Monday, July 25

Vancouver Travel Guide and Trip Highlights

We've been east and we've been south, but until now my husband and I had never traveled to western Canada. (Yes, I realize I left out a cardinal direction, but unless I get invited to Santa's actual workshop that one isn't high on my list.)

A few months ago, we decided that to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary (and combine business and pleasure with a travel story), we would cash in our Aeroplan points and head to beautiful British Columbia - more specifically the city of Vancouver.

Today I offer you the highlights of our four day trip, and top suggestions for what to see and what to do in Vancouver.

First off, I love technology. Online check-in and digital boarding pass? Yes, please!

If you fly to Vancouver, consider taking the Canada Line train (leaving every 7 minutes) from the airport to Vancouver City Centre (or whatever stop you might need). It was $9 each to get us downtown, and we ended up just blocks from our hotel. As we trekked the short distance with our wheeled suitcases, my husband turned and joked, "Do you think anyone can tell we're tourists?"





Once you're in Vancouver (click on subtitles to take you to websites):

CENTURY PLAZA HOTEL AND SPA

Out hotel was perfectly located on Burrard Street. We walked almost everywhere, and had shuttle buses right at the door. They were kind enough to accommodate our early check-in, and our room had a great kitchenette with a coffee maker, toaster, microwave, kettle and fridge - which made it easy to have a couple of grocery store meals (there's a fantastic IGA down the street) and one of reheated restaurant leftovers! The on-site spa is another great perk - more on that later! The only thing that could make the hotel even better would be a hot tub along with the pool.


HOP-ON, HOP-OFF FROM WESTCOAST SIGHTSEEING*

This bus tour gives you a wonderful overview of the city highlights, and the guides are very informative (e.g., did you know the Lululemon owner has a 63 million dollar home - the most expensive in Vancouver?) Your pass is good for 24 hours, and really hits all the city highlights: Chinatown, Gastown, Granville Island, Stanley Park, Robson Street, Canada Place...the list goes on!


ABSOLUTE SPA

My massage was "absolutely" amazing, with incredible service throughout the spa. The change rooms were beautiful, there was a relaxation area for pre- and post-treatment, and even a mini cafeteria for free snacks after the service. Absolute Spa has several locations throughout the city, and you know, if it's good enough for Emily Blunt (who commented, "Best spa day ever!",) Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd and Elle MacPherson then I think it's good enough for me.
P.S. While I can't speak for other extended health coverage, my plan covers treatments (e.g., massage from a Registered Massage Therapist) provided in other provinces.


STANLEY PARK HORSE-DRAWN TOURS*

When you take any sort of tour, the guide makes a big difference, and the young man who toured us around Stanley Park was terrific - knowledgeable and funny. Interesting Hollywood North note: the horses for the hit show Once Upon a Time are the Stanley Park horses - and we got a little glimpse of Prince Charming's carriage too. (If you're an entertainment junkie like me and want to try to see a movie or show being shot while you're in the city, check out http://www.whatsfilming.ca/.)









VANCOUVER AQUARIUM*

If you go to Vancouver with kids, or you have a particular interest in aquatic wildlife, you can't miss a visit to the Vancouver Aquarium (located in Stanley Park). I texted the photo below to my girls (who were back in Ontario with their grandparents) and said "We found Nemo!" My eight-year-old was quick to send back a cropped copy of the shot with the caption, "I found Dory!"

I also texted my Pittsburgh-fan brother a photo of the penguins...in the park that's named after Lord Stanley...just like the coveted cup. Deep, I know.









CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE*

With a free shuttle right at our hotel door, how could we miss out on this huge tourist attraction? We were advised to go early or late to avoid crowds, so we were on the bus at the earliest pick-up time of 9 a.m. The morning was actually a bit misty and drizzly, which also helped with the crowds - we didn't have to wait in any lines at all. Not for the faint-of-heights, the park offers breathtaking experiences like the Cliff Walk, and of course the famous Suspension Bridge (both shown below). My husband says this would be one of his biggest highlights of the trip.





Cliff Walk




Suspension Bridge


HISTORICAL CHINATOWN TOURS*

Not a regular tourist's view of Chinatown, Chinatown Girl Judy Lam Maxwell takes visitors behind closed doors, up staircases and into alleys to get an insider's experience of Chinatown. She offers a thorough historical view and tons of informative tidbits plus customized tours. Ours ended with an interesting behind-the-scenes visit to 94-year-old Bill Wong at Modernize Tailors. Don't just wander Chinatown yourself when you can have Judy as your guide.











VANCOUVER HARBOUR CRUISE*

I love getting out on the water, especially for a view of a new city (which may surprise people, since I'm not exactly the most outdoorsy girl). This tour was both fun and educational, and next time I would consider splurging for one of their dining cruises (the Sunset Dinner one looks great), in order to be out on the water longer and enhance the experience even more.






VANCOUVER ART GALLERY*

While I certainly can't pretend to be a big art connoisseur, I may never again get a chance to see so much of Picasso's work all in one place, so we made time for a trip to the Art Gallery. I learned a lot about Picasso and enjoyed a quick walk through the other exhibits as well.






GASTOWN

This is definitely a "hop off the bus and wander" kind of destination. Cobblestone streets, unique shopping (as well as typical souvenir fare) and so many patios that you'll have a hard time deciding where to stop to eat or drink. Why choose one place? Lunch at one, drinks at another, dinner at a third!


ADELE LIVE 2016

Not that this is helpful to future Vancouver visitors, but one of our trip highlights for sure was seeing Adele live in concert. (I got last-minute tickets through StubHub). The woman is entertaining, funny, beautiful and what a voice!






And now, for the food!

THE WINKING JUDGE PUB

Just a block from our hotel, we had super friendly service (I'm happy to be called "hon" by waitstaff), large portions (I saved half my meal for later) plus it's always nice to get a bit of an Irish feel in every city we visit.

CACTUS CLUB CAFE AT COAL HARBOUR

Recommended by more than one of my Facebook followers, this restaurant - located at Canada Place - has incredible views...and even the bathrooms were some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. I recommend Rob's Crispy Chicken Sandwich - it has a nice little kick to it!

JOE'S GRILL (on Denman St., near our hotel) and DEACON'S CORNER (Gastown area) for those who like a delicious, filling, inexpensive diner breakfast.

CARTEMS DONUTERIE

The Triple Chocolate Threat is hands-down the best donut I've ever eaten.





BLUE WATER CAFE

This is where we had the meal of our lives. I had asked Vancouverite  Lainey Lui (who I know from my work with The Social) to recommend a favourite restaurant and this was her suggestion. I let them know it was our 15th anniversary celebration and from the moment we walked in we were treated with care. Price-wise this is definitely a special occasion restaurant (and while I saw some kids there, I wouldn't take my girls until they're older) but wow. Every course (including our after-dinner sorbet shown below) was delicious ("Have I mentioned how amazing this is?" my husband kept asking me) with a great atmosphere and convenient Yaletown location. This is the place for real seafood, though in a "you-can-take-the-girl-out-of-the-country-but..." kind of move, I ordered the beef tenderloin, which was incredible. Dessert? Of course! I indulged in the Warm Dark Chocolate Cake (come on, doesn't just reading the name make your mouth water?) and I was not disappointed.







A final note: as I mentioned earlier, I'm not a huge outdoorswoman, though I enjoyed spending four days of beautiful weather walking all over the city. Keep in mind though that there's so much more to see and do for nature lovers - including well-marked bike paths on city streets and trails. Be sure to visit Tourism Vancouver for a comprehensive guide to everything the city has to offer.

As always, don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions (leave a comment, email me or message through social media) and please feel free to leave your own Vancouver recos that we may not have had time for!

Disclosure: I was provided with a media Experience Pass through Tourism Vancouver, and received free admission to several attractions. Opinions are, as always, my own.



Saturday, July 16

A Healthy School Helps Children Succeed: Guest Post from Ophea

Today I'm opening up the blog for a special guest post from Chris Markham, Executive Director and CEO of Ophea.

*******

Come September, if you walk through the doors of one of Ontario’s certified Healthy Schools, you’ll see student leadership in action—plus some serious fun underway.

Students might be whipping up healthy smoothies, leading heart-rate-raising playground activities, or easing pre-exam anxiety by visiting with a therapy dog.....and they’ll be doing it all in an environment that supports their health and success.




That’s because, through Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification, schools are embracing a holistic approach to health and giving students a leading role in making it happen. In addition to helping kids make healthy choices, Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification teaches important life and leadership skills, and can also result in increased academic success. After all, studies show that healthy students are in a better position to learn.

What is Healthy Schools Certification?

Ophea is a not-for-profit organization that supports the health and learning of children and youth in Ontario. Last year, we launched an initiative called Healthy Schools Certification (funded in part by the Ministry of Education) with the goal of celebrating school communities that plan and taking action to address important health topics.

In the first year of the program, 107 schools were certified—but, most importantly, each school that participated gained invaluable experience and support in creating a healthy environment at their school.

Creating a Healthy School takes teamwork and focus.

When a school signs up, their first step is to put together a team that represents the school community, including administrators, teachers, community partners, parents and students themselves. This ensures the team has the best support and resources to set the school up for success.

Next, they choose a priority health topic such as healthy eating, physical activity or mental health. They then work throughout the year to apply Ophea’s 6-Step Healthy Schools Process, which is in alignment with the Ministry of Education’s Foundations for a Healthy School resource, and implement activities that address their health topic.




Healthy Schools are also a whole lot of fun.

One school that focused on mental health put together a Feel Well Be Well day where student leaders led various activities that modeled stress management. They had a yoga centre, an art wall and even a station where students could make their own “soothing smoothies.”

Another school, that chose to focus on healthy eating, worked with a public health partner to host a NutriThon. Students learned about healthy food choices through physical activities like a relay race to sort images of foods into different nutritional categories.

Other schools planned and took part in bike or walk-to-school weeks, breakfast clubs, lunchtime Zumba, cooking programs, sports nights, mindfulness days, and so much more. One school even brought in a therapy dog called “Yulli” from St. John’s Ambulance. Yulli is in the school three days a week to help students who are struggling with anxiety and depression. During exam time, Yulli is joined by therapy puppies to help further reduce stress levels.




Want to see this change at your school?

Registration for the new school year opens September 6, 2016, and if you’d like to see your child’s school get certified, start by finding out whether your school has already participated. From there, we recommend approaching a teacher or member of the administration to discuss the idea, and then plan to bring it up at the next parent council meetingyou might even discover some exciting possibilities for community partnerships. Does someone on parent council teach yoga? Work as a chef? Does the school already have a partnership with the local public health unit, parks and recreation department or other community partners who could contribute? The opportunities are endless.   

The bragging rights are nice—but the long-term impact is the real prize!

When the school year nears its end, schools submit information about their progress to be considered for certification at the Gold, Silver or Bronze level. And even though we’re happy to report that almost half of last year’s schools received the coveted Gold status, we’re even happier to say that many of them told us they saw a real shift in their school culture—and that’s the real prize.  

After all, when students grow up in a school that supports holistic health, they’re more likely to adopt and maintain healthy habits for life... and when that happens, we all win.

To learn more about Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification and how your child’s school can get involved, visit www.ophea.net/HSCertification.


Wednesday, July 13

Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons and Martyrs' Shrine - Family Time in Midland

We had a fantastic family road trip to Midland, Ontario yesterday, visiting two important and meaningful tourist attractions: The Martyrs' Shrine and Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons. Today I'm sharing the highlights with you!

MARTYRS' SHRINE

The history in a nutshell: this beautiful church (surrounded by grounds that are just as lovely) was built to honour eight men martyred during the Jesuit missions to New France in the 17th century, with architecture that blends both European and First Nations' cultures.


Our first ever before-Mass-family-selfie







We especially loved the Irish Peace Garden





I had to send the photo below to Gretchen Rubin (author of my beloved The Happiness Project) as she often refers to St. Therese of the Little Flower in her work. And yes, she replied to my tweet!




The ceiling of the church - designed to look like the inside of a canoe. 




From the gift shop: a book for my classroom prayer table, and Olivia picked up a rosary made of olive wood from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (Olivia/olive...you caught that, right? Plus my mother-in-law gave me an Our Lady of Olives medal to wear on my hospital gown when I was giving birth to Liv. Neat connections.)





After that, we drove across the highway (it's really that close) to...

SAINTE-MARIE AMONG THE HURONS

We all learned a ton at Sainte-Marie (a recreation of Ontario's first European community), partly because of the amazing young interpreters who were giving thorough explanations throughout the village in areas such as the shoemaker/tailor's, hospital, cemetery, cookhouse and apothecary shop and garden.

I'd really recommend starting with the video in the main building before entering the village - it's extremely informative (with a balanced viewpoint between the First Nations and European perspectives), plus there's a surprise right at the end that my girls enjoyed - though really little ones might not have the attention span for the content.

Our self-guided tour (with a very helpful site map) was also enhanced by the fact that the village is very hands-on: no signs saying "don't touch" or ropes keeping visitors back from displays, so it seemed very warm and welcoming. (And I'm not just saying warm because we were there on a 36 degree day.)








The girls tried their hands at quill pen writing (one of the summer activities running each day along with craft-making)...and Liv quickly learned that it was a harder task for a lefty!




Trying on some clothing from the time period (obviously just the skirt, not the top - though they match well. Old Navy may want to consider a new line):



Making a craft


Watching the blacksmith work


Listening to an expert in one of the longhouses



During the summer, there are also scheduled activities at different times of the day: we caught the waterway demonstration and music presentation (did you know The Huron Carol - T'was in the Moon of Wintertime - was written by a Jesuit, but originally in the native Wendat language, as a way of explaining the birth of Jesus in a way the people would understand?) and you can also enjoy fire starting, 17th century cooking, First Nations games (I saw some lacrosse sticks propped up ready to go), storytelling and 17th century medicine presentations.

When touring, I was particularly interested in the Church of Saint Joseph, which we were told was designed differently from other churches of the day in an effort to bridge the gap between Wendat and French cultures. For example, there were no "back rooms" where priests could change their vestments, as the Wendat people were used to large, open gathering areas and would be suspicious of any activities that needed to be done in secret. Martyred Saints Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement have their graves at the back of this church as well.

Families with a passion for history should really consider a road trip to Midland to take in these great attractions, and teachers may want to think about future field trips as well. Definitely worth it!


Disclosure: We were provided free admission to Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons for review purposes. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Tuesday, July 12

Miracles From Heaven with Jennifer Garner - Available Now!

I’m a Jennifer Garner fan from way back. Whether it’s her light and funny films like 13 Going on 30, or her more serious pics like Juno, something about her work – and her take on “stardom” – has always appealed to me.

When her latest film, Miracles From Heaven (from the same producers as Heaven is For Real), came to theatres a couple of months ago, my sisters-in-law and I made it a girls’ night out…and we weren’t disappointed. If you missed it then, now’s your chance to see this powerful movie – Miracles from Heaven is available for purchase on July 12th.




The film is based on the incredible true story and memoir of Christy Beam, Miracles from Heaven: A Little Girl, Her Journey to Heaven, and Her Amazing Story of Healing, which recounts how Christy and her husband Kevin’s young daughter Anna was diagnosed with an intestinal motility disorder (her body wasn’t able to digest food). The prognosis was not good.

What followed was not only physical suffering for Anna, stress for her two sisters, and financial and marital strain for her parents, but also a crisis of faith for mom Christy, who naturally wondered how God could allow a young child to go through so much. If the story were purely Hollywood, you might roll your eyes at the ending and deem it completely implausible. The fact that the story is true makes it a miracle. (I can’t give any more away than that, in case you don’t know how it ends!)




I was interested to read that while doing press for the movie, Jennifer Garner shared that she grew up in a religious family, attending church services every Sunday, and as an adult took her children (she has two daughters and a son) back to West Virginia to be baptized. Living in Hollywood, however, regular church attendance was not part of the culture. Working on Miracles from Heaven helped reaffirm her own faith, and she began taking her children to weekly services. “That decision was a direct gift from this movie and for that, I'm very grateful,” she shared during a question and answer session.

What does this celebrity mom want us to take away from the movie? "I will be so thrilled if it lifts people's hearts…if it asks anyone to re-examine their own faith and their own beliefs; that would be the pie in the sky for me. I can't think of anything better," Jennifer shared with The Christian Post.

Faith is huge for my own family – my husband and I both work in the Catholic school system which our daughters attend, and we go to Mass every weekend – so I certainly appreciated the spiritual side of this film. That said, even if you aren’t religious you can still take something from the story, including lessons on family values and determination. Either way, stock up on Kleenex before you watch.





Miracles From Heaven also stars Martin Henderson as Kevin Beam (you may know him as Nathan Riggs, the doctor Meredith Grey just, um, became close with on Grey’s Anatomy) with Queen Latifah making appearances for some comic relief (though really her role is a touching one as well).




Miracles from Heaven is a feel-good, inspirational film worth adding to your collection. Watching it at home I caught several things I missed the first time around in the theatre, and I also look forward to sharing it with my daughters, as I’m always eager to expose them to messages of faith, hope and love.




Disclosure: This post was brought to you by Sony Home Entertainment but the opinions are my own.



Wednesday, July 6

The Best Years of Our Lives

It was a summer morning, just after Sunday Mass. My mom was talking to another parishioner (remember, Mom? It was Rhonda), and while I don't know how it came up, I vividly remember her saying, "I don't know why people say high school is the best time of your life. Those years can’t even compare to right now. This is the best time of my life, with my family."

That one comment made a huge, perhaps lifelong impact on me.

High school was great. While I had my share of differences with friends, pseudo broken hearts (I was a bit boy crazy, and by boys of course I mean hockey players who had no interest in me) and my first real broken heart, I enjoyed those years. I was a strong student, usually had a great group of girls around me, and got involved to the extent I wanted (which of course meant school newspaper, where I covered the religion beat, and school play, where I had the role of a nun...what do you mean, you see a theme emerging?)

That said, my biggest goal as a child was to be an adult. I've always been responsible, hardworking and serious, which led me to believe that adulthood would be more my zone than childhood. I certainly have my fun, but in the way that I define the word - which may be quite different from how the majority of people would! (I mean, if I had the choice between skydiving and organizing closets...)

My parents raised us right (in my opinion), teaching us that the adults were in charge and had the final say...and that someday it would be our turn. Recently on Live! With Kelly, Ethan Hawke jokingly lamented that when he was a kid, kids were the second-class citizens. Now, as a parent, parents are the second-class citizens. When does he get to be a first-class citizen? While of course I believe we are all first-class citizens, I also believe the grown-ups should run the world. Otherwise what is there to look forward to, if your peak of control and happiness comes when you’re a fickle tween? (That said, in my mind there is no fixed age when one becomes an adult. Some get there at 16, some 36, some clearly don’t get there at all.)

I hadn't even turned 23 when I was offered a full-time teaching position, and I have had no qualms about being tied down Monday to Friday since such a young age. Daily routine, rewarding work and a paycheque with benefits...it doesn't get better to me.

Getting married, building a house, these were commitments I was excited about. Even the logistics of having children didn't drag me down as it does some moms. While the early sleep-deprivation was a killer, and we are lucky enough to have active grandparents and incredible babysitters, I've also often been glad to have an excuse to turn down social events or leave early “because of the kids”.

In terms of fulfillment, I am still so close with my mom, dad, brother and his family...but now I have a wonderful husband (and all the in-laws he brought with him) and amazing children of my own.




I think there's something to be said for the perspective of appreciating your life where it is right now. I really hope that when the time comes, I will find joy in the empty nest phase (with my lovely daughters off fulfilling their dreams…and God willing, someday giving me grandchildren) and even retirement from teaching (though I am nowhere close to being able to envision that yet - I didn't just purge and paint those kindergarten rooms for nothing!)

Maybe there will come a day, after the loss of a loved one perhaps, when I will feel like my peak is behind me. For now, life just keeps getting better and better.

My glory days are right here, right now, and I would argue that there's a real benefit to believing that yours are too. Not only that, the next phase will be just as glorious as this one…different, but glorious.


P.S. A final takeaway: your kids are always listening to you, and something you say may have a monumental impact that they refer to on the Internet 30 years later.





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Sunday, July 3

Kate's Favourite Things - July 2016

It's summertime, and I know I will be sitting poolside with a book (or magazine) as much as possible! (Hey, I'm not lazy - I'm actually writing this post while on the treadmill!)

Here are my latest book recommendations:

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson




The publisher describes this one better than I can:

A sparkling talent makes her fiction debut with this infectious novel that combines the charming pluck ofEloise, the poignant psychological quirks of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the page-turning spirit of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy-Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.
When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.
As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank’s father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.
Full of heart and countless “only-in-Hollywood” moments, Be Frank with Me is a captivating and unconventional story of an unusual mother and son, and the intrepid young woman who finds herself irresistibly pulled into their unforgettable world.

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney




This one was on a lot of must-read lists, and it didn't absolutely blow me away (it can be hard for books to live up to hype), but was still a worthy read.

Don't You Cry by Mary Kubica



I've recommended her books in the past, and her latest did not disappoint.

The Other Widow by Susan Crawford




She also wrote The Pocket Wife and is an expert at keeping readers guessing in her psychological thrillers.

MOVIES

And if you're interested in a movie, based on a book:

Me Before You



When I first saw the trailer for this film, it began with "based on the best-selling book", and I thought to myself, "I should read this"! A little farther in to the preview I realized I had read the book...and it was excellent! While I don't always say this, the movie really lived up to the book for me, and I found it very powerful. That said, I just want to be clear that enjoying a book/movie with a particular theme is not the same as endorsing it in real life. If you don't know what I mean, don't worry about it!

Plus a random item which I am adoring:

My teacher toolbox! I was coveting these custom-labelled boxes on Pinterest, and learned that the base storage containers were sold at Lowe's. Since we don't have one locally, I figured I would have to wait...but then my parents went on a road trip and dropped in on their way home to surprise me with two toolboxes (the second being for my ECE partner...who is as much a keener about organization as I am - yay!)

They also picked up the spray paint, and I designed my labels using these free templates from Classroom Decor and More on Teachers Pay Teachers. Don't you just love the final product?








That's all for this month! I'd love to know if you've read or seen anything good, so please contact me if you have a recommendation to share!