Sunday, April 8, 2018

New Experiences: More of the Williamsburg Area

Most of our friends and followers have probably realized our interest in Williamsburg, Virginia.  We visited this spring break, taking in a few new or new-to-the-kids places.

Finally, we took the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, a free ride across the river on the unique transportation of a ferry boat.  In any kind of reasonable weather, it's fun to get out of your car on the ride and enjoy the fresh air, views of Jamestown Island, and the classic nature of the "upper deck" of the ferry, a small enclosed viewing platform that's also home to many of the life jackets.  It was actually J's first ferry trip, too.  He remembers his mom telling stories of buying nabs (crackers) on the ferry--you can't do that any longer, but it is still a delightful little trip!

You don't have to have a purpose in riding the ferry, but we did: to arrive at Surry and see Bacon's Castle.  We'll have to return to Bacon's Castle, as it was closed on the day of our visit and we hadn't picked up on the hours.  We did wind through the countryside to the site (GPS recommended), saw the brick house known as the castle, and still hope to return in the fall.

We returned to Jamestown Island and detoured to the Jamestown Glasshouse, part of the Jamestown National Park Service site and home to its own passport stamp.  We'd not spent substantial time there in a while, so it was good to take the short path through the woods to the glasshouse and watch glass blown for a short while.  The gift shop here is a good stop for true artisan glass pieces made on site.

E and G are finally of an age where they can at least somewhat understand the value of a good meal with new flavors and a little ambiance.  We were so proud of them at Kephi Greek Kitchen, a new restaurant in the former Milano's location on Richmond Road.  Kephi serves authentic Greek food including G's new favorite, lemon chicken and rice soup, and a great selection of reasonably-priced desserts including ekmek, a new-to-us treat with shredded wheat and cream.  

We also took them to the Old Chickahominy House, a classic restaurant at which we'd never stopped but that J had seen in old tourist books.  Casual, reasonable, and somehow still elegant, it was also a great stop for traditional southern food.  It's a breakfast/lunch place with delicious, albeit interestingly flat, biscuits.

We also did two walking tours with Williamsburg Walking Tours.  We started with their ghost tour, which was a nice outing with more thoughtful treatment of history than some ghost tours in the area provide.  We returned the next day for the African-American History Tour and were absolutely delighted with our guide Trish's sincerity.  She was very knowledgeable and had clearly studied primary as well as secondary sources. She was also able to help all of us on the tour connect to each other and truly enjoy our time together--what a gift!   There's a $1 off coupon in the Go Williamsburg guide, too.  

If you go, check out our other blogs on Williamsburg, including one on Christmastide in the area.  We always recommend a ghost tour or similar tour for a taste of local history--whether you think you enjoy spooky stories or not.  We do steer clear of the "gadget-y" ones and recommend you do the same unless you have a particular interest.  Our picks of value-laden (nothing fancy) places to stay are Colonial Williamsburg's Governor's Inn and the Best Western Historic District--both allow you to walk right in to the colonial section of town. Virginia residents interested in visiting the Colonial Williamsburg buildings (going inside), there's a special on passes right now!  You can purchase the passes online and use them later in the season.  If you are in coastal Virginia right now, we also recommend you not miss Lantern Asia at Norfolk Botanical Garden.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Happy Colors: Norfolk Botanical Garden for LanternAsia

It's back!  There's an updated LanternAsia exhibit at Norfolk Botanical Gardens!  A few years ago, Kim, G, and Nana were able to visit the previous LanternAsia display on a whim after reading a brief "blurb" about it in AAA World.  It was so much more spectacular than expected!  This year, Justin, Kim, E and G returned to experience this exhibit while on a mini-vacation in Williamsburg.  This display is mainly new, so do consider going again even if you have been before.

It's hard to describe Asian lantern exhibits.  They are immersive art experiences; they are cultural learning opportunities; they are delightful places to take walks.  Most people seem to find them "bigger" than expected.  LanternAsia is a great place to spend a few hours walking around, especially if you arrive just before dusk and stay til after dark. This way, you can experience the lanterns both in the light of day as well as after dark.   Some of the lanterns have moving parts, and this particular display has lots of information about Asian culture and related exhibits, including information about Buddhist symbols, the Chinese zodiac, and similar concepts.  Many displays also have lighting that changes colors, so pay attention.

If you go, arrive early for the best parking and the best visual experience, seeing the lantern before and after nightfall.  Bring your camera and dress for the weather (rain or shine event).  Take your time as you stroll around--we made two laps with the kids across about 2.5 hours.  Check out our previous visit to LanternAsia at Norfolk Botanical Gardens here; we also visited Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden for their Chinese Lantern Festival.  In our humble opinion, lantern installations are a great way to attract new audiences to botanical gardens.  Even if you don't think you are interested in visiting a garden, try it--you will probably like it!  This particular installation runs through May 13.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Local Science: Randolph College SciFest

J and I (K) are both educators, and we hear a lot about STEM education and its cousins, STEAM and STEM-H.  It's true that scientific thinking is important now and will be important in the future, regardless of one's chosen adult roles.  We work hard to try to help E, age 8, and G, age 4, learn various disciplines for thinking, and right now, a lot of that is about exposure to ideas and people who are passionate about them.  The Randolph College SciFest, an annual event including Science Day for kids, has become a favorite way to encourage E.  By next year, it might be a good fit for G, too.

When E realized we were headed to Science Day, he remembered his first trip last year and building cool boats to carry pennies fondly.  He was eager to get in place and explore this year's topics, which, from observation of the gym, included connections to archaeology, math, and earth and space science quite clearly.  Science Day features a rotation of such activities lasting about 4 hours and allowing kids to mingle with new friends (or the friends they brought with them).  It's like a combination of the best of the interactivity of science classrooms/labs and science museums.  It's not as intense or themed as a science camp, but the quality of activities is similar.

Honestly, I (K) had not been to the Randolph College campus before, so SciFest has become a great excuse to go.  One of my very bright faculty members is a Randolph grad, and the campus consistently presents as encouraging academics and true community.  (While I certainly recognize the importance of college athletics and social life, I prefer campuses that don't overemphasize these elements of the college experience.)  The students at Science Day are diverse, energetic, and thoughtful--way to represent, Randolph!  They also keep a good handle on the kids while preserving a fun atmosphere.

If you go to Science Day, know that a parent/guardian must stay present on campus.  You can visit the well-regarded Maier Museum's art collection and engage in similar activities, like a campus tour, or you can be like me and sit in the stands and do some homework, although I know I must take in the Maier Museum soon.  The generosity of area businesses provides the kids materials, T-shirts, and snacks.  If you are interested in going next year, start following I Love Randolph Science on Facebook and watch for registration dates--this amazing FREE event often fills up.  On event day, dress comfortably for inside and outside activities and arrive about an hour before start for the best parking choices.  More interested in the Roanoke area?  Try the Virginia Tech Science Festival and/or Senses and Scienceability at Jefferson College. We also like to think of college campuses as wonderful places to go for a walk/access interesting events, and we've visited Washington and Lee, VMI, Roanoke College, and Hollins College particularly.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Terracotta Warriors: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

We'd been trying to get to Richmond to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to check out the Terracotta Army: The Legacy of the First Emperor of China.  We'd tried to get there previously, but a poor weather report foiled us.  We're fortunate to have made it on closing weekend, and walking through the exhibit, one of my friends and blog readers spotted us, exclaiming she knew we'd be there. You betcha.

The kids were thrilled to get little exhibit books, and like the good museum attendees they are becoming, they rebuffed somewhat at less-than-courteous visitors (there were a few, although nothing overwhelming).  The toughest crowds were in the entry area near small cases.  The warrior statues themselves were near the end of the exhibit, and because some of the less-seasoned museum goers had a bit of apparent museum fatigue, there were not crowds around the statues.  We're always pleased to see such special exhibits get good attention, especially from audience members that don't consider themselves regular museum-goers; it just makes for a lot of traffic.  This type of collection draws in crowds and helps so many people experience a new slice of the human experience, so it's worth it.  If you don't consider yourself a regular at places like art museums, this type of attraction may be just the ticket to understanding what all the fuss is about.

Our favorites?  Extremely well-preserved pottery, dating back over 2000 years; a chariot pulled by a horse team; the warriors themselves, all in fantastic poses.  Information on the ancient Chinese architecture was also fascinating and especially well-presented.  A children's exploration area elsewhere in the museum had small blank books as freebies, and the kids were very amused by these with E drawing a great collection of terracotta statues.

If you go now to this exhibit, you are actually headed to the Cincinnati Art Museum--they co-organized the exhibit with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and it will be there from April 20 through much of the summer.  If you just want to take in the VMFA, that's a great day trip, too.  Go in nice weather, and you can enjoy the attractive grounds--there's plenty of places to spread out a little picnic, including some small outdoor tables near the parking garage.  Parking is available onsite for $5/day (free for members); general entrance is free of charge although special exhibits are ticketed.  Reserve your tickets in advance, especially for blockbuster exhibits like this one. On the day of our visit, every spot was sold out--and at an exhibit entrance rate of 300 people per hour.  Considering a membership?  Be sure to check out the student membership--it's a great deal at $10, and students are eligible at age 13 (a great savings if you visit more than once a year).  While you are in the area, know you are right beside the Virginia Historical Society, also with free general admission.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Local Subterranean Fun: Dixie Caverns

It had been a long weekend, and not in the best sense, after fierce windstorms took out power to the house.  It was time for a little outing--nothing recharges K quite like getting out and about.  E and K took off to Dixie Caverns, a show cave very near Salem, Virginia.  J and K had been there on a date years ago, but we had not returned.  E initially went grudgingly--but by the end of the tour, he was checking out brochures for Luray Caverns and Shenandoah Caverns, planning future cavern trips.

The caverns, open most every day of the year, offer 45-50 minute guided tours at a reasonable entry cost (free under 5, $6 ages 5-10, $14 for others).  If you can navigate substantial stairs (up, down, and uneven), this makes for a fun, easy outing with very little prep.  Our guide was quite knowledgeable of both the cave's interesting history and of the science involved in the cave, making for an interesting visit that encouraged curiosity and questions. 

Much of the cave tour, visitors are actually "in" the mountain rather than beneath ground level.  Formations include tons of "soda straws" and flowstone as well as a bell-shaped formation known as the Wedding Bell (yes, you can get married there).  The natural entrance is visible from inside the cave, prompting a better understanding of its history.  At the end of your tour, you'll have the option of spending a few moments in total cave darkness. 

If you go, dress for 55-60 degrees, and wear shoes that can take on stairs.  There's a gift shop with some rock souvenirs, an attached antique mall, a campground, and ample free parking.  The site itself is right off the I-81 exit aptly named Dixie Caverns.  You can even leave your mark--while you can't touch cave formations, you can write in a chunk of clay that was harvested from the cave.  E wants you to know he was there.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Virginia's US Civil War Battlefields: Chancellorsville

The Haltermans really needed to get out of town, just for a minute, for a change of scenery.  Nothing "bad" to escape from--but the act of seeing somewhere different, teaching our kids about it, and meeting people who are passionate about a cultural institution is just refreshing to us.  So, we headed out to the US Civil War battlefield at Chancellorsville, Virginia, relatively near Fredericksburg and part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The drive from Roanoke will get you off the interstate and through roads of gentleman's farms and small towns, pleasant in its own right.

On an academic level, this National Park Service site will help you understand the run up to the Battle of Gettysburg. By featuring the Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson family's story, the site will also give you a heightened sense of the tragedy that was the war.  Stonewall was mortally wounded by friendly fire here, shortly after meeting his only child that would survive to adulthood.  The exhibits in the visitor's center are engaging and nicely displayed in a reasonably small space, providing an interesting view of both the "human side" of the battles as well as its military movements. If you frequent these type of cultural sites, it is difficult to find those that can leave the average visitor with a better appreciation of both the human impact and the military circumstances, and this is one that can do that.  We mention the battles plural because this National Park is about multiple, separate battles in the region, close in time and clearly linked.  The Chancellorsville Visitors Center is one of two visitors center sites in the park with information, and it offers an orientation film that is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors, and free for kids under ten.  It's obviously worth it.  The rest of the park is fee-free.

With the kids, we highly recommend the Junior Ranger program.  It will be pretty doable for most kids six and older with assistance, eight and older with reasonably little assistance.  And the reward patch?  It's awesome!  The kind visitors center staff even announced E's accomplishment during our trip!  In just about any season, the brief, well-surfaced loop trail around the center will lead you to major Jackson-related monuments.  The 10-stop driving tour from the center will also take you interesting places, including a landmark of the Lee-Jackson Bivouac there (their final such bivouac, or meeting) and Catherine Furnace, a battlefield landmark which is, well, just interesting to view.  When we return outside of winter, we'd also be game to take one of the park's three relatively short hikes (translation: hiking for an hour or two, perfect with relatively inexperienced children hiking along).

If you go, plan to spend time exploring.  One of K's current pet peeves is that the average visitor to National Park Sites only stays a very brief time, sometimes less than an hour.  A less-than-an-hour visit does not give you any real time to appreciate the interpretation, so stay longer if you can.  There's a small bookstore with some academic selections, and as we mentioned, we found a very welcoming, interested staff.  The park is in a rural but well-trafficked area, but there are not a bunch of restaurants super close by.  There is a strip mall down the road towards Charlottesville where you will find a local pizza place and similar places if you are interested, and Fredericksburg is not that far up the road.  For those ambling north to Gettysburg, this park would be a great stop along your adventure.  There is also a good compliment of seasonal programming, including a beautiful Memorial Day illumination event and some interesting presentations we saw advertised in honor of Black History Month, about which there are more details on the park Facebook page.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Roanoke's Latest Exhibit: Play at the Taubman Museum of Art

A fun art exhibit in your hometown is cause for excitement. Play: Toys Reimagined as Art at the Taubman Museum of Art is a great excuse to get out and enjoy, and at the time of this writing, it still has a few weeks left.  K, E, and G  have visited several times and found the exhibit highly accessible and interesting, if small in terms of the number of pieces (which could be a great asset for many children exploring art). 

When we say accessible, we mean there are sculptures to climb on (clouds) and walk under (balloons) as well as pieces constructed from familiar materials (Legos, crayons).  Additionally, the Art Venture creation and play space features related materials like large quantities of Legos and base plates. There's always something interesting in the other galleries as well.

If you go, know that membership is a good value for many families. Yes, admission is typically free, but special exhibits and Art Venture access have fees.  For families making multiple trips and taking advantage of these features, membership can easily pay for itself, and right now, there is a 20% off membership sale with the code Play18.  Don't miss visiting the porch overlooking the nearby roads, and walk to the Roanoke Market Building food court or Nawab's buffet for lunch.