Cityscapes Philadelphia – What To Do, Science & History Geek Edition

BenFranklinStatue 199x300 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek EditionOne full day of our Philadelphia weekend, our second full day of sightseeing, was the Science day.

We spent most of the day at The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s most excellent science museum. We saw the planetarium show, The Wildest Weather In The Solar System, which was included in our admission, and Kenya Animal Kingdom, the 3-D movie in the Franklin Theater, which had a small upcharge on our Philadelphia Pass admission. Exhibits we liked the best: the special exhibit on tech innovations, the gears and small machines, and the train factory. And of course, the gift shop where Doug found some great science and math books, including The Geek Handbook  and a super “Big Bang Theory” inspired t-shirt that spells out our favorite catch phrase using the symbols for barium zinc and gallium – BA ZN GA. Not exactly this one on Amazon, but close.

On this trip we did not have time for the nearby Academy of Natural Sciences, or the Mutter Museum of medical oddities, which was just a bit off our planned trajectory, but they are both on the list for our next visit.


We started our mini-vacation with a visit to the Ben Franklin Museum, which is part of the Independence National Park exhibits, but has a small admission fee. Located on — well strictly speaking underneath — the site of his home and printing business, the museum mixes interactive exhibits and historical artifacts to tell the story of Franklin’s life and role in American history.FranklinCourt 300x200 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek Edition

The rest of the National Park exhibits are free but you need a timed ticket for the guided tour of Independence Hall (get it free at the National Park desk in the Visitor Center or preorder online for a small charge) and there is a queue to see the Liberty Bell. Both of these exhibits also have security inspection of your bags. Our strategy was to go on a weekday first thing (Tuesday to be exact.) Exterior2IndepHall 200x300 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek EditionWe were able to do the first tour of Independence Hall at 9am, followed by Congress Hall (where the House and Senate met when Philadelphia was the US capitol), and there was no line to speak of for the Liberty Bell when we finished with those two important landmarks. Weekends especially later in the day the lines for the Bell are LONG!!!

Most of the rest of the historical sites we saw from the comfort of our seats on the Big Bus Tour, which we used to get around for the two middle days of our 4-day trip. We also did the duck tour, Ride the Ducks, since it was included on our pass, and we had a little time left at the end of Science Day. While it covered most of the same sites as the Big Bus, it was fun to get on the water for that perspective.

ElephantZoo 300x200 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek EditionWe wrapped up our trip with a visit to the Philadelphia Zoo, which I am squeezing into the history category since it is America’s first zoo. Highlights for me were the Victorian-era animal statues throughout the zoo, and the Big Cat exhibit. It was too hot for the cats to be very active, but the exhibit was laid out in such a way that even sleeping cats were visible, without it being disturbing to their sleep. I’d love to go back on a cooler day, and slightly later in the day, when the chances would be better that animals would be moving through the catwalks featured in the exhibit.

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GiraffeZoo 300x200 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek Edition

On our list for our next visit: I want to go back to The Barnes Foundation, and Doug never passes up a chance to go to the science museum. We also want to check out the African American Museum, and outside of the city — the Adventure Aquarium across the river in Camden NJ  and Longwood Gardens, which we visited briefly a few years ago and wanted to visit on this trip, but ran out of time.

Because there is A LOT to do in Philadelphia.

See all my photos from the trip on Flickr

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On Safari – Mosi-O-Tunya National Park

4003022360 670f378154 On Safari   Mosi O Tunya National Park

Tuesday September 15 2009 – afternoon

We took our first game drive that afternoon. Mosi-O-Tunya National Park in Zambia is the nation’s smallest national park. It also has no predators.

Our lovely Bushtracks Africa guide, Purity, managed to show us quite a lot in about three hours. Starting with a herd of elephants even before we got into the park.

My full set of photos from the drive is on Flickr, but here are some of the highlights:

  • A family of zebra — pictured at the top of the post. The one lying down is a heavily pregnant female, and her daughter is checking to be sure she is okay.
  • A ranger guards the male rhino to protect the rhino from humans (poachers) not to protect the humans from the rhino.
  • Toward the end of the drive, we saw a group of very young baboons playing and teasing each other.

We also saw many giraffe, impala, a few warthogs, various birds and a herd of Cape Buffalo. All in all a terrific introduction to African wildlife.

4001648678 c13798acd6 m On Safari   Mosi O Tunya National Park4002985606 f0bb09f736 m On Safari   Mosi O Tunya National Park

Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge

3978463637 477f73a18c m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley ForgeLast weekend was the big dog show weekend in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, culminating in the all-terrier Montgomery County Kennel Club show on Sunday. I needed/wanted to go for a few dog and dog club related reasons, but did not relish the long 7+ hour drive (each way) by myself. So I convinced Douglas and David to come along with me. I’d go to my dog club banquet on Friday night and the dog show on Sunday, but we’d skip the Saturday show, and do some family sightseeing instead.

There is quite a lot to do in the Philadelphia area – art, science and natural history museums, the zoo, plus  historical exhibits like the Liberty Bell and Valley Forge.

We decided to give Doug the choice. He picked  Crystal Cave in Kutztown. Boys and rocks.

I’m a bit claustrophobic and generally the idea of being in a cave gives me the creeps. This wasn’t too bad. The tour guide did an excellent job moving us through the cave, and the cave rooms themselves were fairly large, with very tall ceilings, so I didn’t get that “pressed in” feeling. Doug absolutely loved it.

The cave formations themselves are eery. Some could easily be alien life forms from a sci-fi film.

3979234928 bac5a423a2 m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge 3978490091 e72581c56f m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge

After the caves, we decided to head back and do a quick visit to Valley Forge. We’d been a number of times in the past, but Douglas didn’t remember it. On the way we stopped for lunch at a Texas Roadhouse in Royersford.

This was our first ever visit to this chain, and we were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality — warm and gracious — and the food — excellent. As first-time guests, they gave us a free bottle of their steak sauce, and asked us to fill out a brief questionnaire about our experience. I wrote in the comments that we very much enjoyed the food and wished there was a restaurant near us in Massachusetts. One of the managers made a point to come out and let us know that there were a few, including one not far from us in Worcester.

Why so good? Everything is very fresh. Homemade rolls, lots of choices for side dishes and good steaks. Is it Morton’s or Ruth Chris? Of course not. But when you are on the road looking for a quick reasonably priced meal, it’s a nice alternative to the burger and tex-mex lite chains. I particularly appreciated the 6 ounce filet for $16.00. It’s the right amount of meat for me and the price was fair. It was also very tasty.

3979286740 24a8b06150 m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge We got to Valley Forge too late for an organized trolley or walking tour (although we have done the trolley tour in the past, and it is excellent). Instead we bought the self-guided one-hour CD tour ($15.00) and proceeded to drive through the park and learn a little history on the way.

Douglas wasn’t too interested at first, but we confiscated the Nintendo, and eventually he got into it. Admission to the park and buildings is free; there is a fee for the trolley tour.

As with all national parks, there are also special programs worth checking out if you are slightly more planful about your visit than we were this time 🙂 The park buildings close at 5pm, but the grounds are open until dusk. The last ranger-tour of Washington’s Headquarters is at 4:30 pm.

The centerpiece — literally — of the park is the National Memorial Arch. This time, we saw two wedding parties doing their formal photos. My pictures of them on Flickr.

3979295546 c35b56c622 m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley ForgeYou’ll also see lots of deer at Valley Forge. In fact the deer population of the park is a bit of a problem; if you are interested, you can read more at the park website.

For visitors, though, it is nice to see these pretty animals up close and vertical as opposed to lying by the side of the road, a sad but familiar site along Pennsylvania highways.

On Sunday, I went to the dog show. David and Doug went to the nearby Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. They had a great time pumpkin painting and exploring the garden railway.

Other things to do in the area: We’ve also enjoyed wandering around the community of Doylestown, although we did not get up that way on this trip, and Longwood Gardens. Little kids would enjoy Sesame Place, although the weather never cooperated for that when Douglas was younger and now at nine, he’s well past it. If you like to shop, the ginormous King of Prussia mall is nearby.

Where to stay: I like the Marriott Springhill Suites in Plymouth Meeting. Reasonably priced ($89 AAA-rate), all-suite hotel. Indoor pool. Free breakfast. Free in-room Internet. Near the Plymouth Meeting Mall, which offers many restaurant choices including Benihana, another good choice when traveling with kids. The mall also has an arcade which entertained Douglas (and Dave) on Friday night while I was at the dog club banquet and on Saturday night while I made a quick run to Macy’s.

Word to the wise: Traffic in the Montgomery County area, especially on the Turnpike and its feeder roads, is awful nearly all the time. Plan accordingly.


In the neighborhood: Barnard to Boston

3822841817 6c7cf28b33 In the neighborhood: Barnard to Boston We spent the first week of August at our home in Barnard Vermont so Douglas could attend day camp at the Vermont Institute for Natural Sciences in nearby Quechee. For me, it was mostly just a different window, but we did go on a couple excursions.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock — Laurance and Mary Rockefeller spent summers at their home in Woodstock, and the Park Service offers daily tours (in season) of the home, as well as a couple of special tours. The most recent addition to the schedule is the Fallout Shelter tour, which seems to be offered about once per month.

There are two fallout shelters on the property, one under the house itself and another underneath the Belvidere, an outbuilding that houses pool changing rooms, activity room, soda fountain and  two-lane bowling alley. The one underneath the Belvidere is the shelter open to visitors.

The tour is about 70 minutes, and a good half of it is a ranger presentation about the Cold War that preceeds the tour of the shelter. After all, how long does it take to tour a one room fallout shelter?

Our verdict: If you only have time for one tour of the mansion, take the regular house tour. It’s offered a few times a day and reservations aren’t required, as they are for the special tours. It was fine for us, because  we’d already done both the regular house tour and the special Hidden Spaces tour.

If you do decide to take the Fallout Shelter tour, a true highlight was the private bowling alley, but younger kids may get restless during the ranger presentation. Consider starting your day across the street at Billings Farm, tire them out a bit looking at cows and chickens, and then take the mansion tour of your choice. A combo-ticket is offered.

As part of Doug’s summer camp week at VINS, the kids put on skits for the parents on the last day. We were so proud of Douglas, who played the part of narrator for his team’s skit. Photos are in this Flickr set.

We stayed to watch the afternoon raptor show at 3:30pm.  If you are in the area, it is well worth the time.

A camp highlight for the kids was getting to hold the American Kestrel.

3823620274 849c222060 m In the neighborhood: Barnard to Boston

This weekend, we went into the Museum of Science in Boston to see the National Geographic Crittercam exhibit, which ends August 30th. We also stopped by the Black Holes exhibit and saw the Omni film Mystic India.

Our verdict: Crittercam was terrific. Hard to believe  that they are able to securely attach the cams to such a variety of animals, terrestrial and aquatic, and it is truly amazing what  researchers have been able to learn about animal behavior by looking at life through their eyes. Best part of the exhibit: I loved the whales’ bubble net cooperative feeding and the lion cubs investigating the camera on their mother.

Black Holes has a web-component, but otherwise seemed very similar to previous astronomy exhibits we have seen, although to be fair, I didn’t spend much time in the exhibit.

Mystic India wasn’t quite what I expected. The narration retraces the steps of an 11 year old yogi who walked across India in the late 1700s. In adulthood, he became an important religious and political figure, and it was clear from an audience full of Indian families that his story has profound religious and cultural resonance.

For Westerners like me, unfamiliar with his life, it was at times hard to embrace the storyline.  Barefoot and wearing nothing but a loin cloth for four years in the Himalayas? Of course, it’s a parable and I have no wish to be disrespectful of another’s religion or icons. I have just as much of a problem with certain elements of the Jesus Christ story when played out on the screen. Somehow, the translation to film highlights some of the improbabilities that we just have to get over in order to believe.

The scenery however was magnificent, and in the end, the film-makers made their point about cultural diversity, community and tolerance. Funnily enough though, for me, it was as much from the fact that the legion of volunteers who participated in the making of the film  didn’t take individual credits. It was the collective that made the film and told the story. You just can’t argue with that depth of belief.

If you are in Boston, get thee to Crittercam before it leaves at the end of the month.

A Day of Nothingness

sign 300x225 A Day of Nothingness

Welcome to Buffalo National River

One of the many claims to fame of the Buffalo National River area is the lack of modern development.  There are no hotels or chain restaurants in the immediate area.  Nature is the most important resident and for people who want to enjoy the great outdoors, this is the place to be!  The trees and brush were such rich shades of green.  The trees were so thick and dense that Dennis wouldn’t even send the boys into the woods to get firewood, knowing they’d return with nothing but ticks and jiggers…if they returned at all!   

I thought about many ways for us to pass the time in Arkansas.  We could visit this quaint little village we passed about ½ hour outside the campground.  There were several hiking trails for us to explore.  The boys wanted to fish ever since we missed our opportunity in Montana.   Our campground neighbors told us the best fishing was just off the bridge about 5 miles down the road.  I must have been really tired that morning because 5 miles seemed so far away!  The fact of the matter is that neither of us really wanted to drive anywhere.   I was tired of hearing that one can of baked beans hit the cabinet door with every corner.  With 85% of the trip done, we had clocked an unbelievable 6500 miles but that extra 5 miles just seemed over the top.  We really wanted to do absolutely nothing.  So that’s what we did – nothing!

river side 150x150 A Day of Nothingness

Floating on the lazy river

Our campsite was only a stone’s throw from the river’s edge.  Dennis took the boys, the chairs and the fishing gear to a small beach area right around the corner.  I took my time, pretending to do something productive like read or write but it was 85 degrees and humid.  I’m no dummy.  I put everything away, put on my bathing suit and met my men for a day of nothing.   The river was calm, the sun was hot and the water was refreshing.   For a while, we had the whole beach to ourselves. The kids were in their glory to break out the fishing poles one more time.  After an hour of trying their luck the traditional way, the boys channeled their inner Survivorman and tried to catch fish with their hands.  One guess on how that turned out!

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My seat

The rest of the day was just more of the same – swimming, fishing, snacking, chatting and sunning.  Repeat.   By late afternoon, we were so relaxed we knew we had to move soon or we’d never have the strength to make it back to the camper.  We took the traditional slow pace of the south to a whole new level. It took us at least 4 hours to shower, dress and have dinner.   As we all know, the only way to top off a day like this was with a campfire, s’mores and a bottle of wine.  We were nearly comatosed by 9 o’clock.  When the boys went inside to play video games, the contentment level of the family had peaked.  Still committed to our nothingness, Dennis and I stayed in the same spots we planted out butts after dinner.  The night was so dark it was impossible to see 2 feet beyond the fire.   The sounds of the tree frogs and crickets played like background music.  I closed my eyes to take it all in when suddenly I heard a noise like I’ve never heard before.   Now, I have not been face to face with a mountain lion or cougar or any big, ferocious, wild cat that could rip you to shreds with one swipe of a paw but trust me when I tell you the sound is unmistakable!  It was loud.  It was close.  It was pissed off.  And I was outta there!  The past 12 hours of pure relaxation were erased in seconds flat as I flew off my ass and hauled to the safety of the RV. 

As a teen, I was a huge fan of the slasher movies, not for the fear factor but the absurdity of them made me laugh.  But for the first time in my life, I could relate to the useless victim who tripped 5 times running into the barn or the guy who couldn’t turn the car keys in the ignition before the hatchet hit.  In less than 5 feet, I almost knocked over a chair with Dennis in it, hit the picnic table, tripped over the extension cord and fumbled miserably trying to open the RV door.  True to the horror movie ritual of my youth, there was a least one audience member laughing their way through the whole scene.  Still cracking up when I reappeared from the RV a couple minutes later, Dennis told me he had never seen me move that fast!  We heard the cat roars in the distance a few more times but there was no recovering.  I spent the rest of the night inside with the kids.  Dennis enjoyed the fire just a bit longer before it started to rain.  It rained all night and well into the morning.  Packing up in the rain was no fun.  Our day of nothingness was officially over and it was time to head out to Tennessee.