We have been a family of four for almost 3 years now and we’ve NEVER taken a vacation together. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve gone on plenty of trips and adventures but have always vacationed with extended family or friends with other kids. Traveling with others really helps to dilute the duties of parenthood, if you know what I mean. There are always adults to help entertain the kids when you’re tired and with a large group of people there’s never a dull moment.
Alas we decided to try out a weekend just the four of us—me, my husband, our 7 year old son and almost 3 year old daughter…in a foreign country: Montreal, Canada. A mere two hours away, we left on a Friday afternoon and spent two nights in the city. Below are my thoughts, adventures, and mishaps on our experience in the city, at the Biodome, and The Granby Zoo. Not to worry, there’s useful information located in this here blog post as well as my usual dose of over sharing.
Preparation and Driving:
- If you can, call ahead to your cell phone provider and ask about adding-on data for Canada. It is a little more money, obviously, but worth it so you can look up maps and info while you’re out on the town or lost.
- In case you’ve been living under a rock, they speak French in Montreal. That being said, almost everyone also speaks English. If you’re lucky like me your partner speaks French and likes to show off his skillzzz.
- Driving to Montreal takes about 2 hours. Google Maps might suggest otherwise, but we always hit traffic either at the border crossing or in the city itself.
- Speaking of border patrol—don’t forget to pack your passports. Also, please do as I say, not as I did…don’t bring along fresh fruit like…say…a pint of blueberries. The handsome border patrol officer took mercy upon me and didn’t make us turn around when he found out we had fruit. Instead he made me promise that we would eat our entire pint of blueberries before arriving in Montreal. Rrrright.
Staying in Montreal:
- Downtown vs. Old Montreal: This is all relative, and you’ll need to decide what works best for you and your family. For us, we wanted to stay downtown at a “big box” chain of hotels. I love the Old Montreal section with its cobblestone streets and charming shops. But I love it more for a weekend away with my husband at a trendy boutique hotel and no kids in tow. We found a good deal online at the Hilton Garden Inn. But my guess is that these prices all fluctuate, so they might not always have the best deal. Do some internet research. We stayed in the Quartier De Spectacles neighborhood which is considered the entertainment district. Lots of festivals during the summer and art museums nearby. We were lucky to run into a huge street festival in this area, which provided us the opportunity to saunter around streets with no traffic and the kids had plenty to look at and enjoy.
- Look for a hotel with a pool. It’s an added bonus for the kids especially if they need a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
- Food and Snacks—I packed a soft-sided small cooler full of cheese sticks, yogurt sticks and smoothies, and blueberries (don’t do that!). I was able to store all of it in the hotel fridge. I also packed a bunch of granola bars and snackie items (thank you Trader Joes). My kids eat all the time so this was helpful to have stored in our room especially when they were up super early in the morning and we weren’t ready to go out for breakfast. You could also bring along cereal and milk if that’s what works for you—my kids unfortunately have a love- hate relationship with cereal. Weird.
- The Biodome is a neat facility located in Montreal that houses four different ecosystems. You can walk from system to system and observe nature and some wildlife here and there. My kids loved the penguins and puffins. I did too. There are monkeys and bats and a huge aquarium for viewing underwater creatures—like freakishly large sturgeon.
- We parked underground at the facilty—16 bucks but worth it since it put us so close to the Biodome
- Buy your tickets online if you can. We took our time getting to the Biodome so when we got there the line was huge. We quickly went online and bought tickets and by-passed the line (remember that extra data we added to our phone plan—it came in handy then). I wish we had known ahead of time to either buy online or get there earlier.
- Bring a stroller. We brought two strollers for our trip—I know…lame. For our trip to the biodome we brought our large jogging stroller and saved the small umbrella stroller for walking around the city. The biodome is stroller friendly but it is crowded at times so you’ll have to navigate that with the stroller that you bring.
- Load up on snacks before you head into the different ecosystems. They don’t allow food in those areas so if your kid is a snacker, get them tanked up beforehand. On the lower level there are bathrooms and a small quiet area you can eat in to recharge if need be. Also there is a café outside the entrance but we did not eat there.
- Customize your visit. What’s really neat about the Biodome is that it is one of four different attractions located in the same area: The Biodome, Insectarium, Botanical Gardens, and Planetarium. So you can certainly hit all of these or pick and choose which ones you want to visit when you get there—and buy tix accordingly. Our kids just didn’t have the energy to visit the others but maybe when they are a little older.
The Granby Zoo
- Located about 1 hour southeast of Montreal, we drove here on Sunday morning after checking out of our hotel. The zoo is also attached to a small theme park and also….wait for it…a water park! We hit up the zoo first and then spent the rest of the day at the water park.
- We got there fairly early so we didn’t have a long wait for the line. The zoo was busy that day, but it never felt super crowded which was a nice bonus. The ticket price includes entrance to the water park as well. Bring a stroller for your younger kids and some water bottles, and snacks.
- Picnic vs. buying lunch. We walked around the zoo first and then hit up one of their many café/restaurants on the premises. The food was passable and not all that pricey. However, there were plenty of people who were bringing in large coolers and picnicking at many of the designated areas at the park. If that’s your thing you can easily do this by renting one of their wagons at the entrance to haul your cooler, and stock up on food at the IGA grocery store across the street from the zoo entrance. We chose not to do this because we just didn’t want to go thru the effort of packing and prepping food. After all, I pretty much do this weekly here at home with the kids when we hit up the beach or go hiking. I wanted a break.
- Highlights of the zoo include the stingray exhibit, where you can touch them! I could have spent all day there. They are like little dogs who like to be petted…except kind of slimy. There are lots of animals and birds from all different continents. Each child is given a “passport” at the entrance and there are little stamp booths at some of the exhibits where booklets can get stamped at each spot. Makes for a fun treasure hunt game and keeps the kids engaged. Interspersed with the animals are small areas for kids to play. A playground, a small ropes course, and a huge slide are just some examples. Whoever designed this zoo really got it right…because kids like variety and seeing animal after animal can get a little monotonous, especially if it’s hot out, like it was for us. So the children’s play areas really worked well here. There is also a small petting zoo for the kids. But frankly, if you really want a fun petting zoo, hit up Davis Farmland in Massachusetts. There is also an elevated train that takes you around the entire park. We did not do this as it costs extra but I would imagine it would be fun for the kids to see everything from up high. And finally, this is a zoo…so if you have strong opinions about zoos, it’s just not the place for you. I felt that most of the animals looked really well cared for and happy. Of course they’d be happier in the wild but I also felt this gave my kids an opportunity to see animals they might not normally see. After all, a safari to Africa isn’t in the budget right now.
- The Amazoo Water park. After the zoo, we went back out to our car to grab our suits and towels. My husband and kids changed in the car, and I changed in a locker room inside the water park. You can also rent little lockers if you want to store wallets, etc. Be sure to pack towels and sunscreen and flip-flop/water shoes.
- This water park is a perfect way to end your trip to the zoo. There are plenty of options for both younger and older kids. A large wave pool, a smaller splash pad with fountains and spray cannons, a lazy river with big inner tubes, and other smaller shallow pools. Something to note is that there is no major waterslide area that many other water parks feature. My kids aren’t really into water slides so that worked out well for us. That being said I think it’s still a fun water park. My son’s favorite was the hurricane pool. It’s a wave pool that simulates a hurricane. There’s an ominous tiki god statue up front that starts growling and glows red eyes and then these fans come on and spray water and the waves pick up. It was super fun. My three year old on the other hand was traumatized. Ruby’s favorite part was the foam pool. Think largest bubble bath ever. On a side note, I normally hate water parks. The idea of walking around a man-made water facility with a bunch of strangers in bathing suits sets my neurotic anxiety levels on high alert. I’m always worried I’m going to catch some skin disease or my bathing suit with fall off. I found the park to be super clean and really quite pleasant.
Last Thoughts/musings/miscellaneous items:
- For dinner in Montreal Friday night we ate a restaurant called Poutineville. If you love poutine, this is a great option. There are several locations around town. Also, if you don’t know what poutine is, you’re missing out. It’s French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Restaurants, like the above mentioned have options for add-ons. For example, I had the poutine with fries, gravy, cheese curds, bacon, hot dogs, and ground beef. So good and so gross all at once. I’d order it again, no doubt. I know, I should be dead right now. But I had run 7 miles earlier that day I’m pretty sure that was my saving grace.
- For breakfast on Saturday we went to St. Viateur Bagel. If you didn’t know, Montreal is famous for their “Montreal Style” Bagels. If you’ve eat at Meyers Bagels here in Burlington you know what I mean. If you haven’t, they are wood fired bagels that are sweeter and denser than a New York style bagel. Some die- hard bagel fans, like my Uncle Bob in NYC, will tell you a Montreal style bagel is an abomination. While I will always prefer a NY style bagel, St. Viateur was excellent—especially the fresh out of the oven sesame bagels. It is a cash only facility, with a small ATM at the back of the store. There is no place to sit inside and they don’t put cream cheese on the bagels, you have to buy small packs of cream cheese (at the store) if you want cream cheese or even butter. Either way, the kids loved them, and we were fully carb loaded and satiated before hitting up the biodome. We bought donuts and coffee at Tim Horton’s on Sunday—Tim Horton’s is the Dunkin Donuts of Canada.
- If you plan on eating out downtown for dinner on Saturday night, I might suggest calling ahead to make reservations. We had a bunch of places on our list to try and all of them were booked and/or closed. We finally settled on an awesome Indian Restaurant, but the food was spicy. At one point, Henry said, “mom this food is so hot, it hurts to exhale.” Poor kid.
- Finally—my last piece of advice when traveling with kids: Come from a place of yes. Your kid wants to go swimming in the pool at 9pm at night, way past his bed time? Sure, why not, you’re on vacation. Yes! Your kids want to have a soda with dinner? Sure why not, it’ll make them happy at the restaurant and you might be able to have a conversation with your partner over dinner. Yes! And finally, when your daughter accidently inhales pool water at the hotel pool, chokes and starts coughing, and proceeds to unleash the barf demons from her belly in the form of regurgitated burger, fries, and chocolate shake…you say to yourself…yes I can do this. Yes I will clean all of this up. Yes I will wrap her in a towel, make no eye contact with other hotel guests, and make a bee line for the door. Yes, I can!