Friday, August 2, 2013

Exploring Virginia - Virginia Kids Museum, First Landing and the Crater

Hey, what d'ya know, I'm almost caught up on the pictures! These ones are very recent, from last weekend when we decided to drive an hour and a half to Portsmouth to check out Virginia Kids Museum. Thanks to our awesome membership at the local Life and Science Museum, we get free admission, so why not go.

We were glad we went. It is a very nice museum, very hands-on. Unfortunately, M wasn't old enough to try the Crime Investigation Lab. It's better suited for kids 8 and older. But maybe next year... We did check it out and at first he was quite interested. But there was just too much other stuff going on, things like giant soap bubbles...
and here's M and I working on getting a bubble wall around us.
And a giant and surprisingly comfy giant chair...
And a chance to captain a boat, put out a (fake) fire, drive a bus...
... ride on a police motorcycle with flashing lights...
... play a slapophone aka a pipe organ...
BTW, Chris got some job-related training operating a gantry crane. M was curious about it and spent quite some time moving 40-foot containers from ship to shore and back.

And then there's the entire second floor! Which was a bit quieter and a lot more fascinating. It was almost entire taken over by an exhibit about energy and ways it can be transferred. Yeah, I tried it too and got all nostalgic about port operations.

There were simple machines, of course, and you could try to lift an elephant (with a long lever) or hoist yourself up using a pulley system (which made me feel like I was only a little bit lighter than an elephant)...
And you could launch an air rocket and a hot air balloon. Or see sound waves. Or pretend you were having an epic battle between Darth Sidious and Yoda, controlling the Force with your bare hands.
And you could watch iron filings dance to the music...

Aside from the energy exhibit, there is also a sizable art lab on the second floor. The best part was playing with this wall, making prints in it. This is our family portrait. But we also left butt prints there too (ok, those were quickly erased, but boy was it fun to watch them appear!) M made countless impressions of himself playing the "carbonite freeze" scene.
He then tried his hand at building with architectural blocks. At first, he felt inspired by the Parthenon.
But once that was done (sort of done, actually, 'cause there weren't enough blocks), he built a hasty carbonite freeze chamber
The afternoon was going great and we decided to drive 30 min more to the First Landing park. Good choice. Sure, it wasn't the ocean. And sure there were lots of people there. But it was very family friendly; the water was calm and stayed shallow for a while; the sand was soft; and there were some treasures to be found (a pottery shard, a sun-bleached bird bone, a couple of mermaids' purses, some flotsam).
Turns out, there is a nice camp ground there and some cabins for rent, lots of hiking trails around, bike rental, lots of ranger-led activities pretty much each day. What a nice place!
But it was getting late and we were starving. So we drove another 30 min or so to a pizza place in Virginia Beach. And then walked over to a Ben and Jerry's. What kind of a perfect summer outing would it be without ice-cream?!
Only then did we realize that it was well past 8pm and we had about 2.5 hrs to drive back to the hotel. Oops! We definitely needed to spend the next day doing something low-key. In fact, I just stayed in bed for most of the next day. And Chris and M stayed around the hotel, playing Frisbee, remote-controlled cars, going to a pool and whatever else they did. Then late in the afternoon we all went on a little tour of the Petersburg Battlefield. This time we got a map even though we knew our destination, the Crater.
 So we explored as much of it as we were allowed (you can't climb into the Crater or on the earthwork on the battlefield). We talked about digging a narrow, low tunnel in utmost secrecy, narrowly avoiding hitting the enemy mines, staying quiet as a mouse, hauling dirt out and spreading it around to avoid detection. We also talked about what an explosion must've felt like (without the gory details given M's age).
M seemed to be particularly interested in the cannons and how they worked and how they were sighted and how they were moved from place to place. Which reminds me, maybe we should try building a potato cannon? Anyway, we go to the battlefield pretty much every weekend we're in VA since it's right outside Chris's hotel. And it's nice to be able to explore it bit by bit.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pix from the NC Zoo

Yep, I'm totally lazy. So lazy that I don't even bother to come up with a title for this post. But this photos are way overdue. Anyway, we went to a zoo in Asheboro with good friends.

It was a long hot day and one of the first animals we got to see was this awesome polar bear. It was his meal time. The zoo keeper would throw fish to the bear and the bear would lumber around looking for it. Sometimes it would step of the rocks into the cold water. We hoped he'd jump and splash us, but that didn't happen. But the kids got to crawl into this fake ice-cave and they claimed it was nice and cold there.

The big attraction in the Asheboro Zoo right now is the Dinosaurs exhibit. So we bought the add-on tickets to see that. But first kids wanted to ride on a carousel.
And then they wanted to watch a 4D movie. We figured out (belatedly), that the 4th dimension was the part where you are sprayed with water and, most painfully, kicked in the back by your own seat! It seriously hurt! But the kids had a blast and that's all that matters, right?

Now,  I loved the dinosaurs - they are huge, some move and even the ones that don't are extremely life-like. But the kiddos are spoiled by the excellent Dino Dig experience at our local Life and Science Museum (in Durham). So they pretty much strolled by. The only two that really got their attention were the alarmingly realistic and blood-thirsty giganotosauras
and the much-smaller carnivorous dinosaur that spits poison at you when you stop near it (ok, the one in the park spits water, but the point is it SPITS it and that, if you ask any 6-year old, is the important part)

And then we walked some more and saw lots more animals, including giraffes and zebras and elephants (one of them pooped which also was exciting, as you can imagine). And the kid got to sit on all sorts of (fake) animals - a dinosaur...
a giant honey bee and
a baby rhino, to name a few...
But the biggest hit of all were the various playgrounds all through the zoo. They seriously rock! You can go to the zoo and just spend a day there on the playgrounds. I could! And the kids were all for it too. Even after they got very tired (walking the entire length of the zoo!) and hungry and it was very hot, but they just wanted to stay and play.
They especially liked the playground closest to the North America entrance. It was very simple - no slides, no climbing equipment, no fancy stuff at all. Instead, lots of random objects to make little hide-outs with, to bake mud pies with, to play with water, old tires, a wheel barrow, and various odds and ends.
Unbelievably, even after pretty much an entire day of walking, running, climbing and playing, the kids were ready for more fun. So we stopped at the Mills Creek Orchard. Unfortunately, the pick-your-own peaches and grapes weren't ready yet. But we picked yummy thorn-less blackberries and some late season blueberries.

 And then the boys got to drink freshly made no-sugar added peach slushies (yummy!!!!) and swing on tire swings.
 And everyone was very happy.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Exploring Virginia - James River and Hampton

Since we spend so much time in Virginia now, I picked up a map of attractions and scenic routes and set out to see as much of the state as possible in the next couple of months. So here are some places we visited and some things we've done while there.

I love the old-fashioned maps. I mean, sure, GPS can be very convenient and you can look up directions online too. The problem is you have to know where you want to go. But a map lets you roam and discover things you've never thought of before. It leaves a lot more room for serendipity.

Even before our first trip to VA this summer, I looked up the nearest beach other than Virginia Beach. Well, Buckroe Beach came up in a search and that's where we went a few weekends ago. I was pretty skeptical 'cause I've been spoiled by the beautiful Kure Beach here in NC. Well, I must admit that Kure is a whole lot more scenic, less crowded, and has lots of beautiful shells (I will post pictures soon) that Buckroe seems to lack. But Buckroe Beach is worth a visit (unlike way overcrowded and trashed Topsail Beach).

First, Buckroe is a family beach. It's got lots of open spaces for kids to run apart from the beach itself. There is a park with a huge lawn and a nice playground. There is also a small pier. The beach itself is clean. Lots of families with kids and yet plenty of room for everyone and you don't risk being hit in the face by a beach ball or strangled by a runaway kite. There are no fishermen on the beach itself, so in that way it's even better than Kure. And before you peg me as a fishermen hater, the only problem I have with fishermen is that they are typically too lazy to stand or sit by their rods and warn you about getting tangled in the lines. And those lines are hard to see even up close!

Another hugely attractive thing about Buckroe is its facilities. I'm talking parking and bathrooms here. Both are plentiful even on a hot summer day. And on a family outing a convenient parking and a no-wait-necessary bathroom are a top priority.

We spent most of the time at Buckroe building sand castles. See this poopy thing next to me? That's Chateau de Stinko or Poopy Castle. In the background, M is building his own castle. Sadly, it got washed away before I had a chance to take a photo (I was too busy building a moat around my Chateau).

Remember the map I told you about? Well, I didn't look at it for the first couple of visits and that's how come we kept driving on US-64 and it wasn't exactly scenic and the traffic sucked every single time. Map to the rescue! We discovered Rt 5, the scenic drive that takes you to Williamsburg which is just a short drive to Hampton.

It's such a pretty road! And there's a lovely bike path that goes alongside it for miles and miles. It'd be awesome to bike at least a part of it when the weather cools a bit (and M learns to ride a bike and we get bikes, so lots of "ands" here and likely not to ever happen).

So last weekend we went to Hampton again, but this time not to the beach the reason being I overslept and got up around 11. So it was too late for our original plan of driving to Washington, DC and going to the Air and Space Museum there. Fortunately, I looked at the map and noticed that there was a Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton. And it was a member of ASTC which meant we would get in for free thanks to our membership to the Life and Science Museum in Durham.

The place was terrific! M loved everything about it. He asked me to take pictures of him in front of the REAL (as in "not a replica") Apollo 12 Command Module!

He tried his hand at all sorts of simulators - Mars landing, Mars rover control, Shuttle landing... Sure, he crushed on all of them. So did I. Those are tough simulators. Yep, even the one where you are trained to give signals to pilots on deck of an aircraft carrier.

We all took turns at it.

But M successfully planned a Lunar mission and launched a hot air balloon.

And piloted a DC-9. And co-piloted it.

And he took a billion very detailed pictures of various instrument panels, electrical and hydraulics systems and such. He really gets into it and does a very thorough job documenting even tiny details.

By the time we were done, we were starving. But finding inexpensive food in Downtown Hampton without a guide or an area map was tough. We walked to a nearby seafood place but it was way expensive. Fortunately, there were preparations under way for the Rolling of the Bulls.

So we got some delicious fish and shrimp tacos for us and a corndog for M and made ourselves at home on the downtown Hampton's sidewalk.

Turns out, it was a half-mile run (around the block) and the runners were chased by the ladies from the local Roller Derby team swinging wiffle ball bats. And afterward there was a huge water balloon battle. If we are in the area next year, I'll consider taking part in both!

Very satisfied with our serendipitous finds, we took the scenic Route 5 back. It was awesome! And we discovered that Chris's hotel is only 30 min or so away from Shirley Plantation. Naturally, we went to Shirtley the very next day.

Turns out it is the oldest continuously operating plantation in the US. How cool is that?! In fact, for the last 350 years or so it's been owned by the same family. The 11th generation of the family still lives in the Main House. How cool is that?! Although it must be a bit weird to basically live in the museum.

But there were lots of cool things to see there, including the old kitchen, the old tools and implements (M took a lot of pictures of everything with gears), and the ice house with its 15ft well that used to hold several tons of ice. It looked spooky!

I'm already planning our next trip. We're saving Colonial Williamsburg for cooler months and  the mountains are a bit far for a quick day trip. There are lots of battlefields around, including one right outside of Chris's hotel, but M's a bit too young. And we're trying to stay indoors or on the water because of the heat. Well, we'll think of something.