Sunday, June 4, 2017

One of the Best for Every Kid in a Park: Booker T Washington National Monument

It's delightful to live where there are so many treasures nearby.   We had part of a Saturday open ahead of a graduation party and decided to strike out to the Booker T Washington National Monument, a beautiful National Park Services site not far from Smith Mountain Lake, Bedford, and Roanoke, Virginia.  Incorporating a small gallery-style museum, a working farm site with animals, and an expanse of land for exploring, this is a National Parks Services site that can captivate a whole family, including kids of varying ages.  E, age 8, definitely came away with improved understandings of African American history, educational history, and agricultural history.  This site always reminds K of what a privilege it is to be an educator.

E, G, and K set off primarily to earn another Junior Ranger badge while J was giving a tour of Lexington to students.  E is so enamored with the Junior Ranger program that he now says that any day that he earns a Junior Ranger badge is one of the best days of the year.  If you are unfamiliar, persons of any age, but primarily kids age 5 to 13, can become Junior Rangers at most National Park Service sites by completing a few activities. Most are provided in a small booklet you can ask for (or download in advance from some park websites) and include a variety of activities like scavenger hunts and topical word games.  They really do help cement the understandings of young kids on site at various important places, and the Booker T. Washington Junior Ranger booklet does a particularly good job of incorporating a good variety of activities and providing space for children to record their own thoughts. If you are new to the Junior Ranger program, this is a fabulous site to begin your adventure.

When you arrive, check out your Junior Ranger booklet and take in the orientation film--it is definitely worth your time and is narrated by a grandchild of Booker T Washington himself.  Then, spend some time in the interactive gallery with exhibits, a helpful place to discuss the realities of life before the Emancipation Proclamation in particular.  In the interest of time, K had to pull E and G along to the outside--we spent over 45 minutes in this area.  As regular blog readers know, we Haltermans are serious about our museums--and it was great to see the kids so involved in learning in this space.  Outside, there are several interesting plantation buildings including barns and multiple places to observe livestock; we saw ducks, horses, cows, and a very bossy turkey.

If you go, know that admission is free, the rangers are friendly, and the parking is ample. There are generous picnic grounds and two hiking trails that can be tackled with kids.  There's also a small gift shop.  Check the event schedule, perhaps by calling the park and/or checking their Facebook page, as there are many intriguing events for kids and others, especially in the summer. You are also about five short miles from locally-famous Homestead Creamery for ice cream--check and see if Laker magazine has any current discounts.

Monday, May 29, 2017

History's Variety: A Day in Richmond

Richmond, VA--close but far.  It's an easy drive from the Roanoke Valley, and it is a whole different place.  It's also full of treasures--multiple museums, National Parks sites, just plain interesting places. J had heard that the Virginia Historical Society was running a fun special exhibit on toys, and we had to go see what overlapping things we own or with which we played.  Really.

The Toys of the 50s, 60s, and 70s exhibit alone was worth every effort to visit.  This is a grand display of true life as it was often imagined from a Sears Wish Book, complete with period living rooms and commercials to watch.  Items on display range from Raggedy Ann dolls to Barbie Dream Houses, early Legos to lawn darts.  The interpretation makes it easy to understand changes in toys related to changes in parenting styles and popular culture overall.  In the back of the exhibit, there are a few play spaces including a Nerf ball area in a simulated garage that will remind you of the Brady Bunch backyard.  There's a modest cost ($10 per non-member adult).   We're often flattered to be asked how to help young people interact with museums and understand their relevance--it isn't hard to engage kids in conversation about personal and family history here.

The Virginia Historical Society itself is a free museum (excepting special exhibits) to visit with interesting galleries.  There's a large exhibit of Virginia's story, prehistory to the present, that includes many interesting artifacts and some interactivity.  Other exhibits focus on various firearms, silver, interesting Virginia homes, and the like.  The Landscapes of Virginia exhibit is an excellent primer on Virginia geography, too.  If you have a student in Virginia and US History (usually about 4th/5th grade), everything here is on point with the curriculum expectations.  Additionally, part of the museum was once known as the "Battle Abbey" and pays tribute to the US Civil War, including through lovingly-restored large murals.  The gift shop is splendid, featuring a good selection of academic resources as well as more popular-press histories at various price points. Our least-expensive buy, a book on Jewish history in the Commonwealth, was just $1.

After the museum visit, we took our National Parks Service Passports and went over to Tredegar Iron Works, a site at which many Civil War-era cannons were made.  Interestingly interpreted, the Iron Works is a site of American history as well as industrial history.  The interpretation includes information about Richmond, about the Civil War, and about industrialization in the region.  E completed the Junior Ranger program here to his enjoyment and at no cost.

At the Virginia Historical Society, there's free onsite parking--and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (also free) is right next door.  At Tredegar, you'll pay to park--but a pretty modest $5/day.  Just take the parking times seriously--you have to have your car out before the lot closes for the evening or pay a hefty $50 fee to have the gates opened.  If you go and do this same trip, take some snacks and eat dinner as your main meal.  We headed out to the Short Pump area for a bunch of options.

Bargain DC: Halterman Weekend's Memorials and Monuments Edition

When in DC, take in memorials and monuments.  It seems like a no brainer: These places represent so much American history for anyone visiting our capital.  E and K, however, would still like to share our recommendations from the wonderful National Mall and Memorial Parks.

First, our biggest "risk" was our greatest gain: We took in a few of these sites at dusk/early evening.  E wanted to see the exterior of the White House, so we hopped on the Metro.  The Washington Monument was in sight, so we took off towards it.  We wound up ambling down by the World War II Memorial and Reflecting Pool before reaching the Lincoln Memorial right at nightfall--and a pretty spectacular lightening storm.  So, why do we say it was a "risk?" Well, while the National Mall is a reasonably safe area, you need to walk with overall city safety in mind.  We wouldn't recommend a late, late night, but through 9 or 10 PM, there were many school groups and families out enjoying the lights and the cool of the evening.  It helps if you know the landmarks of the Mall well, particularly the locations of Metro stations, and are mindful of the time--some Metro station doors begin to close around 10 PM even though trains really stop around 12 AM.

Next, we went with our gut on a particular combination:  After visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, E was in the mood to see more of the sacred--and we headed to Arlington Cemetery.  He has seen similar cemeteries before, including in Gettysburg, but there is nothing quite like the expanse of Arlington.  E has enough understanding of American History to be mindful of the significance of the Kennedy graves, and we took in a Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

We took our final morning in DC, a Sunday, to enjoy the bulk of the monuments and memorials.  We took our time at the Vietnam, Korea, and Lincoln Memorials and then crossed over to the Tidal Basin to visit King, FDR, and Jefferson.  This path looped right back towards the Smithsonian Metro Station.  Get your National Parks Service Passport stamped at a whole host of monument and memorial locations, and earn a Junior Ranger designation or two if you are so inclined.  Walk carefully on the Tidal Basin with young kids--there is no barrier between the water and the sidewalk. Our walk was complimented by the presence of the George Washington University commencement at the Washington Monument--pretty impressive.

Yes, some walking distances are deceptively long, particularly between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, but you can do it.  Get out early and make it happen.  We saw two veterans' groups have ceremonies--one involved with the Changing of the Guard and one making an early morning stop at the Vietnam Memorial. If you go, keep a look out for them--especially relatively early in the day. Visit the small gift shops in and near the memorials--we actually found some of our best souvenir deals at the Jefferson--the rest were primarily found at Union Station's Union General shop and the Union Station Walgreen's.  If you didn't know this already, always check Walgreen's in tourist areas for souvenirs--we are often impressed.  (A quick note on Union Station:  It's beautiful, but it is also an active train station.  Keep young kids close.  As you may know, Union Station has a nice food court during the business day and several outlets open at later times, particularly upstairs. We recommend Pizzeria Uno--great views of the lobby complete with its own bathrooms.)

Notice we keep mentioning the Metro--which means it is always our preference to have a Metro-convenient hotel.  A friend helped us find the Courtyard by Marriott in Dunn Loring.  Less expensive than most by DC standards, this hotel's real win is its fabulous location.  In a residential section easy to find traveling "up" to DC from US 29/I-66, the hotel is simple (and well-lit) steps from an orange line Metro station (Dunn Loring-Merrifield), making everything convenient.  It's also steps from a handful of casual restaurants and a 24-hour Harris Teeter, which is awesome traveling with a kid.  For example, we stayed out relatively late two nights, and dinner was easy because we could go grab some Lunchables--something E thought was wonderful.  Plus, there is free parking, a hotel pool with a lifeguard (it's small, but it's a pool), and an overall safe feel.  The only concern about selecting a Metro-convenient hotel is that the DC Metro is undergoing extensive upgrades, making some stations and sections of track construction areas with alternate shuttles and the like.  Check WMATA for updates.  

Bargain DC: Halterman Weekend's Smithsonian Edition

OK, so if you actually know the Haltermans, you know Kim is Coupon Kim.  We'd rather spend our money on travel and similar experiences than things--but in all ways, we emphasize the frugal still.  So, on K and E's recent mother-son Halterman Weekend in DC, notoriously free DC Smithsonian Museums were part of how we lived up to our thrifty standard.

K knows this sounds like a "duh" moment for DC, but remember how many museums are free as you plan your trip.  Because they are free, though, they can be crowded.   Try to time your visit when crowds are less likely if you can.  Where we could avoid the crowds:  Smthsonian's National Zoo, E's pick for the Smithsonian he most wanted to visit.  We arrived early and, while we did start seeing exhibits as soon as we entered, we were deep in the zoo when most people started showing up.  We recommend ensuring you reach Amazonia, a simulated indoor rain forest with "loose" animals like birds, and the Small Mammal House in particular.  The Elephant House has been substantially renovated, becoming an elephant community room--a very interesting place to ponder how zoos are changing.  If traveling with small kids who can get wet (think summer and quick-dry clothes), there is now a small fountain play area near the sea lions and on the way to Amazonia.  It's perfect for about age 4 or 5, but E also adored it at age 7.  Park in the shade as a parent--there's only one way in/out of the fountain system.  A knowledgeable dad nearby suggested eating lunch in or near the "cave" used for viewing the sea lions to continue enjoying the cool.  An aside:  E had WAY more interest in this zoo than K has seen him have at the North Carolina Zoo and at Mill Mountain Zoo.  We don't know if this was a function of age, changing interests, the zoo itself, or what--but it was delightful.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was also clearly navigable, even with field trip crowds.  Just head to the interesting-but-less-traveled exhibits when you can.  E was fascinated by the Human Origins exhibit: it was the first time we had a great opportunity to discuss different views on creation timelines and some scientific timelines, and it was great.  E also adored the current Objects of Wonder special exhibit and its interactive quiz, as well as the opportunity to play a rebranded classic 1980s "Can you become a fossil?" arcade-style computer game that looked a lot like old MECC Oregon Trail software.  Even with the main dinosaur hall under construction (it is right now), there's still plenty to take in here.

Where we had trouble avoiding crowds:  The Smithsonian Museum of American History.  Our experience of most of the security staff was that they seemed frustrated with large crowds, the design of the museum itself was a bit of a challenge (lots of sections are under renovation), and there were throngs of middle schoolers just walking around.  We were there at closing time, and it felt like an emergency evacuation--we're talking security barking that everyone had to leave right NOW with no "We will be closing in 10 minutes"-type warning.  To avoid some of this, find the transportation exhibit--it's often not crowded and is quite interesting--or make this an early day stop if it is a priority for you.  Security check in is cumbersome here if you have any bags of any type as well--consider walking around "back" and entering from the entrance that is not right on the National Mall where lines are often shorter.  Note to those traveling soon: A new exhibit opens June 28, 2017, which may produce more crowding.

If you go, we highly recommend Metro subway transportation to and from the National Mall.  We found the best subway deal for us to be to buy a 7-day pass even though we were only there a few days.  This pass allowed us better travel options during "peak use" times.  If your trip is going to be over the allowable rate, just get off a few stops ahead and get back on--kids adore the process of getting on and off the train anyway.  Before you plan your trip, search your favorite museums on Facebook and similar tools.  This is how you'll find out about special events, like Hirshhorn's now-touring Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors installation.  It's also how you will find more reasonable prices for the museums that do have a price tag, including the awesome non-Smithsonian Newseum. You can also check coupon outlets like CertifiKID for deals on cool places like the National Building Museum. The Halterman standard would be that one or two large museums a day is plenty--we are museum people, and we definitely don't just coast through them.  On our next museum visit adventure, we'd like to stop by the Newseum (E saw it on the Travel Channel and really wants to go) and Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (so popular it still requires timed passes, available at 6:30 AM online each day).

You'll want to pack in some food, too.  K knows this seems obvious, but a bag of 99-cent-Mega-Sale-at-Kroger Goldfish makes a great breakfast, and 49-cent-Kroger-is-having-a-flash-sale giant Powerades are more refreshing than the smaller $2+ kind in the city.  Taking a few things--it doesn't have to be a picnic--is a great savings and allows you to feel justified in a fancy dinner splurge.  K took E to Dupont Circle one night for dinner, allowing E to select an interesting and upscale restaurant as part of the experience.  We ate at Bistro Bistro DC, which was really still pretty reasonable.  If you are eating in the Mall area, a good tip we heard was to head to a federal office building cafeteria--look up the one at the Department of Agriculture on weekdays (it's very near Smithsonian Metro).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Taking in Sacred Spaces: America's Catholic Church

DC is full of great sites to see--that's no surprise.  When in the city, though, get off the well-worn path and enjoy the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in North America.  The building contains about 70 chapels, small and large, with many references to international and ethnic diversity. Certainly a lesser-known DC site, it still brings home the current #15 spot (of 432) things to do in DC on Trip Advisor.

So, why would we recommend that you visit the Basilica, even if you are not Catholic?  Sacred sites are cultural sites.  The Basilica is full of impressive art (with few crowds) and the rich history and tradition of Catholicism.  Use a resource like the knowledgeable docents or a guidebook from the bookstore to help you notice details you might miss. For instance, the people pictured in the Vietnamese mural below are all martyrs, and we learned this from our tour guide.

For those of traditional Christian backgrounds, this site can definitely inspire worship whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.  You can come in agreeing with Catholic theology (or not), and still spend time in prayer and thought. If you are Catholic and wish to participate in sacraments, check the schedules for masses and confession.  This is an active church--we've also visited Washington National Cathedral, but while beautiful and interesting, that site feels much less like an active house of worship to us.  The church, often known as America's Catholic Church, is definitely a beacon for its faithful.  The Basilica is currently installing a dome mural honoring the Trinity, inspiring a thoughtful donation from E in front of this small section on display right now.  The mosaic is expected to be on view in December 2017, and we hope to visit.

If you go, simply take the Brookland-Catholic University of America red line Metro stop and walk up the hill--you'll find where you are going easily.  There's a cafeteria serving breakfast and lunch as well as a large gift shop and bookstore.  No matter the time of day, week, or liturgical season, do expect to see people in active worship, at least in some of the chapels.  Free tours are frequently available.  You are also very close to a Franciscan monastery that welcomes visitors--it's walkable from the site. Yes, we've been, but in the pre-blogging days.  Our understanding is that these buildings are some of the anchors of a growing Catholic community in DC, another reason to take in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Moving, Moving, Moving: The US Army Transportation Museum

E and J headed to the Williamsburg, Virginia, area for a few adventures for their spring break, visiting the off-the-beaten-path US Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis.  J had visited with his family as a child, and this trip became a great opportunity to take E, who has been showing some fascination with the concept of the military, to a specialized museum--and on an active military installation.

Honoring the Army Transportation Corps, the museum pays tribute to the logistics of getting every one--and every thing--safely place to place during the challenges of war.  Attention is given to navigating geography, destruction, and similar perils, and there's a good amount of attention to innovation as well.  How does one make something "climb" a steep hill without a road to deliver supplies, for instance?  Therefore, those with general STEM interests would also be fascinated here.  Photographs aren't allowed inside, and visitors cannot climb on or otherwise pretend to drive or ride the items.  The museum is still super interesting--just don't expect it to be lots of pushing-buttons-style interactive, and please prepare your kiddos accordingly.  You can find a lot of detailed information on various exhibits at their website, often divided by many places in which various operations have occurred if you select the dropdown "exhibits" menu, which will give you a feel for overall museum content as well.  It won't be the most sophisticated website you've ever seen, but it will give you rich information.  Besides specific vehicles, other interesting topics include the overall design logic of the Eisenhower Interstate System and the influence of circus loading and unloading on military planning.  Yep, circus train logistics may be more impressive than you ever thought they were.

If you go, know you and your vehicle may be searched to enter the base and that you may need to produce government-issued photo ID and proof of vehicle insurance.  The museum is substantially more expansive and content-loaded than it initially appears, so allow time for a long visit or focus your attention on a few portions.  Again, photos aren't allowed inside, but there is an outdoor portion where photos are A-OK. The Virginia War Museum may be of additional interest and is in the area.  If traveling with young kids, consider adding the differently-themed-but-nearby Virginia Living Museum to your trip.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Nifty Tourist Town: "Alpine" Helen, Georgia

For our spring break surprise destination trip for G, we wanted to reach Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia.  Looking for a nearby place to stay, Kim found a place she'd heard of but had difficulty picturing: Alpine Helen, Georgia.  It turns out Helen is a lovely little tourist town that is constructed to look like a Busch Gardens-esque interpretation of Bavaria. It's actually so very Busch Gardens looking that G asked where the rides were.

Smaller than Gatlinburg, Tennessee, but bigger than Calabash, North Carolina, Helen was the perfect little base for our road trip and would also make a nice base for local hiking (and waterfall seeking) in North Georgia--there are several state parks very nearby and, for saving for when the kids are older, river tubing options.  The village has intriguing putt-putt places, many souvenir shops, some nifty boutique stores like Jolly's Toys, and a good number of German restaurants.  Allow for a few hours of shopping and strolling in town.  We enjoyed a modest German lunch at Hofer's of Helen, and Bodensee was also recommended to us as a quality option. While there, don't miss Betty's IGA General Store, a nice stop for groceries that is a fun place to experience in itself.  Good news for travelling families: the highly imaginative, family-owned roadside attraction HO-scale model train exhibit Charlemagne's Kingdom is set to reopen.  Rumor had it was opening a few days after we left, meaning we'll have to go back.

If you go, know that Alpine Helen is off the beaten path.  GPS an exact address, don't expect a ton of mobile connectivity in some areas, and do expect to feel like you are in a rural environment near a hidden treasure--not an extremely advertised one.  In other words, there won't be a bunch of billboards guiding you in.  Once in town, there are plenty of nearly-equivalent hotels: we stayed at the modest but wonderful Quality Inn Helen, and the Heidi Motel also had a cute setup.  There's not a ton of family-appropriate nightlife, although there is a Huddle House 24/7 restaurant that had delightful service.  Expect to walk place-to-place in town, and check the town calendar for special events, notably Octoberfest and a hot air balloon event.  If traveling with small ones, you are close to Babyland General Hospital.  It was suggested that, when we return to the area, we explore the relatively-nearby Dahlonega Gold Museum as well.