We live on the tundra. This means I prefer to vacation someplace warm in winter and sit around sipping beers and reading books on my front porch during summer. We typically head to SoCal sometime between January and March because we have family in that area. But as our ducklings get closer to leaving the hubs and me to waddle around the yard alone, we’ve decided to be a bit more adventurous and take a few family vacations to previously unexplored destinations.
We made a list of locales we’d like to visit and began to plan. First on the list was Mount Rushmore since it’s not far from home. But when the oldest went on a church mission trip to the area, South Dakota was demoted from priority status. Next was Washington D.C. because the middle school sponsors a student trip there. I convinced our sons, (decided for them) that it would be more fun to go with family. Plus, I’d never been there and was excited to see our nation’s capital for myself. So for the first time, we ventured east for a summer vacation. Here is some of what we learned along the way…
We flew and decided not to rent a car when we arrived. (We also packed light, each with only a backpack or small carryon suitcase.) I was told the Metro rail system around D.C. is easy and efficient. This proved to be true. Once we deciphered the fare machine and route maps, we became pros at navigating the city by subway. This may have been one of our kids’ favorite vacation activities.
Re-loadable fare cards also work for the bus system and twice we used a combination of train and bus service to visit more distant attractions: the Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. But, the subway isn’t necessarily quicker than taking a taxi–and for four passengers, riding the metro isn’t a lot cheaper either. So, if you’re in a hurry, are traveling in a group and don’t have far to go, a cab isn’t the worst decision. If you plan to drive, the traffic didn’t look horrible but I have no idea how much it costs to park.
Halfway through our trip, we boarded an Amtrak train to New York City. Friends had tied these two destinations into one vacation and it seemed like a good idea. Amtrak is much different than air travel: no security line and no assigned seats. I’d pre-purchased tickets online. From there, you just show up, wait for your track to be announced and rush the platform to ensure getting seats together. Not particularly scenic. Not luxurious. But easy enough.
We spent a total of eight days in D.C. and three days in NYC. This seemed adequate for seeing most of what we wanted to see. I did minimal pre-planning. Outside of the Amtrak tickets, the only pre-purchased tickets were for a visit to the Statue of Liberty, which was totally worth it. Getting to the ferry was a short cab ride from midtown. Security was tight but tourists were moved along efficiently and quickly.
While in NYC, we also visited the 9/11 Memorial and museum. I’d been advised to purchase advance tickets but didn’t. No problem. We were able to walk right up and get tickets for the same day.
Other NYC vacation highlights included a full day exploring Central Park (probably the kids’ favorite place with its large outcroppings of stones for climbing adventures), and a double-deck bus tour around Manhattan (this type of excursion was better in Chicago where the quality of our tour guide was superior). There is surely more to see and overall, everyone agreed we’d like to return to NYC sometime.
In Washington D.C., we visited most every monument and museum as well as Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon. We did not coordinate tours for the White House or the Capital building, which require advance planning. But we saw SO much, I don’t feel as if we missed out on anything. Some of our D.C. highlights were:
Going inside the Washington Monument. (The hubs got in line at 7:30 a.m. for free same day tickets.)
Strolling around the National Mall monuments at night.
Resting my weary body after walking MILES each day.
I’m not a trinket buyer so most of our pocket money went toward food. And I must say, I was disappointed by the lack of decent restaurant fare in D.C. Again, maybe my lack of proper pre-planning and research are to blame. But a simple Google search should have turned up something filling, healthy, moderately priced and within walking distance from the National Mall. But alas, our days were filled with fast food, cafeterias and bags of Combos. The museums have a great racket going with free admission, IKEA-style exhibit paths that make it virtually impossible to exit until you’re exhausted and famished, and then–a cafeteria filled with tourists and $40 family lunches not including beverages as we carried our own water.
Dining was easier in NYC with its wide variety of dine-in and take-out restaurants and delis. Many also had lovely patio seating.
We treated the kiddos to a meal in New York’s Little Italy one night for funzies. This was by far the most expensive dinner of our trip. But it was relaxing. The food was fresh and tasty. And of course, mama slowly sipped a wonderful glass of wine. (Most nights, I sipped my evening allotment of resveratrol back in the hotel room, poured from a bottle I picked up for $10 at a nearby drugstore. Don’t judge.)
We have been saving Marriott reward points for years thinking we’d use them to take the family to Europe someday. But that day may never come and if travel companies decide to change the rules before vacationers like us get the chance to use those precious points, we’re screwed. So we decided to start using points now. This meant ‘free’ hotel stays but limited us to three Marriott properties based on availability: the Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Gateway in Arlington, VA and the Marriott Marquee in Times Square.
Arlington is a bit farther than I would have preferred for daily treks into D.C., but it was easily managed via Metro rail. I was really excited about staying on Times Square in NYC and the hotel is very nice. But, a room with a view costs extra and the tourists packed onto the street just outside the hotel made Times Square one of my least favorite places to wade through daily. I only needed to see it once.
Overall, the biggest surprise of the trip was being less overwhelmed than I anticipated. “Would a big city make us anxious?” Nah. Both cities seem pretty much the same as anyplace else, only bigger. Oh, and D.C. smells better than NYC. Gah! (More photos on Instagram @wordsbyangela)
Next on our list, Yosemite National Park!
If you have questions or additional travel tips for readers of this post, please add them to the comments section.