Tag: Family Outings

Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle – Chicago, Illinois

Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle – Chicago, Illinois

A History Geek’s Dream, In Miniature

When I was a young girl, my mom and I had a dollhouse that we worked on together. I used to love creating a little world for the family that “lived” there. As I grew up, I pushed aside that little girl pursuit and became interested in the typical teenage things – boys, fashion, and music. Miniatures were a thing that belonged in my past. It just didn’t interest me any more.

But when I found a dusty old book about a fairy tale dollhouse castle at a yard sale several years ago, my interest was rekindled. I had only ever seen doll houses, but this was a doll castle. First I was intrigued. Then, gradually, as years passed without ever going to see it in person, my interest morphed into fascination, which grew to become a slight obsession. To those of you who are regular readers, it should be no surprise that I am fascinated with miniatures. After all, I’ve written about them here, here, and here. And I absolutely love castles, so this was the ultimate dollhouse as far as I was concerned!

So when it came time to plan a little trip for my birthday weekend, I knew just where I wanted to go: Chicago.  The Windy City has a lot to offer visitors, but for miniatures enthusiasts, it is of special interest as it is home to both the Thorne Miniature Rooms and Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle.

The Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

Colleen Moore created the castle with the help of her father in 1928. It measures nine square feet and the tallest point of it is 12 feet high. But it’s not just any dollhouse, and Colleen Moore was not just any woman.

Colleen Moore was a silent film star in the 1920s. She was considered one of the most fashionable stars of that era, a trendsetter credited with making the bobbed haircut popular among American women. She was also a savvy investor who became a partner in the Merrill Lynch firm and wrote a book about investing in the stock market.

Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has been on display at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago since 1949. In all honesty, it seems a bit out of place there. MSI is essentially a science museum, with exhibits on robots, optical illusions, physics, energy, and so on. Yet tucked away in an alcove adjacent to the (Brain) Food Court you’ll see this wall:

Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle - Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.

Just opposite the sign is the semi-dark room that holds Colleen Moore’s masterpiece.  The castle is encased in glass on an elevated platform. A recorded announcement with details of the castle and its furnishings plays above visitors’ heads as they peer inside. Every time I went around the castle I saw or heard something new, so I would go again. I think I circled it at least four times.

The Courtyard

Upon entering the room, the first part of the castle that you will see is the courtyard.

Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle - the Courtyard.

The large tree just beyond the gates is a weeping willow. Ms Moore decided to depict the tree quite literally, with teardrops on its branches. To the left of that is a silver horse and carriage set for Cinderella, and to the right of the gate… do you see that fuzzy pink thing? Well, it’s a cradle, of course! As in “Rock-a-bye Baby, in the Treetop.” The tree was motorized and it rocked from side to side, making the cradle sway.

Also, you can’t see it in this photo, but the castle’s cornerstone is gold instead of gray.  It was laid by Sara Roosevelt, the mother of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Moving along to the right, the end of the building features a series of pictures depicting scenes from Aesop’s Fables, including “The Fox and the Grapes” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper.”

Aesop's Fables depicted in the artwork on Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle.

The Library

Turning the corner, we came upon the library. More than 100 books rest on the shelves in this room, and they are all real. Many of them are handwritten by prominent authors. The library was decorated with a nautical theme – bright blue paint, murals of ships at sea, furniture with shell motifs, and so on. It was meant to evoke a sense of adventure as depicted in the stories of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Captain Kidd and other adventurers. The bookcase didn’t dominate the room. In fact, it’s so far off to the right in the photo below it isn’t even visible.  It was hard to tell that it was supposed to be a library (the bibliophile complained), but nonetheless fun to look at.

The library in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

So many details! A secondary theme was astronomy. The pillows are shaped like stars and moons, the dome of the ceiling looks like the night sky.  The wood floor had an astrological design inlaid in its center.

A little further down, a cubbyhole room on the second floor was the treasure room of Aladdin. I tried to take a picture, but it didn’t turn out well enough to share.

The Chapel

Then we came upon the Chapel, which has stained glass windows of Bible stories and a gold altar. On the prayer bench in front of the altar is a small Bible printed in 1840. It is the smallest Bible in the world, and is printed from real type.

Here are some shots I took of the Chapel and its furnishings.

The Chapel in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle.

The Chapel Altar in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle.

As you move on to the next room, you can look back at the chapel through a long window (above) and see the altar and tabernacle. On top of the tabernacle is a beautiful golden sunburst, in the center of which is a glass container holding a sliver of the true cross. This was given to Colleen by her friend, Clare Booth Luce, who was Ambassador to Italy. Luce received the relic when she had her first audience with the Pope.

The Great Hall

From there, we turned the corner again and found ourselves gazing at the great hall, the largest room in the dollhouse. It has an etched ivory floor, and a ceiling painted with figures from the classic Brothers Grimm tales.

The Great Hall of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, on display at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.

The Great Hall contains several items of interest.  For instance, two ancient statues of the goddess Isis – one of lapis lazuli, the other of green glaze. There is also a pair of hollow 1/4 inch glass slippers to fit a 5-inch Cinderella.  Under a glass dome, the tiny chairs of Goldilocks’ three bears sit on the heads of pins—the largest weighing only 1/150,000th of an ounce! On either side of the arched doorway leading to the courtyard, there is a silver knight in full armor. These figures came from the collection of iconic early film star Rudolph Valentino.

The exterior of the great hall features three figures – a female in plain dress, a male noble, and an older rich woman. They are Cinderella, Prince Charming, and the Evil Stepmother. The figure above them, arms outspread, is the good fairy welcoming you to Fairy Land.

Cinderella figures outside the Great Hall of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

The Drawing Room

As we rounded the last corner, we came upon the drawing room.

The Drawing Room of Colleen Moore's Fair Tale Dollhouse Castle.

This room is full of silver furniture and miniature musical ornaments. The wall features a mural of the Cinderella story. Another Cinderella scene, featutring her pumpkin/carriage, is located inside of the rosewood piano. The floor, made in China as a custom order for Moore, is rose quartz banded in jade. The vases at each side of the door going into the great hall are made of carved amber more than 500 years old.

The Prince’s Bedroom & Bathroom

Above the drawing room is the Prince’s bedroom.  Unfortunately, I did not get any good photos of this room. There was a white bearskin rug on the floor, which Moore had a taxidermist make from ermine skin and mouse teeth.

The Prince's Bathroom in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, Chicago

Next to the bedroom was a small bathroom. Small, but no less elegant than the rest of the castle! Mostly alabaster, the room included a gold, jewel encrusted mirror over the shell-like wash basin. The gold Japanese chest is approximately 500 years old.

The Dining Room

Back on the lower level, next to the drawing room, we see the dining room, which reminds us that we are looking at a fairy tale dollhouse castle, not just an ordinary dollhouse. A semi-round table with throne-like chairs dominates the center. Gold plates and tiny knives and forks, also gold, are set out, awaiting guests. The glasses are crystal—and most of them are more than a hundred years old!

The Dining Room of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle in Chicago

Five needlepoint “tapestries” in the Dining Room (in the shadows of this pic, unfortunately) depict Arthurian legends’ Knights of the Round Table. A master needleworker in Vienna created them especially for the fairy tale dollhouse castle. It is almost impossible to distinguish the stitches without the aid of a magnifying glass.

The Kitchen

Next to the Dining Room, of course, was the kitchen.

The kitchen of Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle in Chicago

The kitchen is where fairy tales reign. Over the door are the three Little Pigs, and to the right, Jack and Jill are tumbling down the hill. The copper stove reminds visitors of the stove in which the wicked witch locked Hansel and Gretel. The oven contains the pie baked with four and twenty blackbirds. The Royal Doulton dinner service on the table is identical to the set made for Queen Mary’s doll house at Windsor Castle.

The Princess’ Bedroom & Bathroom

Back upstairs, above the dining room is the bedroom of the Fairy Princess.

Bedroom of the Princess in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, Chicago

The bed represents the bed that Sleeping Beauty slept in. The bedspread features a gold spider web that covered her for 100 years as she waited for Prince Charming. The two chandeliers have light bulbs the size of wheat grains… and they actually work!  Chairs in the Princess’ Bedroom are platinum with cloisonne seats and backs made from diamond and emerald clips. They were stunning!

Platinum jeweled chairs in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle

The Princess’ bathroom was just as grand.

The Princess' Bathroom in Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle, Chicago.

Oddly, the most interesting thing I saw in the exhibit was a miniature book:

Thorne Rooms Book at Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle in Chicago.

It turns out that Colleen Moore was a friend of Narcissa Niblack Thorne, who created miniature rooms around the same time. Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago can see 68 of the Thorne Rooms. (For my review of the Thorne Miniature Rooms, click here.)

If you enjoy seeing the world in miniature, Chicago is an absolute must, as host city to both the Thorne Rooms and the Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle. Be sure to follow me on Instagram for more detailed photos of the castle that are not included in this post!

Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Dollhouse Castle
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Titanic Museum – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Titanic Museum – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Spoiler Alert: The Boat Sank.

I am one of those rare women who, as an adult in 1997,  had no desire to see James Cameron’s cinematic masterpiece, Titanic. My reasoning was that I knew how the movie would end (the boat sinks… duh!) and, therefore, whatever story it had to tell could not possibly have a happy ending. Life is just too short to watch movies that end in tragedy, particularly romantic ones.

I still haven’t seen the movie. Not even via Netflix.

The Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge

Normally, I wouldn’t have thought twice about going to a museum dedicated to a disastrous loss of life. There are plenty of things for foodies, shopaholics, and nature lovers to see and do in Pigeon Forge. Unfortunately, however, there isn’t much tailored toward history geeks like me.

Determined to get some history in on this trip, I booked tickets for the Titanic Museum. I didn’t even realize that the museum looked like the ship (albeit only half the size)!

The exterior of the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that! We went up to the main entrance where we were greeted by costumed staff and handed boarding passes.

Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge - Boarding Pass

You see, each boarding pass had the story of a real Titanic passenger – man, woman, or child – printed on the back. Mine was Bridget McDermott, a 31 year old Irish woman who sought a better life in the United States. The brief bio said that she had been heading for the lifeboats when she decided to run back and get her new hat. I couldn’t believe that anyone would have been that foolish, and figured that surely she must have been one of the many people who didn’t survive.

Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge Boarding Pass for Bridget McDermot

The outside of the Titanic Museum, combined with the general Pigeon Forge vibe, made me think that this could be a real cheesy tourist attraction. Happily, it was anything but. The Titanic Museum is the real deal, even endorsed by the Titanic Historical Society.

It holds the largest display of genuine Titanic artifacts anywhere, valued above $4 million. Not one has been altered, forged, stolen or looted, and not one was retrieved from the wreck site on the floor of the North Atlantic. Every item on display, including those on loan from private collectors, either was carried off the ship and into a lifeboat or was recovered from the floating debris field after the ship sank.

The Tour

We entered the museum and began looking at the exhibits. Among the first we saw were those that detailed the design and construction of the massive ship. A costumed guide spoke about the timeline of events for the Titanic‘s maiden voyage. It took two hours and 40 minutes for the ship to sink after that initial impact with the iceberg. This may sound like a long time, but when you think of how large the ship was (882 feet long, 92 feet wide, and 104 feet high) and how many people were unable to get off the ship before it went under (a thousand or more, mostly men and crew members), you realize that it happened rather quickly.

The ship’s lookout called the control room and notified them that there was an iceberg straight ahead at 11:39 pm on April 14, 1912. Orders are given for the ship to turn, which it does. The maneuver was too late, however; 37 seconds later, the Titanic struck the iceberg, and began to flood immediately.

Prior to that moment, the passengers on board were traveling in style, cruising the ocean in the lap of luxury. We saw artifacts from the ship’s cabins and dining areas – silver tea services, fine china plates, even plush carpet fragments.

A dining service from the RMS Titanic, on display at the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
A dining service from the RMS Titanic, on display at the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

The Titanic Museum even contained a replica of the ship’s Grand Staircase:

The Grand Staircase (lower level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
The Grand Staircase (lower level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

On the lower level of the Grand Staircase, a costumed staff member told us that no expense had been spared when the Titanic was being built. (Even the replica cost over $1 million to build!) He noted the milk glass dome above us and the genuine gold leaf elements on the stair’s railing. But most expensive of all, he noted, was the flooring on which we stood. He said it was more expensive than granite or marble in the 1910s, and asked us to guess what it was. I had no idea. Imagine my surprise when he revealed that it was linoleum! Apparently, it was a relatively new material in that day, and therefore very expensive. What was remarkable was that the tour had us walking up the stairs, just like Titanic passengers would have.

The Grand Staircase (upper level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
The Grand Staircase (upper level) in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

At the top of the stairs we went into a very luxurious room, which was a replica of a first class state room. Talk about traveling in style! It was gorgeous!

A first class State Room in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
A first class state room in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to really take in all the details. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but almost as soon as I entered that room, I was overcome with nausea. Fearing that I could be sick right then and there, I told my family to keep going and I would catch up with them. I left in search of a rest room. I didn’t find one, but eventually the nausea passed, and I backtracked to find my family.

A mirrored hallway connected the first class cabin with a formal room containing exhibits about musicians on the Titanic. A shiny grand piano dominated the room full with portraits of the men who entertained passengers aboard the Titanic. I was reading about some of them when I head a booming voice in the adjacent room say, “Well, you know, you just can’t shut a Baptist up.”

I wasn’t born into a Baptist family, but I am a Baptist now by choice. Needless to say, this statement got my attention. I went straight in there to find out what, exactly, was being said.

The room was a simulation of the ship “bridge,” or command center.

The captain's bridge in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.
The captain’s bridge in the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.

A tall man with white hair and beard, dressed in a naval captain’s uniform, was telling the story of the Titanic’s last hero, Reverend John Harper. It went something like this:

In the moments after the ship struck the iceberg at 11:40 pm, panic ensued and people frantically tried to figure out what to do, but not John Harper. He placed his six year old daughter in a life boat, and promised he would see her again. He then turned back and made his way up the deck yelling “Women, children and unsaved into the lifeboats!” When the ship began breaking in half, many people thought that the loud noise they heard was an explosion.  They jumped off the decks and into the icy, dark waters below. John Harper was one of these people.

That night, 1528 people went into the frigid waters. John Harper swam frantically to people in the water, to check on their spiritual status. One young man had climbed up on a piece of debris. Rev. Harper asked him between breaths, “Are you saved?” The young man replied that he was not. Harper then tried to lead him to Christ, but his efforts did not meet with success. John Harper then took off his life jacket, threw it to the man and said, “Here, then, you need this more than I do…” and swam away to other people. A few minutes later Harper swam back to the young man and, this time, succeeded in leading him to salvation.

Of the 1528 people that went into the water that night, six escaped by the lifeboats. One of them was that young man. Four years later, at a meeting of Titanic survivors, this young man stood up and tearfully recounted how John Harper had led him to Christ. Mr. Harper had tried to swim back to help other people, but because of the intense cold, had grown too weak to swim. His last words before going under in the frigid waters were “Believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”

What a powerful story!

We thanked the Captain for his time and moved out onto a room that looked like the deck of the ship.

The deck of the Titanic as it would have appeared the night it sank - Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge Tennessee.
The deck of the Titanic as it would have appeared the night it sank.

A jagged wall of ice represented the iceberg, and visitors were encouraged to reach over the deck rail to put their fingers in the icy cold water. The water was 28 degrees Fahrenheit when the ship began to sink. The room was as dark as it would have been that fateful night, with light only provided by ship lanterns and distant twinkling LED stars. Nothing brought the point home as much as feeling it ourselves.

The Captain

The man who told us the story of John Harper was Lowell Lytle, affectionately referred to by museum staff as “The Captain.” He bears a striking resemblance to the real captain of the Titanic, Edward J Smith.  See for yourself:

Captain Edward J Smith of the RMS Titanic, and Lowell Lytle, who portrays the captain at the Titanic Museum Attraction.
Captain Edward J Smith of the RMS Titanic, and Lowell Lytle, who portrays the captain at the Titanic Museum Attraction.

Not only does he bear a resemblance to the real captain of the Titanic, he is also one heck of a storyteller.  And not only is he a terrific storyteller, he is also one of the few people who has gone to the ocean floor to see the wreckage of the Titanic in person.

Back in 2000, he told us, he managed to convince the owners of RMS Titanic, Inc. that he should be allowed to go on an expedition to salvage artifacts from the sunken ship. At 6′ 4″ and 68 years of age, he was not the ideal candidate for spending half a day inside a tiny submersible on the ocean floor.  He says he is the oldest and tallest person to dive to the Titanic.

Since 1998, Lytle has played Captain Smith for audiences all over the world. He has researched the passengers’ stories, memorized the captain’s last speech and even met some of the survivors. He has written about his experience, including playing the captain and traveling to the wreckage site, in Diving Into the Deep. I bought a signed copy at the museum and I’m thoroughly enjoying it! You can buy a copy here, if you would like to learn more. (Affiliate link – I get a tiny kickback if you purchase):

The End

The last museum exhibit we saw was the listing of who had survived and what became of them afterward. A larger list detailed the names of those who died in the tragic incident.  Bridget McDermott, the passenger listed on my boarding pass, was a survivor.  (Presumably, so was her hat!)  My daughter’s boarding pass person was also a survivor.  This is largely due to the fact that they were both female.  Women and children really did receive preferential treatment in evacuating the ship. My husband’s designated passenger, did not survive, perishing in the cold water of the Atlantic.

The Effect

I thought about how the passengers aboard that ship must have felt at the beginning of their journey.  Excited, anxious, looking forward to a dream vacation or, as in the case of Bridget McDermott, a new life full of opportunities in another country. No one would have thought for a moment that anything would go wrong or that their journey across the ocean would be anything but fabulous. I feel that way myself when I’m about to travel someplace new.

I now have a new appreciation for how unpredictable life can be. The bottom line is that none of us knows which “goodbye” will be our last.

And in Case You’re Wondering…

Yes, I will watch the Titanic movie sometime very soon.


About the Images in this post: The Titanic Museum Attraction doe not allow photography inside the building.  The photos in this post are either photos that I took outside the museum, or they are media photos used with permission of the Titanic Museum Pigeon Forge.


Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Feeding the (Sea) Monster:

My daughter has an obsession.  Well, several actually.  When she loves something, she tends to love it obsessively.  Such is the case with aquariums. I have no idea why she likes them so much.  For the most part, I find fish to be unattractive, uninteresting, and unappealing.

However, when planning our Thanksgiving trip, she requested that we choose a location that had an aquarium we could visit. It was her only request. Once we settled upon Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg as our destination, I booked tickets for us to visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Don’t let the name fool you

You may be thinking, like I did, that an aquarium run by Ripley’s probably has lots of plastic reproductions of fish, like the tallest man figure outside their “Believe It or Not” museums.  I thought that, at best, it would be kind of cheesy.  I knew it certainly wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to our semi-local favorite, the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Even my daughter, as excited as she was to be going to an aquarium, was skeptical when she heard it was a Ripley’s attraction.

Happily, we were wrong.  It is actually a very nice aquarium. So much so, in fact, that in this year’s USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards, it was named the best aquarium in the country.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - why Ripley's aquarium of the smokies is a must see
At Thanksgiving, when we visited, the aquarium is all decked out for Christmas.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review

What follows is my review of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.  But before I get to my specific experience, I want to share some of the facts and figures about the aquarium.  For starters, it’s home to over 10,000 exotic sea creatures in 350 individual species. The population of Gatlinburg is 4200, so that means there are more fish in the aquarium than there are people living in the entire town of Gatlinburg! But what are fish without water? The Gatlinburg aquarium contains 1.4 million gallons of water

Once we entered the building and started walking through the exhibits, the first thing we saw was a curious ray who kept coming over to the glass. Still skeptical, I thought he was one of maybe three or four rays at the aquarium.  How wrong I was!  But I will tell you more about that later.  The next thing we saw was a tank of piranhas:

Piranha at Gatlinburg Aquarium Review by travelasmuch.com

He didn’t look anywhere near as menacing as I have always imagined them to be.

From there, we moved through the Ocean Realm, and found this scorpionfish that almost looked like he was made from lace. This fish is a master of camouflage. Its frilly appendages help it blend in with its surroundings. Their dorsal spines are venomous and can be painful if stepped on.

Scorpionfish at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Read my Gatlinburg Aquarium review at travelasmuch.com

The Tunnel

At another point we got to go through a tunnel that went under/through the aquarium’s largest tank.  This was an absolute high point for my daughter because it was a first for us – not even the Baltimore aquarium has this! I have to admit it was pretty darn cool.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

When a Saw Nose Shark swam over us, we looked at each other and, in homage to a Doctor Who episode, shrieked, “Moisturize me!”

Yeah, we’re a geeky family.

Gatlinburg Aquarium review - Saw nose shark at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The Saw Nose Shark, which looks a lot like Cassandra from Doctor Who.

The Penguins

There was an area called Penguin Playhouse. The African penguins there can be viewed inside the building or outside, below the water or above.  Very versatile!  My favorite feature was a tunnel that visitors could crawl through and pop up right in the middle of the penguin habitat:

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies - Penguin Playhouse

What a great way for little ones to burn off some energy and get an up-close look at the penguins! When I did it (you bet I did!), a penguin named Ricky stood right next to the observation tube. He looked like he was spilling the tea with the other penguin.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Penguin Playhouse at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

The Highlight of the Aquarium (for me)

I was struggling to get a picture that showed just how big the giant Japanese crab actually was when my daughter came over and told me that there was a tank of cuttlefish nearby.  I immediately forgot about the crab and went over to see it.  You have no idea how fascinating I find these fish!

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

That squiggly black line in the eye area is its pupil, and it is supposed to be shaped like that.  In addition to their W-shaped pupils, cuttlefish have a shell that you can’t see here because it’s on the inside of his body. They also have eight arms and two tentacles with teeth on them. It has three hearts that pump its blue-green blood.

But most fascinating to me is that small male cuttlefish who don’t stand a chance of fighting off a larger male for mating rights. A small male cuttlefish will actually disguise itself as a female in order to get close enough to the females to mate with them. They change their appearance by changing their body color, concealing their extra arms (males have eight, females only have six), even pretending to be holding an egg sack.

Cuttlefish, also called the chameleons of the sea, can change their color and the patterns of their skin to communicate – in as many as 75 different ways. The change in color is for camouflage and protection, of course, but it is also used to communicate with other cuttlefish.

Not only that, the color change can take place in just one second. And guess what else – cuttlefish secrete “ink” like an octopus would.  Not only that, sepia dye comes from cuttlefish ink!

Quite simply, cuttlefish are the coolest fish in the world!

Okay, so maybe my daughter isn’t the only person in the family who gets a little obsessed sometimes…

The Boat

The aquarium had a little boat ride that you could pay extra to go on.  It was called the Glass Bottom Boat Adventure, which is a bit of a misnomer because it wasn’t all that adventurous.

Gatlinburg aquarium review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies features a glass bottom boat ride that you can go on for a few extra dollars.

It’s a small-ish boat that has no engine. An aquarium employee pulls the boat around the shark lagoon by a rope system. It wasn’t as grand as it sounded, but it was pretty cool to look down on all the fish as they swam under us. In fact, the only time we saw the aquarium’s giant sea turtle was when he swam under the boat.

Everything Else … Or at Least Some of It

And of course the aquarium had jellyfish.  I don’t know what it is about these creatures – if I saw one at the beach I would run screaming out of the water, but in an aquarium I am just mesmerized.  Really, though, can you blame me?

Gatlinburg Aquarium review - jellyfish at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

The aquarium had a special exhibit on the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which seemed really out of place.  But visitors who take the time to read the wall plaques in the exhibit will learn that Ripley was instrumental in spearheading the movement to create a Pearl Harbor memorial.

The last thing we did at the aquarium was to get up close and personal with the rays. They had a lot of them there, swooping and gliding through the water:

Gatlinburg aquarium review - there are so many rays at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. You can even feed them!

We were gazing at them when I heard an announcement that we could touch and feed the rays.  Well, we have fed a bear, a tiger, a zebra, and various other animals, so why not feed a ray, too? I went over to the young lady, gave her $3, and came back with a metal rod and three small fish.

One by one, we put a fish on the end of the rod and stuck it into the water.  A ray would come gliding by and grab the fish, pulling it off the rod, without so much as a pause.  It was a pretty cool experience, and I got to touch one of the rays as it swam by.  They’re a bit on the slimy side, and feel sort of like a hard boiled egg white.

All in all, the aquarium took us about three hours to go through at a leisurely pace, and we really enjoed it.  I highly recommend it.  If you’re in Gatlinburg, be sure to check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. And say hi to the cuttlefish for me.  😉

Remember to follow me on Instagram to see more pictures from the aquarium that are not included in this post!

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is located at 88 River Road in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Telephone (888) 240-1358

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The Thorne Miniature Rooms at Art Institute of Chicago

The Thorne Miniature Rooms at Art Institute of Chicago

The Sixty-Eight Rooms

When my daughter was in 4th-6th grades, we had a summer book club for her and her friends. The girls would read a book and then get together to discuss it, with related snacks and activities. One of the hands-down favorite books we read was The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone.  The book took place inside the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Thorne Miniature Rooms. These 68 individual rooms done in miniature depict different time periods and different countries. The kids in the story find a magic way to shrink down to an appropriate size to explore the rooms.

I confess, I enjoyed the book as much as the girls did! So, when planning my birthday trip to Chicago, I knew that I had to go see the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The rooms are housed on the lower level of the Art Institute of Chicago, a large and impressive building that contains both art school and museum. It was first built in 1893 as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Two huge bronze lions flank the main entrance, where banners also hang to announce the latest exhibits.

Thorne Miniature rooms art institute of chicago

The Institute has expanded several times over the years, most recently with the addition of a modern art wing in 2009. That expansion brought the size of the Art Institute to almost 1 million square feet, making it the second largest art museum in the USA. (The first is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

I’m sure there were wonderful things to look at as we entered the building, but I was intensely focused on the reason we had gone there. We headed straight downstairs for the Thorne Miniature Rooms.

According the museum’s web site, “The 68 Thorne Miniature Rooms enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930s. Painstakingly constructed on a scale of one inch to one foot, these fascinating models were conceived by Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago and constructed between 1932 and 1940 by master craftsmen according to her specifications.”

When you enter the room containing the Thorne Miniature Rooms, you quickly notice a couple of things. First, the rooms are all set into the wall with a wooden frame around them. A plaque underneath informs visitors of the room’s number, country, and time period. Second, there is a platform about 8 inches high and 12 inches deep running the length of the walls underneath the rooms.  It didn’t take long to discover the reason for the platform.  Thanks to the success of the children’s novels, kids were flocking to the museum to see the rooms.  The platform was an easy way for them to peek inside each one.

The 68 Rooms

The amount of detail in the rooms is nothing short of amazing. And each room had details that made it seem not just a miniature room, but a room that someone actually lived in and used. Eyeglasses left on a table, a toy on the floor, an unfinished bit of needlework or a chess game in progress… these were the touches that made an artistic world in miniature become extraordinary.

The largest of the rooms, and also the first one you are likely to see when you enter the exhibit, is the 13th Century English Roman Catholic Church. It is impressive in its size and deceptively so – you almost forget that the scale is one inch to one foot. Turn the corner, though, and you will enter a world that is incredibly small.

With a few exceptions, the 68 miniature rooms fit into three geographical categories: English, French, and American. (The exceptions are one German room, one Chinese room, and one Japanese room.) If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you probably know I’m a hopeless Anglophile, so needless to say the English rooms were my favorites. I particularly loved the English Great Hall from the late Tudor period (1550-1603):

thorne miniature rooms english great hall late tudor period chicago

This room was just amazing – the leaded windows in particular reminded me of ones I had seen at Warwick Castle that featured coats of arms of noble families.

And speaking of windows… I should point out that these rooms are constructed the same way their life size versions would be.  Doors open onto other rooms or to the outside, windows provide views of a garden or other buildings. And those exterior areas were designed with every bit as much authentic detail as the interior.

For instance, I loved how we were able to get a peek at beautiful garden outside the English Dining Room from the Georgian Period (1770-1790):

thorne miniature rooms chicago english dining room georgian period

And check out the California Living Room from 1934-1940:

thorne miniature rooms chicago california living room 1934-1940

Not only do we look through the entire expanse of the room, we can also see the beautiful tile-accented stairs leading up to a second floor as well as  what is probably the main entrance to the house through two open doorways.  And notice how the light is hitting the bricks there.  It looks so realistic!

And I thought this vignette, on the left side of the Cape Cod Living Room, was just beautiful:

thorne miniature rooms chicago cape cod living room 1750-1850

First of all, the light coming through the window! Are you thinking it must be morning, and what a great spot to enjoy a cup of coffee? I was! Now, the photo is a little dark, but can you see the eyeglasses sitting there on the table? How about the spoons next to the teacups? The glasses were probably less than 1/2 inch across, and the spoons were about 1/2 inch long. Amazing.

And how about this English cottage kitchen from the Queen Anne Period (1702-1714):

thorne miniature rooms chicago english cottage kitchen queen anne period style

Again, beautiful light streaming through the window.  Now take in the other details.  Hanging over the table is a birdcage with a bird in it. The plates on the left measure only about 1/2 inch in diameter, but actually have an intricate pattern painted on them.

The English Drawing Room from the Victorian Era contains a portrait of Queen Victoria that is somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 inch, yet is instantly recognizable. Can you spot it? It’s on the right side of the table.

thorne miniature rooms chicago english drawing room victorian era

As I walked along, peering into the rooms and marveling over the details, I was taking pictures and trying my best to do so without any reflection or glare. I wanted each photograph to look like I had taken it from inside the room. When I got to the French Dining Room from the Louis XIV Period (1660-1700), I caught a movement in my peripheral vision that startled me. Upon closer scrutiny, I realized that it was from a mirror hanging over the fireplace. So I decided to have some fun:

thorne miniature rooms chicago French Dining Room Louis XIV Period 1660-1700
C’est un géant!

Now, if haven’t already marveled at how detailed these miniature rooms are, consider the French Salon of the Louis XVI period (circa 1780):

thorne miniature rooms chicago french salon louis xvi 1780 key in desk

Do you see the key sticking out of the desk leaf, above the chair seat? Well, the museum guide told us that the key is not just decorative – it actually works and can lock the desk.  I couldn’t believe it – it was so tiny – just 1/6 of an inch or so, perhaps less!

I went through the exhibit and looked at every room at least twice.  With each pass I noticed new details I hadn’t seen before.  This is definitely the sort of exhibit you could revisit again and again and have a new experience each time.

The Other Rooms

Yes, there are others!  A total of 100 rooms done by Mrs. Thorne are on display today. Twenty are in the Phoenix Art Museum, and nine in the Knoxville Museum of Art. The remaining two are at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, and the Kaye Miniature Museum in Los Angeles. In addition to these, a bar that Thorne auctioned off for charity in the 1950s is at the Museum of Miniature Houses in Carmel, Indiana.

I highly recommend visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and especially checking out the Thorne Miniature Rooms. They provide an amazing example of quality craftsmanship, the history of design and decor, and the techniques of making items in miniature.  The next time you’re in Chicago, check it out!


Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago
60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

Anyone who has been to Washington DC knows that it can be a pretty expensive city to visit.  Most studies rank it somewhere in the top ten list of the most expensive American cities. For someone who is making a non-DC salary and visiting the nation’s capital, the expense of everything can be daunting.

Fortunately, Washington DC free attractions are plentiful.  Here are over 60 places you can explore without paying for admission, listed by neighborhood:

The National Mall Area

Washington DC Free Attractions

  1. Abraham Lincoln Memorial
  2. World War II Memorial
  3. National Museum of American History
  4. National Air & Space Museum
  5. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – modern art
  6. National Museum of African Art
  7. National Museum of Natural History
  8. Smithsonian Castle
  9. Washington Monument – currently closed for elevator upgrade – check before you go
  10. National Archives
  11. National Gallery of Art
  12. Multiverse Light Sculpture between National Gallery East & West Buildings
  13. Freer Gallery – Asian art (closed until October 14, 2017)
  14. Sackler Gallery – Asian art
  15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
  16. Korean War Veterans Memorial
  17. Vietnam War Veterans Memorial
  18. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  19. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  20. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
  21. US Holocaust Memorial Museum – free but requires timed tickets March through August
  22. National Museum of the American Indian
  23. National Museum of African American History & Culture
  24. Albert Einstein Memorial
  25. Bureau of Engraving & Printing (free, but reservations required through September 1)
  26. National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden


Brookland Area

Washington DC free attractions in Brookland area

  1. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
  2. Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America


Capitol Hill

Washington Dc free attractions capitol hill

  1. National Postal Museum
  2. Library of Congress
  3. US Capitol
  4. US Botanic Garden
  5. Folger Shakespeare Library
  6. Historic Congressional Cemetery


Capitol Riverfront

Washington DC Free attractions capitol riverfront

  1. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  2. National Museum of the US Navy
  3. Yards Park



Washington DC Free Attractions Anacostia

  1. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
  2. Anacostia Community Museum


Upper Northwest

Washington DC Free Attractions Upper Northwest

  1. National Cathedral



Washington DC Free ATtractions Georgetown

  1. C&O Canal Paths
  2. Old Stone House (the oldest home in DC)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt Island
  4. Rock Creek Park


Penn Quarter/Chinatown

Washington DC Free Attractions Penn Quarter Chinatown

  1. National Portrait Gallery
  2. Smithsonian American Art Museum
  3. Lunder Conservation Center
  4. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
  5. Archives of American Art Gallery


Dupont Circle

Washington DC Free Attractions Dupont Circle

  1. Anderson House


Woodley Park

Washington DC Free Attractions Woodley Park

  1. National Zoo


Foggy Bottom

Washington DC free attractions Foggy Bottom

  1. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (free tour)
  2. Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (free performances)



Washington DC Free Attractions Donwtown

  1. White House Visitor Center
  2. White House tour (request through Congressional representative at least 3 months in advance)
  3. Renwick Gallery – American contemporary art



Washington DC Free Attractions Shaw

  1. African American Civil War Memorial
  2. African American Civil War Museum


H Street NE

Washington DC Free Attractions H Street NE

  1. US National Arboretum
  2. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum – inside National Arboretum


Arlington, Virginia (technically not DC, but just across the river)


  1. US Air Force Memorial
  2. US Marine Corps Memorial (aka Statue of Iwo Jima)
  3. Arlington House, former home of Robert E Lee
  4. Arlington National Cemetery
  5. National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial


As you can see, there are plenty of Washington DC free must-see attractions… and a few that are a little off the beaten path.  With so many choices for things to see and do at no expense, Washington DC can be an affordable vacation destination after all.


Why You Should Go to Finland

Why You Should Go to Finland

Finland? Really?

Is Finland travel something you’ve never considered?  Well, perhaps it’s time you should.  Here’s why:

For starters, Finland will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence from Russia this year on December 6.  There will be a year-long celebration full of special events and exhibitions that you might not be able to experience at any other time.

Also, consider the romance! Nick Viall spent a couple of weeks showcasing how romantic Finland could be on The Bachelor. Wouldn’t you love to re-create one of those romantic fantasy dates with your sweetie?

And, if you’re a statistics person, you can also consider the following:

  • Clean air.  According to the World Health Organization, Finland has the third cleanest air in the world.
  • Safety. The World Economic Forum recently published its 2017 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report and Finland was once again ranked as the safest country to visit worldwide.  It also achieved the highest ranking for environmental sustainability.
  • Lonely Planet chose Finland as one of its top three destinations for 2017.
  • Finland is the most heavily forested country in Europe; forests cover more than 70% of its land.

Finland = Funland

Okay, so you’re thinking maybe Finland travel could be cool after all. But what would you do there? The answer is plenty!  Here are a few of my suggestions.

Northern Lights

In the Finnish Lapland (the northern section of the country), the aurora borealis appear about 200 nights out of the year. The best months to see them are September through March.  If you are in the southern part of the country, your chances of seeing them go down drastically:  there the frequency drops to 10-20 times per year.

While on the hunt for the Northern Lights, you can stay at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel in Rovaniemi, which has suites that offer views over the treetops through the glass wall. Or, if glamping is more your thing, you can stay in an Aurora Dome – luxurious (heated!) tents with a transparent side.  A third option are the glass villas of Kemi which have 2 glass walls and a glass ceiling. What could be more romantic than lying in bed with your love, gazing up at Mother Nature’s light show?

finland travel aurora borealis northern lights muonio
A view of the Northern Lights through one of the Aurora Domes in Muonio Finland.


I don’t think it’s even possible to overestimate how much the Finnish love saunas. In fact, many Finns think you cannot grasp Finland or its culture without bathing in a sauna. Getting invited to a sauna in Finland is an honor, it is not a sexual proposition.  The Finns view the sauna as a place for physical and mental cleansing, and many suggest one should behave in a sauna as they would in church. Likewise, do not expect a spa-like experience with relaxing music, colorful lights, and fragrances.  Real Finnish saunas are dimly lit, and there’s no music or smells except for fresh birch and natural tar.

Finns go to sauna in the nude, even with strangers. If you the thought of stripping completely makes you uncomfortable, Finns will understand if you want to wear a swimsuit or a towel. In groups, women and men go to sauna separately, but families go together. When in a mixed group that is about to go to sauna, it is perfectly fine to ask people and discuss who should go with whom.

In sauna, you may seem people smacking themselves with a bundle of leafy twigs. That is called a vasta or vihta, and it is made of fresh birch twigs.  The Finns swear that whipping yourself with the vasta is very good for your skin, leaving it soft and smooth.

finland travel finnish sauna
A typical Finnish sauna with vastas

Be sure to drink plenty while you partake in the sauna experience.  You’ll be sweating a lot, and it will be important to stay hydrated.

A New National Park

Finland will be opening a new national park in June of this year as part of its centennial observances. The new park will be in Hossa, an area along the Eastern border of Finland.

There are about 130 lakes and ponds in Hossa, most with clear water. It is a popular destination for hiking, with 55 miles of marked trails. In addition to hiking, the area supports fishing, hunting, camping, canoeing, and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter.  A favorite spot for canoeing is the Julma-Ölky canyon lake, which is not quite 2 miles long.

Another popular attraction is the Värikallio rock paintings. Discovered in 1977 by two skiers, it is one of the two northernmost sites of rock art in Finland, as well as one of the largest collections with over 60 figures discerned. The human images at Värikallio are notable for exhibiting triangular heads (seen at only two other sites), and for a human figure with horns. As at other sites, the most numerous images are of animals, including one that may be the only bear depicted in Finnish rock art. Hand print and paw print pictographs are also represented. Another unusual aspect of the Värikallio paintings is the lack of boat images, which are common at other Finnish sites.

Värikallio rock paintings finland travel hossa national park
Värikallio rock paintings

A New Place to Explore

The island of Vallisaari in Helsinki was recently opened to the public for the first time. In the Middle Ages, Vallisaari was known by the name of Lampisaari (“Pond Island”), because seafarers replenished their drinking water supplies from the ponds on this island.  Later (mid-nineteenth century), the island was the site of military fortifications. It maintained its status as a military site during and after the Russian Revolution and Finnish independence. In fact, it was used by the military until 2008, and for the following eight years it was off-limits to the public.  So the island is a beautiful nature reserve, offering a rich range of species in the metropolitan area, including bats, badgers, and lush vegetation teeming with birdlife.

finland travel vallisaari island helsinki
Vallisaari Island

Santa Claus and Reindeer – All Year!

Open each day of the year in the city of Rovaniemi, children and adults can visit Santa’s office, enjoy a private chat with him and revel in the enchanted atmosphere. As we all know, Santa’s annual mission is to deliver happiness around the world with the help of his team of furry reindeer friends.

Santa may only visit your home once a year, but he welcomes everybody to visit him during the rest of the year. Don’t pass up the invitation!


santa claus reindeer finland travel
Santa and his reindeer, ready to welcome visitors

So, what are you waiting for? Visit Finland – it’s got something for everyone!

The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers Studio London

The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers Studio London

First, a Confession:

I have waited over three months to write a post about The Making of Harry Potter. I hoped that giving it some time would subdue my zealous enthusiasm and help me not come across as a total geek.

Alas, it did not.

I took almost 200 photos there, and when I looked through them to decide which ones I would include in this post, I could only narrow it down to thirty. I will try my hardest to cut out more as I am writing. But it will be painful.

Suffice it to say that if you have ever watched a Harry Potter movie, there is only one thing that should be at the top of your list for London attractions: The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brother Studios in Leavesden.

Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

According to the web site (link at the end), the tour is supposed to take about three hours. However, I strongly recommend allowing almost an entire day for it. Three hours is probably the bare minimum time, and does not include transportation to/from the studio tour. (Details on transportation are also at the end of this post.)

When you enter The Making of Harry Potter building, you are in a large lobby area, with giant photos of the cast members staring down at you. Alan Rickman’s Snape is there. It made me a little melancholy to see him as I’ve been a fan even of his for decades. He really knew how to create memorable characters! A few props are there as well, including the flying Ford Anglia that Ron and Harry borrowed in The Chamber of Secrets. From the lobby you proceed to the queuing area and enter a maze of barrier straps, winding back and forth. While there, you get to see the famous cupboard under the stairs from Number 4, Privet Drive.

Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour Cupboard Under the Stairs

Once you reach the front of the line, you are ushered into a large, mostly dark and very empty room, where you watch a video presentation. It really isn’t very long but you feel like it is because you just want to get to Hogwarts, already! After the video, you move into a great stone room that looks like the outside of a castle. Pause for dramatic effect, then the doors open and you are ushered into…

Great Hall Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

…the Great Hall at Hogwarts!

The long tables are set and they seem to stretch on forever. Mannequins behind the tables wear the characters’ costumes. And of course, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore is at the head of the hall, flanked by Professors McGonagal and Snape.

Between the tables and the platform on which the professors would stand is, of course, the Sorting Hat, ready to announce the Hogwarts house for every new student.

Sorting Hat Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

At this point on The Making of Harry Potter tour, I’m enjoying myself and pretty wowed by everything that I’m seeing, but starting to have a bit of anxiety creep up on me because it’s a little too structured. I don’t like being led about like a dog on a leash – I want to explore and set my own pace. Luckily, it turned out that I had no need to feel even the slightest bit anxious. Our guide opened a second set of doors from the Great Hall and we walked out into the remainder of our studio tour, where we were free to explore as much or as little as we wanted to.

At that point, I went from a dog on a leash to a rat on crack – pinging from exhibit to exhibit and rushing around in circles because I wanted to see everything all at once. I didn’t have time to read the signs, darn it!  I had stuff to see!

Eventually I found a happy medium and was able to calm down. Good thing, too, because there are details that you don’t want to miss in this tour.

Most of the things that I zinged past so quickly were technical exhibits – how they actually made certain items in the film work. Floating candles in the great hall, for instance. (To be honest, I missed a lot of this. I wish I had taken the time to pay more attention, because I’m sure it was really interesting.) Once I had started to breathe again, I found the exhibit on wardrobe distressing pretty fascinating. You’d be surprised how much work goes into making a smudge of dirt appear on an actor’s jacket!

There was a beautiful display from the Yule Ball scene in Goblet of Fire:

Yule Ball Costumes Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London
Harry and Cho Chang’s outfits in front; Hermione’s and Viktor Krum’s in back.

Moving on, we made it to the Gryffindor rooms. First the common room:

Gryffindor Common Room Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

and then the boys’ dormitory. Here’s Ron’s bunk:

Gryffindor Boys Dorm Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

There were so many items that had great significance in the plot of the seven Harry Potter books and movies, and seeing each one was a thrill.

Film Props Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London
TOP:  The Mirror of Erised and Godric Gryffindor’s Sword.
BOTTOM: Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, Dumbledore’s Pensieve, and the Tri-Wizard Cup

(See what I did there?  Five photos in one!  Pretty clever, eh?)

We got to see lots of the settings from the movies, which felt so real, I wanted to sit and stay for a while. Here is Dumbledore’s office, which had many items from the books/movies – the pensieve, the sword of Godric Gryffindor, the paintings of former headmasters, and so many books! (Fun Fact:  It turns out the books lining the shelves of our favorite Headmaster’s office are telephone directories that were altered to look like antique volumes!)

Dumbledore Office Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

And there was Snape’s Potions classroom. Melancholia struck again when I saw the figure representing the late, great, Alan Rickman.

Snape Potions Classroom Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

There were plenty great details in the potions classroom. First, the apparatus used to make Felix Felicis:

Felix Felicis Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

and a few copies of Advanced Potion Making here and there.

Potions Classroom Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

They also had self-stirring cauldrons, but that doesn’t translate well into a still photograph.

One set that gave me absolute joy was The Burrow, home to the poor-in-money-but-rich-in-love Weasley family.

The Burrow Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London
You can’t tell in the photo, but the knife in the foreground was chopping the carrot by itself.

At The Burrow, Molly’s knitting needles were clicking and clacking away whilst knitting a blanket, and there was the famous clock that showed which family members were home and which were in mortal peril.

Weasley Home Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

There are so many more exhibits I could write about and show you, but I have to draw a line somewhere. There were Professor Umbrage’s proclamations, floo powder sets, the Ministry of Magic statue, Tom Riddle’s grave, Hagrid’s Hut, the Leaky Cauldron, the Chamber of Secrets door, Mad-Eye Moody’s trunk, Lupin’s trunk, the Clock from Azkaban, the Hogwarts Express, Diagon Alley, and so much more!

Oh, okay, one more photo before I move on. Remember the Deatheaters meeting at Malfoy Manor in Deathly Hallows Part 1?

Malfoy Manor Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

Outward and Onward

When you finally tear yourself away from the exhibits and head out, you find yourself at a food court with a couple of different options for meals and snacks. My daughter and I could not resist the soft-serve butterbeer ice cream, which was so creamy and sweet!

Butterbeer Ice Cream Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

After leaving the food court area, you head outside and see some of the exterior sets. For instance, the Dursley residence, AKA number 4, Privet Drive.

4 Privet Drive Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

Where Technology & Magic Meet

From there, you head into the second leg of the tour, bringing you back to the technical aspects of how the movie was made. Learning how they filmed Hagrid was especially interesting. Apparently not all of the scenes with Hagrid are actually Robbie Coltrane. They had an insanely realistic looking animatronic head that they used as his double:

Hagrid Head Making of Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour London

This portion of the tour also included Dobby, the Gringott’s goblin, Buckbeak, Aragog, Fawkes, and more.

The grand finale to the tour is just amazing. I won’t tell you what it is, but suffice it to say that it is – no pun intended – absolutely magical.

As thrilling as it is to read about these things and these places in a book, and to see them on the big screen, it is even more so to stand in the midst of it all and feel like you’re actually there. If you’ve ever read a Harry Potter book or seen a movie, The Making of Harry Potter deserves a top spot on your bucket list.

The Warner Brothers Studio Tour’s address is Studio Tour Drive in Leavesden, WD25 7LR. Telephone 0345 084 0900. To get there, take a train from London to Watford Junction. Outside the Watford Junction station, you can get a shuttle bus that runs to the studio. The studio has hours that vary from day to day; consult the schedule when planning your visit. 

Beachcomber’s Paradise: Metompkin Island, Virginia

Beachcomber’s Paradise: Metompkin Island, Virginia

You Want to Do What?

I’ll be honest, when my husband told me that he wanted me to join him on a long canoe ride the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I was not too excited.  Canoeing is definitely not my kind of fun. Faced with unseasonably warm weather and a promise that I would enjoy it, I begrudgingly agreed.  We began our Saturday morning with a very long drive to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is the third and southernmost part of the Delmarva Peninsula (Del=Delaware, Mar=Maryland, Va=Virginia). The Delmarva Peninsula has the Atlantic Ocean to its east and the Chesapeake Bay to its west.  The Virginia portion of the peninsula is so isolated from the rest of its state that I’ve often wondered if its residents feel like everyone else who calls the state home doesn’t even know they exist.

metompkin island map best seashell beaches
The Eastern Shore of Virginia – everything south of the gray dashed line.

You Want to Go Where?

We drove and drove until we reached an area called Gargatha. There is a public boat ramp at the end of Gargatha Landing Road, and that’s where the water leg of our journey would begin. It would end on Metompkin Island, which I had never heard of before.

metompkin-island-map-zoomed-in best seashell beaches
This map is the zoomed in version of the one above.  In both cases, the red pin marks Metompkin Island – our destination.

So this is fun?

We got the canoe in the water and headed out.  The wind was blowing against us, which is pretty much my worst nightmare when I’m in a canoe.  You have to paddle twice as hard to cover the same distance in the same time.  Basically, for every two strokes, we were only advancing one. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that we kept getting pushed off course.

At one point, we ended up stuck in some tall grasses. We were so tired and frustrated that we decided to just sit there, eat our sandwiches that we had brought with us, and rest for a few minutes. Then it was time to paddle some more. We hadn’t gone much farther when I saw this:

metompkin-island-danger-sign best seashell beaches

This was most definitely not what I wanted to see, especially since there were no details offered. What danger? Dangerous for whom? Hubs assured me that it was for larger boats, not canoes or kayaks. Apparently the water isn’t very deep there.

I could hear a very loud but distant noise and we seemed to be moving toward it. It turned out to be the ocean, which meant we were close! I was so relieved to see the beach ahead of us! We pulled our canoe up on the land and went out to explore.

Surprise! It was worth going after all.

I couldn’t believe how many shells there were – the beach was absolutely littered with them!  It has to be one of the best seashell beaches in the mid-Atlantic, and certainly the best I had ever been on!

best seashell beaches metompkin island virginia

I told Hubs that I hoped I would find a piece of sea glass while we were there. Three steps later, I found myself looking at a spot of cobalt blue off to my left. It was roughly 2 inches square, part of an old glass Milk of Magnesia bottle.

Sadly, I didn’t find any other pieces of sea glass that day.  However, I hit the jackpot when it came to seashells, as you might have guessed. There were clam shells, oyster shells, whelk shells (at least two kinds), periwinkles, scallops, limpet shells, cockle shells, and sea snail shells. I also found some non-shell items like a mermaid’s purse and a whelk egg case.

Fortunately, Hubs thought to bring one of my extra big Thirty-one utility tote bags, because when I got out to the water I was running all over the place and picking up shells like a kid who had (a) never seen a beach and (b) had consumed a week’s worth of sugar. “Oooooohhh, look at this one,”  I’d yell, and hold it out for him to see. I wouldn’t even wait for a reaction before I’d start looking for more.

There were really big shells:

metompkin-island-big-shell best seashell beaches
Women’s size 9 flip flop shown for scale.

And there were tiny little ones:

metompkin-island-tiny-shell best seashell beaches

For some reason, I always said “Awwwww!” whenever I found a tiny one. Like it was a puppy or something.

After just an hour of combing the beach and gathering cool shells, our bag was full – and heavy:

metompkin island bag of shells best seashell beaches

We left it at the canoe and headed off in the opposite direction, determined to not pick up any more shells.

Well, that resolve faded faster than most New Year’s diets! By the time we spent another hour on the beach, all of our pockets were full, we were carrying some in our arms, and we had even filled an empty tortilla chip bag full of shells.  Clearly, it was time to leave. If we had stayed longer, we might not have had room in the canoe for us!

Yeah. It’s a little addictive.

I cleaned, dried, and sorted all of my new shells after I got home. Curious, I decided to count them too. I picked up close to 300 shells! Now, all I have to do is figure out what to do with them.  🙂

Not that a lack of ideas will keep me from going back. It’s at the top of my list for things to do once it gets warm again.

Metompkin Island is part of a 60 mile chain of barrier islands on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Some of the islands are not public lands, and regulations prohibit certain activities on the public ones. Check before you go.

National Park Service Free Admission Days for 2017

National Park Service Free Admission Days for 2017

US National Parks Free Admission Days 2017

Every year, there are specific days designated for national parks free admission. (However, it is worth noting that the admission charges are not exorbitant to begin with. Typically, national park admission runs $25-ish per car at most, and it’s good for seven days.) So, if you’re traveling near a national park in 2017, these are the days you can visit them for free:

  • January 16th: Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • February 20th: Presidents’ Day
  • April 15th-16th & April 22nd-23rd: National Park Week weekends
  • August 25th: National Park Service birthday
  • September 30th: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11th-12th: Veterans Day weekend

Also, other properties in the National Park system observe the free admission days, including my personal favorite, Assateague Island National Seashore.  The National Park system totals 417 properties, at least one in every state and territory.

Because most of these days fall on a Monday or Friday, it’s the perfect opportunity for an extended weekend trip.  So what are you waiting for?  Be sure to check out a national park this year!



Beamish, Part 6: The 1900s Town – Shops

Beamish, Part 6: The 1900s Town – Shops

Part of a series of reviews on the open air living history museum in County Durham, UK. Other posts in this series are:

1 – a review of the 1940s Home Farm
2 – a review of the 1900s Pit Village 
3 – a review of the Colliery (Coal Mine)
4 – a review of Ravensworth Terrace, the residential section of the 1990s Town
5 – a review of the print shop in the 1900s Town

My favorite aspect of visiting a new place, other than photographing it, is shopping there.  I don’t mean just souvenir shopping.  I think visiting the stores in a new area gives you a special kind of insight into what daily life is like there.  Happily, the folks at Beamish agree with me on this point, so they have set up many opportunities for shopping.

A large section of the 1900s town is occupied by retail establishments.  As you might expect, they are just as authentically detailed as the rest of Beamish. For starters, there is an authentic bakery, where you can purchase Edwardian era treats.  We each got a different cookie/pastry and agreed that they were delicious.  The bakery also had a huge contraption called a “Super Human Kneader” for making bread. It would have been a newfangled piece of equipment back in the day.  Also, the bakery oven was electric – a new practice that was gaining popularity because of the ability to control the temperature.


The Beamish Motor & Cycle Works is the town garage.  The motor industry was still in its infancy during the early 1900s, so garages in that period typically combined the skills of a blacksmith, wheelwright, and coachbuilder.  As a result, only one person in 232 owned a car in 1913.

The showroom at the Beamish garage contains well-preserved examples of what would have been new and second hand cars, motorcycles, and bicycles.  I took a picture of this penny farthing for Hubs, since he loves bicycling:

Beamish 1900s town penny farthing bicycle garage

It seems like it wouldn’t be very comfortable, doesn’t it?

Behind the showroom, we found a workshop area filled with vintage automotive items.  My grandfather owned a service station when I was a kid and I grew up seeing a slightly more modern version of this, so I really enjoyed seeing this room.

Beamish 1900s town garage

beamish 1900s town garage

Next to the garage was the local co-op, which was akin to what we might have called a general store back in the day.  It was a store that catered to every household need from cradle to grave, sorted into three departments:  grocery, drapery, and hardware.

The grocery carried many foods in bulk and sold them by weight.  For non-bulk items, color-coded packets helped customers who could not read.  Sugar, for instance, was sold in a blue bag to make the white sugar seem brighter.  Butter came in barrels and was molded into portions using wooden pats.  Fresh foods were displayed on a slab of marble to help them stay cool.  And, of course, many items lined the shelves of the Co-Op.

Beamish 1900s town Co-Op Grocery store

The hardware department sold the household goods for indoor and outdoor use – everything from lighting, heating, cooking utensils, sports equipment, and cleaning supplies. The miners in this time period provided their own tools, and the co-op was where they bought whatever they needed.


There was also a sweet shop by the name of Jubilee Confectioners. Visitors can visit the factory in the back of the shop to see period candy-making techniques and machinery.

Beamish 1900s town candy store confectioner

Beamish probably has the best collection of sweet rollers – used to produce candies in a variety of shapes – in the country.  Some well known candies and their shapes include:

  • Pineapple Chunks – cube shaped
  • Black Bullets – bullet-like shape, hence the name
  • Blacks and Rasps – berry-shaped
  • Fish in the Sea – fish-shaped.

Beamish 1900s town candy molds sweet rollers confectioners


A Lesson in British Coins

Naturally, in areas where people live, work and shop, there also will be a bank.  Beamish’s 1900s town is no exception.  This is where a kind and very patient gentleman took the time to explain Britain’s former monetary system to me.  Honestly, it was baffling.  Up until 1971, when the country adopted a decimal system (1 pound = 100 pence), they used a very different system.  Brace yourselves, because I’m going to attempt to explain it.  But first, a picture of the Beamish Bank:

beamish 1900s town bank

Prior to decimalization in 1971 Britain used a system of pounds, shillings and pence (‘£sd’ or ‘LSD’).  These L-S-D abbreviations came about because of the Roman influence in ancient Britain. A pound is represented by a stylized L because the standard Roman weight was called a libra.  Likewise, pennies were represented by a D, not P, because it stood for Denarius, a Roman coin.  The S for shilling actually stood for another Roman coin, the Soldius.

The smallest unit of currency was a penny, the plural of which was pence (or pennies). There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.  As a result, that makes 240 pence in a pound.  But to further complicate matters, pennies also came in fractions:

1 farthing (the lowest value coin) = 1/4 penny.  Production of farthings ended after 1960 due to inflation.
A ha’penny (half penny) = 1/2 penny.  Production of ha’pennies ceased after 1969.

Multiple pence were called & coined as follows:

Threepence or Thruppenny Bit = 3 pence (pronounced “thruppence”)
Sixpence (also called a ‘tanner‘) = 6 pence
1 shilling = 12 pence (1s)

Like pennies, shillings were also called & coined in multiples:

1 florin (a beautiful silver coin) = 2 shillings
1 half-crown = 2 1/2 shillings.  Production of half-crowns ended in 1970.
1 crown = 5 shillings = 1/4 pound

The pound came in the form of a paper bill, called a note, or a gold coin, called a sovereign.

The Royal Mint stopped producing farthings after 1956 and withdrew them from circulation in 1960 due to inflation. In preparation for decimalization, they withdrew the ha’penny from circulation in 1969, followed by the half-crown the year after.

Made from copper, a penny could also be referred to as a copper.

Made of gold from the Guinea coast of Africa, a guinea (first issued on February 6th, 1663) equalled 21 shillings (or one pound and 1 shilling) in old British money. A guinea was widely considered to be a more gentlemanly amount than £1. A gentleman paid his tailor in shillings, but his barrister in guineas.

So to sum up, here is what would have been equal to a pound in the various types of coins:

960 farthings
480 ha’pennies
240 pence
80 threepence
40 sixpence
20 shillings
10 florins
8 half-crowns
4 crowns
1 sovereign

It seems like I would have needed a cheat sheet just to conduct simple transactions!  Thank goodness the only mental math I had to do was estimate how many dollars were equal to a pound!

Beamish is located at postcode DH9 0RG in County Durham, England.  Telephone 0191 370 4000. The museum opens daily at 10:00 AM except on holidays.  Beamish recently received a £10.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to add a 1950s section, which should be open by 2021.