Friday, August 29, 2014

Photos on Friday: Carousel on the National Mall

This week's Photos on Friday visits the National Mall to an attraction the kids love - the historic carousel. Built in 1947, this is a unique landmark and was not originally placed downtown. I'll be doing a more detailed post in the near future about its history.

Carousel on the National Mall

One of the themed horses on this historical ride

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An up-close view of the interior of George Mason's Gunston Hall

Gunston Hal
Gunston Hall is the home of George Mason and located in the northern region of Virginia, just south of Washington D.C. Mason was instrumental in helping nurture the seeds of early American government. His writing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights was a pivotal document which influenced Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the U.S. Bill of Rights.

I'd been to Gunston Hall at least twice before and heard they were currently fixing the roof and during the renovations were allowing photos to be taken inside of the house since the furniture was removed. So I jumped at the chance to do this, as the inside is gorgeous. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Family Fun Fall Festivals in Northern Virginia

Northern Virginia has a ton of fall festivals going on in the fall months of September and October. If you're in the area and looking for fall seasonal fun, many of these events may be just what you're looking for as an outing to take the family.

Most of these festivals are annual events designed with family fun in mind. Some events are one or two day events while others run throughout the entire fall season, so keep in mind any specific dates if you're looking for a particular activity. Here are some good picks of family fun festivals for fall:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Photos on Friday: World Deserts exhibit at United States Botanic Garden

Today's Photos on Friday was taken at the United States Botanic Garden. I've been to the USBG a few times, usually around the holidays, but have stopped in on other occasions as well. One of my favorite sections to visit is the World Deserts exhibit which showcases succulents, grasses, flowering plants and various shrubs.

Cleistocactus winteri. The sign said it is native to Bolivia
A portion of a Big horned Euphorbia - I wasn't able to capture the entire plant. It is native to South Africa according to the sign posted.

Filled with succulents, grasses, shrubs and other flowering plants. - See more at:
illed with succulents, grasses, shrubs and other flowering plants. - See more at:
illed with succulents, grasses, shrubs and other flowering plants. - See more at:
illed with succulents, grasses, shrubs and other flowering plants. - See more at:
illed with succulents, grasses, shrubs and other flowering plants. - See more at:

Monday, August 18, 2014

In Manassas the Stone House lives to tell the tale of two U.S. Civil War battles

Stone House in Manassas Battlefield Park
Stone House as it stands today

The Stone House in Manassas, Virginia stands on the fields within Manassas Battlefield National Park. The structure had served in many capacities since its original build. It also lived to tell the tale of two major Civil War battles.

Today the property is open to the public.

Run by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), visitors can take a step back into the past and learn about the property and the roles it served during the 19th century. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Photos on Friday: Peacock opens his feathers at Kidwell Farm

Today's photos were taken at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Va. One of the most popular features of the park is Kidwell Farm, named after a family that used to live there. Today the farm is owned by Fairfax County and is open to the public. 

This peacock resides at Kidwell Farm. It took me many visits over the years to finally capture him in his beauty with feathers open, this is the result.

peacock with open feathres at Kidwell Farm
Close-up of peacock with open feathers

Male peacock with open features
After years of wating, the peacock at Kidwell Farm decided to not be shy and share his beauty on a day I was visiting.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mount Vernon's annual Colonial Market & Fair

If your visit to the D.C. area falls during mid-September, there is an early-American marketplace that takes place at Mount Vernon, complete with entertainment, that takes place each year, even the General himself is present. 

Even if you live in the area and have been to Mount Vernon, the Colonial Market & Fair is a fun event if you're looking to have a family day out. 

A popular event that showcases Colonial life, the day features crafts, demonstrations, wares and entertainment. You can get a first-hand experience of Colonial life as vendors, entertainers and artisans dress up in period style. Throughout the day, you can also experience and observe Revolutionary-era living history.

Fair-goers can also expect to see General Washington throughout the day, as America's first president also offers several question and answer sessions in between his overseeing of militia drills and entertainment for his guests.

'General Washington' speaks to a group of his guests describing events and answering questions

 Entertainment this year includes Punch & Judy: The James Rose Puppets, Mr. Bayly, Conjuring & Entertainments, Signora Carmella Bella, the Great Italian Equilibrist, Dr. Balthasar, Miracle Medicine for Man and Beast and Otto the Sword-swallower, with shows scheduled throughout the day.

Otto the Swordswallower during a 2012 performance
At the fair you can see 18th century demonstrations, such as doing laundry and making chocolate, and you can meet and chat with Revolution-era troops. Also, there are usually a few different tents where musicians entertain the General's guests. Mount Vernon notes a new event this year. Visitors can try their hand at 18th century cricket throughout the day.
Chocolate making demonstration - 18th century style
Of course, visitors to the fair can also do some shopping. All of the vendors sell Colonial-era wares and are dressed up in period clothing. Many of the products sold perfect for everyday use or the holidays. Over the years I have picked up many items including wooden spoons, soaps, and Christmas ornaments, to name a few. Mount Vernon notes there will be 50 artisans at this year's show. 
One of my favorites - soaps. I stop at this tent every year and stock up.

A vendor sells a variety of herb mixtures, soup mix, jellies, teas, etc. Another one I usually stop at.

Additionally, every year, courtesy of Spirit Cruises and Potomac Riverboat Company, there are free boat rides on the Potomac River, and this year is no exception based on the announcement put out by Mount Vernon.

I usually try and attend the fair every year, only missing a couple over the last 10 years or so. It is a popular event for both locals and out of town visitors.

For 2014, Mount Vernon's Colonial Market & Fair will be held on the weekend of Sept. 20 and 21 (Sat & Sun) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both days. Admission is included with a regular ticket, so you can also visit the mansion and grounds during the day as well. 
Artisan demonstrates how to make pottery. The vendors are friendly and offer a lot of information.

Musicians at Mount Vernon's Colonial Market & Fair

Monday, August 11, 2014

10 great things to see in D.C.

There is way too much to see and do in D.C. to fit everything in one trip, unless you plan to stay for a while. So this post's intent is to highlight some of the things to see while in town so you can decide what interests you most, especially if your time is limited.

National Mall /Memorials and Monuments

This one is probably on the top of most everyone's "to see" list, especially if coming to D.C. is a once in a lifetime trip.  If you want to see the National Mall in its entirety, you might want to spend a good part of one day doing this if you want to see it all. It is a lot of walking (and/or trying to find parking spots - but this can be a bear), and definitely worth seeing. 

National World War II Memorial

Keep in mind the summer months (and even part of spring and fall) can get kind of hot, so bring water. And wear comfortable shoes. Visiting the monuments at night is also an interesting experience. There are also formalized tours you can take for both days and nights.

Smithsonian Museums

With well over a dozen museums downtown, plus the National Zoo, there is a lot to take in. While I have been to the museums many times, there are still a few I haven't gotten to yet and many new things to see are always being added to those I have been to. 

You can see the1903 Wright Flyer at the Air & Space Museum

If your time is truly limited, I recommend at least seeing the Air & Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History and the American History Museum. These are very popular and the most kid-friendly if you're traveling with little ones. 

Capitol and Library of Congress Tours 

I'd been to the Capitol countless times, but never ventured inside until 2012. I realized how much I was missing out! I've gone back several times since. You won't need a lot of time for this as the (free) tour is structured. Additionally, these days you can reserve your tour time online without having to go through your local Congress member's office. 

Taken during my tour of the U.S. Capitol Building

Once finished with the Capitol (earlier post) tour, you can take the underground pathway to the Library of Congress. If you enjoy art and architecture, the LOC is definitely worth a visit. 

The Library of Congress is stunning

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America. It is also one of the 10 largest in the world. Every year approximately one million people visit the Basilica to attend Mass and /or tour the church and its numerous chapels. 

Stopping to listen to a choir practicing

There is also a gift shop and a cafeteria. Truly a beautiful structure and is open to people of all faiths. The Basilica is located at 400 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. Parking is free and, during my last visit in the fall, was easy.

National Archives

Another gem I'd been missing out on for years as I was intimidated by the long lines anytime we walked by. We happened to catch it during late afternoon one day walking by and decided to wait on the (shorter) line we'd found. The line moved relatively quick and was definitely worth the wait. Inside you'll see an original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. You can also see one of four surviving originals of the 1297 Magna Carta.  I've only been twice but definitely want to return since I still haven't gotten to see everything.

U.S. Botanic Gardens

The gardens are great at any time, but my favorite time to visit is during the holidays when the festive exhibits are up. Inside you can see exotic and rare plants and various exhibits showcasing beautiful plants and flora from around the world. 

Taken in 2012 during a holiday visit

As a time-saver, if this is something you want to see, plan to do it when visiting the Capitol and/or Library of Congress since it is in such close proximity.

Ford's Theatre

I always enjoy going back to Ford's Theatre and have done so a number of times. In recent years, much has changed and the experience has been largely expanded with additional exhibits/expanded property. If you have visited in the past, it is important to know, tours are now timed and you can't just walk in as in days past. I recently wrote a post about visiting. Tour times offer different experiences, so be sure and check so you don't miss out on anything you want to see or do and can reserve the tour you want.

Ford's Theatre

These are only a handful of things to see and do, so if time is limited, these are my recommendations. If you have more than a few days, you can also consider visiting President Lincoln’s Cottage, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Newseum, Octogon House, International Spy Museum, Union Station and the Arlington Cemetery, to name a few. Another option is to walk through one or more of the District's great neighborhoods. There is still a lot left for me to explore, I just want to do it all!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Photos on Friday: Marine One lifting off from White House

One of the great things about the District is you never know what you might run into. There are things you see in D.C. you likely won't see anywhere else.  Such as the presidential motorcades shutting off roads. Large national protests. Or you might see Marine One zooming by over the National Mall.

Several years back (during the Bush administration) we were hanging out near Pershing Park waiting for friends to finish their White House tour and Marine One suddenly lifted up and appeared above us. That was a pretty cool moment.

When our friends finished the tour, they said the President had waved to the group as he headed out. On that trip, according to media reports I read later, he had been headed to Japan to the G-8 conference (this was in 2008).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Highland provides a glimpse into the life of the fifth U.S. President

Going a bit off the beaten path today from the District and Northern Va., I travel downstate to Charlottesville and visit Highland, the home of the 5th U.S. President, James Monroe. 

James Monroe home in Charlottesville
This is what visitors see from the home's front. This is not the original - it is an addition added to the original house decades later.
Nestled in the mountains and valleys in central Virginia, this made a great day trip from Northern Virginia. Originally called "Highland," the home was sold in 1826 and renamed to "Ash Lawn" in the 1840s by a later owner. After being opened as a museum, for a time it was called "Ash-Lawn Highland" but recently changed to be simply "Highland" to reflect Monroe's time there.

Monroe spent much of his life in his native Virginia and he and his family settled down in 1793 in Charlottesville before he was elected to the U.S. presidency. He did so at the urging of friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is said to have wanted to form "a society to our taste" in the rural Virginia farmland. The Monroes lived on the plantation from 1793 to 1826, neighboring Thomas Jefferson.

Ownership of Highland

Over the years Highland has changed hands numerous times and, as a result, had been altered over time. Today it is restored, perhaps as much as can be, however, is not the same exact structure as when the Monroe family owned the property. The current home is the way it looked when a man named John Massey lived on the property.

When we arrived at the house, it was clear the house had been changed at some point, but was not immediately evident to me when or how. I later learned a fire occurred at some point and the current Victorian-style house that comprises a large part of the dwelling was built over the foundation of the original section of the Monroe house that had been destroyed in fire. This addition was built in 1880.
Side view of Ash-Lawn Highland showing both the original and addition to the home
Side view of Ash-Lawn Highland showing both the original and addition to the home

Currently, the property is owned by the College of William & Mary and is open to visitors to tour and enjoy. Highland gives a glimpse of early American life for the prominent, along with a historical account of the long public servant career of Monroe and how his family lived.

Visit to Highland

Tours run frequently throughout the day and visitors can view the interior of the first floor of the original home through a guided tour. The first two rooms  contain exhibits that display many possessions of the Monroes and period pieces from this era. Visitors are welcomed to walk through and self-tour these rooms prior to the tour.

While the exterior of what remains of the original "Highland" is not what you'd describe as appearing "affluent" when considering the architecture of other historical homes of wealth from this era, such as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and George Washington's Mount Vernon, the inside of the Monroe home tells another story. The affluence of the Monroe family is evident in the rooms shown on the tour. (Edit: As an aside, a 2017 tour of the James Madison museum in Fredericksburg noted the current structure is now not believed to be Madison and his wife's original home but a guest house. I haven't yet been able to find further information. If this is the case, it would explain why the home isn't as "magnificent as the homes of other Founding Fathers).

James Monroe was a Virginian, but spent many years in France, along with some time in Spain and England during his extensive public career. His love and influence of European d├ęcor is shown throughout the house. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside, but you can learn more about the interior rooms on the Highland website.

There are other buildings located nearby to explore and visitors are welcomed to take photos of the downstairs rooms, including the kitchen. 

Ash-Lawn Highland in Charlottesville, Virginia
One of the guest rooms located in one of the outer buildings at Highland
Ash-Lawn Highland kitchen
Section of the kitchen at Highland

Hours and admission information

Highland has variable hours, depending upon season. The property is open during April - October from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. From November - March, the hours shorten and Ash Lawn-Highland is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Additionally, the property is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.  

Admission in 2016 is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors 60 and older, children 6 -11 are $8. Additionally, there are group discounts, military discounts and local residents can receive low-cost prices for entry.
Charlottesville, VA Ash-Lawn Highland
A tree from Monroe's day

Monday, August 4, 2014

Family fun: The giant panda exhibit at the National Zoo

The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a number of exhibits, but one of its most popular exhibits is the Giant Panda habitat. There are 3 giant pandas living at the exhibit in the National Zoo. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian both hail from the China Research and Conservation Center. Mei Xiang, the female panda, was born in July 1998. Tai Shan, came into the world in August of 1997. The pair had their first offspring in 2005, a baby boy (Tai Shan left the zoo in 2010).

In Aug. 2013 after a long process of trying to have a successful, full-term pregnancy, Mei Xiang gave birth to another baby, this time a girl (this birth came after two unsuccessful natural breeding attempts and Mei Xiang was later artificially inseminated). After the 100-day Chinese custom for naming baby pandas, the new baby was named Bao Bao. I haven't been to see the newest addition yet, but hope to go visit soon. 

 (Video courtesy of Jusywho. November 2013 Footage recorded from Smithsonian's National Zoo Giant Panda Cam )

Visitors can see the giant pandas eat, lounge about or play. Watching the pandas is fascinating, and their beauty, gracefulness and funny antics always draw a crowd.   

If you do plan to visit the National Zoo, do be sure to stop by and see this exhibit. Make sure to bring your camera! Chances are one of them will be pretty playful and you can get some terrific souvenir shots. The panda house is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The zoo's website recommends getting in line early.