Monthly Archives: September 2012

Wine & Salt

So we went off on part two of our cycling trip around the Williamsburg area, exploring a few places we didn’t get to see last week.  First of all we did a circular route around Little Creek Reservoir.  If last week’s scenery was like the New Forest, this week it was reminiscent of the Lake District.  We parked by the ranger’s office and got a little scared by the buckets of bullets sitting outside, as well as slightly startled by the sight of some of the locals with their guns and nets.  Hopefully they were just off to catch some animals.  Not British cyclists.  This route took us through some lovely woods which were full of cottages backing onto the reservoir, many with rocking chairs on the front porches, thankfully none boasting a banjo-playing resident.  Being a nice sunny morning we had a highly enjoyable trip through the scenic countryside, however we were somewhat pleased that we hadn’t tried to squeeze this trip in at the end of last week’s day of cycling.  We didn’t really fancy being lost out here after dark.

We saw a lot of wildlife on our travels – raccoon, lizard, beaver, birds of prey, deer etc.  Oh, which reminds me, the day before this trip I was lucky enough to watch a school of dolphins playing in the sea at our local beach.  I’ve never seen them in the wild before and they were adorable!

Anyway, next we cycled along part of the Colonial National Historic Parkway that we had driven the week before, this time at a much more pleasant pace which allowed us to enjoy the scenery of the water and the trees as well as reading the boards that tell you the history of the area.  We stopped off at Williamsburg Winery for a tour and a tasting.  Being an east coast winery, they were somewhat disparaging of Californian wines and seemed to prefer the European style of winemaking.  After a wander around their cellars we tasted a good selection of the wines that they produce.  There were a few gems (some yucky ones too, but we all have different tastes), the best being the dessert wine that was basically red wine mixed with raspberry juice.  I also rather enjoyed the Settlers Spiced Wine, which is their version of gluhwein and we drank it cold but I can imagine it would be spectacular hot.  Being on our bikes we were somewhat short of space so we only managed to take home our souvenir tasting glasses and one bottle of wine.

We then cycled onto the Salt Spa, which is a strange but nice place.  It’s in a tiny and unassuming office block behind the Bank of America and it looks just like any other office until they open the door at the back and lead you into a small salt cavern.  It has mood lighting set into the walls and several inches of salt on the floor.  You lay back in a sun lounger which makes you feel like you are weightless and you listen to the usual relaxing spa music while breathing in the salt-infused air.  It does appear to have real health benefits for the respiratory system.  There was a man in there who said he felt like he had a huge weight on his chest at the start of the session, but by the end he could breathe freely again.  I just found it really relaxing and a nice break from cycling in the hot sunshine.

After that we cycled the rest of the way back to Williamsburg including some rather busy major roads, which was a bit of a shock after the peaceful countryside of the rest of the day.  All in all, another very enjoyable day with about 22 miles of cycling achieved, and some spectacularly hot and sunny weather for the end of September.

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Gym’ll Fix It

I decided to join a gym when I arrived here, as it seemed sensible to find something constructive to do with my plentiful free time.  It has been interesting to see the differences between the gym I use here and the one back in the UK.  The classes are, of course, pretty similar (there are only so many variations of the same exercises after all) although just named differently.  Chisel is my current favourite, which is a mix of step & Body Pump and gives an all-round good toning class with a little cardio.  I’ve also been doing Spin, which has both advantages and disadvantages over the RPM that I used to do in the UK.  RPM is highly choreographed, with eight specific tracks in a class that is done for ten weeks until a new eight tracks are introduced.  This means that you really get to measure your progress, although for me and my short attention span it gets really boring and predictable after about week three, which makes it a lot harder to keep going.  Spin, certainly in the gym I’m now attending, is different every single week, with seemingly random tracks each week and also with a different teacher for nearly every class.  This keeps things fresh and interesting but you can’t really challenge yourself or measure how well you are doing.  RPM seems more varied, with specific tracks for speed or for hills, whereas Spin has a lot of tracks where you just go Stand Up, Sit Down, Stand Up, Sit Down every couple of seconds…. probably very good for the thigh muscles but really uncomfortable and annoying.  The best thing about Spin, for me, is the music.  Actually this goes for all the classes in my new gym.  They have realised that you can work out to guitar-based music instead of that bang-bang-dance-noise-stuff that invades all exercise classes in the UK.  The other day in one Spin class we had Mumford & Sons, the Beatles and Metallica.  I can tell you, it’s so much easier to race really fast to a song that you really enjoy (in this case, “Enter Sandman”).  Far nicer than the old RPM track 5 that sounded like a blender.

The weird thing about the gym here is their unwillingness to put on the air-con or even the fans half the time.  Given the fact that it was regularly around 35C and really humid in July/August, this seems madness.  It did probably mean that I sweated out a lot more lard and toxins than I might otherwise have done, I suppose.

The weights in the gym are all measured in pounds rather than the kilos that we used in the UK.  I can’t always convert the measurements very well in my head, so I have no idea half the time whether I’m tricking myself into using heavier weights or whether I’m cheating myself.  It sounds a lot more impressive to be using a 10lb weight than a 4.5kg one though.

I’m pleased to say that this gym malarkey is paying off.  In the last six weeks or so I have lost 4 pounds and, more importantly for me, around 3% of body fat.  As a vegetarian it’s quite hard to eat interesting food that isn’t laced in sauces or cheese etc, as you can’t just have a plain grilled piece of meat or fish etc.  My body fat has gone from the low end of “Poor” to the low end of “Fair”.  Yippee!  I don’t think the improvements are just due to the gym.  I’m also using Frankie the Bike to get around as much as I can, plus I’m no longer chained to a desk from 9-5.  This means I don’t sit and eat out of boredom, I don’t have to eat at midday whether I’m hungry or not just because that’s my designated lunch hour, and I can generally keep moving around instead of being stuck in a chair for 8 hours.  I may need to get a job as a cycle courier when I get back to the UK.

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Historic Triangle

This week we ventured out to the Historic Triangle, which is made up of Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown, and has history dating back to 1607 (wow, a whole 405 years) which by American terms is practically prehistoric.

First up we stopped off at Yorktown, which is the site of battles between the English and Americans (helped by the French) in 1781 which resulted in a win by the Americans and the securing of their independence.  I think this is the reason why the grumpy woman in the Yorktown National Parks Service refused to give us the free pass that we were entitled to, telling us that it was for Americans only.  Yeah, I bet you’d give it to French visitors.

We did a nine mile cycle around the battlefields.  The area is very much like the New Forest in England, except with a lot less ponies.  Being America, of course, the trail through the forests is open to cars as well as cycles, and they have laybys dotted along the route with large display boards for those people too lazy to even get out of their car to read about their own history.  In fact we only saw one other cyclist and one car for the whole route, which made for a very pleasant cycle.

We took a stroll into Yorktown itself which has its own Statue Of Liberty and some lovely quaint houses.  More importantly for me, it has a Ben & Jerry’s shop so we refuelled ready for the next leg of the trip.

We then ventured onto Williamsburg, via the Colonial National Historic Parkway, which is a picturesque road linking the three historical sites and going through some very lovely scenery (and a Naval Weapons Station, but you hardly notice that).  Williamsburg is a slightly unusual place.  It was the historical capital of Virginia in the 18th century and today it’s like a living museum.  The town is mainly pedestrianised and is full of the original buildings.  However, there are also lots of actors wandering around the town and you can eavesdrop on them going about their business, talking about the politics of the day etc.  If you really want to get involved, you can even rent your own costume to wear (it didn’t really go with the bikes though, so we didn’t partake).  I would say it’s one of the most interesting ways of teaching history, especially to kids who are bored of dragging around dusty old museums.  It’s a bit of a culture shock when you suddenly come out the other side into the modern traffic though.  We did a small ride around the town and through the campus of the College of William & Mary (which has to be in one of the prettiest locations ever – I could certainly consider getting a job there) and then we stopped for lunch at The Cheese Shop.  It sells cheese.  Lots of it.  Including Port Salut and Caerphilly,  Not Yarg though, sadly.  It’s a major step up from the sad excuse for “cheese” that’s generally sold in supermarkets over here though.  They also sell McVities Chocolate Digestives, PG Tips, and redbush chocolate, amongst many weird but nice other things.

The other highlight of Williamsburg was the Christmas Shop, which sells Christmas decorations all year round.  I found quite a few I could happily hang on my tree (including KISS, Stewie from Family Guy, The Grinch, and a dill pickle – which is apparently a Bavarian tradition) however at $13 a pop I declined to take any of them home with me.

We travelled the rest of the Colonial Parkway to get to Jamestown, which is where the English made their first permanent settlement in America back in 1607.  For some reason I hadn’t expected to see much at Jamestown but it was fascinating, with an archaeological dig in progress and a small museum full of things that have been found on the dig, as well as a statue of Pocahontas.  I did find it amusing that the Americans have such reverence for these artifacts that are only 400 years old whereas in the UK people are always digging up Viking and Roman relics in their back garden.  Well, it is the only history they have (apart from the Native Americans who were already in the country way before that, but let’s not get started).

We did a nice 5.5 mile cycle around Jamestown Island, and we could see immediately why the original settlers had problems and moved inland to Williamsburg – the place is swampy and full of mosquitoes, although very picturesque.  Again there were lots of boards along the way telling the history of the island.

We were going to try for one more cycle ride, a little further north, but as the parks close at sunset we didn’t quite have time.  So we went to one of the two discount shopping outlets in Williamsburg instead.  We certainly got value for our money there.  It’s quite strange how, in Williamsburg, one minute you can be learning about life in the 18th century and the next you can blow $60 on a whole new 21st century wardrobe.  Something for everyone.

So the other cycle ride is going to wait for another day – probably next week if we have the right weather again.


Frankie enjoying his first big day out.

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The Mighty Busch

Had a lovely day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  Possibly a strange choice for someone who doesn’t like going on rollercoasters and other such rides.  Indeed I did spend a large portion of my day holding the bags while my friends went on the stupid rides.  I wasn’t entirely left out though.  Oh no, I went on the Teacups!  (Bit fast and spinny, but I coped.)

This is Busch Gardens Europe and it was highly amusing having a wander around the Americans’ idea of “England” and “Scotland”.  Also a little bit weird seeing an actual red telephone box again.  Haven’t even seen one of those in the UK for a while now.  As well as all the rollercoasters, Busch Gardens also has animals, and in “Scotland” one of these was the Border Collie.  Not really what I would expect to see in a zoo, but hey.  Slightly odd seeing sheep grazing in a field too, as this is something you do not see at all in the US.

The best bit was the wolf cubs.  They were three and a half months old, but rather than the cute little puppies you might expect, they were the size of fully grown German Shepherds.  You could easily  mistake them for the same, apart from the piercing blue eyes.  In fact, one family on a holiday somewhere in the American Midwest did exactly that and, thinking the little pup they had stumbled across was a GS that had got lost, took it into their mobile home overnight before taking it to a vet the next day.  The vet realised it was a wolf, and potentially dangerous, and this pup has now ended up living in Busch Gardens as it couldn’t be released back into the wild.  The wolf cubs here have a domestic dog as their surrogate mother at the moment, who is teaching them pack behaviour so that they can be successfully integrated into the larger existing pack at Busch Gardens eventually.  I could have sat and watched them all day, they are so enchanting.

The American Eagles were pretty cool too, and rather large.  They would have been a bit more impressive if they didn’t totally remind me of Sam from the Muppets.

Busch Gardens has a daily pet show, which was really good.  It only lasts about twenty minutes and has at least 20 animals participating, so each one is on for a very short amount of time and in most cases does nothing other than run across the stage, so they are certainly not overworked.  All the animals have come from local rescue centres and are now given lots of love and care at Busch Gardens.  As well as cats and dogs they also have pigs and ducks.  I was particularly impressed by the parrot that could do maths.  There’s got to be some trick to it, but I couldn’t figure it out….

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Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad

Well I’ve gone and got myself a bicycle.  (Or, as the husband would have it, as he is the only gainfully employed one of us, HE has bought me a bike.)  It’s purple (not surprisingly) and I’ve called it Frankie as it is an Avalon bike.

I’ve never been much of a cyclist, mainly because my parents wouldn’t let me have a bike after the age of about 10 so I never managed to get any confidence in cycling on the road.  However, the area I’m living in is incredibly flat and the weather is good, two things that make it a much easier and more pleasurable activity.  Considering America is very much set up for the car driver, it is surprisingly safe to cycle around here.  You can cycle on the pavements along the larger roads (unlike the UK), but there are a lot of nice quiet backroads that you can pootle along as well (with some amazing houses to gawp at along the way), and because all the roads are so much wider than UK ones, there is a lot more space for a car to overtake a bike without forcing the rider off the road.  You just have to look out for the drivers turning right on a red light (which is legal here) as they are supposed to stop (and most of them do) for cyclists who are correctly using a pedestrian crossing, however it’s still going to be a bit of a mess if they don’t stop in time.

So Frankie has been escorting me to the library and the shops, as well as just out for fun with my friends on their bikes.  The nicest place to cycle has definitely been along the oceanfront, chatting en route, and ending with coffee and cake.  So the usual girly social event but with a bit of exercise along the way.  What’s not to like?

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Washington DC – Day 5

Our last day in Washington…..  It felt like we had been in the city for about 4 weeks rather than 4 days by this point.  In a good way.  Still there was so much that we hadn’t had time to do, so we would like to go back at some point to see more, although there are plenty of other places to visit in the country first while we have the chance.

We left quite early and managed to get out onto the motorway in about 2 minutes, which was great as we didn’t fancy getting stuck in the early morning rush hour traffic going the wrong way across town.  We stopped off at IKEA which is about half an hour outside the city.  Strange how being in a Swedish superstore can make you feel just like you’re back in the UK again!  I kept forgetting where I was until I heard an American accent every so often.  Managed to control myself quite well and only spent about $30 which is amazingly disciplined of me.  Just got a few little housey bits like a nice memory foam bath mat and a door mat.  No point in spending a fortune on a place that you know you’ll only be living in for three years.  Very tempted to take pictures of ourselves relaxing in the kitchen and living room displays in an attempt to fool our UK friends that this is actually our new apartment 🙂 .  I can promise you that we didn’t do it though, so any pictures you do see are actually real.  Or are they?

After that it was a nice uneventful drive back home.  And, being the first time we have “returned” there since moving in, it really did feel like coming back home, not just to “that place we’re currently living in”.  Home sweet home.  Bye bye Washington, best just get the washing on then, I suppose.

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Washington DC – Day 4

Thankfully this was a much less hot day (yes, still shorts weather 🙂 ) as we did a mammoth walk across the city.  We went past the White House and up to Dupont Circle then across to Georgetown.  You may have seen the pedestrian crossing lights in the USA, the ones where they give a visual countdown of how many seconds left to cross?  What we couldn’t work out is why, at Dupont Circle, where it is a single and very tiny lane to cross, you get 90 seconds, yet on the much wider 4 or 6 lane major roads you only get 16 seconds.  And also, why 16?  Why not 15 or 20?

Georgetown is the place I would choose to live if I found myself suddenly employed in DC.  It’s like what Didsbury is to  Manchester, or what Penarth is to Cardiff – the bit just to the side that has its own character and fabulousness but is just the right distance from the big centre.  You have to go across a bridge to get to Georgetown and it’s amazing how it instantly changes from big US city to small British town.  Most places in the US don’t have a traditional “High Street” centre but the shops are scattered all over the place and only accessible by car.  Uncharacteristically, Georgetown actually does have a proper High Street-type shopping area (where I headed straight to Lush to stock up on the essentials for the next twelve months until I can visit again).  From there we headed down along the waterfront with its posh restaurants and past the Watergate complex (it’s more than just a scandal you know – it has offices and a hotel too) and onto the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where we had a free guided tour of all the theatres and other rooms.  We even got to see inside the Presidential box – apparently there are special Presidential M&Ms available only when he attends a show.  We ended the tour on the roof terrace with a spectacular 360 degree view across the city – something I would highly recommend any visitors to the city take advantage of.

From there it was a nice walk along the canal to the Lincoln Memorial again, just to reconfirm that it kicks the ass of all the other memorials.  It still does.  Back to our hotel for a well earned soak in the hot tub after a good six hours on our feet.

Later on we made it out again for a view of the Washington Monument and Capitol Building at night.  The Capitol looks amazing when lit up but the Washington Monument has two red lights at the top which unfortunately make it look a little demonic 🙂 .Probably not the intended effect.

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Washington DC – Day 3

A much cooler day; still warm enough for shorts but not too hot to walk around in.  We did a few more museums including the Natural History Museum with a fabulous 3D film about dinosaurs, and also two art galleries where we had much fun grumbling about the modern “art”.  I really like modern art a lot more than the classics, but leaning a black plank against a wall and calling it art?  Really???  On seeing a piece by Cy Twombly, the husband’s considered criticism was “That looks like something I’d doodle while sitting on hold on the phone ….”.  He did have a point.

We also dropped into Union Station which isn’t quite as architecturally impressive as Grand Central Station in New York – maybe because it’s covered in scaffolding inside at the moment.  Not only is it a train station, it also houses lots of shops and eating places; in fact the trains are tucked right away at the back, almost as an afterthought.   We had lunch at Johnny Rockets which is a replica 50s diner (well, a whole chain of them) complete with red vinyl seats and individual jukeboxes at your booth.  The husband had a milkshake so thick that he could actually stand his spoon up in it.  I don’t know how he managed to eat a burger as well.

We had a lovely walk in the rain back to our hotel, passing the Capitol Building again on the way; yet another pretty impressive building.  Not a patch on the Lincoln Memorial though!

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Washington DC – Day 2

Another ridiculously hot day so this one was spent in a few museums including the National Air & Space Museum (looking forward to visiting the bigger version out by the airport some time) and the Hirshhorn.  Most museums in Washington are free, thanks to the generosity of a British man who left all his money for this very purpose.  We did a couple of laps of the National Mall, where most of the museums are situated, plus a trip up to see the White House.  You can only have a tour around the inside if you apply through your local Member of Congress about six months in advance or, in the case of us Brits, some other very convoluted application process which is just not worth the hassle.  And even then your tour may be cancelled at the last minute.  And you can’t take anything in, including any bags, cameras etc.  I thought I saw a couple of the infamous snipers on the roof but apparently they were only trees.  Maybe I do need my eyes tested.

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Washington DC – Day 1

Well, anyone who knows my husband won’t be at all surprised to learn that we left home at 4.30am on our trip to the nation’s capital.  We stopped at the IHOP for breakfast (where randomly they were playing Take That – I didn’t think they were even famous over here?) and I had a large bucket of coffee and some hash browns.  Wowee.  PROPER hash browns.  Those little things from McDonald’s will never seem the same again.  I was also schooled in the art of egg-ordering and can now confidently say that my choice is “over medium” – that’s “fried with a runnyish yolk” as I described it.  I still took the easy route with the bewildering choice of bread for my toast – as usual I just went for the last one on the waitress’ extensive list.

We arrived in Washington bright and early and amazingly found our hotel almost immediately, despite the satnav trying to send us down a non-existent road.  We hopped straight onto the sightseeing bus and out to Arlington Cemetery.  The highlight (if you can call it that) was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, which is guarded by soldiers 24 hours a day.  We saw the changing of the guard, which is taken very seriously and would have been even more impressive if their identical appearance (including matching sunglasses) didn’t totally remind me of the baddies from The Matrix.

While out in Arlington we also visited the Iwo Jima Memorial which has the wow factor for its sheer size if nothing else.  Definitely one I would recommend people to go and see.

We hopped back on the bus and back into the city centre to look around the rest of the notable memorials.  Having first seen the Washington Monument from the motorway on the way in, we soon started to get a bit sick of it as you can see it from absolutely everywhere.  It is cool though, and a useful marker for how far away you are.  There were hordes of TV cameras around the Washington Monument.  We thought it was just to celebrate our arrival, but in fact it was exactly one year since an earthquake hit the city and damaged the monument, which is currently closed for repairs.  I may well have spotted the US equivalent of Eamonn Holmes or Lorraine Kelly, but quite frankly if I did then I have absolutely no knowledge of it.

Washington is full of monuments and I quickly ran out of different adjectives for “impressive”.  We thought the Jefferson Memorial was the best thing ever, in a totally stunning setting.  But then we got to the Lincoln Memorial.  Which totally blew the rest out of the water.  I did have to resist the major urge to run through the Reflecting Pool shouting “FORREST GUMP!”.  Fortunately the pool is currently closed off for renovations.  Or maybe just because they knew I was coming.

The day was incredibly hot so we made the most of the air con on the tour bus as we saw the rest of Washington including Union Station and the Capitol Building (I still think the Houses of Parliament are architecturally more pleasing.  The husband disagrees).  Back at our hotel we were pleased to find a hot tub and a pool which made a good end to a tiring but enjoyable day.

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