Vacation report: Washington, DC


It’s time for another episode of “Where did the Perrows go?”, also known as “How does Graeme remember all this stuff?” or “You don’t expect me to read all this, do you?” Today, we’re going to the nation’s capital – no, not Ottawa, the capital of our neighbours to the south: Washington, DC. In August of 2016, the four of us drove down to DC for four days of sightseeing. Although much shorter than the 2+ weeks in Florida in 2014, France in 2008, and the UK in 2009, this was a very fun trip and we all had a great time. As per usual, here’s the breakdown of where we went and what we saw. If you’re on Facebook, you should be able to see this photo album of the trip.

Incidentally, Graeme remembers all this stuff because he brings a notebook with him on vacation and writes it all down every night. Otherwise this article would be much shorter.

Monday, August 22 – Safari Niagara

Our first day of vacation had nothing to do with Washington other than the fact that we spent the night in the USA. We left around 9:00am, dropped Shadow off at the “B&B” we board him at when we’re away, and drove to Safari Niagara, where we spent the day with my sister Trudy and her four-year-old daughter Liv. Gail and the boys had been there before, last summer, but I had never been and I loved it. It was big but not massive like the Toronto Zoo, and also spread out but not like Marineland where you have to walk for fifteen minutes before you see anything. We saw flamingos, eagles, tigers, lions, gibbons, monkeys, giraffes, camels, kangaroos, and a few others. The gibbons were unbelievably loud – a sign said that in the jungle, they can be heard several kilometers away and we could easily believe it.

Budgie feedingThe highlight for me was the budgie feeding building, where you can buy popsicle sticks covered with sticky stuff and birdseed for $1 each. The budgies are very tame and will land on the sticks, your hand, or your arm to eat the seed. Gail even had one land on her head for a few seconds. At one point I must have had eight budgies on the stick, on my hand, and on my arm at one time. Other than the one who thought the freckle on my arm was a seed, this was very cool.

After a busy and fun day, we left around 5:30. Trudy and Liv went back home to Toronto while we crossed the border, went to the Olive Garden in Niagara Falls for dinner (and to pick up Ryan’s hat after he left it there back in July), and then checked into our hotel around the corner. We stayed at the Econolodge near the airport, which was a nice enough place. It was relatively expensive but that’s mostly explained by “near the airport”. After a couple of hands of rummy, we plugged the laptop into the hotel TV and watched a bit of Now You See Me (a fun magic/heist movie) before bed.

Tuesday, August 23 – Driving day #1

The hotel had complementary breakfast, which was your standard cereal, mini-muffins, yogurt, bread, bagels, etc. No eggs, bacon, sausage, or French toast, but they did have a waffle maker which Nicky made use of. After we ate (back in our room since the tiny little breakfast area was full), we packed up the van and got ready to head out. This is when we realized that the GPS in the van was programmed with maps of Ontario plus only a handful of north-eastern states. These included New York and Pennsylvania (which we used on the Hershey trip last year and Darien Lake this year), but not Maryland or Virginia, so we couldn’t find the next two hotels we’d be staying at. Without a specific travel data plan, enabling data on Bell Canada smartphones while in the US is unbelievably expensive (something like $6 / MB – that’s $6 per megabyte, so $6,000 per gigabyte), so I had bought a $20 package that gave me 200 MB of data for while we were away. But firing up the GPS on my phone for this drive would have eaten through that very quickly, so we set up the maps app on the phone while on the hotel’s wifi, then disconnected with the GPS instructions on the screen. This was a little inconvenient but not a big deal.

We drove south through New York and Pennsylvania (I said this in the Hershey article from last year but it’s still true. The highway in New York was terribly bumpy and loud but the second we crossed the border into PA, it was smooth and quiet), stopping for lunch at a Subway in Ridgeway, PA. The boys had brought a bunch of movies to watch on the drive, but were in the middle of bingeing Star Trek: The Next Generation so they watched (and Gail and I listened to) numerous season 2 and 3 episodes on the drive down and back.

We lost the GPS at the Maryland border but continued on to the Comfort Suites in Hagerstown, arriving around dinner time. We checked in and went to find dinner. We were introduced to a chain called Red Robin on our trip to Hershey last year and we loved it, so we made a point of looking for one. There was one not far away and once again we were not disappointed. After a stop at a local Target for some shopping (snacks for the rest of the trip and the obligatory case of Cherry Coke Zero to take home), we went back to the hotel, finished the movie, played some cards and hit the sack.

Wednesday, August 24 – Air and Space museum, Lincoln tour

The Comfort Suites also had complementary breakfast but they had a few more hot options than the Econolodge, including eggs (though Gail suspected they were powdered), sausages and French toast sticks. After breakfast we drove about a hour to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (there’s a name that just rolls off the tongue), which is an air and space museum run by the Smithsonian near Dulles airport. Note that there is another Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in DC, but we’ll get to that on Friday. This place was awesome. It’s one single massive building containing 170 (!!) planes, some helicopters, a space shuttle, and a bunch of other things like pieces of guided missiles and a collection of plane engines. Some of the planes include a Concorde, the Enola Gay (yes, the Enola Gay, not a replica), and a stealth fighter as well as very old biplanes and triplanes, WWI and WWII fighters and even some German warplanes with swastikas on them.

We started in the tower, which is a replica of a real air traffic control tower and gave a great view of Dulles airport and the surrounding area. Then we watched an Imax movie called Journey to Space narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart (I said it was great that they got him to narrate it “because he’s BEEN there, ya know?”) before going into the main part of the museum itself. A tour was just starting so we joined the tour guide. He was clearly retired (he was well over 70) but he knew his stuff, and not just the planes themselves. Someone (possibly Gail) asked how the Stealth fighter got to the speeds that it did and he got right down into the minute details of the engine and how they somehow compressed the engine’s exhaust to increase the speed. I didn’t ask, but I suspect he was a veteran of the Air Force or a Navy pilot or something.

The Concorde was a little smaller than I expected, as it only held about 100 (rich) passengers. I would have liked to have been able to look around inside the Concorde but all the planes were strictly outside-only. No doors were open and the windows on the Concorde were far too high (and small) to see inside. We didn’t get quite as good a view of the shuttle Discovery as we did of the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center because Atlantis had its cargo bay doors open and was hanging on an angle, whereas Discovery had the doors closed and was sitting on its wheels. It was still awesome to be right next to the actual shuttle.

We had a bit of a time limit, so we left around 3:30 and drove about 40 minutes into the city to the hotel for the rest of our trip. This was the Holiday Inn Rosslyn, which was not actually in Washington but in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river. We were on the 9th floor and had a great view of Georgetown.

The White House

After checking in, we went to Panera Bread just around the corner for dinner, then took the subway (“Metro”) into DC for a tour we had pre-booked. The tour was with DC by Foot, which specializes in walking tours of Washington DC. The kicker here is that the tour costs whatever you want to pay. You are under no obligation to pay anything, but they ask that you pay what you think the tour was worth. This clearly motivates the tour guides to do a good job, and we were very impressed with both of the tours we did with them. Tonight’s tour was the Lincoln Assassination tour, which started in front of the White House and moved around to various places involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. The tour ended at Ford’s Theatre where the President was shot, though he died across the street the next day. Our tour guide was named Rebecca, and she was knowledgeable and fun. We learned a lot on the tour, including things like:

  1. It was actually a conspiracy to kill Lincoln, the vice president, and the Secretary of State, but the other two assassins chickened out.
  2. John Wilkes Booth was a very famous actor at the time. It’d be like Ryan Reynolds killing the President.
  3. Andrew Johnson took over as President after Lincoln died and was very unpopular. He was impeached with only weeks left in his term because the rest of the government couldn’t wait that long to get rid of him.
  4. Lincoln’s son Robert was not there when his father was shot, but eventually became a politician and was there when both James Garfield and William McKinley were shot.

While walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, we came across a bunch of roller bladers playing a road hockey game in front of the Treasury building (right next door to the White House). I imagine having Pennsylvania Ave. closed to traffic makes this convenient.

After the tour, we walked to the nearby Metro station and returned to Rosslyn and bed.

Thursday, August 25 – Engraving and Printing, Castle, Natural History Museum

We got up a little early on this day and took the Metro into DC. We were planning to take a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (i.e. where they print US money). Tickets were free but we had read that they were only available that day, and sometimes were sold out by 9am. We arrived there around 8:30, and once we found the ticket booth, there was no line at all. We had our choice of tickets for any time slot, and decided on 5pm so it wouldn’t break up the day.

Once we had our tickets, we walked over to the Smithsonian Castle, the only museum open before 10:00. We had only had a quick breakfast at the hotel and were a little hungry so we stopped at the cafe inside the Castle. There were two or three employees wandering around, but one of them said something like their shift hadn’t started yet (it was about 8:55 at this point), so someone else would help us. We were looking for breakfast sandwiches (eg. egg and sausage on toast) so it wasn’t just something we could pick up from the rack. After waiting for a few minutes while the employees laughed and joked amongst themselves and ignored us, we just said “never mind” and left. This might have been the only example of terrible service we experienced on this trip.

A tour was just starting so we went along. I knew the Smithsonian Institution was named for a guy named Smithson, who left a bunch of money to the US Government for the establishment of museums, or something like that, but what I didn’t know was that Smithson was a British scientist and never set foot in the US. It was never even clear why he left the money to the US and not Britain, and the US government debated whether or not to accept the money for many years before they did, and then took another ten years to decide what to do with it.

As a bit of an aside, all of the Smithsonian Museums are completely free. There are special exhibits in some of them that cost something, and the Imax and Planetarium shows cost extra too, but the museums themselves are free.

Lucy. No sky, no diamonds.After the tour of the Castle, we crossed the Mall and went to the Museum of Natural History. Just like at every other museum we’ve been to on this trip, a tour was just starting as we got there, so we joined in. The tour guide was another retiree who was very knowledgeable, particularly about evolutionary biology, so we picked his brain a lot about the human origins part of the museum. I used to read Owl magazine back when I was a kid (and both my kids did too), and I remember reading about Lucy, the 3 million year-old Australopithicus afarensis skeleton discovered in Africa, so it was kind of exciting to actually see her. I have to say I was a little disappointed to find that it was a replica and not the real Lucy, which is in Ethiopia. But it was still very cool.

The tour went through the mammals section, human origins, the ocean, bones, dinosaurs, and ended with gemstones and the Hope Diamond. There was so much to see that after a not-very-cheap lunch at the cafe downstairs, we went back through half of those areas again. We also stopped in a section called Q?rius (pronounced “curious”), which was a science hands-on exhibit aimed at teenagers. Both the boys enjoyed it.

It was about 4:00 at this point, so we left the museum to head over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for our 5:00 tour. It was very hot out (around 34°C, 93°F) so we hoped we would be able to wait inside once we got there. Unfortunately the doors were locked and we had to wait about 20 minutes, but the line was in the shade so it wasn’t so bad. Eventually we got inside. There were lots of panels on the walls full of information, and we learned a lot. The tour itself was also interesting – they make something like $200 million worth of bills every day, 95% of which is used to replace old bills that are worn or damaged and removed from circulation. They stressed at the beginning of the tour that absolutely no videos or photos can be taken inside, but someone tried anyway. When the tour guide saw this, she immediately stopped and very sternly told the guy to stop, or “security will come and take your camera away”. They don’t mess around here.

The tour was only about 20-30 minutes long but pretty fun. After perusing the gift shop briefly, we took the subway back to Rosslyn. One cool thing about the Rosslyn Metro station – the tracks are way underground, so you have to take this super-long escalator down before getting on the train. Wikipedia says the platform is 97 feet below street level, which means the escalator is dropping you almost ten storeys.

We had been told of a good local pizza place called Wise Guys, so we bought a large pizza and took it back to the hotel. It was quite greasy but very good. After a couple of card games, the boys and I went for a swim. There was more “hanging out in the pool” than actual swimming, which was good because we had to get rested up for our major walking day on Friday. After the swim, we read for a while before bed.

Friday, August 26 – Memorial tour

Longest. Walk. Ever.

This was the day of our second DC By Foot tour, a four hour walk through the memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. The tour started at the Washington Monument, which George Washington himself approved, though it didn’t get started for many years after he died. Construction stopped during the Civil War and resumed ten years later, at which point they found that they couldn’t get the same kind of stone as before. When you’re close to the monument, it’s quite obvious that about 1/4 of the way up, the colour of the stone changes dramatically.

We walked from there to the World War II memorial, a large circular area with a pillar for each state (and a few non-states including the Puerto Rico and the Philippines), and a huge fountain in the middle. Next was the Vietnam Memorial, which was designed by a 21-year-old student to look like a “wound” in the ground. The names of every US serviceman killed or missing in action (all 58,000+ of them) are etched into the wall, and the wall is reflective so that you can see yourself while looking at the names, bringing the present and past together. I personally know nobody who fought in Vietnam and I’m not even American, but I found the memorial very powerful and moving.

Next was the Lincoln Memorial, which was incredible. The building itself is huge and the statue of Abe inside is amazing. The entire Gettysburg Address is carved into one wall, and his second inaugural address is carved into another. From the front, you get a great view of the Mall and Washington Monument (and Capitol building in the distance) and from the back, you can see Arlington National Cemetery across the river.

The Lincoln Memorial

After Lincoln we crossed to the other side of the Mall to the Korean War memorial, which is a set of 19 statues of soldiers as well as a memorial wall similar to the Vietnam one. However instead of names, the faces of hundreds of actual soldiers (from National Archives pictures) are etched into the wall. It is said that one of the faces is Alan Alda from MASH (which took place during the Korean War), and I did see a face that looked like his, but I hope this is coincidental. It seems rather disrespectful to the men and women who actually served in Korea to include the face of someone who only pretended to serve. It is said that no matter where in the memorial you are standing, at least one of the statues is looking at you. The boys and I took this as a challenge but were unable to find anyplace where this wasn’t true.

Next was the Martin Luther King memorial. I knew a bit about the man but almost nothing about the memorial, and it turned out to have been quite controversial. A Chinese architect was chosen to build the memorial and it thus it was actually constructed in China and then brought to the US, and a lot of people were unhappy about that. Further, the sculptor decided to add a quote from MLK onto the side of the sculpture, but shortened the quote to make it fit. However shortening the quote actually changed the context of it and people were so unhappy about it that the quote was removed two years later.

There is a long stone wall on either side of the main sculpture with various other quotes from King. All of them were profound, but two of them stood out for me:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

MLK

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

After the King memorial, we started around the Tidal Basin to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. FDR was the last President to serve more than two terms; he died shortly into his fourth. He also spend his entire Presidency in a wheelchair thanks to polio, though the public never actually saw the chair because he always had a large cloak draped over himself, covering the chair. The memorial is massive – there are four large “rooms”, one representing each of his terms. Each has a waterfall feature that gets progressively more complex in each room, representing the increasing difficulty of his presidencies in dealing with the Great Depression and World War II.

Next was the Jefferson Memorial, another impressive huge marble building, but this one had a bronze sculpture of the President rather than a marble one. This is where the tour ended. We thanked our guide Ingeborg, who did an outstanding job. We were pretty wiped by this point since we had been walking for four hours on one of the hottest days of the year (34°C again). Our next stop was the Air and Space Museum back on the National Mall, so we completed the circle of the Tidal Basin and headed there. After lunch at the (thankfully air conditioned) food court, we walked around the museum for a while, checking out the exhibit on early flight. We then went to the Albert Einstein planetarium for a show called Dark Universe. It was narrated by one of my favourite scientists, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and was a really interesting show about a topic that I’m really interested in (dark matter and dark energy), but being as tired as I was, sitting in a comfy leaned-back chair in a dark room was too much and I slept through most of it. I have to say I enjoyed my nap, but was disappointed to have missed the movie.

Not long after the show, Gail and I decided we were done for the day. It was after 4:00 and the museum closes at 5:00 so it’s not like we bailed out way early, but we were just too tired to continue walking much more. We took the Metro back to the hotel and just rested for an hour or so – played some cards, read a little, and Gail might have had a short nap. Once we were up to walking again, we went to a place called Pancho Villa for dinner, a Mexican restaurant right next door to the hotel. The food was great and it wasn’t crazy expensive. We all enjoyed our dinners and the fried ice cream after wasn’t bad either.

After dinner, we watched some TV before going to sleep.

I didn’t bring an actual pedometer on this trip, but my phone has an app called S Health which does the same thing. At bedtime, I checked and it had counted 23,187 steps, equating to 21.82 km, on this day alone.

Saturday, August 27 – Spy Museum

Not surprisingly, we slept a little later on this day than the others. We stopped at Panera Bread for breakfast again and ate on the train into the city. Today our destination was the International Spy Museum, just a couple of blocks away from the Mall. This is a non-Smithsonian museum, which means we had to actually pay money to go in but we had a lot of fun so it was worth it. In addition to the museum itself, there were two extra activities: Operation Spy and Spy in the City. The first was an “escape room” sort of thing where the participants had to act together as spies to solve problems and save the world. Gail and I hung out in the gift shop while the boys did that, and they had a great time. Once they were done, we started Spy in the City. This was a sort of geocaching-like scavenger hunt where, again, we had to save the world. We got two Android tablets which contained videos describing our missions, and had to follow clues that took us to various places in the area. This took us about an hour and a half, and we had a lot of fun on this adventure as well.

Next, onto the museum itself. We originally figured we’d be there for an hour or two, but ended up staying until dinner time. There was a lot to see, with information and artefacts about spying from ancient times (China, Greece), through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and into the Cold War era. Oddly, there was very little recent stuff; for example, there were descriptions of human-hair-sized cameras, but they didn’t have any. There was barely a mention of technology after about 1980 until the very end where they had one room talking about safeguarding the power grid and Internet from terrorists. There was also a large James Bond exhibit with artefacts, pictures, and videos from various movies.

By the time we were done at the Spy Museum, it was dinner time. We stopped at the Shake Shack right next door to the museum. The burgers were very good and though Nicky was the only one who ordered a shake, we all helped him finish it and it was great as well.

Once we were done there, the museums were all closed and we were still pretty tired from yesterday so we headed back to the hotel. Played some cards, watched some TV, the usual bedtime stuff. We also packed up for the trip home tomorrow.

Sunday, August 28 – Driving Day #2

Gail had to be home for a Scouting meeting at 7:00, so we got up around 7:30, checked out, and left. Breakfast was at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Hagerstown, just down the street from the hotel where we had stayed on Tuesday night. Lunch was at a place called Sarina’s in Phillipsburg, PA. I don’t know why you’d ever need to go to Phillipsburg, PA, but if you do, stop in here for some great food. I had a steak sandwich which was excellent, Ryan loved his pasta, and I don’t remember what Gail or Nicky had but they enjoyed them. In particular, the buns were amazing and we picked up some to go.

After a 15 minute stop at the Peace Bridge, we got home around 7:00. It really shouldn’t have been an 11+ hour drive – there weren’t any major delays but we were taking our time. Maybe a little too much. Gail was a few minutes late for her meeting.

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