My family and I just got back from a whirlwind two-week vacation to the East Coast to see the Honeybee’s family in Connecticut and do some sightseeing. We also managed to set aside a little time to visit some of my tax money in our nation’s capital.
Here are just a few highlights:
4:00 AM: The airport shuttle arrives right on time. Everybody is in a great mood. We quickly load the van up with our luggage and then we’re on our way!
4:04 AM: I make an announcement to the kids, telling them that they each will be allotted $50 to spend as they wish on souvenirs during the trip. Matthew (13 years-old) and Nina (10) both let out a cheer. Even though we just got into the van, as far as Nina is concerned, she’s already made up her mind on the verdict regarding this edition of our family vacation. “This is the best trip ever, Dad!”
5:16 AM: We get our bags checked and make it through airport security unscathed. As we pass a couple of shops on the way to our gate, I feel a gentle tap on my arm. It’s Nina. “Dad, can I get a souvenir now?”
11:01 PM: My first night in New England and the Los Angeles Lakers are hosting the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I’m watching the game at sister-in-law Christina’s house, surrounded by rabid Celtic fans. For the past three quarters the Lakers have been getting pounded by the hated Celtics. Meanwhile my son and I continue to get an earful from the others. Going into the final quarter, the Lakers are down by 12. God, this sucks. The thought of having to endure a Laker loss surrounded by all these Celtic fans — on their home turf, no less — is any Laker fan’s worst nightmare. Why couldn’t I have scheduled the first day of our vacation a day later?
11:58 PM: Like I said, I sure am glad I had the wisdom and foresight to schedule our vacation when I did. The Lakers just finished off a remarkable comeback and won the game — and their 16th NBA championship – 83-79. Sweet. I’d like to talk a little trash with all the folks dressed in green that had been dishing out the Laker insults more than a half hour ago, but they all left.
11:21 AM: We take a tour of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. The museum, in New Haven, Connnecticut, was founded in 1866 and houses an impressive collection of dinosaurs and other fossils, along with a host of other interesting objects including meteorites, insects, mummies, and other stuff from the world of science.
1:48 PM: Afterward we head down the street to a world famous local landmark known as Louis’ Lunch, which was established in 1895 and claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger. The place is quaint — not much bigger than a walk-in closet — and as you walk through the door you can’t help but feel like you have taken a time machine back to the late 19th Century.
1:56 PM: We watch the great grandson of the original owner, Jeff, make our burgers by hand right in front of us. It is served with grilled onion, tomato and a cheesy spread, then topped off using toast for the bun.
2:13 PM: “Ah, that was a GOOD burger!” my father in-law, Tony, said as he finished scarfing up the last bite of his tasty sandwich. Tony has lived in nearby West Haven for most of his nearly 70 years on Earth. Being a local, he’s probably had thousands of Louis’ handmade hamburgers over the years. “So, Dad,” I ask, “How often do you stop in here for bite to eat?” Tony’s reply? “To be honest, Len, this is the first time I ever stepped in the joint.”
9:04 AM: I hop in the car with Christina. We’re off to the local Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee before we head off for a family get-together at a campground in East Hamden. If you ask me, Starbucks coffee doesn’t come close to Dunkin Donuts’ brew. As their slogan goes, “America runs on Dunkin Donuts.” Maybe most of America but, unfortunately, you can’t find them in Southern California.
9:09 AM: “Come on, you’re next! What’ll you have, Hon?” says the middle-aged lady behind the counter. “Who, me?” I reply, not sure whether or not she was talking to me because I was too focused on the donuts in the display, trying to decide whether I really wanted chocolate sprinkles or not. When I look up the only answer I get from the impatient clerk is a head cocked to the side — along with a big nasty scowl. Jeez, is this any way to treat a customer?
9:14 AM: Back in the car, I tell Christina, “I don’t think the coffee lady liked me.” Christina looks at me and says, “What makes you say that, she seemed fine to me.” Then it hit me. I’ve got to be more thick-skinned. After all, I’m not in California anymore – this is the Northeast. Everything here is served with a big heaping bowl of attitude. But what about that scowl, you ask? Well, duh! That’s how most people smile here. By the way, just for the record, “coffee” is a three-syllable word in this part of New England. (Coo-aw-fee.)
7:20 PM: You haven’t tasted a real pizza unless you’ve had one in the Northeast and, tonight, I’m in heaven. I’ve just finished stuffing myself on an amazing Italian sausage and mushroom pizza from a local pizza joint in West Haven called Zuppardi’s. Because the pizza in California absolutely sucks, I make sure that every time we come out to visit my Connecticut in-laws, pizza is on our dinner menu at least once. Yes, Southern California is home to the best hamburger joints in the world – In-N-Out isn’t the only place that serves terrific hamburgers here – but when it comes to pizza, fuggedaboutit.
10:38 PM: Just had a piece of leftover pizza. Pure ambrosia. This particular slice was topped with bacon. Real bacon, too. Not that Canadian-style bacon like you get on your Egg McMuffin. Here’s a tip to anybody who wants to become independently wealthy: figure out a way to open a pizza place in Southern California that sells authentic Northeast pizza like the kind you can get in New York, Boston, or West Haven, Connecticut. You can thank me later.
10:20 AM: With Tony as the navigator, we leave West Haven, Connecticut, in the mini-van I rented for a five-day stay in Washington D.C. If you missed the story of how I used a savvy move to save over $300 in car rental fees, be sure to check it out here.
10:23 AM:We’re on I-95 now, heading south. I ask Tony, who has over 30 years of experience driving big-rigs up and down Eastern Seaboard how long it will take us to get to Washington. “Since it’s not rush hour, we should make good time,” he says. “Five hours. Tops.” He should know.
11:27 AM:We finally cross the state line into New York state. For those of you counting at home, it took us 64 minutes to travel roughly 45 miles. Good thing we didn’t leave during rush hour; we need to be back at the Hartford airport in little more than a week.
11:47 AM: I notice we’re on something New Yorkers call the “Cross Bronx Expressway.” Heh. Expressway. Is this some kind of joke? The needle on my speedometer has yet to see 15 miles per hour. The next time somebody says Los Angeles has terrible traffic, I’m going to have to put them in their place.
12:12 PM: For the record, the odometer says we’ve traveled less than 75 miles and we’ve been on the road for almost two hours. Good thing we didn’t leave during rush hour.
12:23 PM: There is a God. We’ve crossed the state line and suddenly the New Jersey Turnpike is WIDE open; it’s as if Charlton Heston has parted the Red Sea. Look at this! Seven beautiful lanes of traffic moving at 75 miles per hour. I love New Jersey!
2:05 PM: I hate New Jersey. We’re a few miles from the Delaware line and traffic is hopelessly jammed.
5:28 PM: Mercifully, we cross the Potomac River into Washington DC. Five hours. Seven and a half hours. You say tomato, I say tomahto. All I can say is it’s a good thing we didn’t leave during rush hour.
10:20 AM: The kids are enjoying their first ride on a subway train. As far as I’m concerned, the Washington DC Metro is the best subway system in the United States. Clean and comfortable, with plentiful stops at every key location throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, it is the only way to get around the national capital. For more budget conscious travelers, I strongly recommend staying at a hotel outside of DC proper and taking the Metro into town.
2:47 PM: We’ve just spent a few hours at the International Spy Museum and everybody had a great time! We were given secret identities, went to “spy school,” were shown the tricks and tools of the trade, and got a fascinating glimpse at the history of spying.
3:58 PM: After taking a tour of Ford’s Theater, the infamous site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, we walk across the street to see the house and bedroom where Lincoln eventually died. The tour includes a very informative historical narrative by a National Park ranger who tells us that shortly before John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, Booth actually spent time in the bar next door to the theater to have a drink. “Hey, let’s go have a drink at the bar!” I tell the kids, who give out a cheer.
4:03 PM: “Hey Dad,” my son says as he raises his root beer into the air, “I didn’t know they had Hard Rock Cafes when Lincoln was the president!” Me either, son. (Maybe the ranger was referring to the other side of the the theater.)
9:23 PM: We tour the National Mall, the large park roughly between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial that also encompasses such icons as the Washington Monument, and the World War II and Vietnam War Memorials. I’ve been to DC three times previously, but I’ve never toured the Mall at night. If you ask me, it is the ONLY time to take a tour of these beautiful monuments and icons. Lit up, the monuments and memorials are absolutely stunning in the evening. Not only that, but you also avoid the heat that comes during the hot summers. Oh, and there are less people too.
10:43 AM: Being an aerospace engineer I may be biased, but if you have time to visit only one of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums, for God’s sake, make sure it is the National Air and Space Museum. It is an absolutely awesome historical display of man’s attempts to fly and reach for the stars. My kids loved it. That being said, on this particular visit to the museum, my lasting memory will be of a man ahead of us in line who was kicked out after the metal detectors found him concealing a nasty-looking hunting knife with an 8-inch blade. Incredibly, after kicking him out of the building, the guards gave him the knife back. I’m not making this up, people.
12:19 PM: Today we’re visiting the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Did I mention that all of the Smithsonian museums are free? Yep. But they eventually get it back. I purchase a Coke and a bag of chips at the museum’s cafe. The total: $6.05. Meanwhile, the Honeybee and kids are getting a few sandwiches, chips and drinks for themselves. Before it’s all over I’m into the Smithsonian for another $40.
3:02 PM: Souvenir time! There goes another $100. (See what I mean?)
3:22 PM: I have to say, the Smithsonian Museum of American History was fun and I’m glad I went but, to be honest, it wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped. Yes, I did see the Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry and was the inspiration for the US national anthem. I also got to see Lincoln’s top hat, the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, lots of military items from every American war stretching back to the Revolutionary War, exhibits on each of the American presidents, and even a mangled piece of the World Trade Center. Then again, the Air and Space Museum is a tough act to follow.
11:38 AM: Here’s an interesting bit of trivia for ya. What do you think is the most-visited destination in Washington DC, with over 32 million visitors per year? The White House, perhaps? Maybe the National Archives? Nope. It’s Union Station. It is an absolutely beautiful building, inside and out, and along with housing the city’s train station, it is also a bustling retail center with lots and lots of shopping and dining spread out over three floors. Don’t think the Honeybee hasn’t figured that out. She’s currently doing her level best to contribute to the Washington DC economy by spending a little money at all 130+ stores.
1:17 PM: Union Station is also the location where you can buy tickets for many city bus tours. After several days of walking miles and miles, we decide to rest a bit and enjoy one of them. We decide to go with Doubledecker Tours. Although they don’t offer a live guide, the ticket agent tells us they have a recorded narrator. Fine by me. There are many other companies operating double decker bus tours of the city, so make sure you research them all before you make your choice.
3:10 PM: The bus tour is over. It was nice to rest our weary feet, if only for a little while. My opinion: the bus was clean, the tour was informative and it hit all of the major sites. The $75 I paid for the entire family was a great deal if you are looking for a quick and dirty overview of the city’s local attractions and memorials.
6:53 PM: In the hotel elevator I strike up a conversation with Executive Chef Ernesto Pabico, a very personable gentleman who runs the kitchens for the Embassy Suites and Doubletree hotels in Crystal City. I compliment him on his delicious food and manage to finagle an impromptu kitchen tour for my son, who wants to be a chef when he grows up.
7:09 PM: Chef Pabico gives Matthew and me a VIP tour of his kitchen and food storage facilities and passes on a few cooking tips for Matthew along the way. Matthew, um, is eating it all up, if you’ll pardon the pun.
7:27 PM: I’m thankful to see Chef Pabico keeps his facilities absolutely spotless. Matthew notices how clean everything is and then mentions the dirty kitchens he sees on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. “No matter what you might think about Chef Gordon Ramsay,” Pabico says to Matthew, “he is absolutely right about the importance of always keeping a clean kitchen.” If only I could get Pabico to also impress upon Matthew the importance of keeping a clean bedroom, but I decide not to push my luck. The tour was a nice end to a fun trip in Washington DC.
8:32 AM: We’re finally on our way out of town, heading back to Connecticut for a few more days with the family before heading home to California. This time I won’t bother asking Tony how long it’s going to take us to get back to Connecticut. No need to rush. I’m on vacation.
Photo Credit: Ryan McFarland