Monday, May 27, 2013

#546 Vacation Virginia #7 - Shenandoah National Park

Driving the whole 20 miles to Shenandoah National Park can sometimes be too far.  So for Vacation Virginia #7, we opt to stay overnight in the park at Big Meadows Lodge during Memorial Day weekend.

Skyline Drive, the 105-mile scenic wonder that runs the length of Shenandoah National Park, is one of our favorites.

On what could be one of Virginia's most spectacular weekends of the year, our plan is to spend it outside - despite the lure of Arrested Development on Netflix!  The Milam Gap section of the Appalachian Trail is just the place for our meandering.  Thru-hikers heading north pass us like nobody's business because we're stopping to enjoy the day and also because they're just a whole lot faster than we are.  In Charlottesville, our ears have quickly grown accustomed to the consistent roar of the 17-year cicadas, but on the Milam Gap trail, we hear nothing but birds and the greetings from other hikers.

After a few hours on the trail, we replenish with lunch in a room with a view at the Skyland cafe.   And in an amazing display of technology, communications between Skyline Drive and the MV Explorer off the coast of Dover were handled with ease.  Though the cafe is busy on this holiday weekend, our veteran waitress tells us this is slow compared to October weekends. 

Kelly may have found his favorite kite flying spot - and that's saying something!  Kelly's kites have flown over the Puntarenas beach in Costa Rica, the mall in Washington DC, the citadel in Halifax, and off the back deck of the MV Explorer.  The big meadows at Big Meadows offer a consistent wind, an open space under blue skies, and a bunch of other kite-flying enthusiasts.

Just a stone's throw up the hill behind the Big Meadows Lodge, Blackrock Summit offers a stunning panorama view of the Shenandoah Valley. 

We eventually lose the light and head indoors to the comfort of the Big Meadows lobby and the music of the High Ground bluegrass band.

In Old Dominion, Eddie from Ohio got it right.  "When you're talking home, you mean the Old Dominion."

Yours in enjoying Sweet, Sweet, Virginia,

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#545 Vacation Virginia #6 - Blandy Farm

On UVA finals weekend when Charlottesville welcomes 35,000 out-of-town guests, we drive north two hours to the Winchester area for Vacation Virginia #6.  When we veer away from the commercial corridor that is highway 29 onto the lovely highway 231 paralleling the Blue Ridge, the scene shifts.  So many rolling hills, clear streams, inviting driveways, and often a view of the mountains make us think this may be the prettiest drive in Virginia.  But then we remember Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and all the other beautiful Virginia drives!

Our first destination is the State Arboretum of Virginia, UVA's Blandy Experimental Farm.   We give the secret librarian handshake and quick as a wink, we're inside the Blandy library.  

As cool as libraries are, we're really here to see the Ginkgo Grove.  The 300-tree ginkgo grove is the largest such grove in North America.  Seeds collected in 1929 from a single mother tree on UVA grounds were planted at the Blandy Farm and 300 of those seeds grew to maturity.  We enjoy the privilege of walking under the ginkgo canopy more than 80 years on. 

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley is definitely a Michael Graves building.  Upstairs, the main gallery is topped by a stylized timber structure suggestive of a Shenandoah Valley barn.  I quickly remember another Graves-designed ceiling, the barrel vaults at the NCAA office.  Mr. Graves likes for us to look up.

Six acres of gardens surround the museum. We find the Chinese garden unexpectedly impressive.  Moss, stone, water, bamboo, and Koi are expertly stitched into this nearly hidden, serene, and superb Shenandoah landscape.

Our fun day ends with another drive-in movie, Star Trek Into Darkness at the Family Drive-In in Stephens City.  While Bengie's Drive-In had boasted of the largest screen in the country, the Family Drive-In boasts of being the only 2-screen drive-in theater in Virginia (and perhaps one of the smallest screens.)  The theater guy and UDITOA report 9 drive-in theaters are still operating in Virginia, but I can only find 8 (Christiansburg, Goochland, Keysville, Lexington, Marion, Moneta, Norton, Stephens City).  Does anyone know the 9th?

Yours in enjoying a weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Charlottesville,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

#544 Vacation Virginia #5 - Maymont

Richmond is only an hour east of Charlottesville, but we haven't made time for much exploring there, until Vacation Virginia #5.

Our goal: tour the Maymont house and walk their renowned Japanese garden.  On May 11, the day before Mother's Day, the grounds of Maymont are crowded with families when we arrive with our Richmond friend Sara.  But our tour guide Wendy manages our group well and introduces us to the Dooley family who built the house in 1893 and lived it in for 30 years.  We feel we have known the Dooleys for a while since we have often visited Swannanoa, their summer home (or mountain retreat) at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Maymont house is a complete example of the Gilded Age as it was bequeathed directly from the Dooleys to the city of Richmond and preserved.  The clutter is almost overwhelming, but we like the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows, the wide wood trim, the inviting library, the elaborate stained glass windows, and the numerous connections to Swannanoa.  The downstairs exhibits of the servants' lives bring Downton Abbey to mind.

Down a steep hill, past a natural waterfall over large stones and almost to the James River, we enter through a gate to the beautiful Japanese garden.

We end our day with a visit to the University of Richmond's International Center where Kelly enjoys the spectacular globe fountain.  Yes, he's pointing out the intersection of the equator and the prime meridian just south of Ghana. 

Yours in finally hitting some of Richmond's highlights,

Monday, May 20, 2013

#543 Vacation Virginia #4 - Fort McHenry, National Air and Space Museum

To be precise, Vacation Virginia #4 takes us just outside our state borders into Maryland.

Our goals are to eat some crab cakes, see the movie "42" at a drive-in theater, and tour Fort McHenry.  We succeed in all these things and so much more!

O! say can you see that giant flag flying over the star-shaped Fort McHenry?  On the gorgeous morning of May 4, the winds are calm enough that the largest flag is flying proudly against a brilliant blue sky.  Yea for Baltimore's citizen soldiers nearly 200 years ago in 1814 and yea for Francis Scott Key!

After yummy crab cakes at G & M restaurant, we walk the mill race alongside Little Gunpowder Falls at Jerusalem Mill, a reassembled mill village that looks a lot like it did in 1772. 

The highlight of our evening is an outdoor movie, "42" about Jackie Robinson.  Drive-in theaters are a fragile business, with only 357 remaining in operation today - according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.  And the move to digital may put many more out of business.  So while every drive-in theater in Virginia is showing Iron Man 3, we see this terrific movie at Bengie's Drive-In, on the biggest movie theater screen in the US, 52' x 120'. 

For more fun on the way home, we stop at Green Acres Elementary School in Fairfax, VA.  Never heard of it, you say?  Though it is now a community center, Green Acres is where I kick-started my education. Gina, a proud Green Acres graduate who now works in the center, showed me around and let me peek in the classrooms and the old library a few decades after I'd last seen it! 

Finally, we opted for one more fun event - a visit to the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles.  In preparation for our fall adventure with astronaut Kathy Thornton, we want to check out her typical ride, the space shuttle Discovery.

Yours in crossing the border into Mary-land and back again,

Sunday, May 19, 2013

#542 Vacation Virginia #3 - Great Big Sea

Vacation Virginia #3 is really just a late night.  But that happens so rarely, it counts as a vacation.

Great Big Sea, one of my all-time favorite bands, is playing at the Warner Theater in Washington DC.  We convince our DC friend Trista to join us and we drive 3 hours north to meet her, along with Alan, Sean, and Bob.

The boys open with Ordinary Day, though it's not.  On this their 20th anniversary tour, they play two full sets from 8:00 to 11:00, including many of our favorites.  I especially love those a cappella songs with Sean on the drum - like River Driver. 

I've been lucky enough to see Great Big Sea six times - but never twice in the same state.  My goal is to one day see them play in front of a home-town crowd at Mile One Stadium in Saint John's, Newfoundland.

Yours in looking forward to the next one,

Saturday, May 18, 2013

#541 Vacation Virginia #2 - Shenandoah National Park

We can't go long without remembering how near we are to Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian Trail.  Twenty beautiful miles in the car gets us to the entrance of the park on April 14 for Vacation Virginia weekend #2.  Soon, we're on the beautiful Riprap Trail.

And because it's impossible for Kelly to be anywhere near Ron King's kettle popcorn truck without stopping, we stopped.  Two bags, size large, go to the Scholars' Lab and to the Johnston home.

Yours in celebrating the closeness of our favorite things,

Friday, May 17, 2013

#540 Vacation Virginia #1 - Appomattox Court House

The Johnston 2013 summer vacation plan is to spend time exploring the beautiful Commonwealth of Virginia.

We kicked off the summer season last month on April 6 with Vacation Virginia #1 when we ventured about an hour and a half south of Charlottesville to Appomattox Court House.

After watching Spielberg's Lincoln, we wanted to see the Confederate surrender room in the McLean house at Appomattox.  One powerful combination!


And because it's impossible for Kelly to be anywhere near Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest without stopping, we stopped.  On this visit, we learned about Mr. Jefferson's route from Monticello to Poplar Forest.  It's always about the maps.

Yours in kicking off the Vacation Virginia season,