The Ultimate Guide to Virginia Summer, 2016

How amazing was that Memorial Day weekend!? If that didn’t get you pumped for summer, nothing will. In fact, getting through the school routine for the next 15 days is going to be a battle royale because as far as my mind is concerned, it’s summer right now. It’s hot, the pools are open, fresh corn is back in the grocery store- this is happening. We have achieved summer.

I first started this blog last summer and really, summer is when this blog thrives, because it’s the time of year when we have the most time to devote to doing fun things. Like most of you, the school year has its way with us, and school, activities, and general life responsibilities get in the way of doing what we want all day long. Summer is when we take back our time! I refuse to sign my kids up for any scheduled activities and aside from a stray week of half-day camp or a planned vacation, we wake up in the mornings, check with friends or take a look at our summer to-do list, and make our plan for the day that way. I just think this is the way summer should be. There’s something so invigorating about this freedom- maybe it’s because I was born right after the summer solstice and am the most Cancerian of Cancers to ever live, but I come alive in summer. It can’t be true but sometimes I think every good and wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me happened in summer.

To get ready for Summer 2016, I’ve started a running list in my Notes app (it’s called SUMMER, because I’m such a writer) to keep track of things that I have seen or heard of and want to do. I did this last summer as well; some of the things on the Summer 2015 list didn’t get crossed off so I’ve just punted them to the Summer 2016 list. We’ve lived here five years this summer and there are still things right around us that we have yet to get to- how great is that? You can’t find a better place to do summer than Northern Virginia/DC/Maryland.

If you, too, are looking for some summer ideas, I am here to help. The following list is Your Ultimate Guide to Summer in Northern Virginia (and surrounding environs), and included are things we’ve done and enjoyed and planned to do again, and a bunch of new things we’ve yet to try but hope to get to this summer. Join us in ushering in the greatest 3 months of any calendar year: bright, happy, ephemeral SUMMER. We’re all beautiful here.


History

Visit Mount Vernon– we did this years ago when we first moved here, but now that my oldest is moving on to first grade and has learned about presidents, I think this bears a repeat visit. The home of George Washington is situated right on the banks of the Potomac and one of the finest examples of presidential homes here in Virginia.

Boundary Stones tour (FREE)– When Congress gave Washington permission to select a 100 square mile area to serve as the national capital, the spot he chose, what is now Washington, D.C., was marked off with stones at one-mile intervals. Many of these original boundary stones, placed in the 1700s, still exist around DC, and we plan to get out and scout a few of them.

Frederick Douglass house (FREE)– I’m taking a course in African-American literature this summer, the conclusion of which is going to dovetail nicely with the September opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the spirit of this course of study, I’ll be seeking out local points of African-American history this summer- including the home of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia.

Harpers Ferry, WV– visit this historical town for stunning views of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers (Jefferson declared the view worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see) and to visit the site of John Brown’s Raid, one of the precipitating events leading to the Civil War.

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Morven Park, Leesburg (FREE unless you do a home tour)- The magnificent home of former Virginia governer Westmoreland Davis. The home is now open for tours- in addition to the home itself, there’s a Carriage Museum and two presidentially-pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys, named Mac and Cheese and Caramel.

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Oatlands Plantation, Leesburg- This plantation home once housed 133 slaves, the largest slave population in Loudoun County. Today the home still stands and is available for tours; the gardens are a visual treat worth exploring even if you aren’t interested in a house tour. Afternoon tea is offered on a monthly basis as well as various special events such as yoga and summer camps.

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Gunston Hall, home of George Mason. June 11th is George Mason day and admission will be free!

Woodlawn-Pope- Leighey– a double-hitter! Woodlawn is the home that Washington gave to his wife, Martha’s, grand-daughter Nelly and Pope-Leighey, located right next door, is a home designed by architectural legend Frank Lloyd-Wright.

Manassas National Battlefield (FREE)– the site where Stonewall Jackson got his enduring nickname. Bring your National Parks Passport and get four stamps in the gift shop.

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Colvin Run Mill Park, Fairfax (FREE)– A gristmill with working waterwheel is open to visitors- visit the Miller’s house and the General Store which served those who came to the mill as grocery store, post office, and general watercooler gossip trading post.

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Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, Sterling- This fun little hands-on museum tells the story of Loudoun County and showcases its rural beginnings. Hard to believe now that there’s eight thousand restaurants and a Top Golf, but Loudoun County once (and in some parts, still) was a land of farms and agriculture. Stop in on a rainy day to let the kids play in the general store and the pretend farm.

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U-Pick

Currently in season: STRAWBERRIES. Wegmeyer Farms operates two locations in Northern Virginia- their main farm in Hamilton and a patch at Oatlands Plantation. We went the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and picked a couple pounds of the most juicy, red, gloriously sweet strawberries you’ve ever tasted. No white-centered mutantly huge Driscoll’s berries here. We enjoyed ours with a whipped ricotta drizzled with honey and sprinkled with some sea salt- heaven on a plate.

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Blueberry picking at Eagletree Farm– The very brief blueberry season begins sometime in June and can end as early as the first week of July, so keep your eyes peeled for when blueberries are ripe for picking at the farm.

Peaches and more at Great Country Farms– my deep and abiding love for Great Country Farms is well-documented, and high up on the list of reasons why GCF is the best place ever is their U-pick setup. A wagon picks you up at the store and drives you across the street to the fields where you pick to your heart’s content. The peaches are especially wonderful in mid-late summer (you should plan to attend their Peach Fuzztival and enjoy peach pancakes at the Roosteraunt) and in June we’ll get a brief window of time to harvest black raspberries. Come to play and pick.

Flowers at Fields of Flowers, Purcellville, Burnside Farms, Haymarket, and Ridgefield Farms in Harpers Ferry, WV– is anything more satisfying than wandering a field of flowers and carefully selecting only the most beautiful specimens that catch your eye to bring home with you? There’s something so incredibly pleasing about roaming a field full of flowers and walking away with a beautiful bouquet.

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Lavender at Seven Oaks Lavender Farm, Catlett, VA- Starting June 3rd, Seven Oaks will be open to visitor who are welcome to come pick fresh lavender at this Virginia farm.

Paw-Paws at Mackintosh Farm, Berryville– technically this will not be a “summer” activity since paw-paws aren’t in season until late September or so, but you don’t want to miss this special fruit, which was beloved by George Washington for its sweet, custardy flavor. Reminiscent of banana, mango, and coconut, it’s a rare and delicious treat.

You won’t be doing the picking yourself since Rachel Roberts takes care of that, but if you stop by her house on Edwards Ferry Road in Leesburg this summer, you can purchase freshly picked and trimmed flowers from her garden. All money collected goes to the Loudoun Interfaith Relief food pantry, where Rachel has volunteered for years, and last summer she was able to donate a whopping $11,648 to LIR thanks all to the flowers in her garden. My children and I stop by “the flower lady’s house” several times each summer to purchase some of her beautiful arrangements.

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Water Fun

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Many neighborhoods have their own HOA pool(s), but if you’re looking for something new to try, there’s tons of places nearby.

NVRPA is one of the best things about where we live- so many parks and attractions and they just do everything so well. Their water parks are awesome- our favorite is Volcano Island inside Algonkian Park but this summer, now that my youngest is 2.5, we’ll be visiting others as well, like Atlantis inside of Bull Run park.

Franklin Park Pool in Purcellville- this mini-waterpark and pool combo was a big hit with our kids last summer and we’ll back again this year. Small waterslides, dump buckets, and ride-on toys make this pool perfect for breaking up the neighborhood pool trip and making swimming a little more special.

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A.V. Symington Aquatic Center, Leesburg- located in Ida Lee Park,the outdoor water park at Symington Aquatic Center is HUGELY popular on hot summer days. Get there early; we never made it there before it reached capacity last summer and will have to try again this year!

Splash Fountains at Village at Leesburg and One Loudoun and Our Special Harbor in Franconia

Explore Nature

Brookside Gardens, Wheaton, MD and Meadowlark Gardens, Vienna– two botanical gardens that are full of lush summer flora. Pick whichever is closest to you (or both!)- they’re both great. Brookside Gardens is currently hosting its Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit which is well worth the visit. Meadlowark Gardens holds a Summer Solstice Picnic event on June 21- on this one day each year, families are allowed to bring picnics into the park and enjoy the longest day of the year by watching sunset in the Korean Bell garden.

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Cunningham Falls, Thurmont, MD-  We’ve seen the signs for Cunningham Falls countless times, and this summer, I’m making a point to go.

Bears Den Overlook, Bluemont, VA (FREE)– One of my favorite hikes to take with my kids and visiting friends. The views are stunning and there’s nothing quite so pleasant as sitting on the rocks, eating a snack, and looking down at the beautiful Shenandoah Valley below. Just down the road in the town of Bluemont you can grab snacks and sandwiches at Bluemont General Store, a glass of wine at Bluemont Vineyards, or a beer and soft pretzels at Dirt Farm Brewing.

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Theodore Roosevelt Island, DC (FREE)– Walk the trails of Roosevelt Island, the “living memorial” to president Teddy Roosevelt.

Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Arlington (FREE)– This little park is crammed full of fun stuff to do- a Planet Walk, playgrounds, a growing garden, a birds of prey exhibit, and an absorbing little nature center. This one was one of my kids’ favorite places to visit last year and we’ll back again this summer when we can walk the nature trails. Grab lunch at the famous Italian Store and make it a picnic.

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Rust Nature Sanctuary, Leesburg (FREE) – Visit Rust Manor House and walk over 68 miles of nature trails at this preserve in Leesburg.

Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria (FREE)– Nearly 200 species of animals can be viewed from the wetlands boardwalk and observation deck.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, DC (FREE)– Tucked into the Kenilworth neighborhood in NE DC is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a living garden of blooming lotus, lily pads, water plates, and other water-dwelling plants. A boardwalk extends into the Anacostia river so that visitors can take a walk through wetlands and see the various animals that live in this environment.

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Great Falls Park, McLean, VA- Great Falls is a favorite destination for many families in the area. You can also see the falls on the Maryland side of the river (and walk the Billy Goat Trail) but as Virginians, we are partial to the Virginia side of things. Show up early to avoid long lines from Leesburg Pike up to the entrance!

Lake Anne, Reston, VA (FREE)– Lake Anne is a community surrounding a lake, and it so fun to visit and walk around. You can rent paddle boats and kayaks to piddle around the lake, stop into the Used Book Store, grab a drink at Lake Anne Brew House, and walk around the Lake Anne trail to see the Van Gogh Bridge, a bridge inspired by Van Gogh’s painting of the Langlois Bridge at Arles, France:

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On June 11th and 12th Lake Anne will be hosting their 3rd Annual Chalk on the Water festival where artists purchase plots of sidewalk space to decorate with chalk and paint.

Rock Creek Planetarium, Rock Creek Park, DC (FREE)– On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Rock Creek Planetarium puts on the night sky.

Walk the WOD! (FREE) The Washington & Old Dominion Trail is a 45 mile long walking and biking trail that follows the old W&OD railroad line. The trail stops in many towns in Northern Virginia, including Ashburn, where the trail runs right beside Carolina Brothers BBQ. We like to stop sometimes and grab an ice cream and a cold drink on our walk.

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Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens, Washington DC- Check to see what’s in bloom and plan a visit to this mansion to tours its manicured gardens.

My friend, Kate, let me know about River Farm in Alexandria (FREE), which is the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society and is open to visitors M-F, 9-5. The farm includes gardens, gates formerly used at the White House, an orchard, a children’s garden, and a small wildlife pond. This one is going right to the top of our Must Do list for the first week school is out!

Find public art in your area! Alexis at Capitol Momma has written a great guide to 7 murals scattered around DC, and Leesburg Public Arts commission is working hard to bring public art to Leesburg- the Thomas Balch library displays a mural that tells the story of Loudoun County, and off Rt. 15 in Purcellville is the Western Loudoun palm.

Visit the Barbie Pond on Avenue Q. In Logan Circle, Barbie and her pals are always up to something. Stop in and see what wacky adventures they get into all summer long.

At Workhouse Art Center in Lorton (FREE), exhibitions from local artists are on display in this former prison. One that I am particularly interested in is the Prison (Re)Form display, beginning June 11th, which will use sculpture to reflect on the history of the prison. Workhouse Prison was opened in the early 1900s as a prison that sought to reform suffragists and petty criminals through labor.

Complete a Junior Ranger booklet at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, VA. June is Get Outdoors month (!!) and this park that’s about an hour’s drive from DC and NoVa is a great place to hit the trails and explore.

Play!

Clemyjontri Park, McLean (FREE)– an all-inclusive playground that caters to children of all abilities, Clemyjontri is a wonderland of a playground. Come early because there’s no shade in the afternoon! Bring a lunch and money for a ride on the carousel.

Wizard of Oz Playground (Watkins Regional Park), Upper Marlboro, MD (FREE)– this whimsical Wizard of Oz themed playground was one of the things we never got to last summer and we won’t be making that mistake this year. Follow the yellow brick road and make your way to the Emerald City at this imaginative play area.

Grange Playground, Great Falls, VA (FREE)– my kids love this sweet little playground tucked into the woods at Great Falls. We love to stop and play for awhile and then grab ice cream across the street at Great Falls Creamery in the Village.

Tubing the Shenandoah at Watermelon Park, Berryville, VA- Rent a tube and a cooler for $10.50 and float down the Shenandoah for 2-3 hours. (Please note, this is an ADULT version of “play” as all tube riders must be 18 or older.)

Glen Echo Park, Glen Echo, MD (FREE)– A hands-on aquarium complete with outdoor sand pit and pirate ship, playground area, and a summer calendar chock-full of special events and activities make this the perfect place to visit this summer. We went in the winter and it was still charming and perfectly nostalgic. The Dentzel carousel will be open for rides as well- this is a must for old-fashioned summer fun. Don’t miss the Clara Barton House, right across the parking lot!

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Cabin John Park, Rockville, MD- Cabin John is well-known and loved for it miniature train that kids can take a ride around the park on.

Palisades Playground, Washington, DC (FREE)– We love Palisdes Playground, which is located in NW DC at Palisades Rec Center. An imaginative and interesting playground, it also has a small splash pad and right around the corner hidden in the woods is the Glass Forest– an ethereal, slightly-spooky but very cool art installation you must check out.

Leesburg Animal Park is a favorite of ours, a small, well-kept zoo with a wide variety of animals, play areas for the kids, and indoor activity spaces. I mean, there is an island full of lemurs. It’s called Lemur Island. And it’s awesome. Leesburg Animal Park frequently offers deals through Certifikid so keep your eyes peeled. As a bonus, there are two wineries within 3 or so miles of the park- Willowcroft Farm Vineyards and Stone Tower Winery. Just saying.

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Ride the Capital Wheel down at National Harbor, MD. My oldest daughter loves Ferris Wheels, so two summers ago we took her for a spin on the 180 foot Capital Wheel overlooking the harbor- she loved it! As a bonus, this summer marks the arrival of Savannah’s Candy Kitchen at National Harbor and as a native Georgia girl who feasts on their pralines whenever return home for a visit, I feel it’s my duty to inform you you need to go there and get a praline. I’m not saying it will for sure change your life, but if it’s warm and fresh, it might.

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Roam if You Want To:

My family loves a good day/weekend trip. We’ve got quite a few on our list this year:

Solomons, Maryland– We’re planning to make the 100 mile or so trip to Solomons one day this summer and visit Calvert Cliffs to hunt for shark teeth, AnnMarie Sculpture Gardens to play in the Fairy Lolly, and Calvert Marine Museum.

Richmond, Virginia– The wonderful Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is hosting Nature Connects: Art with Lego Bricks this summer, with life-sized Lego sculptures set up throughout the gardens. Richmond is FULL of family-friendly sites and activities, such as Science Museum of Virginia, Children’s Museum of Richmond, Maymont, Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Canal Walk, Flying Squirrels Baseball at the Diamond, and Belle Isle at James River.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania– One of our most favorite places we’ve visited, Pittsburgh was a highlight of our summer last year. We didn’t come close to seeing all that Pittsburgh has to offer so we’re planning a return trip this summer. The Paris of Appalachia makes the perfect weekend getaway from NoVa.

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Charlottesville, Virginia– just about two hours away from Northern Virginia, Charlottesville is a gorgeous little town you’ll love visiting. We’ve gone several times and always have it in our back pocket as a quick getaway option.

Lexington, Virginia– our most recent weekend trip was to Lexington, my current favorite Virginia small town. Visit the Natural Bridge, Foamhenge, Washington and Lee University, Lee Chapel, Stonewall Jackson’s house, and indulge in southern small town splendor.

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Good old small town USA: Virginia is full of small towns I want to pop into and explore this summer- Culpeper, Front Royal, Winchester, Clifton, Occoquan– sometimes wandering around a new little town is the perfect way to spend a day.

Annapolis makes for a great day trip- we’re planning to head over on a weekend day and visit the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, and Thomas Point Lighthouse. You can’t go to Annapolis without getting seafood and Cantler’s is an Annapolis landmark. Walking around the harbor in historic downtown Annapolis and up to the Maryland State House is a fun, cheap way to visit Annapolis. You can grab fudge at Kilwin’s and visit the Alex Haley Memorial Statue and tour the US Naval Academy all in that area.

Summer treats:

In summer, and only in summer, I love to eat ice cream. We’ve got quite the collection of places around here to grab a sweet treat when you’re out and about:

Clayboys Shave Ice in Bethesda, MD- famous Hawaiian shave-ice is sold at this Bethesda cart. Tigerblood has my name written all over it.

Gruto’s Soft Serve, Purcellville, VA- bring cash for this sweet little soft serve shop on Main Street in Purcellville. Try the Bellywrecker IF YOU DARE.

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Woody’s Ice Cream, Fairfax- Hand-dipped cones and old-fashioned sundaes are just some of Woody’s Goodies.

Rocky Point Creamery, Point of Rocks, MD- on Sundays, we love to take a drive up Highway 15 to Point of Rocks and grab ice cream at Rocky Point Creamery. Delicious flavors and a play area for kids makes this a favorite of ours. Pop into the C&O Canal Trail just down the road and hit Farmer Rick’s farm stand near Lucketts for fresh produce on your way home.

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Great Falls Creamery, Great Falls, VA- Take a hike at Great Falls Park and stop for ice cream afterward! This sweet little creamery in Great Falls Village has great flavors and can make you a cookie ice cream sandwich using cookies from famous Heidelberg Bakery.

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South Mountain Creamery, Middletown, MD- The main allure of South Mountain Creamery, aside from the fresh ice cream, is that if you’re there at 4 pm, you can feed the baby calves their milk bottle!

Korean Bingsoo (“Wicked Snow”) at Siroo Juk Story, Annandale, VA- This Korean version of shaved-ice is refreshing, delicious, and fun! Flaky shaved ice is topped with mochi and a variety of toppings from red bean paste to strawberries and mango and cornflakes. Kind of like a massive snow cone sundae.

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Pickle Bob’s Ice Cream, Haymarket, VA- We like to stop here after we’re done picking sunflowers at Burnside Farms. Walk-up window service and a small seating area and a pickle in an ice cream cone make up Pickle Bob’s.

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Everybody, say hi to Pickle Bob.

Hi Pickle Bob.

Try a new cuisine using the Washingtonian Cheap Eats list as your guide. With 100 restaurants in the metro area with entrees under $25, the cheap eats list is your map of the culinary world. I’ve marked off several of these restaurants as “must try”s and we’ll be making our way to the Bosnian Cosmopolitan Grill this Friday night to try cevpcici. Take the chance on introducing your kids to something new- Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean and  Pakistani cuisine are all represented on this list.

Wineries

Now y’all know I love to go to wineries, so this section should come as no surprise. But really, is there anything better than meeting up with friends at a winery and spending the afternoon? Don’t even answer, we know there isn’t. Here’s just a few of my favorites:

Quattro Goombas, Aldie, VA- Sicilian style pizza and RED WINE SLUSHIES. I’m confident I need say no more.

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Stone Tower Winery, Leesburg, VA- One of my all-time favorite wineries. The view is great, the grounds are beautiful, and this is the tasting room:

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Tarara Winery, Leesburg, VA- Tarara is known for their Summer Concert Series, a summer-long schedule of outdoor concerts on the winery grounds. Here’s the lineup for this year.

There are over 40 wineries and vineyards in the Loudoun County area, so pick one and go- it’s bound to be good.

Special Events

Two of our favorite summer events each year are the Loudoun County Fair and the Lucketts Fair. The Loudoun County Fair is your traditional summer fair with carnival rides, barnyard animals and 4H competitions, a rodeo, and fried Oreos. The Lucketts Fair is a bit more low-key with a focus on arts and crafts and local talent competitions, but it is just as fun in its own way. We make sure to do both every summer- my kids are already asking about the LoCo Fair. In May.

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DC Jazzfest at The Yards Park, June 18th- a three-day blowout featuring a ton of jazz musicians at DC’s wonderful Yards Park.

ICEBERGS at National Building Museum– Last summer’s hot National Building Museum display was BEACH and this year the main atrium of the museum will be taken over by icebergs. Tickets go on sale to the general public starting June 22 and the display will be open from July 2- September 5.

NGA Stories in Art is a (FREE) program designed for kids aged 4-7 to teach them to interact with art. This year the kids will be “traveling to the Netherlands” by studying pieces of Dutch art, reading a book, and making a souvenir. The program runs through the month of July; check calendar for dates and times. The rest of NGA is worth visiting while you’re there- don’t miss Leo Villareal’s Multiverse and the NGA sculpture garden. (My personal favorite display in NGA is The Veiled Nun.)

Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea at National Zoo (FREE)– An art installation of 17 life-sized sea creatures made from plastic found in the oceans is on display through September 5 to help raise awareness of ocean pollution and the danger it creates for sea creatures. These whimsical and intricate statues are a beautiful way to illustrate the devastation plastic pollution can cause to our oceans.

Also, there’s now a grilled cheese truck at the zoo. Um, yum.

Obviously I’ll be updating the blog plenty with things we get into and see and do this summer, but this should give us a nice start, yeah? This is it, people. Summer is happening!

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Flower Mart at National Cathedral + Passport DC 2016

When: May 6th and 7th, 2016 (first week of May every year)
Where: 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC

Every May, Cultural Tourism DC launches its Passport DC program, which is a series of events designed to help you travel the world without ever leaving Washington DC. DC Passports are provided at various information spots throughout the city at key events and visiting the activities that are part of Passport DC will earn you a stamp at each spot, just like a real passport.

One of these events is Flower Mart, an annual spring festival held at the National Cathedral by All Hallows Guild every year since 1939. At Flower Mart, embassies from all over the world contribute a floral arrangement that represents their country, which is then displayed in the nave of the Cathedral for viewing. Outside, various vendors sell not only flowers and plants, but handmade crafts and goods (we saw soap, clothing, tote bags, and wind chimes) as well as food- we snacked on choreg from an Armenian pastry stand before grabbing a half smoke from the Ben’s Chili Bowl tent for lunch. There’s carnival rides and games for kids, puppet shows, and special tours that allow visitors to climb the Cathedral towers.

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Despite passing by National Cathedral many times (my sister used to live on Garfield St. and we’d cut through the Cathedral grounds on our way to Cactus Cantina, hey-o) our visit to Flower Mart was the first time we’d actually gone inside! Do I need to tell you it was incredible?

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Tucked in the nave were over 30 individual flower arrangements representing their home countries. These were all unique – some featured flowers indigenous to that country (such as an arrangement of Birds of Paradise from Indonesia) and some were arrangements that depicted something specific to that country, like this array of pink roses from Australia meant to represent Lake Hillier, a lake in Western Australia that is PINK due to the bacteria that thrive in its highly salinated waters:

 

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New Zealand’s contribution was a miniature Hobbit Shire!

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Many of the Asian countries’ displays featured tall, delicate orchids. The United States was represented with this lush arrangement of native flora:

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We made sure to get a stamp in our Passport DC passport before heading over to the famous Beauvoir playground on our way out:

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The Around the World Embassy tour was also going on that day, an event in which different embassies from around the world opened their doors to visitors for cultural displays and presentations. I SO BADLY wanted to do this but alas, my oldest was suffering pretty badly from allergies and just couldn’t hang, so in the name of being a decent mother, I had to admit defeat and skip it. But next weekend is the European embassies’ turn and we will be ready and waiting with our passport when those open at 10 am.

Flower Mart 2016 has come and gone, but I encourage you to make plans to visit next May- it was such an incredible event! We managed to find street parking along a neighborhood street and had a short walk over to the Cathedral grounds, but given the limited parking in NW DC, using public transportation is highly encouraged if you can swing it.

Be sure to check out the Passport DC 2016 calendar of events to plan your trip “around the world.”

Weekending: Lexington, VA + Natural Bridge Edition

All apologies to Purcellville, Charlottesville, and any other town my excitable brain previously declared to be my favorite small town in Virginia. There’s a new kid in town: Lexington. This one’s definitely my favorite small town in Virginia. I’m sure of it. Until I find the next one, but for right now, it’s the winner.

The timing for a weekend trip this past weekend initially did not seem so great- I had just wrapped up the last week of spring semester for my grad program and an auction I had chaired and spent 8 months working on took place Friday night, so my brain was essentially non-functioning and my zest for life was at nil. The forecast was also a weekend full of cool temps and rain. But we had months ago purchased a Certifikid voucher for a night at the Natural Bridge hotel with admission to the bridge and the caverns included, and the last day to use it was April 30, so the trip was on no matter what.

And wouldn’t you know it, I found it to be the perfect little two day getaway. Some friends of ours bought the same voucher and joined us down in Lexington and we had a blast. The drive couldn’t be easier- a relatively quick 3 hours down I-81 through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We decided to be leisurely about it since we weren’t in a huge rush and stopped in Staunton for some frozen custard from Kline’s Dairy Bar, which has been operating in Harrisonburg since 1943.

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Our voucher was good for a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel (right next to the Natural Bridge itself) with admission for four to the Natural Bridge AND the caverns right next door. We paid $109 for all that and so I was mentally prepared for a rundown, dark and dank hotel that had not been updated since the 1970s. NOT SO AT ALL, although I do think the road leading to the Natural Bridge hotel may be haunted. I base this completely on the fact that on one side suddenly loomed a giant baby head inside what was a graveyard of strange giant props. The sign indicated it was a place called Enchanted Castle Studios that offered “tours” though who gives them, I’m not sure, because it looked abandoned. Look, I’m not saying you’ll go into that place on a “tour” and never come out and that the Scooby Doo crew is going to have to come in and find you. I am not saying that. Just think about it is all.

The Natural Bridge Hotel was recently updated with nicely furnished rooms and a very pleasant staff. If you’re looking for proximity to the bridge, it’s great. If you would prefer to be closer to Lexington, you may want to stay elsewhere, but if this deal is ever offered by Certifikid again, snatch it up, because for two days of admission the attractions and a night in a perfectly pleasant hotel, it was a steal.

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After settling in and meeting up with our friends we grabbed dinner at Foothill Momma’s BBQ Juke Joint (recommend) and then headed back to the bridge for the nightly light show.

Now look.

I’m from Georgia, and down there, one thing that everyone does growing up is go to Stone Mountain to watch the laser show, which is extravaganza of the highest order. Lights and lasers shoots around the mountain and give the illusion the carved figures are riding their horses and Dixie is played as well as The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It is definitely one of those things that only when you grow up and move away from the Deep South do you go, “Huh, yeah, that is a bit weird.” BUT IT’S AWESOME. So you can perhaps see what I expected from the Natural Bridge light show. Maybe some Van Halen? Lots of zooming light rays and strobe lights.

That is decidedly not at all what the Natural Bridge light show is like.

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So here’s the story of the Natural Bridge, which is told to you by the recording at the Natural Bridge: it took 3-4 million years to evolve naturally through the gentle erosion process of the stream that flows beneath it. It was originally discovered by the Monocan Indians as they were evading an enemy and considered by them to be a sacred site, and later Thomas Jefferson “bought” it for his own pleasure because, well, aint that just the way history tends to go. (My husband and I quibbled all weekend over whether a person can truly own something like the Natural Bridge; call me Pocahontas, I just really don’t think so. I don’t even care if you’re Thomas Jefferson, you can’t own that stuff, dude, it’s for all mankind.)

Right after you are told that the Natural Bridge formed naturally, through the course of nature, over millions of years, the light show program begins, and it tells the story of Genesis and how God created the earth in 7 days. It was written and created by Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s and has been used ever since. There were several times sitting there, somewhere in the middle of the third day of creation, when I realized that this passed for high entertainment in the 1920s. In 2016, well, it seems a bit… antiquated. A musical version of the Lord’s Prayer that my friend aptly described as “a dirge” played in the fifth day of creation. Hey, I got no dog in the hunt when it comes to how the bridge was formed. Maybe you think the stream did it, maybe you think God plopped it there somewhere in the six days he was decorating the earth. It’s just funny how the Natural Bridge show simultaneously suggests it somehow could be both.

The bridge sure is beautiful, though!

Sunday morning we had breakfast down at The Pink Cadillac (insert Springsteen lyrics):

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I’ve mentioned before the “bubble” that extends about 50 miles in any direction from DC and how different life is once you break out of that bubble. At the Pink Cadillac, a plate of three pancakes was $2. TWO DOLLARS. No crushed velvet seats, though, and I really think they missed the mark there.

The rain began to pour after breakfast so we took the opportunity to visit the Natural Bridge Caverns and hide out 340 feet underground and give it a chance to pass. Hey, aren’t caverns cool? At one place in the caverns our guide told us to look up at what appeared to be an opening and said it was called a Murder Hole. Way back when, when people drove around in buggies and such, they would sometimes roll right over one of these Murder Holes and fall ass over teakettle into the caverns. Whoopsie doops! Not a great day.

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Emerging from the Murder Hole we re-entered a world filled with sunshine! The rain had passed so we headed into the town of Lexington to see the sights.

Some things you should know about Lexington:

It’s home to two colleges: Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (so-called West Point of the South). You can tell the student bodies apart as they mill around town because the Washington and Lee students are wearing clothes nicer than you, a grown adult, typically wear, and the VMI cadets are decked out in their finest military dress. Even to walk into a Sheetz gas station, yes I saw that.

It’s also pretty much Robert E Lee’s town. Everything there revolves around Lee in some way. There’s Lee Highway, the Robert E. Lee hotel, Lee Chapel, a different church named the Robert E Lee Memorial Episcopal church, which is about 200 yards in front of Lee Chapel. Lee died in Lexington after serving as president of (then) Washington University, renamed to include Lee after his time there. Stonewall Jackson also features prominently in Lexington, given the fact he lived there and taught at VMI in the 1850s. Some of his curriculum is still taught there today! He was not a very popular teacher though and students there called him “Tom Fool,” which luckily for him was later replaced by the everlasting nickname he earned on the battlefield at Manassas, and by which we still know him- Stonewall. (I am seriously just beyond tickled that one person, in the span of about fifteen years, can be the recipient of two such diametrically opposed nicknames, and also walk away forever bearing only the really good one.)

The house Stonewall Jackson owned and lived in during his time in Lexington still stands on Washington St., right down the road from Lee Chapel:

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The downtown Lexington area was funny like this- on one corner might be a new shop or popular restaurant, and then a few doors down, the home of a huge Civil War figure. Virginia is so cool.

We paid a visit to the  Robert E. Lee Hotel:

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Eventually we made our way down to the campus of Washington and Lee University to visit Lee Chapel. And WOW, what a campus! My own alma mater is beautifully landscaped and  frequently makes lists of Most Beautiful Campuses, but it must be said that a good chunk of the buildings are from the 1960s/70s and leave something to be desired, aesthetically speaking. Meanwhile, in Lexington, not only is the campus impeccably landscaped, look at this architecture!

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This is known as the Colonnade and faces Lee Chapel. When I mentioned at the beginning of this post I am in a grad program, it’s to receive my Master’s in Education. This means I’m spending chunks of time each semester student teaching in high school English classes. The last two semesters, my students have been seniors, and it’s been very exciting as they get accepted to colleges and decide where they’re going to go. Many of them are going to JMU, a couple to William and Mary, some to UVA, but I realized when I was on W&L campus that none of them had decided to go to Washington and Lee and I wondered why. It was such a nice looking school in such a pleasant little town not terribly far from Northern Virginia. I started thinking, I would encourage my own girls to consider this school when the time comes! When we were on the way home I looked up the university and discovered it is private and costs $47,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, so that explained that. It also explained why all the students were dressed so nicely and the frat houses were giant antebellum homes on lush wide avenues.

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Tucked into this little glade right across from the Colonnade is Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried and where his beloved horse, Traveller, was buried in 1971 after his bones were disinterred and placed here to be with his master.

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Would you just! Have you ever seen a more perfect little chapel? I got married in what I consider to be a very beautiful and picturesque southern chapel but it really doesn’t compare at all to Lee Chapel. Inside on the pulpit is a statue of Lee known as “Recumbent Lee” which depicts him lying in repose, and the stained-glass windows tell his life story. He and his family are buried in a crypt below the chapel and Traveller is buried just outside:

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Students at the university leave pennies (and sometimes apples) on Traveller’s marker in hopes it will bring them good luck in their studies. Awwww! Traveller is maybe one of the best-known horses of all time, certainly the best known Civil War horse, and the following is written about him in the poem Army of Northern Virginia by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Such horses are
The jewels of the horseman’s hands and thighs,
They go by the word and hardly need the rein.
They bred such horses in Virginia then,
Horses that were remembered after death
And buried not so far from Christian ground
That if their sleeping riders should arise
They could not witch them from the earth again
And ride a printless course along the grass
With the old manage and light ease of hand.

I can’t tell you what a good choice it was that we invited the friends we did, because the husband in that family is a high school history teacher and he and I were nerding out together the whole time.

Other small scenes around Lexington:

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I loved everything about Lexington and really can’t suggest strongly enough that you take a trip down for a night or a weekend and pay it a visit. They bred such horses in Virginia then- and they made such towns in Virginia then.