If you read my post about my newfound trepidation about traveling with not one, but two, kids in tow, you'll know that we're considering taking our kids to Italy this winter.  Italy is, hands down, our favourite place on earth...and we've been to a lot of places!  The pace, the food, the scenery, the people - just can't be beat!  But how do we visit our favourite place with a 2.5 year old and a 6 month old and actually enjoy ourselves? 

Recently, MSN Today posted an article titled "Went to Europe, loved the playground: Why travel with kids is a waste"   The title is a bit misleading because the article does attempt to be balanced and even says that traveling with your children is a good thing - it just shouldn't be "THE" thing.  You need to spend time together at home and create those strong bonds at home before whisking everyone off to some exotic island or far-flung country. 

So I began to think more seriously about Italy...will I be disappointed if we travel all that way knowing that the day after we get back my toddler will already have forgotten half of the things we saw? Or will I be frustrated spending half the day at a playground that looks like the playground that's three doors down from our own house? 
Not really.  As long as the other half of the day is spent doing a little exploring (after naptime, of course).  I suppose it might be upsetting if this was a 'once in a lifetime' trip.  But it's not.  It's just the beginning, really. 

And yes, *I* want to go to Italy.  My kids haven't been begging me.  But I don't see anything wrong with that.  The whole trip will expose them to things they just won't experience at home.

And it will serve as an opportunity for JR to practice his newfound* skills of patience and adaptability to different surroundings.  And an opportunity for us to learn how we best travel as a family.

So when Laura Davis, from Playground Parents, told me about her new site, I started thinking that maybe it's not so silly to travel a great distance with such young kids. She and her husband are building a new online resource for traveling families.  If you're away from home and your kids need to burn off some energy, you can go to their site, plug in your location and it will map playgrounds in your area.  The site is populated by fellow travelers, so if you have a favourite playground near your own home, or somewhere you've traveled, you can add it to their database.  It's a great concept and once more listings are added, I bet will be invaluable to all those intrepid family travelers with rambunctious kids!

*At 2 years old, JR has neither patience nor adaptability yet, but practice makes perfect, right?!

What playgrounds are you traveling to this winter?
 
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...actually, it was totally just the worst.  Last week was my birthday and I foolishly decided to take both kids (let me remind you of their ages: 2 years old and 2 months old) to the Islands by myself -- even though there was a 40% chance of thundershowers.  I packed lots of snacks, diapers and an umbrella and off we went, blissfully ignorant of the tempest that was brewing.

For both locals and tourists, the Toronto Islands are a must-visit destination. 

The Islands are a network of several small islands and, according to Wikipedia, is the largest urban car-free community in North America.  Two of the islands are actually residential and have gorgeous, eclectic cottages on them, and well worth cycling through for a look.  But if you've got young kids with short attention spans and a love of adrenaline, then you'll probably want to head straight to the main attraction, Centre Island, which is home to an amusement park, called "Centreville".  If rides aren't up your family's alley, you can stroll around or rent single or tandem bikes, explore Franklin's Children's Garden or have lunch at The Rectory Cafe on Ward's Island - a wonderful little spot - or just pack a lunch and a blanket and soak up the wonderful summer weather.

The ferry departs from the foot of Bay Street (click here for fares and schedules) every 15-30 minutes and once you're across, you feel as if you've entered a completely different world, as evidenced by this sign which greets all visitors:
Oh!  Okay, then...we accepted the polite invitation and walked to a quiet place (of which there are many) under some trees, next to the lake. JR proceeded to happily chase pigeons while we waited for friends to arrive.  It was all downhill from there.  The rest of the day involved several meltdowns:

1. After buying the 'ride all day' pass (which, by the way, is a good value at $21.90 (or $19.90 if you buy online before you go as individual tickets are $1 each, and each ride is between 4 and 6 tickets). JR melts down when the cashier attempts to put the wristband on him.  I finally wrangle it on his ankle.  He spends the next 10 minutes screaming, trying to rip it off like it's actually acid being poured on his skin.
2. After trying to gently prod him toward the bouncy castle
3. After his friend decides to go on the roller coaster without him
4. After he waits in line for a pony ride but decides he doesn't actually want to ride it
5. After he drops a piece of his granola bar
You get the idea...

Less than 90 minutes after arriving I decide to pull the plug when I hear thunder.  Huh.  Guess the weatherman was right after all!

It starts raining when we're half way across on the ferry.  And by "rain", I actually mean "torrential downpour".  We dash from the ferry to our car.  And by "dash", I actually mean "clumsily careen the stroller while carrying an infant who throws up on me from all the jiggling while toddler screams from rain that is pelting his face".
A passerby was kind enough to take a photo of me:
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Happy birthday to me!
So yeah, it wasn't my favourite birthday, that's for sure.  But it hasn't changed how I feel about the Toronto Islands.  It's such a great place and (usually) always feels like a mini-vacation, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Does your city have an 'escape from it all'?  Tell me about it, I'd love to know!
 
In the last 17 months, I have learned that there is almost nothing more rewarding than a child who is napping from sheer exhausted joy.  That's what JR is doing right now....bliss...

The day started off rather drearily...after a late night, JR decided to wake up earlier than usual and the sky had been threatening rain since the day before.  After lunch I saw some sun poking through the gray clouds.  I perked up at the sight and decided that we needed to get out of the house.  

One of the great things about living in a city like Toronto is that you are never short of things to do.  JR is now at the age where animals and animal noises are fascinating to him.  His vocabulary is still pretty sparse, but he can moo and squwak like a champ, so I figured that a return trip to the fabulous Riverdale Farm was in order.
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Peekaboo!
Riverdale Farm is a true hidden gem.  Nestled in the middle of the Victorian neighbourhood of Cabbagetown (so named for the poor Irish immigrants who dug up their front yards to grow cabbage), this compact farm in the city is a working farm with all the animals you'd expect: cows, donkey, chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and a beautiful Clydesdale horse.  (Sadly, "Dolly" the other Clydesdale passed away last week due to old age.)   

Just inside the entrance is there's a small tuck shop which sells fresh baked goodies (I can't resist the oatmeal raisin cookies), and, if the stars align and you're there at the right time, you can even score some fresh farm eggs.  Having just filled up on lunch - and noticing that the ray of sun I had seen earlier was now hiding behind some menacing-looking clouds - we by-passed the cookies and headed straight for the animals. 

As it wasn't yet raining, most of the animals were outside and the look of excitement on JR's face as he saw the sheep and goats was priceless.  He was practically jumping out of my arms, frantically "baa-ing" and pointing.  He dutifully made each animal noise as we went from pen to pen.

Once we'd seen all the animals, we wandered down the stroller-friendly pathway, which leads to two buildings.  One is a volunteer-run museum, housed in "The Residence", and details the history of Cabbagetown and the Farm.  Across from the museum is "The Meeting Place" where events are held all-year round. In front of The Meeting Place are a few toys for kids to play with when they get bored of following mom and dad around the museum.
And if you're just not ready to head back to the car yet, just behind both buildings is a pathway which connects to the Don Valley Hills & Dales Discovery Walk (click here for a map and more info).  The path is well maintained and is not strenuous at all.  Within minutes you'll forget all about the busy city around you and find yourself enjoying the butterflies flitting about, and even stopping to smell the roses.
Still not convinced that you should hop on a streetcar and visit the Farm?  I've been saving the best for last:  It's open year-round and admission is free!* 

Because this amazing resource is free and so accessible, it means that you can pop in for a quick visit any time, or you can while away a whole afternoon if you like. Riverdale Park is adjacent to the Farm and is the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic or those fresh-baked cookies from the tuck shop. The farm is located at 201 Winchester Street (east of Parliament, south of Wellesley and north of Carlton/Gerrard Streets) and is easily accessible by TTC.

For more information on the Farm, visit The Friends of Riverdale Farm website.

*For now anyway: the Farm is currently on the Mayor's chopping block since he made campaign promises to 'cut the gravy' from City Hall and couldn't find any.  He's now looking for ways to find all that money he promised his voters.  For more on this, click here - and sign the petition to keep Riverdale Farm accessible to everyone!  Political rant over.  :)
 
I'll admit it, I'd rather be a hundred other places than Toronto in the wintertime.  The damp and cold and lack of any close-by outdoor activities can sometimes get a little boring.  But in the summer, things really heat up.  Literally and figuratively. A few days ago, we had the hottest day on record.  Ever.  With the humidex we reached an all-time high of 50 degrees (almost 120 Farenheit)! 

Fortunately, by the time the weekend rolled around, the weather gods relented and gave us the most perfect summer day.  Hot, not too humid, and a beautiful breeze to boot. It couldn't have been a more perfect day to hang out on the beach and listen to some great music at the Beaches Jazz Festival.  Now in its 23rd year, this free, 10-day street festival draws close to 1 million people every year.  And it's easy to see why.

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The location is truly unbeatable.  With six stages scattered throughout the Beach neighbourhood, you could relax on the beach, nap under a tree in Kew Gardens or take your kids to the splash pad, all while listening to some great jazz.  There were even three different bouncy castles set up with an "all you can bounce" day pass available - and it was within ear and eye shot of the beer garden (for better or worse).  Clearly some deep thinking went into this.

And all the bands we heard were fantastic.  Each stage had a different "theme":  Latin, Big Band, Youth, etc. Our favourite performers were The Boxcar Boys -- see the video below for their interactive closing number.

So, although winter in Toronto can be a bit of a tough slog, summer days like this can (almost) make it worthwhile!
 
Anyone who's been to Southeast Asia understands the draw of a night market.  It's where you'll find the best - and cheapest - local food. 
Ever since we returned from our trip to Southeast Asia three years ago, we've been trying to recreate the grilled fish we had at the Luang Prabang night market (anyone out there know the secret recipe??).  So, after a few failed attempts, I was really excited to hear that one of the local Asian supermarkets was hosting its own 4-day night market. 
Clearly, we weren't the only ones craving some authentic SE Asian street food, because the place was jam-packed.  While the ambience wasn't exactly reminiscent of the famous markets in Thailand or Taiwan (it was held in the supermarket parking lot, in a rather industrial part of town), the food certainly was.
The spicy noodles and squid balls brought us back to the excitement of experiencing our first night market in Cambodia.  We cautiously approached the first stall we saw and, after inhaling our bowl of delicious $1 noodles, we became night market converts. So it was a real treat to have even a little taste of SE Asia in our own backyard. And an even bigger treat to expose JR to some of those amazing flavours of our trip...even if he did prefer the taste of his own toes.
It seems that most of our vacations end up revolving around food, then when we return home we spend countless hours trying to recreate the newly discovered flavours.  We've nailed sticky toffee pudding and homemade pasta with cinghiale sauce, but those night market meals remain elusive...what vacation food do you crave?
 
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As usual, the GTA has more festivities than you can shake a stick at this Canada Day.  Below are some of the highlights - and all of them are free!  So pack up the brood and go celebrate!

1. Scotiabank CHIN Picnic -- this event is a Toronto institution.  It's now in its 45th year and touts itself as "the largest free multicultural picnic in the world".  It takes place at Exhibition Place over three days: July 1st, 2nd and 3rd.  There will be thousands of singers, dancers and performers from all over the world, as well as oodles of activities for kids of all ages (including a bikini pageant for those of you who are into that sort of thing).  Getting there by public transit is easy.  The Lakeshore GO train stops right in the grounds and there are lots of options by TTC.  Click here for more info on transit.

2. In case you didn't get your fill of ribs on Father's Day, now is your chance!  Don't miss Toronto Ribfest, happening all weekend at Centennial Park in the city's west end.  With live music, appearances by NHL players and even a haunted house, there's something sure to please everyone.  There is a large parking area available, but it can get pretty hairy, so get there early or consider taking public transit.  A bus from Royal York Station will get you right there.

3. Harbourfront Centre -- Okay, if I didn't already have a poolside reservation at Grammy's house, I would definitely be all over this festival.  The highlight will surely be the attempt to break a Guinness Book of World Records for the most layers in a layer cake with a THREE HUNDRED LAYER cake.  They'll be building it throughout the day and the delicious tower of goodness will be served to all attendees at the end of the day.  There's also some music, canoeing in a pond, a strawberry festival and Canadian-themed craft tent for kids. But really, who needs any of that if you have a THREE HUNDRED LAYER CAKE!

4.  I would be remiss to leave out PRIDE - a festival celebrating Toronto's LGBTTIQQ2SA communities.  Although PRIDE week started last weekend, the biggest events are held this weekend.  Some of the highlights are:  The Dyke March (July 1st) and The Pride Parade (July 3rd) - the parade which is the largest of its kind in North America, will be celebrating its 31st year!  Click here for more info and a schedule of events.  Most events happen in the downtown core, so get a daypass and hop on the TTC to attend as many events as you can handle!

5. Finally, no Canada Day celebration would be complete without fireworks.  Most areas of the city will have displays to watch.  Some of the bigger ones are:  Ashbridges Bay, Ontario Place, and Canada's Wonderland.  The shows don't start until it's dark enough, which will be around 10pm. 

A (more) complete list of what's happening in and around Toronto can be found on the 680 News site here.

And for all you ex-pats or Canadaphiles living around London, Trafalgar Square will once again host the largest Canada Day celebration outside of Canada.  The line-up of activities is impressive:  hockey matches, yoga classes and a concert that ends with that quintessential Canadian band, Blue Rodeo.  Click here for more details: http://www.canadadaylondon.com/


Happy 144th Birthday, Canada!

p.s. What are you doing this year to celebrate?  Send me photos of you and your family celebrating and I'll post them here with a link back to your site.
 
When friends from England come to visit us in Toronto for the first time they are always amazed by the size of Lake Ontario.  Toronto is blessed to be built on the shores of this huge lake that looks more like an ocean to the unitiated.  Although it's not the largest of the Great Lakes (I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world), it is clear, clean and cool, and actually has some great beaches. 
During our recent trip to Singapore, JR found his swimming groove and now can't get enough of the water.  Thank god we leave near one of Toronto's best stretches of beach.  We're a 10 minute walk to the lake and the Balmy/Kew boardwalk. 
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The overcast skies kept the crowds at bay today, which was perfect.  There were just a few families playing in the sand, which meant that we had a nice space to ourselves. 

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Mama and son - Balmy/Kew Beach Toronto
The boardwalk and beach is easily accessible by transit -- the 501 Queen Street streetcar, which runs 24 hours a day, drops passengers off one block north of the boardwalk admist a bustling stretch of trendy shops, cafes and restaurants.  The Beach is a great family destination any day of the week, but gets especially busy during the weekends, forcing you to dodge strollers and dogs.

It's always easier to just hang around the house - especially on days like today when the weather looks uncertain, but moments like these are worth whatever extra effort is required to get out and explore!

Now if only he'd wake up from his nap so we can check out the outdoor pool in our neighbourhood park!  Have a great Sunday, everyone...
 
Even though I live in the 4th most livable city in the world (according to The Economist), when weekends come, we're always thinking of things we can do either outside of the city, or in our backyard (literally, the 25x80ft patch of grass attached to our house, not "backyard" in the figurative sense).  

Since I've started writing this blog and reading other family travel blogs, I've decided to try and explore my city as if I were a tourist and take advantage of all the wonderful festivals and events that are happening around Toronto this summer. 
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Do not believe the pout. He LOVED the corn.

This past weekend, I took some of my own advice and visited this year's Totstock festival.  The festival is in its third year and caters to the young and young-at-heart.   We arrived shortly after the festival opened at 2 pm, parked our stroller in the unofficially designated area and quickly explored the compact festival. In addition to a play area loaded with empty cardboard boxes for all the aspiring architects and engineers, there was a bandstand with some fun local acts (we listened to Hooded Fang, a great band that managed to get kids and adults dancing together), a Story Tent, lots of fun games and crafts, and a few yummy food stalls.  Our favourite was the Barque Smokehouse booth.   We loved the sliders and JR devoured not one, but two, cobs of corn.

We only spent an hour there but were so glad we made the effort to explore outside of our neighbourhood and have already made plans to return next year. Totstock is a great community event in a highly accessible and friendly neighbourhood (read: hipsters with kids) and should not be missed if you find yourself in Toronto next Father's Day weekend.
 
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While I've already been up for 6 hours and my husband has made his own father's day breakfast (crepes with whipped cream and fresh fruit - thanks hon!), some of you may have been lucky enough to sleep in on this gorgeous day and are wondering what to do to celebrate dad!  The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) offers tonnes of (free) choices. And none of them start before noon - so you haven't missed a thing!  Here are my top 5 picks:

1.  Totstock: A celebration of tots complete with music, stories, food and games in Toronto's trendy Roncesvalles Village at Souraren Park from 2-5pm.  To help celebrate it's third year, the creator of the popular children's series, Franklin the Turtle will be in the Story Tent and rumor has it that Winnie the Pooh is going to make an appearance.  This community-driven event drew more than 3,000 people last year, so be sure to get there early!  Sponsored by Little Paper, you can get more information here: http://www.littlepaper.com/totstock

2. Beach BBQ & Brews Festival:  Over in the east end, the Beach BBQ & Brews Festival (formerly Beaches Ribfest) is the ultimate place for those carnivore dads.  Held in Woodbine Park, the festival sees more than 10,000 people licking their chops each year. This festival showcases the best in BBQ and has an amateur competition and a firefighter's cook off for the best ribs. With over a dozen food vendors to choose from, you made need to go back for seconds, so pack the sunscreen and come hungry!  12-8 pm http://beachbbqandbrews.com/

3. Sound of Music Festival: This 4-day festival closes today with a headlining act that is sure to excite all dads who remember Coleco Vision and You Can't Do That on Television with fondness:  Men Without Hats is playing on the mainstage at 5:15 pm.  Don't miss this opportunity to see a classic '80s band live (and for free!).  And for those die hard New Wave fans, Devo is playing at 3:30 pm.  http://www.soundofmusic.on.ca/

4. Steamwhistle Steam Brewery Tours:  This popular brewery is offering free tours from 1-4 pm and dads receive free samples and a bottle opener or souvenir cup.  And if your pop is tops and answers the skill-testing question correctly, he may even get to blow the famous whistle after which the brewery is named!  www.steamwhistle.ca

5. Movies in the Park:  What better way to wind down an action (and beer/meat-packed) day than chilling under the stars in Riverdale Park to watch a movie.  Movies in the Park and Art City host this summer tradition at Riverdale Park each summer and this year's series opens tonight with Edward Scissorhands.  Movie starts at dusk.  The event is free, but donations are appreciated and support local kids' organizations.  http://moviesinthepark.wordpress.com/about/

Happy Father's Day to all those wonderful dads and dads-to-be!