Friday, February 27, 2015

Great places to go on spring break: Charlottesville, Va.

Today I'm going to stray from my usual "Photos on Friday" post and do another blog post on places to visit during spring break. This destination is a bit further away from the District, however, it's a neat place to visit. Charlottesville, Virginia is located about two hours from Fairfax County (depending on the route taken, may be a little longer from the District).

Probably at the top of most visitor's lists when arriving in Charlottesville is Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Truly, in my opinion, it is not to be missed. You can easily spend an entire day here, so if you want to only do a day trip (like we've done), plan to leave early! 

Highland is the home of President James Monroe. You won't need nearly as much time to tour this historic home, but since it is so close to Monticello it is definitely worth planning to see on the same trip.

[For photos and history of President Monroe's home, I invite you to visit my post: Highland provides a glimpse into the life of the fifth U.S. President ]

Then there is Michie Tavern. If you want to have a fabulous lunch, I recommend this restaurant, it's only open limited hours (11:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.). You'll get a nice experience and the food is great, it serves traditional southern fare, 18th Century style recipes, and setting. In addition to the dining, there is also a museum and other gift and artisan shops on the property. It's got a wonderfully historic atmosphere and you can experience a taste of history from an era gone by.


What we did on our last trip was spend the morning at Monticello and then went to have some lunch at Michie Tavern before heading over to Highland in the afternoon. We had been to Monticello before so spent maybe 3 hours there before moving on. For a first time visit, I recommend planning some additional time if you're like me and want to see everything.

I tend to stick to historic sites, gardens, and family-friendly attractions. However, there are also plenty of other things to do in Charlottesville in the great outdoors. For instance, if you like to go on wine tours, there is some good stuff down there (well, really throughout Virginia for vineyards). To learn more about what else there is to do in Charlottesville, you can check out their official page

Related reading:

Great places to go on spring break: Luray, Virginia
Great places to go on spring break: Washington D.C.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Great places to go on spring break: Luray, Virginia

Luray, Virginia has a lot to offer families. Nestled deep in Virginia's beautiful Shenandoah Valley, and located roughly two hours southwest of Washington, D.C., there is lots to see and do. It's been a while since I stopped in Luray when traveling through Virginia, but I plan to go back to see what else there is to explore.

We found the Luray Caverns very family-friendly and easy to navigate. The tour offers both an adult and child audio tour so the kids can listen and tour the caverns on a level they understand; the tour was both fun and informative. 

Also on the grounds are several other family-friendly activities. There is a bonafide English Garden Maze that is fun to get lost in, a Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, and the Singing Tower. There is also a new museum on the grounds called the Luray Valley Museum, however, I haven't had the chance to see it yet. Hoping to get there this summer.

The Luray Zoo is a rescue zoo located not too far from the Caverns areas.There is a reptile jungle, petting zoo and several outdoor animal exhibits - the site promotes housing 250 exotic animals. What's special about this zoo is all animals have a unique story to share in their rescues. The Luray Zoo mission is to provide homes for unwanted, abused or confiscated exotic animals; a great teaching opportunity for kids while they experience hands-on fun.

In addition to these attractions, there are many beautiful places to picnic, hike and enjoy the great outdoors in the Luray section of the Shenandoah Valley, making the region a terrific spring break destination. 

Honestly, I am just totally in love with the Shenandoah Valley overall.

Some of the best spring break destinations are the ones that are off the beaten path. When people think spring break, their mind often drifts to beaches, sun and sand. However if you're looking for something a little different for your family spring break vacation, you may want to consider places such as Luray, Virginia. 

Related reading:
Great places to go on spring break: Charlottesville, Virginia 
Great places to go on spring break: Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

T.rex to be centerpiece of Smithsonian's new dinosaur exhibit

The Smithsonian Institute is getting a remarkable addition in the near future. The National Museum of Natural History will be welcoming a bonafide Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton which, will end the institute's long search for a T.rex.

The National Museum of Natural History has a fabulous dinosaur exhibit, but the mighty T.rex previously represented in the collection is a replica. The exhibit was closed last April so that the renovations in this section of the museum could get underway.

T.rex replica in the previous exhibit (now closed for renovations)

Smithsonian gets a T.rex

It turns out the Army Corps of Engineers happened to be in possession of the coveted remains of this predatory dinosaur. Thanks to an agreement made last year between the Corps and the Smithsonian Institute, the museum will have the right to display this remarkable find through a 50-year loan agreement.

The remains of the mighty predator were found in a remote section of Montana in 1988 by a local rancher named Kathy Wankel. The dinosaur fossils were found on federal property, which is how the Army Corps of Engineers came into ownership of the dino bones.

Remains dated to be 66-million years old


According to Live Science, these fossils are a "rare near-complete" skeleton, being about 85 percent intact. The skeleton was named after the rancher and is known as the Wankel T. rex.
The T.rex skeleton measures 38 feet (11.5 meters) long and weighs 7 tons, noted the Live Science report.

"If you've ever stood next to a real T. rex skull, you'll realize what a breathtaking thing it is: four feet long, with teeth the size of bananas," said Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History, according to Smithsonian Magazine, when the news was announced in 2013. "It is the most terrifying carnivore that's ever lived on the planet. And it really makes you wonder what life would have been like with these things prowling the North American landscape."

Johnson added the addition of this fossil collection will make the Wankel T. rex "the most viewed T.rex fossil in the world."

On display in 2019

The Smithsonian's dinosaur section is about to undergo a major renovation. I was at the museum about 2 weeks ago and it was closed. It appears the new exhibit featuring the ferocious dino will open in 2019, so it'll be a bit of a wait.  In the meantime, parts of the dinosaur will reportedly be temporarily on display. We spent our morning visiting with the butterflies and gems that day, so didn't get a chance to go exploring for bones or try and find the temporary exhibits.

Ah, so many things to see, so little time! 

The National Museum of Natural History is a popular museum for locals and tourists alike. Thousands of people enter its doors on a daily basis.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Great places to go on spring break: Washington, D.C.

As the winter holidays are over and the New Year has passed, February is pretty much on its way out too. And boy is it going out with a bang with the snow we've had here in the region this week (not to mention the unusually low temps the last few weeks). 

While the kids all had somewhat of an "unofficial" mid-winter break this past week, their actual scheduled vacation is right around the corner. 

I've decided to do short series on great family-friendly places to go on spring break in the DC region. There are many options, you can choose to do the more traditional route such as Disneyworld or Florida beach, but that's what everyone else is doing on spring break. 

If you live outside the District, why not break the mold and try something different and come to the mid-Atlantic? And if you live in the DC region and aren't able to travel, you can easily make your own "staycation" and find lots of things to see and do.

While it's true the U.S. Capital is not the stereotypical beach destination, the weather is perfect for touring this grand city and its suburban attractions. It's actually a very popular time of the year to visit.

Each spring the Cherry Blossom Festival takes place and this is a very popular annual event. The blossoms are simply breathtaking and definitely worth a view. Right now the National Park Service's "bloomwatch" hasn't started, but it seems spring will likely be a bit delayed by the cold weather and all. In addition, the city has an Earth Day Festival in April, and its famous White House Easter Egg Roll that takes place annually on Easter Monday.

Check out my recent "things to do in the spring post" for more details on these events and more.

Then, of course, there are the usual attractions, such as the museums.

Northern Virginia, just a hop, skip and a jump from Washington also contains many terrific destinations. There are many parks, historic landmarks, and family fun activities. Popular attractions to tour in Northern Virginia are Mount Vernon, Arlington Cemetery, Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Manassas National Battlefield Park and Old Town Alexandria, to name a few.

Over the next week or two, I'll be posting some more ideas. For locals, these will be day trips or you can even turn it into an overnight. My next post in this "spring break" series I'm planning is to Luray, Virginia.

The Hope Diamond can be viewed inside the National Museum of Natural History

Monday, February 23, 2015

Highlights of the Leesburg Animal Park (Virginia)

With spring (hopefully!) right around the corner, you might be starting to think of places to take the kids on weekends or on spring break. If you're looking for a good time with the kids in Northern Virginia, Leesburg Animal Park is a nice spot to spend a few hours or the day. The park is located off a quiet highway in Loudoun County, Va., but is one of those places you're happy to find when you come across it.

The Leesburg Animal Park isn't overly large, but it does offer lots of stuff for the kids to see and do. Because of the high interactive component, it is more impressive than some of the other animal parks you might see. Children are allowed to feed and pet most of the animals, although there are a few exceptions.

Here are some highlights of the Leesburg Animal Park:

Meet the Animals

This animal park is pretty hands on and visitors get a good chance to get up close and personal with the animals. There are two primary areas where animals who can be fed reside. One is located just inside the entrance gate and is comprised of wooden pens that the smaller animals wander in and out of, and the larger animals can poke their heads out.

Even the teens love to feed the animals!

The other area is just a bit further down (very close and stroller friendly) and is constructed as a large fenced in area. In this section the animals wander completely free. Visitors are welcome to go inside and have a true close encounter with many animals.

For the most part, the animals are extremely friendly, but some are aggressive as they nudge you for food, perhaps just being overly friendly. If you are visiting with a little one who knocks over easily or is intimidated by animals, you may want to hold them when visiting this section of the park. Although, there are the less intimidating smaller animals in there too, such as baby goats which are typically a hit with the little ones.

Exotic and Domestic Animals

There are also other animals which the kids cannot get up close and personal, but they can see other animals they likely don't get to see that often. Over the years we've seen lemurs, peacocks, macaws, and the amazingly large Aldabra tortoises. The gibbons are extremely playful and are a hoot to watch. Last time we visited, there was even a porcupine! 


There are several other neat things for the kids to do at Leesburg Animal Park. For instance there is a playground and moon bounce. There are no weight limits, so the older children, even the teens, are allowed in to get loose and jump around. Another fun activity is the tractor ride. A staff member pulls the group in a wooden wagon with a farm tractor. The ride is about 10 minutes to the back of the park. The wagon offers plenty of space and feels more like a real tractor ride than some other places we've been, complete with bumps and all.

Around the back are zebras where the kids can catch a look. After the zebras the driver makes a stop at the pond around back. As soon as the fish hear the motor they come in swarms followed by the ducks and geese. It is pretty amazing to see the fish jump all over one another as they anticipate being fed. The driver gives every rider some food to feed the ducks, geese and fish. The kids are bound to get a kick at of this aspect of the park. 

Watching the fish eagerly get the food
All of the above activities are included with the admission price.

Pony Rides

For an additional fee, smaller children (not sure of the weight limits on this, but pretty sure there is one) can have the opportunity to ride a pony. This section is located right near the animal pens and in very close proximity to all the activities.

There is a small gift shop on premises where you can buy light snacks. Picnics are welcomed on the premises and there are plenty of tables spread throughout the park to sit and enjoy your lunch. There's also a playground and plenty of open space for the kids to run about if they need to let off some steam.

To learn more about pricing and hours of operation, check out the Leesburg Animal Park website for current information. If you're in the Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia or Southern Maryland area and are looking for something a little bit off the beaten path, this destination might be just the place you're looking for to take the kids.

As an aside, Leesburg Animal Park a hop, skip and a jump from Oatlands. Oatlands is less kid-friendly, however, there are open grounds and pretty gardens to see. We've taken kids there.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fun facts and history of the Washington Monument

The Washington Monument is the most visible landmark in the District. It was built to commemorate and honor George Washington. Born in 1732 in Virginia's Westmoreland County, throughout the course of his lifetime, Washington would wear a lot of different hats. 

Living History: General Washington
However, what might be surprising to many people is that he primarily considered himself a farmer, despite the fact he is best known in history as the man who led the colonies to independence and served as the first United States President. 

President Washington established the concept of a 2-term limit on the U.S. presidency because he didn’t want to see the presidents become a monarchy; this is an important piece of U.S. history and helped shape the established leadership which still exists to this day (although the 2-term has since become law).
Due to Washington's major contributions to America, it was decided a monument would be built to honor him. 

"With this monument, the citizens of the United States show their enduring gratitude and respect." (Source: National Parks Service brochure obtained at the moment during my Feb. 2015 visit).

The monument was originally supposed to have a different design which would have included statutes surrounding the base of the monument, however, the open space we currently see with American flags circling the monument was what was eventually decided.

This photo was taken when the monument was closed to visitors due to damage created by the 2011 earthquake (link displays my photos showing progress in the restoration)

Construction of the monument began in 1848 and over the next 10 years grew to be 156 feet tall. In 1858 the project was halted due to lack of funding. Fast forward to 1876 and President Ulysses S. Grant approved federal funding to complete the monument. The monument was finally finished in December 1884. A dedication ceremony took place on Feb. 21, 1885. 

The Washington Monument stands at
555 feet, 5 1/8 inches tall and, when at the top, you can see a good distance in clear weather (I can't say for sure, but I read somewhere a while back you could see 30+ miles). Being the monument can be seen from all over the District and points beyond, this is not surprising.
In this photo, you can see the line where construction had stopped in 1858. As the stone was taken from different sources, it weathered differently over the decades giving the monument this "two-tone" look.

Every year many visitors come to view the monument; many will also get tickets to take an elevator ride to the top. If you have this opportunity, I highly recommend it! My blog post linked below provides more information on how to get tickets and you can see some additional views.  

View of the Jefferson Memorial from atop the Washington Monument

Monday, February 16, 2015

Family fun: Visiting Sully Historic Site in Chantilly, Va.

Sully Historic Site, located near Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Va., sits just south of the airport right off Route 28. The estate is also quite close to the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, which means if you are in the area, seeing both the same day is pretty convenient.

The Sully house was built in 1794 and originally owned by Richard Bland Lee, who served as Virginia’s first congressman. The property was slated to be demolished in the 1950s in order to expand the Dulles Airport, but was saved by an act of Congress and President Eisenhower's signature. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the house and grounds are run by the Fairfax County Parks Department and the home is open for tours. The grounds are beautiful and, when you tour the house, you get a pretty good feeling of how life existed back in the 18th and 19th century, especially if your visit falls on a day where volunteers are dressed in period clothing or there is a living history event going on (which is often!)

During these events special living history groups come and play the part for all to enjoy through their historical and very accurate reenactments.  You can find out more about Sully Historic Site on the  Fairfax County Parks website. To find out what events are happening at Sully, the site maintains a calendar of events. Sully Historic Site is located at 3650 Historic Sully Way in Chantilly.

These are a few photos taken from some of the many events I've attended at Sully over the years. The historical events held at Sully Historic Site are highly interactive and we've always had a great time. Nice day (or night - depending on the event) out. 

Victorian Christmas at Sully

 World War II Weekend

Civil War Weekend at Sully Historic Site