Ottawa family fun: Day trip to Brockville

It’s been a weird summer, hasn’t it? Thanks to COVID, we didn’t do half as many little day trips and family adventures as we usually do, though I am grateful that my pre-teen and teenagers are generally willing to still come along for the occasional day trip. We love small towns and have been to Perth, Almonte, Carleton Place, Prescott, Kemptville, Carp — and somehow, we have up until this summer completely overlooked Brockville. Please allow me to share our rave review of our simple but wonderful day trip to Brockville.


We started with fish and chips from Don’s take-out window. We’ve been looking for good fish and chips in or near Ottawa for years, and this is easily the best we’ve had since the Black Dog Café closed their take-out window. We took ours a block or so to Hardy Park and sat on benches on the boardwalk, enjoying the river view but not the bees. So! Many! Bees! Definitely worth both the trek and the bee sting on Beloved’s hand, though.

Fish and chips

After that, we wandered over to the Aquatarium for our scheduled tour. I was really impressed with the way they managed everything with respect to COVID. We really haven’t gone out much at all since the pandemic started, and though I was a little twitchy at first being led around in a small group with three other families, the guide was clearly cognizant of social distancing and did a great job of managing the group, and a cleaner trailed behind us wiping surfaces as we passed. Our guide Alex also added a lot of value with her stories and narration. We had a Groupon, so if you can snag one it makes the admission even more reasonable.


We loved (LOVED!) the otters, and the beaver (Justin Beaver, natch) and other sea creatures were quite cool, too. Four of us have been playing Animal Crossing rather obsessively this summer, so we were amused to see so many of the critters from the game live in the Aquatarium: welks, sea stars, urchins, sea snails, turtles, sturgeon, pike, and blue gills. If your kids (or you!) love Animal Crossing, it’s worth it for the otters alone!

fish at the aquatarium

Our tour took maybe 75 or 90 minutes, and I genuinely enjoyed all of it. However, the real hit of the afternoon was the Brockville Railway Tunnel. It’s only a block or so walk from the Aquatrium (which itself is only a block from Don’s fish and chips and two blocks from the park – everything is so convenient!) to Canada’s oldest railway tunnel (constructed between 1854 and 1860), which has been converted to a fun tourist attraction. As you walk the 525m tunnel, light shows play around you. My snap-and-insta-loving teen was in selfie heaven, and we took a few shots that will make great cover art when the band drops our first album. I really did not expect them (or me) to be as entertained as we were, and it’s completely free.

Being on the St Lawrence seaway, Brockville is also just a lovely little town. We finished our visit with ice cream on the boardwalk and another little wander along the water. We didn’t even have time to visit the shops of the quaint downtown that reminds of me of the many villages of my southern Ontario childhood. We’ll visit those when we go back, because we all agreed that Brockville is a new family-favourite day trip destination.

The one with the radioactive sea glass

Longtime readers of the blog know that we’ve been obsessed with sea glass for many, many years. I was first introduced to the idea when we visited Bar Harbor, way back when we were a family of four. My bloggy friend Phantom Scribbler introduced me to collecting tiny pebble-sized bits of glass as we wandered along the sea shore.

By sheer chance, our next major family vacation in 2010 brought us to a beach near Lunenberg, Nova Scotia that was so rich in sea glass that we filled our pockets to overflowing each time the tide went out, and an addiction was born.

Four of the last five years, we’ve scoured the beaches of Prince Edward Island, and especially the coastline near Souris, picking bits of joy out of the sand. I’ve made sea glass jewellery, key chains, mobiles and even a sea glass lantern, and I’m sure we have more than five kilos of it stashed in various containers around the house. By some weird fluke, though, this is the year that we found our most unusual and precious pieces.

The first was this purple coil. Purple is a rare colour for sea glass, and this crazy curl is quite unusual. In fact, we couldn’t help but enter it into the “best shard” competition at the Mermaid’s Tears sea glass festival that happened to be taking place in Souris when we were there last month. It took honourable mention, and the judge said its only drawback was that it was a relatively young piece and didn’t have much pitting or other signs of aging. We wonder what it could have been?

sea glass

It wasn’t until we got home, though, that we realized the other treasure we’d found. Beloved was scanning through our haul with a black light flashlight and one piece glowed unmistakably: we’d found not one but TWO elusive pieces of radioactive sea glass, also known as UV glass, Vaseline glass or uranium glass, because it is in fact made with trace amounts of uranium. Yes, THAT uranium, the one they use to make nuclear bombs! It’s not overtly visible to the naked eye, and we had no idea these were a pieces destined for my ‘favourites’ jar until it glowed smartly and obviously when Beloved skimmed the black light over them.

Uranium glass, or UV glass

Apparently, uranium used to be a commonly used ingredient back in the day to add certain colours to glass tableware. In doing a little research, we found out that the flourescence of UV glass is totally unrelated its radioactivity, which is actually measurable with a Geiger counter. However, since only small amounts of uranium were used during the manufacture of the glass, the amount of radioactivity in uranium glass is not considered harmful.

Isn’t it amazing how it looks completely unremarkable under normal light (left photo), but glows neon bright under the black light? Note to self, bring black light flashlight to PEI next vacation!!

comparison between UV uranium glass and sea glass

From a long but fascinating delve into the science and art behind Vaseline glass: “Regardless of who did what first, we know that [uranium] itself was identified in 1789, when German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth named it after our solar system’s most recently discovered planet. Back then, uranium was seen as just one more mineral to color clear silicon dioxide, the main constituent in the sand glass is made from. Chemists like Klaproth knew that cadmium turned glass yellow, cobalt made it blue, manganese produced violet shades, and certain compounds of gold went red when heated, blown, and cooled.”

So now we’ve added to our collection a small fragment of red (one tiny fragment in boxes and boxes of sea glass!), a lovely frosty marble, a bit of milk glass, quite a bit of the more rare cobalt and purple glass, and now this fun discovery. Isn’t that the coolest thing? We just love wandering the seaside like magpies, looking for shiny bits, and treasures like these make the search that much more fun — and addictive!

Have you collected enough to have a favourite shard of sea glass or a fun story to tell about how you found some? And now for the really hard question: WHAT should I do with it???

Five fun things for teens and tweens in London

Planning an itinerary for London that equally engages two teens, a tween, and two kids-at-heart meant tempering some of the more traditional sightseeing options (“seriously Mom, another church?”) with visits to more manga shops than you could have ever imagined existed. It also meant bookshops, candy shops, and some unexpectedly engaging adventures.

In general, they loved to play “spot the cultural differences” and were somewhere between engaged and patient with the grown-ups’ interest in history and art. Lucas, at age 10, did comment at one point in Paris that maybe a little bit too much of our vacation had been about dead people. We used a LOT of pop culture and literary references to engage the boys in various activities, giving them meaningful context beyond the history books and top tourist attractions. Harry Potter, Les Miserables, the Beatles, Monty Python, Neil Gaiman, and Victor Hugo were but a few of the sources of our inspiration.

Here are five things my boys loved about London. (Stay tuned for the Paris edition!)

1. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich

The view from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich

This was my geek-out, and high on my list of things to see in London. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, a UNESCO world heritage site, sits high on a hill (with a 60 degree incline for part of the climb!) a little bit east of the core. Not only did we learn the origins of Greenwich Mean Time, and admire some truly spectacular views out over London, but the boys were amused by the arbitrariness of standing with one foot in each hemisphere and the unresolved dispute over where exactly the Prime Meridian lies. If you’re at all interested in space or time, this is a very cool place to visit. There was an interesting looking retro market in Greenwich that I deeply regret we did not have time to explore — next time!

Feet on the Prime Meridian

2. A “cruise” on the Thames Clipper

There are plenty of boat tours and cruises on the River Thames from which to choose. Because they are more for commuting than for tourists, the Thames Clippers are a simple and inexpensive way to see London from the Thames. There’s no commentary or tour guides, but we still loved our trip from Vauxall Bridge to Greenwich, with a change at London Bridge. If you use Google Maps, you can more or less figure out what you’re looking at as you go along. There is no better way to see the Tower Bridge than going under it, in our opinion! And, we could pay using our Oyster cards, buying a paper ticket for Lucas because he’s young enough to ride the Tube, buses and trams without fare and therefore did not have an Oyster card. I think we paid about £7 for the grownups for our one-way fare, and half that for the kids under 15. The ride on the Clipper came in second to the Harry Potter studio tour on my boys’ list of favourite London adventures!

Passing under the Tower of London

3. Chasing Harry Potter

I’d started out incorporating all my Harry Potter thoughts here, but then they grew and expanded like someone had cast an engorgio spell on them, and they spilled out into not one but TWO separate blog posts, one on finding Harry Potter locations in London and the other on the Making of Harry Potter studio tour.

Needless to say, I know few teens (nor Gen Xers!) who wouldn’t love chasing down at least a little bit of Harry Potter while visiting London.

4. Camden Market

This was the unexpected gem of our visit. We had time to kill on the morning of our visit to the Harry Potter studio tour, and hit the Camden Lock Market on a whim. I only wish we’d left ourselves much more time to explore this delightful warren of indie shops, crafters, vintage sales and commercial outlets with an alternative vibe. We had fantastic street food for lunch, and I got my very first (and long-coveted) pair of Doc Martens – authentic Made in England brand with gorgeous embroidered flowers to boot, erm, shoe. We approached the Market from the much more subdued Chalk Farm station side, and on the way out enjoyed the funky vibe of the main strip on the way back to the Camden Town Station. Even earlyish on a weekday morning, the place was alive with edgy energy – I can only imagine what it’s like on a Friday night!

Camden Town

5. The Tower of London

I was surprised by how much we enjoyed the Tower of London. From the resident ravens to the Beefeater tours, and from the medieval torture devices to the ancient history of the place, we found the Tower a fascinating place to explore. We’d been told to avoid the crush of people wanting to see the Crown Jewels by arriving as early as possible and going straight to the Crown Jewels, so we did, and had them practically to ourselves. Although they were interesting, we were a little underwhelmed by them and had more fun making jokes about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and the Cloak of Visibility. (Touring London with kids who make Monty Python quips is an adventure in itself and ample reward for many long years of parenting.)

Family travel at the Tower of London

Bonus recommendation: our favourite wander

Wandering is hands-down my favourite way to explore, and there’s no shortage of amazing places to wander in London. We found ourselves drawn to the area around Covent Gardens, SoHo, the Strand and Trafalgar Square again and again during our visit. The pop culture megastore Forbidden Planet on Shaftsbury Avenue was a hit – I bought a paper copy of Good Omens to augment my ecopy, but we decided against hauling home the heavy tome that contained all the Monty Python scripts. Hardy’s Candy Store has sherbet lemons and lots of other sweets, along with the eclectic shops on Neal Street, and if you’ve got £299 to blow on a life-sized Firebolt of your very own, The Nobel Collection had lots of interesting toys for big kids!

We were also sad that we couldn’t make the timing work on a Mudlarking adventure on the Thames foreshore or a graffiti street art tour and workshop in Shoreditch, both of which were on my kids’ want-to-do list and will simply have to wait until NEXT time.

Care to add to the list? What places or adventures have your teens and tweens loved in London?

Finding Harry Potter in London

If there was a leitmotif for our trip to London, it was Harry Potter. I have spent the last year reading the books to Lucas for the first time (after having read them to the older boys several years ago, and of course reading each book several times by myself) and we broke our cardinal rule of “you must finish the book before you view the movie” to watch all eight of the movies before we left, even though we’re only midway through reading The Order of the Phoenix. All that to say, we were well marinated in Harry Potter lore heading into this trip, and we all five love the books and the movies.

Kings Cross Platform 9 3/4

I have a whole separate blog post planned for our visit to the Making of Harry Potter studio tour, but even if you don’t opt for the tour, there is plenty of Harry Potter minutiae outside the Warner Bros. studio to enjoy. Here are a few of the places we enjoyed finding, either by specifically seeking them out or just recognizing them as we passed by, that have served as film locations in the eight movies of the Harry Potter franchise.

In our first day of wandering and exploring, we crossed the Millennium Bridge, otherwise known as the Wobbly Bridge, that the Death Eaters destroy at the beginning of The Half-Blood Prince, and also passed by the Lambeth Bridge, where the Knight Bus squeezes its way between oncoming double-decker buses in The Prisoner of Azkaban. And we passed both over AND under the Tower Bridge, featured in the Order of the Phoenix when Harry and the other members of the Order zoom down the Thames on broomsticks on their way to Grimmauld Place. (We never did make it to Islington to visit Clarendon Square, where the exterior scenes of Grimmauld Place were filmed.)

Harry Potter sites in London

A few days later, we found ourselves in Picadilly Circus, which was too noisy and crowded and busy for our tastes, but you might recognize it from Deathly Hallows Part One, where Hermione brings Ron and Harry to escape the Death Eater attack on the Weasley wedding. St Pancras station was our departure point, where we caught the Eurostar train to Paris. You’ll see its neo-gothic clock tower as Harry and Ron zoom past in Mr Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia in the beginning of The Chamber of Secrets.

Diagon Alley has two muggle locations in London. The first is the Borough Market, where Harry pops off the Knight Bus in The Prisoner of Azkaban. The second is Leadenhall Market, a gorgeous set of Victorian arcades that has been a functioning market since medieval times and also happens to serve as the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron in The Philosopher’s Stone. What we did not know is that Leadenhall Market, including all its cute shops AND restaurants and cafes, is closed on Sundays. It was still a fun place to explore, just not a great place to arrive hungry and hoping for a good spot for dinner on a Sunday.

Leadenhall Market for Harry Potter fans

And of course, there is King’s Cross Station, home of Platform 9 3/4 and one of my favourite scenes in all of the movies, where Harry and Dumbledore discuss life after death, and choices, and Voldemort. It also happens to contain two of my very favourite quotes from the movie franchises:

‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’


‘Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.’

Platforms 9 and 10 (and, ostensibly, 9 3/4) are behind a barrier that you can only cross if you have a valid train ticket. However, they have mocked up a more accessible Platform 9 3/4, complete with trolley passing through the brick wall and nearby gift shop, where fans can queue to have their photo taken. They even supply scarves in the Hogwarts house of your choice, and have employees standing by to manage the queue (and your scarf) and take photos. A staff member takes photos of everyone, but you are also welcome to take your own, and you are not obligated to buy the official version. We queued for nearly an hour but found the staff quite accommodating, letting us take individual photos of the boys, then a group photo of just the boys, and finally one with the boys and me in it. (Beloved preferred to remain on the safe side of the camera!) Pro tip: you can save yourself the bother of queuing up at King’s Cross if you’re planning a visit to the Warner Bros studio tour, as they have the same set-up but with poorer lighting and basically no line-ups.

And even with all of that, there are Harry Potter film locations in London that we missed. If you remember Dudley and Harry encountering the snake in The Philosopher’s Stone, you’ll find the Reptile House at the London Zoo familiar. Scotland Place stands in for the Ministry of Magic and nearby Westminster Tube station was closed for an entire day when it was used as a location during the filming of The Order of the Phoenix. Though the movie shows the Leaky Cauldron as being accessed through Leadenhall Market, the books imply access off Charing Cross Road, and of course Diagon Alley is where one would see the imposing white marble of Gringotts, the wizard bank, but is better known to muggles as Australia House, the Australian high commission.

There are, of course, no shortages of Harry Potter souvenirs available in what seemed like almost every retail establishment. We were unable to resist the attraction of wands for each boy, t-shirts and Pop figures with Harry Potter themes. And I’m positively delighted with my Marauders’ Map scarf, as I do solemnly swear that I’m up to no good. We managed to resist the full set of Professor Snape’s dress robes (£299!) or a life-sized Firebolt at nearly £500.

One of our less-traditional Harry Potter souvenirs came from a candy shop near Covent Garden where we found sherbet lemon drops.

They’re Dumbledore’s favourites, you know!

Make no mistake, we did not (entirely) reduce one of the world’s greatest cities to a giant Harry Potter scavenger hunt. We also learned about everything from Londinium to Henry VIII to the origins of Greenwich Mean Time. I have to tell you, though, nothing quite came close to the magic of London through a Harry Potter cinematic lens!

Navigating London’s Underground with kids

I would not have expected that navigating through London’s (in)famous Underground would be as significant a touchstone in our travel memories as were our trips to the Harry Potter studio, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the Tower Bridge. It was certainly something we were anticipating with interest, partly because Tristan, Simon and I read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere a few years ago, and many of the stations and places played a part in that story, and partly because the Underground is sort of mythic in pop culture in its own right. Certainly, it was both more interesting and less challenging than I had fretted in the planning portion of our adventure.

Adventures in the London Underground

The Oyster card, London’s smartcard system for paying fares for travel in the Tube, bus, light rail and some river boats, seemed fairly straightforward, but I still remain unclear on whether or when one should opt for a special travel card or a visitor Oyster card. I also could see that Simon would be able eligible for half-priced fares (ages 11 to 15), that at 16 Tristan would pay adult fares, and Lucas would generally travel free accompanied by a paying adult. There were myriad options for kids, though: youth Zip cards and travel cards and young visitor discounts and visitor passes; no matter how much I read, I could never quite parse the differences and benefits between them.

In the end, we just used the regular pay as you go Oyster cards. I’d been told it was easy to both acquire the cards (you can get them from ATM-style machines in each Tube station) and to find a Transport for London (TfL) employee to activate a special youth discount on Simon’s card. It was even easier than I expected – there were minimal lines at the machines at the Heathrow station, and there are universally helpful and patient TfL folks at every Tube station to help you figure out how to purchase, reload, or add a youth visitor discount to your card. In fact, if a certain youth manages to lose his newly acquired and pre-loaded with travel money Oyster card on the voyage between the airport and arriving at your flat in your first 90 minutes in London, the station attendant will good-naturedly chide said child as “quite naughty” and give you special sleeves for all of your family cards so that no more of them go astray.

Adventures in the London Underground

Soon, we were all pros at tapping in and out as we moved through various Underground stations. Lucas, who at age 10 travels for free with an adult, learned to look for the wider accessible gate with paddles rather than turnstiles at each barrier so we could move through together. I even showed the boys to watch for the quick flash of remaining balance on the Oyster cards as they tapped out.

While I was a bus commuter for years in Ottawa, and while I’ve occasionally used subways in Toronto and Montreal and even Paris before, this was my first experience with extensive use of a subway system. I have a couple of observations. First, it is generally a stunningly effective system. I can see how it would be utter chaos when the system breaks down, but once you get the gist of it, the Underground is a safe, easy and efficient way to zoom around the core. We enjoyed the Tube even better when we learned to avoid the crush of rush hour congestion we accidentally got caught up in a few days in a row, before we learned to travel in off-peak hours. Second, I was surprised at how far one has to follow labyrinth tunnels up and down and over and up and down and over again to make a connection in what is purportedly the same station but occasionally feels like it’s in a different time zone. Third, London in general is not equipped for heat waves of the sort that gripped the city in July of 2018, and nowhere is this more evident than in the un-air-conditioned Underground. Several times we opted for walks of 30+ minutes on sore and tired feet rather than dealing with sweaty, crowded Tube rides of half that duration. Fourth, one does not mess with the rule that the right side of the escalator is for standing and the left is for moving.

Adventures in the London Underground

The fifth and final observation needs a paragraph of its own. The Transport for London trip planner is a great tool, with some caveats. Rather than downloading the app, I simply bookmarked the trip planner on the home screen on my phone, and used it constantly. Annoyingly, it clears your journey when your phone goes to sleep or you open a different app, so I got in the habit of screenshotting our planned routes – I realized only after deleting several days’ worth of them that those screen shots alone would have made a fun souvenir collage! And the trip planner defaults to the fastest journey, not necessarily the most convenient or even sensible, resulting in some suggested journeys that comprised a mash-up of Tube and bus options that were optimized by customizing the results to include only Tube options. In short, if you’re going to London for the first time and planning to use the trip planner (which I highly recommend) I also highly recommend that you play with the trip planner for a few days ahead of time so you get used to the options and quirks, I mean, features.

Since we live on the rural outskirts of the city, the boys have not had a lot of exposure to public transit. And by “a lot” I mean pretty much any at all. By the time I was a teen, living in the smaller namesake London in Ontario, I was able to navigate from one end of the city to the other using transit, and I’ve often thought that one of these days I’m going to have to invest a day showing the boys the peccadilloes of OCTranspo. After seeing how quickly they learned to read the station placards to differentiate between east and westbound lines, following directional signs through endless tunnels and even coming to rely on their quick eyes to navigate busy stations, I have every confidence that they’ll be able to master the relatively simple Ottawa transit system.

Adventures in the London Underground

Using your debit card to top up the cards on the go is as easy as could be. We spent about £45 per adult for a week of travel, including extra for overground tickets to Hampton Court Palace, Watford Junction (Harry Potter studios) and a ride on the Thames Clipper commuter ferry. Here’s another tip for you. You’ll have to pay a £5 deposit when you purchase your Oyster cards from the automated machines at the station, but you get the deposit back and any unused funds up to a certain threshold (I think it’s £10) from the same machine – just look for one that says refunds are available. Just when I thought I was so clever, having spent the last of our British coins on snacks at St Pancras station waiting for the Eurostar, I found myself with nearly £50 more in coins after cashing out our Oyster card deposits and unused fares. More snacks, boys – a LOT of snacks, and quick before the train to Paris comes!

In which she tries to tell you all the travel stories at once and doesn’t know where to start

We’re freshly home from our epic two-week adventure in London and Paris, and I have SO MANY stories to tell you that I don’t even know where to begin. So, let’s start — at the beginning!

Although I’d worked myself into a veritable lather of anxiety by the time our departure day arrived, the overnight flight from Ottawa to Heathrow went reasonably well. We had just enough trouble on departure and arrival to make for funny memories – like the pre-booked taxi that first arrived at 7:30 am instead of 7:30 pm, and the second taxi that arrived on time but did not have enough seatbelts for five people and could not (would not?) accept credit or debit card payments. All’s well that ends with an on-time arrival at the airport, and the credit card issue was merely foreshadowing for what was to come.

I knew that Heathrow was to the west of the city, so I was entirely unprepared to look down and see this picture-perfect view of the heart of London on our approach. You can see the coffee-coloured loop of the Thames River, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, the Shard, the commercial towers of the City — spectacular, and such a great introduction to the city. If you’re flying in, consider seats on the right side of the plane for a chance to see this extraordinary view.

London day 1

We got off to a bit of a shaky start when we could not get in contact with the property manager of the flat we’d rented. How to text or make local calls from a mobile phone was something that I’d assumed would be straightforward, and so was of course the one thing I didn’t research endlessly and also the one thing that caused us the most distress. My instructions were to text the property manager when we cleared customs at the airport, and he’d meet us at the flat. Except he didn’t respond to my texts, and my calls didn’t go through. I emailed the property owner through the rental service, and did not get a reply. We rode the Tube into the city, stopped for sandwiches none of us enjoyed at a local deli, and tramped morosely to the flat feeling increasingly dismayed. We were clustered on the porch, with me trying and failing to connect with the rental service and just about to fully panic that we’d been duped by some sophisticated rental scam when he appeared on the sidewalk in front of us. He’d been wondering why he hadn’t heard from us and thought he’d drop by the flat to see if we’d arrived.

The flat was amazing. AMAZING! We chose Pimlico more or less by chance. We were first going to go with an apartment outside the core areas in Walthamstow, and then we considered dual hotel rooms in a moderately inexpensive place in Bloomsbury. In the end, the flat was perfect for us – cramped to be sure, but we were really only there to sleep – and with just enough hints of luxury to make it feel like home. I can’t imagine ever staying in a hotel with the kids when staying in an actual home is an option. One of the main things we noticed is how not an inch of space goes to waste, like the dual washer-dryer combo machine and the footstool that doubled as an end table and excess toilet paper storage. You know what they didn’t have? Window screens. I never quite got used to the fact that windows were thrown open all day and night (poor London has been sweltering this summer) and bugs never seemed to be an issue. This is the view that greeted me when I opened my eyes each morning – so quirkily perfect!

I’ve been planning this trip for 11 months. There were spreadsheets, annotated maps, and a teetering stack of travel books, to say nothing of websites, blogs and travel forums. On our first day in London, we had our priorities straight. First, we visited St James Park, which was a lovely 20 minute wander from our flat, not to ogle nearby Buckingham Palace, but because it was referenced in one of my favourite books, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, that I had read aloud to Tristan and Simon last year. We admired the ducks, just as Crowley and Aziraphale had done, and the pelicans, too. St James Park would turn out to be a bit of a nexus for us – each day we wandered somewhere new, the most efficient walk home seemed to take us through St James Park again. Despite the grass being burnt nearly brown from the unrelenting heat this summer, it came to be one of our favourite places.

London day 1

I had a lot of things mapped out on my annotated maps – star tourist attractions, food and shopping, and key photo locations. One layer of maps was dedicated to locations of the iconic red telephone boxes. I needn’t have made that particular effort, though – they were not hard to find. Lucas kept count, and we passed more than 50 of them in our wanders. This set of four in a row was near Trafalgar Square, and was practically begging for me to take this photo.

London day 1

Did I mention the red call boxes? (We hadn’t even arrived at the flat to drop off our bags when we took this one. They were overtired and overheated, and still patient enough to do this because I asked them to. Just, um, not patient enough to look like they were actually enjoying it.)

Fun with call boxes

As I said, I’d actually mapped out maybe a dozen spots where the call boxes were located, and yet these ones were a mere block from our flat. This was our last night in London.

Fun with call boxes

So that’s how it starts. Stick around and I’ll tell you more, about Harry Potter and museums and Greenwich and markets and the Tube and parakeets and palaces and manga and fish and chips. There will be photos, and travel tips, and a self-deprecating anecdote or three. And then we’ll talk about Paris, too!

Euro2018: The carry-on vs checked luggage question

Help me, sophisticated travels of the blogosphere! With two months left in the year-long adventure of planning our trip to London and Paris this summer, we’ve arrived at the time for some tough decisions. Today’s debate: carry-on versus checked luggage.

I’m an inveterate over-packer. Nearly two decades of motherhood has made a good boy scout out of me; I like to be prepared. I’m also reasonably organized, and a pro at the jigsaw puzzle of fitting all the pieces we need into our mid-size car and rooftop luggage rack for a road trip. Airline travel, though, is a whole different ball of packing tape.

On the one hand, I can see the merit of packing for carry-on only. It’s quicker, more streamlined, and nobody wants to lug a giant suitcase through the Tube, onto the EuroStar or through the RER in Paris. With carry-on bags, we don’t have to worry about bags going off on a different adventure (although with a non-stop outbound flight, I’m reasonably confident this is not much of a concern.) We could probably fit everything we need into five carry-on bags plus the personal bag you’re allowed to have on the flight. And the boys are getting to an age where managing their own bag is probably an important life skill.


My first problem is that we don’t actually HAVE five carry-on bags. I think we have one, maybe two. The boys can use their school backpacks for their personal stuff, but I’d still need to beg, borrow or steal at least a couple more carry-on bags.

Second, I think while five carry-on bags are manageable in a plane, it seems like it would be awkward everywhere else, like in taxis and on subways and whatnot. The more bags we have, the more chance for error. Two big bags are much easier to keep track of than five little ones, even when each boy has been exhorted to manage his own bags. Yes, I realize I’m micromanaging. It’s what I do.

Third, am I ready to deal with the restrictions of carry-on luggage? We don’t travel a lot, so I don’t have travel-size anything. I almost lost my 20 year old pocket knife in Mexico when I accidentally forgot it was in my purse and had to pay an extra fee to turn my purse into checked luggage or forfeit it. It just seems more – complicated.

Fourth, don’t laugh at me, is that I’m bringing at least one camera body, at least two lenses, and a MacBook – and that’s just me. Hell, that’s one carry-on right there!

We’re not overly nomadic, staying in one place in London for a week and then moving to Paris for a second week. And, we have laundry available at both places, so we can pack on the light side and probably fit everyone’s stuff into one or two larger checked bags, which I picture as being vaguely easier to wrangle than five carry-on bags.

Who knew this would be harder than planning for a month of travel for one with nothing but a backpack, nearly 20 years ago?

Thoughts or advice for a newbie overseas travellers in a large family?

Euro2018: Walking up the Eiffel Tower

We’re deep into the planning of our once-in-a-lifetime trip to London and Paris next summer. We’ve got accomodations, flights and EuroStar tickets booked, and now we’re starting to look at what exactly we want to see and do while we’re there.

Of course, on our must-go list for Paris is the Eiffel Tower. I’ve been up it before, when I traveled solo through Europe as a young thing back in 1995, and Beloved and I may or may not have gone up during our honeymoon in 1999. He’s not super fond of heights, though, so it’s possible we enjoyed the splendor from the ground that time.

I know at least two of the boys are keen to go up the Tower, though the third is happy to stay with Beloved and keep two feet planted firmly on the ground. And hey, I bet a girl can take a mighty fine photo from those elevated observation decks! But the tickets are not cheap, and not exactly easy to get either. You have to choose your date and time (to the hour) at least three months in advance. An inveterate ENFP, I hate the idea of being pinned down to any particular date or time for anything. What if it’s pouring rain at our booked time? What if we’re doing something else fun that day? What if we get lost in the subway and miss our booked time, just like I missed my flight home from Paris way back in 1995?

I did a little research, though, and one can take the stairs up at a much reduced cost, and with no advance booking required. Rather than €28 for three of us to take the lift to the second level and be tied to a specific date and time, we can pay €17.50 and go whenever our hearts desire. We won’t make it up to the very top for that price, but I’ve heard the views from the second observation deck are just as good, if not better.

There’s only one small thing to consider in this plan: 669 steps. It doesn’t sound too dreadful at first, but I started breaking it down. I work in the 17th floor of an office tower. There are 20 steps between each floor, so ground to 17th floor is only 340 steps. By comparison, there are 328 steps to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, and then another 341 steps to the second floor. That’s TWICE the 17 floors up my office tower, if you’re keeping track. And while I’m reasonably fit, I’ll also be just a few days shy of my 49th birthday. While I imagine the boys will lope up the stairs like the long-legged gazelles they are, I was a little worried about my own stamina. That’s a LOT of steps, in high summer no less.

Ottawa photographerSo, I’ve been practicing. Back in January, I started with five floors. I took the elevator down to the 12th floor and made my way up. I added a floor a week, and tried to find the time in each day to walk the stairs at least once. This week, I did my first full 17 flights! Yay, I can now walk comfortably up to the FIRST observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, needing only a couple of minutes to catch my breath. I have just over three months to work on adding that second flight! I promise to share a sweaty, breathless selfie when we make it.

Have you walked up the stairs to the Eiffel Tower, or something similar? How did you do?

Euro2018: Booking accommodations in Paris

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we’ve decided to take the boys on the adventure of a lifetime next summer: a week in London, England and a week in Paris. I’m not the world’s most sophisticated traveller, so I thought it would be fun to share the planning process.

I’ve been watching flight costs since late August and haven’t seen any deals (we’re hoping for a January or February seat sale) and though it’s a little risky to book accommodations without having our flights locked in first, it’s so tough finding suitable accommodations for a larger family that I was comfortable locking in accommodations now and hoping to find flights to match later. I’ve read enough to know that Mondays through Wednesdays are the cheaper days to fly, so we’re booking accommodations for Tuesday to Tuesday and hoping for the best!

I’ve been to Paris twice before, once on my own and once on our honeymoon in 1999. Both times, I stayed in a charming and tiny walk-up budget pension on L’ÃŽle de la Cité in the very heart of Paris called Hotel Henri IV. I’d have booked it again for the family in a heartbeat based on the location and nostalgia alone, even though the individual rooms on each floor shared a common washroom and part of the hallway to the washroom was open to the outside. Sadly, somewhere between 1999 and 2017, it ceased to exist in its former location.

I spent hours in August and September rifling through vacation rental options. I knew that for five of us, hotel options would be limited and expensive – we’d either be miserably crammed into one room or paying extravagantly for two rooms. Having decided to rent an apartment, I agonized over locations: Le Marais, Sacré Coeur, the Latin Quarter, Bastille, and cross-referenced them against locations of attractions I knew we’d want to visit.

I had a few key criteria in mind, and a few other things that were nice to have but not dealbreakers. We would need at least four discrete beds, because I could not imagine inducing any of the boys to share a bed for a week. It would need to be central to transportation links and preferably within walking distance of several attractions. It had to have “character”, which is a little on the ephemeral side but a key filter to all my searches. And, I really wanted something with boulangeries, cafes and shops within a block or two. I wanted the boys to see “vrai Paris” and how Parisians really live.

By the end of the summer, after countless hours on VBRO, HomeAway, AirBnB, and other rental aggregators, I’d built an annotated Google Map of approximately 20 apartments that looked most promising and were in our price range (I was trying to stay under $300 Cdn per night.)

Map of Paris

(Obsessive planner much? Seriously, I am having so! much! nerdy! fun! planning this trip.)

Okay, truth be told, maybe I was a little too obsessive, because having sussed out 20 possible places, I found myself paralysed by indecision – how to choose? So I decided to turn my attention to planning the London side of the trip for a while, and when I came back to look at Paris rentals again, there was a problem. A BIG problem, one that pretty much obliterated the hours I’d invested to Paris accommodation planning thus far.

Apparently, there has been a crackdown by the French government, requiring anyone who rents a property (e.g. through AirBnB and similar services) to register the property and obtain a 13-digit registration number, which must be displayed prominently in any online ads. The registration site opened in October, and all properties need to be registered by December 1st. I’d seen predictions that up to 60% or 80% of current apartments available for short term rental in Paris would no longer be legal (and therefore no longer available) as of the new year.

That certainly put a wrench in our vacation planning. I paused my searching until after December 1st, watching travel forums for advice and speculation, and started revisiting ads in mid-December. None of the listings I’d saved were displaying the registration number — but then it was hard to find ANY listing with the registration number in place. Leave it to me to be searching for a rental in exactly the time period that rentals are in complete upheaval. This is the story of my life as a traveller — missed connections and misadventures abound!

For a while, we considered hotel options. Five of us in a tiny room for a week held little appeal, but two rooms would push us out of our budget. Rooms in a hostel would certainly be an adventure, and it wouldn’t particularly bother me, but other travellers in our party were less enthused by the idea. I worried that when the 80% of tourists who ordinarily rented the now-illegal apartments began searching for accommodations in the new year, even the most meagre hotel options would be swept up. I was just about to resign myself to increasing our accommodation budget by a considerable margin when, driven more by impulse than logic, I saw a previous exchange of messages about a rental I’d put at the top of our list this summer and sent a fresh message to him asking about the registration number. To my surprise and delight, he not only confirmed that he had registered his apartment, but sent me a copy of his documentation from the city of Paris.

I’d had a few concerns about this rental from my searches earlier this summer – it’s about half a kilometer to the Metro, which will be a longish hike carrying suitcases, and it’s a sixth-floor walkup, which will also seem more painful with arms full of bags. The street itself seems rather unremarkable, once you’re used to the sweeping grandeur of Haussmann-designed sidestreets that resemble alleys more than roadways. It definitely wins on character, with two of three bedrooms tucked under attic eaves with skylights looking out over Paris rooftops.

What sealed the deal, though, (aside from the registration number, of course) was location. It’s two blocks north of the Louvre in the 1er arrondissement; if you know Paris, you know the location doesn’t get much better. (It’s the one at pretty much the centre of the map above.) And so we booked!

Photos of Paris apartment interior
Our little pied à terre

So now we have accommodations booked for both France and England, and I’m frankly so relieved I can’t even tell you how happy I am to stop thinking about it. Stay tuned for more details on the London booking in my next post, and may the airline gods be kind to us in finding flight dates to match our bookings!

What do you value most when booking accommodations? Are you a last minute “we’ll sleep wherever we end up” sort of traveller, or do you love to torture yourself by agonizing over every detail like me?

Euro2018: Planning for the adventure of a lifetime

Every now and then in my life, a luck bomb explodes. Circumstances happen to come crashing together in a way that makes amazing opportunities drop into my lap. One of those resulted in my amazing solo trip to Europe in 1995, and another resulted in our family trip on the Allure of the Seas back in 2012. They don’t always involve travel, but when you’re a family of five, international travel can be prohibitively expensive, and sometimes a luck-bomb is what it takes to make it feasible. In this case, I had a very short window to decide whether to cash out or lock in a severance allowance that I’ve been accumulating over my 27+ years with the government that was being phased out, and couldn’t think of a more spectacular way of investing it than planning a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to Europe.

I committed to cashing out the allowance not too long before my dad died. There’s nothing like losing a parent to instill a little “carpe diem” into your outlook. Some of the last afternoons we spent together, my dad and I chatted about places to go and see, and talked about some of our favourite trips. The older I get, the more I’m beginning to value travel over things. It’s been a few months since we’ve committed to the trip, and I’m still breathless with excitement when I think about how lucky we are to be able to show the boys more of the amazing world outside the paths we usually tread.

We chose London and Paris because as much as I loved cramming five countries and 12 cities into a four week solo trip in 1995, I’m not sure my crew is up for that level of nomadic intensity in a travel schedule on an international trip. I loved my time in Paris in 1995 so much that Beloved and I spent our honeymoon there in 1999, and revisiting one of our favourite places in the world seemed like a great way to travel and yet not be completely overwhelmed by everything being new and, for lack of a better word, “foreign.” Also, because Paris!

We chose London because it’s somewhere we’ve both always wanted to go. I have to admit, I wasn’t as keen on the London part of the trip until I started getting into researching what we could see and do, and now I’m not sure how we’ll ever cram everything in, and especially how we’ll ever leave. Platform 9 3/4 and the Tower Bridge and the Thames and fish and chips and Buckingham Palace and the Tube; from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to Abbey Road to Aziraphale and Crowley feeding the ducks at St James Square, it seems like a lifetime of cultural touchstones are just waiting to be discovered.

In addition to the excitement of actual travel, I have to say that I am incredibly excited to be planning this trip. It’s like a hundred research projects to be managed, all wrapped up into one! From pricing flight options and route itineraries to comparing neighbourhoods; from AirBnBs to budget hotels; from Notre Dame to Paris Disney; there are so! many! things! to learn about. I have spreadsheets and lists and a stack of library books as long as my arm, and I am loving every minute of planning this trip. (Obsessive much?)

Admittedly, we are not the world’s most sophisticated travellers. The last time I actually purchased my own airline ticket was in 1999, for our honeymoon in Paris. And when I was planning my big European adventure in 1995, it was in a pre-internet world. I made my hotel reservations via fax machine! So, I thought sharing the planning process here might be a way to both pick your collective brains, and lay some groundwork for other newbie travellers too.

The biggest expenses will be flights and accommodations. Getting five people to London, and back from Paris, looks to cost us about $5,000, and I’ve been using Google Flights to track prices for a few months. We’re thinking of flying out of Ottawa into London, taking the Eurostar through the Chunell to Paris, and then flying home from Paris. We could drive to Montreal and increase our number of options, but at current prices we won’t actually save anything for the massive inconvenience.

tracking flight prices
Tracking flight prices on Google

I’m also debating between a daytime or an overnight flight. We can leave at 7 am local time and arrive in London at around 9 pm local time, so probably not arriving at our rental flat until nearly midnight. It won’t be too bad from a jet lag perspective, as it will feel like much earlier in the day due to the time change, but navigating a strange city in the dark with kids and suitcases does not seem appealing. What seems even less appealing, though, is the other option of flying out in the evening and cobbling together a few hours sleep on the plane, arriving early the next morning. There are some members of our family who are not at their best (cough cough) when they are tired.

So bloggy peeps, let’s talk about planning flights. Got any tips to share? Do you prefer the red-eye or a daytime flight? How do you find good deals on flights? Am I right to hope for a seat sale for high season travel, or should I just lock in our flights now? Am I crazy to look at Air Iceland flights because they have free wifi and cheaper fares, even though (okay, and because) there is a stop-over in Reykjavik and the flight is four hours longer than the non-stop from Ottawa?

Please share your best flight-planning tips!