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Fun family activities before summer ends!

17 Aug

As summertime winds down into back-to-school time, I thought I’d review a few family-friendly treats that you might want to explore. Ottawa is an extremely family-friendly destination – major museums have first-rate children’s programming year-round, like Artissimo at the National Gallery of Canada (how’s about seeing your child’s art on the walls of the Gallery?), or the fun interactive round-the-world-trip that is the Canadian Children’s Museum inside the Canadian Museum of Civilization, or the creepy critters of Animalium at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

But let’s take a look at some seasonal summertime attractions that will be behind us before we know it!

This is just one of the mazes at Saunders Farm. Great for burning off excess energy!

Take a ride in the countryside to check out Saunders Farm. You may be familiar with Saunders for their imaginative, creepy Hallowe’en programming in October (and it’s definitely worth a visit then) but don’t miss it in the summer! You and your kids can enjoy the splash pads, take a wagon ride, and burn off energy in the world’s largest collection of hedge mazes.  Bring your own treats, or buy some fresh from the farm — you’ll want to make a day of it. Saunders is located a good 45 minutes or so from downtown Ottawa (about 20 minutes from the west-end suburb of Kanata) — look at their website for directions. Open until September 6 (then open again in October for Hallowe’en season). Don’t just take my word for it, though, check out this great Kids in the Capital blog post from Lynn.

You have until Labour Day (September 6) to try out the brand new Calypso Theme Waterpark, which opened back in June less than a half-hour’s drive east of downtown Ottawa in the small town of Limoges. It boasts 35 waterslides, more than 100 water games and plenty of other activities. From the Zoo Lagoon for toddlers to Canada’s largest wave pool to the Fast Track extreme slide, you’ll find something for every member of your family.

Pirate Adventures' pirate ship is pretty convincing!

Another fun way to enjoy the water is to take a cruise with Pirate Adventures on the Rideau River, near Mooney’s Bay Beach in the south end. Once you’re suited up in your pirate gear, you’ll set sail in your pirate ship for hearty adventures. Uncover the clues of a treasure map, repel a boarding attack, make a villain walk the plank and more! Spend a day the pirate way!

The traditional end-of-summer fling is SuperEx, also known as the Central Canada Exhibition, which runs August 19-29, 2010 at Lansdowne Park in the Glebe neighbourhood downtown. From midway rides to agricultural exhibits to concerts, you’ll have a lot of distractions to keep you and your little ones busy.

The Ceremonial Guard Band is a big part of the Changing the Guard Ceremony.

There are plenty of ways to have fun without spending a dime, too! The Changing the Guard ceremony is awe-inspiring for kids, with the uniforms, the marching, the music and the spectacle of it all. The free ceremony takes place on the lawn in front of Parliament Hill every morning at 10:00, weather permitting, until Friday, August 27.

Tours of Parliament are also free — you can pick up your same-day tickets from the big tent located between Centre Block (the main building, with the Peace Tower and clock) and West Block until September 6. After that, go to the base of the Peace Tower and follow the signs.

And every night at 9:30pm until September 12, weather permitting, you can enjoy the free Sound and Light Show known as Mosaika, where dramatic images are projected onto the façade of the Parliament Buildings. Learn more about Canada through the spirit of its people in this highly entertaining, bilingual show. Bring a lawn chair or blanket, as bleacher seating is limited.

The Lumière Festival is fun for all. Photo credit:

One of my favourite events is the annual Lumière Festival, this year held a bit later than normal, on Saturday,  September 4. The event actually starts well before that, as people are encouraged to sign up for lantern-making workshops. The night itself is magical — little kids dress up as fairies or in other whimsical costumes and carry lanterns. Programming is musical, inventive, humourous — and the setting is beautiful, in Stanley Park in New Edinburgh, which runs along the eastern shore of the Rideau River before it empties into the Ottawa River.

Another fun activity for families is Alcatel Sunday Bikedays, which take place each Sunday (9:00am until 1:00pm) until September 5. Visit RentABike to, well, rent a bike, and then explore some fun areas of town where the streets have been closed to motorized traffic to let cyclists, inline skaters and joggers take over! One of the most popular routes is along Colonel By Drive downtown, overlooking the Rideau Canal.

Some of the balloons at the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival are whimsically shaped!

Also on Labour Day weekend, you can enjoy entertainment each dawn and dusk by just looking up, way up! The Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival runs September 3-6, 2010 and if the weather cooperates, you can see dozens and dozens of multi-coloured (and sometimes interestingly shaped) balloons drift by. Activities such as live bands, extreme sports demos, crafts and classic car displays — not to mention rides in some of the balloons — are based in Parc de la baie in Gatineau, Québec (just across the Ottawa River from Ottawa). The prevailing winds usually blow the balloons farther eastward but every few years, the wind shifts and sends the balloons over downtown Ottawa, making everyone a part of the festival!

A guide to beer in and around Ottawa

11 Aug

The distinctive ceramic swing-top bottles are now used for Beau's seasonal brews.

If you’re visiting Ottawa, and work up a thirst while touring the region, you may want to indulge in a local pint. Here’s a guide:

Sidle on in to a one of Ottawa’s many drinking establishments (we’re really partial to pubs, you know!) and order a Beau’s. That’s short for Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company, a great family-run brewery that just celebrated its 4th anniversary in July. Their signature brew, Lug Tread Lagered Ale, is deliciously refreshing and has won several awards, including Best Beer in Ontario at the Golden Taps Awards. They’re located in Vankleek Hill, about an hour’s drive east of downtown Ottawa, and at dozens and dozens of great bars and restaurants in Ottawa, eastern Ontario and now even Toronto. They provide the beer at the annual Ottawa International Jazz Festival and many other events. Check out their seasonal beers as well, including Bog Water Dirty Brown Ale, Beaver River, or Night Märzen.

Donna from Heritage showing off her beer!

Heritage Brewing has been around since 2000 and features a Premium Lager and a Traditional Dark Lager. Their seasonal beers are great, too, including the fun Maple Bush Lager, made with maple sap instead of water. It’s only available at the end of spring and sells out every year. Delicious, with a hint of maple flavour. Their brewery is at 866 Campbell Avenue in the west end of Ottawa and they share it with the Scotch Irish Brewing Company. Scotch Irish is known for their ales, including a very hoppy Sgt. Major India Pale Ale.

The newest beer in town was launched in April/May of 2010. It’s named after the original aboriginal moniker for the Ottawa River and the Kichesippi Beer Co. currently brews a pale ale known as Natural Blonde. This beer can be found at several Ottawa locations, including Whalesbone Oyster House, The Manx, ZenKitchen and D’Arcy McGee’s.

The HogsBack Brewing Company launched only a handful of weeks earlier than Kichesippi. Brewed in small batches, and made from all-natural ingredients, HogsBack Vintage Lager can be enjoyed at the Black Tomato and the Fish Market Restaurant in the ByWard Market neighbourhood and the Wellington Gastropub in West Wellington.

You might also enjoy a visit to one of the three Clocktower Brew Pub  locations for some of their original brews—the original is at 575 Bank Street in the Glebe, the second location is on 422 Mackay Street in New Edinburgh and the newest location is at 89 Clarence Street in the ByWard Market neighbourhood.


Have you heard? Lesser-known August treats

5 Aug

You may be familiar with the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival (on till August 7), or the Casino du Lac-Leamy‘s spectacular Sound of Light fireworks show (August 7-21, Saturdays and Wednesdays) — they are justifiably two of the best-known and best-loved events in August in Ottawa.

The Ottawa Folk Festival not only has great music, it has great sunsets over the Ottawa River!

But there are plenty of other events this month that visitors might not be aware of. Read on!

Capital Hoedown: This is a brand new country music festival, to be held August 5, 6 and 7 at the Rideau Carleton Entertainment Centre. Headliners include Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam and Alan Jackson. Yahoo!

Outdoor movies: For the next two Friday and Saturday nights (August 6-7, 13-14), you can catch movies in Dundonald Park on Somerset Street West downtown — bring your own lawn chairs and munchies! Pay-what-you-can.

Pipefest 2010: A collection of pipe bands, drummers and Highland Dancers will raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society on Parliament Hill on Saturday, August 7.

Theatre options: You have until August 14 to catch The Andrews  Brothers at the Gladstone Theatre – a cross-dressing comedy set in the South Pacific during World War II.  Or check out Summer Fling — a Theatrical Affair, a series of performances around Downtown Rideau until August 28.

Puppets Up! International Festival of Puppetry: It’s worth the drive west of Ottawa to the beautiful small community of Almonte this weekend (August 7-8) to see 54 world-class puppet shows in tented or storefront theatres.

Ottawa Folk Festival: This festival (August 13-15) has one of the best vibes of the year. A beautiful location on the Ottawa River definitely helps, but so do the friendly volunteers, the good food and the top-notch music, with The Acorn, Calexico, The Foggy Hogtown Boys, Jim Bryson and The Weakerthans Band, The Jim Cuddy Band and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott all set to perform.

Stinky Weekend: Believe it or not, there are two great garlic festivals over the weekend of August 14-15: one in Perth and one at the Carp Farmers’ Market.

Caribe-Expo: Check out the Caribbean flavours on the weekend of August 14-15 in downtown Ottawa.

The Ottawa Police Service Pipe Band played Fortissimo a few years ago.

Fortissimo: I’m a sucker for military music and Fortissimo is the best. Pipes and drums, lots of marching and usually some fun team competitions (one year, each team built a bridge, dismantled a cannon, then transported it and rebuilt it on the other side to fire — the winners won by literally a split second — amazing!). Catch it — free — August 12-15 on Parliament Hill.

Lesser-known events happening soon

22 Jul

Like my previous post on the weird collection of photos that end up on my BlackBerry, sometimes I hear about so many cool events, it’s hard to keep track. Here are a few, all coming up in the next couple weeks, to look out for here in Ottawa.

Orchestras in the Park: Free concerts by the National Arts Centre Orchestra on LeBreton Flats (outside the Canadian War Museum). Four nights of performances, July 22-25, including Canada’s own Nikki Yanofsky on Saturday.

Ottawa Turkish Festival: A free event this weekend (July 23-25) in Confederation Park downtown. All things Turkish, including music, dancing and delicious food!

Some concerts at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival are in beautiful downtown churches -- like Dominion Chalmers United Church, shown here -- but on July 24 and 25, you can hear free concerts outdoors at Rideau Hall, the home and workplace of Canada's Governor General!

Free concerts at Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival: Okay, so people have heard about the Chamber Music Festival, July 24-August 7 (it’s the world’s largest, after all!). But did you know that they offer 4 free concerts at Rideau Hall on July 24 and 25? Bring a picnic and enjoy!

Midsummer Herbfest: A nice drive west through the countryside on Sunday, July 25 will bring you to the Herb Garden just outside Almonte. Spend a day learning about herbs, enjoying a chef cook-off and meeting some cool people!

Odyssey Theatre: Like my post on a Company of Fools, Odyssey Theatre performs outdoors in the beautiful Strathcona Park in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood just east of downtown. From July 29 to August 29, after a hiatus of a couple years, they’ll be back in action with the world premier of Janet Irwin’s They All Do It, inspired by Mozart’s opera, Così fan tutte. Great fun!

Wellington West 1st Thursday Art Walk: On the first Thursday of every month, the art galleries of Wellington West, a dynamic, funky neighbourhood in the near west of Ottawa, open their doors from 5 to 9pm. Wander in and see what’s happening! If you like that, you’ll love the guided art gallery walking tour offered every Saturday from May 1 through October 31 in the ByWard Market neighbourhood. It starts at the great Gordon Harrison Gallery on Murray Street.

Pipefest 2010: A collection of pipe bands, drummers and Highland Dancers will raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society on Parliament Hil on Saturday, August 7. This is part of a 24-hour, worldwide initiative. And if you like Pipefest, you’ll love the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville, east of Ottawa, on July 30 and 31. Tons of Scottish fun!

Capital Hoedown: This is a brand new country music festival, to be held August 5, 6 and 7 at the Rideau Carleton Entertainment Centre. Headliners include Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam and Alan Jackson. Yahoo!

So get out there and enjoy!

Rollicking Shakespeare in the great outdoors

21 Jul

A Company of Fools performs Shakespeare's plays in Ottawa-region parks. This photo, taken three years ago, well before the performance began, gives a sense of the beautiful "willow grove" setting at Strathcona Park.

One of my favourite summertime rituals is going to see Company of Fools perform a work of Shakespeare in the great outdoors. This fun, frenetic troupe performs Shakespeare in a very engaging way. While they follow the original texts, they also add a liberal dose of pop culture references that keeps the audience’s attention. And while their “stage” is often a sheet, a series of boxes and decidedly low-cost props, they make up for any visual shortcomings with a broad physicality that inevitably leads to laughter.

Each actor plays many roles — meaning quick costume changes and occasional visual hijinks to make it all make sense!

This year’s production is A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I’m hoping to catch it next Monday night in the beautiful Rideau River-side Strathcona Park in the downtown neighbourhood of Sandy Hill. But don’t worry if you can’t make it to that performance — they’re also playing in Wakefield, Westboro, Kanata, and Nepean, among others. Their website has the schedule (and directions). The shows continue nightly except Sundays until Monday, August 2.

Performances begin at 7pm and end by about 8:30pm with no intermission. You’re asked to bring your own lawn chair, or blanket (or you can just sit on the grass!). Some people arrive early and bring a picnic dinner.  It’s oh so civilized!

At the end of the show, they literally “pass the hat” for payment. People generally give $10 or more per person — trust me, it’s worth it!

Diefenbunker, new and improved!

28 Jun

When you see the barbed wire, you're close!

The Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, is easily one of my favourite attractions in Canada’s capital region. Located about a half-hour’s drive west of the downtown core, in the small town of Carp, the Diefenbunker is a four-storey, 100,000-square-foot underground bunker. It was built between 1959 and 1961 to withstand the effects of a nuclear attack as the place where 535 members of Canada’s politicial and military elite could live self-contained for a month. It was named for John Diefenbaker, who was Prime Minister during its construction, but who never visited.

Because of fire and building code regulations, the Diefenbunker has been operating since 1998 with a maximum capacity of 60 visitors at a time. That meant you had to reserve a guided tour at a specific hour, and larger groups were a problem.

Now, after going through an extensive retrofit, the capacity has increased to 500! Today, June 28, they’re launching their new self-guided audio tours as part of the celebration of their upgrade. NOTE: if you visit, the temperature underground is a constant 15 degree Celsius or so (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit) so even if it’s hot hot hot outside, you might need a sweater below.

What can you see at the Diefenbunker?

The blast tunnel is a creepy introduction to the Diefenbunker, Canada's Cold War Museum

  • Blast tunnel – A long dark tunnel that is perpindicular to the “front door” and would have absorbed the worst of the nuclear blast. Spooky!
  • Entrance door – A HUGE thick metal door (way bigger than any bank vault you’ve ever seen). Is it to keep people out, or in?
  • Prime Minister’s suite – Impressive for its unimpressiveness. A private bathroom and an office area outside are the only things that differentiate his or her quarters from other senior staff. Note: it’s a SINGLE bed — spouses were not on the list!
  • War Cabinet Room – Did you know that business groups can rent this out for board meetings? It’s dressed in ’60s / ’70s finery (including ashtrays at every place setting, old-style TVs mounted on wall brackets and analog clocks showing times around the world). The nearby room that shows fallout patterns across the country is also impressive.
  • Decontamination shower – It actually looks more or less like a regular shower but the creepiness comes from considering its use!
  • CanX – In the cafeteria, you can get a taste for life inside the bunker. Yes, you can purchase and eat military-style meal replacements… if you dare!
  • Escape hatch – How do you get out of the Diefenbunker in an emergency? (HINT: it involves a narrow vertical tunnel). Nearby is also a scale model of the Diefenbunker and photos of its construction which helps you understand show how massive the structure really is. How could they have kept it a secret so long?
  • Bank of Canada vault – In the event of an attack, the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada would have been transferred here by train. The coolest feature is the space around all 360 degrees of the vault, with mirrors in each corner. One guard, standing at the entrance, could see all the way around the vault (to stop anybody from trying to break in / drill through and steal the gold).
  • Kids’ area (Rex Zero headquarters) – Based on a children’s book series by Tim Wynne-Jones about the Cold War, it’s a room done up as a child’s bedroom from the late ’50s / early ’60s. It’s often used by school groups.
  • Exterior – The exterior is really not that spectacular (as it was a SECRET bunker for decades — they didn’t want to draw attention to it!) — just a metal shed surrounded by fencing but with a helicopter landing pad in the parking lot.
  • Cold War Store – The store has great souvenirs, from model planes to old Cold War posters to gas masks and dosimeters (a device to measure the radioactivity in the air).

Enjoy your visit!

Royal swans

26 May

Two of the Royal Swans in the Rideau River

Earlier this week, City of Ottawa workers released Ottawa’s Royal Swans into the Rideau River. Royal swans?

Yes, the birds are descendents of 6 pairs of royal (mute) swans that Queen Elizabeth II donate

d to the city back in 1967 to mark Canada’s centennial year. (A few year later, a pair of black Australian swans was received from the Montréal Zoo and their descendents are also still in Ottawa.)

You can see the birds in the Rideau River, generally between Cummings Bridge (where Rideau Street turns into Montréal Road just east of downtown Ottawa) in the north to Carleton University in the south. Don’t get too close, though, as they’re in a semi-wild state.

The swans are removed from the river in October or November and they have a winter home provided by the city, where they are fed and cared for. So keep an eye out for our royal swans!

RCMP Musical Ride Centre a hidden gem

30 Apr

Check out this video (yes, filmed on a windy day, sorry about that!) of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride Centre. This is where the 32 horses and riders of this famous cavalry-drill-set-to-music are trained.

The video was taken in April as the RCMP Commissioner inspected the Ride before it took off on its summer tour schedule, taking it throughout Canada and the U.S. They will return, though, to perform at the Sunset Ceremonies at the Centre. That’s scheduled for June 23-27, 2010. And they’ll be performing on Parliament Hill on Canada Day, July 1. Don’t miss it!

If you visit while the Ride is on tour, you’ll still be able to learn a lot about the history of the RCMP, the evolution of the Musical Ride and you’ll be able to see some great artifacts like the landau (carriage) that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip will use during their visit this July (yes, they’ll be at Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa this year!).

You can also visit the stables and see the horses. Sometimes you can see the new recruits practising. And if you’re driving on the Rockcliffe Parkway on your way to the Canada Aviation Museum, watch for the beautiful black (actually really dark brown) horses gamboling in the fields adjacent to the stables.

Love those Canadian icons!

Beer, blues and barbecue!

22 Mar

Can’t wait for this weekend. My friends at Beau’s All-Natural Brewing Company are throwin’ a party and I’m goin’! The brewery, for those of you who have not yet heard of this slice of hoppy heaven, is located in the small town of Vankleek Hill in eastern Ontario, about an hour’s drive east of Ottawa.

On Saturday, March 25, Ottawa bluesman John Carroll and Montréaler Mike O’Brien will be playing blues and roots music at the brewery — including a one-hour candlelit acoustic set to celebrate Earth Hour! The folks at Beau’s have responsibly chartered a bus (one from Ottawa, one from Montréal) to ensure many guests will get there and back safely. (If you’re interested, book now through [email protected] – $15 for the round-trip bus and $10 for the show itself.)

Best of all, there will be food from The Branch restaurant, a proud Savour Ottawa member in Kemptville. The Branch will be serving their famous Texas-style house-smoked beef brisket and sausages, as well as some veggie and snack options, which sounds perfect to me! Only five more sleeps!

Back from a break

5 Jan

Happy New Year!

After a relaxing time away, we’re back at work, gearing up for Winterlude and other fun activities.

While the Rideau Canal Skateway has not yet opened for its 40th skating season, the historic rink at Rideau Hall (home and workplace of Canada’s Governor General) has. Free skating is offered on Saturdays and Sundays between noon and 5pm. Groups can inquire about evening reservations during the week.

And many of the city’s 246 outdoor skating rinks in local parks have opened. Check conditions here.

Over the holidays, we went snowshoeing 3 times in Gatineau Park, including a 3-hour marathon that we’ll be talking about for years. It’s easy to stay active in the winter in Ottawa.


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