No need to book an expensive European vacation this holiday season in order to visit a Victorian castle, ride a steam engine train, shop at an authentic Christkindl German outdoor market and see the night sky light up with festivals of lights. You can do it all on an easy-on-the-budget, end-of-year getaway to Ontario’s Waterloo region, home to St. Jacob’s, Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge.
Stars of wonder
Waterloo takes Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to the nth degree with festive lights designed to wow the crowds. Take a free 15-minute horse-drawn trolley ride through Waterloo Park and marvel at the 100,000 lights that make up the 80 colourful Wonders of Winter displays, including Santa Claus, nursery rhyme characters and cartoon figures. Rides run 6-9 pm on Friday and Saturday nights, including Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
Billed as the largest drive-through holiday light display in southwestern Ontario, the Gift of Lights at Bingemans resort in Kitchener features a two-kilometre drive that includes a 60-metre long light tunnel and 30 impressive light displays. Runs until Jan. 1.
The next best thing to the Polar Express
Take a nostalgic trip aboard an authentic steam engine train – along with Santa, Mrs. Claus and their team of helpers. The Santa Train is operated by a team of volunteers with the Waterloo Central Railway and makes a two-hour round trip, departing from the St. Jacob’s Farmers Market, the largest year round market in Canada, on weekends until Dec. 18.
And if Thomas the Train happens to be your tyke’s favourite toy, be sure to check out the massive 900 metre hand-built model trains at the St. Jacob’s & Aberfoyle Model Railway. The trains operate on weekends and in December include a special Christmas train with Santa and his reindeer – Rudolph’s nose lights up during the magical night scene transition.
O little town of St. Jacob’s
Take a nostalgic stroll through the charming village of St. Jacobs, a small community known for its original arts and crafts boutiques. Do a little pre- or post-holiday shopping at kid-friendly outlets such as Toy Soup, an independent toy store located in a 100-year-old renovated church. What to get the person who has everything? How about a shepherd’s crook or a handmade corn broom (you can see them being made in what was once the village blacksmith shop) at Hamel Brooms. Learn about the history and culture of the Old Order Mennonites who live in the area at The Mennonite Story multi-media interpretive centre. Top off your visit with a slice of one of the dozens of delicious homemade pies at the Stone Crock Bakery.
Cinderella – a new take on a timeless tale
During the sparkling season what could be shinier than Cinderella’s glass slipper? The award-winning Drayton Entertainment professional theatre company delivers a glittering stage production of Cinderella at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse. There are some clever twists in this contemporary makeover, complete with popular music, topical humour and audience interaction. Kids will experience a special delight when the wicked stepmother, the nasty Baroness Notapenny, and her aptly named daughters, Atrocia and Revolta, get the comeuppance they so richly deserve. Until Dec. 24.
A castle fit for a princess
The stately Castle Kilbride, located 20 minutes outside Kitchener, is a 15-room Italianate manor, capped with a towering belvedere, that was built in 1877 by “Flax King” James Livingston who became a Liberal MP.
Renowned for some of the best examples of the trompe l’oeil (“fools the eye”) painting style in Canada, the mansion is dressed for the holidays in all its Victorian finery.
Laura Louise Livingston, the young girl who grew up there, was Ontario’s answer to poor little rich girl Gloria Vanderbilt. Laura, the only child of wealthy parents, led a life of luxury, complete with private school, round-the-world trips and one of the most extensive collections of children’s toys in the country, some of which are on display at the castle. She lived a riches-to-rags tale – inheriting the house in the 1950s and having to sell it in the 1980s because she couldn’t afford its upkeep. The rural township of Wilmot turned it into a public museum and it became a national historic site in 1995.
Have yourself a merry little Christkindl Christmas
Since medieval times, towns and cities in Germany have held open-air Christmas markets in the centre square for citizens to share music, food and gifts. Kitchener hosts its own version with the Christkindl Market, Canada’s original festival of German Christmas, from Dec. 1-4 at city hall. The holiday extravaganza, voted among the Top 100 Festivals & Events in Ontario, includes candlelight processions, carol singing, a giant lit-up Christmas tree, skating, almost 100 European-style food and gift vendors and dozens of musical groups to add to the celebratory spirit.
A snowfall of butterflies
It’s not just Rudolph who will be flying in the air in Cambridge over the holidays. Thousands of free flying live rice paper butterflies, a large white relative of the monarch, flit from flower to flower against a backdrop of sparkling white lights and lush white poinsettias when the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory is transformed into a magical oasis during the Flight of White festive exhibit (until Jan. 29).
Looking for more things to do in Waterloo? Check out http://www.explorewaterlooregion.com/