beer from PEI brewing company at the blue mussel cafe; from bottom left to top right: pei preserve company, dorion's fisheries; olde village bakery in north rustico; richard's fresh seafood and a wall in blue mussel cafe.

While in New Glasgow, make a reservation (no really, MAKE A RESERVATION) for supper at The Mill in New Glasgow. The chef, Emily Wells, is award winning and her dishes are sure to thrill your palate – in particular the must-try Lobster Pad Thai. My daughter loved the views from this place as it too over looks the River Clyde.

You’re probably wondering when I am going to mention lobster suppers. I’m not. As I mentioned, my favourite was St. Ann’s Suppers, which was lobster supper served in the basement of a Catholic Church with incredible mile-high pie for dessert, but they have since closed up shop and while New Glasgow Lobster Suppers are popular, they are not for us.

Cooking lobster

Cooking lobster

Instead, I highly recommend heading to Doiron Fisheries in North Rustico and buying fresh lobster and cooking it yourself! It’s fun for the whole family! Or if cooking lobster is not for you, Doiron’s also sells it cooked. They also sell fresh fish, scallops and mussels.

Once you have your fresh PEI lobster, go to the Olde Village Bakery in North Rustico and pick up some homemade potato salad and buns (and pie) and then go back to your cottage and enjoy your own lobster supper in comfort. Seriously. You won’t regret it.

What to do

From golfing to kayaking, there is something for everyone in PEI, including spending a lot of time at the beaches (of course). Besides the beach, are a few family favourites:

Hiking or Biking

robinson's island, PEI

robinson's island, PEI

This year my family and I brought our mountain bikes with us. Every morning we ventured to the trails around the island’s National Park. Our absolute favourite is Robinson’s Island. A 5 km loop, there are moguls and obstacles for the young (and the young at heart) as well as gorgeous views of great blue herons, bald eagles, foxes and more! You can also walk or bike the old road that leads straight to the beach on Robinson’s Island where you may find big seashells and washed up treasures like buoys, seaglass and driftwood.

Green Gables

Anne of green gables

Anne of green gables

If this is your first trip to PEI then you have to visit the house at Green Gables. You just do. It’s full of history and of course everything Anne, but it’s also fun for the kids – especially because they may get to meet Anne herself!

Because it’s owned by the National Parks there is often fun programming taking place. This year when we visited they had a bilingual scavenger hunt for kids, which was a fun, interactive way to encourage the kids to read and learn about L.M. Montgomery and the island. When they are done the scavenger hunt, kids can hand in their books and receive a free memento from their time at Green Gables.

In addition to the house there are also trails to walk and explore. A perfect way to spend a good part of a day!

Shining Waters & Sandspit Amusement Park

If you are on the island for more than a couple of days invest in a weekly pass to Shining Waters and Sandspit. Shining Waters is the island’s water park and although it’s not as big as some of the monstrosities elsewhere in Canada, it is perfect for a fun filled day or even a couple of hours of cooling off and having fun. There is a roller coaster and rides for kids of all ages (although I would say 12 and under would probably have the most fun). The water slides are fast and guaranteed to make even the most over-tired of child smile (believe me, I know).

Sandspit is the island’s amusement park. There is a Ferris wheel, roller coaster and other fun rides. We spent a lot of evenings there just so my daughter and her friend could run around and eat cotton candy without getting sand in it.

You can purchase a weekly pass that covers both of these parks, which makes spending an hour or two there every day feasible, and believe me your kids will love it! After all, family vacations are about the kids having fun and making memories!

From top left: roller coaster at SandSPIT, BRACKley beach, brackley drive-in theatre and the ferris wheel at sandspit

From top left: roller coaster at SandSPIT, BRACKley beach, brackley drive-in theatre and the ferris wheel at sandspit

Brackley Drive-In

The Brackley Drive-In is the island’s only drive-in theatre, and it is a great one! It’s clean, well taken care of, and is easy to get in and out of.

Drive to the town of Brackley Beach and get ready to see some classic 1950s cars, listen to some classic 1950s tunes before the show and then get ready for one or two in-theatre movies! There is a playground at the theatre to occupy kids until the movie starts and of course there is a canteen on site as well – and treat prices are very reasonable! Gates open at 8 p.m. and there is a $1 off coupon on their website, oh and ticket prices include a soft drink! This is seriously my favourite drive-in theatre in Canada.

Where to take pictures

Beaches

Island crab

All of them, but if you’re looking for red cliffs try the Argyle Shore (south side of the island) or Cavendish on the north shore (go in the evening or first thing in the morning for pictures without people).

If you’re looking for sand dunes, try Brackley Beach near the Covehead Lighthouse or Greenwich Beach.

If you’re looking for waves crashing against sand, try Basin Head in Eastern PEI, en route to the town of Souris.

Scenary

The best road in PEI for taking pictures of the rolling hills is between the towns of Wheatley River and New Glasgow. If you are there the right time of year there are endless opportunities for fabulous pictures of potato fields in full bloom pretty much anywhere on the island. And if you’re there mid to late June – get ready for some amazing pictures of lupins!

Lighthouses

Covehead Lighthouse

My family’s favourite lighthouse is West Point because of the stripes, but Point Prim is the island’s oldest and is one of the few lighthouses made of brick constructed in Canada.

Covehead is the most photographed lighthouse on the island (pictured here with my daughter in a photo that was featured in the island’s tourism guide last year). It’s located in Stanhope.

For a complete list of PEI lighthouses, check out the Tourism PEI website.

Lighthouse at victoria by-the-sea

Lighthouse at victoria by-the-sea

My husband and I have noticed an increase in traffic during the summer months in PEI and even witnessed a traffic backup as we drove through Cavendish this year, but as busy as the island gets there is always a peaceful, welcoming place for every visitor to the island. I look forward to returning… again and again.

Have you been to Prince Edward Island? What are your favourite things to do as a family there?