Well my determination to make and preserve time for art this year did not get off to a flying start in January. I have been solo parenting since the beginning of the year and then I came down with some gnarly virus that caused me to have a fever for three days. That illness, however, meant I had to take a couple of days off work to recover and recuperate when I was fit for nothing that could not be done on the sofa. I, therefore, put together something in my art journal. I used an Art Journal Adventure prompt – Food – as my inspiration. I love cooking and eating so I decided to construct a simplified self-portrait which then combined with a Carmen Miranda type headdress composed of clippings of magazine photos of food. It’s a very simple page, quick and easy to put together, but it was good food for the soul to actually do something creative when I was feeling so gross.
Our first and last days of cruising were spent at sea. They served as the maritime equivalent of our road-tripping repositioning days where we do nothing but driving. However, unlike entire days spent trapped in a car with five other people, the cruising equivalent was wonderfully relaxing.
As you may have noted if you have read any of the travel episodes of this blog, we jam-pack our vacations with activity. There really is very little down time, not for the adults at least. However, on the ship – with no chores to do, no cooking, cleaning, or laundry* – I found myself with large chunks of free time. What a luxury! I read two and a half books within one week. I even (accidentally) napped one afternoon. Woah! With the exception of the two times when I had ‘flu, I have not napped since I became a parent almost 16 years ago. We took ourselves off for afternoon tea – sometimes formally, with dainty sandwiches and little helpings of sugary treats, and sometimes informally, with mugs of tea and slices of cake from the buffet. One evening, Mr Pict and I sat out on the lido deck to watch a movie on the big screen. It was pouring with rain but the air temperature was warm so we stuck it out. We wrapped ourselves up in beach towels, complete with snoods, and made ourselves feel cosy with mugs of tea and a packet of popcorn.
There was lots to do on board, including areas we had absolutely zero to do with such as casinos, bars, and clubs. The swimming pool was small and often so crammed full of people that it was akin to human soup so the kids only really used the pool on a couple of afternoons. They loved the flumes and hot tubs. There was a volleyball court, a mini golf course, and some deck games. We took advantage of the library, not for the books but for its collection of board games. Sometimes we played in the library and other times we took the games back to our rooms. We participated in some trivia events (including a satisfyingly challenging Harry Potter one where the kids and I got to exercise our nerd knowledge), we went along to some stand up comedy routines, and we watched several shows in the ship’s large theatre. The production values of the stage shows were incredible. While the quality of singing and dancing could be professional but patchy, the production was always slick, polished, and very impressive.
While I did not take advantage of the opportunity to eat whenever I felt like it, the boys sure as heck did. They absolutely loved being able to wander along to the buffet area and order a burger, munch a slice of wood fired pizza, or construct a burrito, or (less often) make up a salad or grab some fruit. They certainly took advantage of the amazing desserts on offer. I had to give one of my sons a dressing down upon learning he had eaten seven slices of cake in one evening. Seven! At home, under the auspices of parents, they eat at set mealtimes and have the option to snack on fruit between meals. Needless to say, they loved the freedom of being able to snack on pretty much anything they felt like it whenever they felt like it.
We had a formal dinner as a party of eight every evening. We had the same table and the same waiting staff each evening so we got into a relaxing groove with it, even when we had to dress up for the “elegant” nights. I cannot remember the last time I managed to eat three courses in one sitting but – largely thanks to sensible portion sizes and partly just due to irresistible deliciousness – we ate three courses each evening. Everything was cooked to perfection. Some meals were tastier than others, of course, but all were impeccably cooked and immaculately, sometimes exquisitely presented. A whole week without meal planning, with zero cooking, no washing up, and no complaining from the kids about what they were being served, was very much a luxury for me.
I was not sure that cruising would be for me. I definitely have the mindset that vacations have to be utterly packed with experiences in order to represent value for money and, therefore, I found it mentally difficult to transition into a vacation that involved entire days of doing “nothing”. I actually found it difficult to give myself permission to relax. I also felt guilty that my ability to relax and experience the luxury of laziness was down to the hard work of incredible numbers of crew who were missing the holidays with their families in order to cater to mine. However, despite all that, I did enjoy the experience of cruising and would consider doing it again as a way of sampling different destinations.
*No laundry for seven days was a thing of wonder for me, someone who usually has to do an average of one load per day. Of course, I paid for it when we arrived home and disgorged the contents of our cases as I had to do several loads in 24 hours but it was very nice indeed to have a break from the daily grind of laundry nevertheless.
Our first destination on the cruise was the Dominican Republic. It was the only day on which we went on an organised excursion. This was a good move for two reasons. First of all, the ship docked in a cove that was designed purely for cruise ships which meant it was completely artificial and overtly touristy and the nearest actual town was too far to walk to. Secondly, the excursion turned out to be excellent and allowed us far greater insights into the Dominican Republic than our own explorations would have done.
We met with our tour guide and driver and hopped on the minibus. There were the eight of us and a dozen other people so it was a small group. The nearest city to the dock was Puerto Plata and, as we drove through, our guide was able to point out several things unique to the country and explain a bit about the culture. We saw lots of whole roasted pigs on sticks being cooked and sold at stalls on the busy streets. We learned that this was because this type of roasted pork was the traditional meat for Christmas dinner and lots of people would be buying it that day, Christmas Eve. We were also informed that the city took its name not from the metal silver but because of a particular tree that grew on the hillsides, the grey leaves of which seemed to look silvery in the mountain fog. Our drive also took us past various views of the mountain named Isabella. We learned that this was a name bestowed upon it by Christopher Columbus and that the first European village in the New World was located nearby. It was such a beautiful place to be the launch pad of a history of disease, conflict, slavery, and genocide.
Soon we were leaving the city and were wildly bouncing and careering along unsurfaced, winding, uphill roads that took us into the lush vegetation of the rural areas of Puerto Plata province. On the way, we learned about eclectic subjects such as vernacular architecture, mahogany, the lottery, and tiny stores that sell individual ingredients such as one egg or a few slices of meat at a time. Our destination was a village where we could learn more about the rural way of life in the region. We were invited to enter one home, which was Tardis like in its use of space. I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, which was an adjacent but separate building from the home, and the clay wood fired cooker.
We were shown around the agricultural area and the produce being grown was identified and its uses explained to us. I found that to be thoroughly interesting. I, for one, had never seen coffee plants in real life before. I also saw my first breadfruit tree. Our 9 year old had two bucket list items for his time in the Caribbean: to see bananas growing and to see cacao in the wild. He achieved both goals on the trip as there were seven varieties of banana being grown, including a red variety I had never seen before, and there were trees full of cacao pods. Our wee chocoholic was elated. He was even more ecstatic when he learned that he was going to get to sample hot chocolate made from the locally grown cacao. It was richly delicious. Other members of the family tried the freshly ground coffee. We all thoroughly enjoyed chunks of freshly harvested pineapple and guava.
Our next stop was the village elementary school. As an educator, I found it really interesting to see the similarities and differences in the education system and the way the school buildings and classrooms were organised. I was, however, glad that school was not in session (given it was Christmas Eve) as I would have felt uncomfortable seeing the students used props for tourists.
We then had a break for lunch. It was a buffet of the types of food Dominicans would eat on a typical day. I especially enjoyed the rice and beans. The boys loved the fried chicken. During our lunch pit stop, there was some dancing entertainment to showcase the fusion of indigenous, African, and European culture in the Dominican Republic. We also saw a man making cigars and sampled some local alcohol. Our cat fanatic 9 year old was absolutely thrilled to meet a local cat.
The final destination for the day was a beach, as this area of the country is famed for its beautiful beaches. The boys loved the opportunity to just let loose and splash and crash among the waves. Our guides provided some body boards so they tried that out too. Even as someone who does not like sand, I had to agree it was a pretty good way to end the trip.
I liked what I saw of the Dominican Republic, from the brief sampling we had, and would definitely consider returning to explore more of the country, its varied history, and its diverse cultures.
On our final day in Virginia, we decided to go to the Air and Space Center. We were staying not too far from Langley so it seemed appropriate that we should go and see one of the things the area was famous for. As a family, we have visited many types of science museums and many types of transportation museums. Some of these have been fantastic and some very much less so. This one proved to fall into the latter category. It was a waste of money and time.
The museum had some interesting exhibits, such as the Apollo 12 command module, but the whole place just fell flat. It was all very tired and uninspired and very overpriced. It was probably cutting edge a couple of decades ago but it just wasn’t up to scratch for 2018. Too many of the interactive areas were not working at all and those that were had problems with appropriate pitching. What I mean by that is that the interactive aspect of the exhibit was appropriate for engaging a child but the content was far too esoteric and dry to capture or hold their interest. The worst offender was a room dedicated to a fictional Mars mission. The graphics were dull and the voice acting was horribly flat. The room was also hot, stuffy, and claustrophobic. I stopped listening or looking after a couple of minutes because I thought I was at risk of passing out.
My older kids really did not enjoy the experience with the exception of an excellent Imax movie about hurricanes. My youngest son enjoyed dressing up in a space suit and playing in the children’s play area but otherwise he did not engage much either. It was interesting that this was ostensibly a museum with much greater focus on young visitors yet it failed to engage them whereas the Air Mobility Command Museum in Delaware was less child-oriented but really held their interest.
Ultimately, the highlight of the day turned out to be a delicious lunch around the corner and a small store across the street from the Air and Space Center. The shop sold British food so the boys were in their element with tingling tastebuds and nostalgia. Most of the items were too expensive for us but we allowed the boys to pick a small treat each. They had a hard time choosing but had fun making their selection.
Normally I would not bother even mentioning the food we ate on our vacation let alone devoting a brief blog post to it. For us, when travelling, food is really merely fuel. We jam pack so much into every day that there is no spare time to make an event out of a meal. We also try to be thrifty by eating simply and by eating “at home” when we have access to kitchen facilities. However, sometimes a dining experience is worth mentioning and we had one such experience in LA.
Guided by Mr Pict’s cousin, after spending most of the day at the La Brea Tar Pits and with all five of the kids getting “hangry”, we headed to Saddle Ranch Chop House. The best way I can think to describe it is a themed gastro pub and its chosen theme is the Wild West. As such, there were verandas on the building’s exterior filled with models of saloon dwelling ladies, a model of a bull to greet us at the threshold, and a mechanical bucking bull in the dining area. It turned out to be an ideal choice of dining venue because it was not only spacious enough to easily and immediately accommodate our party of nine but it was also relaxed and informal enough to deal with the fact that five of those nine were kids.
L and I treated ourselves to cocktails and mine turned out to be served in something that could have been described as a vase. It was not remotely the scale I was expecting but I was not complaining. It was delicious. I also ordered a salad that turned out to be so vast that I could not finish it despite it being my only meal of the day. Everyone else had colossal portions too and we ended up taking home several boxes of food to serve as meals for another day. The food was all perfectly cooked, very tasty, and served in a timely fashion and with a smile.
Main courses complete (to the degree that we could eat them), the kids were surprised by an order of candy floss (cotton candy) to share. This was not an ordinary candy floss, however. Oh no. This was a candy floss that stood three feet tall. It was cherry flavoured and the kids thought it was the best candy floss ever. But that was not all. The waiters then surprised us by giving the kids not one but two complimentary platters of ingredients for making s’mores. The kids’ eyes were on stalks and they were giddy with excitement.
We relocated to the patio area of the restaurant where there was a fire burning in a pit. While the grown ups chilled in the sun, the kids got busy creating sweet and sticky concoctions on sticks. They didn’t just stick to making traditional s’mores and instead invented things like marshmallow sushi and candy floss mustaches. They had an absolute whale of a time and ended up in a gooey, sticky mess at the end. They were also very fizzy so we decided to harness that sugar-fueled energy and move on to the next activity of the day.
After our day spent at Antietam Battlefield, we spent Memorial Day at another site important to the history of the Civil War: Harpers Ferry. We had actually attempted to visit Harpers Ferry last Summer as part of our road trip. That plan had to be abandoned because of torrential rain. This was our second chance to visit and we hoped we would not be rained off again.
The whole town of Harpers Ferry (which did once have an apostrophe) is contained within the National Historical Park. As such, parking is seriously limited and nowhere near the centre of town. We, therefore, parked up at the Visitors Center (being sure to stamp our National Parks passport) and took the shuttle bus down into town. It is a system that works well and is no doubt effective in preserving the integrity of the town. The town is historically important largely because of its geographical situation. It is built on an area of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. All of that water generated power and that power could be harnessed for industry. Upon visiting the area, George Washington determined it should become the site of a Federal Armory and Arsenal. It was the presence of this facility that led to it become the scene of John Brown’s Raid, an event that contributed to the tinderbox of causes that sparked the Civil War.
Since the shuttle bus had just offloaded a whole pile of people at once, we decided to steer away from the town centre for a bit and instead headed towards the river, following its course around to the railway bridge. This bridge crosses over to a mountainous area named Maryland Heights. The bridge is, of course, an example of the town’s industrial heritage. We learned that – as was true in many places – there was competition between the railroad companies and the canal. The canal reached the town just one year ahead of the railroad which ultimately led to the demise of the canal. We walked across the railroad, contemplating hiking up the mountain to take in the breathtaking views. Tempting as it was, we decided it would eat up way too much time, energy, and goodwill from the children to scale the mountain. Instead, the wander across the rail bridge was worthwhile to the kids because they found a baby turtle sitting on a tree branch above the water.
Our first stop in the town was John Brown’s Fort. The building (originally a fire engine house) is inauthentic, having been relocated and rebuilt on a slightly different site but it illustrated the town’s most famous event. In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown and a band of men raided the town with the intention of inspiring a slave rebellion. Not only did the slaves not readily join the group but Brown and his comrades made several strategic errors that doomed them to failure. They managed to capture the Armory on the first evening but by the following day they were besieged in the engine house. It all went horribly wrong from there. The President ordered the Marines in to end the siege. They were commanded by none other than Robert E Lee – wearing mufti since he was on leave at the time. That brought the raid to an end. Harpers Ferry suffered massively during the Civil War. The same geography that had been advantageous meant it was strategically important to the armies of the north and south and thus it switched between the Confederacy and the Union eight times. Further, when the Federal garrison surrendered to the Confederates in 1862, it was the largest military surrender in US history until World War II. In the 2oth Century, poor Harpers Ferry was subjected to a battering from the environment as storms and floods destroyed much of the town that was situated on the flood plain and brought its industry to an end.
That harsh history was evident in the layout of the town. The buildings closer to the water and at a lower elevation were preserved for their history but definitely had a worn and abandoned look to them and most of the industrial buildings lining the riverside were nothing more than rubble and rocky outlines. The buildings that lined the roads that ran uphill, however, were in a much better state of preservation and were still being used as dwellings and as shops and eateries. I loved the architecture of the place as different strategies had been used to manage the steep incline and the heights of the buildings. We bought the boys ice cream and wandered up and down the street.
We then popped into a confectionery shop. This turned out to be a fascinating little place and another genre of history still – edible history. The owners had researched historic recipes and had experimented with ingredients and methods in order to replicate candies and other sweet treats from throughout history. The store was arranged chronologically so it was like a timeline of sweeties. There was marshmallow root that would have been snarfled up by the ancient Egyptians but most of the goodies dated from the 1700s onwards. I actually felt pretty nostalgic in the 20th Century section. Even though I didn’t live through most of that century, my Gran used to take me to an old fashioned sweet shop in Edinburgh so I was familiar with sweet traditions older than me, tastes from bygone eras. We each picked out a bag of sweeties by way of a souvenir of our day and look forward to sampling them and using our tongues and tummies to travel through time.
Mr Pict and the 11 year old hopped on the shuttle bus to go and retrieve our car. Meanwhile, the three other kids and I decided we would walk along the canal side. It was a pleasant walk – though we did have to tread carefully since there was goose poop and squelchy mud everywhere – and very peaceful since few people were walking that stretch. The stroll afforded us the opportunity to see more of the industrial ruins of the town. I would have liked to have crossed over the bridge to Virginius Island to see the ruins there but we were short on time so that will have to wait for a future visit. The kids were more excited about our wildlife encounters along the Shenandoah Canal. We saw loads of geese with their fluffy goslings swimming around in the algae covered water and there were turtles sunbathing on branches jutting out above the surface of the water. The walk was a restful way to end our trip to Harpers Ferry.
Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm. In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums. The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy. For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits. My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids. While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas. Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person. That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.
While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution. It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life. For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine. There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones. There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle. A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals. They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.
We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable. It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer. We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.
We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city. Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues. We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen. I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner. The Dandelion serves British cuisine. For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good. The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic. It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood. Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too. Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup. There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish. I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu. I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation. Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream. Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too. Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed. The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.