A gibbous moon hangs over the plump hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships as my two daughters and I climb the meandering path to National Geographic ObservÉtoiles, marketed as “the world’s first open-air augmented-reality planetarium."
From this glorious vantage point – a 184-seat hillside amphitheatre surrounded by a recently designated Dark Sky Preserve – reality seems to be doing just fine without any digital augmentation. Then again, we have yet to test our smartphone-equipped headsets.
The moment we tilt our heads left or right to activate constellation mode, ObservÉtoiles’s unique appeal becomes apparent. To paraphrase the late Gord Downie, our headsets reveal the constellations one star at a time while overlaying them with mythical figures. These swim into view and fade away as we scan the midnight-blue horizon. (The hour-long presentation actually begins in solar system mode, an astronomer-narrated planetary fly-by that isn’t all that different from traditional planetarium shows.)
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Jeremy Fontana, owner of the surrounding Au Diable Vert nature resort, began developing the concept more than two years ago with Andrew Fazekas, a Montreal-based science writer and educator. (Nat Geo brought its marketing muscle to the table as the project neared its June 23 debut.) And while sitting in the million-dollar amphitheatre is definitely a memorable experience, one of the best elements of ObservÉtoiles is that you can relive it at home: All adult guests can keep their headsets, minus the slotted-in smartphones of course.
A few nights later, the horizon is punctuated not by rolling hills, but by condo towers. The lustrous digital constellations, however, remain much the same as my daughters and I make good use of our souvenir. By downloading the free StarChart app to my own device, we’re able to recount much of what we learned about the heavenly bodies above us. (observetoiles.com)
ObservÉtoiles seems to have whetted my brood’s appetite for learning. And who knows? With Labour Day fast approaching, the experience could even end up easing their transition from the freewheeling days of summer to the structure of the classroom. Here, then, are nine more activities across Canada that can help families achieve a perennial goal: beating the back-to-school blues.
Apprentice Falconer, Mont Tremblant, Que.
Before ObservÉtoiles capped our week-long Quebec road trip, we took part in this captivating family diversion 90 minutes north of Montreal. After meeting our guide, Shawna Sevigny, at the Tremblant Activity Centre, we strolled to a nearby walking trail where the amiable wildlife control officer revealed the contents of the large white container she was carrying.
It was a brown Harris’s hawk named Phoenix and over the next hour, the winged wonder deftly dodged trees and swooped down from overhead branches to retrieve chicken scraps on our leather-gloved hands.
Sevigny, meanwhile, provided a fascinating overview of Phoenix’s anatomy and behaviour – including his incredibly keen vision and wholesale dining habits – as well as an explanation of falconry that covered its centuries-old history and training techniques. tremblant.ca
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In My Kitchen, Vancouver
Cultural and culinary immersion collide in this new series of small gatherings hosted by home cooks based in and around Vancouver.
The two-hour “Okonomiyaki Party,” for instance, is specifically designed for children aged 11 and up (with at least one adult guest in attendance). Over the course of two hours, former soccer player Naomi Eguchi teaches up to six visitors how to make onigiri, okonomiyaki and pan-fried yakisoba rice, and shares stories about growing up in Japan along with tips on cooking with traditional ingredients from her homeland. inmykitchen.ca
Museum of the Moon, Stratford, Ont.
A full moon, of sorts, will shine over the Stratford Summer Music festival from Aug. 16 to 25 when this touring artwork makes its first-ever Ontario appearance.
Created by British artist Luke Jerram, the illuminated scale-model exhibit sounds striking enough on its own, covered as it is in highly-detailed NASA imagery of the lunar surface. But the festival has embraced the lunar theme by scheduling a range of diversions around the seven-metre-wide inflatable orb, including moon-painting workshops, moon-buggy design seminars and Stratford Astronomy Group open houses. stratfordsummermusic.ca
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Rookie Tour, Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, N.S.
If the brood thinks heading back to school is tough, this hour-long excursion around these sprawling French fortifications might change their minds.
With guidance from the historic site’s period-costumed staff, children between the ages of five and 10 learn a host of 18th-century skills: tending gardens and livestock, performing military marching drills and, this being the Maritimes, gutting cod. But don’t worry: While the tended goats and sheep are very much alive, the cod are made of plastic. www.pc.gc.ca
Sea to Sky Hot Springs Cove Excursion, Tofino, B.C.
This brand-new addition to Destination Canada’s “Signature Experiences” collection is basically a six-hour-long highlight reel of all things Clayoquot Sound.
From Tofino Harbour, West Coast Aquatic Safari guests cruise north toward Maquinna Provincial Park and Hot Springs Cove, where a geothermally-heated pool provides spectacular shoreline soaks. Seabirds and marine mammals such as whales, seals and otters are likely to be spotted along the way, with the return trip on a floatplane providing panoramic views of the lush wilderness below. whalesafaris.com
Tuktoyaktuk Whale Camp Package, NWT
Another Signature Experiences provider, Tundra North Tours, is behind this adventurous two-day excursion across the wildlife-rich Mackenzie River Delta.
Starting in Inuvik, guests boat north on Canada’s longest river system, stopping to visit a traditional Inuit whaling camp, a tipi camp and an underground ice house used by local hunters to store meat. After reaching the Arctic Ocean, the voyage continues on to Tuktoyaktuk, where the new Mackenzie Valley Highway links back to Inuvik. tundranorthtours.com
En Plein Air Paint Out, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ont.
While professional artists scout the bucolic grounds of the McMichael for scenes that’ll win the gallery’s annual En Plein Air Competition on Aug. 25 and 26, families are invited to participate in three outdoor painting workshops at the picturesque Tom Thomson Shack National Historic Site. The workshops take place at 12:30, 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., with painting supplies provided. mcmichael.com
Fossil Safari, Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
Attention aspiring paleontologists (and their children): This no-digging-required daily tour visits rich fossil beds that can’t be explored any other way. After a short bus ride and stroll to a micro-fossil site, park staff share some of the most effective techniques for finding fossilized turtles, fish, mammals and, of course, dinosaurs. albertaparks.ca
Seeking Science: a Huntsman Fundy Discovery Experience, St. Andrews, N.B.
Guests of this three-hour excursion join the crew of the Huntsman aquarium’s research vessel, the Fundy Spray, for a hands-on lesson covering the ecology of Passamaquoddy Bay. They gather specimens and samples with a plankton tow, examine their finds with an on-board microscope and touch tank, and then, this being the Maritimes, snack on some of them before returning to the wharf. huntsmanmarine.ca
The writer was a guest of Tourisme Quebec. It did not review or approve this article.
Special to The Globe and Mail