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travel / travel magazine / sep09

CITY SIGHTS

A Capital Idea

A Capital Idea
October in Ottawa offers a crowd-free, fall-foliaged, blue-skied and bugless mecca of museums, trails and — if you can score some tickets — Sens seats
By Alec Ross with photography by David Trattles

MAP: STEVEN FICK/CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC
Click map to enlarge

IT IS AFTER DARK, and my wife, Vicki, daughter Maddy, 10, and son Noah, 7, step cautiously with me along a dimly lit pathway in the Field of Screams behind our guide, Dave Hale. In ominous tones that complement the creepy music being piped in from somewhere, Hale, 20, informs us that a mass murderer named Billy has escaped legal custody and is reputed to be in the vicinity. “You guys better watch out,” he says. “Billy’s sneaky, and he’s mean.” I’m holding Noah’s hand and feel his grip tighten.

Suddenly, something reaches out from the bushes and grabs my ankle. I yelp and jump about three feet in the air. Almost immediately, a white-faced figure in tattered trenchcoat leaps from the bushes howling, bloody fangs bared and arms waving. We all scream in unison. The zombie roars again, then disappears back into the bushes. Once our hearts start beating again, we start howling — with laughter.



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A few metres down the path, my left foot squishes into soft, springy ground that throws me off balance and induces another quick adrenaline rush. “Amazing what you can do with an old mattress and some dirt,” deadpans Hale.

It’s a week before Halloween and we’re on a threeday getaway in Ottawa from our home two hours away in Kingston, Ont., and the setting for our frightfest is Saunders Farm, located in the tiny village of Munster, about 45 kilometres southwest of the national capital. The Saunders family has converted their 40-hectare property into a sort of rural theme park where daytime guests can wander through 11 hedge mazes and labyrinths — North America’s largest collection. But the serious entertainment, known as “Haunting Season,” starts in October, when the farm becomes the nightly stomping grounds for a crew of Munster-area teenagers, costumed as an assortment of witches and ghouls, and doing their best to scare the life out of visitors. A quaint log cabin has been converted into the “Barn of Terror” and a squadron of tractors pulls wagons through the “Haunted Hayride,” where giant spiders drop out of the night sky and a goalie-masked villain gives chase with chainsaw in hand. They do a brilliant job too. Our family has experienced the über-commercialism of Disney World and we all agree that this place is every bit as fun.

Saunders Farm is new to us, but this is not our first excursion to the Ottawa region. I was a university student here in the 1980s, and in recent years I have returned with my family several times to take in most of the many kid-friendly museums and attractions. This time, we’re coming in late October because we’ve found it to be the ideal time of year to visit: the biggest tourist hordes are gone, the heat and humidity of July and August has dissipated and the Gatineau Hills north of the city in Quebec are bug-free and gorgeously ablaze with fall colours. Perfect.

ALTHOUGH WE’VE DECIDED TO EXPLORE parts of Ottawa we haven’t already seen, for me, some attractions are unmissable, regardless of how many times you’ve experienced them. And so we find ourselves on Parliament Hill, the most recognizable of our national icons. Picnicking on the expansive front lawn, we plan our day. While Maddy and Noah toss a Frisbee and play tag, we realize that of all our visits to the Hill, none have included the Peace Tower./p>

“Do they have guns, Dad?” Noah asks, slightly concerned, during our 20-minute wait to pass through the airport-like security at the base of the tower. A specially designed elevator that conforms to the tower’s internal construction whisks us up at an unnoticeable angle of 10 degrees off vertical to the observation gallery about 48 metres up. The vista from here is fantastic: the squat copper spire of the Library of Parliament on the north side of the building looms below us, and peering up through the narrow roof windows, I feel like I can almost touch the giant black hands of the Peace Tower clock. The city spreads in every direction with civic landmarks — the curvy stone layers of the Canadian Museum of Civilization across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Que., the glass galleria of the National Gallery of Canada, the vaulted roof of the Supreme Court of Canada — sprouting like exotic mushrooms among the workaday office blocks of the bilingual civil-service brigades. We see exactly where we want to go.


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