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InterContinental Toronto Centre Hotel
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Salt water pool at the InterContinental Toronto Centre.
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Bakery at St. Lawrence Market
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Eating at the St. Lawrence Market is fun for the whole family.
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Yianni's at St. Lawrence Market.
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Hockey Hall of Fame on Front St.
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Young visitor plays hockey at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
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Original Stanley Cup at Hockey Hall of Fame.
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InterContinental Hotel & Ripley's Aquarium of Canada
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Young visitor enthralled by giant ray in Dangerous Lagoon at Ripley's.
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Young visitors watch diver feed rays in Ray Bay at Ripley's.
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Girl inside a bubble in the tank at Ripley's
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Watching the sharks at Ripley's.
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Baby watching giant ray in Dangerous Lagoon.
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Shark in Dangerous Lagoon at Ripley's.
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Playing in the water at Ripley's.
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Enjoying the touch tank at Ripley's.
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Dinosaur skull at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
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Posing for a photo with Barosaurus.
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Another view of the Barosaurus.
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Playing in Discovery Gallery at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)
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Digging for fossils at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
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Checking out dinosaurs on the computer at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
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Up close with a skull at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
This is the year for a visit to our northern neighbor. Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday throughout 2017. The New York Times recently named Canada as the world’s number one place to visit. Last year the newspaper named Toronto, Canada’s largest city, as one of the top ten places to visit in the world.
TO Canada with Love is Toronto’s yearlong program of celebrations, commemorations, and exhibitions honoring Canada’s 150th birthday. The program is Toronto’s cultural love letter to the country, offering a rich tapestry of more than 30 city-produced events taking place across the city.
The city is just a two-hour drive from the Buffalo area unless the traffic gremlins get in your way. Best of all, the US dollar goes almost one third further in Canada.
Toronto has always been very family-friendly and last year Tourism Toronto launched a kid’s first web site at Yo-Toronto.com. Developed to inspire and entertain younger guests, the site is filled with games, activities, videos, and fun facts. Kids get the opportunity to participate in the planning of their family’s next weekend in the city.
“Toronto is truly Canada’s downtown, offering families the biggest and best attractions and a global diversity of food, festivals and culture,” explained Johanne Bélanger, President and CEO of Tourism Toronto. “It’s an ideal combination of fun and learning.”
The city is Canada’s most-visited destination, welcoming 14.3 million overnight visitors in 2015. Family travel to Toronto is increasing in all seasons with the recent additions of major new attractions including Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and the addition of Giant Pandas at the Toronto Zoo.
It has long been my favorite weekend getaway and it seems there are always new and improved hotels and attractions. Location is important when choosing a hotel especially when time is limited. InterContinental Toronto Centre on Front Street, just a couple blocks from Union Station and many favorite attractions, was the perfect choice. Their salt-water pool offered a relaxing break from touring and a variety of spa services are available.
First stop was Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada just behind the hotel. The hotel offers packages that include admission. This watery attraction offers a wondrous immersion into the world of sharks, manta rays, and other creatures of the deep that fascinated all ages — even the very young.
Canada’s largest indoor aquarium showcases more than 16,000 marine animals and features North America’s biggest shark collection as well as 75-year old giant lobsters, sting ray and bamboo shark touch pools, and daily live dive shows.
The Dangerous Lagoon is clearly a popular and awe-inspiring exhibit for families. There is a football-length, glass-viewing tunnel with a moving glide path through sharks, green sea turtles, sawfish, moray eels, and many other fish. Overhead there are sharks: to the left, more sharks; and to the right, sharks again, as well as other sea creatures.
There is even a Shark Reef crawl tunnel where kids can crawl into the reef and experience the sensation of being in the middle of a gigantic fish and shark tank. Once inside, few young crawlers wanted to come out.
Be sure to check out the times for regular dive shows in Ray Bay. These popular shows involve a scuba diver in the tank armed with food that rays have learned to eat out of the diver’s hand. An aquarium staffer provides background and tips about the life and habits of the rays. She is able to talk with the diver which is always fun. Up on the surface, there is a ray touch pool.
The 17-tank Canadian Waters Gallery displays animals from Canada’s own backyard including the Great Lakes Basin.
The Discovery Centre is a big hit for all ages and especially the younger set. It features a tsunami simulator, a Great Lakes Locks exhibit where everyone was having fun getting wet, a yellow research submarine, and bubble pop-ups among the adorable puffer fish or the popular clown fish.
There are more than 100 interactive exhibits including touch pools, multimedia displays, and learning centers.
The 1815-foot high iconic CN Tower is almost next-door. During my three-day visit I often looked longingly at the tower but, alas, it remained cloaked in clouds and fog. So a return visit would have to wait for a clear day. The tower has an incredible 1,776 steps and six glass-fronted elevators in case the steps are a bit much.
The observation decks provide breathtaking views on clear days. Reportedly very clear days yield views of the spray from Niagara Falls, but that is a sight I have never seen.
There is also another thrilling or terrifying (to me) attraction at the tower. It is called EdgeWalk and actually involves six people at a time taking a walk outside around the circumference of the roof. Of course, they are securely tethered and it is quite safe. Daredevils (not me) do praise the world’s highest external walk on a building.
The deck with the glass floor is a thrill at all times. The award-winning revolving restaurant is open for lunch and dinner.
Just a few blocks down Front St. is the St. Lawrence Market, a city gem that has been operating since 1803. It is the anchor for the historic neighborhood. National Geographic rated it as one of the world’s great markets. It is comprised of three main buildings — the North Market, the South Market, and St. Lawrence Hall.
It is the perfect spot for breakfast on Saturday morning or shopping for a picnic. There are a variety of reasonably priced restaurants and bakeries. Beyond the many food shops offering everything from caviar to fresh vegetables to mussels, there are small shops selling crafts, imported clothing, kitchen wares, and a multitude of other goods. Often musicians entertain shoppers.
The market is closed on Sundays and Mondays. The North Market hosts a weekly Sunday antiques and collectibles show and sale.
On the way back to the InterContinental there was time for a stop at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Front St. It is housed in the majestic 1885 Bank of Montreal building. This is a Mecca for hockey lovers everywhere. You can attempt to stop Wayne Gretzky’s winning shot in virtual reality or have your photo taken with hockey’s biggest prize — the Stanley Cup. The sport’s original Stanley Cup is housed in one of the bank vaults.
Interested in a career in sports reporting? Try out the broadcast booth where you can get a taste of reporting on a game. Young hockey fans were clearly enjoying wielding a hockey stick and hitting the puck or blocking goals. There are also a multitude of interactive multimedia exhibits and hockey memorabilia.
The InterContinental is also perfectly situated for exploring underground — a great choice for bad weather weekends. The downtown underground walkway is a marvel — with 19 miles of shopping arcades and walkways. Known officially as PATH, Guinness World Records rates it as the world’s longest underground walkway.
More than 50 buildings are connected through PATH. Twenty parking garages, five subway stations, two major department stores, six major hotels, and the railway terminal and bus station are accessible through PATH. There are restaurants galore.
It also provides links to some of Toronto’s major tourist and entertainment attractions including the Hockey Hall of Fame, Roy Thomson Hall, Air Canada Centre, Rogers Centre and the CN Tower. City Hall and Metro Hall are also connected through PATH. Maps are available at sites along the route.
The InterContinental is also just a block from two Mirvish theatres — the Princess of Wales Theatre and the venerable Royal Alexandria Theatre, as well as Roy Thomson Hall. The wildly popular musical The Book of Mormon will be playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre through April 16.
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Canada’s largest museum of natural history and world cultures, is easy to reach by subway and offers the kids a new experience riding Toronto’s clean and welcoming transit system. Walk down to the underground station at Union Station and just a few stops later you will arrive at the Museum stop.
Try to arrive by the museum’s opening, especially if you are planning a weekend visit. The museum is very popular and was quite busy later in the morning. There are a host of fun and entertaining activities for kids of all ages included with admission.
The second floor Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs is surely one of the most popular. Kids could be heard saying “Wow!” or “Look at that!” as they entered the gallery. The museum has one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of dinosaur skulls and showcases many of them.
Gordo, at an impressive 88 feet long, is the ROM’s gallery centerpiece. It is the largest real fossil dinosaur skeleton mounted in Canada and one of only three Barosaurus skeletons on display in the world. A nearby computer encourages visitors to take photos of them in front of the skeleton. They can then send them to friends and family and post on the museum’s site.
Hundreds of specimens welcome visitors to the gallery bursting with unusual dinosaurs, fossilized plants, insects, and marine life.
The rise of mammals followed the great extinction of dinosaurs. The Reed Gallery of the Age of Mammals displays a mastodon, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth among the more than 400 specimens.
Kids and families are especially welcome in the Family Gallery of Biodiversity. There are many touchable specimens, interactive displays, and trained facilitators to help visitors enjoy and explore the hundreds of specimens.
Don’t miss the CIBC Discovery Gallery where kids can try on costumes, dig for dinosaur bones and examine specimens such as fossils ands meteorites. Preschoolers have their own special area with puzzles, toys, and costumes.
“Out of the Depths the Blue Whale Story” opens March 11th and tells the remarkable and tragic story of nine rare blue whales who became trapped in ice and died off Newfoundland in 2014. They usually sink when they die but two washed ashore offering an unprecedented opportunity for research.
Visitors will be able to come face to face with an enormous 80-foot blue whale skeleton and discover the amazing biology of the whales. Discover what is being done to protect the world’s largest animal. Special March Break programming will involve the blue whale.
“This was an opportunity for us, born of tragedy, to make something more of her life,” explained Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research for the ROM.
Travel Tip of the Month: For more information on Toronto visit www.seetorontonow.com or call 800-499-2514 or 416-203-2500. For information on special 150th birthday celebrations in Toronto visit toronto.ca/canada/sa.
For the InterContinental Toronto Centre visit www.torontocentre.intercontinental.com or call 416-597-1400. There are also special March packages. Many attractions have special events and programming in March, traditionally spring break season in Ontario.
Deborah Williams is a veteran travel writer who lives in Holland, NY. She is the winner of the Society of American Travel Writers’ Gold Travel Writing Award and is the author of “The Erie Canal” Exploring New York’s Great Canals.” Learn more at www.deborahwilliams.com.