Washington DC Vacation

We just returned from a vacation to Washington D.C. First of all: a huge thanks to my Michigan parents for providing this as we would not have gone without them financing the whole thing! It was a great trip with several stories to tell, but I’ll try to stick with just an overview.

Monday: It’s morning in Michigan and we have a flight to Baltimore to catch.  Yes, it’s the end of April and there’s snow coming down; that’s Michigan for you.  It’s not the first time the kids have been through a pre-flight de-icing, but they still seem to get a kick out of it—especially when the pinkish liquid gets sprayed above the windows and the snow slides down in front of their eyes.  When we step outside in Baltimore, however, it is undeniably spring.  Even though the temperature says light coats are in order, the sun is bright and warming enough to strip down to short sleeves.  We splurge on a taxi, (hey, it’s vacation!), to downtown, grab lunch somewhere and head over to the aquarium.  Awesome.  We then walk along the waterfront, tour some historic ships, grab dinner, (time flies), then manage to find our way to some public transportation back to the airport.

Sidebar: we packed everything in a couple carry-on bags and planned to put them in a locker in the airport.  We even called the airport to make sure they had lockers for this and they said yes, but when we got there we were told that all lockers had been removed after 9/11.  So, we were wheeling around the carry-on bags all over Baltimore, although managed to stash them here and there—no big deal.

We grabbed a shuttle to our hotel in College Park, MD and checked in.  It was still early, so the kids and I took a walk.  We wandered for about a half mile out then headed up a block, (and a large hill), to get back to the hotel away from the traffic and small sidewalks right next to the road.  We ended up on a street of student housing with no sidewalks.  Even though we had to pick though broken beer bottles on the street and loud parties, I felt safer.  At least on this street the kids could be kids and I didn’t have to worry as much about them accidentally stepping off the curb into oncoming traffic.

Sidebar: we planned to take the Metro into D.C. proper and the closest station was a mile away from the hotel.  There is a free shuttle between the two, but it stops at 7:30 and I doubted that we’d be back before then most nights.  So, my suggestion for a walk was not only a way to get rid of excess energy in the kids, but for me to get a feel for the area.  I thought that it wouldn’t be a big deal making the walk to the Metro station, but this was a *busy* road and after our limited tour I wasn’t comfortable with that route.

Tuesday: This is the first test in logistics.  The hotel has a shuttle to the Metro station where we can get into DC easy.  However, based on the walk the night before, I suggested the shuttle and the bus back.  Unfortunately, the shuttle is not dedicated to just our hotel, and there was a long delay in getting us to the Metro station, (about an hour).  From now on it’s busses…mostly.

When we got to the Metro station, we had to figure out the ticket system.  Day one was a learning experience.  After that, the kids took over pushing buttons.  By the end of the trip they were also helping other tourists work the machines.

But back to Day one in D.C.  We ended up on the Mall and walked to the Washington Monument to take some pictures.  At this point, all the tickets to the top had long since been issued.  When I called about advance tickets I was told that there were none available until June 27th.  So I figured the base would be as far as we got.  Luckily the kids were OK with that.  However, as we were snapping photos, someone out of the blue gave us tickets to go in because they had too many for their tour group.  15 minutes later we were at the top looking out.

After that we headed to the Native American Museum for lunch with a stop-off at the Smithsonian “Castle” to admire the building.  Then it was off to the Air and Space Museum.  We explored that for several hours until we decided that it was dinner time, (tip: when in D.C., set dinner time about an hour before it’s really dinner time—two hours if you want a “sit-down” meal).

We rode the Metro to Chinatown figuring we’d find something there.  After prompting, a Metro guard told us to turn right after exiting the station, go down about three restaurants, then go up the red steps adding that, “it may not be the best place, but that’s where I eat around here”.  It looked dingy as we passed by, so we asked a worker at a nearby building for their recommendation and they told us the exact same place saying that it’s where “all the workers go”.  It *was* dingy, the staff barely spoke English, there was a heated argument in Chinese over our order in front of us that the kids and I later “translated” in different ways as a running joke throughout the rest of the trip, but the food was simply excellent.  We then took the Metro and bus back to the hotel.

Wednesday: At this point we realized that the time planned wouldn’t meet what we wanted to see and we had to shed some things.  The kids also wanted to swim in pool at the hotel.  (Since it was still “off-peak” season, the pool—one of the main reasons this hotel was chosen—didn’t open until 4.  I was expecting an early swim every morning to fill time while the parental types got up as they are not used to our early morning schedule, but that was not to be.)  So, we had to make it an early evening to make use of the facilities.  But we also had tickets to the trolley tours, the Capitol tour, and other D.C. attractions…

Our first stop was Dingall’s office to grab our Capitol tickets.

Lesson: if you’re visiting D.C., grab as many tickets as possible through your Congressman’s office—and start six months in advance.  We tried to get a White House tour, but no-go on short notice and we didn’t even try the Pentagon after that.

When we got downtown, there was some security drill going on, (it was explained as a fire drill, which happens about twice a year we were told), so there were police and these metal “Stop” gates up everywhere in the roads.  There was also a lack of people, which was surreal even then before I had fully grasped the magnitude of the crowds in the area.  No one stopped us from walking around, though, so we wandered about in relative solitude waiting for it to end.  It did finally, (and good thing too as the pollen counts were way high and William’s eyes were a red mess at this point—and his allergy meds were at the hotel).

Once we got in and managed to find Dingall’s office, the aides were really nice and one took us through the underground tunnels to the Capitol.  It reminded me of the underground tunnels in Toronto except for less obtrusive stores.  After a brief wait, we went on a walking tour and then headed to see the House and Senate chambers.  Congress wasn’t in session at the time, but the halls were impressive.  I kept thinking of the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and even today it looked the same.

Off to the Natural History and American History museums to kill the rest of the day and a nice dinner at the food court at the Old Post Office.  (If you keep walking around there looking like you might buy something, I think you can get enough free samples to make a meal.)  Off to the Metro!  A couple people on the same train called the shuttle in advance, so for once there was no wait and no bus.

Back to the hotel, (cue N2Deep), for swimming.  I gotta get some gum and some Tick-Tacks!  No packet of Black Jacks, though…

Thursday: After all was said and done, we walked a good 10 miles this day, (the kids are great troopers, although I have to get Ann some better walking shoes).  After a bus and Metro ride, we hit up the Spy Museum, (nice, but in my view they mis-emphasized some important nuances).  While waiting for entry there, the kids and I hoofed it to Ford’s Theater, (where Lincoln was shot), to get tickets for later that day.  (The joke / reality there is for many of these public things—without Congressional tickets—you have to wait in line to get timed tickets and then wait in line to get in.  Congressional tickets won’t solve the latter.)

Both visits done and with lunch on the street, we took the trolley tour’s “green” line.  The guide was awesome and talked a lot about the architecture of the city, the National Cathedral, Georgetown and Embassy row.  The buildings were simply amazing.  We got off around the White House, (painted as a security guard told us when questioned), then walked off to the war memorials and the Jefferson memorial.  I wanted to go all the way to the FDR memorial, but by this point, the kids were about knocked out from walking and we still had to get back, (William napped for a good 15 minutes on my lap during the trolley tour).  So, back to the Chinatown area to try and find dinner.

This was a trip in itself.  Around 8 (!!!) we finally found a place that wasn’t fast food and didn’t have a 1-2 hour wait to eat, (a Tapas and seemingly more importantly Sangrias bar based on the noise and stumbling patrons).  Bellies full we headed back to the Metro and managed to catch the last bus to the hotel, (literally—there were no more busses after 10:29 by the schedule, and ours didn’t show up until 10:40 which would have worried me if there weren’t other people waiting for the “last bus” with us).

Friday: The kids must have been worn out as they slept until 9, (they’re usually up by 6:30).  I’m usually up by 6:15 to shower, but managed to lie in bed until 8:30 when I couldn’t take it anymore.  Outside it was cold and rainy—a perfect day to visit Arlington National Cemetery.  Many things on this trip were emotionally powerful to me, but this was the pinnacle.  We reached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers right at the time of the changing of the guards.  I recently read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72”.  While I don’t know what is true or not there, I think that his writing style would do justice to what I felt on this stop.  I just know that the inscriptions from four star Generals side-by-side with those named just “Infant” along with the penetrating wind and icy rain brought a lump to my throat that couldn’t be swallowed until much later.

Back on the Metro and hotel (cab this time) to snatch our luggage, then off to Baltimore in the shuttle, (at which point Ann fell asleep and drooled all over my arm), for the plane ride home.  We missed Good Friday service, but I feel that I got that at Arlington.  Easter Sunday is tomorrow!

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