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.
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.
We had other plans for this weekend but between the murk and cold and my aches and pains, we decided at last minute to jettison them for something else. We decided to go and explore Peddler’s Village because it afforded us a comfortable balance between fresh air and bursts of time spent indoors.
Peddler’s Village is essentially a shopping centre but one laid out like a small village rather than a strip mall. The architecture is interesting and harks back to a bygone era and rural idyll but is, of course, completely faux. I found it to be quaint and quiet and certainly preferable to the atmosphere of the average shopping mall. It also presented us with the opportunity to pootle around in some independent retail stores as opposed to the same old chains.
The first of these we visited was a cheese shop which tells you a lot about our family’s priorities. I may be lactose intolerant but I am also an unrepentant cheesaholic. I have given up all other forms of dairy except for cheese and clotted cream. I take the hit of physical pain over the emotional pain of a life without cheese. The cheese shop offered a wonderful array of delicious cheeses. We all nibbled on samples and pressed our noses against the glass of the display case. Imported and artisan cheeses aren’t cheap here in the US so we had to exercise self-restraint and limit ourselves to two wedges of cheese. In the end we chose some Port Salut for reasons of nostalgia and a wonderfully tangy, mature cheddar that had been marinated and aged in balsamic vinegar. On the subject of vinegars, the shop also sold bottles of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars. I absolutely adored an orange and cranberry vinegar and even more so an amazing pomegranate infused one but I managed to leave the store without making a further purchase.
The boys particularly enjoyed a store filled with geeky t-shirts and accessories and a toy store. They spent ages in the toy store because it contained lots of items they had never seen in a chain toy store, despite the fact that most of those items were for a younger age group than them. We also took them into an arcade where they enjoyed clambering on pieces of equipment and watching graphics. Two of them decided to spend some money on playing a game but otherwise they weren’t really into it. I have always hated arcades but Mr Pict has many happy childhood memories of playing in them. Our sons seem to fall somewhere between our attitudes.
There were lots of stores selling ceramics, housewares, a very tempting glassware shop, purveyors of jewellery and clothes. I am not much of a shopper but I probably would have had more of a nose around in more stores had I not had the boys in tow. Since there was nothing I needed or was looking for, I opted out of the stress and worry of taking kids into stores or listening to their whines as they were forced to wait outside for me, especially since by this juncture the boys were growing “hangry”.
We left Peddler’s Village and crossed the river into New Jersey. It had been ages since we had visited New Hope and Lambertville and we had never eaten there – discounting doughnuts and ice cream. We choose to eat in the Lambertville Station and happily, despite being a party of six, there was only a brief wait for a table despite the place being very busy. As its name suggests, the restaurant is a converted train station. It’s interior was lovely with lots of wood and brass. The Maitre’ d’s desk was what looked to be the old ticket booth. We were seated in the area that had once been the platform which gave us a view over the canal and the streets outside. The atmosphere was lovely, the staff were attentive, and the food was delicious.
Since we were all stuffed full, we decided to get a spot of fresh air before getting back into the car and heading home. We thought the boys would just have a bit of a wander on the shore line, watching the ducks and geese, but in the end they were there for ages, making up some game to entertain themselves, and we had to drag them into the car. So the day might not have been remotely what we had planned but it was still a success.
My kids have now returned to school after the long (ever so long) summer break but we managed to squeeze in a couple more activities in the final days of summer. One of these was making chocolate bars. It is something we have done in the past but I don’t think we have done it since we emigrated to America so they were excited to get to do it again.
I have four silicone moulds for just this purpose. I think they were designed for making bars of soap but they work perfectly for making big, fat, chunky confectionery. The boys had picked out their added ingredients so, once we had melted the chocolate on the hob (stove top), it was just a case of each kid pouring some chocolate into the mould and then building up their personalised Wonka bar using whatever ingredients they selected. There were things like M&Ms and mini-marshmallows and dried cranberries and my oldest son even added prunes. It was simple, quick, easy, and fun and the best part was, of course, that they got to have a chunking chocolate bar for dessert that evening.
On the morning of our fourth day of road tripping I experienced a Starbucks for the first time. I know it must be a bit mystifying that someone my age can never have had a Starbucks product when the chain is so ubiquitous but it was in fact the case. I don’t drink coffee so had no motivation to patronise the place. After our late evening watching a drive-in movie, Mr Pict felt he could do with a caffeine jolt so we stopped in at a Starbucks on the fringes of Toledo. He decided I should finally try something from Starbucks and ordered me this green tea cappuccino thing. I regularly enjoy green tea but this incarnation of the drink was horrid. It had the taste and texture of hot pond scum. I could not abide it and could not drink it. This road trip might well, therefore, be my first and last Starbucks experience.
Never mind because we had a much more appealing and successful edible experience for lunch that day. Having had a quick tootle around Ann Arbor to see the University of Michigan buildings, we stopped in for lunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Although we had gone there on a whim and with no prior research, it was one of the highlights of our trip.
We had a fantastic waiter who not only explained the restaurant’s specialties but also let us sample some of their most famous dishes – a luxuriously creamy and rich macaroni cheese and pulled pork served with a vinegary barbecue sauce and a sweet mustard sauce. I don’t eat pork but I loved dipping bread into the mustard sauce. I could have consumed vats of that stuff.
Our two youngest ordered cheeseburgers with a fruit platter, my oldest had a burger that he rated as a 4.5 out of 5, my 10 year old had the mac ‘n’ cheese, I had pulled chicken, and Mr Pict had pulled pork with mash and collared greens. All were absolutely and perfectly delicious. The twice cooked fries were also incredible but we were all too stuffed to eat them.
My oldest two kids decided to be adventurous and challenge themselves to eating oysters. The waiter explained some of the options to them and they settled on some Beausoleil oysters from New Brunswick, just one each to give it a try. Slightly disturbed by the slime in a shell they were presented with, they decided to do a countdown and knock them back at the same time. My 13 year old guzzled his without difficulty and declared that he really liked it; my 10 year old gagged on his a little and decided oysters were perhaps not for him. I have kids who have happily eaten snails and have now consumed oysters but who dry heave if they find a courgette on their plates. Weirdos. Good on them for trying oysters though.
Dining in Ann Arbor meant that I got to claim Michigan as my 27th state by lunch time. Yipee!
We then headed on to Grand Haven, on the shore of Lake Michigan, for three days spent in a vacation house we had rented. The house proved to be quaintly shabby, clean and tidy enough but with a few annoying quirks like having no door on the master bedroom despite it leading off from the living room and kitchen. Another issue was that the bathroom was accessed via two other bedrooms which meant lots of tip-toeing so as to not wake sleeping children. The idiosyncratic layout was the result of the property being chopped in half as the upstairs level was being rented out as a separate property. Another oddity was that the owner knocked on the door to introduce himself after 11pm, making me nearly jump out of my skin. This road trip was definitely proving to be “interesting” when it came to accommodation. We were all glad of the opportunity to stay put somewhere for a few days though.