Virginia Battlefields

Mr Pict and I seem to have a bit of a tit-for-tat or quid pro quo thing going on when it comes to touring historic places: I get to visit a cemetery and he gets to tour a Civil War battlefield.  Having dragged everyone around Arlington National Cemetery the previous day – and two of the kids really were dragging their feet around there – the following day was dedicated to sites of Civil War battles.  While my blog post about the Cemetery was very probably too detailed, I will tell you in advance that my post about the battlefields is likely to be a bit threadbare and impressionistic because it really is not my area of expertise.

We started out our day at Fredericksburg, which I believe featured in a few cycles of warfare.  We watched an informative video presentation in the National Park office but apparently it all went in one ear and out the other because this is what I think I know about the action there*: by the Autumn of 1862, Lincoln needed a Union victory in order to bolster support for his administration so the pressure was on for Burnside and Hooker to take Richmond; the plan involved Burnside relocating his troops across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg; various bits of the plan went pear-shaped and the result was a Confederate victory.  In addition to the video, the building housed a small but effective museum.  I thought it was well-balanced in terms of its focus on the two sides of the conflict and in terms of its narrating of the experiences of combatants and the civilians.  I especially liked a wall of framed portraits on hinges that revealed information about the individuals portrayed when opened.  My youngest son, meanwhile, enjoyed the challenge of building a pontoon bridge.

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What the boys really enjoyed, however, was discovering a lizard inside a wee cranny and my youngest found an injured moth which he decided to adopt for the duration of our walk around the site.  He named the moth Stick and chose a suitable tree away from the car park to relocate it to.

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The area of battlefield preserved by the National Park Service is focused on a bloody scuffle called the Battle of Marye’s Heights.  This is an elevated area, a stone wall, and a sunken road.  I have the impression that every Civil War battle either involves a sunken road, a peach orchard, or a wheat field.  There were houses in this area so the civilian population had been forced to flee and leave their property to get hammered by weaponry.  While all that remains of most buildings is an outline of where they once stood, one building remained intact and in situ.  Peeking through the windows, we could see the pock-marks of bullets all over one wood panelled wall.

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The park area contained a statue to a young soldier named Richard Rowland Kirkland.  He was a Confederate sergeant positioned at the stone wall.  He grew perturbed by the groans and anguish of the suffering Union soldiers and his compassion moved him to minister to the wounded.  There was not a ceasefire while he did so so he was very much risking his own life and limb to bring water to these injured men who were his enemy.  Poor Richard was to be killed at Chickamauga at age 20.  His is a touching story and one that is probably embellished but I prefer to remember the humanity people can be capable of when immersed in the history of hatred, division and bloodshed.

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After a picnic lunch, we stopped off at Chancellorsville.  The visitor centre included a very good museum full of artefacts and information boards, lots packed into a small space.  For various reasons, I didn’t spend much time consuming the material but I did spend quite a bit of time in one room.  The centerpiece was a display case containing Confederate and Union uniforms and equipment but what really caught my attention was the surrounding walls.  They were covered in the names and, in some cases, photographic portraits of those who were killed in the battle – which, if memory serves, was the bloodiest except for Antietam.  Seeing all of those names was really quite arresting.  For my brain, numbers are a bit too abstract but to see those numbers as a visual was really evocative.  I was also struck by the mingling of names from both sides of the conflict. As someone with only a passing interest in the subject, I too often think of the Civil War in terms of the conflicting ideologies, the attitudes and decisions of the leadership of both sides, the dichotomy of “goodies and baddies”.  However, as soon as I am forced to remember the experiences of individuals, what I reflect on is that Confederate mothers keened and mourned for their sons as much as Union mothers did.

I had thought that Chancellorsville referred to a town of some description but learned at the visitor centre that it in fact refers to just a single dwelling house.  At the time of the battle, it was occupied by a woman surnamed Chancellor and her daughters.  They found themselves under siege in a burning house during the battle before being rescued and relocated out of harm’s way.  Again, we watched the video which was very informative and once again I almost instantly forgot much of the detail.  What I remember from the reenactment was a sense of complete chaos and scenes of fire raging through the woodland.  It was also the battle that inspired the novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.  It was also at Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire, which led to the amputation of his left arm, and ultimately to his death from pneumonia a week later.

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On the subject of Stonewall Jackson, he was the subject of our next quest.  As a fan of “Roadside America”, oddities, and the more obscure tourist attractions, this was the aspect of our day of battlefield touring that most interested me.  A short car journey deposited us at the end of the driveway that led to Ellwood Manor, a house dating from the late 18th Century that was requisitioned as a field hospital during the Civil War.  We were not there, however, to visit a historic building.  Nope.  Instead, we strolled right past the house and down a pretty little path that led to the family cemetery.  Buried in that cemetery was the subject of our quest: Stonewall Jackson’s left arm.  Jackson’s chaplain was the brother of the occupant of Ellwood Manor and, therefore, chose that spot as the final resting place of the General’s amputated limb.  It even has its own headstone, which is more than can be said of any of the entire people buried there.  We found ourselves at the grave of the majority of Stonewall Jackson in the summer of 2016 so it feels like some sort of achievement to have now visited his arm too.  I love all that peculiar and macabre stuff.

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We concluded our battlefield tour with what, to my untrained eye, was just a field.  Mr Pict tried to explain its significance to me – something about the site of Jackson’s final flank attack – but by that point anything he was saying about military strategy and battle action just sounded like the brassy “wah wah” sounds the teachers make in ‘Peanuts’.  I guess some things my brain just was not designed to absorb.  Mr Pict was happy, however, and that was the important thing.

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Then it was back to home base for a barbecue and s’mores for the boys, which is what they had been promised/bribed with, so they ended the day on a happy note too.

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*Feel absolutely free to correct me in the comments.

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Memorials at Night

After so many hours spent in Arlington National Cemetery, we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal.  Mr Pict and I had fond memories of eating in a Southern food restaurant in Alexandria, called Southside 851, so we headed there.  When we ate there in 2002, it was the first time I had had fried green tomatoes and I absolutely loved them.  We, therefore, ordered those as a shared starter.  They were just as delicious as I remembered them.  The other courses we ate were flavoursome and good quality but far too greasy for our palates.  Still, the calories had been well-earned and our full bellies set us up for an evening exploring some of the monuments and memorials of Washington DC at night.

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We started at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial because I remembered being impressed by how it looked at night and because my kids had never visited it at any time of day at all.  I have to confess, however, that I was disappointed this time.  The lighting appeared weaker than I recalled, with some of the statues so poorly lit that they were almost obscured by the darkness, and definitely much less dramatic.  Between the dim lighting and the hordes of school groups clambering all over everything, my kids were distinctly unimpressed by what is actually a very striking memorial full of historical references and symbolism.  What was most aggravating, however, was that none of the water features were in action.  These obviously have aesthetic and sensory appeal but they also symbolise various aspects of FDR’s presidency so there absence undermined the impact of the whole memorial.  I actually felt annoyed that this was my kids’ first introduction to this memorial.

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A statue that was definitely as striking by night as it was by day was the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.  This was my first time viewing it in the dark and the lighting was just spot on.  It’s an incredible melding of portraiture, symbolism, and messaging, and really very moving.

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Our group split up after that with Mr Pict taking some of the boys to the Lincoln Memorial (our 13 year old’s favourite) while I took our youngest son and the grandparents back to the car.  Once we were all back together again, we decided to visit one last memorial.  It has been over a quarter of a century since I last visited the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial and I had never seen it at night so I thought this was a good opportunity to show it to the kids, given they are familiar with the iconic photograph from which it takes its inspiration.  I think it is a memorial that really needs to be seen by daylight as too much of the detail is lost when it is not as well lit.

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Arlington National Cemetery

This Spring Break, my in-laws flew over from England and rented a house in Vienna, Virginia.  We, therefore, travelled down to spend a few days with them in Northern Virginia.

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As you know, I love to visit cemeteries.  I had not been to Arlington National Cemetery since the summer of 1995 and, as such, my kids had never been.  I, therefore, decided that we should go visit Arlington National Cemetery given its significance.  I drew up a list of 40 graves that I thought we should aim to visit, 20 of which were prioritized, and I plotted them on a map according to the section and grave numbers.  Some of these were family graves but most were the final resting places of people of historic significance.  Despite all of my preparation work, however, my missions were largely not to be accomplished.  Mostly this was simply because of the vast scale of Arlington Cemetery.  It was created on land that had been the estate of Robert E Lee’s wife and covers over 600 acres.  There was simply no way we could ever hope to cover every section of the cemetery.  I, therefore, culled from my list any of the graves that were not plotted in the centre of the map.  The other factor that complicated my search for individual graves was the peculiar numbering system.  Sometimes it was easy to follow because the numbers were in clear consecutive order but, in other sections, the numbering system was erratic with graves in the 4000s being sited adjacent to graves in the 8000s and the 3000s nowhere to be found.  There absolutely has to be some logic to it but the puzzle confounded and defied me.  As such, we did not find a single one of the graves of Mr Pict’s family members, not even the one who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.  Oddly enough, however, we did find the only one of my family members who is interred in the cemetery, Elizabeth Brown Levy, nee Stout.

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Arlington contains only two equestrian memorial statues and we happened to visit both of them.  One of them is for Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who was the first non-American to be buried in the cemetery.  The other is for Philip Kearny, a Major General killed during the Civil War.

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On the subject of the Civil War, of course we had to visit a number of the graves of prominent Civil War Generals because that is where the Venn diagram of my love of cemeteries intersects with Mr Pict’s interest in the Civil War.  These included George Crook, John Gibbon, William Starke Rosencrans.  We had hoped to locate Frederick William Benteen, since we had visited the Little Bighorn last summer, but we were unsuccessful.  My 9 year old, however, did find the grave of Dan Sickles.  He served in the Civil War, was a Member of Congress, and a Diplomat, but what the kids and I know him for is his murder of Philip Barton Key and his successful use of the temporary insanity plea, its first use in American judicial history.  We had visited the grave of his victim in Baltimore in 2017.  We also stopped by the grave of John Lincoln Clem, a drummer boy in the Union Army who holds the record as the youngest noncommissioned army officer in US history.  I asked my kids to imagine what it must have been like to experience war as a 10 year old, though I don’t think it is possible to really grasp it.

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We took the kids to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  We felt it was extremely important that the boys visit that site to appreciate the sacrifice these unidentified people represent, the symbolism, the poignancy, the tragedy of it all.

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We also visited the grave of Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.  I had hoped to make it to Medgar Evers’ but I was thwarted.  We also saw the grave of John Glenn, Senator and astronaut – the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest person to fly in space.  The connection for the kids was having been to Grand Turk in December since that was where John Glenn arrived back on earth following his orbit in 1962.  As someone who has an interest in pandemics and the history of disease, I was pleased to find the grave of Albert Sabin, the medical pioneer who developed the oral polio vaccine.  We also visited the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Mary Randolph who died in 1828 and was buried long before Arlington was established as a National Cemetery.

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For most of our time in the Cemetery – with the noted exception of the Tomb of the Unknowns – we barely encountered other people.  Such a massive space can, of course, absorb masses of people.  The area that was most crowded, much more so even than the Tomb of the Unknowns, was the grave of President John F Kennedy.  It was packed with people and I had the distinct impression that many people clamber off of tour buses just to come see this grave site and then they return to their buses and move on.  Kennedy, however, is not the only President buried in Arlington: the last grave we searched for was that of President William Howard Taft.  Somewhat surprisingly, his memorial obelisk was more challenging to locate than one would imagine.  I persevered, however, because I have decided that one of my side travel missions will be to see the presidential graves.  The kids, however, were beyond flagging by this stage (my father-in-laws fitbit informed us we had walked 11,000 steps) so they were doner-than-done with our explorations of Arlington National Cemetery and ready to go back to the rental house to soak in the hot tub and not remotely receptive to the notion of visiting a whole load more presidential graves.

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Straight Outta Scranton

Our third son turned 12 on Monday so the preceding weekend was filled with celebrations for him.  Our oldest son turns 16 on Saturday so our week is bookended with birthday festivities.  We have a tradition that the person with the birthday gets to choose the activity for the closest weekend.  My middle two sons are obsessed with the TV show ‘The Office’ so the decision was that we would go to Scranton and tour sites associated with that show and its cast of characters.  I have only seen the odd episode of the show so I had to do a lot of research and pick the brains of my 13 year old.  I may know next to nothing about ‘The Office’ but I am always happy to support, encourage, and facilitate someone else’s nerdy interests.

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We parked up at the Steamtown Mall.  We had been watching that mall gradually deteriorate into something out of a dystopia during our previous visits to Scranton.  I was anticipating it being even more moribund and empty so was pleasantly surprised to see that real inroads have been made to turning around its fortunes.  What they seem to be doing is letting spaces to small, independent retailers – possibly for a peppercorn rent – which meant there were far fewer empty store spaces and much greater footfall.  An aquarium has also moved in which is presumably a way of pulling people into the mall.  My boys – including Mr Pict – liked a store dedicated to vintage video games.  It was the type of niche business that would never be able to afford a retail spot normally but it had a large space within the Steamtown Mall.  I was most impressed by the makeover of what had been the food court area.  It had been very sad and stale when we last visited – ghastly enough that I would never have thought to eat there – but it had been totally redesigned to provide compact spaces for eateries and artisans.  But I digress….

We started off outside Boscov’s, a department store founded in Pennsylvania.  Apparently this was where the characters Pam and Phyllis bought the same outfit.  Right next to Boscov’s was an Auntie Anne’s pretzel store.  Aside from the fact that a character named Kelly is fond of this brand of pretzel, it is nigh impossible for my kids to travel anywhere within Pennsylvania without snacking on a pretzel so we had to buy pretzel for elevenses.  Birthday boy had a pizza pretzel, the 13 year old had a jalapeno pretzel, and our youngest son had a pretzel dog which is, yes, a hot dog sausage wrapped in pretzel dough.  Our final Office item in the Mall was the “Welcome to Scranton” sign that features in the shows opening credits.  It used to be outside on the roadside but has been moved inside to become a tourist attraction.  My wee nerds were delighted to be able to pose beside it.

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We exited the Mall and headed towards Courthouse Square.  From there, we could see the electrified sign atop the Trade building.  I have yet to see this lit up, which I imagine would be very impressive, but I love the design even without the illumination.  Scranton is named the Electric City because it was the home of the first electrified trolley (tram) system which operated from 1886.  However, the reason my boys were keen to see the historic sign was because the sign and the lyric “electric city” feature in a rap performed by the characters Michael and Dwight on ‘The Office’ – the same rap that gave me the title for this blog post.  There is also an Electric City mural on a wall alongside a busy road so, of course, we had to go and see that too.  While that mural functions as a welcome to Scranton, I actually preferred a colourful mural tucked away in an alley just off of Courthouse Square.  I had to go and see that on my own, however, since it was “off theme” and superfluous to our tour.

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After the Electric City sign, we walked along to the Pennsylvania Paper and Supply company.  En route, we had a detour into a comic book store because apparently it is OK to go “off theme” if you are a child but not if you are an adult.  For those not in the know, ‘The Office’ is about the employees of Dunder Mifflin, a fictional paper company.  The building in which the real paper company is housed features in the opening credits and they have embraced the connection to the show by placing “Dunder Mifflin” on one side of the building’s tower.  As we stood on the street taking photos, a car drove past playing the theme music for us.  We laughed and waved.  It seems some Scrantonians are very welcoming towards nerdy TV tourists.

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Next up was Cooper’s Seafood.  According to my 13 year old, this was the location where Michael and Holly argued about Meredith’s ethics.  I have no idea but I was quite keen on the idea of dining there.   Unfortunately, our arrival there did not coincide with anyone feeling hungry (thanks, pretzels!) so instead we just had to take in the building with our eyes and not with our stomachs.  There is a striped faux lighthouse surrounded by pirates and a gigantic octopus on the roof.  It looked like a lot of fun.  It was definitely the place for purchasing ‘Office’ merchandise.  My 12 year old could have gone bankrupt in there.  They even had things like staff badges for each character and paper with the Dunder Mifflin letterhead.  In the end, he chose to buy a poster for the movie-within-a-show ‘Threat Level Midnight’ and was chuffed to bits with his purchase.

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We then drove to an industrial estate on the fringes of Scranton.  First stop there was a bowling alley in which there is sited a bar called Poor Richard’s Pub.  It’s a favourite hang out spot for the characters.  I couldn’t take the kids into the bar so we just dipped into the building to claim it and snap some photos of the outside.  Nearby is a pizza restaurant called ‘Alfredo’s Pizza Cafe’.  Apparently there is a joke in the show that involves confusion between this pizza place and one called ‘Pizza by Alfredo’s’ that serves “hot circles of garbage”.  The smells wafting out of the restaurant were deeply appealing and had me drooling but we took a vote and again the kids declared that they were not hungry enough.  Gah!  So frustrating.  I love pizza.  We will need to try it out next time we find ourselves in Scranton.  I spotted a Rite Aid at the corner so we quickly nipped there for another photo op because, again, it is tied into the show since characters purchase a cologne from there called “Night Swept”.  Rite Aid is also part of Scranton’s economic history since it was founded there in the early 1960s.

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Having done all the major ‘Office’ themed stops within Scranton’s limits, the boys then decided we should go see Lake Wallenpaupack.  This lake features in an episode called “Booze Cruise”.  While it uses the name of the real lake, it was actually filmed in California but the kids were up for the idea of a lake visit regardless.  Unfortunately, at least from the direction we approached Lake Wallenpaupack, we could not find a public access route down towards the water or even a place to park up and walk down.  The lake is vast – Pennsylvania’s third largest indeed – so we decided to give up on the plan instead of wasting time circuiting the lake.  We turned around and gradually started working our way along very windy rural back roads towards major roads that would take us home.  That route took us past an abandoned motel so, of course, I had to quickly brake, pull the car over, and leap out to take photos.  I was way “off theme” again so everybody else refused to get out of the car.

By this time, it was very late in the afternoon, we still had a long drive home, and everyone was famished with hunger.  Having not eaten at either Cooper’s or Alfredo’s, we had one last attempt at eating “on theme” by opting for a Chilli’s, a chain restaurant that is the favourite of Michael’s, the main protagonist of ‘The Office’.  The boys even ordered the Awesome Blossom – Michael Scott’s favourite dish – though they were disappointed it was only petals and not a full onion blossom.  The service was excellent and the food so plentiful that we took home several boxes.  The birthday boy was well-fed, happy, and delighted with his ‘Office’ day out.

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Kennedy Space Center

Would you like to know how to completely undermine the benefits of a relaxing Caribbean cruise and transform quality family time into snarling conflict?  Then do read on.

By mid-morning we had disembarked in Miami and bid farewell to my in-laws (who were travelling on to Mexico to visit family).  We had a whole two days of driving ahead of us with an overnight stay in Savannah.  With a bit of time to play with on the first day of travel, we had the option of either exploring Savannah (which I have not visited since 1998) or stopping off somewhere in Florida.  As you will no doubt guess, I was rooting for Savannah.  However, acknowledging it was going to be dark and everyone tired by the time we got there, I let Mr Pict have his choice: the Kennedy Space Center.

Mr Pict loves outer space stuff – he was an avid amatueur astronomer for a while – but it doesn’t do much for me.  Physics and engineering generally don’t do much for me.  However, I drag him around art galleries and cemeteries so it’s all about give and take.  Convincing the kids that we should support Dad in having his day was a whole other thing though.  Maybe it was a week of over-indulgence and burning the candle at both ends or of too much freedom.  Maybe they were all just crabbit and at peak t(w)een griping.  Whatever the cause of their resistance, they just were not having it.  With the exception of the youngest, they made it clear they were begrudging every single minute of the time spent there.  We have made this mistake before, pushing for just one more activity or experience on a vacation and then regretting it.  We should have known better.

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Having a sense of which way the wind was blowing, I advised Mr Pict to prioritise what things he really wanted to see.  We, therefore, decided to start with the tour of actual NASA buildings and lined up for the bus.  When I was last at the Space Center, almost exactly 20 years earlier, it essentially comprised just this tour, an IMAX theatre and some rockets.  Now the Visitor Complex is so vast that the tour seems almost tacked on as a sideshow.  The queue for the bus was constantly moving but it took ages for us to get to the head of the line.  The bus tour took us past the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, the scale of which can only really be appreciated by seeing it in real life, but what I was most excited about was seeing a large alligator in the road’s meridian.  We were deposited within a building that contained a launch command centre complete with a reenactment of the Apollo 8 launch.  There was then a large exhibition hall containing various vehicles, including a lunar rover, a Saturn V rocket, some kind of landing module, and spacesuits.

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Upon returning the visitor complex, Mr Pict decided that we should next go into the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit.  Our oldest son utilised the fact he was still feeling unwell to opt out so we found him a shady waiting area while they rest of us went in.  The line was extremely long and very tedious.  We were standing in line for 45 minutes just to enter a room where we had to stand and watch an audio-visual presentation before being herded into another room in which we had to stand and walk.  This room at least contained an actual Atlantis Shuttle.  We then discovered that the line for the Atlantis experience was going to be another 40 minutes with the experience itself lasting half an hour.  Honestly, I was done standing and queuing but I also did not want to leave my oldest son alone any longer – plus I get queasy in simulators – so I declared I was just going to head for the exit.  That was the cue for the other three boys to declare they were over it too.  Even Mr Pict had to admit that the thought of joining yet another queue just for this one ruddy experience was a despairing one.  He quit too.

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Back in the sunshine, we had a look around and every exhibition area was in the same situation with crazily long lines and ridiculous wait times.  The kids were very moody by this point.  Making our next move wa s like handling a basket of cobras.  Additionally, we knew we still had a few hours in the car before reaching Savannah and rest ahead of us.  It was time to quit while we were less behind.  The Space Center feels like it has expanded to be a Disney or Universal style attraction but without the mechanics to handle the crowd dynamics or to at least keep people entertained and motivated while they stand in lengthy lines.  It was a bum note to end on after our cruise vacation.  Emotional eating is not healthy but sometimes good food is the cure.  Therefore, we found a barbecue joint in Titusville for our dinner pit stop.  Happily some delicious food helped raise everyone’s spirits.

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Caribbean Cruise – Sea Days

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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.

Caribbean Cruise – Grand Turk

Our final destination of the cruise was Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Two decades ago, Mr Pict had a job opportunity that would have taken us to live on Grand Turk for at least two years.  He declined for various reasons but I was curious to see what the island was like and to imagine what my life would have been like there.

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The ship docked at a beach resort area but we were eager to see something of the real Grand Turk, albeit from a completely skewed tourist perspective.  We, therefore, squeezed into a taxi and were whisked up the length of the narrow, flat island to the capital city, Cockburn Town.  The population of the whole of Grand Turk is under 4000 so it’s a compact city more akin to a village.  We spent some time perusing the stalls on Front Street and poking around on the beach – my kids found bits of coral, lobster body parts, and sun lounging dogs – and enjoying the view of the stunning turquoise water.

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Our goal for the day was the National Museum so we popped in there when it opened.  I am so often surprised by the quality of small, local museums or those dedicated to narrow interests.  This was the case with the Turks and Caicos National Museum.  The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and they had really made the most of showcasing their exhibits, curating them in such a way that they told clear stories about the island.  The Museum is sited in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island.  We learned that most of the timbers used in its construction were likely salvaged from shipwrecks, one of which was exposed so we could see it for ourselves.  I was rather charmed by this fact since one of my Shetland ancestors was imprisoned in the 1840s for pillaging from a shipwreck, another group of islands with very few trees.

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The ground floor of the museum was dedicated to showcasing its big ticket item: the finds from a wreck known as the Molasses Reef Wreck.  A caravel from the very early 16th Century, it is the oldest European ship excavated in the Americas.  While some like to claim that it could very well be Columbus’ ship Pinta (yup. him again), the museum staff were clear that identification has not been possible beyond stating the caravel was Spanish in origin and dated prior to 1520 at the latest.  It is possible, for instance, that is was a slave ship.  Regardless of its specific history, it was very cool to see the remains of such an old vessel.  We saw timbers that still had the wooden “nails” in them, various armaments, and a massive anchor.  A related exhibit illustrated how the ballast on the sea bed had been critical to identification and analysis and demonstrated how archaeologists had worked on the site.

Upstairs, we found an exhibit about the salt industry, the Fresnel lens of the island’s lighthouse, the story of an Irish helmet diver whose two brothers had drowned while diving, the culture of the indigenous Lucayans, and John Glenn’s landing in 1962 following his orbiting of the earth.

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Following the Museum, we returned to the resort bay.  My in-laws decided to relax on the ship but we Picts decided we would have a final beach day.  The kids played on the sand and in the surf with their dad while I listened to a podcast while lying on a shaded lounger.  That is the type of beach time I can compromise on.  Not a bad hurrah for the last shore day of our cruise.

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