Espace pour la Vie (Space for Life), part 1: Biodôme

[Read part 2 of our review (the planetarium) here and part 3 of our review (the botanical garden/insectarium) here.]

Montreal’s Espace pour la Vie (Space for Life) is actually a sprawling complex that includes several different “spaces”: the Biodôme, a planetarium, a botanical garden, and an insectarium. It should be noted up front that each charges a separate entry fee (the botanical garden and insectarium are included together), but they offer combined admission tickets, which make the most sense if you want to visit more than one.

However, visiting all in one day (which is what we did) is a major endeavor, especially with young kids. It’s a whole-day affair. In fact, there’s so much to see that I’m actually going to split this across three posts.

First up, let’s take a walk through the Biodôme, a massive structure built to house and replicate various ecosystems found in the Americas. The building is mostly divided into four main ecosystems, but there are other spaces available for temporary exhibits.

The permanent ecosystems are (in the order the visitor is supposed to encounter them) Tropical Rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Sub-Polar Regions. Except for the rainforest, all of the others play a major role in Canada’s geography, obviously. There’s a good visitor’s guide with a species identification checklist here.

The tropical rainforest is the largest ecosystem in the Biodôme, and it represents a South American rainforest. As you might expect, the space is very green and very humid. Many aquariums have similar spaces (including my local National Aquarium in Baltimore), but that didn’t take away the “wow” factor for my kids. Both of them had fun playing I Spy and searching for the hundreds of fish, frogs, birds, monkeys, and reptiles that fill the space.

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The Laurentian Maple Forest is intended to be a “reproduction of one of the most beautiful forests in Québec.” Well, we drove through the Laurentians, and I can say that it doesn’t even come close. The real thing is simply astounding. No interior space could ever hope to capture the majesty and expanse of real Québec wilderness, but it does do a good job of encapsulating that environment in a museum setting. It presents hardwood trees and conifers, along with some animals the kids went wild for: beavers, porcupines, raccoon, and lynx.

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Interestingly, the climate in this space changes with the season to reflect actual conditions outside. While we were there, it was refreshingly cool—a nice change from the rainforest.

Moving out of the forest, you’re led to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where 2.5 million liters of saltwater house hundreds of fish and invertebrates. Birds also fly freely in parts of this area, so watch out!

Montreal Biodome

Finally, the Sub-Polar Regions area is home to four different species of penguins. My kids have never seen a penguin they didn’t like, so this area was a definite hit.

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All four of these ecosystems surround a central space that is currently home to Lazy Love, a beautiful and incredibly unique sloth habitat. This temporary exhibit will remain until October 26 of this year.

The space is dominated by a specially designed tree in which the sloths live. True to their name, sloths move very slowly and don’t do a whole lot, but if you’re lucky enough to see them while they’re active, you’re in for a treat.

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For me, this space was the highlight of the Biodôme. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just gorgeous.

Complementing the sloth habitat is Symphony of Life (also open until October 26), a highly original show “starring” a sloth. In reality, the show is an artistic one-man storytelling performance that utilizes movement, music, and special lighting effects. It’s a cute story of a sloth’s battle for survival against the elements and predators.

They advertise the show as “all ages,” and even though my kids (2 and 5) enjoyed it, I don’t know if I’d recommend it for kids younger than 3 or 4—not because of anything inappropriate or scary; I’m just not sure it’ll keep their attention.

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Select showtimes of Symphony of Life are performed in English, but you’re required to get a separate (but free) ticket in advance. (The amphitheater where it’s performed is very small.) This was never made clear to us, and we ended up waiting to the side (with a very sizable crowd of people who also weren’t aware of this policy). Though we eventually got seats, there were dozens of people behind us who didn’t.

Verdict: The Biodôme is truly the centerpiece of the Space for Life. If you’re into the natural world in any way, then you’ll love this place. Would I recommend the Biodôme over the other three spaces if you only have time for one? Probably. But that really depends on you or your kids and what you’re interested in seeing. The planetarium and the botanical gardens also have plenty going for them.

My recommendation? If you have the time (and energy), go to all of them. You won’t regret it. Read about the planetarium here and the botanical garden and insectarium here.

(Disclosure: We were guests of the Space for Life for the day. All opinions are my own.)

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