Friday, June 15, 2007

Washington, D.C.

At last, something blogworthy! My family (mom, dad, uncle) and I went to Williamsburg, VA and Washington, D.C. for a long weekend. I took a ton of pictures, which you can see here. Only a few are interspersed below. This was my third trip to D.C., but everyone else’s first. I was excited to show them all the grandeur that is our nation’s capital.

Day One

We left around quarter till 11 in the morning, and made it to the hotel in Williamsburg, VA around 2. We checked in and then went to lunch at a local deli near the College of William and Mary. Then we headed over to Colonial Williamsburg, which I previously had thought you needed tickets to enter (they cost a whopping $36). But according to one person’s review on Trip Advisor (invaluable travel planning resource!), you can walk up and down the streets and enjoy the outdoor demonstrations for free; you only have to pay if you want to be able to go into all the little workshops and houses to converse with the “characters.”

When you get there, you see why they can’t charge everyone admission. It’s basically several blocks of a town that they’ve restored to look like it did in colonial times, but it is still an actual town, not a theme park. There are even private residences where people live. I thought it was funny and more than a little anachronistic to see one such house with a postcard in the mailbox from Cox Cable.

Although the town more or less shuts down by late afternoon, we did get there in time to catch up with the end of “Revolutionary City,” a 2-hour show of sorts that culminates in a fife and drum march down the main street and over to the capitol building, where the governor proclaims independence from England. After leading the crowd in a rousing three cheers for independence (hip-hip, hooray!), we were all startled by the sound of a massive canon firing. Then we got to watch the team of soldiers reload and refire.

After browsing through some of the gift shops on the way out, each of which basically sells the same stuff as all the others, we headed towards Hampton to check out the site of where the Monitor and Merrimack clashed in the Battle of the Ironclads during the Civil War. You have to drive through a very not-nice part of town and then through a super-nice part of town to get to it. And of course, all that’s there is a plaque and open water. But it’s still neat for a history buff like me to see.

Next we headed toward Norfolk, VA, which required going through an underwater tunnel. Quite a remarkable feat of engineering. Apparently because the naval base is so close, they did not want to put up a bridge (which would have, of course, been much cheaper) because in the event it was destroyed, the warships would not be able to pass through to get out to sea. We went to Oceanview Beach and walked around a little bit. My uncle had not been to the East Coast before, so he wanted to touch the Atlantic. Now, technically we were not on the Atlantic, but rather a harbor, but, eh, close enough.

To wrap up the day we had a late dinner—or should I say breakfast—at Cracker Barrel. Always a good meal, if you can overlook the heartstopping quantities of fat on your plate. Then it was back to the hotel. It was a cute Quality Inn that you could tell had not been renovated probably since it was built in the 60’s but it was kept up very well. The rooms were large and clean and had a colonial theme. Plus, free wi-fi! The rate was also very reasonable. I would recommend the hotel to anyone looking for an affordable place in a good location.

Day Two

The next morning we drove to Washington, D.C., or rather Springfield, VA, where our hotel was (Red Roof Inn--small rooms, no wi-fi or breakfast, but a relative bargain). We checked in early and then went straight for the Metro stop nearby. After a minor glitch getting everyone through the turnstiles (who knew each person needs their own card?! Everyone can use the same card in Chicago!) we discovered on the platform that due to construction, we could expect up to 30-minute delays because both the yellow and blue lines had to share one track. After the train finally came, it took us quite a while to go 8 stops to Arlington. We then bought tickets for the Tourmobile to take us around the cemetery. I had read in two different tour books that you could buy a ticket after 1pm and it would be good for the rest of that day plus the next day, but when I got to the counter and asked to confirm, the lady said she knew nothing about that. Grr.

Anyway, we went out side and waited for the tram along with 2,000 other people, it seemed like. It was kind of frustrating that they didn’t have more operating to lessen the wait. Although we were under a shelter, it was still warm and relatively humid. The tour itself, in terms of the guide’s narration, was so-so. We got off at the Kennedy grave site first, to see the eternal flame. This was everyone’s first sighting of the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Capitol. Although it was hazy, it was still a nice view.

Back on the tram, the second narrator was also just okay. We got off at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard.

It’s a very solemn ceremony that makes you marvel and their precision and discipline…and wonder about how they can be wearing a full dress uniform and still not break a sweat while the rest of us are wearing t-shirts and shorts and a generous coating of perspiration.

The next stop was the Arlington House, but we didn’t bother to get off. I’d seen it once before and was not super impressed. The guide on this last leg of the tour was better. He was full of interesting tidbits, such as the fact that one of the Virginia Tech victims was buried at Arlington. He also pointed out the grave site of one of the pilots whose plane crashed into the Pentagon.

After we were dropped off back at the Visitor’s Center, we walked over to the Iwo Jima Memorial, also known as the Marine Corps War Memorial. I really think this should be included among the Tourmobile stops, because it is quite a hike to get there. As we approached the giant statue, my parents were struck by its size. Of course, since my brother’s a Marine, they had seen it before, as it is one of the iconic symbols of that branch of the military. But until you see it in person, it’s hard to grasp just how massive it really is. You get another awesome view of the Washington landscape from here. It’s a good taste of what’s to come.

When we were finished at Arlington, we got back on the Metro and headed for the Old Post Office, because we were all famished, and they have a food court there.

After we ate, we took a ride on the elevator to the top of the clock tower for a spectacular view of the city, second only to the Washington Monument (or so I’m told; I’ve never gone up in the WM because you have to get to the ticket booth super early to get timed tickets and they always run out). There are several neat things about the tower view: 1) it’s not enclosed, so there is a really nice breeze up there; 2) it’s not crowded at all and there’s no wait to go up; 3) they have signs on each of the four sides which help you find the landmarks. Some are obvious, but others (like the Treasury) would otherwise get lost in the jungle of marble columns. This was something I’d never done before, because both of my prior visits were with big group tours, and the elevator aspect makes it an impractical stop if you have a lot of people.

Right down the street from the Old Post Office are the National Archives. My parents are rabid fans of the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure (it's on my list of faves too) and were very excited to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Luckily the line was very short, unlike the previous times I’d been there.

After viewing the nation’s founding documents, we headed for the White House, which to my parents is the definitive Washington landmark.

I think the Capitol is more impressive architecturally, but they are Bush fans, and presidential fans in general—they also love the Michael Douglas movie The American President. We made sure to go around to both the north and south sides. We knew Bush was not in D.C. that day—he was still in Europe after the G8 summit—but there were still sharpshooters on the roof.

Next we walked over to the Washington Monument, where apparently there had been protesters earlier that day. It’s funny to me that they are so dedicated to their cause during the protest, but then afterwards, the signs are merely trash.

Our final stop of the evening was at the new World War II Memorial. Unfortunately, since I had never seen it while on a group tour, I didn’t have much information to share about it, and it was not in the guide books I had. But it was still nice, although a little evocative of the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas.

By this point our feet were about to fall off and everyone was exhausted. We hopped on the Metro and after picking up the car, went for a very late dinner at Ihop in Springfield. Don’t go there. The service is awful. Ordering a salad was an ordeal.

Day Three

After breakfast at the Silver Diner (cute place, yummy food) we got on the Metro again. I had been afraid that we might not be able to find parking at the station since it was a Monday and I’d read that the commuters fill up the structure, but we found a spot without a problem. We got off at the Arlington stop again to catch the Tourmobile’s other route around D.C. First stop, Lincoln Memorial. This is where we saw our first helicopter; not just any helicopter, but one that looks just like the one that carries the president. The kind you see landing on the lawn of the White House on the news. Of course, according to the news, Bush was not due to be back in the States until that evening. Now, I’m no republican, but I’d still be a little awe-struck to see the president. I am an American, after all.

Right nearby Lincoln is the Korean War Memorial. This was my first time seeing it during the day; I think it’s better viewed at night. Spookier. After that was the Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial.

Someone had put placards near the names of soldiers who had died 40 years ago that weekend, with their photo and a short bio. That gave a little humanity to the otherwise stoic black rock.

We were able to skip the next few stops on the Tourmobile because we had seen those sites the night before. So our next stop was the Air and Space Museum, which is, according to several sources, the most visited museum in D.C. It’s pretty cool, I have to say, to see all those real planes. I was a little underwhelmed by the moon rock at the entrance, though. It was just a flat black thing. They couldn't have anything bigger and cooler-looking on display?

What I was most looking forward to was the American Treasures exhibit, which contains all of the best items from the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, which is closed for renovation until 2008. I was so bummed when I heard it wouldn’t be open for our trip, and then elated to discover that the highlights were moved to the Air and Space Museum for the interim. I took a photo of practically every piece, from Kermit the Frog to Lewis and Clark’s compass.

The airplane that the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk was special to us because we now call North Carolina home. The exhibit was really well done.

The next stop on the Tourmobile was the U.S. Capitol.

Both the Senate and the House were in session, but the tours were over for the day, so we had to settle for snapping a few photos of the exterior. It’s amazing to think that at one time, our representatives would just walk up the steps and right on in, whereas now it’s hyper secure.

With only a little time left before the Tourmobile would be ending for the day, we got off at the Jefferson Memorial.

This site was a little less crowded and the breeze was delightful. We stopped to get a frozen treat and take a break. Here was where we saw two or three more helicopters, which nearly gave my mother a heart attack, because any one of them could be carrying the president. I wonder if some of them were decoys??

Finally we rode back to the starting place, where we caught the subway to Metro Center. The information clerk from Arlington had recommended it as a good place to look for a restaurant for dinner. When we got up to street level, we started walking and didn’t see much, so I asked a lady on the street for her opinion. She said Metro Center actually wasn’t a great spot to find a place to eat, that we should instead go one stop up to Dupont Circle. She was very nice and helpful, so we took her advice and we ended up at a great place called Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. The food was amazing, even though it took a while to arrive. We walked around the Circle a little afterwards, and then I tried to show my parents the big hunk of the Berlin Wall outside of the Newseum, but apparently it’s not on display while the museum is undergoing construction. So we just went home. It was our earliest night yet!

Day Four

Having seen all the heavy hitters in D.C., today was spent on the outskirts. We went to the Manassas Battlefield about 30 miles west, and did both the walking tour and driving tour.

The museum in the Visitor Center was pretty good, I will admit, but the tours were a little lacking. The guide on the walking tour was a newbie, and quite the rambler. His talk could have been wrapped up in 15 minutes but it dragged on for 45. And the driving tour, unlike Antietam where there was cool stuff to see at every stop, was lackluster. Many of the stops were just to look out at a hill.

Our final stop was at the Marine Corps Museum near Quantico, VA.

It opened just last year. As I’ve said, my brother is a Marine and so I do have some interest in the Corps, and I will say that the museum was really well done. It kept my interest for over an hour, which is saying a lot. There are big tanks and planes everywhere, with soldier mannequins in position to give you a real idea of what it’s like to be in combat. The Iwo Jima immersion experience and the Vietnam landing experience were very well done.

So I’m typing this as we are driving home; it’s about half past nine, and my dad is currently swearing at the Garmin because it led us astray. It has been invaluable on this trip, as it always is, and has only been confused a couple of times: once, in Springfield, because of the new freeway interchanges, and once just a few minutes ago when it said to exit left and there was no exit on the left, so we ended up taking the “scenic route,” although it’s hard to say how scenic it is since it is pitch black outside. While she’s not perfect, she eventually gets you home, which is all that counts. We only lost about 10 minutes which in the grand scheme of things isn’t bad.


  1. Wow, fabbo post, lots of great stuff!!! Glad you had a good trip.

  2. Being a member of the republican party could be contagious....better be careful dear. My party affiliation is only a small portion of what I am and this reflects closest to my beliefs. I'd much rather be associated with George Bush than Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid. These people are scary. Less government and more freedom...I would rather have the option to make my own choices rather than have someone telling me what to do. Bottom line, I'm an American and it's probably just better to leave it at that. You never know, I could change affiliations....won't change my personal life, just a party affiliation.