Western Canada Through the Eyes of a Child
By Tim Leffel

A family vacation is a series of compromises, surprises, and disappointments. As any traveling parent soon learns, things look very different through the developing eyes of a child.

Canadian Rockies

At the ripe age of three, my daughter Alina is handed her first passport. A Mexican stamp appears in it a few months later, when her parents first learn that traveling with a child requires slowing down, doing less, and giving up some favorite routines--like eating at street stalls.

When school comes to an end in May, cheerful adults with visions of summer camps begin to ask little Alina, "What are you doing this summer, dear?"

"Um, we're going to Canada."

She says this with blissful ignorance, Canada just being another place on the map. We adults always pack our preconceptions. If nothing else, we know the country's stereotypes and icons: Big Ben, Machu Picchu, camels and saris, or the harbor of Hong Kong. So Donna and I can't wait to hear a 7-year-old's impressions of Canada as we explore Vancouver.

Those maple leaves are everywhere!" is the first summation.

"Just wait until you go backpacking around the world," I tell her.

"What's that mean?" she asks.

"Never mind," I say. "It's only funny to Mommy and me."

As we wait for the sea bus over to North Vancouver, another young girl visiting from the U.S. provides her own first impression. "Mommy, that is not how you spell "center." Look-it says c-e-n-t-r-e. That is cen-TRE, not center." As we board, her mother gamely explains the vagaries of U.S. and British English and how Canada somehow ended up in the neutral zone. The girl's brow is more furrowed than before.

stanley park totem pole

Treetop Scampering and Swimming
Soon we're in the treetops at the Capilano Suspension Bridge complex. Alina is suitably thrilled by the bridge suspended 230 feet above a gorge, especially the part about it being strong enough to hold two jumbo jets. She enjoys the process of climbing steps and following bridges around the tree canopy, but the vistas generate nothing more than a shrug. The big thrill is getting a worksheet with questions and stickers, with answers scattered around the park. "Look, I got a prize!" she squeals with delight. It's one of those pin-on buttons three inches in diameter, with a nature message on it. A day later it falls apart, but she is not fazed.

Lesson one: it's the getting that provides the thrill. Possession is ho-hum.

A trip out to the Museum of Anthropology is fun for Mom and Dad, mostly a bust for the child. The place is filled with awe-inspiring totem poles, impressive carvings, canoes, and a replica of a 19th-century Haida village outside. "Everything is all brown," is her review. While we spend time admiring the First Nations carvings, she finds more interest in the pull-out drawers of anthropologic displays. The contents of each drawer are different, so it's a series of surprise discoveries.

The long bike ride around Stanley Park ends up being the highlight, once again because of novelty. I rent a kind of tandem bike that is really a kid's bike clamped onto an adult one. Alina doesn't have to steer--she just pedals. This is apparently the coolest invention ever: she talks about it for two weeks.

The colorful totem poles in Stanley Park elicit more interest (better eye candy apparently) and near the end of our loop along the seawall is a swimming pool. The weather is overcast and it's cool enough outside for a jacket. The pool is heated though and there are slides, so she's going in.

Lesson two: you can never go wrong with a swimming pool.

Grand Train Travel into the Rockies
We leave Vancouver in the grandest style possible: on the Rocky Mountaineer train to Banff. I'm on an assignment, so we're traveling first class with the Gold Leaf service, something sane parents and grandparents would think is a giant waste of money for someone not yet eight. Not surprisingly, our daughter is the only guest under drinking age. But one of our car's hostesses tells us she once waited on 16 kids, when the owner of a Mexican Coke bottling plant brought several generations of his family along.

For lunch we choose from a menu filled with the likes of wild salmon and aged beef, accompanied by wine from British Columbia. Both days, Alina gets cheese pizza and apple juice. She is thrilled.

rocky mountaineer

As everyone oohs and aahs at the crystal blue lakes and snow-capped mountains we see through the glass-domed top of the upper deck, she draws pictures, cuts out figures to play with, and watches cartoons on the iPod. We excitedly point out a particularly stunning Rocky Mountain vista. "You've been seeing this all day," she replies. "There's just more snow now."

Lesson three: kids don't give a rat's ass about scenery.

The adults all enjoy it though and along the way we get lots of background on what we're passing. We move through boom and bust gold rush areas, through Skuzzy Creek, Hell's Gate, and Jackass Mountain. We marvel at the spiral tunnels going through the Rockies rocky mountaineer seatbetween Yoho National Park and Banff National Park, an engineering feat that allows our train to twist through steep passages before going across the Continental Divide.

All the kids from the train--the rest of them from coach class--are more into the dinner theater show at our overnight stop of Kamloops. It's a silly musical comedy about train robbers that manages to stuff about 30 songs into one play, including Abba, Johnny Cash, Pussycat Dolls, Webb Pierce, and Johnny Rivers. Our daughter laughs all the way through.

Lesson four: kids love slapstick.

There are a few times on the train itself she gets excited though. The first is when she opens the goody bag she got upon arrival and finds binoculars, a pen with a Mountie-dressed moose on top, and her own working plastic camera. The other times come when there's an animal sighting, announced over the loudspeaker with "Bears on the left!" or "Bighorn sheep on the right hillside!"

The next day Donna is telling someone about how wonderful the train trip was. The woman asks our daughter what she thought of it. "Well, we got three different kinds of cookies. The first one was chocolate chip..."

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