By Bob Cook The U.S. Border Patrol agent, sitting in his booth, scans over me, my minivan and my family's birth certificates and photo IDs. "Where did you go?" he asks, with authority. "Windsor, Ontario," I say. "For what purpose?" he asks, again stone-faced. "Vacation," I say.
"Oh," he sniffs, cracking a sarcastic smile. "I never thought of Windsor as a vacation spot."
Why the sarcasm? Probably because Windsor, an industrial burg of 200,000 people opposite Detroit, is most often considered a destination for college students, bachelor and bachelorette parties and freelance sinners lured by its 19-year-old drinking age, casinos and, ahem, adult entertainment lounges.
However, when I suggested to my family we stay in Windsor, I was thinking of my own trips there when I was a kid growing up in central Michigan. I was thinking how cool it felt hopping across the Detroit River to go to a "foreign" country. We were heading to the Detroit area to see some family anyway, so my wife and I figured staying in Windsor was a cheap and easy way to give our children-ages 7, 5 and 1-their first experience of life outside the United States, in the land where milk is sold in bags instead of jugs. (Bags take up less room in landfills.)
I wasn't sure what to expect-I hadn't been to Windsor in about 25 years-but as it turned out, the city has much to offer families, not the least of which is its location near attractions on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the Detroit River. There are plenty of places to visit within a 45-minute drive, even factoring in a tighter, post-9/11 border. And with the Canadian dollar at about 75 percent of its American counterpart, staying in Windsor can mean a hotel bill $20 to $40 a night cheaper than in Detroit.
Brave new worlds Our first stops, after resting up Friday night, were back over the border in Michigan, to see relatives and Greenfield Village, perhaps the Detroit area's best-known attraction. Henry Ford built it as a tribute to the industrial ideals of himself and buddies such as the Wright brothers.
It has expanded to a mix of houses, industrial buildings, shops and exhibits spanning the Civil War until Oct. 21, 1929, when the village opened-one week before the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression. My 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter were fascinated by life in the "olden days," including a demonstration of how silk was spun out of a silkworm cocoon, and an electrical station built by Thomas Edison before he became ComEd.
On Sunday we stayed in Canada, driving 50 kilometers southeast (remember the metric system?) through Leamington-an interesting small town that bills itself as "The Tomato Capital of Canada" with its Heinz plant, its hundreds of hothouses and its visitors' center built to look like a giant tomato-to Point Pelee National Park, Canada's smallest.
There are two major attractions in Point Pelee. One is its marshlands, home to 350 bird species that migrate from as far south as Argentina. You can walk on a boardwalk along the marsh or go into the woods on various nature trails to see not only birds, but many species of butterflies and small woodland creatures, including the snake my daughter nearly stepped on as it slithered across her path.
Here's a tip: the Tip The second major attraction is the Tip, the southernmost point in mainland Canada. The Tip is aptly named. You take a tram from the visitors' center to a walkway that takes you out of the woods and onto a sandy triangle jutting into Lake Erie that ends, well, in a tip of wet sand and rocks. Reaching the Tip is probably not the same accomplishment as reaching the northernmost point in mainland Canada-the frigid Boothia Peninsula in the province of Nunavut-but it's a good cheap thrill.
No swimming is allowed at the Tip-currents are too strong-but kids and parents can wade along the shore. The Tip is reachable only through Oct. 31, although the park is open year-round.
We finished our trip at Windsor's Canada South Science City. It's a hands-on science museum. Our children liked it, but we weren't impressed-although getting there gave us a glimpse of Windsor's diverse neighborhoods. The boulevard from the University of Windsor into the Center City District divides the city into Vietnamese, Cambodian and Arabic business districts.
So if the U.S. Border Patrol agent who scoffed at me for taking my family to Windsor is reading this, I have a message: My family had a great time in Windsor. Maybe you would, too.
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