Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Picnicking on Bickle Knob

We stumbled across Bear Heaven Recreation Area on one of our ramblings in West Virginia. We had gotten into the habit of just driving down a forest service road, or turning down a random rural road just to see where it would take us. Somehow, we ended up northeast of Elkins on a dirt road in the Otter Creek Wilderness Area -- more specifically, on Bickle Knob, which is really fun to say.

Bickle Knob. Just say it.

Bickle Knob.

Bickle Knob is one of West Virginia's many 4,000-foot high mountain peaks. What makes this particular one notable is that it has an observation tower that's open to the public. Formerly a fire tower, the original cab has been removed and replaced with a wooden viewing platform. The observation tower provides 360-degree views of the surrounding area including the Shavers Fork River, Tygart Valley River valley, and the U.S. Route 33 crossing of Cheat Mountain.

We stopped to picnic at Bear Heaven and to give the boys a chance to stretch their legs after a long car ride. What made Bear Heaven so memorable were the cool rock outcroppings, which made for a wonderful playground for our kids -- and for us. 

The views were awesome as well.

Bickle Knob is located at the end of Forest Route 91A, a spur from Stuart Memorial Drive (FR 91). Both roads are gravel but can easily be traversed by normal passenger cars -- we made it in our Town and Country Minivan. Stuart Memorial Drive is a scenic path as it traces the edge of the Shavers Fork canyon.

Know before you go: Please note that due to the high elevation of the area and the fact that FR 91 is not plowed in the winter, the road may be hazardous when snow is present. If you're into primitive camping, there are a number of campsites available at Bear Heaven.

Getting there: This was another fortuitous accidental daytrip! Bear Heaven Recreation Area is located about 14 miles northeast of Elkins, WV, on FR91 (Stuart Memorial Drive).

Hours: Open 24/7 between mid-April and the beginning of December.

Dogs: Of course!

Website: http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mnf/recarea/?recid=6981

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Williamsburg's Christmas Wreaths

Colonial Williamsburg's Christmas wreaths are famous, evoking the spirit of simpler times, colonial American can-do spirit, and a nostalgic and idealized view of Christmas that focuses less on plastic Santa Claus light-up figures and more on family traditions.

Many visitors come to Williamsburg in December specifically to enjoy the Christmas decorations and wreaths.

I recall a childhood family visit to Williamsburg in chilly December. Mom took dozens of photographs while no doubt, we children alternately groaned or mocked her. Forty years later, here I am, in Williamsburg in chilly December taking photographs of the Christmas wreaths. Full circle.

A walk down the main thoroughfare of the town -- Duke of Gloucester Street -- reveals dozens of beautiful wreaths, garlands, and window decorations. There are an estimated more than 2500 of them throughout the historic town.

Mostly natural items adorn the wreaths, usually on a base of evergreen foliage, although sometimes on vines. Often a wreath reflects the business it adorns -- tin cups and playing cards for a tavern, a bag of flour and spices for a bakery.

The irony is that Colonial Williamsburg's Christmas wreaths wouldn't have adorned the doors and windows in colonial times. No, these wreaths cater instead to modern-day conceptions of what colonial Christmas should look like. This is a modern tradition, albeit inspired by an idealized colonial look.

In fact, decorations during colonial times were pretty minimal: Virginia colonists displayed freshly cut holly, pine, and mistletoe inside their homes but probably didn't decorate the outside. Christmas was a religious celebration, not the insane race to decorate trees, houses and yards that Americans embrace today.

Williamsburg Christmas wreaths have been a tradition since the mid-1930s, soon after philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, joined with the Rev. William A.R. Goodwin, pastor of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, to begin restoring the town to its Colonial appearance. Not only was the importance of Christmas as a holiday growing, the country was undergoing a "colonial revival," re-embracing decorating trends that evoked the 1700s. Colonial anything was in vogue in the 1930s.

But forget about twinkling lights. Instead, the wreaths and other Christmas decorations in Williamsburg are inspired by English traditions depicted in 18th-century paintings and prints that show greenery tucked in vases or window frames.

Today's wreath designers focus on using mostly natural items that colonial inhabitants would have been familiar with: fruits such as apples, pomegranates, pineapples, and oranges; leaves from magnolia trees or other native foliage; herbs and spices; dried flowers; okra pods, pinecones and lotus seedpods; shells from nearby James River; and bird feathers. Colonists would have been astonished that the fruits, herbs and spices would be put outside where squirrels and not people could feast on them. (Don't worry, however, that the squirrels will eat the wreaths -- many are sprinkled with hot pepper to discourage the voracious critters.)

In 1936 Williamsburg decorated for Christmas for the first time, using simple evergreen garlands and wreaths. The more ornate Christmas wreaths tradition can be traced back to a Mrs. Louise Fisher, who, when placed in charge of flowers and Christmas decorations, drove to the Library of Congress where she turned up English and American pictorial examples from the period to use as guides.

By 1939 her wreaths were attracting quite a bit of attention in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and other decorating magazines, and the "Williamsburg Christmas look" was launched.

The decorations go up right before Thanksgiving, lasting until January. At the visitors center, you can also purchase tickets for an event that discusses Christmas traditions in Colonial Williamsburg as well as a walking tour that brings you to where all the best wreaths are and reveals some of the secrets behind the Williamsburg Christmas wreath tradition. There are also other holiday themed discussions and tours.

Getting there: 101 Visitor Center Drive, Williamsburg, VA 23185

Website: https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com/

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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Newport News' Celebration of Lights

Celebration in Lights is a two mile drive through holiday light displays in Newport News Park, featuring some creative and well done lights arrangements.

Celebration in Lights, Virginia’s first drive-through holiday light event, opens for its 26th season.

Newport News Park is transformed by over a million individual lights, creating animated holiday and fanciful scenes.

One of my favorite displays is a nod to the region's Civil War history: Once Divided, Forever United, with the Monitor and Merrimack armor-clad ships, which fought a battle in nearby Hampton Roads harbor.

Over 300 individual display pieces, 50+ arches, and over three miles of rope lighting enhance the natural beauty of the two-mile drive along Newport News Park’s main road.

At one point, it seems as if you move through all the seasons, from spring/summer flowers and butterflies...

... through fall leaves falling over the road....

... then on to winter.

All new display pieces added since 2007 use LED lights, saving on both costs and electricity. The LED lights also last longer: 100,000 hours verses 3,000 hours for incandescent. Older (pre-2007) display pieces are being refitted with LED lights.

Getting there: Newport News Park is located at the intersection of Ft. Eustis Blvd. and Jefferson Ave. in Newport News, VA. Directions: Eastbound I-64 use Exit 247 (Lee Hall), Westbound I-64 use Exit 250 B (Ft. Eustis).

Hours: open nightly 5:30 - 10:00 p.m., through January 1, 2019

Website: https://www.nnva.gov/2414/Celebration-in-Lights

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

12 Days of Daytrips for Winter Break

The kids are home for winter break and are starting to get bored! What do you do? Here are some fun, inexpensive ideas for great memory-making daytrip destinations in the mid-Atlantic region. Inspire your kids over the winter break!

Have you ever wondered how the food you eat -- a potato chip, for example -- goes from being a potato to a chip?

You can find out on the Martin's Snacks Factory Tour.

For children and adults alike, factory tours demystifies the manufacturing process. During the tour, you get to see the start-to-finish process of making potato chips.

Help spur your kid's artistic vision at the American Visionary Art Museum -- Baltimore, MD

The AVAM really is a neat place, an art museum that isn't quite like any other art museum you've explored before. The American Visionary Art Museum exhibits art from untrained artists -- artists like your kids. The art is really really striking. And really really imaginative -- just like the art your kids create. Spur their imaginations at this museum. Think giant brassiere spheres and 4-foot high stegasauruses made out of found objects. So what is visionary art? Don't confuse it with folk art. Although like folk art, visionary art is art created by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.

Explore our nation's history at the National Museum of Industrial History -- Bethlehem, PA

It's colorful, educational, and gives your kid a chance to tinker with some of the cool exhibits. A relatively recent addition to the area, the National Museum of Industrial History, just opened in late 2016 and is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution; it seeks to preserve, educate, and display the industrial history of the nation. The museum has four exhibitions, each focusing on a different aspect of industrial history that affected both Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. The museum showcases the nation's industrial past by highlighting the machinery and the lives of workers at that time period.

This is a great museum for kids -- just don't linger too long on any one artifact. The colors will fascinate them, and there are cool stuff for them to tinker with (that is allowed and encouraged) throughout the museum to keep their interest.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! at the National Zoo -- Washington, DC 

Cold weather is the perfect time to explore the zoo -- the cold weather chases away the crowds, but brings the animals out for frisky play!  And animals. Bunches of them, of all kinds and shapes, in a lovely park setting in a lovely part of Washington DC. I love the National Zoo, and each time I go, I see something different. The zoo is a great place to go, for kids no matter what their age is. You can spend a whole day there and still have some zoo left to see. And it can be budget friendly if you pack your own food -- there are multiple places to sit and enjoy your lunch.

Go late in the afternoon and dart out for a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants. Then come back to enjoy ZooLights!

Let your imagination go at the Phipps Conservatory -- Pittsburgh, PA

For you there are the variety of garden rooms throughout the 14-room Victorian conservatory. For your kids, there are surprises, including, when I was there a few years ago, a display of Rube Goldberg-inspired interactive contraptions that pleased and amazed the kids I saw at the gardens, including one little toddler who simply (and eventually vocally) didn't want to move on. Although the exhibits rotate in and out, this is a great place to awaken your child's excitement about nature and plants.

Of course, through the first week of January, there are holiday lights at Phipps! Experience the joy and wonder of the holidays that include breathtaking displays and all-new light installations. In addition, between December 26 and December 30 are the Family Fun Days when you and your kids and enjoy crafts, plant potting and more, all free with Phipps admission.

Learn about an American hero at the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center -- Church Creek, MD

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center immerses visitors in her world through informative, evocative and emotion-provoking exhibits, explaining how the landscape of the Choptank River region shaped her early years, including how she hunted muskrat in the local marshes and how a childhood head injury changed her life. You'll also learn about the importance of her faith, family and community. Learn all that and more about Harriet Tubman and complete the Junior Ranger Badge project!

Fly the friendly skies at the Air Mobility Command Museum -- Dover, DE

If you're looking for a great daytrip for the kids or family -- this one is for you! There's a mix of indoor and outdoor exploration, so dress warmly. The Air Mobility Command Museum is truly a hidden gem of a museum -- interesting for all for its aviation and military history, or simply the wonderment of these amazing planes. Best of all? It's free. (Although, consider offering a donation.) For lack of a better description, this museum is an airplane petting zoo. You can explore many of the planes, inside and out (with the guidance of a knowledgeable tour guide), which makes it loads of fun for kids and adults (and those are, really, the best kind of kid-friendly daytrips!).

Learn about life in the 1800s at the Mercer Museum --Doylestown, PA

Where do I start with the Mercer Museum? First of all, it's in a castle. A CASTLE! Then, there's all this cool stuff just stuffed into the castle. Whale boats. Carriages (not one but at least three). Wooden Indians.,, And stuff that used to be familiar to boys and girls, and families, who lived 100 years ago. Today, all this stuff is just oddly foreign to us, but still really cool. You walk around the castle at your own pace, enjoying it, learning about what interests you and your kids, and moving on past the stuff that doesn't. You can't absorb it all -- I recommend just going and looking and enjoying. Kids will love it!

Through the first week of January, your children can step inside the pages of beloved fairy tales from around the globe in an hands-on, interactive exhibit for children ages 3-10. From an African jungle to a giant’s castle, seven fairy tales are brought to life including Anansi and the Talking Melon, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Jack and the Beanstalk, Lon Po Po and Thumbelina.

Fly with the birds at the National Aviary -- Pittsburgh, PA

This is probably one of my top choices to bring kids. There are a variety of daily demonstrations -- feeding a baby sloth, etc. -- that will really showcase the wonder of the birds and animals at the National Aviary. There are owls, penguins, raptors, and song birds. Some are cute; some are not as cute. Some are breath-taking. Truly, this is a place I spent hours. Now, imagine adding a kid and seeing the place through her eyes! Even more fun.

The birds are incredible -- and several exhibits allow you to walk through, with the birds flying loose around you. Pretty cool.... just sayin'. The National Aviary's collection features birds representing every continent except Antarctica. Many of these species are showcased in free-flight mixed species exhibits, to allow the birds to demonstrate natural behaviors.

Inspire your kids at the Virginia Air and Space Center -- Hampton, VA

Inspire your kids to seek careers in STEM fields by visiting the incredible Virginia Air & Space Center. Make your way through the exhibits and up to the second floor. Check out the cockpit of the DC-9 or learn how wind and air drag can help or hurt airplanes.

You'll eventually find your way up the third floor, where the Space Challenge exhibit is located. A new exhibit -- it only opened last year -- allows you to become a NASA rocket engineer. This interactive exhibit brings you on a journey through the world of space exploration by offering the opportunity to learn about the history and future of space flight.

Challenge  your wits at the International Spy Museum -- Washington, DC

Your kids should be a little older to enjoy this very cool museum in downtown DC. This museum introduces you to some cool history that maybe you didn't know was going on around you! For you, there's 007's very cool car. For the kids, there's a great introduction to spycraft. Play friendly spy games as you explore the history of spies in Washington DC. Learn about the cool gadgets and see if you can outwit your adversary!

Hear the wolves howl at the Wolf Sanctuary of PA -- Lititz, PA

If your kids love dogs, then they'll LOVE the Wolf Sanctuary of PA -- only, there aren't any dogs there. Only wolves. You'll learn why wolves aren't like dogs, and you get to see a bunch of REAL wolves. And their fangs. From a safe distance! In fact, this is one of the only places where you can see wolves on the East Coast. This place was a hit with my kids -- both little and big -- and I'm betting it'll be a hit with yours as well.

In cold weather and when snow is on the ground is a great time to see the wolves. The wolves are easily visible in the far corners of their pens, and the chilly air is their element.

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