London, Ontario: British vibes on this side of the Atlantic – Ontario, Canada

London, Ontario: British vibes on this side of the Atlantic
Ontario, Canada

Digging for dinosaur bones

Digging for dinosaur bones in the London Children’s Museum

How would you like to take your family on a vacation where they can picnic on the Thames River, ride a double decker bus, and shop at the Covent Garden Market? Well, you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to experience these things. London, Ontario, the Canadian namesake of London England, is wonderful place for a family weekend getaway and there is so much going on in this centrally located Ontario city that you’ll need to come back again and again to experience it all. I visited London three times in the past year, twice with my family and once with a friend, and each weekend was packed full of activity.

London was founded over 200 years ago, when British Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, was in search of a site on which to locate the capital city for Upper Canada. When he came to the place where the river forks (at the western end of the present day downtown core), he was reminded of the Thames river back in London, England and he started a settlement right on that spot. Although Toronto, not London, eventually became the capital, the tiny community grew into the bustling city that is London today.

Summer is a wonderful time to bring the kids to London, especially if they like to be active. There are a number of unique attractions that are must-sees.

Storybook Gardens

Storybook Gardens

Storybook Gardens

Our first stop last summer was Storybook Gardens, a theme park where nursery rhymes come to life. This well known local attraction, which has charmed generations of children since it opened in 1958, is in the process of undergoing a badly needed facelift, so the 2003 season promises to be an exciting one.

My kids had a lot of fun chasing each other around the popular storybook character sites. For instance you can climb a web, like Charlotte the spider or slide into a whale’s tummy like Pinocchio. The petting zoo was a big hit and one of our favourite memories of this attraction was the kissing pigs (we have the photo to prove it). There was a playground with jungle gyms and an inflatable castle, where the boys jumped to their hearts’ content.

We plan to return next year so that we can enjoy some of the attractions that are being developed for the new Storybook gardens. These include Storybook Valley, the Enchanted Forest, Old McDonald’s Farm, Slippery’s Great Escape, the Village, the Back Woods, the Frog Pond and Pirate’s Island. Other improvements include the play and exploration area, plus new features such as summer water play activities and winter skating lanes.

One interesting, creative change that is planned for the coming season is that everyone who passes through the gates of the castle will become a character in a storybook. Visitors will “write” their own story as they experience the eight distinct areas of the park identified as “chapters.”

London Children’s Museum
My boys both loved this museum, although one is nine and the other is a toddler. One of the first children’s museums in Canada, London Children’s Museum is a hand’s on attraction, where kids can explore things that really interest them. We dug for dinosaur bones, crawled through caves, explored a doctor’s office, and learned about space travel. But the highlight was when the kids got to play act at shopping at a grocery store and serving customers in a miniature McDonald’s restaurant.

Fanshawe Pioneer Village

Fanshawe Pioneer Village

Fanshawe Pioneer Village

Located in a conservation authority, this village will transport your little ones to an era well before their time. The village has historically correct homes and businesses and what impressed me was that the volunteers, who are dressed in 19th century garb went out of their way to engage the little ones and to explain exactly what life was like in the ‘olden days’. One older woman, who was lining baskets with flowers that she had hung to dry, was particularly engaging. Farm animals and the surrounding gardens and orchards make this a relaxing respite from city life. There is also an old-fashioned general store and café where light lunches are served.

East Park
If your kids have a lot of energy, this is the place for you. Located on one hundred acres of parkland, this attraction has a variety of sporty activities such as mini-golf, go carting, and rock climbing. There is also a batting cage, a waterslide and a climber for the little ones. It’s a good deal to do the Pick 3 where you pay around $15 to do three of your favourite activities. We climbed to the top of the waterslide and although my son chickened out at the last minute, his mom can attest to the fact that it was lots of fun, if a bit scary. The great thing about East Park is that it provides a variety of things to do at a reasonable rate.

One of the best times to visit London is the Canadian Civic Holiday Weekend, which is the first weekend in August. That’s when two of London’s most popular festivals, take place, Rib Fest and the Balloon Festival.

London’s annual Balloon Festival is unique in Canada. There are mass balloon launches, live entertainment, carnival rides and food concessions. You can get right up to the balloons and talk to the pilots about hot air ballooning. The sky fills with colourful balloons that sway in the wind as balloons are launched either in the early morning or the evening.

Admission is free to Rib Fest, which is held in Victoria Park. Rib restaurants from around the world use this opportunity to participate in this five-day competition. We couldn’t resist chowing down on some meaty, sauce slathered tidbits. Although pricey, the ribs are delicious and the proceeds go to the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of London. There are also craft concessions, free activities for kids and teens, midway rides, games, and giveaways. Various musicians play as you sit and feast on your ribs.

There’s no shortage of shopping opportunities in London. Take your pick from large indoor malls such as the Galleria London or poke around quaint shops on Richmond Row or downtown’s King Street. A popular place to take children is the London Toy Shoppe, which is filled with unique and educational toys, books and games. Free craft workshops are offered on Saturdays and the atmosphere is hands-on, kids are encouraged to touch and try things out.

My favourite place to go in London is the newly renovated Covent Garden Market. Formally established in 1845, the Market was a place where farmers came to sell their wares to the people of London; a wonderful tradition that has continued on to the present day. The two-story building is alive with vendors selling everything from organic produce, ethnic delicacies, and tasty baked goods, to fresh flowers, tempting cheeses, and lovely crafts. Outdoors, the Rotary Club of London Skating ring is open all winter and there is even a theatre on the second floor.

I have to say that we had one of the best tasting pizza slices that I’ve ever tasted there at Strano Bagel and Deli, and at a very reasonable price.

There are plenty of family friendly places to stay in London. The recently updated Days Inn is a good choice for the summer, it’s pool and courtyard provide a nice environment for families to spend time together. If you want to save money, bring in some take out from the White Oakes Mall across the street and sit in the back and eat poolside.

Kissing Pigs

Kissing Pigs of Storybook Gardens

Another great choice is the Marriott Residence Inn. This all suite hotel is well suited to families as each suite has a kitchenette. We were able to comfortably sleep my family of four in a two-bedroom suite complete with two baths, a living room, dining area and fully equipped kitchette. According to sales manager, Rosalyn Eaton, their goal is to create a home away from home atmosphere through special touches such as a daily, free hot buffet breakfast, complimentary dinner once a week, and gifts for frequent travelers. They even allow pets for a fee which covers the cost of cleaning the room.

Other reasonably priced places to stay include the Best Western Stoneridge Inn and the Ramada Inn, both conveniently near the highway.

There are a multitude of places to eat in London from ranging from fast food to some very nice restaurants. A perennial favourite is the Great West Steak Company. They have an extensive salad bar in addition to a hot food station as well as a variety of menu choices with steak obviously being one of the favourites. This is a good place to go with the family, as there is something to please every palate.

If you have a chance to see London without kids in tow, there are some wonderful cultural venues. Londoners are very proud of the beautifully restored Grand Theatre, which offers a full season of plays. Make sure to ask about its history of being haunted while you’re there. Orchestra London also has an excellent concert series. My friend and I thoroughly enjoyed a Celtic concert on my one girlfriend’s getaway. For this trip we stayed at the Idelwyld Inn, an 1878 Victorian mansion, where we enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere provided by the elegantly decorated rooms and antique furnishings.

It is two hours away from several major urban centers including Toronto, Detroit, and Windsor and an hour away from two great lakes, Huron and Erie. It is also worth noting that London has been nicknamed the Forest City, because parkland and trees surround it, making it a enticing to people who enjoy walking or jogging.

Overall, London is a wonderful place for a well-priced getaway, no matter where your interests lie. With its historical and cultural attractions, museums, active pursuits, family friendly activities, festivals, shopping, great dining and a variety of accommodation choices, a London, Ontario vacation will suit couples, families or friends who want to relax and enjoy a city that truly has it all.

To find out about more about the many attractions, museums and accommodations too numerous to mention here, please visit the Tourism London website.

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