VANCOUVER, B.C. - Long before I had my own child who would go with me, I used to ride the miniature railway in Stanley Park.
I always felt a bit silly, a hulking adult all by herself, hunched over on a tiny railway bench among hordes of happy families.
But I loved to ride the little train, which takes children, their parents and the occasional unaccompanied adult on a 10-minute ride through a forested corner of the park - over a pint-sized bridge, past waterfalls and the outdoor pens of bison and wolves.
The driver hitches up his railwayman's overalls, straddles the miniature engine and rings the bell. All aboard, he calls. Behind, stretch the open-air railway cars, each just wide enough to hold an excitedly squirming kid or two and an adult on a wood bench.
Now that I have a child, I get to share my bench with her and ride the train without feeling sheepish. My daughter chortles with glee and wears her blue-and-white-striped train engineer's cap; I've got someone to hold hands with and make scary noises for as we go through the dark tunnel.
The miniature railway is one of Vancouver's meccas for younger children. But there's plenty more to keep children of all ages - and their parents - happy and busy all around the city. (Many of these attractions also will appeal to adults without kids.)
Here's a sampling:
Right across from the Stanley Park Miniature Railway, in the east side of the park, is the Children's Zoo, where children can pet goats, sheep, rabbits and other domesticated animals. Kids can wander in and out of the barns; the friendly goats usually are in hot pursuit, eager to butt heads.
The petting zoo and miniature railway are open daily from April to September from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (weekends only the rest of the year). Pony rides are offered in summer, too. Admission to the zoo and railway is $2.10 (Cdn) for adults; $1 (Cdn) for children. A family ticket for each is $4.20 (Cdn). For more information, phone the zoo at 1-604-681-8729. For the miniature railway phone 1-604-683-3525.
Just a few hundred yards away is the Vancouver Aquarium, bigger and with more outdoor displays than the Seattle Aquarium. The whales - orcas and belugas - are particularly entrancing for children. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. until June 25; summer hours then extended from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $9.50 (Cdn) for adults; reduced for seniors and children (age 4 and under free). There's also a family rate of $27 (Cdn). For information phone 1-604-685-3364.
(The nearby Stanley Park zoo, with its old, too-small animal pens, is reducing its number of animals and eventually may focus mostly on indigenous animals. A new otter display has opened. There's no admission charge.)
North from the aquarium (a few minutes walk along a path that leads to the Burrard Inlet side of Stanley Park) is the Variety Kids Water Park which is open in July and August. Hydrants, hoses and shallow pools are scattered over a concrete area just off the park's seawall walk. Kids can squirt and splash to their hearts' content. A food stand and bathrooms are right there. (No admission charge to the water park.)
Older children can join their parents in bicycling around Stanley Park; the Seawall Bicycling Path is about 6 1/2 miles long with plenty of beaches and scenic spots for stops. There also are unpaved trails through the wooded center of the park that bicyclists can use.
If you don't take your own bikes, one of the biggest and most convenient places to rent bikes, near the Georgia St. entrance to the park, is Stanley Park Bike Rentals (1-604-681-5581). Bikes with child seats are available; you may want to take your own helmets since they cost an additional $1 (Cdn) per hour to rent (bikes costs $6 to $7 (Cdn) an hour).
For swimming, head to Second Beach or Third Beach in the park. Both have block-long stretches of sand, lifeguards, food stands and restrooms. Second Beach has an outdoor, salt-water pool that usually is nicely warmed by the sun and shallow enough in parts for toddlers. There's a playground by the beach with swings and an old fire engine to climb upon.
To get more information and maps of Stanley Park, visit the Vancouver Parks Board headquarters, 2099 Beach (it's a low, one-story building tucked into the trees right by the English Bay entrance to Stanley Park); phone 1-604-681-1141.
For sandcastle-building and strolling year-round and wading/swimming in the summer, try these beaches.
Kits Beach, in the Kitsilano area (about a 10-minute drive from downtown, just southwest of the Burrard Bridge) is a place teenagers may love since it's the "be-seen-there" beach in Vancouver. For families with young kids it may a bit too crowded and bit too much of a meat market on summer weekends. But it has an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool that swimmers of all ages love, with a play area and lanes for lap swimming.
Farther west in the Kitsilano area, toward the University of British Columbia, are Jericho Beach Park and Spanish Banks, which together offer several miles of sandy beach. When the tide is out, Spanish Banks has sand bars and tide pools that extend a half-mile. They're both great beaches for picnicking and watching the sun set on the city high-rises and the North Shore mountains.
One caveat: there has been an occasional pollution scare at some Vancouver beaches; check with other swimmers and the lifeguards (most beaches are tested regularly).
GRANVILLE ISLAND, FALSE CREEK
Granville Island is a mecca for children, from kid-friendly restaurants to playgrounds.
Granville Island Public Market is a quick and easy place to eat with children. Buy your food at one of several dozen prepared-food stalls - fish and chips, sushi, sandwiches - whatever takes your children's fancy. There are indoor tables or benches outside on a large deck where kids can chase seagulls, buy balloons or at times watch jugglers and musicians. But be aware that the market often is jammed on weekends.
For a sit-down meal with built-in diversion, consider Isadora's restaurant on the east side of Granville Island (phone 1-604-681-8816). The restaurant offers sandwiches, salad, fish dishes, pasta and more - plus a child's menu. It has a few outside tables which give directly onto an outdoor water park for children.
Like the Stanley Park water park, it's simple and free - and hours of summertime fun. There are fire hydrants that kids can aim and spray at one another plus gyesers of water to dash through. There's a slide and climbing frames, too.
For shopping and fun, head to For Kids Only, a two-story complex of shops for children next to Isadora's. It's packed with toy, clothes and craft shops for young children.
About three blocks east of Granville Island, along the False Creek waterfront walkway, is a playground with wooden forts, swings and climbing frames.
Nearby are ponds with plenty of ducks to feed.
Children also will enjoy riding the mini-ferries between downtown and Granville Island. The dozen-passenger ferries take just a few minutes to cross False Creek and shuttle back and forth continuously.
For information phone Granville Island Ferries, 1-604-684-7781 or Aquabus, 1-604-689-5858. The ferries also head to some of the museums at Vanier Park (see below).
Most kids get bored pretty quickly in museums, particularly art museums. Here are a couple of museums that actually let them do things.
In the waterfront Vanier Park, between the south end of Burrard Bridge and Kits Beach, is a complex of three museums - The Vancouver Maritime Museum, Vancouver Museum and H.R. MacMillan Planetarium.
Out front is Heritage Harbor, a dock of restored, historic sailboats. They're all within five minutes walk of each other.
The Vancouver Museum (1100 Chestnut St., phone 1-604-736-7736) showcases Vancouver-area history and culture, everything from native Indian art to reconstructions of 19th-century Vancouver streets - fun for kids to poke around.
The Planetarium, adjoining the museum, has astronomy displays and films, plus laser shows set to rock music.
At the Vancouver Maritime Museum (1905 Ogden Ave., phone 1-604-737-2212), tour guides take visitors clambering through the St. Roch, which was the first Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol ship to circumnavigate the Northwest Passage. There also are displays on the fishing industry and maritime history.
At the east end of False Creek, the shiny geodesic dome that was part of the Expo '86 world's fair now contains Science World (1455 Quebec Street, 1-604-687-7832.)
There are plenty of hands-on experiments and exhibits - from exploding zucchinis and ant farms to echo tubes and Omnimax films.
Want to venture a bit farther afield? The Skyride gondola in North Vancouver goes swooping up the 4,000-foot Grouse Mountain - for skiing in winter and hiking in summer (phone 1-604-984-0661). The steep ride is fun although not cheap; adult tickets (including tax) are Cdn. $15.52, children Cdn. $6.37).
At the top are excellent views over Vancouver and the Strait of Georgia, plus restaurants and souvenir shops. There are gentle trails for family strolling or longer trails for all-day hikes.
MORE MOUNTAINS, CANYONS
While there's no public road access up Grouse, visitors can get to similar mountain terrain for free by driving up Cypress Mountain or Mount Seymour, two North Shore mountains that flank Grouse.
Both are designated as provincial parks and roads climb up the mountains to trailheads (and, in the winter, ski areas). There are miles of hiking trails through the forests, some gentle enough for toddlers. Seymour's meadows usually offer good blueberry picking in late summer.
Kids - and adults - get a thrill from walking across the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver.
The wood-and-wire bridge, for pedestrians only, sways and ripples above the 250-foot-deep Capilano Canyon.
The bridge is privately run (phone 1-604-985-7474), and admission is charged ($6.40 Cdn for an adult, reduced for children and students). There is a gift store and some gaudy totem poles near the bridge and, on summer weekends, busloads of tourists.
For another people-only suspension bridge, head to Lynn Canyon Park in North Vancouver. The bridge is a bit shorter and lower than Capilano, but it's free, and there are pleasant trails to walk through the woodlands.
Along the Capilano River, still in North Vancouver, is the Capilano Salmon Hatchery (1-604-666-1790 free admission).
The hatchery is run by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and has displays on the life cycle of coho and chinook salmon plus pens full of fish.
Hiking trails leave from the hatchery and wind through the woods along the river in Capilano Canyon Park; walkers can meander for a half-hour or the whole day.
- For general information on visiting Vancouver, contact Tourism Vancouver, phone 1-604-683-2000. Or write Tourism Vancouver, Vancouver Travel Info Centre, Waterfront Centre, 200 Burrard St., Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6C 3L6.
- For general information about travel in British Columbia, call Tourism B.C. at 1-800-663-6000.