Winter Storm Jonas/ Blizzard 2016/ Snowzilla

What a weekend it’s been! Winter Storm Jonas moved in and deposited a hefty 36 inches where I live, giving us possibly the highest totals in the area. The drifts on my back deck are about neck height to me. The kids will probably be out of school until February. We officially snagged the #2 spot on the list of this area’s biggest storms on record, bumping out the Blizzard of 96 but falling short of 2010’s Snowmageddon. DCA somehow recorded over a foot less than the entire surrounding metro area which is causing quite the stir-up because seriously can’t you guys just get it together. What a time to be alive!

The storm was impeccably forecasted, with the first snowflakes falling around 12:45 pm on Friday, right in the window The Weatherman (a composite figure I’ve created made up of every single meteorologist, newscaster, and reporter in the area) said the storm would begin. Within a couple hours we already had several inches of fresh powder, perfect for sledding before heading in for the night while the show got started.

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We woke up Saturday morning to 22 inches or so on our street, a steady snowfall, and ferocious winds. All neighbors met in the street to exchange serious looks of “WTF?” and “This is a lot of snow, huh?” My husband shoveled and snow blew for approximately 8 hours.

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Snow crept up our back windows and doors all day long,  eventually cresting the rail on our back deck and completely burying everything out there.

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Snow was still falling when we went to bed and this morning we woke up to a massive blanket covering everything in sight. Right now the snow is still pristine and beautiful, truly something to see. Fairly soon it will turn into exhaust-blackened slush and muck but we won’t worry about that just yet.

 

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Our faithful public servant Wayde Byard has not yet called with the trumpeting sound of school closures, which is interesting and I like to think intentional on part of LCPS in order to keep people on their toes. What will they do? Close one day at a time? Cancel the whole week in a go?

By far the best thing to come out of Snowzilla was the video of Tian Tian the panda frolicking in the snow at National Zoo

Various disruptions and mild cabin fever aside, living through a historical storm was pretty fun. Spring can still come anytime, though.

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Fun For Winter

As I write this, the models are holding strong for a historic winter storm to hit this area this weekend. The spot right above where I live has a foreboding purple color and the number 36. If everything locks in, we’re looking at 2-3 feet of snow in the DC Metro area this weekend, and a call from our favorite person, Wayde Byard.

Aside from endless sledding and snowballing and snowman making and ordering movies off OnDemand and eating Ghirardelli brownies and drinking wine and mediating stir-crazy sibling fights this weekend, I’m here to suggest a few other ideas for weekends when getting out and about will actually be possible. Not going to lie though, I am morbidly curious to see what 3 feet of snow looks like. Never in my life!

Here’s a few things we’ve discovered and been up to recently if you’re in need of some fresh ideas for your winter bag of tricks:

The Wegmans Wonderplace at the Museum of American History

When we first moved here almost five years ago, we discovered Wegmans for the first time. I went inside and was blown away by how fancy it was. There’s neighborhoods, you know. And a second-floor eating area and hot bars and olive bars and trail mix bars and sushi bars and bars bars bars. I said to myself, “Oh, so this is the “nice” grocery store like Whole Foods that you only come to for a few special things.” NO. Wegmans is, unbelievably, the very nice grocery store that somehow manages to be fancy and also affordable and suitable for everyday shopping purposes. There is a reason Wegmans is one of the most beloved grocery store chains of all time: IT RULES. Wegmans is the purveyor of all things good and great so it’s no surprise they are behind the new Wonderplace at the American History museum, which is a 1700 square foot hands-on interactive play area for kids 0-6.

We went on a warm weekend after popping into the National Gallery of Art and cutting through the NGA sculpture garden to walk down to the American History museum. Security at the door was intense that day; I am pretty sure after the thorough search we all went through we were cleared to fly to Turkey if need be. We headed to the west wing on the first floor and had our own A Christmas Story moment when we saw the welcoming and wide open Wegmans Wonderplace… that was actually the SparkLab. The Wegmans Wonderplace was next door and had an extensive line to get in. Womp. This might die down in the near future, and would probably be non-existent on a weekday, but at this point it’s mid-winter and the Wegmans Wonderplace is barely a month old, so if you go on the weekend, be prepared to wait. Luckily there’s lots of fun things to look at in the space where the line is formed, including a 1984 Apple that you definitely used in elementary school and is now in a museum of history. Alongside things like a washing machine from the 1930s and a phone from the 1920s. Absorb the sting. You’re old.

There’s also this great view which I would not have seen otherwise:

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I sat in front of this big picture window for a few minutes and pondered the nearly-completed future Museum of African American History. The choice of design is not without controversy, but the explanation for the design and why it was chosen is compelling. I personally can never decide how I feel about it (not that my opinion matters); for now, it feels jarring and out of place but I have a feeling that in another 10-20 years it will feel like the perfect fit and will seem as indelible to the landscape of the National Mall as any other structure.

The Wonderplace tightly constricts entry so that it follows a one in-one out system that keeps the play area accessible and relatively crowd-free for the kids. After about a 45 minute wait we were in- inside is a mini-model of Julia Child’s kitchen for kids to play in (a nice nod to the fact that Julia Child’s kitchen is on display at the museum), a small farmstand, an area with blocks, and a play structure in the middle of it all that is part boat, part clock tower. The area is well-maintained by employees who make sure toys are picked up, wiped down and cleaned, and generally kept from falling into total disarray. For some reason a few parents seemed to think their bodies were designed to enter the confined play area inside the clock tower; I’m not sure why, but that was a general hindrance to the actual children who wanted to get in there and play. Guys, be cool. The thing is approximately as big as a doghouse. Don’t fold yourself into that clock tower. Your kids will manage without you while they’re in there. There’s windows.

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Here Orange Backpack Mom exhibits the proper way to supervise your children as they play in the structure. Thank you, Orange Backpack Mom.

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A show at The Kennedy Center

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My favorite website ever, Certifikid, is currently offering a deal for a performance of Oliverio, a reinvented version of Oliver Twist featuring a Brazilian orphan girl named Oli who dresses in disguise to make her way to the beach during Carnaval to request a wish from the goddess of the sea. The show looks vibrant and exuberant and colorful and charming and at just 70 minutes run time with no intermission, is the perfect length for young elementary children. I bought tickets to take my 6 year old the last weekend of January; Certifikid currently offers them for just $10. It sounds like the perfect show to mark a child’s first visit to The Kennedy Center.

Small weekend getaway

I’ve written about our weekend trips to Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, and we are heading to Norfolk for President’s Day weekend to see some new sights. While there we plan to hit the Great Dismal Swamp, the Children’s Museum of Virginia, Chick’s Beach, King Neptune at the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, the Oriental Garden, and the Mermaid Factory to paint our very own Norfolk Mermaid. 

I also took advantage of another Certifikid deal and purchased a weekend package to the Natural Bridge, which has been on our Must See list for awhile. The deal is $109 and includes a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel plus admission for four to the Natural Bridge, the Caverns at the Natural Bridge AND the Exploration center. Seriously, that’s a great deal. It’s valid any weekend through April, so the next empty weekend we get with reasonably nice weather forecasted, we’re off. We’ll hang out doing all the Natural Bridge stuff and likely stop in Lexington on the way home to poke around and see what’s what.

The Grotto of Lourdes, Emmitsburg, MD

The signs for the Grotto of Lourdes, right off Rt. 15 in Maryland just before you cross the Pennsylvania border, have always caught my attention, but we’ve never taken the time to stop and see it. (Isn’t this the way it is? You’ll see something neat on your way to somewhere else but won’t want to waste the time to go see it because you’re in a hurry to get where you’re going. Then, on the way back, you just want to get home… so you still don’t stop. Oh the things in life I’ve never seen because of this phenomenon.) We had a free day last Sunday so figured we’d finally head up there and check it out. It’s the oldest replica of the original Grotto of Lourdes in France, and on a winter day, we had the place all to ourselves.

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The grounds include a small chapel, the Grotto itself, a Calvary scene, a fountain, and the Stations of the Cross, as well as numerous statues of religious figures in Catholicism. We’re not Catholics, but just like the Franciscan Monastery in DC, I don’t find that you need to be to appreciate the beauty of these places. Simply take in what you appreciate and value and leave what doesn’t resonate.

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Visit WONDER Exhibition at the Renwick Gallery

The Washington Post recently ran an article discussing the Instagramibility of the exhibition (not a word- yet) and mentioned that the exhibition has so far drawn 176,000 visitors to the Gallery since the exhibition opened in November. The previous yearly total visitors hovered around 150,000- that’s how big WONDER is. I’ve already written about it, but I’ve gone back to visit it again since my first post and was amazed at how impressive it still was, and how my perception of the pieces had slightly changed. While I was first drawn to Echelman’s ethereal 1.8, my second visit had me entranced by Leo Villareal’s Volume. Repeat visits are encouraged but one visit is a must.

 

But first: get thee to a store for snacks and supplies. Winter showed up.

Summer Vacation: Carolina Beach

Last spring, my husband and I ambitiously planned a summer Disney vacation. Our oldest daughter was 5 years old and at Peak Princess Obsession and we thought it was as good a time as any to take advantage of that fleeting stage and drag everyone to Disney World. In July.

We booked with the travel agent, dutifully made plans and arrangements, and then in late May, we went to the National Zoo, where our toddler refused to ride in a stroller, or walk, or be toted around by anyone but me. For the whole day. My husband and I looked at one another once back in the car and realized there was no way, no how Disney was happening that year. In hindsight, I don’t really know what we were thinking in ever assuming a trip to Orlando in July with a young toddler was going to be a fun family vacation. I once saw an episode of Dr. Phil where Dr. Phil said “Sometimes teenagers behave as if part of their brains fell out.” Sometimes adults behave like that too. Bless our hearts?

The day after our zoo trip I called our Disney travel agent, apologetically canceled our Disney vacation, and then set about finding a place on a beach that wasn’t already rented out for the entire season. Everyone knows that the Outer Banks is the vacation enclave of the DC Metro area. It’s essentially the DC Metro area transported to the beach. Everyone goes there, which means everything was already booked up. So I set my sights further south and ended up at Carolina Beach, which not only had rentals still available, but had cheap rentals still available. Cheap rentals that were right on the ocean!

Within a day I had booked our replacement, not-Disney vacation for the week of the 4th of July. We’d never been to Carolina Beach, but crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. We figured even worst-case scenario, it still wasn’t Disney, and that was enough for us.

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So imagine our surprise when we arrived at Carolina Beach on July 4th and fell in love with the place. In fact, we loved it so much, I broke my cardinal rule of vacations and just booked our vacation there again this year. In typical circumstances, I am vehemently opposed to revisiting a previous vacation spot because it necessarily means that the trade-off is the loss of exploring a new place. However, I am also practical and realize that with a 2 year old, the more adventurous, far-flung vacation destinations that include airpline rides, ziplines and vaccinations must needs wait and if we can find a relaxing vacation desination within driving distance that’s enjoyable for everyone, we need to take it. So we’re headed back to Carolina Beach again at the end of June and couldn’t be more excited about it.

Come with me and I’ll convince you why Carolina Beach is the best spot for your family vacation this summer- not Disney and not the crowded, yet simultaneously isolated Outer Banks that all your neighbors will be visiting. This is your own private Carolina. Carolina Beach has everything, including:

Inexpensive real estate

Booking so late in the season, we fully expected to pay a premium for whatever rental would still be available. Instead, we found an oceanfront 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo with private parking and beach access for the low price of $1250 for the week. At the height of vacation season, with the stay encompassing the 4th of July. You’re not renting a Ski-doo on the Outer Banks for $1250 (slight exaggeration). We used Bryant Real Estate, who were friendly, easy to work with via phone and email, and provided a lovely, clean, charming condo for the week of our stay. (We booked our exact same condo this year knowing how reliable Bryant Real Estate is.) Each morning was spent with coffee on the balcony watching the sun come up over a quiet and still Carolina Beach.

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Can you see the sunshine? Can you just feel the moonshine? (My apologies to James Taylor.)

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Blissfully empty beaches

The beaches aren’t totally empty- there’s going to be plenty of friendly faces nearby to chat with while you sit on the beach, but Carolina Beach is wonderfully free of the teeming masses of humanity seen on Jersey Shore beaches during the summer season. You’re not elbowing for space or staring out at a sea of multicolored umbrellas on Carolina Beach. Each morning we walked out, selected our spot for the day, and had an unobstructed view of the ocean as long as we were out there with plenty of space to stretch out, scatter toys, and even set up a plastic swimming pool with water in it so our toddler could stay cool up on the sand. I know you. You’re a Griswold family like mine is. You’ve got a beach wagon, an umbrella, 52 towels, two coolers, a radio, a few beach blankets, 16 beach chairs, 22,000 beach toys, a plastic baby pool, and four beach bags stuffed with sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, coverups and swim diapers. You’re going to need the space.

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Charming beach town Boardwalk

The Carolina Beach Boardwalk is a very special boardwalk- small, old fashioned, it’s a holdout from the past, a throwback to the 1950s beach vacation. There’s a small midway with carnival rides for kids, a few ice cream shops, several restaurants and bars, and the requisite tshirt shops, but it’s so much less gaudy and frenetic than the gargantuan boardwalks in major beach towns. Relatively crowd-free, family friendly, and adorable. We went there almost every day we were on vacation- to grab a meal, or an ice cream cone, or to take a walk on the wooden walkway spanning that stretch of beach, to let the kids ride a few rides.

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BEACH FOOD

We didn’t have a single bad meal the entire time we were in Carolina Beach. In fact, the least impressive meal we had was also the most expensive, proving that good beach food doesn’t have to be fancy.

There are two donut shops in Carolina Beach: Britt’s Donut, right on the Boardwalk, and Wake n Bake Donuts, near the bridge. You may try both. You may like both. But only one of these can be declared The Best Donuts in Carolina Beach. Your family may go to battle over this.

Britt’s Donuts has been on the Boardwalk for over 75 years and their menu is wonderfully simple: donuts. Just one kind- a fried, glazed, melt-in-your-mouth donut that is somehow crispy and airy all at once. It’s Krispy Kreme compounded. It’s heaven in your mouth.

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Britt’s Donuts come fresh and hot in a brown paper sack, and they must be eaten right away, on a bench in the middle of the Boardwalk, for maximum enjoyment. The line at Britt’s can get particularly long, so we took advantage of a relatively short wait time and had our first Britt’s Donut at 9:30 pm one night. No regrets. The donuts are legendary for a reason. We had them maybe 18 more times while we were there.

For breakfast one morning on our way to Wilmington, we stopped in at Wake n Bake, which features a huge selection of fanciful donuts with interesting toppings. These are glamorous, fancy donuts. Whether they’re better than a simple Britt’s Donut is a matter of personal taste.

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Other favorite places we ate while in Carolina Beach: Island Hots, with some of the best hot dogs we’ve ever tried, and Gibby’s Dock and Dine, where we went for dinner several times just because we loved the waterfront deck and the food. As charter boats come trundling in from a long day out at sea, you can sit on the deck at Gibby’s and wave hello. One boat held up their dog and made him wave at us with his paw, which counts as dinner and entertainment in my book. At the end of a long day on the beach, it was so pleasant to sit with a glass of wine on the deck at Gibby’s to watch pelicans swoop and boats come in and eat plates of grouper and shrimp that were so fresh, I’m convinced they were still swimming an hour or two before they ended up on my dinner table.

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And because it was summer, we ate ice cream nearly every day. We had ice cream on the boardwalk, ice cream in the car (in the form of shakes from North Carolina-based chain Cook-Out), and ice cream in the form of a Squigley, which is an ice cream concoction from local ice cream shop Squigley’s that earns you a sticker proclaiming YOU WERE SQUIGGLED if you order it.

 

You bet your bottom dollar I was Squiggled. When else are you going to get Squiggled if not on vacation? Get Squiggled, often. And wear the sticker to prove it.

SO MUCH STUFF TO DO

As much as I love the beach, I like to get out and explore other stuff too, so we settled into a nice routine of spending the morning on the beach and eating lunch, then heading off on some new adventure in the afternoon, or doing our adventuring in the morning and spending the rest of the day on the beach. My mother was appalled, but that is because he idea of a beach vacation is sitting on the beach for literally 9 hours straight, curing her skin. If it’s true that we all descended from creatures who emerged from the ocean billions of years ago, my ancestors are the ones who made it up onto the beach and thought, “Yep, looks good, we’ll just stay here.”

Here’s where we went and things we saw while in Carolina Beach:

Airlie Gardens, Wilmington

Created in 1901 as an example of the perfect Southern garden, Airlie Gardens is the most beautiful public garden I have ever been to. It is perfectly maintained and curated, and full of lush Southern flora that made me homesick for the deep South. The sunflower stalks were taller than my 6’2 husband, the azalea bushes were as big as mid-sized cars, and the crowning glory of the garden, the 400 year old Airlie Oak, made me silent with awe. How temporary and small I felt under that majestic tree. How tiny, how ephemeral.

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The Airlie Oak is everything a live oak should be- stately and confident, wide armed, dripping in Spanish moss, full of shade. My wedding invitation suite had a letterpressed live oak; my wedding portraits feature us standing newlywed under a lane enrobed in them. They are the South to me. (The blue figure to the bottom right of this photo is a grown human man. For scaling purposes.) As far as I’m concerned, the Airlie Oak is the king of them all, a wonder of the natural world.

The Guardians of the Garden exhibit was on display while we were there, featuring whimsical sculptures scattered around the gardens which children were given a scavenger hunt sheet full of clues to find. A praying mantis, a flock of hummingbirds, gargoyles, a perched owl. All of the sculptures enhanced the natural beauty of the garden and made the trip much more fun for my kids.

Battleship North Carolina

The USS North Carolina, a battleship that served in the Pacific during WWII, is docked in Wilmington and accessible for tours- even below deck!

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I once heard battleships described as “floating cities” and this hulking behemoth certainly was. You cannot imagine the warren of rooms and hallways and compartments that lie decks and decks below the main outdoor deck. I am highly claustrophobic and found each descent in a lower deck a bit anxiety-inducing, but I channeled that into an appreciation for how these men lived and worked on these things for months at a time. My own grandfather served on a battleship in the Korean War (the Oriskany, since sunk to be an artificial reef) and I felt a connection to him that I had never had before. Here’s how he lived. This is what he went through. It’s a fascinating and tangible way to feel connected to WWII and those who fought, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The Bellamy Mansion

History (and architecture) lover that I am, I sneaked away one afternoon to take a solo tour of the Bellamy Mansion, one of the best-known historical homes in Wilmington (which has one of the most impressive promenade of homes I’ve ever seen- every time we drove through I wanted to get out and talk a walk through the neighborhoods just to stare at the houses).

 

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Could you just stare at it forever? What a house! What a porch!

The Bellamy Mansion was owned by the Bellamy family but during the Civil War was overtaken and used as Union Headquarters. Still standing out back is one of the few remaining original slave quarters in the United States, which was a remarkable glimpse into how slaves lived during that time. The house is a masterpiece of ingenious design and antebellum grandeur. The tour was so informative, telling the history of the house and elucidating visitors on some of the secrets of the house. I loved every minute of it. There are still to this day tobacco stains on the marble mantels in the sitting room where Union generals put out their cigars and it might have been these tobacco stains that touched me the most. What a small thing to endure. I ran my fingers along those tobacco stains and thought that maybe it is the messes we leave behind that are the truest markers of our existence. We are all capable of some destruction. It is simply a matter of which.

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The New Hanover County Arboretum

I brought the girls here one morning while my husband was on a kayak tour through the swamp and couldn’t believe how much we loved it. It is totally free and run by a co-op of gardeners who keep the garden in immaculate condition. Each section of the garden has a different theme and my daughters loved fully exploring each one and then going back and spending more time in the ones they loved the most. I can’t recommend a visit here enough- you’ll feel like you discovered something totally secret.

 

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Carolina Beach State Park Marina

We came here several times, to walk around and see the boats at dock, and to catch a sunset over the water. I love activities like this that aren’t necessarily flashy or exciting, but are a peek into the spirit of a place, a reminder that everywhere you go can be special if you find what is unique about that place. Sometimes a walk on a dock is all you need to take in a Carolina afternoon.

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North Carolina Aquarium

At the end of Pleasure Island is the Fort Fisher branch of the North Carolina Aquarium, a wonderful aquarium full of creatures found in Carolina waters and beyond. This was a great way to enjoy some air conditioning on a hot day. There was a new exhibit at the aquarium when we were there called Lorikeet Landing, and for a few dollars extra, you were allowed inside a tent to feed nectar to lorikeets. It was very exciting and one of my favorite things at the aquarium. I loved watching my kids muster up the guts to let a lorikeet eat from their hand, and seeing of the more daring lorikeets land on people’s shoulders to better commandeer the nectar cup. This happened to my husband and he was a good sport about it despite generally finding birds no better than flying rodents.

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From the aquarium we hopped on the Southport Ferry to cross THE MIGHTY CAPE FEAR RIVER (you have to say it that way, you can’t just call it the Cape Fear) to the town of Southport, where we had lunch and visited Bullfrog Corner, which is basically the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of toys stores, filled to bursting with approximately 1 billion different toys. Way better than your standard junky beach shop, though don’t be mistaken, we visited those as well.

 

Fort Fisher Historical Site

A few miles down from Carolina Beach, past Kure Beach, lies Fort Fisher, a historical Civil War site. It is here that the gateway to Wilmington eventually fell to Union forces and in some ways, directly led to the inevitable end of the Civil War, featuring the South’s ignominious loss. Once Fort Fisher fell, Wilmington fell, and once Wilmington fell, it was all over. Now silent and bucolic, it’s hard to imagine the fierce grappling and fighting that ever occurred here, but so goes the passage of time. What was noisy becomes quiet, edges are softened and rounded, etc. etc.

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As you can see, we had a wonderful mix of downtime relaxing and playing on the beach, and squeezing in lots of new memories while in Carolina Beach. We can’t wait to go back this summer, find new things to see, and revisit some of our favorites from last year. You’ll find me on the deck at Gibby’s Dock and Dine, Sauvignon blanc in one hand, the other casually waving at boats as they come in from the day.

Other tips and resources:

-Carolina Beach is about a 6 hour drive from Northern Virginia, a fairly straight shot down I-95. We chose to break the drive up last year to give our toddler a break and drove to Raleigh where we spent the night, visited Marbles Kids Museum and the Raleigh Flea Market and had dinner at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, all A+ decisions and a nice little detour on a long drive. This year we’ll probably make the 6 hour stretch all in one go, but if you have very little ones who need a bit of a break, a side scoot to Raleigh offers plenty to do.

-When going on a trip, I like to bring along a small notebook that I write about each day in, just so the small details of the trip don’t get forgotten down the road. I dug up my Carolina Beach notebook and was able to remember much more of the trip to write about thanks to the notes I took last July.

Other activities of note:

-Every Thursday evening throughout summer, there’s a fireworks show at the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. If you’re there for the 4th of July, the town doesn’t do a separate fireworks show for that, so you may need to travel to Wilmington to see 4th of July Fireworks (though we could see them from our condo balcony).

-The Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington is supposedly very well done, but we didn’t manage to squeeze it in last year, so we’ll make sure to visit it this year. It’s North Carolina’s largest lizard and reptile zoo so if you have to a reptile lover, be sure to bring them by.

-My husband took a 5 mile kayak tour through a cypress swamp with Lighthouse Watersports and had a great time (he also had sore arms the next day). Had my daughters been old enough to go along we’d have all gone, but this is something that will have to wait til they’re older. The excursion took about half the day but was well worth it according to my husband.

Carolina Beach/Wilmington social accounts:

@WilmingtonCoast

@carolinabeachnc

Carolina Beach tourism site


 

Though I normally dictate we branch out for each vacation and try somewhere new, I’m excited to get back to Carolina Beach, dig a little deeper, and find more things to love. There’s plenty of time for new adventures as the kids get a little older, but I treasure the memories we’ll have of the summers we spent at Carolina Beach- the most perfect little beach vacation for a family who wants to go and see and do, but also sit and relax on the beach. It’s nothing like Disney, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s one of the best vacations you’ll ever take.

National Postal Museum + Union Station

Where: 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, DC
When: Open daily, 10 am- 5:30 pm

It’s winter, which means it’s museum season. When the weather is cold and wet and we can’t take a weekend of sitting inside the house, we head to a museum. Or we watch bad tv, but when we want to feel like good parents, we head to a museum. In fact, winter is pretty much the only time we visit DC’s museums, preferring to spend our time outdoors in the summer months. The winter of 2014 when we were blasted by the Polar Vortex was a bonanza museum season for us.

Now that we’re in our fifth year as Virginians, we’ve made our way to most of the major museums several times over. But somehow, one museum has escaped my attention all this time- the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. For whatever reason (I’m guessing because it is not located on the National Mall/Independence/Constitution Ave and is instead situated next to Union Station), it flies well under the radar compared to its more well-known brethren. This is very good for you. This means when you visit, the museum will be darn near empty, and you will have as much time as you like to pore over displays and linger at interactive exhibits. My selfish inner-preschooler, my id, appreciates this. I want the computers and touch screens all to myself.

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The Postal Museum is crazy easy to get to. If you’re driving, parking is available right next door at Union Station. If you’re using Metro, ride and get off at Union Station. Using the station as a cut through, you pop out right on First St. directly in front of the museum entrance. Unlike many other facets of anything to do with the U.S. Postal Service, this is completely painless. No offense to the USPS. Love you guys, don’t stop my mail.

There are two levels to the museum- the second floor level, where you will enter, and the lower level. I will conservatively guess that if you were free to explore to your heart’s content with no time constraints, you could easily spend a full 3 hours poking around the museum. It is stuffed to the gills with neat stuff, hands- on things to do, and every exhibit is interesting in its own right.

My favorite exhibit was the Connect With U.S. Stamps exhibit, part of the larger William H. Gross Stamp Gallery. Maybe you don’t find stamps particularly interesting, but I beg to differ. They’re like little pieces of art. Though I am not technically a philatelist (look it up) I sometimes steal a stamp from a book I like particularly much and stick in my day planner as a keepsake. I did that just recently with the Gift of Friendship stamps commemorating the relationship between Japan and Washington, DC and the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of dogwood trees to DC in 1915. (The famous Cherry Blossom trees were gifted in 1912.)

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I also like to think that by using a certain stamp, I am sending a coded message to my mail recipients. Fun people and cool mail get pretty stamps that I take time to pick out at the counter at the post office. The bank who holds my mortgage gets flag Forever stamps. Take that.

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The stamp gallery tells the story of some of the most famous and collectible stamps in history- most notably the Inverted Jenny, a 1918 stamp featuring a picture of an upside down plane, one of which sold at auction in 2007 for $977,500. It was originally worth 24 cents of postage. The rarest and most famous stamp in the world, the Guiana One Cent Magenta, is also on display through 2017.

Among the interactive exhibits in this gallery is a computer station where you can flip through different categories of stamps and “collect” 10 to begin your digital stamp collection, which you then email yourself right from the machine.

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Here’s a screenshot of our collection, which includes a wide variety of stamps that are relevant to our interests:

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Flowers and Robert E. Lee for me, birds for my bird-loving 6 year old, and TV/movie characters for my toddler. A very well rounded group.

The next station is a bit more tactile, with baskets full of discarded stamps that you are welcome to sift through, picking out the six you like best and sticking them in an envelope to take home for your “real” stamp collection.

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I’m a fan of neat coincidences so I’ll share this with you: during the break I read a book about India’s Partition and the creation of Pakistan (Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari- it was great, you should probably read it). The key player in many of these events was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. I had just finished this book right before our trip to the Postal Museum and guess what was on top of the pile in the basket of stamps I went through? A stamp featuring the face of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “Father of Pakistan.” WEIRD, RIGHT. (Naturally, I stuck it in my envelope.)

After awhile I came to notice that I had no clue what my children were doing so I stopped digging through stamp baskets and walked over to where they were, which was a machine that allowed you to create your own stamp. Manipulating the computer via touchscreen buttons, my 2 year old, all on her own, snapped a picture of herself and then added her preferred embellishments to it, the result of which was a stamp born of her very own imagination and whims. In the magical world in which her toddler mind resides, she is the ruler, and this is the stamp that commemorates her:

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I literally burst out laughing when I saw it, and then I emailed it to myself from the computer. For the rest of the day I would check my email and open it just to laugh at it again. The elephants get me every time.

At this point in the museum you have already started a digital stamp collection, started a real stamp collection, made your own stamp, learned the history of famous stamps, seen a piece of mail sent from the Titanic before it sank and a mailbox from Ground Zero. And you’re still in the first room. (If you’d like to plan your visit a bit better, check out this link on the Postal Museum’s website of “Awesome Things to See” to make sure you hit everything- we didn’t do this and I never saw, for instance, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit.)

Making your way across the second floor to the bank of escalators that go down to the first level, there’s a table where you can write and send a postcard.

Downstairs on the first level this is going on:

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There’s displays about the history of the Pony Express and Stagecoach mail, the role of the U.S. Postal Inspectors, a semi truck and a train (both used to transport mail) and a gallery of secret-containing postcards from the well-known website PostSecret. And as you can plainly see from this photo, there’s almost nobody there and you’ve got plenty of room to spread out and take it all in.

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As if the displays and exhibits themselves weren’t so well-curated and engrossing, the museum itself is gorgeous. Decorated in the same Beaux-Arts style as Union Station next door (both Union Station and the City Post Office Building, the building that is now the Postal Museum, were designed by the same person), the museum has soaring ceilings, arched windows, gently curving marble staircases, elaborate ceilings, old fashioned metal and glass P.O. Boxes. It is interesting enough on its own as an architectural subject even before you factor in all the cool postal stuff. It is a seriously well done museum (par for the course for Smithsonian) that manages to appeal to adults and children in equal measure.

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The post office building opened in 1914 and was used as a post office until 1986. It underwent several different renovations during that time (including an absolutely abominable redesign in the 1950s that included FLUORESCENT LIGHTING and paneled ceilings- it’s awful, you must look for yourself) but has since been restored to its former glory. I could have spent a good hour alone simply staring at the architecture and design of the building itself.

As a bonus, the museum website is stuffed with goodies that enhance your visit. Was your child inspired to learn more about stamp collecting and beginning their own stamp collection after your visit? The website has an entire page that contains resources you can use to point your child in the right direction. The activities page has mail-related games and activities you can use to reinforce what you saw and learned about while at the museum.

Make a day of it:

When you’re done at the Postal Museum, head back over to Union Station and wander around for awhile. We were there at the tail-end of Christmas break and many of the Christmas decorations were still up, including the model train display (awesome) and the gigantic 32-foot tall Norwegian Christmas tree outside:

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Take in some more of that glorious Beaux-Arts architecture:

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The arches at Union Station, designed in 1903 by Daniel H. Burnham, represent the train station’s fundamental function of being a gateway to other places. (Also, the large clock in the main atrium has a III where the IV should be; although this a mistake the first time around, the clock was faithfully restored to retain the flaw.) Union Station opened in 1907

While at Union Station there’s many different restaurants to grab lunch at (we chose relative newcomer Shake Shack) before you head back to the garage to grab your car or make your way to the Metro.

If you’re looking to spend a few meaningful and enriching hours on a drab, cold, wet winter day, there’s almost no better place to go than the National Postal Museum, which will most likely be blissfully empty and will keep you and your kids entertained for as long as you can stay. I think you’ll find a post office was never so fun.

Weekending: Charlottesville Edition

My family is currently plotting to escape January.

We can’t actually escape January, but every year at this time we plan a weekend trip away to shake off some of the drab ennui that accompanies this month. The weekend trip away is a very special sort of treat- everyone loves a good week-long summer vacation, but a weekend trip is a nice way to break up the routine here and there and just get away for a bit. During the Doldrums months, as I call them, when there’s very little to look forward to, we like to plan a weekend trip to get everyone excited about something, escape the monotony of inbound life in the winter, and see something new. This year’s Doldrums trip will take place either MLK Jr. weekend in January or President’s Day weekend in February, because February is pretty much the Tuesday to January’s Monday. We’re tossing around a couple possibilities at the moment but are leaning heavily toward Norfolk (so if you have any Norfolk tips, let me know!).

If you’re looking for a nice mid-winter (or anytime) escape from real life, one of our favorite Weekending destinations is Charlottesville, just about two hours away from Northern Virginia. If you’re ambitious, a 4-5 hour drive is perfectly acceptable for a weekend trip (and we have done this for a weekend trip to Pittsburgh, which we LOVED), but at 2 hours, the drive to Charlottesville is perfectly suited to the concept of a last-minute, spur of the moment, “Oh why the heck not, we have hotel points to burn”  mini vacation. You have no reason not to escape January for the weekend when somewhere so great is so close by. We’ve gone there twice now for weekend trips- once in January, once in October- and each trip we had a grand old time.

Your first stop upon reaching Charlottesville should be the Downtown Mall, which is probably one of Charlottesville’s best-loved features. A pedestrian thoroughfare that is packed with unique local restaurants, restored theaters, small shops and coffee cars, the Downtown Mall is the perfect place to get out and explore Charlottesville at the ground level. Plus your kids can’t get hit by cars. Always a plus.

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Charlottesville prides itself on its local restaurant scene and there are plenty of options for lunch right on the Mall – Eppie’s for a Southern style meat-and-three platter, Citizen Burger Bar, Revolutionary Soup for a soup and sandwich plate, The Nook for old fashioned diner food, and Splendora’s for gelato are all solid choices. Java Java makes those cute little lattes with art in the foam that make you feel like a living Instagram picture.

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At the far end of the Mall is Virginia Discovery Museum, a sweet little hands-on kids museum where kids can explore and play different exhibits specifically tailored to their interests- there’s a hospital, firehouse, Post Office, an Panera Bread room where they’re free to indulge in that special and fleeting childhood fantasy that work is fun. There’s also a free carousel that kids can hop on and ride. If I recall, parents have to push it to keep it going so between that and your walk up and down the Mall, you’ve successfully worked off your Java Java latte and can make room for WINE.

Wineries

Charlottesville is located in the Monticello American Viticultural Area, a designated wine-making region located in Central Virginia/the Piedmont. Like Northern Virginia, there’s tons of wineries in Charlottesville producing some great Virginia wines (the Monticello Wine Trail includes 25 nearby wineries). One of our (and everyone else’s) favorites is the stunning Pippin Hill, which not only has one of the prettiest, most photogenic tasting rooms I’ve ever seen, but also incredible mountain views. The wine is great as well (their Select Red and Sauvignon blanc were our favorites).

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Pippin Hill has a large grassy area overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains and it is such a bucolic and peaceful place to sit and have a glass of wine and just… stare. When we went, a mass of kids all gathered together and organized a ragtag football game (from where they procured the football, I do not know) and I had a moment of thinking, well, if my kids aren’t going to grow up in Georgia like I did, at least they can grow up here. So they won’t be Georgia girls. To be a Virginia girl is quite an honor. Their childhood memories will be different from mine for sure, but how great will theirs be? Fond recollections of spending the waning hours of a weekend afternoon flitting in and out of vineyards.

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I get to raise Virginia girls and I am not the least bit disappointed by it.

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The day we were at Pippin Hill, a wedding was taking place after the tasting room closed to the public for the day and we got to watch the most gorgeous bride make her way through the grapevines to tap her groom on the shoulder so he could turn and see her in her full wedding regalia for the first time.

We’ve also visited Jefferson Vineyards, near Monticello, which was a bit more low-key than Pippin Hill (not everyone can be the Prom Queen, okay) but another great place for kids to run and play while parents sit and drink some wine. I recall their Pinot Gris being quite tasty.

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While you’re over at Jefferson Vineyards, you of course need to pop into the main draw to visiting Charlottesville:

Monticello 

Living where we do, we’ve of course been to George Washington’s presidential home, Mount Vernon, which is no shack, but is a bit austere and ascetic compared to Jefferson’s lavish and opulent Monticello. Of course, Jefferson was like a bajillion dollars in debt when he died because although he made a salary of $25,000 a year, he had  $100,000/year salary tastes and built a house like Monticello when he really had no business building a house like Monticello, but that’s neither here nor there. This is the house that Conspicuous Consumerism built. And it’s awesome.

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The tour of Monticello is probably one of the most informative, interesting tours I’ve ever taken and I’m not just saying that because I’m a huge nerd for Presidential history. The tour includes stops in Jefferson’s personal bedroom and his library still stacked with his book collection, and amusing anecdotes about items within the home, like the sitarine Jefferson’s granddaughter wanted and which he bought after her parents told her they could not afford it. (As if he could. He bought it anyway.) It feels very intimately connected to the man himself in a way the “restored to period” homes don’t necessarily match. Every aspect of Monticello was designed and planned by Jefferson himself and this is a man who is one of the great minds of all time. You can imagine the things his brain was capable of coming up with. For instance, his bed, which was built into an alcove in the wall and could be gotten into from both sides- one side was open to his library and the other was open to his personal bedroom.

If you don’t have the time or patience for a full tour, you can still explore the grounds free of charge on the Monticello Trail, which wends through woods and land surrounding Monticello.

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Right up the road from Monticello is James Madison’s presidential home, Ash Lawn-Highland. I’m going to level with you: it’s no Monticello. It is a good representation of someone who exhibited modesty and fiscal responsibility. Nobody went into deep, lifelong debt for this house.

However, it’s still cool to see any home of any president (if you ask me) and this is one of the things I love about Virginia; you can’t throw a cat in this state without hitting a Presidential home. History is everywhere!

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Other places and activities of note in Charlottesville:

University of Virginia, flagship university of the commonwealth. If you’re there on the right weekend you may be able to catch an athletic event (the winter schedule has a lot of swimming/diving, wrestling, and basketball on it), but if not, simply taking a walk or drive around the campus itself is impressive enough. Frankly, the school is a bit of a showboat.

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Fridays After Five– From April to September, an event called Fridays After Five is held at the pavilion at the end of the Downtown Mall. Live music and local food and drink vendors are there each Friday evening, making this a fun, family-friendly event. It is also free, and attendees are welcome to bring their own picnic dinners to enjoy on the lawn.

Blenheim Vineyards– I’m singling this vineyard out in case any fans of Dave Matthews Band are reading. This vineyard is owned (and designed) by Dave Matthews himself.

Keswick Hall– A 48-room mansion, golf club, and restaurant, all in one. Take a tour of the mansion, play a round of golf, or stop in for drinks at Villa Crawford Bar and dinner at Fossett’s.


 

Charlottesville is one of the many, many reasons I so love my adopted home state of Virginia. Full of history, natural beauty from the Blue Ridge Mountains, exquisite architecture in Monticello and the UVA campus, local artisans, and a deep love of community that the town holds and prides itself on, Charlottesville is the kind of place that will make you want to visit again and again. We love it there and consider it one of our favorite Virginia destinations. I hope you’ll go and discover everything that’s great about it, and Virginia.

For more Charlottesville inspiration, check out the following social accounts:

 @Charlottesvilleva
@hometowntouristcville
@ilovecville

Potomac Overlook Park

Where: 2845 Marcey Rd., Arlington, VA
When: Open daily from dawn to dusk

HI FRIENDS, IT’S JANUARY. I normally approach January with a very bleak and dour outlook. Oh great, it’s cold and dark and there’s no more warm and cozy Christmas decorations up to take the edge off the cold darkness. Just endless cold and misery. I’m trying to do better this year. Maybe it’ll be okay?

Anyway. The last day of 2015 was, like all other days in December, warm and mild, so before our New Year’s Eve party that evening, my girls and I spent the day outdoors. I decided to head to a new-to-us NVRPA park in Arlington, Potomac Overlook ParkI will provide the disclaimer that the Potomac Overlook this park is named for is now closed (not sure why?) but the rest of the park is so well done and full of fascinating things that the lack of overlook isn’t necessarily a detriment to your enjoyment. I love getting surprised like this; I had no idea the park would have so many interesting diversions and fun things for kids to check out. NVRPA really does an excellent job with all of their parks. Hats off, NVRPA.

As soon as you pull up in the parking lot you’ll see a wonderful little wooden play structure, which my children ran around on for awhile (and had all to themselves on this holiday weekday).

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There’s two separate paths you can take from the parking lot- one leads through the woods down to what once was the Overlook, which is now closed. However, the path looked very pleasant and easy for kids to navigate, so I would still give it a try even if you can’t get out to the Overlook anymore. The day we went it was far too muddy and slippery for my toddler to attempt (meaning I didn’t feel like getting mud all over my car after she inevitably fell 8,000 times) so we’ll try it another day on a visit that doesn’t take place at the end of a rainy week.

Instead, we took the path to the Nature Center.

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Along the way is a lovely little thing called the Planet Walk:

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Each planet gets its own banner with facts and information. They are spread out in proportion to how far away they are from each other and the sun- meaning Neptune is the first planet you reach on your walk down (because Pluto is no longer a planet, or is it, I feel like it changes every so often?) and the first planet you see for quite awhile, until Uranus pops into view, followed by Saturn, and Jupiter. At the Nature Center, as in the universe, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Mercury are clustered right next to one another in a tight little lineup. It’s very well done and my kids enjoyed running to each planet as they saw it along the path and then reading the planet’s bio. Very cute!

Right across from the Nature Center is a fabulous Birds of Prey exhibit, which houses hawks and owls that were injured in the wild and rehabilitated at the park. Inside a small pen of cages are a red-tailed hawk, a horned owl, and my favorite- a barred owl.

 

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Actually, make that at least two barred owls. I didn’t see the second one skulking in the dark corner until I later looked at the pictures.

The Nature Center was my kids’ favorite part of the whole park- taxidermied animals, tanks with live snakes, reptiles, and turtles, a double-sided bee hive filled with busy bees, and a display of animal skulls. The whole thing is part of the park’s Energerium program, designed by the park’s naturalist staff to educate children on nature’s role in supplying the earth with energy and how all aspects of nature, from large to small, cooperate together to keep things running smoothly.

Energerium is designed to incorporate Virginia SOLs (the educator in me is impressed and pleased with this), but remains accessible for younger children as well. Just really, really well planned and executed. If you’re a homeschool family, a trip to Pototmac Overlook park would be perfect for a day focused on science, chemisty, ecology, biology, etc. If you’re not a homeschool family, a visit is still interesting and informative for a wide range of ages. My children spent a good 30 minutes inside the Nature Center, exploring each floor and every display, which makes it the perfect time-killer for those cold days when you need fun indoor activities. Being tucked inside a regional park, it’s hard to believe a little Nature Center could offer so much- you truly don’t want to miss it. What a little treasure.

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A short walk down from the Nature Center is a vegetable garden that visitors are encouraged to enter and explore, continuing with the concept of the Energerium. There’s a compost bin and raised plots of (currently) winter vegetables. My girls enjoyed walking around each plot and seeing what was planted.

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(In this bed, we have garlic and Saigon Turnips.)

On our way out we stopped back at the play area and played a little bit more before getting in the car and heading home. I can’t recommend Potomac Overlook Park enough- plenty of displays and areas of curiosity to keep you and your children busy and lots of space to run, walk, and play. It just might be my new favorite NVRPA park, and we will definitely be heading back over the next chance we get.

Make a day of it: 

I just want to let you know that The Italian Store is about 2 miles away from Potomac Overlook park on Spout Run Parkway. There are picnic tables at the park, so if you don’t want to eat at the store, you can pack it to go and bring it along as a picnic. In either case, I feel it’s imperative that you stop in for a bag of the best sandwiches ever, a couple slices of pizza, and a box of Berger cookies.

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Addendum:

Hannah at NVRPA sent me an email after reading this post including NOVA Park’s Winter camps and activity guide, which is full of one-time events that take place all winter long at different NVRPA parks. The guide is full of activities that my own children would love and I will likely sign up for more than a few of them. If you’re interested in exploring some of these activities with your own family, here is a link to the online guide and schedule. Thank you, Hannah!