Girls Weekend in NYC

Five years ago when my oldest was turning 13, we celebrated by going to NYC with friends. For five long years my daughter has been anxiously awaiting her turn to go to NYC for her 13th birthday. We finally made the trip this past weekend, a couple months shy of her actual birthday. This time we went with friends we’ve known since the girls were in 2nd grade…IMG_3287

I’ve heard it said that traveling together is a good way to test marital compatibility. So much togetherness can be challenging, especially when the fellow travelers have different personalities. In some ways, my friend and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum, especially when it comes to planning and organization. I tend to blunder through life like a ball careening around a pinball machine. My friend, on the other hand, is a master planner. For months she had been sending me updates to an exhaustively researched itinerary, which she was meticulously honing over time like the finest of diamonds. About a week before we left, she sent me the final itinerary. Our four day long weekend had been translated into a polished 12 page document, complete with maps and travel times between destinations. It was truly a marvel to behold.

And then, like the unthinking hooligan I am, I lobbed a grenade…Right before we left, I had lunch with another friend, who told me about the last minute trip to NY she and her husband had recently taken. On the spur of the moment, they had gotten into the cancellation line for Hamilton. After two hours of waiting, they actually got in to see the musical. I thought this worth mentioning to my friend only because I happened to know that she had been playing the Hamilton lottery on a daily basis for months, maybe even years. Our daughters and all of their friends know every lyric to every single song on the soundtrack. Some day we’ll get tickets to see the show, we would tell our daughters…imagining that “some day” would be in a couple decades when the costumes would be moth-eaten and falling apart at the seams.

“I’m not invested or anything,” I texted to her…”Just an idea.”

Well. How do you shoehorn hours of waiting for something that might not even transpire into a tightly packed itinerary? We discussed the possibilities endlessly as we made our way to New York…


Setting off on our trek.

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We made a pit stop in Arlington to pay our respects to the ‘rents, who – as always- could barely contain their excitement and practically hurt themselves by grinning with excessive enthusiasm.


Training it to the city.


Dinner at Don Giovanni’s

We never did manage to decide how to handle the whole Hamilton situation, but we put the question aside and finished up our long day of travel by going to see a play we had been able to get tickets for.


Puffs, a show based on Harry Potter.



More tomorrow…



Day at the Zoo

IMG_5225The kids had a day off school on Friday and I took a day off work so we could loaf with the animals at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Chesterfield, Virginia…

We could hardly tear ourselves away from the baby monkeys in the animal nursery.




Just hangin’ out…



Fox on a Box


Maybe she’s born with it…Maybe it’s Maybelline.


Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful!

The giraffes are the main attraction…IMG_5272

IMG_5280They eat right out of your  hand…IMG_5285…with their enormous blue tongues.

Speaking of blue…


It’s not every girl who can coordinate her sneakers, shorts, brand new braces, and…

IMG_5342…bird accessory!IMG_5338



My husband and I have talked about taking the Crescent to New Orleans for as long as we’ve been married. Earlier this summer he finally found a reason to buy tickets. He was determined to be in the path of totality to see the eclipse. A lot can happen in twenty years…In our case, we added three extra people to our family. Instead of a cozy berth for two, he ended up booking three roomettes for our family of five.IMG_4968

The train was scheduled to leave Charlottesville at 10:30 pm, but we didn’t actually leave until midnight…

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The step to the top bunk was also the lid of the toilet…IMG_1083Directly over the toilet was the fold down sink…

We woke up at the crack of dawn to have breakfast in the dining car…

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We arrived in Greenville a bit rough around the edges after a night of very little sleep.

FullSizeRender 44A shuttle bus took us to the campus of Clemson University and we found a good spot for viewing.



IMG_4988IMG_1163It was a very, very long drive in a rental car back to Charlottesville. We didn’t get home until 3 am, and then…it was back to work!


The kids start school tomorrow.

I’m so sad the summer is over, but seeing the eclipse together was a memorable way to cap it off.


Black Rock Sands & the Festiniog Railway

I’m sure the first thing that pops into anyone’s mind when they think of the U.K. is the beach…what with the endless sunny days and the balmy, tropical climate.

On a morning that was forecasted to be sunny and mild, we packed a picnic lunch and headed to Black Rock Sands to lounge about, soaking up the warmth of the sun:



It’s a wind baby!


As we walked along the beach looking for a place to have our picnic, I was literally shaking violently from the cold. Not being a very stiff-upper-lip kind of person, I decided I would forgo the picnic and hang out in the car until the rest of my crazy family was ready to leave. I watched them trudge off into the dunes, their bodies bent over at right angles as they battled the winds. I felt ever-so-slightly guilty, but mostly gleeful as I settled down for a nap in the car, which we had parked right on the beach. After just a few minutes, my husband came back to drag me into the sand dunes, insisting that it was  “almost warm” in the shelter of the dunes…IMG_4572

Almost warm? Possibly to an Eskimo! Nevertheless, clad in our finest beach attire, we kept calm and carried on with a picnic on the beach. IMG_4580IMG_4581

Our picnic was a little rushed, because the tide was coming in and we were afraid our car was going to be swept out to sea. Oh, and also because it was freezing cold and had begun to rain.

We drove on to our next destination…a train ride on the Festiniog Railway.

IMG_4599Unfortunately, the driving rain prevented us from seeing anything but the odd cow from our windows. On the bright side, the company was pleasant and we were out of the rain!



The Festiniog Railway holds a special place in my husband’s heart. During his gap year before starting college, he spent some time working in their archives. They gave him this World War I document as a parting gift:


Perhaps they gave it to the promising young historian about to embark upon his studies at Cambridge as a reward for his exceptional work in the archives. Or perhaps they gave it to him for pitching in to help with the buffet cart whenever they were short-staffed. My very tall husband makes me laugh every time he reenacts how he would carry trays of scalding hot tea through the aisles of a swaying train, his head bowed to avoid hitting it on the top of the train carriage.

He and his brother were waiting to pick us up at the station at the other end. The first order of business was to find a cup of tea – the sine qua non for life in the U.K.!

As we drove through Canaerfon and past Canaerfon Castle, my father-in-law pointed it out as the place of Prince Charles’ investiture… i.e. where he became the Prince of Wales. That’s when my mother-in-law broke out a story about her own personal encounter with Prince Charles…

My in-laws were living in St. Andrews, close to Gordonstoun, the boarding school in Scotland where the young prince was studying. My mother-in-law was asked to be his external examiner in French and German.

I didn’t know how I should address him…Prince? Your Royal Highness?

Wait a minute…First of all, I can’t believe you never told me this story before! Second: so, what did you call him?

Well, I don’t think I called him anything at all. I just got on with the examination.

And how did he do?!

He was very nervous! His French was not bad, but his German was hopeless! For some reason he got onto the topic of wine-making, but he couldn’t remember the word for grapes in German so he kept referring to them as “little black balls”!

We stopped in a newly-opened café in Porthmadog.



Hot cocoa for a change of pace!

The proprietor came over to ask us a favor…”I can tell you’re not from around here, and as we just opened today, I was wondering if you could put a pin on our map to show where you’re from.”

So there you go…a little piece of Charlottesville in Porthmadog, Wales. IMG_0921

We’ve been back home in Charlottesville for a couple weeks now. Yesterday our one missing suitcase was finally delivered to our doorstep!


With the last bit of our belongings safely back in Charlottesville, and my last U.K. story posted, that lovely interlude has now really ended. I will remember the glorious walks, the beautiful scenery, and the ghastly weather. Most of all, I’ll remember the precious time spent with family, who – while far away – are ever close to our hearts.

Cwm Idwal in the Ogwen Valley

From the cultivated beauty of Bodnant Garden, we drove on to the wild beauty of Cwm Idwal…IMG_4450IMG_4452IMG_4458A stone path guided our steps…IMG_4466IMG_4465IMG_4488IMG_4494

…to a lake:

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It was a bit windy…


Actually, it was CRAZY windy!

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Brooding Heathcliff moment.


No brooding here. This is the face of a man in his element.


Bodnant Garden

Bodnant Garden is an impossibly beautiful 80 acre garden in Wales. It is probably most famous for its Laburnum Arch. We missed its peak, and could only imagine its splendor in May and June:


We didn’t have to imagine the splendor of the rest of the gardens…IMG_4289IMG_4294IMG_4297


“Stop!!! You’re not allowed to pick the flowers!”


The hydrangeas, especially, were glorious:IMG_4314IMG_4315IMG_4319IMG_4326


The agapanthus heads were literally the size of soccer balls.



I can’t exactly articulate why, but this fine tree reminded me of my husband.




IMG_4370IMG_4369We ended our visit to Bodnant with an epic game of tag on the perfect lawn:



My husband and his brother…


Penmaenmawr, Aber Falls, & Gladstone’s Ghost


We saw this bust of Gladstone at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight.

When my husband was a young history major in college, he wrote a thesis on William Gladstone (1808-1898), a British prime minister with a long and storied career. Over the years he has told me a lot about Gladstone’s politics. Was he a liberal? A conservative? I couldn’t tell you…For some reason, the only thing I can ever remember is that Gladstone had a somewhat suspect penchant for finding prostitutes on the street to “rescue,” and that he would engage in self-flagellation afterwards…each incident faithfully recorded with a drawing of a whip in his daily diary. On our trip to the U.K., the ghost of Gladstone kept dogging our steps.

In Wales, we drove through Hawarden and past the grand Hawarden Castle, the estate where Gladstone lived . My husband pointed out Gladstone’s Library, where he had spent a summer doing research for his thesis. Towards the end of our trip, we decamped for a few days to Penmaenmawr, a seaside resort town that became popular when Gladstone began spending time there. The Airbnb flat we rented happened to be in what was once Gladstone’s summer villa:


The view from our balcony was stunning from morning till night…IMG_4213IMG_0927On our first evening there, we took a short drive and had a lovely after-dinner stroll to Aber Falls:


Shortly after this picture was taken, the heavens opened and it started raining and thundering. Fortunately, we made it back to the car just in time!


Hawkstone Park Follies

One of the most interesting places we visited during our time in England was the 100 acre Hawkstone Park Follies in Shropshire. The Follies were built over several generations by the Hill family in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Over time the park fell into disrepair and was neglected for about a century. After a major renovation and restoration, the park was reopened to the public in 1993.

It takes about two and a half to three hours to do the whole trail. At the beginning, we strolled along, cool as cucumbers…


We stopped for a picnic lunch here…


After a bite to eat, we climbed up the steep, narrow, spiral staircase leading to the top…


My Shropshire Lads


From the tower we had a spectacular view:


…but the girl in the bottom left corner was feeling a lot less cool and collected after having contemplated the spectacular drop.IMG_0095

Another notable visitor experienced the same visceral horror…Dr. Samuel Johnson visited the Follies in 1774 and described “its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows and the loftiness of its rocks…Above is inaccessible altitude, below is horrible profundity.”

We continued along the path. En route we passed the Hermitage…

IMG_0097 2 In the 1700s Father Francis would sit barefoot in his hut with a skull and an hourglass to meditate upon the passage of time and mortality:

Far from the busy scenes of life
Far from the world its caves and strife
In the solitude more pleas’d to dwell
The hermit bids you to his cell
Warns you sin’s gilded bait to fly
And calls you to prepare to die

We pressed on through dark caves, over shockingly narrow bridges:


Channeling Gandalf: “You shall not pass!


…through “The Cleft”:


..through The Grotto, which contained a treasure chest and a/The(?!) Holy Grail:


…and out to The Gothic Arch:


…which had an excellent view of the 10th fairway:


We were flagging, but still in good spirits…

We were buoyed by signs we would see every hundred yards or so that promised a cup of tea to cap off our trek:

IMG_0150In the end, we were trudging along in the heat, desperate to get to the tearoom below.


Our boy forged ahead of us all, ready to finish up the hike. Here’s where things took a weird turn. We should have been heading downhill to get to the tearoom, but in some sort of bizarre Escheresque effect, we kept coming upon stairs leading UP rather than down. Every time we heard an anguished wail of despair from our tired young trail guide, we knew that another set of stairs awaited us!

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and eventually – so at last did the hike.


Port Sunlight

We spent a morning in Port Sunlight, a picturesque village on the Wirral Peninsula in Cheshire. The village was built at the end of the 19th century by William Lever (think Sunlight dish detergent or Unilever) for workers in his soap factory.

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Lever had always been interested in architecture, and the village was his pet project. He envisioned it as a “profit-sharing” (rather than philanthropic) scheme, because he invested the company’s profit into providing his workers with housing, education, and entertainment.

Almost thirty different architects worked on the village, so each block has a different character and each house is unique.

IMG_4106Lever was an art collector, and he housed his collection in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which is the crown jewel of the village.

IMG_4086The scale of it is perfect for a leisurely visit. In one morning, you can wander around the whole museum, which houses everything from Chinese snuff bottles to Wedgwood jasperware, furniture and pre-Raphaelite paintings.


I have a thing for goats


…and harpies…


…oh, and dogs, too!

IMG_4098We had a cup of tea in the café, then headed back to Manchester, with a brief stop at Parkgate, a village that was once a seaside resort. The shoreline has silted up over the years, and what was once a beach has now become marshland.


The Queen of Clubs

On one of our last days in the U.K., we drove up the Great Orme, a sheer, sheep-dotted limestone cliff, which serves as a dramatic backdrop to Llandudno, a seaside resort town in Wales.


Trying really hard to not be blown into the void by the howling winds!



Wish I could read that stone graffiti!


We drove back down to Llandudno and wandered around, looking for a place to have lunch.

IMG_4674IMG_4677IMG_4676As we drove around the streets, I spotted an imposing statue in front of a church and realized it was the Queen of Hearts!IMG_4672


Have mercy, your majesty!

There are Alice in Wonderland statues all over the town. In fact, you can download an app, which will guide you through a whole Alice in Wonderland tour. Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the book, spent time in Llandudno, because her family had a vacation home there. There’s some debate as to whether or not Lewis Carroll visited them there, but the town has, in any case, enthusiastically embraced the connection!

As we were driving around I was thinking about all the card Queens connected to popular culture. Besides the Queen of Hearts, there’s the Queen of Spades (from Pushkin’s short story and the Tchaikovsky opera based on it). The Queen of Diamonds gets a cameo appearance in the Eagles song Desperado. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t think of any Queen of Clubs. I was completely stumped.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that the answer had been in front of my face all along! Here she is: The Queen of Clubs! Yesterday, our daughter turned 12 and we played a celebratory round of putt-putt to celebrate her birthday:

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The truth is: the Queen of Clubs has always been the Queen of our Hearts.