The Mother of Adventure

Hotel in Ottawa is miles from mundane

Bed jumpingWhether she admits it or not, it’s what every woman wants…especially on Valentine’s Day.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot or pack a ton of calories (although diamonds and chocolate are always a nice added touch!). To me, the ultimate gift – especially in the midst of a long, cold winter – is to be whisked away from the mundane; taken away to a place where the constant stream of dishes, laundry and housework ceases to exist.

That’s exactly why my husband, Ian, decided to take the kids and I on a “staycation” to a hotel in Ottawa over Family Day weekend. Since we didn’t really have the time – or the budget – to head out of the city, we decided to capitalize on all the great things going on in our own backyard – right here in Ottawa.

Marriott roomWe booked a two-night stay at the Courtyard by Marriott Ottawa East, and it turned out to be a great decision. Not only is the hotel very new – which means everything was fresh and clean – the location was the perfect proximity to all the Winterlude festivities taking place downtown.

Our family checked in to our Ottawa hotel room on Valentine’s Day. The whole weekend plan was a total surprise for our two daughters, ages nine and six. In fact, my husband had told both of them that we had dentist appointments booked for that evening, so you can imagine the thrill they got when we pulled up at the Marriott!

Pool AreaWe haven’t spent a lot of time staying at hotel rooms in Ottawa – considering that we live here – but over the years we have stayed at tons of hotels across North America, so we have a pretty good sense of what constitutes a good hotel. One of the little things we loved about this one was that every room has a fridge, sink and microwave – so we were able to bring in popcorn and drinks for the kids (and some wine for us to enjoy after they went to sleep).

On Friday night, we all took a long swim in the hotel pool (we lucked out and had the whole pool area to ourselves!), followed by an indulgent soak in the hot tub. Back in our room, we decided it would be more relaxing to have pizza in our PJs – so we skipped going out and ordered from a spot around the corner.

Family skateSaturday was mild and sunny – the perfect conditions for a skate on the Rideau Canal. The hotel is about a five-minute drive from the Byward Market, where we parked and walked over with our skating gear. The kids made it about 2K – which is longer than they’ve lasted in the past – so we rewarded each of them with a Beavertail for their efforts. Back at the hotel that afternoon, Mommy indulged in a rare afternoon nap while the kids had some downtime watching TV. We finished off our day with a nice dinner at a Korean restaurant in Chinatown.

Following another swim on Sunday, we had all worked up a big appetite. So before checking out, we headed over to the hotel’s breakfast buffet at The Bistro. Having an awesome spread of French toast, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit and coffee was the perfect end to our staycation. We left feeling full and happy – relaxed from our weekend away from the daily stresses of home.

And the best part? We didn’t even need to hunker down for a long drive home – we were back safe and sound in just 20 minutes.

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Chocolate lipstick

Montreal 2013Between the somber news of my grandmother’s passing last night and reflections of Remembrance Day today, I feel a bit emotionally drained.

I need to turn my thoughts to something light-hearted and frivolous for today’s post, so I’m going to write about one of my recent adventures in Montreal – and how it led me to chocolate lipstick. (In the theme of today’s post, I’d also encourage you to listen to The 1975’s ‘Chocolate.’ I have no idea what the meaning of the song is, but hearing it makes me disproportionately happy.)

My sweet friend Cathy planned a surprise getaway to Montreal for me last weekend, as a belated birthday gift. After a fantastic Saturday of shopping, dining and wining, we woke up Sunday morning looking for an authentic French bakery.

Chocolate storeThe lovely concierge at the Regency Hyatt recommended a restaurant/chocolatier called Juliette & Chocolat, and provided us with walking directions. We found the shop, but unfortunately we were there half an hour before it opened. Chilled, hungry and caffeine-deprived, we ended up at a non-descript diner across the street. We did, however, stop in on our way back, and am I ever glad we did.

Juliette & Chocolat definitely warrants a re-do the next time I head to Montreal, only this time I’ll be sure to get there for brunch. It is charmingly decorated with a mouth-watering menu for sit-down diners (think unique omelettes, fresh fruit salads and top-of-the-line coffees).

Since we’d already eaten breakfast, however, we decided to check out the dessert counter to pick out a treat for later. We decided on two ‘Fleur de Sel’ chocolate brownies, as we both have a bit of a fetish for sweet meets salty.

Chocolate lipstickWhile paying for the brownies, I spotted some adorably authentic-looking chocolate lipsticks by the cash register. I decided to pick up a couple of them for my girls, ages six and nine, who are currently quite interested in both chocolate and lip products. The gift was a major (tasty) hit.

Somehow, some way…between the pleasant distractions of funky clothing stores and Italian shoe stores…those chunky chocolate brownies managed to remain intact until our drive back to Ottawa that night.

It was only as we were attempting to manoeuvre our way out of Montreal’s downtown core that we fumbled in Cath’s purse to find our treasure…and what a true treasure it was. Hands down, this was the best brownie I have ever consumed. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is on my top ten lists of all-time best desserts. In my life. And yes, it was that good. I must mention that each brownie came with its own little container of salted caramel sauce for dipping…sheer bliss.

Don’t take my word for it…try it for yourself! I promise that I’ll eat (chocolate-covered) crow if you disagree.

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The Gardner’s Great Escape

Mickey video

By Erin Gardner, Contributing Blogger

Our family took a much needed mini-vacation right before Christmas this past year. We were spending too much time in closed quarters, listening to far too many Christmas carols and if I had to watch Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas one more time, I was going to lose it.

So, in preparation for this little getaway, I made sure all the Christmas shopping was finished and every present was wrapped. This way there would be no last minute rushing around when we returned.

We packed up the car with colouring books and crayons, favourite toys, and as many electronic gadgets as we could to keep our kids happy and entertained. And let’s be honest, to keep Mommy and Daddy’s sanity intact! We even made sure they each had their own set of headphones so Claire could watch her Tinker Bell movie on the tablet, Ryan could play his Nintendo 3DS and Dennis and I could actually talk to each other and listen to our own music for the drive.

The last trip we had made as a family of four was in February 2011, when we went to Kissimmee, Florida with my parents. Disneyworld is the quintessential choice for a kid-friendly vacation; it’s our destination of choice when time and money permits. But if you’re interested in a less expensive, water-filled fun adventure that’s much closer to home, The Great Escape Lodge is a place you should definitely visit.

So, once we left Ottawa and merged on to Highway 416 and headed south to Ogdensburg, we were in full vacation mode. We had a planned stop at McDonald’s for an early lunch once we crossed the Canada-US border. (Boy, did that get Mom and Dad some bonus points!) From that point on, our drive was a pretty beautiful one. The GPS took us on a lovely drive through snow-covered trees and hills in the Adirondacks and there were barely any other cars on the road. We passed through the quaint little towns of Colton, Tupper Lake, Long Lake and Warrensburg. And as we merged on to the large I87 highway, we were only a twenty minute drive away from our final destination.

The Great Escape Lodge is actually located inside the Six Flags Amusement Park resort in Lake George, New York. In the summer, it will be teeming with families taking advantage of the roller coasters and rides. Of course in the winter, the amusement park is closed, but the reason for going to this particular location had nothing to do with what was going on in the Six Flags outdoor park. It was all about what was waiting for us inside the lodge.

Lobby viewPulling in to the driveway of the lodge was an experience in itself: the outside of the lodge featured a larger than life Santa, sleigh and reindeer and lots of Christmas lights. And inside was more of the same. The atrium boasted a huge, fully decorated Christmas tree, and we later found out that in the evenings kids could sign up for special reading time with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The lodge also has a Kids Club where kids can make crafts; some at an additional cost. Ryan and Claire both enjoyed colouring their very own Great Escape Lodge souvenir t-shirt! My kids were squealing with excitement and trying to take it all in. But they hadn’t even seen the piece de resistance: the 38,000 square foot indoor waterpark! And believe me, this waterpark caters to children (and adults!) of all ages.

The Tall Timbers Tree House is a multi-story structure that has over 160 interactive water features and three twisting body slides suitable for children 40” and over. Claire, my fearless three year old, put on her life jacket, marched up to the top of the tree house, picked the biggest slide and jumped on without hesitation, screaming with glee until she splashed into the warm water pool at the bottom. The Lodge keeps the water heated to a comfortable 84 degrees – bonus!

Ryan preferred to start his adventure in the Tak-It-Eesi-Creek lazy river. With Daddy in tow, Ryan chose an inflatable two-person tube and once settled, the current carried them around the perimeter of the water park amid mini waterfalls and fountain sprays.

The four of us tackled Avalanche which proved to make my stomach queasy, but was an instant favourite for everyone else. Avalanche is a twisting, turning raft ride for up to four people (in the dark!) and is meant to simulate a white-water rafting experience, complete with a pretty shocking 41-foot drop at the end. And again, my two young children showed no fear – they loved it!

My brave boy, Ryan, who was barely six when we went to the lodge, was the only Gardner to attempt the Boogie Bear Surf ride. I’m sure Claire would have loved to have jumped on a surf board and experience “the wave” but unfortunately she was a few inches too short. Ryan on the other hand, was able to stand up on the board on his second attempt – even if it was for only an instant. Those waves were pretty intense!

The Gardner boys spent several hours having fun going down the 290-foot water slides in their personal inner tube. Glacier Run and Snow Shoe Falls were a little too big for Claire so she and I stuck to Tall Timbers, which was Claire’s – and Mommy’s! – favourite spot to hang out anyways.

The waterpark also caters to families with infants in tow. Tip-A-Kanu-Beach is a shallow beach-inspired pool area that has pint-sized waterslides, a baby swing and surprise fountains.

The lodge has several dining options, but I recommend eating at one of the many family friendly Lake George area restaurants such as Applebee’s or Olive Garden. The prices of the food were decent, there was more variety for children, and the overall quality of the food was great. If you stay in a room that has a kitchenette like we did, then you already have breakfast and lunch covered. The room comes with a fridge, microwave, toaster and coffee maker. Dining in the suite will save time and money when all you want to do is jump into your bathing suit and head for the slides! Lake George has several grocery stores and a Wal-Mart so you can stock up on food and drink items to keep in your room.

An extended stay at a waterpark resort might not be for everyone. And if it isn’t, there are other area attractions that may peak your interest:

  • The Adirondack Mountains: The beauty of the Adirondacks simply can’t be missed. And what better way to see them then by boat? We went during the off season so unfortunately we couldn’t experience this unique boat tour. The Lake George Steamboat Company  offers a variety of cruises – one of them being an authentic Paddlewheeler! When we go back during the warmer months (because we will definitely be going back!) we will be adding this excursion to our itinerary.
  • Outlet shopping: If shopping is more your thing, less than a kilometre down the road from the lodge lies an extensive selection of outlet shops that include such name brands as: Gap, Coach, Gymboree, Banana Republic, Rockport and J.Crew.
  • Kid-friendly museum: In nearby Glen Falls, The World Awareness Children’s Museum allows children to explore different cultures using hands-on exhibits such as the Nigerian Marketplace and Japanese Washitsu.

We spent three nights at the lodge, in an impressive Three Queen Suite (with a separate bedroom for the kids!) and we contemplated extending it for a fourth.  The kids absolutely loved it, and still ask to go back.  And with it being only a four-hour drive from Ottawa, I know we will be planning a second visit in the very near future.  A vacation that the entire family can enjoy is a rare thing.  Dennis and I enjoyed it as much as the kids did!

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A Mini Family Vacay (Toronto, ON)

Ian and the kids pile on the hotel bed.

With our summer adventures in the rearview mirror, it had been a while since our little family took a break from day-to-day life in Ottawa. So naturally, our girls were thrilled when their dad announced we had enough Marriott hotel points for a free stay at a Toronto hotel (the silver lining to his frequent work trips). Enter the mini vacay…the perfect antidote to the November doldrums.

While making our plans, we debated whether to book our stay at a downtown hotel or at a suburban location. With limited time during a two-day weekend – which also included visiting some relatives in suburban Toronto – we figured we wouldn’t get the chance to see too many downtown sites this time around. That meant that our biggest requirement was a pool for the kids to enjoy – as well as proximity to some family-friendly restaurants. So we opted to stay at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Vaughan.

After making the four-hour drive from Ottawa, we checked in to the hotel and continued a small family tradition: letting the kids take off their shoes and jump up and down on the bed. The novelty of hotel stays has not yet worn off for our girls, so this is their way of kicking off the party. As a parent, I’m thrilled to let them do it, as I relish in the fact that I won’t be the one making that bed all weekend!

Our youngest daughter samples the chocolate milkshake at Dave & Buster’s.

While it didn’t exactly offer a spectacular view – we overlooked the parking lots of IKEA and Dave & Buster’s Restaurant – the hotel totally delivered for us. The front desk staff were friendly, the room was spacious and immaculate, and the pool was a great temperature for the kids to swim. Soon after checking in, we went for a family swim and subsequent hot tub soak. After working up an appetite, we started looking for supper options.

Sticking with the suburban theme of big-box convenience, we decided to try out Dave & Buster’s, which was a short walk from the hotel. While my husband was familiar with the U.S.-based restaurant/entertainment chain, I had never heard of it and was a bit curious to check it out.

My initial impression of Dave & Buster’s was that the place is absolutely cavernous (remember, the theme of all things Americana is “the bigger the better!”). This was probably heightened by the fact that we were four of about 25 people in the entire place, which felt more than a little strange. Nevertheless, we sat down at a booth in the vast dining room and perused the menu for supper. From the family perspective, I have to give them credit – they have a pretty extensive kids’ menu that pleased our girls; the highlight of the night being their thick, frosty milkshakes.

Based on her driving skills at the arcade, it’s a good thing we’ve got a few years before our oldest gets her license.

After we finished eating, we walked down the hall from the dining room to the games room – which was essentially a massive arcade. We bought a swipe card for $20 worth of games, then strolled around till we found games we wanted to try. Our five-year-old loved the Ice Age ‘Ice Breaker’ game (which was basically a modified version of Whack-a-Mole), while our eight-year-old tried out an interactive motorcycle racing game. But the best memory of the evening may have been our whole family going head-to-head at good, old-fashioned Skee ball. Things started off a bit shaky for the kids – who had never played before – balls were flying up in the air and landing in totally different lanes. But after an introductory lesson from Dad, the girls improved immensely; especially Elissa, who was thrilled to see her score increase with each round.

As we left the arcade, we noticed a huge line of people waiting to buy passes, and groups of people streamed in as we walked out the front doors. So it would seem that Dave & Buster’s is a pretty popular spot after all; as a mom to young kids, I sometimes forget that most people don’t choose to call it a night at 9 p.m.

After a full day of driving, swimming and arcade fun, we were all grateful for our comfy beds. The girls shared the pull-out couch, while Ian and I felt downright posh sleeping on a king-sized bed with a pillow-topped mattress. After all, sometimes the simplest indulgences are the best – made sweeter by the fact that you can share them with the ones you love the most.

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A Staycation in Ottawa

By Stefania Moffatt, Contributing Blogger

On a brisk Saturday morning in May, the Moffatt clan packed their car in a suburb of Ottawa and made their way to downtown Ottawa for an exciting staycation at one of the local hotels, the Ottawa Marriott Hotel. Although we weren’t too far from home, we wanted to have a relaxing and fun time, so we chose a local hotel with a pool and two playrooms catering to kids. The hotel was also within walking distance from many of the attractions in our nation’s capital.

A view of the Museum of Civilization (located on the Quebec side) from downtown Ottawa.

On that cool Saturday morning, we dropped our bags off in our room after check-in, grabbed our sweatshirts and headed out to stroll along Sparks Street Mall, which claims to be North America’s Original Pedestrian Mall. We slowly made our way to Paul’s Boat Lines to enjoy an Ottawa River Cruise.

So often we live in a city and don’t take the time to explore. The cruise was a relaxing way to learn about Ottawa’s local history. We also caught a glimpse of some beautiful historical landmarks in the area.

Of course, there is a snack bar on the boat and the children gobbled down chips and chocolate bars while we enjoyed the sights.

Our next destination after the cruise and was a leisurely stroll through the Byward Market as we made our way to Zak’s Diner. Service at the diner was a tad slow for the Saturday lunchtime crowd, but enjoyable nonetheless as a place to eat with family in downtown Ottawa.

Relaxing on the lawns of Parliament Hill.

With full bellies and the weather growing increasingly hot and sticky, we made our way to Parliament Hill.

When we arrived on Parliament Hill we felt like wilted flowers and needed to lie on the plush grass and rest. This was a good opportunity to people watch and appreciate the beauty of the Parliament buildings.

Once we had re-energized we were ready to tour the Peace Tower. A tour of the Peace Tower is free of charge. Once you arrive, go to the Visitor Welcome Centre at the base of the Peace Tower. All visitors go through security and line-ups are to be expected. We visited on a very hot day in May; we waited in line for about 20 minutes. Fortunately the wait was inside, but it was still hot.

Taking a breather in front of the Peace Tower.

Once our tour of downtown Ottawa was complete we made our way to the hotel playrooms, dinner and then we checked out the pool. The next morning we had a delicious breakfast at Cora’s, which the girls thought was the best place EVER!

I recommend everyone check out what their city has to offer. Taking a day to play tourist and enjoy a staycation in your hometown is fun.

(Sidenote: A night-time activity, which we enjoyed one night during the summer is Mosaika. It’s a beautiful light show on Parliament Hill.)

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