Wednesday, August 10, 2011

5 Family-Friendly Places to Visit: D.C. Edition

Sure, it gets a bad rep in the press, but Washington, D.C. is actually a really beautiful place that also just happens to have politicians living in it. It's also an extremely tourist-friendly destination. 
Whether you're new to town or planning a trip, you will eventually visit the Washington Monument, the Air & Space Museum and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Below, are the five places you must visit to get the D.C. experience and really have something to write home about.

Established in 1927, the United States National Arboretum is composed of 446 acres of land with over 9 miles of roadways. Whether you're a nature buff, a budding botanist or just an outdoorsy type of person, the Arboretum has something for you. 

The National Capitol Columns- USNA website

Wherever you choose to go, you'll find something beautiful and interesting but the Bonsai & Penjing Museum, the National Capitol Columns and the Azalea Collections are specially noteworthy. 
Like almost everything in region, the Arboretum is metro accessible, but you'll really want to have a friend bring you or event rent a car so that you can explore more. Wear comfortable shoes as you'll probably walk a lot and be sure to pack a lunch. There are plenty of eating areas where the whole family can rest and absorb nature.

Admission to the Arboretum is free. It closes only December 25th. 

Paddle boating on the Tidal Basin is a great family activity that will keep you busy for an hour without making too much of an effort. If you've never been before, you should know that it is not as easy as it looks, so it can also be a good bonding exercise. If you're the competitive type, get two boats and race in the safety of the Basin while enjoying people and monument watching.

In summer, be sure to bring water and a hat. 
Prices for Summer 2011 are $12/hr for a two person boat or $19/hr for a four person boat. Closes for Winter after Columbus Day.

3. Get lost in the stacks of the Library of Congress
You don't have to be a bibliophile to appreciate everything the Library of Congress has to offer. Not only does the LoC offer an extensive collection, it also host tours, concerts and more. Show up during visiting hours to take one of their free tours or check out their calendar of events to catch a special show. 

Library of Congress
Creative Commons: saturnism

Admission to the Library of Congress is free.

4. Take a break in the Kogod Courtyard
Housed in the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the Kogod Courtyard is a beautiful space on its own right. While you are there, you'll want to visit the National Portrait Gallery and the adjoining Smithsonian American Art Museum. Both are filled with one of a kind works and stories. 
The Kogod Courtyard itself offers a respite in the city's Penn Quarter, just a few blocks away from the National Mall. Just sit at one of the tables and enjoy a respite from your vacation.

Kogod Courtyward
Creative Commons: cliff1066™

Admission to the Kogod Courtyard is free. Wi-Fi available.

Did you know that the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is open to the public on daily basis? The architecture of the center itself is worth a visit, but the Kennedy Center also offers free tours and free programs on its modern Millennium Stage. World-class performers often perform on the Millennium stage and future scheduled performers include Charles Covington Jr., Beauty & Melody Orchestra of Sichuan, and the International Young Artist Piano Competition.

Creative Commons: Kyle Rush

Admission to Kennedy Center tours and Millennium Stage performances are free. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why Travel? Perhaps You Owe It to Yourself

It seems a bit entitled to say something like "You owe it to yourself to travel." After all, we are in an economy that is poised to recover...until it isn't and then it's back again. Taking trips is becoming more and more of a luxury. But, if you love to travel, nothing could be closer to the truth than "You owe it to yourself" because it's during the tough times that we realize what really matters.
Remind yourself of why you do what you do.

Like most people I know, I could go on ad infinitum about my financial debts, those costs we must all pay to have someplace to live, a car to drive to work, etc., etc. The debts that keep popping into my mind, however, are the debts I've accumulated in my travels. I don't mean credit card or similar debts. I am talking about debts I hope to pay back the more I travel, my debts to my fellow travelers and to those places I've been to.

This method I have of linking personal debt and travel actually came from my mother. For someone who loves to travel, I don't need the fingers of one hand to count the number of trips I've taken abroad. Two years ago, even traveling in the US was something I planned for, but never found the time to pursue. Then, in a casual conversation with my mother, I heard her say, "You owe it to yourself to see the world." Maybe I'd eaten breakfast that day or gotten eight hours of sleep the night before, but something clicked when she spoke. We'd had this same conversation a thousand times before, but perhaps never phrased quite that way. 

Since then, I've taken road trips and side trips. I've visited two countries and am working on more. In these trips, I've managed to reward myself with new horizons and have picked up more debts: I owe nameless strangers and new friends for the hospitality they've shown me and their willingness to share. I owe Colombia for showing me that most of what is told about it is outdated and irrelevant. Colombia today is a vibrant, growing country. I owe Montréal for making Canada feel truly far away from everything I'm used to and living up to its reputation.
Depending on the scale of your travels, you might find that traveling can indeed be very costly. If you travel to NYC for the shopping, even Chinatown can add up. But, if like me, you travel to learn, experience and just see, then traveling isn't very costly at all. Visit NYC to soak in the pulse of the city, try the croissants in Montreal, make it a point to see new museum exhibits or go kayaking in a nearby park. All those trips await, you just have to decide whether you owe it to yourself or not.

Traveling, even on a small scale, has altered my definition of what it means to owe and to spend. I now have a very clear concept that while I (like most people) work to meet my financial obligations, one of those obligations can be to myself and my desire to travel, to see more of the world. Even if it means 'traveling'only a few miles, making the effort makes everything else worthwhile.

Note: This past weekend, Longshot magazine challenged me to phrase my view of debt and owing. This post, longer than almost everything I've shared so far, is the result. Thank you for reading!


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Joys of Planning- 3 Sites to Check Now + Twitter

One of the joys of traveling is planning.

I am obsessed with planning for my travels.  Sometimes, this means finding the perfect flight: what time will it get there? Is there a cheaper flight that will get me there earlier? A better flight that will mean I arrive ready to go? Sometimes, it means finding the perfect place to stay: hostel or hotel? Close to museums and the city center or close to the beach and parks?

Sometimes, planning a trip just means finding the cheapest fare and first night's stay and figuring out where to go from there. Unless you're truly, really adventorous, if you do plan to just wing it and are arriving at an unknown city, the best thing to do is book the first night at a decent hotel. This will give you the chance to get your bearings, shop around and be assured on a restful first night to start your trip.

If you're the type of traveler who favors Jetsetter- style trips (and who isn't every once in a while?) odds are you won't appreciate the first-night lodging approach. In this case, you'll definitely want to book ahead and when you buy your ticket. The downside to this approach is that it limits your mobility. How likely are you to get out and explore if you've reserved a 4-star hotel for 5 days?

This brings out to another point, planning every minute (or just day) of your vacation maximizes what you can do and see in a short space of time. If you're planning to travel for more than 4 days, it works best if you're flexible.

Whether you're looking for a great destination or the best time to go, the sites below (in no particular order) are a great place to start your planning!


Whether you're new to travel or an experiencen voyager, Expedia is a good starting point. You need a more precise set of dates than with other sites, but if you want to compare fares and/or know which airlines are traveling to your destination, Expedia is your best bet.
(The "My dates are flexible" option works only for U.S. destinations.)


Easy to use and information about places to eat, things to do and times to visit. It's a site designed to sell you trips but also designed to inform.
Favorite feature: Check the "My dates are flexible" box and you're most likely to find the cheapest dates.


One of the most popular fare-compare sites, Kayak is one of the best at finding cheap flights. Lack of ratings on how good the airlines with the best prices are means more follow-up work for you.
Favorite feature: "My dates are flexible"  lets you compare your search history!


Not on Twitter? Every airline and fare compare site is on Twitter waiting to tell you what fares are on sale NOW and where to  go next: Sign up, Follow and get ready to travel.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Become a Better Traveler

Nothing says "Ask me a question!" like a smile

Smiling at another person can be a sign of approval, affection or just simple friendliness. It is a gift that asks only to be accepted. A smile is not to be confused with the leer from the would-be-Cassanova or the smirk from the high-and-mighty among the rest of us mere mortals. Unlike those, a smile usually merits simply a smile or a nod back: Yes, I saw it too. Yes, I see you.
For a traveler, a smile is a universal currency. Although how it's received can vary widely according to location, in most social settings, a smile is your first hello.

Find the unexpected, and you'll always have a reason to smile. 

Lost? Unsure?

Washington, D. C. is a tourist mecca. Being a local here means either breezing past visitors standing in front of the metro with a confused look on their faces or stopping to share it's color-coded ease. The people I usually stop to help are the ones who stop gazing long enough to look around, smile and cast a friendly eye. Likewise, when I travel, I try to smile at people I meet much more often than I would at home. Nothing could be worse for the disoriented traveler than to be in an unknown city, lost and looking like you'd rather not talk.
The world is full of people and places, smile and you're more likely to meet some and see the other. If you're nervous about meeting strangers, just remember they are just friend you haven't met.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fast forward to more recent travels...

This week I visited Jamaica, Peru, Mali, Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, and Colombia. No, I have not won the lottery or become a contestant on the Amazing Race. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is taking place and the tents were full!

The Peace Corps section included organic farming from Jamaica, weaving from Peru and Kyrgyzstan, pottery from Peru, mudpainting in Mali and shea butter from Ghana. In its own section, Colombia shared coffee, arts, Juan Valdez and Conchita, and a highlight from el Choco.

The Peace Corps volunteers from Jamaica share their recipe for organic pesticide. Yes, it's possible.

The Peace Corps tents were staffed by locals from each country and volunteers. It was great to talk to people from so many nationalities. The gentleman from Mali who helped with the mudpainting actually lives 8 hours away and drove up when he heard that Mali would be represented. Merci!

Set up a demonstration tent where you grind coffee beans, brew them on a hot-plate, pour the beverage and then don't offer it to anyone and all you'll hear from the crowd is "Que antojo! Dónde está el mío?" (Translation: I want one. Where is mine?) This is exactly what happened in the crowd that gathered around Don Jorge from Colombia's Eje Cafetero. The smell was simply tantalizing but for crowd control and hygiene reasons, the coffee was not for tasting!
If you're a coffee lover, start planning your trip to the Eje Cafetero now. They are waiting to welcome you. 
Colombia also invited what we would call artisanal farmers (one of them told me: "This is how we always do things where I'm from") to share their crafts.

From El Choco, a couple of ladies who are Alabadoras- praise givers- at funerals all over Colombia.  They are part of a 12-woman group and were chosen to visit the Festival because they also have extensive knowledge about Zotenas- a form of concentrated/box farming. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Montreal, Canada

Before I went, everyone told me that Montréal, Québec is as close to Europe as you can get in North America. I haven't been to Europe (yet), but if that is true Montréal made a great first impression.

The dates are starting to become blurred now, but I know we spend to wintry weeks in Montreal, so it could only have been last December!

I won't bore you with the details, since they are probably outdated by now, but if you're looking for art, good food and a cool vibe- Montreal awaits. Even in Winter. The city is pretty walkable and has a reliable rail system.

If you're in the mood for driving, visit St. Benoit du Lac, where you can pick up wines, ciders and cheeses made by the industrious monks there! If you're traveling in snow make sure you have WINTER tires (something that all Canadians know but was missed by our American rental car person and ourselves.)
Even if you are not Catholic or particularly religious, the beauty of the Notre Dame Basilica of Montréal is awe-inspiring and within easy walking distance of the center of government.

Need another family friendly spot? There's tons, but be sure to visit the Biosphere and its surrounding park. Of particular interest to budding fashionistas, the ONE exhibit on through Dec 2012.

Whether you favor haute cuisine or more regular fare, be sure to stop by Chinatown for authentic, inexpensive Asian fare. Yum!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Maine in the Fall..

If you're a plan-ahead type of person, you're probably planning your Fall Foliage tour now. Which is why I will deem this post about Maine in October, relevant now.  Lots of airlines have specials to the Northeast in late Fall. We took JetBlue to Boston and drove from there. With the right music and right friends, the trip is a breeze.

Everything you've ever heard about the Beauty of the leaves and the Friendliness of the locals is true. Maine is one of those places that grabs you and on a good day in October reminds you that beauty is ephemeral. To catch a hold of it, plan a visit to Acadia National Park.

We visited Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in the North Atlantic seaboard to witness a spectacular sunrise. You will come to find that when it comes to sunrises and sunsets, I am very fond of superlatives, but Cadillac Mountain delivered. 

Not included in the information I had (perhaps it was widely assumed to be common knowledge): Before sunrise temperatures at the summit are near artic! Wrapped in what I had previously thought of as a warm jacket and a wool scarf, the wind cut into me like needles! Nothing but sheer will after waking up at 4:30am kept me on that hill.

It was worth it and I did not find out until I made it back to the DC area that Cadillac Mountain could be a training ground for my trip to Antarctica.