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A tale of two getaways

I’ve always considered WNY summers to be the least enticing time to go away on vacation. We wait all year for warm weather — why leave now?

Hard as it may be to admit, there is more to life than our Western New York summer. And a long weekend close to home makes for a great getaway without forfeiting too much of it. Fortunately, there are easy destinations within a short drive that still feel a world away. To the north, Toronto offers unique big-city experiences, and to the South, ski town Ellicottville has become a true year-round destination. Here are some ideas and highlights to plan your own summer family getaway.

Toronto

I’d never really considered Toronto for a family trip — my previous stays north consisted mainly of shopping, eating and the occasional concert.

As it turns out, there’s plenty to do for the whole crew.

The drive is a great opening experience. Cruising in on the QEW and suddenly turning toward the skyscraper-framed metropolis — punctuated by the space-age CN Tower — is an Oz/Emerald City-like moment. Once you’ve arrived, simply walking the streets amid the beautiful architecture and diverse population is an immersion into a different way of life; a cultural exposure you won’t find in WNY. It’s also a great first “big city” experience for the kids.

Of course, the young ones will tire of wandering the streets long before you do. Fortunately there are plenty of family-fun activities that will keep you all engaged.

Toronto Islands

The time to experience Toronto Islands is at the height of summer, and the journey there is half the fun. Ferries depart from 9 Queens Quay West (between Yonge and Bay Streets) throughout the day; adult fare is $7.25 and kids, $3.50. It’s a beautiful ride on a warm summer day with a tour guide offering up corny jokes and some Toronto history; watching the city skyline fall away behind you as you cruise towards the islands is more than worth the fare.

Once you get there (around a 10-minute ride), various attractions await, including Chelsea Beach, walking/biking trails (bike rentals are available), and Centreville Amusement Park, an old-fashioned theme park with 30 rides and attractions plus games, food vendors and a petting zoo. An all-day ride pass for a family of four is $120, or you can buy individual tickets at the gate or online (for a discount). You can also bring your own picnic lunch.

Family-friendly attractions

Back on the mainland, one of Toronto’s newest attractions is Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, a gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility with multiple galleries of sea life. Of particular note is the Dangerous Lagoon, a glass-walled tunnel where sea life including sharks, stingrays and sea turtles are swimming all around you. It’s an awe-inspiring, up-close view.

Of course there are plenty of other attractions in Toronto that kids will love, like the Toronto Zoo, Canada’s Wonderland, The Hockey Hall of Fame, The Ontario Science Center, or a trip to the top of CN Tower.

Where to stay

Most kids love staying at hotels with pools; staying at one with an indoor pool and corkscrew waterslide will earn you major parenting points. You’ll find this at the Chelsea Hotel Toronto downtown, plus other amenities like its Family Fun Zone and new this year, a food truck serving tacos (and craft beer for mom and dad) on the large outdoor patio. There are also special family getaway rates and discounted meals for kids (including free meals for kids under 6) in the hotel’s Market Garden restaurant.

For more information and help planning your trip to Toronto, visit SeeTorontoNow.com.

Ellicottville awaits

If the big city’s not your thing, slower-paced Ellicottville also offers plenty to do. Leaf-peepers and shredders have long loved this cute little town, but lately sunbathers, shoppers, adventure-seekers and foodies are becoming just as enthusiastic…and the town has officially become a year-round destination.

The pool complex within the Holiday Valley resort is a big draw. With three pools (including a wading pool), two hot tubs, and a play area featuring outdoor ping pong, a putting green and other games, the kids will be occupied all day. And with a wait staff that serves drinks and lunch right to your lounge chair, the parents have their own play zone. There’s also an outdoor bar with live bands playing on weekend afternoons, adding to the party-like atmosphere.

Golfers will like Double Black Diamond, Ellicottville’s recently redesigned 18-hole golf course. Located at the bottom of the ski run, the course offers a challenge for golfers of all levels with variations in terrain — plus breathtaking views. The course is meticulously maintained and was named by Golf Magazine as one of the country’s best redesigned courses in 2009.

One good weekend to visit Ellicottville is during its annual Summer Music Festival. This year’s weekend, July 3-5, features a “Top of the Mountain” party on Friday night (guests take the Mardi Gras chairlift to get there); a BPO performance Saturday night; and a Blood, Sweat and Tears concert with opener Caitlin Koch on Sunday. All concerts take place on an outdoor stage with seating on the ski hill; guests bring their own lawn chairs and blankets. It’s a civilized, family-friendly outdoor concert experience; no crowds to fight and a clean, picturesque setting on the hillside, which creates a natural amphitheater.

While you’re counting down to the evening concerts, there’s plenty to do during the day. The village has become a true shopping destination, with old favorites (Kazoo 2, Alexandra, Gado-Gado, Watson’s Chocolate) intermixing with a newer influx of retailers, such as the recently opened Flurry & Co. boutique. Twisted Twig was a charming store of note, with beautiful and natural gifts, jewelry and more (we picked up a nifty tree, fashioned from driftwood); there is also the Purple Doorknob, which features socks (and only socks). Cameleon carries Alex and Ani, Vera Bradley and other jewelry/accessories. For organic products, stop by Nature’s Remedy which offers snacks, drinks, beauty and health products.

Ellicottville also offers summer adventures. There are plenty of trails for hiking, trail running and mountain biking. The Sky High Mountain Coaster, located in the Sky High Adventure Park within the Holiday Valley resort, is like riding a go-kart on hills; you’ll careen through the trees with plenty of twists and turns. Ride alone or with the kids; even the little ones will love it, as you control the speed of your coaster.

Nearby is the Aerial Adventure Park, with 13 aerial courses labeled by level of difficulty. The courses are built in the trees, offering log bridges, rope ladders and other obstacles to maneuver. Each course also includes at least one zip-line. Designed by Franz Muller, is one of only three courses like it in the United States. Another adventure not to be missed is the Climbing Forest — basically a 3-D version of a climbing wall — with 10 trees ranging in difficulty from easiest to very challenging.

Fortunately, after such a busy day, great food awaits. Take the short drive to the center of town for choices like casual dining at Tips Up Café (be sure to check out the dinner specials) or the Gin Mill. The Silver Fox, one block off the main strip, has a small bar and an extensive wine list. Ellicottville Brewing Company (EBC) is a micro-brewer with tasty gastropub fare and a quaint outdoor patio off the back of the restaurant, nestled within trees and beautiful flowers.

For breakfast, go off the beaten path to find a hidden little diner contained within Ellicottville Country Store and Antiques on Route 242. It’s a favorite spot for the locals, so you know it’s good.

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