Summer of Awesome – Paul’s Boat Lines

A few weeks ago, some friends of mine from high school had a reunion here in town. One of the events was a tour of the Ottawa River on Paul’s Boat Lines.

At first I wasn’t going to bring the kids, because I thought they’d be bored. But when they got wind of the fact that Mommy was going Boating, they were IN. I have no idea what they were picturing, but apparently the concept of a boat ride is romantic and exotic and SUPER FUN – and actually, it turned out to be pretty much just that.

The tour lasts for about an hour and a half, and leaves from the dock right at the tip of the Rideau Canal. Just getting there was half the fun – you have to take the stairs down from the bridge that’s beside the Chateau Laurier, then walk all along the locks to the very tip. If it’s a weekend, you’re likely to see the locks in action, with dozens of pleasure boats travelling through; if you’re not in a rush, you can also check out the Bytown Museum, which is along the path. We were lucky enough to be heading out on the Civic Holiday Weekend, which is the weekend of the Rideau Canal Festival, so the entire path to the boat was paved with musicians, artists, crafts, and activities – bonus!

Once you reach the dock, it’s time to board, and the tour begins right away. There’s an upper and lower level on the boat – the upper level is cooler (it’s shaded), and a better place to sit to see the sights and hear the (charming and funny) tour guide. The lower level has booths, so it’s a good place to relax with a drink (the boat is licensed) or strike up a card game with antsy children.

We sat up top and were dazzled by amazing views and fascinating trivia.

Parliament Buildings from the Ottawa River
The best view of the Parliament Buildings ever.

Rideau Falls
Up close and personal with the Rideau Falls – I am ashamed to admit I did not know these existed.

24 Sussex Drive
The Prime Minister’s house – SLIGHTLY larger than mine.

Paul's Boat Lines
My youngest having a King Of The World moment.

This is just a fraction of the cool places we saw. Did you know that the statue on Nepean Peak by the Art Gallery is of Samuel de Champlain, and that he is holding his astrolabe upside down? Did you know that the Ottawa River used to be called the Mighty Kitchississippi? Did you know that SO MANY foreign ambassadors live in PALACES (OMG). Did you know that Gatineau is the prettiest little town ever?

Our kids actually enjoyed seeing the sights – my middle daughter in particular can’t stop talking about the “big house with five chimneys” (that’s 24 Sussex). They also just loved being out front on the boat, feeling the breeze from the river and comparing all the bridges. It was just a really pleasant, quiet way to spend a hot summer afternoon.

There’s a small tuck shop on the lower level, so warning: there will be pressure to purchase chips. Chips on a boat taste better, don’t you know?

Paul’s isn’t the only boat tour company downtown (there’s a few fancier ones, and there’s also Lady Dive, the bus that turns into a boat), but Paul’s tour of the Ottawa River was the perfect size and duration for our kids. There were several of us on board who were actually from Ottawa, and we all learned stuff we never knew and saw stuff we’d never seen, which boggles my mind.

Paul’s Boat Lines also offers a slightly shorter tour of the Rideau Canal – that one is going on our next year’s Summer of Awesome list.

Tours run from June 28 through September 2; the daily schedule is here. Tickets are $23 adults, $14 for children aged 6-12 (five and under are free), and group rates are available. You can buy tickets at the kiosk downtown which is right across the street from the Chateau Laurier; unless it’s a holiday weekend, you can likely just head downtown on the day-of and get tickets for the next boat.

Ahoy, mateys!

Summer of Awesome – RCMP Stables

Recently my two daughters have become obsessed with horses. They both claim that they want to learn to ride – no doubt they have images in their heads of their hair flowing in the wind as they race towards the sunset, bow and arrow in hand just like Merida in the film Brave.

I have to admit, I am pretty skeptical that their reaction to riding a real-life horse will be quite so dreamy.

So I thought I’d ease them into it by visiting the RCMP Stables. It’s where they train the horses for the Musical Ride, and I was hoping an up-close-and-personal encounter with an enormous, black horse would knock the request for riding lessons right out of ’em.

The stables are in Rockcliffe and are open every day in the summer from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. This is where they train and house the horses for the famous Musical Ride. During the summer, the 36 horses that are part of the Musical Ride are on tour, but there are still about 60 other horses in the stables – these are horses that have been retired from the ride, or young new horses who are just starting their training.

So the first thing you need to do when you get there is find the entrance, which (memo to the RCMP) is not very clearly marked. Here’s the building:

RCMP Stables Building

The entrance is the one on the far left hand end, behind the giant tree, that has a sign that says, “Lost and Found.” OF COURSE.

The door leads you straight into the gift shop (OF COURSE), and you have to go through the gift shop to get to the museum part. The museum is a few small rooms that talk about the history and function of the RCMP, and the details of the Musical Ride.

We learned about the RMCP’s bomb disposal unit:

Bomb Disposal Unit helmet

The kind of horses that are picked for the ride (must be almost all-black, 16 hands high):

Museum Display

And we saw the carriage that is used for visiting heads of state, including Will and Kate last year on Canada Day:

Will and Kate sat here!

There’s also a video playing with footage of the actual Musical Ride, if you’ve never had a chance to see it.

A tour leaves about once every half hour from the museum section and lasts about 20 minutes. You’ll get a chance to see the Musical Ride practice area:

Musical Ride rehearsal area

(This area is also open to the general public, you can come and watch them practicing which takes place most weekday mornings in the winter – call them for the schedule.)

You’ll see the tack room and the ferrier’s workshop:

Ferrier's Workshop

You’ll see horses (yay!):

Horse
RCMP Stables

You’ll learn about how they name the horses (did you know there’s a naming contest every year, in the spring?), how they choose the horses, and how the selected officers learn to ride.

Name Tags from Retired Horses

After the tour, you’re welcome to walk behind the stables where they have a training area. When we were there, two riders were working with a new young horse and we were allowed to watch if we were VERY quiet.

Training Area

Out front, two RCMP officers in full uniform allowed us to get up close and personal with the horses:

RCMP Officers

That was probably the best part. We were able to pet the horses, chat with the officers (SO NICE), and we learned a few extra details, like how they brush-in a maple leaf pattern on the the horses’ backsides before taking them out on rides. Cool.

I liked this visit because it felt like we were really learning something about Canada. We have, unfortunately, never actually seen the Musical Ride itself, so this was a great introduction. However, it was a pretty small place – we were able to cover the whole museum, the tour, and the visit with the officers in about an hour and a half. So it fits nicely in between naptimes, but if your kids are older, you can probably combine this visit with another event.

Also, word of warning: your secret plan to avoid riding lessons may backfire, and the budding love of horses may turn into full blown adoration. DAMMIT.

Summer of Awesome – National Gallery of Canada

Last week I took the kids to the National Gallery to see the Van Gogh exhibit, which is in town only until September. The kids complained LOUDLY and FREQUENTLY about being made to visit the art gallery. I suspect that they saw it as more of a homework/school type outing than something really fun. It probably didn’t help that Gal Smiley did a unit on Van Gogh in art class this year so I kept saying how wonderful it was that she could see some of his work in person, how enriching and what a great opportunity.

No wonder they think Sir Monkeypants is the fun one.

Anyway, we went. And we did have a pretty good time overall.

National Gallery of Canada

Here are some things you will NOT be doing at the National Gallery, if you attend with your young children:

  • sitting and gazing quietly before a favourite work of art, as you contemplate its deeper meaning
  • wandering joyfully through back galleries as you discover new artists to love
  • sharing teachable moments with your children as you open their eyes to the wonderful process that is man’s artistic growth

No, you will not.

However! Fun can still be had, if you keep a few things in mind.

Arrive Late. The museum opens at 10 a.m., but there’s no point in getting there before 11. That’s when the Artissimo program opens. Artissimo is the gallery’s program for kids and it is excellent and fun and awesome, and SO much better than just wandering through the galleries aimlessly with children who would rather be jumping on stuff. It runs only on the weekends during the year but in the summer, the program is open every day.

What makes Artissimo so great? It’s a wide variety of activities meant to engage the younger crowd. First of all, kids aged 3 and up can make their own work of art, using real art paper and a stellar selection of tools. Gal Smiley created this lion picture using watercolour pencils – pencil crayons that create a paint effect when water is added.

Gal Smiley artwork, National Gallery of Canada

To help kids explore the gallery, there’s also two self-guided tours you can take – one about animals in art, one about cool architecture. There’s an audio tour, where you are led to certain artworks and then you play a sound, and try to connect the two. There are costumes where you can dress up and pretend to be people from various pictures.

And best of all, there’s the dolls.

William the Doll, Artissimo Program, National Gallery of Canada

This is William. He’s one of five different gorgeous, painstakingly detailed dolls that are part of the Artissimo program. You can sign out a doll, then search the gallery (with some hints and clues) to find the painting featuring the character. My girls loved this activity, we did every single doll and learned a lot about art in the process. It was the clear highlight.

Visit the Van Gogh exhibit, but have low expectations. The Van Gogh exibit is really, really good. It does not feature his most famous works – no Starry Nights or Sunflowers or self-portraits with missing ears. However, it does include dozens of his other paintings and the way they are laid out clearly traces the paths of his various influences.

I learned a lot about his style, his use of colour, and his favourite themes, and all that despite racing through the exhibit at top speed. My kids complained a LOT during the exhibit – shuffling through rooms of art, surrounded by crowds, was SO BORING they could just DIIIIIIIIE. So we hurried through, but even then they couldn’t avoid picking out a favourite painting or two, and learning a little bit along the way.

Plus, there’s an interactive room near the end where you can create your own work of art on an iPad; do a large magnetic wall puzzle; listen to Van Gogh-era music; and write a letter to Van Gogh and receive an email reply in his own words. The lady running this room (Maddie, I think) was super welcoming to the kids and they really had fun here.

As an added bonus, kids under 12 are free – so it only cost me my own entry fee, $25, which also covered my museum admission.

Follow the rules, Oh my heavens, the National Gallery is a rules-y kind of place. They are BIG on the rules. And you will be warned, repeatedly, to FOLLOW THE RULES.

Sheesh.

No backpacks are allowed, no kinds of large bags or anything you would carry on your back or waist. Ladies can bring a handbag if it isn’t too big, and I believe you can get an exception for diaper bags. My kids are big enough now that I don’t need to carry diapers around, but I do like to bring our own snacks due to the food allergy thing, so I often use a backpack – at the gallery, you have to check it. Speaking of snacks, the cafeteria there is a little high class – soups and fancy salads type fare – so if your kids are more of a chicken nuggets and french fries crowd, you may wish to bring your own food (in a checked backpack, of course) or perhaps plan your trip between mealtimes.

No photos of any kind allowed anywhere, except in the open glassed-in tower where the Artissimo program runs. (I may have taken that photo of William the doll, above, in the bathroom. I admit nothing.) If they even see you thinking about taking out your camera, they’re on you.

No getting too close to the art. No touching the art! No breathing on the art. That’s too close. Maybe you shouldn’t even LOOK AT THE ART.

SHEESH.

I swear every single security guard in the place came over to us and warned us, in every single room, about stepping back from the art. My kids aren’t even that young – 9, 7, and 5. I can’t imagine the headache involved in trying to explain to your two year old why that line of bricks on the floor is art, and we musn’t touch it, or step on it, or come within three feet of it. GAH.

So be sure to travel light, leave your camera in your handbag, and stay back. FARTHER BACK.

Once we were done with the Van Gogh exhibit and settled into the Artissimo stuff, my kids relaxed and enjoyed themselves. Despite their best efforts, they even learned something, as demonstrated by the quiz I gave them on the ride home.

Told you I’m not the fun one.

Updating the Awesome

I’ve been slacking off on my Summer of Awesome reporting, but that’s okay, because we’ve been busy having fun (and sadly, in my case, being really sick, UGH). I have a lot to say about our trip to Montreal last weekend but until then, here’s a quick report on a few places we’ve been so far this summer.

Saunders Farm

As fabulous as always – the kids and I were there for seven hours and had an amazing time. Saunders Farm features many really cool giant mazes, pedal cars, many many play structures, a giant slide, tractor and wagon rides, puppet shows, a splash pad, and this:

Jumping Pillows at Saunders Farm

Giant jumping pads! Seriously, SO much fun.

Here are my tips for a day at Saunders:

  • There’s an awesome attraction where you can buy a bag of semi-precious stones in sand, and then use a river to “pan” for jewels. This activity costs extra – between $6 and $11.50, depending on the size of bag – and they only take cash. The ice cream stand and grill also only take cash, so bring some money if you don’t want to have to hike back to the entrance to use the ATM.
  • It’s pretty exposed there so wear sunscreen and hats, and be sure to bring lots of water – you can refill your water bottles at the tap attached to the grill.
  • The Music Maze has all new instruments this year, and it’s often overlooked because it’s tucked back behind the pedal cars. So make it a point to check it out.
  • The Mile Maze is as impossible as ever – avoid if you have young children who can’t handle a half-hour trek through a maze. Speaking of which, idea for Mark Saunders: could you post “maps” of your mazes on the website, so we can either look at them after the fact to see just how wrong we were, or print them out and bring them with us just in case we get lost?
  • If you’re going on a wagon ride, and it hasn’t rained in many days, don’t sit at the front of the wagon by the tractor, as dust sprays up from the wheels. You’ll still be washing it out of your hair days later.
  • Don’t forget you can bring your own picnic, and their wristband system lets you go out to your car as often as you like so you don’t need to carry around a cooler all day (although some people park their cooler at a picnic table and just establish an internal base of operations, which is okay too).
  • Ladies who have had children may wish to wear panty protection before going on the jumpers. TMI?

I think that’s it. Have an amazing time – it’s pretty much impossible not to!

Museum of Nature

Here we checked out Whales Tohora, which will only be there until September so visit now while you still can. My kids were surprisingly into this exhibit, it’s fascinating and there’s also a map that leads you to interactive stations where you can learn something and do something fun, too. We also checked out both of their current 3D movies, one about turtles and one about dinosaurs – both were excellent, but both contain at least one “circle of life” moment, so make sure your kids can handle it. The National Geographic photography contest winners are still there – my one daughter is getting into photography and loves it when the winners come out – and we also saw the giant solid gold loonie (the “million dollar coin”) made by the mint (which is at the Museum of Nature…why?).

Anyway, it’s always a great time at the museum and they have a ton of good stuff on right now. Remember that Whales Tohora and the 3D movies cost extra, even for members.

Museum of Civilization

The Little Miss picked this as her destination of choice on her fifth birthday, and it was a surprising good time. I always think that we’ve been there and seen it all, but I forget how much the kids like to just play, and the Children’s Museum is really so big and complex that you can do something different every time. We were only there for three-ish hours but barely touched half of it, and the kids were sad to leave. Right now they also have an interesting exhibit about Queen Elizabeth, and there’s a fake throne that you can sit on with full costumes for a photo op in the afternoons.

Ray’s Reptiles

Here’s another place we’ve been dozens of times, but it’s still always a hit, particularly with Gal Smiley who is recently addicted to the TV show Python Hunters. This year they’ve really changed things up over at the permanent zoo. They have a new off-site warehouse where they keep most of the animals, including the caimans who used to have a huge pen. Where the caiman pen used to be is a brand new, much larger showroom for the hands-on shows and feeding shows that still run every half hour or so. However, the animals they use for the shows are brought over from the warehouse each morning and stay there all day – that means that, show to show, it’s the same set of animals, so the demonstrators don’t have the flexibility to bring out something new for the same crowd, or to bring out a different animal for the feeding show if one of the animals isn’t cooperating. I’m sure they will work out that kink at some point.

In the main section, where there used to be many aquariums with snakes and other animals, they’ve reorganized to display certain animals on a theme. Right now, for example, the theme is venom – most of the animals on display are venomous, and there are lovely display boards that give you interesting facts and explain the science behind venom. In the fall they’ll be changing the focus to camouflage.

So in general: nice new digs, but fewer animals. Still, my kids had a great time. It’s perfect for a two to three hour getaway on a rainy day, or a day when you have some errands to run and want something shorter to fill out the rest of the day.

Movies

With the heat, we’ve been hiding in the movie theatre. We saw Brave (I loved it, I totally cried, my daughters were a bit scared but are now obsessed with archery – thumbs up all around) and Madagascar 3 (hilarious – probably my favourite of the series, we all loved it). Sir Monekypants also broke down and took the Captain, age 9, to see The Avengers. We had classified it as a firmly PG-13 but it seemed like everyone we knew in the world was taking their preschoolers, so Sir Monkeypants decided it would be perfect for a little guys’ afternoon out. Turns out it was, the Captain adored it, only now we have to listen to endless discussions on whether or not the Hulk could lift Thor’s hammer, and whether Captain America would make a better leader than Iron Man. Sigh.

A Gym Tale

We had Little Miss Sunshine’s birthday party here, at her request, and it was OMG SO EASY. I basically did nothing but take photos and eat cake. It’s an indoor playground, where kids can slide, climb, and swing, and then there’s an organized playtime with an obstacle course, parachute, freeze dance, and bubbles. Afterwards, your party host serves lunch (pizza) and cake. We brought in some extra fruit and chips to round out the lunch, as well. Our kids were such slow eaters that there wasn’t time for much of anything else, but we did have a game and some colouring in reserve just in case; we didn’t even have present opening time!

It’s a small play structure and I think the age limit is 9 years old, but any kid between 3 and 9 would have a blast there, really. Aside from birthday parties, you can just drop in for some playtime on the structure or attend one of their day camps. Totally worth it.

We’ve also been the pool daily for swim lessons these past few weeks; been to our local splash pad park and to a wading pool park with a friend in Westboro; spent a weekend at a another friend’s cottage, and hosted a couple of barbecues at the house (featuring: PIES, ME SO HAPPY).

Next post: all about Montreal.