Tag: Family Outings

A Local’s Guide to Salisbury Maryland, Home of the National Folk Festival 

A Local’s Guide to Salisbury Maryland, Home of the National Folk Festival 

A Local’s Guide to Salisbury Maryland

The National Folk Festival will be held in my home town of Salisbury Maryland the weekend of September 7-9, 2018. What’s more, it will be held here the next two years as well. So here’s your guide to Salisbury, Maryland, written by someone who has lived here for nearly 25 years!

Locals Guide to Salisbury Maryland (vintage postcard)
By Tichnor Brothers, Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About Salisbury

With a population of some 30,000, it’s the largest city on the Eastern Shore and the No. 1 fastest growing city in Maryland, according to city officials. Founded in 1732 and incorporated in 1854, it also is the county seat for Wicomico. The area offers the ideal mix of an urban center, nestled within a scenic rural region, centrally located to three major metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia). I’ve lived here since 1995, and I can’t imagine ever leaving to live someplace else.

The National Folk Festival

Free events are great, and the National Folk Festival is no exception. If you’re like me, you might think that a “folk” festival will be geared toward aging hippies who want to sit around and listen to mellow music. Not so! Folk does not mean folk music! The National Folk Festival is a celebration of the roots, richness and variety of American culture.

The three day event will feature musical performances and dancing by over 350 performers from all over the world. To name just a few:

Demonstrations specific to the state of Maryland will also be available, including preparation of traditional Maryland foods (crab cakes, muskrat, scrapple, Smith Island cake), decoy carving, and a demonstration by Pocomoke Native Americans on making dugout canoes.

Whether you’re here for the National Folk Festival or for some other reason, there is plenty to see and do in Salisbury. Here are my recommendations for visitors…

Where to Eat

For the best thin crust pizza in town, head to Lombardis (315 Civic Ave; 410-749-0522). The decor isn’t much, but the wait staff are friendly and if you have kids with you, they will love the giant mural of cartoon characters and superheroes in the back dining room. Also, did I mention how good their pizza is?

Who doesn’t love ice cream? A Chincoteague Virginia favorite, Island Creamery, recently opened a shop in Salisbury (306 Dogwood Dr, 410-831-3103). With traditional favorites and unusual flavors like Cantaloupe and Wallops Rocket Fuel (chocolate with cinnamon and chili pepper), there’s something for everyone.

Back Street Grill (401 Snow Hill Road, 410-548-1588) offers a build-your-own sandwich menu and some of the tastiest salads in town. My favorite sandwich is the Back Street Deluxe: turkey and ham with cheddar and pineapple on a croissant, heated. So yummy! They also offer great specials on weeknights, like tacos for $1.25 each on Mondays and $5 burgers on Wednesdays.

Market Street Inn (130 W Market St, 410-742-4145) is an upscale restaurant located on the Wicomico (pronounced why-COMic-oh) River.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Market Street Inn offers guests riverside dining and drinks.

In addition to gourmet fare, they have outdoor seating, which offers a great view of the riverfront. if you’re lucky, you might even see a Great Blue Heron while you’re there.

Brew River (502 W Main St, 410-677-6757) is a popular restaurant located on the Wicomico River. They have great dinner specials, with half price prime rib on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 2-for-1 crab cakes on Thursdays. The restaurant also features an outside dock bar that is one of the most happening nightlife spots in town. If you go, be sure to grab a coconut muffin from the bread basket – they’re delicious!

Rise Up Coffee Roasters is a local favorite. Go to their College Avenue location (105 East College Ave., 443-358-5248) to get breakfast or lunch, or just hang out for a while. Alternatively, you can hit the Riverside Drive drive through (529 Rivderside Drive, 410-202-2500) if you’re on the go. They only roast certified organic and fair trade coffee, so you can feel good about caffeinating here. But even if you’re not a coffee person, it’s worth a stop: the frozen hot chocolate is A-MAZ-ING!

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Bordeleau Vineyard & Winery features a beautiful estate with a well-stocked tasting room.
Bordeleau Vineyard & Winery

Bordeleau Vineyard & Winery in the neighboring village of Eden (3155 Noble Farm Rd, Eden, 410-677-3334) offers both white and red wines on a beautiful estate (above) that often serves as a wedding venue.The Bordeleau tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday and is a comfy, welcoming place to sample their vino.

Acorn Market (150 W Market St, 410-334-2222) offers breakfast and lunch in a relaxed atmosphere. They offer a selection of freshly made to order sandwiches and salads, and some of the  most scrumptious baked goods you will find. I especially love their sweet potato biscuits.  You won’t be able to get dinner here, though, as they close at 3:00 pm each day.

Classic Cakes (1305 S Division St #8, 410-860-5300) makes Smith Island cakes. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, you are in for a treat! Maryland’s official state dessert is a nine-layer (yes, NINE!) yellow cake with chocolate ganache type frosting.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Try the official state dessert. a nine-layer Smith Island Cake.

That’s the traditional version. But Classic Cakes has taken it up a few notches and made many delicious varieties: cookies and cream, Reese’s cup, coconut pineapple, banana, red velvet, and many more. I like the classic and the banana best. They also sell cupcakes but don’t let that tempt you… the cake is way better, and they even sell it by the slice.

Where to Stay

Salisbury isn’t different from other cities in this regard. There’s a selection of hotels from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 stars. If location is important to you, then you can’t do much better than LaQuinta, which is right next to the city’s Riverwalk Park and newly constructed amphitheater. Downtown bars, restaurants and shopping are a quick 10-15 minute walk, and a bank next door to the hotel has an ATM, should you need one.

If Airbnb is more your thing, there are quite a few properties to choose from in Salisbury, from single rooms to riverfront lofts. Just make sure before booking that the property is in Salisbury and not a nearby town like Crisfield or Pocomoke. Those towns, while technically nearby, would add 30-45 minutes of driving to your outings. Book an Airbnb through this link and you will receive a $40 credit!

Finally, if you’re a camping kind of family, I’m sorry to say that there aren’t any campgrounds in Salisbury. The town of Berlin has several camping options, however, and is about 30 minutes away by car.

Where to Shop

If you’re into country decor, Salisbury is your Mecca. The Country House (805 E Main St, 410-749-1959). Set aside at least half a day to look through their items, as the store is huge – 48,000 square feet – and no space is wasted.  They carry all sorts of wonderful items, from curtains to floral to apparel and seasonal items too.

Angello’s Unique Gifts is a great spot to browse, and it’s located right next to the Acorn Market (150 W Market St, 443-358-5152), so you can stop by after lunch. This is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir of your visit, or a gift for someone who is hard to shop for. They even do embroidery to personalize your purchase.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Dana Simson offers whimsical ceramic creations at Chesapeake East.
Some of Dana Simson’s ceramics.

If you’re into quirky and colorful handmade ceramic pieces, you must go to Chesapeake East (501 W Main St, 410-546-1534). From dinnerware to decorative items, artist Dana Simson creates whimsical pieces that will make you smile. In addition, she also sells stationery, paintings, and prints.

What to Do

If you’re coming to Salisbury for a special event like the National Folk Festival or the 100 mile Seagull Century bike race, you might want to stay an extra day or two and check out some of the other things our little city has to offer. For instance:

The Salisbury Zoo (755 S Park Dr, open daily 9:00 to 4:30) is a 12-acre zoological park that has offered free admission ever since it first opened in 1954. The zoo is home to 100 animals, most of which are native to North and South America. The zoo is an absolute gem and one of the things that make Salisbury a great place to live and visit.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: The Salisbury Zoo is a great place to visit... and it's free!
The alligator at the Salisbury Zoo is all smiles.

At one end of the zoo, children will absolutely love the playground known as Ben’s Red Swings. The playground was created to honor the memory of Ben Layton, a local boy who died of leukemia at age 4. Ben wished that when he got to heaven he would get red wings because red was his favorite color, and that was the inspiration for the name of the playground. The playground was largely funded and built by community volunteers, and it is a real treasure to the children who live here. If you’re visiting with your family, be sure to let them burn off some energy at Ben’s Red Swings.

Another way to let the kids (and adventurous adults) burn off some energy is to take them to Altitude Trampoline Park (30174 Foskey Ln, 410-896-2219) in the neighboring town of Delmar, Maryland. In addition to over 24,000 square feet of indoor trampolines, there is also a Foam Pit, Dodgeball Arena, Kid’s Arena, Aeroball and Laser Maze. Hours of fun! Rates range from $15-$20 for one to two hours of jumping fun.

Salisbury is home to a minor league baseball team, the Delmarva Shorebirds. The season will have ended before the National Folk Festival takes place, but if you’re visiting between April and August, consider spending an evening at the ballpark. Many games conclude with a great fireworks show, and there are often special events and giveaways as well. Tickets range from $2 to $13.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art

The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art (909 S Schumaker Dr, 410-742-4988) has been recognized by USA Today as one of the 10 best places in the U.S. to view American folk art. Operated by Salisbury University, it showcases the contributions of artists who have carved birds both as tools for the hunt and as objects of artistic enjoyment. The museum regularly offers children’s programs and hosts community events at its beautiful waterfront location.

Finally, for garden enthusiasts, the campus of Salisbury University was recognized by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta as an arboretum in 1988. The campus features over 2,000 species of plant life, including magnolia, rhododendron, viburnum, Japanese maple, bald cypress, and Crape myrtle. Notable areas of interest – and great Instagram spots – on campus include the pergola near the University Commons, the Holloway Hall courtyard garden, the Bellavance Honors Center’s Japanese garden, the Link of Nations, and the Miller Alumni Garden.

Beaches

There are at least a half dozen beaches within an hour’s drive of Salisbury. They each have their own distinct vibe, and their own pros and cons. I’ll outline the three closest ones below.

The Cove (Cove Rd, Bivalve MD – about 30 minutes from Salisbury) is the perfect beach for families with young children. It is a sheltered cove off of the Chesapeake Bay. The water is shallow, warm, and has very little current, so it’s great for toddlers and preschoolers. Older kids and childless adults, on the other hand, will probably be pretty bored at this beach.

Assateague has two sections – the Assateague Island National Seashore (7206 National Seashore Lane, Berlin, 410-641-1441), and Maryland;’s Assateague State Park (6915 Stephen Decatur Highway, Berlin, 410-641-2120).  It takes about 45 minutes from Salisbury to reach either of them. Both charge a small entrance fee. You will be able to see the famous wild Assateague ponies at both.

Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland: The beach at nearby Assateague Island offers visitors a look at the wild ponies who have lived there for centuries.

Both offer ocean and bayfront beaches. Both allow pets in designated areas. You can camp at both, and both have bike trails. The biggest difference is that the state side has a restaurant/concession stand and gift shop, whereas the federal side does not provide any opportunities for you to spend money once you pay for admission. I prefer the federal side as it tends to be less crowded, and I almost always see the ponies when we go there.

Ocean City (paid parking at the Hugh T Cropper inlet parking lot – 809 S Atlantic Ave, Ocean City – about 45 minutes from Salisbury). Quite the opposite of Assateague, Ocean City has plenty of places for you to part with your cash.  In addition to a stunning oceanfront beach with crashing waves, there is a 2.5 mile long boardwalk lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, and arcades. Be sure to get Thrasher’s fries while you’re there. It’s a must!

A Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland

In Conclusion

I hope you will find this guide to Salisbury Maryland useful. I love this town, and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. If you visit, I’m sure you will agree!  Do you have any other suggestions to add? Did you try any of the places I recommended here? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it!

Happy traveling!

A Local's Guide to Salisbury Maryland - Home of the National Folk Festival
Quirky Delmarva Festivals You Can’t Miss

Quirky Delmarva Festivals You Can’t Miss

Delmarva Festivals You Need to See to Believe

Within 80 miles of my home, there are several annual festivals that locals love. But if I’m being honest, people who are visiting here probably think they’re weird. Delmarva festivals – those on the peninsula of Delaware and the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia – provide quirky and traditional fun for locals and visitors alike. Here are some of the more unusual ones.

The National Hard Crab Derby

Claim to Fame: Crab Races
How Many Years Held: 70
Location: Crisfield, Maryland
Date: Labor Day Weekend, September
Average Attendance: ?

Delmarva Festivals: The National Hard Crab Derby takes place in Crisfield, Maryland over Labor Day weekend.
Photo via Flickr by Benjamin Wilson US

Every Labor Day weekend, people from all over the Mid-Atlantic region visit Maryland’s southernmost town to see some 400 blue crabs compete in one of the most celebrated crustacean events in America, the National Hard Crab Derby. It all started decades ago, when local watermen brought their feistiest live crabs to race in the street in front of the post office. That strange small town event has grown into a full fledged weekend-long festival!

Other events over the course of the festival week include a beauty pageant (the winner is crowned Miss Crustacean), a carnival, crab cooking and picking contests, live music, a boat docking contest and a skiff race. The event concludes with fireworks on Sunday night.

Apple Scrapple Festival – Bridgeville, Delaware (Oct)

Claim to Fame: Scrapple
How Many Years Held: 26
Location: Bridgeville, Delaware
Date: Second Weekend of October
Average Attendance: over 25,000

If you’ve never had Scrapple, you might be wondering what it is. Well, put as delicately as possible, it contains everything left from the pig after bacon, ham, pork chops, etc. are taken. Which is to say that it’s made of scraps… hence the name.

The pig scraps are boiled until falling apart, then finely cut up. The meat is combined with cornmeal and flour along with spices including sage, black pepper, thyme, and savory, then formed into loaves. Once cooled, you can cut off half-inch slices and fry them in butter until golden brown.

Delmarva Festivals: Head to the Apple Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville DE the second weekend of October for a celebration of this unique pork product.
A classic Scrapple sandwich. CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Personally, I can’t get past the fact that Scrapple’s main ingredient is offal, but most folks around here don’t have a problem with that and swear that it’s delicious. You will see Scrapple typically served as a breakfast sandwich on plain white bread. This is definitely a regional delicacy – Scrapple’s popularity doesn’t extend much beyond the mid-Atlantic states. The two most popular brands of Scrapple in this area are Habersett and RAPA, and both are located in the tiny town of Bridgeville, Delaware.

In addition to Bridgeville’s Scrapple industry, the Apple Scrapple festival celebrates apples, particularly those grown by local farm TS Smith & Son.

Festivities begin at 4:00 pm on Friday evening with the carnival, food court and street dance. Things start up again on Saturday morning with an all you can eat Scrapple breakfast from 7:00 to 11:00 am. The rest of the day is filled with carnival rides, kids’ games, Scrapple sling, Scrapple carving, live entertainment, a ladies’ skillet tossing contest, and more.

Crawfish Boil & Muskrat Stew Fest

Claim to Fame: Muskrat Cuisine
How Many Years Held: 7
Location: Cambridge, Maryland
Date: February
Average Attendance: 700-1000

Delmarva Festivals: Louisiana meets Maryland at the Crawfish Boil and Muskrat Stew Fest in Cambridge Maryland every February.

The Crawfish Boil & Muskrat Stew Fest is an outdoor event combining two distinctive cuisines: Louisiana Crawfish and Dorchester County muskrat. Yes, muskrat. Many people in this part of the country consider it good eating.

As the name implies, this festival is all about the food. Festival goers will find such delicacies as muskrat stew, smoked muskrat, muskrat gravy fries, and muskrat chili dogs. A variety of crawfish dishes are also available, as are raw oysters, burgers, and hot dogs. The festival also features a Muskrat Leg Eating Contest.

Live entertainment from a blues band generates a party atmosphere and keeps the fun going long after you’ve had your fill.

National Outdoor Show

Claim to Fame: Fun for Hunters & Trappers
How Many Years Held: 73
Location: Church Creek, Maryland
Date: February
Average Attendance: ?

Delmarva Festivals: In Dorchester County, Maryland, the muskrat is the centerpiece of the National Outdoor Show.
Illustration of Muskrat via Flickr by Boston Public Library

Dorchester County, Maryland is Muskrat Country: the heartland of sportsmen, trappers, watermen and wildlife. The National Outdoor Show aims to “share the unique spirit and character of the area’s hard working people, who keep one foot in a technologically savvy world, and the other stuck deep in our traditional old school ways.”

The event opens on a Friday evening with a pageant to name Miss Outdoors, followed by the world championship muskrat skinning semi-finals. Festivties continue on Saturday with Little Miss and Little Mister Outdoors, a game cooking demo, police K-9 demo, duck and goose calling contests, championship muskrat skinning finals, and more. A PBS documentary, Muskrat Lovely, featured the National Outdoor Show because of its focus on muskrats.

Chestertown Tea Party

Claim to Fame: historical reenactment of tax rebellion
How Many Years Held: 42
Location: Chestertown, Maryland
Date: Memorial Day Weekend, May
Average Attendance: 15,000

This tea party is not about frilly dresses and big hats. It commemorates the other kind of tea party – you know, like the famous one in Boston. When the citizens of Chestertown learned that the British had closed the port of Boston in retaliation for Bostonians dumping tea into the harbor, they issued The Chestertown Resolves. The Resolves stated that it was illegal to import, sell or consume tea.

According to local lore, on May 23, 1774, the citizens of Chestertown gathered at the town center, marched down High Street to the brigantine Geddes, and tossed her cargo of tea into the Chester River. Every Memorial Day weekend, Chesterown residents not only celebrate the event, they reenact it.

Delmarva Festivals: Celebrating the rebels of the American Revolution at the Chestertown Tea Party.
Image courtesy of Chestertown Tea Party Festival

The festival opens on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend with a street party. Food trucks, live music, and games provide a fun but laid back atmosphere before the festival shifts into high gear on Saturday. A large colonial parade down High Street, featuring numerous fife and drum bands as well as marching Colonial and British reenactors, serves as the highlight of Saturday’s activities.

Throughout Saturday, visitors can enjoy walking tours of the historic district, demonstrations of colonial crafts, more than 100 craft vendors, children’s activities, local foods, a wine village and a wide array of musical entertainers. The festival concludes Sunday afternoon in the park with local wine and craft beer tastings, more entertainment, crafts and food. Sunday’s main event is the popular Raft Race. Teams compete to keep their home-made raft afloat for as long as possible in hopes of winning the coveted Tea Cup.

Chincoteague Pony Swim

Delmarva Festivals: The Chincoteague Pony Swim takes place every year in mid-July.
By United States Coast Guard, PA2 Christopher Evanson –  Link

Claim to Fame: feral horses are herded up and sold at auction
How Many Years Held: 93
Location: Chincoteague, Virginia
Date: mid-July
Average Attendance: 40,000

The pony swim has taken place since 1925 to raise money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, but its roots date back to the 17th century. The event grew in popularity after its mention in the classic children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.

The Saturday-Monday before the swim, volunteers (known as “Saltwater Cowboys”) round up the 150 or so feral horses and 60-70 spring foals that inhabit Assateague Island and take them to a central pen. Then, on Tuesday, veterinarians examine them to make sure they are healthy.

Wednesday is pony swim day. The Saltwater Cowboys guide the ponies to Chincoteague Island by having them swim across the Assateague Channel. This is done at “slack tide” – a period of about 30 minutes between tides, when there is no current. As a result, it is the easiest time for the ponies to make the swim.

After the swim, the ponies rest. Then the Saltwater Cowboys “parade” the ponies down Main Street to the carnival grounds in preparation for an auction the following morning.

The auction serves two purposes. First, it helps control the size of the herd, keeping it from growing too large. In order to keep the herd at a sustainable size, most of the foals are sold at the auction. A few select foals, however, are buybacks, auctioned with the stipulation that they will be donated back to the Fire Company, then returned to Assateague Island.

Secondly, the auction is a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, who uses proceeds to provide veterinary care for the ponies throughout the year.

Conclusion

I hope you have a better idea of what this part of the mid-Atlantic is like based on our traditional festivals. Better yet, I hope you’ll attend one or more of them!  Please comment below if you’ve attended any of these, or tell me about the quirky festivals in your area!

Delmarva Festivals: A guide to some of the Mid-Atlantic's quirkiest events.
Water Park Fun in Ocean City, Maryland

Water Park Fun in Ocean City, Maryland

Fun for Everyone!

Businesses in the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland come and go all the time. However, a select few have been there so long that locals and visitors alike would be stunned speechless if they ever closed. Jolly Roger Amusement Park is one of those businesses, and for good reason. It’s one of the best things to do in Ocean City Maryland.

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: The Jolly Roger Amusement Park is a must for families visiting the beach resort.

Splash Mountain Water Park

One of the cornerstones of Jolly Roger’s business is the Splash Mountain water park, located at 30th Street in Ocean City.

Maybe, you’re like I was. For years and years, I refused to go to Splash Mountain. I thought that it would be silly and a waste of money to go to a water park in Ocean City. Why pay for admission when you are literally just a couple of blocks away from an ocean that is free to swim in? When I finally did go, I wished I had gone to Splash Mountain sooner!

The Park

Considering the number of people that go through it each day, Splash Mountain is an incredibly clean park. Everything looks new and in top-notch operating condition, which is definitely something you want to see in a water park.

I was impressed with the safety measures of the park. Lifeguards and other staff members stand at every ride and pool to ensure that no one gets on a ride if they do not meet its height requirements.  Life jackets are available (and sometimes required) for the littlest park visitors. Visitors who want to take a tube into the wave pool, may only use a clear tube. At first I didn’t understand that restriction, but it occurred to me that clear tubes will not prevent the lifeguards from seeing if someone has slipped under the waves and is struggling to keep their head above water.

The park provides fun options for every age and comfort level. From the three kiddie pools with a maximum depth of 2 feet and the Lazy River ambling through the park, to the Ragin Raft and Aqualoop, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

The Rides

There are so many fun rides to choose from! Here’s your guide to all the features at Splash Mountain:

The Lost Lagoon Family Pool

The Lost Lagoon is a pirate-themed pool adventure. Splash in the shallow pool or take your pick of slides as you race towards the water. The Lost Lagoon is conveniently located by the food stands and restrooms.

The Black Hole

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: Splash Mountain's Black Hole challenges riders to travel at high speeds through the enclosed slide, which is completely dark!

This mega-slide is not for anyone with a fear of the dark. Two of its three slides are completely enclosed and pitch dark, while the third slide is open for the faint of heart! Flashes of light, high-speed fun, and unexpected dips and turns will quickly reveal why this is a Splash Mountain staple for visitors.

The Aqualoop

Hailed as the #1 water slide in the country by Popular Mechanics, the Aqualoop is the only one of its kind on the East Coast. The state-of-the-art enclosed, 360 degree, semi-transparent, looping water slide begins with an anxiety-ridden countdown before the trap door opens and sends you plummeting down feet-first, Wile E. Coyote style, 480-feet before splashing in the water below.

The Stealth

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: The Stealth at Splash Mountain is the water park version of skating on a half pipe.

The Stealth is Splash Mountain’s first extreme water slide, and it combines the fun of skateboarding with the fun of a water park ride. The half pipe slide with its 45-foot tall vertical ramp will give you the adrenaline pumping thrill of a steep descent, then being shot uphill into the sky.

The Speed Slide

Race your friends down the six lane Speed Slide to see who can reach the bottom first! It’s a classic water park favorite, pitting you against friends, family and even strangers, as you race to the finish.

The Eye of the Hurricane

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: The Eye of the Hurrican ride at Splash Mountain Water Park. Locals call it the Toilet Bowl.

Nearly everyone I know calls this ride the Toilet Bowl because, essentially, that’s what it resembles. You travel down a chute slide, emerging into a large round bowl. You circle around and around and are then “flushed” out into the Lazy River at the bottom.

The Lazy River

This one is my absolute favorite. Grab a tube and float your way along the 1100-foot, slow-moving river. I could stay on this all day!

And if I may insert a small PSA here… please take your tube out of the Lazy River with you when you leave it. Empty tubes clutter up the river and disturb the flow of traffic. Thanks!

The Rain Forest

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: The Rain Forest at Splash Mountain water park is great fun for young and old alike.

The beautiful thing about the Rain Forest is that adults enjoy it just as much as young kids do. It’s the ultimate treehouse, complete with slides, rope walks, and plenty of water guns! Walk, climb, or slide your way around the passageways of this massive treehouse – it’s a dream come true for any band of shipwrecked voyagers. The pirate head at the top of the structure is a giant bucket that fills with water. Watch out when he gets full!

The Wave Pool

If you don’t want to deal with massive heights or fast speeds, you might enjoy the wave pool. Body surf, duck under the crashing waves, and swim the day away in the Wave Pool. It’s got all the fun of the ocean…minus the salt water and sand.

Kiddie Pirate Ship Pool

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: One of Splash Mountain's kiddie pools has a pirate ship theme.

One of three kiddie pools at Splash Mountain, the pirate pool has a ship to explore and three slides. The water in this pool is no more than two feet deep… perfect for toddlers and those who are just learning to swim. (My kids are far past this stage but I still like visiting the kiddie pool before hitting the other rides because the water is warmer there!)

The Master Blaster

My daughter and her friends have claimed the Master Blaster as their favorite ride at Splash Mountain. It’s basically a water roller coaster, and the park’s first water slide to go uphill.

 The Ragin’ Raft

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: The Ragin' Raft Slide at Splash Mountain is the only four person slide in the area.

I don’t know how I ever let my Girl Scouts talk me into going on this ride, which is the only four person slide in the Ocean City area. (I have a severe fear of heights and this slide is pretty darn high. Couple that with the fact that I was riding with three young girls much smaller and lighter than me, and I thought I was going to catapult off the raft. Thankfully that was not the case and it was over fairly quickly.)

The Rapids

The Rapids water slide is the closest thing you’re going to get to riding down white water rapids in Ocean City, Maryland. Hang on as you hit bumps, curves, and ramps as you speed down the slide. I haven’t gotten up the nerve to try this one, but I think it sounds like a lot of fun.

The Splash Pad

Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: The Splash Pad at Splash Mountain water park provides young children a safe place to play while their parents lounge nearby.

Another area for younger children, this shallow pool provides plenty of fun with fountains and waterfalls. Lounge chairs are conveniently located around the enclosed perimeter, giving mom and dad a chance to relax.

The Extras

In addition to the water park, the same complex also offers carnival-style rides, 2 miniature golf courses, and 10 go-kart racing tracks. You can buy your admission for just the water park, or combine it with admission to the other areas of the complex.

Tips for Making the Most of Your Visit

I thought I’d offer a few pointers from someone who has been to Splash Mountain several times.

  • Get there as close to 10:00 AM as possible. Yeah, that’s early, but the park fills up fast and you want to get the best chairs/table location possible. (Also, it’s a lot more fun when you feel like you have the place to yourself!)
  • Splash Mountain allows you to bring a cooler, so if you don’t want to pay for concessions on site, you don’t have to. Pack a lunch and some beverages and head on in.
  • If you think you might want to sample the food they offer, bring some cash with you as many food vendors only take cash, not credit/debit cards.
  • Lockers are available and conveniently located next to the rest rooms. I’ve never used them, but I think there is a fee to use them.
  • If it rains, you will not get a refund or rain check. The only time a rain check is issued is if the park decides to close due to extremely inclement weather. Even if you’re told to get out of the water while a thunderstorm rages all around you, you’re not getting a rain check.  My best advice is to wait out the weather. You can either sit under the umbrellas (they do not offer 100% protection from rain, however), or leave the park and come back. As long as you are still wearing your wristband, you are able to reenter the park the same day without paying additional admission costs.
Things to Do in Ocean City Maryland: A review of Splash Mountain water park.
New York City’s Interactive Spy Museum

New York City’s Interactive Spy Museum

Spyscape Review: Espionage in NYC

When Spyscape opened its doors in midtown Manhattan earlier this year, it was publicized as an interactive museum. Now, there are varying degrees of interactive, and in my experience, in most instances it means that you can push buttons on a video display. Happily, Spyscape is very different. From the moment you walk in you feel as if you have entered another world… the secretive world of covert operations and espionage. It’s not only interactive, it’s immersive. Read on for my Spyscape review.

Welcome to the World of Spies, Double Agents, and Hackers

From the minute you enter the building, you can’t help but feel like you’re about to go into a secret place. It’s sleek and modern, yet eerily quiet. (I arrived there shortly after opening. It might not be as quiet at other times of day.)

At the lobby welcome desk, you receive a ribbon wristband with a small cardboard tag on it. It’s more than just a cheap souvenir – it’s your ticket to unlocking some of the most interesting interactive features of the museum. But more on that later…

The museum has a free locker area, so you can stow any items you won’t need and retrieve them at the end of your visit. What a great feature! After we stashed our stuff, we headed to a really big (room-size) elevator that played a video as we ascended to the upper level of the museum. I honestly can’t tell you what they said in the video because I’ve forgotten, but it really set the stage for our entrance into the museum proper. We were so overcome by the creepy-cool ambiance that we were almost afraid to go to the rest rooms, located past the gift shop and down a long, empty corridor.

And speaking of the gift shop… it was really cool and sleek too.

Spyscape Review: Even the gift shop was sleek, modern, and secretive-looking.

Encryption

Spyscape Review: The Encryption area of the museum explored ways to encode (and decode) messages.

The first area of the museum we explored was the Encryption area. We got to see the costumes that Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley wore in The Imitation Game, a movie about Alan Turing’s efforts to crack Nazi codes during Word War II.  Among the other displays relating to the movie was an actual Enigma machine:

Spyscape Review: The Enigma section of the spy museum included an actual Enigma machine from World War II.

We also had a few encryption exercises at a large illuminated table. We were given a statement in code that we had to decipher, and then a response that we had to put into code. At the time, I didn’t realize that there were actually several different tasks, so I only completed the first one and then moved on.

The encryption area led into a corridor that examined the life and espionage activities of double agent Robert Hanssen, who worked for the FBI and the KGB simultaneously over a period of 22 years.

Spyscape Review: Robert Hanssen was a double agent of the KGB and FBI for 22 years before he was caught.

Hanssen’s story made for the perfect segue into the next section:

Deception

Here we learned the nuances of lying. We learned about body language and certain “tells” that might indicate someone was not speaking the truth. Touching the nose, looking up and to the side, pursing their lips, and other subtle clues can help you discern if someone is telling the truth. But the question is, how observant are you?

Time to put our new knowledge to the test! We went into small dark booths, and watched short videos of people making statements. We decided whether they were telling the truth or lying. Happy to say that I aced this one with a perfect score!

Surveillance

Our next stop was the Surveillance room, a huge circular area surrounded by video screens. Visitors wore special head sets and were prompted to answer questions about people and activities on the screens. It was surreal, standing in that area and spinning around to look for specific details. I decided I definitely do not want to work as a security guard, ever.

Spyscape review: The Surveillance Room tests how quickly you can make observations from camera monitors.

We saw a lot of Edward Snowden items in this room. My daughter didn’t know who he was (she was 11 when he became a household name), so I filled her in on the basics and we watched the Snowden movie a month or so later. What followed were some thought-provoking discussions about personal privacy and government surveillance of its citizens.

Spyscape Review: Edward Snowden-related items were on display in the Surveillance room.

Special Ops

The next area was one that got our blood pumping. In Special Ops, we individually entered another small dark room. This one had light up discs from floor to ceiling on both walls, and green lasers criss-crossed paths from one side to the other. The object was to turn off as many of the discs as possible without bumping into one of the laser beams. It was surprisingly difficult! Here’s my daughter in action – I was watching on the monitor outside the rooms.

After the lasers were turned off, you had your second test, which was turning off as many discs as you could in a set period of time. Again, more challenging than you might think!

Hacking

In this day and age, espionage and technology go hand in hand. So naturally, hacking and cyber-security were a component of Spyscape. According to one exhibit in this section, the development of a computer virus called Stuxnet to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons program in 2005 was the beginning of the cyber warfare era.

Spyscape Review: This infograph implies that Stuxnet opened the Pandora's box of cyber warfare which we continue to battle today.
Stuxnet opened a Pandora’s box of computer hacking that continues to evolve even today. There are white hat hackers, who look for weaknesses in computer systems so they can be fixed, and black hat hackers, who look for weaknesses in order to exploit them.

A display case of smirking Guy Fawkes masks worn by the hacking group Anonymous was an eerie reminder of how many people are actively working to hack into computer systems around the world.

Spyscape Review: Anonymous' Guy Fawkes masks, some of which were signed by hackers in the infamous group.

Testing Stations

This was not a specific room or exhibit of the museum. Throughout the building, visitors can test their skills in three areas: personality, brain power, and risk. All we had to do was step up to any kiosk and wave our wristband in front of the reader. Once it registered who we were, our name appeared on the screen and we could choose which assessment to take.

Spyscape Review: Visitors receive personalized test results.

Debrief

A former Head of Training at British Intelligence helped develop Spyscape’s profiling system, which takes the results of your activities and compiles them. From those results, it chooses your most likely espionage-related career.

My Spyscape Review

Our adventure at Spyscape was nothing short of fantastic! We had so much fun, and I couldn’t help but notice that it really could appeal to many groups. Since I’m a history geek, I found the evolution of espionage fascinating. Kids of any age will love the interactive, high tech elements. Even the two teenagers I traveled with (one of whom is staunchly anti-museum) loved it there.

My final word is that Spyscape is a great attraction for families who want to do something that everyone will enjoy. That’s quite a rarity, so be sure to check it out the next time you’re in New York City!

NB: This is not a sponsored post; I received no compensation. All of the opinions expressed above are my own.

Spyscape Review: Travelasmuch.com's review of Spyscape, the new spy museum in New York City
Surprise! A Dozen Amazing Things to Do in Baltimore MD

Surprise! A Dozen Amazing Things to Do in Baltimore MD

Things to Do in Baltimore MD

For decades, Baltimore has been seen as the ugly stepsister to Washington DC’s Cinderella. Many people consider it less attractive, less popular, and less interesting, with less to offer tourists. In the mid-1970s, then Mayor William Donald Schaefer wanted to come up with a catchy name or slogan to help improve the city’s image. Advertising executives met to discuss the idea and one of them came up with the following statement:

Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight.

From there, the city’s nickname – Charm City – was born. The advertising campaign fizzled out not long after it was started, but the name stuck. Today you will still hear people refer to Baltimore as Charm City. While it might seem like a misnomer, there are dozens of great things to do in Baltimore MD. Here are a few of my favorites.

Catch an Orioles Game (April-September)

Fans of the Baltimore Orioles are a die hard bunch. The team hasn’t won a World Series since 1983, but hope springs eternal in Charm City. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the stadium (Oriole Park at Camden Yards) is one of the most beautiful in the country.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - Catch a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Built about 25 years ago, Camden Yards was the first “retro” design stadium. Before that, major league stadiums were symmetrical multi-purpose stadiums used for both baseball and football. Now, roughly two thirds of the major league baseball teams have followed suit, and built retro parks. The great thing about watching a baseball game at Camden Yards is that there really aren’t any bad seats. You’ll have a great view of the action no matter where you are.

Visit Not One, but TWO Free Art Museums

There are two top-notch art museums in Baltimore, and both have free admission.  The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is home to an internationally renowned collection of art that ranges from ancient Antioch mosaics to cutting-edge contemporary art. The BMA has over 95,000 works of art, including the largest public holding of works by Henri Matisse.

Things to do in Baltimore MD - The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum both have outstanding collections and offer free admission.
The Baltimore Museum of Art features the work of many famous artists, like Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. The Walters has a priceless collection of art from many countries and time periods, including this beautiful Faberge egg.

The collection of works at the Walters Art Museum includes masterworks of ancient Egypt, Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi, medieval ivories, illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance bronzes, Old Master European and 19th-century paintings, Chinese ceramics and bronzes, Art Deco jewelry (including Tiffany & Lalique), and ancient Near East, Mesopotamian, or ancient Middle East items.

Mt Vernon Neighborhood

While at the Walters, spend some time exploring the neighborhood outside, which is known as Mt Vernon. Designated a National Historic Landmark District and a city Cultural District, it is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and originally was home to Baltimore’s most wealthy and fashionable families.

Architecture enthusiasts in particular will enjoy strolling through the area. It’s not uncommon to find houses that date back a century or even two. Mount Vernon boasts examples of many different types of period architecture: Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Chateau, Renaissance Revival, Beaux-Arts and Classical Revival.

The Washington Monument – Yes, in Baltimore!

While you’re walking around Mt Vernon, check out the original Washington Monument, which is the first U.S. heroic and civic monument dedicated to George Washington. It predates the one in Washington DC by over 30 years.

Things to do in Baltimore MD - visit the original Washington Monument, built 30+ years before the one in DC

You can climb the Monument’s 227 marble steps for a great view of the city. Open Wed.-Sun. The Monument’s gallery with interactive exhibits is free; the climb to the top $6 for adults, $4 for children.

Peabody Library

Also in the Mt Vernon area, the George Peabody Library is a must see for bibliophiles. The library’s collection dates from the founding of the Peabody Institute in 1857. In that year, George Peabody, a Massachusetts-born philanthropist, dedicated the Peabody Institute to the citizens of Baltimore in appreciation of their “kindness and hospitality.”

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - the gorgeous George Peabody Library.

The library contains five floors of ornamental cast-iron balconies, which rise dramatically to the skylight 61 feet above the floor. It houses 300,000 volumes, mainly from the 19th century, with strengths in religion, British art, architecture, topography and history; American history, biography, and literature; Romance languages and literature; history of science; and geography, exploration, and travel.

It’s such a beautiful building that it also serves as a venue for weddings and private events.

Eat in Little Italy

Baltimore’s Little Italy is an old quaint Italian neighborhood in Baltimore City that has survived and thrived for several generations. Its original residents emigrated from Italy from the mid-1800s into the early 1900s. By 1920 the neighborhood was 100% Italian. It boasts century-old row homes, family-run restaurants, bocce courts, cultural learning center, Sons of Italy lodge, and much more. Lovingly nicknamed ‘The Neighborhood,’ Little Italy is a tight-knit Italian community that today includes residents of other ethnic backgrounds as well. Have dinner at a great restaurant like Amicci’s, but don’t get too full.  You’ll want to be sure to stop by Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop for dessert!

Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry was the focus of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Over a 27 hour period, the British fired 1,500 to 1,800 cannonballs at the fort. What’s worse, they did so from just outside the range of the fort’s cannons, so they could not be bombarded in return.

On the morning of September 14, 1814, the regular flag at Fort McHenry was replaced with a larger flag, signaling American victory over the British. The sight inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Later, the poem was set to music and become known as the “Star Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem.

Every September, the City of Baltimore celebrates Defenders Day in honor of the Battle of Baltimore. It is the biggest celebration of the year at the Fort, with programs, events, and spectacular fireworks. But Fort McHenry is worth visiting at any time of year for its historical reenactments, exhibits about the War of 1812, and more.

The Inner Harbor

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a hub of activity. In just a few city blocks, you can unearth dinosaurs at the Maryland Science Center, get a history lesson at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, pay respects to pop culture at Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, or submerge yourself in exotic sea life at the National Aquarium. Other attractions include the American Visionary Art Museum, the Babe Ruth Museum, and the Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - The Inner Harbor is full of unique and interesting opportunities for visitors to Charm City.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor has loads of restaurants, pubs, hotels and shops. The Water Taxi will take you from the harbor to surrounding neighborhoods, and the free Charm City Circulator provides daily bus service through several downtown routes.

Visit the National Aquarium

The National Aquarium was the crowning achievement in Baltimore’s urban renewal during the 1980s. Today, some thirty-five or so years later, it still is a favorite attraction for crowds of all ages. The National Aquarium houses several exhibits including the Upland Tropical Rain Forest, a multiple-story Atlantic Coral Reef, an open ocean shark tank, and Australia: Wild Extremes, which won the “Best Exhibit” award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2008.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - check out the National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor for a full day of fun.

The aquarium also has a 4D Immersion Theater and a marine mammal pavilion, which holds seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

The National Aquarium has timed admission, so it’s wise to purchase your tickets in advance rather than at the door.

Maryland Science Center

Located not too far from the Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center was another establishment that brought tourism to the Inner Harbor area. It includes three levels of exhibits, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, and an observatory. Definitely worth a visit if you’re traveling with school aged children.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - the Maryland Science Center is a must-see for families with school age children.

The modernized hands-on exhibits include more than two dozen dinosaur skeletons, as well as physical science, space, Earth science, the human body, and blue crabs, which are native to the Chesapeake Bay.

And Speaking of Crabs…

No list of things to do in Baltimore (or most of Maryland, truth be told) would be complete without the mention of steamed blue crabs. Served with generous helpings of Old Bay seasoning, this crustacean is a tasty treat. Pick your own or, if you prefer to keep your hands clean, order a delicious crab cake. If you go to Baltimore and don’t eat crabs, that’s akin to visiting Chicago and not eating deep dish pizza, or going to Philadelphia and not getting a cheese steak. ‘Nuff said.

Things to Do in Baltimore MD - Local cuisine features steamed crabs with Old Bay seasoning

So, when traveling in the mid-Atlantic region, don’t overlook Charm City. It’s a great destination!

Things to Do in Baltimore MD on Travelasmuch.com
The Frozen Farmer: Bridgeville Delaware Farm Creameries

The Frozen Farmer: Bridgeville Delaware Farm Creameries

If You Lived There, You’d Be Home.

The tiny town of Bridgeville, Delaware sees a lot of traffic heading to and from the Delaware beaches (Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, etc.). So much so, in fact, that their slogan is, “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home NOW.” Capitalizing on the high volume of thru traffic, the town is home to not one, but two Delaware farm creameries selling homemade ice cream. The first is Vanderwende’s, which I absolutely love. The second is newer, opening just a couple of years ago. It’s called The Frozen Farmer, and it’s definitely worth a stop if you’re visiting the Delaware beaches.

Delaware Farm Creameries – More Than Just Ice Cream

From the road, the Frozen Farmer looks like a large farm shop/produce stand. It’s red and eye-catching, neatly maintained and definitely welcoming. It’s an adjunct business of Evans Farms, a third generation, 2000 acre farm that grows produce for multiple local restaurants and grocery stores. It is not a dairy farm, but they use milkbase purchased from a local dairy. The other ingredients often come straight from the fields at Evans farms.

The outside of the shop has several tables and chairs, and a bench for children that looks like a cow. Colorful blooms brighten the entrance and make you feel like you’re on a friend’s front porch, about to go inside to visit.

Delaware farm creameries - The Frozen Farmer in Bridgeville DE

Stepping inside, you see that the interior is every bit as bright and welcoming as the exterior is.

Delaware farm creameries - The Frozen Farmer in Bridgeville DE

And for children, they even have this little play area:

Delaware farm creameries - children's play area at The Frozen Farmer in Bridgeville DE

There is limited seating inside the store, but most of the seats are outside. Still, who would be able to resist sitting at this cool table?

Delaware farm creameries - Tractor table at The Frozen Farmer in Bridgeville DE

 

Flavors & Sizes

The menu was artfully displayed with all the information customers would need.

Delaware farm creameries - Menu at The Frozen Farmer in Bridgeville DE

Yes, those prices are for real! Two scoops will only cost you $3. Sweet deal, huh? (Sorry for the pun… couldn’t resist.)

Nice Cream? What’s That?

In addition to traditional ice cream and sorbets, the Frozen Farmer also sells “nice cream,” a product that tastes like traditional ice cream, but with less fat and more locally grown fruit for added nutritional content. It’s an ice cream-sorbet blend.

I wish I could tell you that I tried the nice cream in an effort to be more health-conscious. Alas, I did not.

Delaware farm creameries - Sweet & Salty ice cream at The Frozen Farmer in Bridgeville DE

This is two scoops of Sweet & Salty, a smooth and creamy ice cream with bits of chocolate and pretzels in it. It was an unseasonably warm evening, so it melted quickly. Normally I eat my ice cream quickly enough that it doesn’t have a chance to melt! 😉

The Inevitable Comparison

So, how does The Frozen Farmer compare to Vanderwendes? Well, I still think Vanderwendes has the best ice cream around. But The Frozen Farmer is more child-friendly. So if you’re traveling with young ones, I would definitely recommend stopping at The Frozen Farmer.

The Frozen Farmer is located at 9843 Seashore Highway in Bridgeville, Delaware.

Delaware Farm Creameries - the best scoops in Bridgeville
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.

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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
IT’S A CUTTLEFISH!

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