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Ontario: A family dash to Niagara Falls, Ottawa

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Meridian Writers' Group

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario-Two teenagers, one day, one natural wonder of the world. With our vacation time running out in Toronto, our family makes a mad dash to Niagara Falls. Our plan is simple: get there early, stay late, see as much as we can.

Of course, "early" is a relative term with teenagers. It's 10 a.m. when we wheel into the Rapidsview parking lot and hop the quick shuttle ride to the Falls' Table Rock area. When the bus stops, our excitement bubbles over and we practically sprint to the guardrail.

Wow. In fact, big wow. The volume of white-blue water thundering over the long curving edge of Horseshoe Falls is astounding. Mist floats in the air, as does the sound of tourists chattering in a dozen different languages.

Many snapshots later, it's in to the Table Rock complex for our "Journey Behind the Falls." We don yellow ponchos and take an elevator 40 metres down to a tunnel that leads to two observation decks and two portals. While it's fun to get sprayed silly by the curtains of water, my sons deem the experience "a bit lame."

(Since our visit, a new attraction has opened at Table Rock: Niagara's Fury, a Universal Studios-style experience that tells the story of the evolution of the Falls, with trembling floors, falling snow and much drama. No report on whether it's lame or not.)

We follow the crowds downriver to the Maid of the Mist boat ride. This time we're given blue ponchos that protect us (sort of) from the drizzle that becomes a downpour that becomes a deafening deluge as the boat motors past the American Falls to the base of Horseshoe Falls. "Awesome," say my soggy teenagers.

For lunch we head up Clifton Hill, a neon-lit street filled with cheesy museums and chain restaurants. Unimpressed, we grab a quick sandwich and head back to the riverside to catch the People Mover shuttle bus (included in the price of our "Niagara Falls & Great Gorge Adventure Pass," as are many of the attractions we visit). We get off at the Whitewater Walk, where we descend 70 metres to river level for an ultra-close and highly recommended look at the racing, churning rapids below the Falls.

From there we head further downriver to Niagara Helicopters and the hands-down highlight (and most expensive part) of the day, a 12-minute ride up and over and around the Falls in a helicopter. The teenage verdict? "It totally rocked."

Exhilarated but fading, we pause for a tasty dinner with killer views at the Table Rock restaurant, then dash to the Imax theatre for The Falls Movie . The film looks a bit tired, but the history lesson is excellent.

By now it is dark. We head back to the river to see the multi-coloured lights illuminating the Falls and, at 10 p.m., a fireworks display. By 11 we're toast and collapse into our car for the 90-minute drive back to Toronto.

Thirteen hours, one natural wonder, one happy family.

 

Access

For more information on Niagara Falls visit the Niagara Parks website at www.niagaraparks.com .

 

OTTAWA-My children peg the highlight of our morning visit to Parliament Hill as the moment a member of the marching band faints dead away during the changing of the guards ceremony.

Never mind touring the Parliament Buildings. Never mind seeing the senate chambers. Never mind going up the Peace Tower. No, top billing goes to some poor, overdressed piper who succumbs to the August heat.

It's a reminder that, when it comes to visiting Canada's capital with children you never know what will wow them.

There is one sure bet: the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In this treasure chest of experiences we cruise through the Canada Hall with its life-sized townscapes and environments, the First Peoples Hall, and the Canadian Postal Museum-then focus on a few choice bits. The Grand Hall's totem poles impress us, as does a dramatic presentation by Dramamuse, the museum's theatre company. Not surprisingly, a favourite area is the Canadian Children's Museum, where kids stamp their way around the globe with museum-supplied passports.

The Canadian Museum of Nature is another great option, particularly for younger children. Interactive exhibits let visitors get close to the museum's collection of five million specimens, including dinosaurs, exotic (stuffed) animals, creepy critters, precious gems and more. When the staff announce it's closing time my kids protest, "But we haven't seen everything yet!"

I have a similar feeling at the Canadian War Museum. It's easy to be overwhelmed, both because of the sheer size of exhibits (consider that one hall is filled with artillery, tanks and other military vehicles) and because the museum makes the Canadian war experience so compelling and personal. Although much is sombre, there's also humour (my children now understand the Battle of the Plains of Abraham thanks to a video in which two hockey fans-one in a Montreal Canadiens jersey, the other in a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater-explain the action). History class was never so engaging.

And history was never so science-fiction-y as in the Diefenbunker-Canada's Cold War Museum. This four-storey deep, 9,300 square-metre (100,000-square-foot ) underground bunker outside of Ottawa provides a window on a time when the fear of nuclear attack motivated the Canadian government to build this then top-secret shelter. We peer into rooms where the prime minister (John Diefenbaker, hence the bunker's quaint name) would have stayed after a nuclear explosion, listen to emergency radio messages and gaze at Cold War propaganda. My children are particularly taken with the idea of a backyard bomb-shelter.

Of course, Ottawa is more than museums. We spend quality time cycling along the Rideau Canal, hiking in Gatineau Park and strolling ByWard Market. Here we pick up picnic supplies for our day-trip to Lafleche Adventure Cave and Aerial Park, 30 minutes north of the city. We enjoy an adventure underground on an hour-long tour of the largest cave in the Canadian Shield and in the treetops on a six-circuit aerial park where we scramble, climb, and swing across 82 suspension bridges and fly along 14 zip lines.

Educational? Not so much. But what fun.

 

ACCESS

For more information on Ottawa, go to the Ottawa Tourism website at www.ottawatourism.ca .