Friday, August 28, 2009

Pirate Adventure

Other than canoeing, my kids had never been on a boat ride, so when I read somewhere about this Pirate Adventure that sails out of Annapolis I thought that it would be the perfect thing for our family. It cost a few dollars more than a standard boat ride around the Annapolis Harbor, but it was worth every cent.

As soon as we checked in at the little building on the bay, the pirate who owns the place gave us all name tags with nautical names like Dreadful Drew, Starfish Sydney, Admiral Alison, Adventure Andy, and Mighty Matt. Then the kids headed to a large sandy area where they had a large trunk full of pirate dress-up stuff, and the staff painted tattoos on the kids. Drew went with the blue mustache and skull on the arm, and Sydney thought that a pirate ship on her arm would be nice.

On to the pirate ship we went, and the staff shuttled all of the parents towards the back of the boat, while the kids were fully into their new role as pirates on the hunt for buried treasure. We happened to get seats up front by the kids because we were almost the last ones on the boat and everyone else opted to take the shady spots in the back. It worked to my advantage though, as I had a better view for watching the adventure and taking photos. In the photo above, the kids are reading the treasure map with their leader.

Drew scans the horizon, looking for landmarks that will lead them to the buoy with the big X on it.

Oh No! It's the bad pirate... all of the kids got to shoot him with cannons that spray water until he fell into the bay. He was a funny guy who made very dramatic evil faces and brandished his sword well. There were enough cannons for each child, and I did not witness one meltdown of any sort for the whole hour long adventure... pretty amazing since there were a few 3 year olds aboard.

There were plenty of sailboats around, since Annapolis is "the sailing capital of America" ... or maybe the world. I can't remember what the sign says, but I can say with confidence that they do love sailing there.

The kids were so excited after they defeated Pirate Pete that Sydney and some others randomly broke into a dance party.

X marks the spot-- Drew helps to pull the treasure chest up from the bottom of the bay onto the deck. I appreciated that they actually let the kids do most of this stuff-- it made it much more realistic, especially for the older ones.

Each pirate got to grab a handful of treasure.... lots of plastic money and pinata toys!

Sydney sits with her loot in her lap.

Andy and Matt look at Annapolis Harbor.

This was a great time from start to finish. Every person on the staff was friendly, funny, and seemed to really love their job. The kids never lost interest the entire time, and Drew and Sydney played pirates for days afterward.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Manassas Battlefield Park

Manassas Battlefield Park was the last stop on our 2-week vacation through Virginia and Tennessee and so we did not arrive at the park until late in the afternoon, and we were all tired. I was worried that it would be a disaster, but was pleasantly surprised at how interested my five children (ages 5-17) were in the park. We went to the Visitor's Center first and I obtained Junior Ranger booklets from the desk. I highly recommend you doing this, if this is the type of thing your children enjoy doing because it helps to give them a focus and an idea of what to look for. It was helpful to me, too, because they give different booklets out for different ages, so it helped me to point out interesting things in an age-appropriate way. The museum in the visitor's center is very interesting and the 6-minute display/description of the battles that took place there is a very good introduction. You can follow a ranger-led tour, but we chose to explore the battlesite at our own pace. The kids loved being able to touch the cannons and such and just walking on the field made you really being to imagine the soldiers that were once there. The admission (very inexpensive at $3.00 per person 16 years of age and older and free for those under 16) is good for three consecutive days, so you have plenty of time to explore the entire park and even take the driving tour. We were able, however, to see most of the sites near the visitor's center in about an hour and a half. Click here if you would like to see more of our trip there.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

This photograph just doesn't do the scenery along Skyline Drive justice. (Although you can click here to see some more, if you would like.) The depth and variety of shades just cannot be captured even by the best of photographers. You just have to be there.

It cost us $15 entrance fee to be able to drive along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and worth every penny. We drove along it for 40 of the 105 miles beginning at Rockfish Gap, sometimes stopping at the overlooks, sometimes slowing down for a quick view from the car. I learned first hand why these mountains are called Blue Ridge. When we had to turn off for a different destination everyone in the car was sad to leave the beautiful mountain views, even the younger of my family, ages 5 and 8. This is some breath-taking beauty that never got old. A must-see.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sunspots Studios, Staunton, Virginia

Sunspots Studios is really a shop that sells handmade glassworks, but there is a workshop in the back in which you can watch glass being handblown. We found the free (although there was a donations jar) demonstration very informative and interesting and his presentation entertaining. The items in the shop are, not surprisingly, a bit on the pricey side, but my daughter was able to find a little figure for about $20. If you are in the area, I would recommend it as a way to spend a enjoyable afternoon. (Click here for more photos.)

Lake Sherando, Blue Ridge Mountain area of Virginia

Our experience at Lake Sherando was very mixed. We planned to camp there for two nights and enjoy the lake as well as other attractions in the area. We discovered when we got there, however, that the campground is really not suited to tent-campers, like us. The tent sites do not have bathrooms, water or electricity, so we opted for the water/electric sites, which are designed for RVers. There seemed to be a lot of RVer's that camp there every year for long periods, forming sort of a club-like atmosphere among the campers. I suppose it is really nice if you like that sort of atmosphere. We hated it. The sites are very small and close together. There was a nice woods with stream around the campsites, which my children enjoyed exploring and was a relief from the hemmed-in feeling at the campsite itself. The ground was a hard-packed sand-gravel mixture, which made driving in tent steaks hard, and cold and uncomfortable to sleep on, even with air mattresses. It was wet the whole time we were there, and even all our things made from paper warped (books, etc.) just from being there. The camp locks its gate at 10:00, which I suppose is necessary since the sites are so close together but means that there is a large line of cars/campers that come in at 9:45. My husband and daughter wanted to go to a Shakespeare play in the nearby town of Staunton, but since they would be getting back later than 10:00, they would not be able to get back into the campground. Lake Robertson locks its gates too, but they give the campers there a combination for the lock so that campers can get back in, but outsiders cannot. We elected to go back to Lake Robertson for this reason despite the fact we had already paid for our site for another night.
The next morning, however, we explored the lake there, which is gorgeous. We had a wonderful time there, and hated to leave it. My assessment of Lake Sherando is that it is a wonderful day park to visit for a swim in the lake, and good, I am guessing, if you like the comradery feel of RVing, but an awful place to camp if you are tent campers. Click here if you would like to see more pictures of the lake, but I do not have any pictures of the campsites.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriar Players

If you are in the Staunton, Virginia area, The American Shakespeare Center is a must-see. The Blackfriars perform Shakespeare's works under the original staging conditions -- on a simple stage, without elaborate sets, and with the audience sharing the same light as the actors. My husband and daughter (17) went to a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor there and they both loved it. The ticket price of $20 per person for balcony/general admission is very reasonable for theatre. The musical performances at intermission were modern pieces, which in some ways seems out of place, but is in keeping with giving the audience a similar experience as in Shakespeare's day, because the musical pieces would be currently known works.

C&O canal boat ride

I've been wanting to take a ride on a C&O canal boat ever since I heard there was such a thing. It's nice that my kids are at an age (mostly) when I can do this cooler stuff with them. I invited tons of people to come with me and the group that ended up joining was just right. Lots of kids and great moms, even a dad. I have this to say:

*not a bad drive from my neck of the woods down through the ginormous Potomac homes into the National Park, took me maybe 35 minutes

*lots of parking, lots of picnic tables

*the visitors center is tiny, at least the part we got to go into. There are apparently 7 different visitor's centers along the C&O canal - the one we went to is called Great Falls Tavern. The part with most of the stuff to look at is being renovated right now, which is a crying shame.

*the tickets to ride were only $5 per person (and my kids were all old enough to cost money, darn it)*The junior ranger books were a total bust. The one for Sheely's age was all writing and she balked and would have nothing to do with it. Xavey too. Oh well. I'm glad we did the Clara Barton/Glen Echo one, it was so much more interactive.
*There was a giant mound of dirt for the kids to play on while we waited for our 11am boat ride - they announced it was time by blowing a giant bugle.

*Our "tour guide" was awesome - energetic and fun to listen to. The atmosphere was casual and yet attentive - Preston was by far the most outspoken, sometimes commenting or asking questions and sometimes just talking REALLY LOUD. You could get up out of your seat for a minute or two and walk a bit without getting in "trouble"*Sheely was freaked out that the sound of my camera taking pictures would spook the mules and she got really crabby at me but we worked it out

*the kids got a kick out of the whole "lock" system, when we floated up it was crazy - even I was impressed with how it worked. It reminded me of being in Germany on a boat with my friend Lis when we went around a canalway.*the mules pulled us FAST . It went way quicker and smoother than I'd anticipated. The whole set up with the ropes and harnesses is pretty ingenious, when you think about it. And a "tow path" where the mules walk with their handler - again, the kids got such a kick out of it and so did I.
*I thought when it was time to go back that they would just switch the mules to the other end and we'd float back, but I was wrong. They turned that boat right around, apparently it does have a front and a back :)

*At the end our guide started playing a concertina! get out of town! It was awesome! He even played The Red River Valley, which is the song my husband sings to my kids at night, they loved it! Then he handed out a bunch of old time instruments and we all played along and stomped our feet while he played a lively version of "Simple Gifts"*When our ride was over we had a lunch along the canal and then went for a walk down the canal, over it and up the tow path along the Potomac River. OH the fun! The kids found a path down to the river and we played and explored for a long time. That is one mighty river, certainly the biggest one I've ever stopped and explored around. Preston found a "rock hill" and Xavey and his friend found a hidden waterfall (that Preston found later and was convinced that he found it first and had a M-E-L-T-D-O-W-N because no one would get excited about looking at it except me and apparently I don't count)*Then we went to the overlook to see the "falls" which is not very overlook-worthy, in my opinion. I couldn't even bring myself to force my kids to be in a picture in front of it. I heard the Virgina side is amazing, so we'll do that someday. The kids chatted and pet the mules and then they found ANOTHER path, actually called the "River Trail" and we walked along the river some more until I got tired and hot and was ready to go home :)

*All in all: SO FUN.
Boat ride=fantastic
tow path=super fun
river exploring=superb
come again with husband=for sure, and with sturdier shoes :)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bay's Mountain Park and Covered Bridge of Elizabethton

Bay's Mountain Park has so much to offer that we were unable to do it all. We began in the Nature Center and watched two shows in their Planetarium. Then we went on the barge ride, which took us all around the lake by a very interesting and competent guide. The highlight was when our guide gave wolf howls to get the wolves, which are in pens on the nature trails, to start howling.
After the barge ride, we had to then follow the trails and see all the animals, including, of course, the wolves. There were many more trails to follow, but we wanted to see the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, so we had to cut our time short. When we get a chance, we certainly want to go back and explore Bay's Mountain Park more.
The Covered Bridge in Elizabethton has been closed to traffic and opened up as a footbridge attached to a park. Built in 1882, the Covered Bridge is believed to be the oldest such bridge that is still in use for pedestrians.It is a wonderful place for peace and serenity. We fed the ducks and explored the area for quite some time. I highly recommend stopping here if you are in the area for a quiet time to reflect. Click here to see photos of our adventure.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park

This park has many of the things you would expect for a state park such as hiking, fishing, camping and even a swimming pool, but it also has a reproduction of the cabin in which Davy Crockett was born. The cabin is furnished with reproductions of things that would be in a cabin of that day and there is a tended garden in the back. The footstone of the original cabin is outside the reproduction. The museum on premises has educational material about Davy Crockett, including a short video. (For more photos, click here .) We had a very fun, peaceful and educational time there. If you are in the area, you should really give it a try.

Friday, August 21, 2009

State Line Drive-In

Yeah, I know...what is new about a Drive-In? Fact is, it is so old, it is new. The State-Line Drive In reminds me of the drive-in I went to as a child, years ago. The name comes from the fact that it is on the Tennessee-Virginia border. It has a small playground of swingsets and teeter totters under the screen for the young ones to use before the show. The concession stand has incredible prices, with candy as low as 25 cents on up to $3.00 for a large popcorn. Although they do not show the most current movies, the price for admission is only $5 per person, 12 and over, free for anyone under 12. It was an entirely different experience than going to a regular movie theatre, with people bringing out picnic baskets and socializing before the show started. If you are near the area, I highly recommend you checking out the StateLine Drive-In, and if you don't, you might want to see if there is a drive-in in your area. You might be in for a pleasant surprise.

Cooper's Gem Mine, Blountville, TN

Cooper's Gem Mine is not a real mine, and the "mining" you do there is not authentic; its basically a "tourist trap," but it is oh, so much fun! You purchase a bucket of rocks that have pre-mixed in them semi-precious stones, fossils or arrowheads, depending on which bucket you choose. For the stones and the arrowheads, you take them to a "sluice" which is a trough with running water. There you pour your mixture into a box sieve and wash away the sand, dirt and small stones, revealing your treasures. For the fossils (and arrowheads, if you wish) you use a dry sieve, which is set up in a little tepee, because the water can damage the fossils. We all had fun at this. The place has been decorated to look like a TV version of a western town. It is very cute and we enjoyed taking pictures of the kids in around the fixtures. The kids enjoyed the treasure hunting aspect of it; a feeling of mystery about what you might discover. Prices vary anywhere from $4-$50, and include rock identification. For more pictures of our adventure, click here.

Maple Canyon and Mount Pleasant

New Summer Adventure #4

This was not on my original list of plans, but I'm counting it. Because it was new. Because it is summer. Because it was a great adventure. I may just better count it as a substitute for Cherry Hill, because for the second year in a row, we just can NOT seem to make it there as a family. A perfect hot afternoon may still present itself though, so we'll see.

Also included in this adventure was a drive down Moroni's main street, and a visit to Mount Pleasant. Wonderful, wonderful stuff, and I'm going to share.

All the way to Nephi, as Zach watched the mountains east of us pass by, he began to get frustrated. "Mom, you keep driving AROUND the mountain. We need to go TO it." :o)

Maple Canyon is west of Fountain Green, which appeared to be known for not much but turkey farms. The neighboring canyon is nothing short of a rock-climber's paradise. There are steep, climbable rock faces on every side. Many of them are gold-colored and have what look like nubbly hand and foot holds all over them, it even appeared that they just might be ready to fall apart. Solid they were, though, and perfect for climbing up or repelling down.

I barely remembered to snap this picture as I was leaving.

We went up on a Friday night, and were neighbor campers with our good friends. I never took a walk around the campground, but it seemed not large, and still pretty empty. By nightfall, though, lots of people were showing up and in the morning too. And they were almost all of the same people you would see showing up at any given climbing gym. I did notice a couple of trail heads, but never went exploring.

Take a good look at Sean's hair. I just trimmed it, a VERY little bit though. I'm the only one that gets to hold the scissors until he is one year old. :o)

In the morning, the young women from our ward were coming to have a day of climbing and repelling, which my husband and the other dad were helping with. Teresa and I and the kids hung out until lunch, then we hurried and packed up to go kill time at her parents' house in Mount Pleasant. I have to pat myself on the back here, because I packed up and loaded our entire camp by myself in about a half hour. It helped that Teresa's kids are about the same age as my own so they entertained each other. Neither of us had room in our vehicles for the huge bag of trash. We left that behind for the fellas. :o)

Some things I loved about the drive to Mount Pleasant:
*You're on a back road and it just feels like you could drive as fast as you pleased and you'd never get caught.
*Sometimes you'd see a home, where they have lots of recycled trash art for sale. Tin can windmills and the like.
*The fence posts were NOT from Home Depot. Most of them looked like giant twigs.
*Two places caught my eye in downtown Moroni. The Moroni Opera House. (I've gotta wonder if it's ever used for what it was intended anymore...) The Next Chapter book and gift shop. (I should have stopped in for a peek)
*Then from Moroni to Mount Pleasant you're just passing sprawling fields and farms and my mind loves the slowing-down feeling that just plain happens when you drive somewhere like this. Ahhhh... I should use a memory like that to help me fall asleep at night.

Teresa's parents have some horse property so after a quick pit stop at their house we drove to the field. My kids loved feeding the horses barley, and with my help Ben even dared have them eat it right out of his hand. Ben also got a little ride (walk) around with the horse (an older girl was also on with him). He was so relaxed and just loved it--I'm happy that I got a good video of that. Zach got only got to sit on one of the horses, because they were a little touchy and lots of kids were interested.

I know. Mostly a picture of a horse's tail end. But what do you do?

Then came my favorite part. At the end of the property was a pond, some big trees, and a rope swing; I decided to drive down the gravel road where there was some shade and I could feed Sean in the car. The kids had a running start but I passed them and got to see their happy running faces as they tried to keep up and beat their friends. Don't ask me why I relished this, it was just magical.

Then more moments that I just wanted to bottle up, as I fed Sean in the car. I rolled the windows down so the perfect 75-ish degree air could blow through. In whatever direction you looked you could see only see one or two buildings. My view was perfect for watching the kids play at the pond, my boys contentedly throwing rocks and twigs in. Teresa's dad helped those that wanted to with the rope swing.

Teresa's oldest, who is nine, and his friend made a sudden discovery and came running over to show all of the other kids. They had caught a frog and needed a container for it. Teresa produced a tupperware, probably wondering if that frog would be her new family pet. :o) Eventually things were winding down and we had to head for home. I just left feeling like the day could very well be one of the prize jewels in my kids treasure box of childhood memories.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

ETSU's Natural History Museum and Gray's Fossil Site

We started off our adventure here at the Fossil Dig site and our guide told us how the site came to be, how the get the fossils out of the site and what they have found there. Then we were brought into the museum where we were given a guided tour of the various fossils and the areas where they examine the fossils. The downstairs of the museum in geared toward children and has lots of hands-on activities and gorgeous murals. We had a wonderful time here and highly recommend it. The only part of the museum we did not like was the traveling exhibit, Rainforest Adventure, which was simplistic, not very well executed. I do not recommend you getting tickets for this. For more photos of our adventure, click here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Virginia's Safari Park

In this time of restrictions due to high insurance costs and law suits the Safari Park of Virginia is too incredible to believe! It is the ultimate petting zoo. You drive through the park with buckets of feed (which you purchase at the entrance gate), roll down your windows and hold the buckets out your window. The animals come right up to your window and feed from the buckets. We found feeding the ostriches particularly interesting because they take beaks full of feed and throw them up in the air to be caught back into their open beaks, throwing it to the back of their throats in the process. The prices are reasonable (Adults $14.00 and Children [ages 3-12 $10.00, Buckets of feed - $ 3.00 or 4 buckets for $10.00) and admission includes a booklet with color photos and information about all the animals you will see. This is definately a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed. Click here for more photos.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Camping in the Shenandoah Valley

If you are looking for a campground in the Lexington-Staunton area of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I highly recommend Lake Robertson. It has canoeing, hiking trails, a swimming pool (this wasn't open when we were there because it was so late in the season) and more. It is a clean, well-kept campground with large camping sites. The staff is friendly and helpful. They have a laundry room and have hot showers. We bought 8 pieces of wood for only $2, and rented canoes for only $5 per hour. The only down side is that it is a long, narrow 12-mile winding road that reaches the campground, which takes about a half-hour to travel at a safe speed.

Natural Bridge, Virginia

It is awesome to see a stone bridge 20 stories tall made by nature. The Natural Bridge complex is actually several attractions in one place. You can obtain tickets to the individual attractions, or combination tickets. In addition to the Natural Bridge itself, there is also a wax museum, caverns, a toy museum and a Native American Village. The wax museum features the history of the area of Natural Bridge as well as some Biblical scenes. It is cute and sweet. The Native American Village, although small, is very nice and informative. My boys loved it. The Toy Museum was not really a museum and looks to be someone's personal collection of toys. It, in our opinion, is not worth it. This complex is a pleasant way to spend a day. (BTW- This complex does have wheelchair access, taking you and your family by bus up the steep hill and the staff was very pleasant.)