Slaughter Beach

No sooner was the school year over (actually we bust the younger two kids out a day early) than we headed off on a much-needed vacation. Our oldest son did not accompany us for a variety of reasons so he stayed home with the cats. One of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic is travel so I was very glad of a break away from my own four walls. We needed to book way back when I was the only member of the family eligible for vaccination, however, so at that time we had to keep our plans modest and be mindful of the need to maintain mitigation efforts. For that reason, we rented a house on Slaughter Beach on Delaware’s bay.

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The house was perfect for our needs. It had everything we needed for family life and easy access to the beach. There was a set of steps that took us from the house, across the dunes, and right onto the shore. Easy peasy. The boys absolutely loved that they could go to the beach whenever they wanted and at all times of the day. My favourite thing about the house was the master suite because it was massive. It was literally the entire second floor of the house. So luxurious. A large bank of windows meant that I could wake up and see the sun rise over the sea from the comfort of the bed every morning. I even had a nook that I could set up as my art table.

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The nearest big town was Rehoboth and we headed there a couple of times. The first trip involved a morning jaunt to a farmers market and from there we walked to the shore so we could have a stroll on the boardwalk. The beach itself was absolutely heaving with people. Even in non-pandemic times, places that crowded set me on edge. I was very grateful that we had access to a very quiet beach with no public access so that we could be isolated and enjoy peace and quiet. Nobody was in the mood for shopping or boardwalk pursuits so we just wandered and people watched for a bit.

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Our second trip to Rehoboth was to have a walk around Gordon’s Pond, which is a nature refuge. It proved to be a pleasant enough walk, especially since it was flat on a hot day, but the pond was very low and wildlife was nowhere to be seen. I think I saw a bird at a distance. We did get a good view of the submarine watchtowers from a raised walkway.

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Because Mr Pict is an outer space nerd, we went out one morning to see a satellite launch.  We were supposed to be able to see it in the sky ten second after launch.  Mr Pict was viewing the live feed on his phone and was counting us down to the point when we should have been able to see the object in the sky.  Alas, the clouds rolled in and we did not see a single speck of anything.  You can see from the photograph how impressed the boys were by that jaunt.

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Our nearest town for things like groceries was Milford. It is one of those towns that is clearly in the process of regenerating after the loss of its traditional industries. There are certainly shabby areas of the town but we found the centre to be quite appealing. We quickly found a favourite bakery and coffee shop and we stopped in there for some treats a couple of times. Their baked goods were among some of the best I have ever scoffed. We also returned one evening in order to buy some pierogis from a food truck since our 15 year old is a massive pierogi fan. It happened to be on an evening when there was some sort of community thing going on so the place was buzzing with people and there was a nice atmosphere. The boys approved of the various pierogis they purchased too.

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On the subject of food, we also returned to the British themed fish and chip place that we discovered last summer. While it is not quite authentic chip shop grub, it is close enough for our stomach-based homesickness and quite delicious. We did takeaway and picnicked in the grounds of the same still-under-construction health clinic that we ate the same food in a year ago. I guess we are establishing new family traditions?

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We visited a Nature Center on the outskirts of Milford one morning. It was not a big place so our visit took no time at all. It was, however, informative and we learned more about some of the local sea life and sea birds. We especially learned a lot about the anatomy of horseshoe crabs, which are truly peculiar creatures, and my 14 year old loved the turtles. We experienced a lot of wildlife on the stretch of beach in front of the rental house. The place was littered in horseshoe crab casts but the boys were most excited by the fact that they kept encountering live horseshoe crabs while they were paddling. We also encountered lots of little burrowing crabs and I even had a visit from a chubby frog one evening on the house’s patio. The wildlife I could most definitely have done without were the horseflies – what I grew up calling clegs. They were vicious and persistent and their bites were very nippy. I actually have a severe reaction to insect bites so the bites were very painful. There were so many swarms of them at certain times of the day that it was impossible to sit still and do anything. I had to take a fly swatter out with me and waft it about constantly just to keep them at bay. The same type of horseflies made us abandon a walk around a wildlife refuge at the end of our week’s vacation. The horde of them was just too apocalyptic to be tolerable.

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The best thing about the vacation as far as Mr Pict and the boys were concerned, of course, was the beach. I am not much of a beach person because I loathe sand. I am happy to sit on the beach or paddle for a while but I cannot do it for hours on end. The ideal thing about our location was that I could just scuttle on back to the house and read or draw while still enjoying a view of the sea and fresh air coming in through screened windows. The menfolk, however, made the most of their time at the beach. They went out at all times of the day to paddle, swim, and kayak. There was a long shelf (is that the word?) which meant the water remained pretty shallow quite far out to shore. That meant we felt comfortable letting the boys take the kayak out without an adult being with them. Even our 12 year old was able to take the kayak out on his own. They really enjoyed that freedom. The 14 and 15 year olds even took the kayak out, took a break from paddling, and had some drinks and snacks while bobbing about in the waves.

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It was a lovely week and a very welcome break from our own domestic spaces and our own well-worn routines. It was also great to spend a good chunk of quality family time together after a year of being trapped together while working, learning, and functioning as a family all on top of each other. It felt like we were rinsing some of the stress of the past year off and recharging our batteries.

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Delaware Beach Getaway

We had really big travel plans for this Summer but, of course, the Covid 19 pandemic means that all of our plans were cancelled.  As a family, we are taking the risks very seriously and are being super cautious with what we do.  My youngest brother contracted Covid and had a really gruelling time getting through what is considered a mild case.  That only served to underscore how important it was to stick to our strict way of operating.  However, for various reasons too personal to get into, we did decide to get away for a few days.  We found a beach house in Delaware where we could maintain our isolated ways and that had a robust, Covid specific cleaning regimen to put our anxiety at ease.  We were also the first guests to stay in the house for several months.  Our oldest son opted to stay home with the cats.

We obviously spent a lot of time at the beach.  The property we rented was a two mile walk from the closest public access point and parking lot so it was exceptionally quiet and we never had to get remotely close to any other beach users.  In addition to paddling and swimming, the boys loved collecting horseshoe crab moults (or horseshoe husks as the kids dubbed them).  They gathered husks of various sizes over a few days and then my 14 year old had the idea to turn them into a sculpture.  What my youngest loved doing was finding these peculiar little burrowing sea critters at the shore line.  I think they are a type of isopod but I am not completely confident in even that vague identification.  He enjoyed scooping them out of the wet sand and then watching them quickly burrowing back down.  The beach was also home to a type of crab that ran at comically high speed and scurried from hole to hole.  My 14 year old also found a hermit crab.

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We also experienced some lovely sunrises and terrific sunsets on the beach.  The boys also liked being out on the beach in the pitch dark.  Mr Pict is into astronomy so he enjoyed using his binoculars to pick out details in the clear night sky.

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I can only tolerate sand for so long so I liked having some other outdoor spaces to use.  There was a raised deck at the house where I could sit and read, draw, and paint while being able to see the rest of the family larking about on the beach.  Beneath that raised deck, there was a space enclosed with screens that was perfect for outdoor eating.

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On the subject of eating, we mostly ate food at the house whipped up from ingredients we brought with us.  One evening, however, we decided to have a treat because Mr Pict had spotted a place selling British style fish and chips.  As Brits, how could we not go sample some grub there?  They were doing roadside pickup so we placed our order and then parked up to eat it while it was all still steaming hot.  It really was all pretty authentic and passed muster with our British tastebuds.  The one exception was the brown sauce which was far too good quality for proper chippy sauce.  Just the aroma of clouds of malt vinegar wafting off of hot chips transported me home. It was a delicious treat.

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We did take a couple of excursions.  We thought about exploring historic Lewes but it was far too busy and most people we saw were not wearing masks so we promptly nixed that idea.  What we did instead was head to Cape Henlopen for a wander around Fort Miles.  We have been there before, in 2017, and we planned on also exploring new areas of the coast, but every other spot was just too busy for comfort.

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We went on two woodland walks.  The first of these was at Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge.  We had to pass a few people at the head of the trail but otherwise we seemingly had the whole place to ourselves and we ended up covering the entire network of trails partly intentionally and partly because we got ourselves a bit lost and looped certain trails twice.  We definitely got our steps in that day!  We encountered lots of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and also lots of frogs or toads – I cannot confidently identify the species so please let me know if you can.  My 11 year old also found a complete shed snakeskin but unfortunately we did not meet any snakes.

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Our final trip was to Redden State Forest but that was a much shorter trek and we were literally the only people there.  It was a very humid day, however, and we were being constantly bitten by insects.  I have a severe reaction to insect bites so my left hand ballooned up.  We, therefore, moved around the trail paths swiftly and skedaddled back to the car.

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It was definitely restorative to get away for a few days and be hermits in a different space.  It is not the Summer vacation we had planned for but it were definitely grateful for a simple getaway.

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Canada Trip #6 – Musee de la Civilisation

We were keen to do something educational in Quebec, really learn something about the history and culture of the place.  The Musee de la Civilisation was a mere hop, skip, and jump from our apartment so we headed there.  It’s a museum of history and anthropology which obviously has a particular focus on French Canada and the First Nations peoples.  It was, therefore, perfect for our purposes.  I suppose because I am more used to Victorian museum buildings so I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious this museum was and how the flow worked between sections.

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I enjoyed the exhibition on the history of French Canada.  It was presented in chronological order and I thought the artefacts were well-curated in order to illustrate that history and communicate something about the people of each period.  Lots of social history too which is my thing.  The kids really did not dig this section at all and did not especially engage but they are all old enough now that they could mill around at their own pace while their father and I took our time.

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What we all uniformly enjoyed was a special exhibition on the subject of poison.  We learned about poisons used for good and poisons used for malicious purposes and the presentation was very visual and interactive.  My macabre lot found it fascinating – though I suspect their highlight was seeing a bloke (hopefully an employee) reaching his bare arm and ungloved hand into a tank full of poisonous frogs.  As I have previously confided, I have an interest in the history of pandemics and that has led to a bit of an interest in medical history.  I, therefore, enjoyed all of the items that were about turning poisons into medicines – some of which were obviously of questionable merit (hello, mercury!) and a display case full of bezoars.  As someone who loves the macabre, I also liked the poisons that were used for detecting witches.  Mr Pict and two of our oldest sons are arachnophobes but they liked seeing a tarantula and a black widow.

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The next section we visited was a sort of maze full of games that were, I think, about using your senses to solve puzzles and messing around with optical illusions.  The boys especially enjoyed playing around with a mirror in which they could pretend to be dangling above skyscrapers and a maze that was absolutely devoid of light.  It was fun to find our way around using just our hands and it was even more fun to watch each other on the night vision cameras.

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The final section we went to was about prehistory.  I mean, what history museum is complete without some fossils?  I loved the way several exhibits were presented, with an audiovisual animation of a creature playing behind the glass case containing the relevant fossil.  My youngest – who is absolutely obsessed with cats – was delighted to find a mummified cat on display.

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It was a really good quality museum and a thoroughly pleasing way to spend a morning in Quebec.

Canada Trip #3 – Ricker Basin Ghost Village

Between our tour of Ben & Jerry’s and all of our edible tourism later in the day, we went for a hike in Little River State Park.  We all like to wander in the wilderness and I love ghost towns so our aim was to do the history trail that took us around the abandoned farming community of Ricker basin.  What I had not planned for, when proposing this hike, was the weather and the elevation of the trail.  We arrived at the State Park in absolutely torrential rain.  Even the park officers looked at us like we were loopy.  They also revealed to us that the trail should take us a few hours.  This did not compute with me, even as I looked at the map, but that was because I had not comprehended that the hike was going to be so steep and, at points, difficult underfoot.  I did that thing of assuming the park folks were basing their estimation on a slow pace of walking instead of asking about the topography so we committed to the trek and off we went.

Thankfully, the rain eased up and then stopped entirely early on in our trail.  The mud underfoot was still something we had to contend with and the intense humidity brought with it mosquitoes and other biting minibeasts galore but we were thankful at least to not be battling through rain.  One of the reasons Ricker Basin was abandoned was because of flooding.  It experienced two awful floods in 1927 and 1934, the first of which killed 55 people.  The second flood inspired the construction of a dam and led to a declining population.  Until then, however, the area had been farmed by a number of families for a century.

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As we trudged past the remnants of farmhouses and buildings, it seemed incredible to me that people had ever lived here.  The terrain was really pretty steep.  It was little wonder that they were largely subsistence farmers because trudging back and forth to market would have been quite the task.  Even before that, however, it must have been a massive undertaking to clear the land and prepare the ground for agriculture.  In the years since its abandonment, nature had almost completely engulfed all signs of human habitation.  There were trees everywhere.  There must have been even more dense woodland back when Mr Ricker first bought the land and started endeavouring to clear it.  These were definitely hardy people.

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One building is still standing but otherwise nothing remains of the buildings except for foundations and the occasional basement.  In addition to the farms, there was also a school house, and a couple of cemeteries.  At one of the cemeteries, I learned that the family who owned the plot had planted trees around its borders, one for every member of the family, planting another when someone married into the family, so that each individual had a tree available for cutting down and turning into a coffin when they died.  As morbid as it seems to have a coffin tree planted to commemorate your birth or wedding, I actually found myself admiring the pragmatism and forward planning of the scheme.  Circle of Life and all that.  As we walked – and it was a whole lot of walking, our phones logging almost 15,000 steps – we would occasionally stumble across a little fragment of metal.  Previous hikers had started a tradition of gathering artefacts found on or near the paths into collections in specific sites so we picked up what we found and added the items – including a bolt and a bed spring – to gatherings of other finds lined up on walls.

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It was a really enjoyable walk that reminded me a lot of some of our favourite treks in Argyll.  It mercifully did not take us the four or five hours the park rangers had predicted but it did take us a great deal more time and energy than I had anticipated.  Thankfully all the little spots of human habitation kept all of us – especially the children – engaged.  We definitely earned our calorie intake that day.

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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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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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Caribbean Cruise – San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our next port of call, on Boxing Day, was San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico.  Our ship was one of several cruise ships in port that day so the place was bustling with tourists.  It was quite funny to see these absolutely massive boats moored up next to a replica of one of Columbus’ ships.  Incidentally, it felt like I was being haunted by the malevolent spirit of Christopher Columbus for the entire vacation.  References to him abounded everywhere we went.  For so many reasons, it would be great if history could reframe his “discovery” of the Americas by placing it in a more appropriate and accurate context.  But I digress …

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We were disgorged from the ship in the old city which was convenient as that was the area of San Juan we most wanted to see.  We immediately headed up to Castillo de San Cristóbal, hoping that it might be open despite the government shutdown.  For once, we were in luck, thanks to the wonderful employees of the National Parks System who were willing to work without pay in order to keep historic sites open to the public.  One of three forts on Puerto Rico, this particular fort is the largest that the Spanish built in the New World.  It was in continuous use from Spanish colonial times all the way through to World War Two so has a long and varied history.

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Mr Pict likes military history more than I do so he and his father took more time reading the information boards while the kids and I enjoyed exploring the fascinating architecture, poking around in all the nooks and crannies, and taking in the amazing views across the city.  I had read that Puerto Rico has more iguanas than humans so the younger two boys had their fingers crossed for an iguana encounter.  Thankfully we did indeed meet an iguana who was not too skittish and allowed us to get up close.  Our 9 year old decided its name was Tim.  No idea why.

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After we left the fort, we had a wander through the streets of old San Juan.  I loved all of the architectural details, the diversity of building styles, and the bold colours.  We strolled some streets that retained their blue cobblestones from Spanish colonial times.  I was really quite taken with San Juan and – since the cruise could only ever give us a brief taster of each location – I found myself being left thirsty for more.  Of all the places we visited on our vacation, I am most eager to return to Puerto Rico and take in more of not just San Juan but the whole island.

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Caribbean Cruise – Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas

We woke on Christmas morning in the bay of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas.  We had had a faux Christmas prior to departing on vacation but Santa, of course, had still magicked himself down the ship’s funnel to fill the stockings.  The boys opened those and some gifts from their grandparents, then we grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed onto dry land.  Unfortunately our oldest son was stricken with the same truly rotten cold that had felled a few of us in December and did not feel up to exploring so he stayed aboard the ship in order to rest and recuperate.

While my in-laws poked around in the the many shops of Charlotte Amalie, we Picts decided to take in some of the other sights of the town.  Charlotte Amalie is the largest city and the capital of the US Virgin Islands.  As a colonial town, it was founded by the Danish in the 17th Century.  Our first stop, therefore, was Fort Christian, the oldest extant building in the Virgin Islands.  In addition to that, the Fort also houses a museum and is a National Historic Landmark.  Unfortunately, thanks to it being Christmas Day and the midst of a government shutdown, we were unable to visit other than to see the exterior.

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St Thomas has deep harbours and that meant it was an ideal location for pirates and their ships.  We saw lots of nods to this history of pillaging and skullduggery as we milled about the streets.  Everyone loves (old timey) pirates after all.  Some of us grew up with Long John Silver and some grew up with Captain Jack Sparrow but we all enjoy a good pirate tale, whether fiction or history.  Apparently Charlotte Amalie is particularly associated with Bluebeard and Blackbeard (beards compulsory?) and one of the island’s attractions is Blackbeard’s Castle.  We knew it was closed – thanks not only to Christmas and the shutdown but sadly also storm damage from the recent hurricanes – but we thought we would go and have a look see regardless.  It is always useful for us to have a goal in mind when wandering with children.

The climb was steep and the steps took us past Government House.  We stopped to admire its architecture and to have a quick breather before ascending the final flights of steps to reach the peak and Blackbeard’s Castle.  Although its name associates it with the infamous pirate, the structure was actually built as a defensive watchtower by the Danish since Fort Christian was at sea level.  It now houses a pirate museum which the boys would have loved.  Sigh.  Still, we cannot complain about the poor timing of our tourist wanderings given the damage and distress Hurricane Irma caused for the Virgin Islanders.  I wandered the perimeter fence but could not get a decent look at the tower.  I did manage to get a photo of a statue of Edward Teach by poking my camera lens against a rust hole.  We could see something of the tower from the street.  The best view was from the statue of the Three Queens, honouring the enslaved leaders of the Fireburn rebellion.

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We then took the famous 99 steps back down to the main streets.  Apparently the same warehouses that now house jewellery and fashion stores were once where smugglers and pirates stored their booty but I am sure they were used for legit purposes too.  We walked a long stretch of Dronningen’s Gade, ignoring all the banter from shopkeepers, because I was on a mission.  One house on the street was the birthplace of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro.  I had researched the number of the house but the numbering system was confusing.  Furthermore, the rain had started when we were up at Blackbeard’s Castle admiring the views – and watching the precipitation advancing – and it was absolutely hammering down as we pounded the pavements.  When we found ourselves in a decidedly dodgy area, we decided to retreat and I had to give up on my mission.  However, on reviewing my photos later that evening, I realised I had taken a photo of my youngest son beneath a sign that declared the building to be the birthplace of Pissarro.  So I somehow managed to both accomplish and fail my mission.

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While I had always intended to return to the ship after wandering the town in order to check on our oldest son, Mr Pict and the other kids had planned on going to the beach.  However, the boys had a change of heart having become drenched in the rain so we all hopped on a taxi (cars drive on the left incidentally) and they used the ship’s pool instead, taking advantage of the fact most people were away for the day.

Caribbean Cruise – Dominican Republic

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.