OTTAWA - The Eternal Flame burns brightly and swishes in the summer breeze, while the Canadian flag atop the Peace Tower appears to be touching the clouds.
We sit on a patch of grass on Parliament Hill and await the start of Mosaika, a free bilingual sound-and-light show that showcases “Canada through the eyes of its people.”
It’s like summer camp with visitors and locals of all ages gathered together on blankets and lawn chairs for an exciting evening. My 6-year-old son Noah throws his arms around my neck and says, “I love it here.”
The music begins. Colourful lights flash on the historic Parliament buildings we toured days earlier.
Overlooking the majestic Ottawa River, the buildings and grounds of Parliament Hill welcome 1.5 million visitors annually. The sandstone displays exquisite carved designs of foliage, animals, plants and emblems of the French, English, Irish and Scottish who were Canada’s earliest settlers.
Left: Miriam Porter and son Noah infront of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Middle: One of the many furry friends Noah got to meet on Parliament Hill. Right: Visiting the RCMP stables was "awesome" according to Noah.
Days earlier, we arrived in Ottawa on kid-friendly VIA Rail. My travelling companion considers himself a professional train rider, so upon boarding he politely requests the free kid’s package. I watch Noah happily build the cardboard trains he treasures for the remainder of our trip.
We barely step foot in our hotel room when Noah announces with excitement, “It’s time to get the money!” I stare at him confused and look longingly at my new comfy bed and white fluffy duvet. Noah continues with urgency, “You said I could see where the money is born at the Mint! We have to go before it’s gone!”
So off we go to find the birth of the gold coin. But first I insist on a history lesson, so we stop at the Currency Museum. Despite being all about money, admission is free. They have lots of hands-on kids’ activities; make your own souvenir fossil, huge money puzzles and a banknote design station.
Noah is fascinated with the old currency bills from around the world and asks the helpful staff a gazillion questions. We see banknotes, coins, tokens and ancient currencies like shells, beads, bricks and precious metals. Noah mischievously looks at me, “Mommy, I have tons of (sea) shells at home — I will use them to buy toys!”
With the history of money behind us it’s time to go get some! If you enjoy exploring on foot, many of Ottawa’s tourist attractions are within walking distance of each other and conveniently close to downtown hotels. On the way to the Royal Canadian Mint, Noah is his usual excited chatterbox self; “What does a million dollars look like? What about a billion? Do they count every piece of money or will they notice if I take some?”
The Mint, founded in 1908, offers guided tours. The facility produces hand-crafted collector and commemorative coins, gold bullion coins, medals and medallions. My money-hungry gold-loving son watches in awe through the second floor glass windows as staff skillfully work below. Like patriotic Canadians we love the NHL sets and athlete medals from the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games — the Mint crafted each one and no two designs are alike.
Left: Noah gets to clown around outside a museum. Middle: Noah gets to see how Canada makes its money. Right: Noah gets a history lesson at one of the great museums in Ottawa.
I catch Noah’s bulging eye reaction as he stares at the $1million solid gold bar on display in the gift shop. “No,” I tell him quickly before he even asks, “You can’t have it.”
The next morning bright and early we set out for Parliament Hill. We arrive at the big white tent for our free tickets to tour the buildings. As I savour my coffee I tell Noah, “the federal government is here and reps from all across Canada gather to make the laws. It’s the home of Canadian democracy and a national symbol to the world.”
I’m not sure if he shares my passion but he’s definitely intrigued. The tours are in the Centre Block, where Senators and Members of Parliament debate national issues. On either side stand the East and West Blocks, originally built as offices for the public service and now home to MPs and their staffs.
After going through airport-style security screening, we enter the impressive building. We look around in awe at the grand marble floors and stone walls. Our tall young bilingual tour guide, Phillip, asks the crowd, “Who is the Prime Minister of Canada?” Noah immediately shouts back with confidence, “John Lennon!”
I pretend he’s joking but he’s not. (Remind me not to teach Noah about the Beatles on the same day as politics).
We tour the huge House of Commons Chamber which is traditionally decorated in green to follow the British House of Commons. The Senate displays bright red carpeting and upholstery with a spectacular ceiling of gold leaf that makes us feel like royalty.
Upon entering the famous Library the crowd grows silent as Phillip explains its history. In 1916 there was a huge tragic fire that started in the Centre Block reading room. Sadly, the fire killed seven people and destroyed everything but the northwest wing and the Library. The fortunate part was that a quick-thinking employee closed the Library’s iron doors just in time to save thousands of irreplaceable books.
Last stop on the tour is the Peace Tower — the 92.2-metre-high national landmark with an observation deck. The Peace Tower is dedicated to the more than 65,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives during World War I and is appropriately named to commemorate Canada’s commitment to peace.
We leave the Parliament buildings and are greeted by a loud marching band coming towards us. Noah is ecstatic as row upon row of soldiers wearing bright red tunics and fluffy bear skin hats trek closer. It’s the official Changing the Guard Ceremony. Each morning at 10, from late June until late August, you can watch this free spectacular event.
After all this sightseeing, we work up an appetite and go in search of food at the famous ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest and biggest public markets, and as popular now as it was in 1910.
Above: Taking a Via train to Ottawa was all part of the fun.
First established by Lt.-Col. John By in 1826, the Market has casual outdoor cafes, upscale dining, nightlife, shopping, specialty shops, and lots of fresh reasonably priced produce.
Noah gobbles up delicious blueberries, raspberries, apricots and an assortment of crunchy crisp vegetables. We love the market so much we go daily during our stay.
Besides the famous Market, Col. By is also responsible for helping build the Rideau Canal, the World Heritage wonder that twists through the heart of Ottawa. It opened in 1832 and is the oldest continuously operated canal in North America.
So after another adventure-packed day, including an educational visit to the Museum of Nature where we learn about dinosaurs, fossils, early mammals, minerals, rocks, molecular crystal structures and stalagmites, our heads are swimming with new information.
We chill with a picnic of fresh market treats on the shores of the Rideau Canal and watch paddleboats, canoes and sightseeing cruises gently sail past.
Earlier, I heard from locals that there’s a small cat sanctuary behind the Parliament Buildings. Noah and I are huge animal lovers with two cats at home so we decide to search out the wild felines.
Suddenly, Noah grabs my arm and whispers, “There is a beaver by the bushes!” I assume he’s mistaking a tabby cat for a beaver. Tourists frantically snap photos as a brown tail waves in the wind. I look closer. Sure enough, a medium-sized brown beaver stares back — very Canadian!
We continue walking up the Hill, past the Police and Peace Officers’ Memorial, dedicated to the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives protecting Canada’s communities. I am reading the inscribed names when Noah tugs at my arm. “Mommy, now I see bunnies!” Four little bunnies scamper across our path.
Government staff walking by smile at us because we found the magic of the Hill at sunset — animals everywhere!
It’s getting dark, so we leave in search of tomcats. The cat sanctuary, started in the 1970s, is run entirely by volunteers and donations. The cats have been Hill residents for decades. It’s rumored that Col. By brought hundreds of cats here when he built the Rideau Canal to help control the rodent population.
No matter how they got here, the cats were used for pest control in the Parliament Buildings until 1955, when they were replaced by chemicals. Committed volunteers now ensure the colony remains safe, warm, fed and loved — or at least “liked” … they have their own Facebook page, The Cats of Parliament Hill.
On our last night, as we watch the sound-and-light show, an image of the Canadian flag morphs into a big red heart on the Parliament Buildings and a voice booms out, “Canada is the heart” as O Canada plays.
I glance over at my little fourth-generation Canadian and see him quietly singing the words to our national anthem. I hear his sweet voice mixing up the French and English words, but it all blends together in harmony with other voices and accents from around the world. •
Top 10 family activites in Ottawa: 1. Parliament Hill – Free year-round guided tours. Get tickets at the visitor welcome centre inside the Centre Block / www.parl.gc.ca/vis
/ 2. Changing the Guard (Summer Only) - Ceremony is held daily during the summer at starts at 10 a.m. / 3. Canadian Museum of Nature – Experience world-class galleries, learn about fossils, dinosaurs and all sorts of creepy bugs! (Adults $12, Youth $10, Children $8); www.nature.ca
/ 4. ByWard Market – Just east of Parliament Hill, this amazing historic farmers’ market and shopping district also includes outdoor cafes and upscale dining. www.byward-market.com
/ 5. RCMP stables - Musical Ride Centre in the Rockcliffe Stables offers free tours year round but the Musical Ride travels extensively between May and October. The Musical Ride Show is held the last week of June in Ottawa. www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/mr-ce/centre-eng.htm
/ 6. Royal Canadian Mint – This historic building produces hand-crafted collector coins, gold coins and medals. Tours are 45 minutes; reservations are recommended. (Adults $6, Kids $3); www.mint.ca
/ 7. Lady Dive Amphibious Tour – The only amphibious tour in the city travels on land and water for about one hour and is both entertaining and educational. (Adults $31, Children $21); www.ladydive.com
/ 8. Canadian Museum of Civilization – Located on the shores of the Ottawa River opposite Parliament Hill but technically in Gatineau, Que. It’s easily accessible from downtown Ottawa and is home to the Canadian Children’s Museum where kids can travel the world through over 30 exhibits and experience different cultures and environments with hands on learning. (Adults $12, Children $8); www.civilization.ca
/ 9. Calypso Theme Waterpark – Just 20 minutes east of the capital, it’s the biggest theme waterpark in Canada with 35 slides & wave pool; open June to September 7 days a week (Tickets $24 - $35); www.calypsopark.com
/ 10. Winterlude – Ottawa’s winter celebration includes skating on the world’s largest rink, the Rideau Canal and lots of ice sculptures. http:www.canadascapital.gc.ca/celebrate/winterlude
/ For information on Ottawa, go to www.ottawatourism.ca
/ VIA Rail travels to Ottawa daily from Toronto, www.viarail.ca