Winter National Park Visits

Last winter we were able to sneak in a few NPS sites while traveling to visit family and friends over the holidays. One site that was surprising and entertaining in an unexpected way was Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park.  Only earning National Park status in 2014, previously the Blackstone River Valley was protected as a heritage corridor. Now, it encompasses several different sites and preserves the history of the Industrial Revolution in New England. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island we stopped to find a visitor center in an old train station. There were a couple of volunteers there who not only gave us information on the park, but told us that Hachi: A Dog’s Story was filmed there. Since Anthony and I went to Japan in 2009, we’ve both known the story of Hachiko, the dog who stands for loyalty and faithfulness in Tokyo. Hachiko waited for his owner every day at Shibuya Station, so that he could greet him and walk home with him after work. His owner died at work suddenly, and therefore did not return to the station. For over nine years, Hachiko continued to go to the train station every day, until his own death, to wait for his master. Now there is a statue of Hachiko at Shibuya Station that is a well known meeting spot. In Woonsocket, since an American version of Hachiko’s story was filmed there, a matching statue has been erected. The volunteers told us stories from the filming of the movie, which starred Richard Gere, and were more than happy to take our photo in front of the statue.

We also stopped in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to walk around the grounds of the Slater Mill, another piece of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. We were able to watch an introductory film and take a short walk through the textile mill and surrounding preserved buildings. There are several other areas that are part of the park that we will have to find time to explore more fully in the future.

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Vanderbilt Mansion NHP

Our next NPS stop on this trip was Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York. Representative of the Gilded Age, the Vanderbilt Mansion is just one of forty separate homes built by the family during this era. In Asheville, we have the Biltmore House, the largest private home in America, so we have a special attachment to the Vanderbilt family. The mansion is largely unchanged from the time the family used it as a summer and fall retreat. When Margaret Louise Van Alen inherited the estate, after the death of Frederick Vanderbilt in 1938, and couldn’t find buyers because of the Depression, she donated the property to the National Park Service. We were able to tour the grounds and the house. Interestingly enough, during the Gilded Age, guests were placed in bedrooms based on importance. So if you were put up in the bedroom closest to Louise and Frederick Vanderbilt, the primary residents of the mansion, that meant you were very important to them. If you were given a separate house elsewhere on the property, you were probably lower class. Old money social niceties of this time period are so fascinating!

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Big Cypress National Preserve

After spending time in the cold and snowy north, we headed down to south Florida to warm up. We were able to spend a day driving through Big Cypress National Preserve. Encompassing a large swath of land in south Florida, Big Cypress has tons of birds, alligators, and other animals. The Florida Trail also runs through this area. We hiked a couple of shorter trails, looking for alligators the whole time, while avoiding the mosquitos that are so prevalent in the steamy hot weather. The swamps hold a very different type of beauty from any other place I have been. Lush, green, damp, and resonant with the buzz of insects, Big Cypress is an engaging place, where it often feels like you can actually watch the greenery grow.

A varied trip, within a week span we visited areas preserved for industry, wealth, and wildlife.

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Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World

Star Wars Weekends

Star Wars Weekends

In May, Anthony and I traveled to Orlando for Star Wars Weekends and a chance to see friends and hang out at the theme parks.  An avid member of the 501st, Anthony was anxious to march in the Star Wars character parade at Hollywood Studios – still MGM in our heads.

Because it is tough for me to get time off during the school year, we scheduled our trip over Memorial Day weekend.  Even so, extensive snow days caused my work to reschedule school on Memorial Day!  I had to take a personal day, but we were limited to three days instead of the four we originally planned.  As always, we packed a lot into our three days.

Our first stop, after driving the 9 hour trek the night before, was Ethos.  This is our favorite place to eat in Orlando – and one of our favorite vegan restaurants in general.  Every time I have been, it seems that the breakfast special is french toast – which makes me very happy.  French toast and Canadian bacon is my breakfast of choice there.  Anthony almost always get biscuits and gravy.  We met friends at breakfast, and then eventually made our way to Epcot for the day.  It was already very hot – in the 90’s and humid all weekend.  We rode many rides and wandered through the country galleries, Japan was especially neat.  One ride that none of us want to repeat is Mission: SPACE.  Afterwards, we all felt wonky, since it simulates blast off and a trip through space.  We don’t get motion sick, but it was the simulation of the G forces that made us feel so gross.  Besides that, we had a blast.  Disney is always fun.  I also ran into old friends there.  I had no idea they were in Orlando, and running into them – and their four month old baby whom I hadn’t met yet, was great.

Epcot

Epcot

The following day, Sunday, was Anthony’s day to march in the parade.  I dropped him off early to meet up with the other 501st members, and then sat and waited for the parade.  I had to get a good spot in order to take photos.  At least I had friends to chat with while waiting in the sun.  Finally, the parade began.  Anthony dresses as a Tie Fighter, and there were several others lined up with him to march.  Thousands of people watched and cheered them on as they walked down the main street at Hollywood Studios.

After the parade, we spent the day riding the rides and hanging out with friends.  It was a busy weekend, but we had fun with everyone, even waiting in line.  Monday meant we had to drive back to Asheville, but we managed to stop for lunch at Ethos first!

 

Veterans Day in Florida

Over Veterans Day weekend, we decided to visit our favorite veteran – Anthony’s grandfather – in Florida. Papa enlisted at age 17 in the Navy and was a pilot during the Pacific Campaign of WWII. He has some amazing stories from his time serving, and loves to share them with us, so it was only fitting that we spent most of the weekend with him.
His home in south Florida is about a twelve hour drive from us, so we set out after work on Friday. We drove through and arrived exhausted in the middle of the night, but it was in the 70’s so I was especially delighted. We also have friends in south Florida so we spent time with them and with Papa throughout our visit – eating at favorites like Darbster, which I know I have written about before on this blog! We also made sure to indulge ourselves on some authentic Cuban food.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park

We snuck in two park sites while visiting. The first was Biscayne National Park. Most of the park is actually underwater, so we weren’t able to fully appreciate it. I would love to go back sometime and snorkel. There are so many shipwrecks that you can take a boat out to and then snorkel around the reefs and such. We were only able to walk along the paved trail and appreciate the warm weather and sea breeze from land. You can also camp out on the keys, but again, you need a boat to get out to them. Still beautiful, we enjoyed the sun and calm waters of the bay.

Canaveral National Seashore

Canaveral National Seashore

On our way north, we stopped at Canaveral National Seashore. We spent a few minutes wandering around Playalinda Beach. Whenever we are near the ocean, I feel the need to spend as much time as possible there, since I no longer live nearby. I spent years on the East Coast, always within a few miles of the ocean, and then was on the West Coast – in San Diego – so again, not far from the ocean. It feels good to be back! We also went to a manatee overlock, and spotted a few of them diving in the water. I was especially excited to see a even a couple.
Then our quick trip was over – back home!

DeSoto National Memorial and Ocmulgee National Monument

In November, we travelled for another wedding – this time in Tampa, Florida. We drove, and on the way there stopped in Atlanta for dinner at one of our favorite restaurants Loving Hut. These can be found in many different corners of the globe, and always serve tasty vegan Asian food. Each restaurant has a different menu, but the same philosophy.

Once we arrived in Tampa, our first stop was to meet some friends at Taco Bus downtown. They have a walk up counter and an inside dining area. We chose to order outside and then walked over to the nearby park to sit and enjoy our meal in the warm sunshine. It was beautiful outside! The food was amazingly good, you can add vegan steak strips to any burrito or taco. We sat outside for quite a long while, enjoying the sun and company of friends who we do not get to see very often.

Our friends were married that evening at The Florida Aquarium, in front of a huge tank full of sharks, stingrays, and fish. A pretty amazing ceremony, watching them state their vows while giant sharks floated by their heads. During the cocktail hour, penguins came out to hang out with the wedding guests! That was pretty awesome. We were allowed to wander through the aquarium after dinner and cake, spying on fish, birds, seahorses, and other sea creatures. We had lots of laughs with friends, and amused ourselves for hours among the tanks and wildlife. What a great idea for a wedding location!

DeSoto National Memorial

DeSoto National Memorial

Early the next morning, we headed out to De Soto National Memorial in Brandenton, Florida. The site commemorates De Soto’s trek through the Americas in the 1500’s. He and his army spent four years threading their way through the southeast. Unfortunately it was not a successful mission – De Soto died of fever along the way, and his constant search for gold made him no friends amongst the Native American tribes he encountered. Enslaving and/or killing many Native Americans, as well as leaving a legacy of disease and social unrest, destroyed many tribes. Nevertheless, De Soto National Memorial is a beautiful, peaceful spot right on the waters of the Manatee River and Tampa Bay, and we were able to spend time walking trails in the sun and enjoying seasonably warm weather – much warmer than we would have in Asheville this time of year! The trail took us through a forest with many different types of mangroves, and down to small beaches covered in shells. A park volunteer mentioned that many visitors come to the park by boat, through the calm waters that mostly surround the park. There were interpreters doing a demonstration of the clothing worn during De Soto’s time period and many, many people enjoying the trails in the park. It was a busy location for such a small park site. The volunteers were, of course, super friendly and helpful. We always end up spending time talking to the people working at the National Park Sites, and really enjoy the conversations we’ve had.

We had lunch at Taco Bus again, with friends, and then spent the day just hanging out and enjoying being with everyone. We had dinner that evening at yet another Loving Hut – I had a fantastic ham sandwich and cheesecake. We ate really well the entire weekend.

Ocmulgee National Monument

Ocmulgee National Monument

Our last stop, on the way home the following day, was at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia. Ocmulgee has an amazing history and is a beautiful park. With the leaves changing, and fall encroaching on the environment, the park took on an orange glow when we arrived in the late afternoon. The history is stunning – we were able to walk into an earthlodge built over 1,000 years ago. The mounds built on the site were quite a feat of engineering, but for some reason the earthlodge really blew us away. It gave me the shivers to stand in an underground chamber clearly created that long ago. We were also able to walk to the top of one of the ceremonial mounds and imagine why and how the early Mississippian people would create these structures. We stayed there until they closed, enjoying the peace and quiet beauty of the park. We always enjoy every park site we visit, but sometimes the less travelled, smaller sites are the ones that really surprise and delight.

Fort Frederica and Fort Caroline – The Southeast Coast

Fort Frederica National Monument

Fort Frederica National Monument

Over Labor Day Weekend, we took a very quick drive down to Florida to visit friends and family.  While travelling, we were able to squeeze in a couple of NPS sites – of course!  Our first stop was Fort Frederica National Monument, in Georgia.  We had spent a nervous evening the night before, since right before we arrived at our hotel for the night, our car started making an ominous noise in the wheel well.  Luckily, we were able to get it fixed quickly – a rock had managed to squeeze itself in between the tire and brake mechanism and was making a horrific racket!  But it was an easy fix and we were on our way shortly.  Fort Frederica is undergoing renovations, but they had a temporary bookstore set up, and we could view the film on benches outside, under a roof.  As always, the film was great – informative and concise.  We were then able to wander through where the town had been built.  It was a British military town, founded in 1734 by James Oglethorpe.  There are no buildings remaining, but foundations can be seen, and the layout of the town is still clear.  The fort, on the water, is partially still standing and has a gorgeous view.  Through most of its history, these British settlers were fighting the Spanish.  Though the British did not surrender Fort Frederica, once the war was over, the fort lost its purpose, and by 1758, when fire broke out, the fort was pretty much deserted.

While in southern Florida, we were able to eat at several of our favorite restaurants.  Including Darbster, which has incredibly tasty vegan delights and donates 100% of its profits to animal welfare projects.  We also went to a candy store, To The Moon, which often carries vegan chocolates and candies from all over the world, though they have all kinds of sweets.  Anthony was really excited to buy a case of Moxie in glass bottles.  Anyone else out there like Moxie?

Fort Caroline National Memorial

Fort Caroline National Memorial

On our way back from Florida, we stopped at Fort Caroline National Memorial, which is another NPS site.  Technically part of Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Fort Caroline is just one site you can visit in the preserve.  This was a French fort that was established in the mid-1500s.  Eventually, the Spanish wrested control of the fort, and the French were never able to regain their foothold in Florida.  You can view a reconstruction of the fort, as well as exhibits commemorating the Timucua native peoples.  We enjoyed the museum, especially a wooden owl – one of the only surviving artifacts from the Timucuan.

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