Explore nature indoors and outdoors on a hike in the Hamilton area

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Unplug, unmask and get out.

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This is what my family needed. It’s what we all probably need after another brutal winter indoors. Spring doesn’t seem to be coming fast enough these days. Even with an ice rink in the backyard and occasional ski Saturdays, we’ve watched too much Netflix and my kids have spent too much time on computers and phones in the past two months.

So when the opportunity arose to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens of Hamilton (rbg.ca) and explore Treetop Trekking’s nearby Treewalk Village in Binbrook, we jumped at the chance – anything to get my kids to trade screen time for real-life experiences.

Plus, who wouldn’t want to walk through a rainforest, see exotic creatures, and climb trees?

The Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) is technically inside. But with the amount of flowers, plants and natural light streaming through the huge skylights, you feel like you’re in the jungles of South Africa, as part of the winter exhibition Under the Canopy: Animals of the Rainforest.

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A green python at the Royal Botanical Garden's Under the Canopy exhibit.  HANDOUT
A green python at the Royal Botanical Garden’s Under the Canopy exhibit. HANDOUT

Honestly, it’s an invigorating way to beat the winter blues. Smells alone can be a mood booster. Aromas of mint fill the Mediterranean garden, mixed with lilies and gardenias and whatever else is in bloom right now. Walk around and you’ll see giant cacti and palm trees that look like they were transplanted straight from the jungle.

The highlight of RBG, however, is Little Ray’s Nature Center, home to the largest exotic animal rescue center in North America and a proud member of Accredited Zoos and Aquariums of Canada (CAZA).

Think of it as part of a reptile zoo, part “Where’s Waldo?” exposure. At first, the row of aquarium tanks looks empty. But look closer and it all starts to come to life. There are turtles, frogs, lizards and snakes. You still have to find them. Animals don’t hide so much as they blend in, becoming one with their surroundings.

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My kids are I played a game of who could find the lizard first. The longer we looked at the branches and plants, the clearer everything became. A lizard turned into two, then into three. And soon we realized that the tanks were full of stealthy creatures.

There are also sloths, which don’t seem to do much, but don’t seem boring either. On the contrary, their inherent laziness is captivating.

Wicket the two-toed sloth at the Royal Botanic Gardens.  HANDOUT
Wicket the two-toed sloth at the Royal Botanic Gardens. HANDOUT

I could spend all day with the long-armed mammals, whose methodical movements seem to move in slow motion. There is something about the lack of urgency that is admirable, if not enviable. The ear-to-ear smile on the animal’s face, along with its sleepy eyes, could hold the secrets to a stress-free life. Or, at least, that’s what I gained from my interactions.

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For those who really want to relax, try leaving the kids at home and check out RBG After Dark. The 19-plus ticketed event turns the Under the Canopy exhibit into a nightlife experience, complete with neon lights, music and booze. Grab a glass of wine and enjoy the shareable canopy platter menu, while participating in pub trivia, animal encounters, and educational activities. The best part is that you won’t have to get a tetanus shot.

The garden is lit at night for RBG After Dark.  HANDOUT
The garden is lit at night for RBG After Dark. HANDOUT

After a few hours at the RBG, we then took our adventure outdoors at Treetop Trekking’s Treewalk Village in Binbrook (treetoptrekking.com/park/hamilton) — there is also a location in Stouffville at Bruce’s Mill Conservation.

The Treewalk Village resembles the Ewok Village from Return of the Jedi. Located above ground, it is literally a group of brightly painted treehouses that are connected to each other by various bridges and obstacles.

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Think of it as a giant playground for the kids. You don’t need a helmet or harness. But you will have to overcome your fear of heights.

Kids can burn off their pent-up energy at the Treewalk Village at Treetop Trekking in Binbrook.  HANDOUT
Kids can burn off their pent-up energy at the Treewalk Village at Treetop Trekking in Binbrook. HANDOUT

Sometimes you’ll be tiptoeing on a balance beam (there are safety nets all around you to keep you from falling). Other times, you’ll cross a corrugated wooden bridge or crawl on all fours along a giant spider’s web of roped netting.

Suggested age is three to eight years old. And yet, my 11 year old son loved running on the wooden suspension bridge, playing tag with the other children. Even my 13 year old son seemed to have fun going down the giant twisty slides.

It’s a great place for kids to burn off some energy after too much couch and screen time.

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twitter.com/michael_traikos

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