Tag: US Travel

Top Ten Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon

Top Ten Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon

America has some amazing natural wonders and the National Park system does a great job of preserving them for us to enjoy. Here are ten essential tips for visiting the Grand Canyon National Park.

canyon

1. Plan ahead for lodging

Do plan way in advance and stay at one of the park lodges.  (They fill up early, so it’s essential to get reservations as far out in advance as possible.) The only other hotels nearby are going to be ridiculously expensive and lacking in amenities (a 2-star hotel for a 4-star price). The park lodges are less expensive, provide shuttle service around the park, and have a wide variety of restaurants either on site or nearby.

2. Allow (just) enough time

Don’t plan to be there more than a day or so.  You can see all of the majesty and nature that the Grand Canyon has to offer in one day.  You just don’t need more time than that, unless you’re planning to do some serious hiking or exploration.

3. Save money on meals

Don’t eat outside of the park.  The restaurants in the hotel area just south of the park are mediocre at best and ridiculously expensive.  If you must eat at a restaurant outside the park, I recommend Wendy’s or McDonalds (which will still be more expensive than they are elsewhere in the US).

4. Water is your friend

Do stay hydrated.  The Arizona air can leech every bit of moisture out of you, even if you aren’t sweating away in the sun.  Keep a refillable bottle of water with you and/or stop to buy beverages often.

5. Limit photo-taking…

I cannot stress this one enough: Don’t go overboard with picture-taking.  I have approximately 450 photos from the Grand Canyon.  Most of them fail to capture the vastness and beauty of it.  Many are barely distinguishable from the others.

… except, perhaps, at sunset

tips for visiting the Grand Canyon - take photos at sunset

Do take pictures at sunset.  The lighting is better and the colors more vibrant.  You can even book a relatively inexpensive “Sunset Tour” that will take you to various lookout points by bus at the right time for awesome photos. 

6. Catch the bus

Do utilize the park’s shuttle service.  It is fast, free, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get an entertaining driver who will share some tips about seeing the park.

7. Broaden your horizons

Do take time to look at more than just the canyon/rocks.  There are California condors, ravens, and mule deer throughout the park. There is also a Tusayan Museum and Ruin that sheds light on the Native Americans who once called that area home. And do check out the Desert View Watchtower.  It’s an amazing, beautiful building.

grand canyon national park desert view watchtower

8. Keep the kids busy

If you have school age children, do have them complete the Junior Ranger program.  It’s free, and it will keep them from getting bored by having them attend a ranger-led program, write their observations, draw pictures, and create poems. You can pick up the Junior Ranger activity booklet at the visitor’s center, and return it there when they have completed the activities.

9. Hike wisely

If you’re hiking down into the canyon, don’t do it on a whim and don’t underestimate the distance or time you will travel.  We saw a chilling poster in one of the visitor centers about an athletic young woman, age 24, who had run in the Boston Marathon, but died on a hike into the canyon.  Why?  She under-calculated the length of her hike, and didn’t carry enough water with her.

10. Get the back story

If you venture into to the money-sucking town south of the canyon, do see the IMAX movie about the canyon and its explorers.  You’ll be impressed with the one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell, who was responsible for mapping most of the canyon. His story is remarkable!

Conclusion

I hope that you will find these tips helpful in planning your Grand Canyon visit. Let me know what works for you and what doesn’t in the comments below!

Top ten tips for visiting the Grand Canyon - Pinterest graphic
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A Review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, NYC

A Review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, NYC

On our most recent trip to New York, we had a few hours to kill while my daughter and her friend went to see Dear Evan Hansen. There were any number of fun things we could have done – Gulliver’s Gate, Spyscape, Madame Tussaud’s, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty… I could go on and on. But rather than do something fun, we decided to do something important instead: The 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

I’ve wanted (and simultaneously not wanted) to visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum ever since it opened in 2014. However, our trips to NYC usually left us with not enough time to fit it in. This time, we made it a priority.

Entering the 9/11 Memorial Plaza

As we approached the World Trade Center site, the first thing we saw was the new building – One World Trade Center. It was beautiful, not just in its appearance but also in what it represented: the determination to persevere after tragedy.

9/11 Memorial & Museum in NYC - One World Trade Center

Impressive, isn’t it? It stands (including the spire) at 1776 feet tall,
the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and sixth tallest in the world. The height is not a coincidence; it was chosen to symbolize the independent spirit of America.

The new building is located on the site of the former 6 World Trade Center, heavily damaged in the 2001 attacks.

A one acre pool with the largest man-made waterfalls in the United States now stands on each footprint of the Twin Towers. Known collectively as Reflecting Absence, they symbolize both the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks. The waterfalls drown out the sounds of the city, making this an ideal space for contemplation. A bronze ledge surrounding each pool bears the names of 2983 people – those who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks and the previous World Trade Center bombing of 1993.

9/11 Memorial & Museum in NYC - the names of those who lost their lives surround the pools where the towers once stood.

The museum is housed in a strange looking building meant to resemble a partially collapsed building. Mostly glass, both clear and reflective, configured at odd angles.

9/11 Memorial & Museum in NYC - the pavilion over the museum was meant to resemble a partially collapsed building.

Inside the 9/11 Museum

Once you enter the museum and pass through security, you start to get an inkling of (or remember) the enormity of the events that day. One of the first things we saw was the flag that was raised at Ground Zero.

On the day of the attacks, a firefighter saw the flag flying on a yacht in the nearby Hudson River basin. He cut the yardarm off the boat and took it to an evacuation site at Ground Zero. There, he and two other firefighters raised it over the rubble. A reporter captured the moment and from that point forward, it became an iconic and enduring image.

To so many people, the three firefighters raising this flag on September 11, 2001, symbolized the resilience of our nation. It also seemed an act of defiance to our attackers – telling them, in effect, “You cannot break us.”

After viewing the flag, we proceeded downstairs into the dark exhibit halls. The farther down we went, the quieter it got. We came upon a map of the mid-Atlantic region, or home, to me. It showed the location of the four terrorist-hijacked airplanes at the time of their crashes. The following two-paragraph summary accompanied the map, with September 11, 2001 spelled out in big letters overhead.

It struck me as odd that such large scale destruction and loss of life could be so easily summed up.

We also saw the rough slurry wall:

A section of the slurry wall left exposed at the 9/11 memorial and museum in NYC.

If, like me, you have no idea what a slurry wall is, or why it would be significant in this place, allow me to share what I have since learned. A slurry wall is a reinforced concrete wall in areas of soft earth that are close to open water.  Its purpose is to keep water out and support the building from beneath. The building above the slurry wall (one of the Twin Towers) collapsed like a house of cards. When it did, the slurry wall could have caved in, resulting in a flooded lower Manhattan. But, thankfully, the wall held.

Of Tears and Twisted Metal

As we wandered through the space, we saw huge pieces of twisted metal hanging against the concrete walls. In a different setting, they could have been works of modern art. But here, they were a grim reminder of the force of destruction and lives lost. When destruction twists a steel beam into a grotesque shape, how could something as fragile as a human body possibly survive?

A twisted piece of metal from the Twin Towers on display at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Looking at these items in person put me in a contemplative, somber mood. It wasn’t until I emerged on a balcony overlooking the lower level, however, that I began to tear up and cry.

"No Day Shall Erase You from the Memory of Time" wall at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in NYC

Amid tiles in various shades of blue, Virgil’s quote from The Aeneid overwhelmed me with emotion. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Not only is it a beautiful promise to remember the victims of the attacks, it is a memorial in itself. The letters were made from World Trade Center steel. The sign describing the display said:

“Originally trained as a blacksmith, [New Mexico artist Tom] Joyce was invited to harness the transformative process that occurs when iron is touched by fire. He took wounded, remnant steel – made of iron and carbon – and forged it, by heating and folding, into letters of beauty. The result reminds us that Virgil’s words are not just a statement; they are a promise.”

The Exhibition and Education Level

We went down to the lower level and saw, among other things, a portion of the “Survivors’ Staircase,” which came from an evacuation route used by many people on the day of the attacks. In the months and years following September 11, the staircase was the last remaining structure above ground level.

We also saw the remains of the box columns that provided structural support for the World Trade Center buildings. We saw part of a radio/TV antenna and a crumpled piece of shiny metal bearing an inscription from the World Trade Center Dedication Day in 1973. But it wasn’t until we turned and I saw the fire truck from Ladder Company 3 that I gasped.

The twisted metal of a fire truck from Ladder Company 3 at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in NYC

Fire trucks, as any preschooler can tell you, are big, magnificent machines. They are red and shiny, loud and fast. They are strong, just like the men who ride in them. In a word, they are invincible.

Yet the fire truck before me had none of those characteristics. Its ladder more closely resembled the plastic-coated wire tie that you find on a loaf of bread. Bent doors on the side of the truck hung at odd angles, like an injured athlete’s broken arm.

A volunteer stood nearby to tell us the story of the truck and its captain. The truck, she explained, carried eleven responders, some of whom had just gone off duty after completing overnight shifts, to the WTC site. It was 8:46 when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower. By 9:21, the members of Ladder Company 3 had reached the 35th floor.

In his last recorded transmission, Ladder Company 3 Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown stated, “We are still heading up”. When the building collapsed a little over an hour later, all eleven members of the company perished.

The Historical Exhibition

The guide finished by telling us that we could see the historical exhibit across from the fire engine. No photos are allowed in that part of the museum, so I have none to share. But I will do my best to tell you about it because it was the most thorough and interesting part of the museum.

The exhibit made use of video clips that looped on continuous playback on monitors. There we saw Matt Lauer reporting on the attacks from the Today Show set. We saw footage of the plane hitting the building. We saw footage of the towers collapsing. And hidden away in an alcove so sensitive visitors would not have to see it if they did not want to, we even saw the clips of people jumping to their deaths from the Twin Towers to avoid the slow and inevitable death they were facing inside the building.

It was almost too much to bear. Because instead of sitting in my office watching the events of the day unfold real time with my coworkers as I did on 9/11, this time I was immersed in it. I was a spectator, surrounded by the chaos and confusion and the fear and the overwhelming sadness of it all. And rather than having time to slowly let it all sink in, I was witnessing it all at once, as if time had somehow sped up. It was brutal.

The historical exhibit also examined what happened before the attacks. I saw redacted copies of government correspondence suggesting that an attack was imminent, and urging action in response. It made me angry. Why didn’t anyone take it seriously?

And I saw exhibits on what happened after the attack. The clean up, the search for people who were missing, the nation coming together united as it has never done since. And, eventually, the re-building, and the hope for the future.

In Memoriam

Moving on from the historical exhibit to a quiet, somber, and dimly lit room, you can see portraits of all of the people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and in the 1993 World Trade Center attack: men and women. Latino and African-American, Asian and White. Young and old and middle aged. People who earned six figures and those who earned minimum wage. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist. Death is the great equalizer.

I looked for Juan Garcia’s photo. I never knew him, but I wrote about him on my old mommy blog as part of a 5 year anniversary blogger project. Seeing his picture on the wall made me feel sad. I can only imagine what it must be like for those who lost someone they knew personally.

In Conclusion

If you have an opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, you should. It is important to remind ourselves of how good this country can be when we stand united. It is equally important to remind ourselves of the ripple effect that senseless acts of violence can have on society. So go. And when you do, please come back here and tell me how it affected you. I’d love to hear about your experience. Maybe the more we talk about, the more we can do to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

9/11 Memorial and Museum - pinnable image
Ocean View, Delaware – Where You Can Enjoy Dinner on a Train

Ocean View, Delaware – Where You Can Enjoy Dinner on a Train

As previously mentioned here, my husband loves trains. Not in the sense of being a collector/builder of model railroads. The idea of traveling by train just fascinates him. And we’ve done it a few times as a result. So for Valentine’s Day this year, I suggested that we check out a restaurant called The Salted Rim in Ocean View, Delaware. The Salted Rim frequently has themed dinners in their restored rail cars… and I just knew Hubs would love to have dinner on a train!

Delaware?

Yes, Delaware! Don’t say that you would never go there, because the fact of the matter is that there are loads of beautiful beaches in the First State. The Atlantic coastline offers a variety of destinations, from Lewes and Rehoboth to Dewey, Bethany and Fenwick. All have their own special niche, and all are 30 minutes or less from Ocean View.

The Salted Rim

The Salted Rim in Ocean View Delaware offers themed dinner on a train events that are fun for the whole family.

So, if you’re visiting the Delaware beaches, you should definitely check out The Salted Rim. Before I tell you about their wonderful dinner on a train events, you should know that they offer a lot more. Happy Hour specials on drinks and food run Sunday-Friday from 11-7 PM and 3-7 PM on Saturday.

Here are the ongoing daily specials (as of this writing – they are subject to change):

  • MONDAY – All you can eat tacos 4-9 PM, plus Bingo at 6 PM
  • TUESDAY – Karaoke starting at 8 PM
  • WEDNESDAY – Domestic beers $2.50, Mingo (music bingo) at 7 PM
  • THURSDAY – Fried Grouper Sandwich $5.99 11 AM-4PM, Trivia at 7 PM
  • FRIDAY – 2 Shrimp Tacos for $5.99 11 AM-4PM, DJ providing music

Their menu is as diverse as the entertainment. From seafood to Mexican fare, plus a great selection of appetizers, burgers, and sandwiches, the food is fresh and tasty. The service at the Salted Rim is also excellent.

Dinner on a Train

There are two train cars located adjacent to the restaurant proper. Their themed events offer a breakfast or dinner buffet, depending on the time. The breakfast offers guests scrambled eggs, pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, French toast, breakfast potatoes, sausage, ham, and rolls. The lunch/dinner option includes salad, mac & cheese, scalloped potatoes, tater tots, chicken nuggets (I’m told they are very similar to Chick-fil-A nuggets!), corn, BBQ chicken legs, pasta & marinara sauce, fresh fish in Lemon Butter, and dinner rolls.

Prices are $12.99 for children ages 1-7, $17.99 for children ages 8-12, and $26.99 for ages 13 and up.

Frozen

Young guests are invited to dress up as their favorite princess or other character (or just come in their pajamas) and enter the magical, frozen world of Elsa, Anna and Olaf.

"Frozen" princesses Elsa & Anna  are the stars of the Frozen theme dinner on a train at the Salted Rim in Ocean View DE

Inside the rail cars, decorated for the event in shades of white and blue and an abundance of snowflakes, guests can watch the movie on a large screen television and enjoy the buffet meal. There will be a special visit from the Princesses as guests sing-a-long to their favorite songs from the movie.

Polar Express

Decorated for Christmas - guests can experience a Polar Express dinner on a train during the holidays at the Salted Room in Ocean View DE

Offered around the holidays, the Salted Rim’s Polar Express meal is a must for any young fans of the movie or book. Just like the kids in the story, they should attend in their pajamas! Many families use the occasion to take photos with the decorated trains in the background, and then use the photo for their Christmas card greetings.

Upon arrival, guests check in with Mrs. Claus, who issues golden tickets to the diners. Then, when the train is ready to board, Mrs. Claus will make the announcement and all families will walk a short distance down the deck to the train entrance.

The Conductor punches the tickets of guests on the Salted Rim's Polar Express dinner on a train in Ocean View DE

At the entrance to the train car, Mr. Conductor greets the guests and punches the golden tickets just like in the movie. Then guests meet the Elves, who are the servers, and they escort to your assigned seat. After all guests are seated, the buffet dinner begins.

Once everyone has their food, the movie begins. During the rousing hot chocolate scene in the movie, the guests receive hot chocolate and cookies. After that, families are free to just sit back and enjoy the movie.

At a certain point, the Elves pause the movie to announce a special visitor. Direct from the North Pole, it’s Santa Claus! Santa visits with each child, asks them what they want for Christmas, and gives them a special gift. He poses for pictures with the children, and the Elves are happy to help if the whole family wants to be in the picture with Santa.

The movie resumes after Santa’s visit and everyone claps as the movie ends! It is truly magical! They even have a mailbox for children to mail their letters to Santa!

Harry Potter

The latest offering from the Salted Rim is dinner on a train that might resemble the Hogwarts Express. Guests can arrive in Hogwarts uniform or other costume (optional). The may also bring their wands, but broomsticks must park in the front of the train.

Harry Potter fans can enjoy a Hogwarts theme dinner on a train at the Salted Rim in Ocean View DE

In this magical world, guests are sorted into Gyffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff as you watch one of the eight Harry Potter movies. Pick your favorite, then sit back and watch Harry, Ron and Hermoine learn how to battle the evil forces of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Movies will be shown on large screen TV’s in authentic train cars decorated in true Harry Potter style.

You will enjoy a first course of a garden salad served family style to your table, an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet and a butter beer cupcake dessert served by Hogwarts characters.

Holiday Specials

The Salted Rim also offers fine dining specials for holiday meals. Hubs and I went there for Valentine’s Day dinner this year, and it was a great experience!

Hearts and roses and rhinestones adornted the rail cars:

The Salted Rim offers guests the opportunity to celebrate holidays by having a romantic dinner on a train.
Couples can enjoy a Valentine's Dinner on a train at the Salted Rim in Ocean View, Delaware.

I don’t know if you can see it in the photo above, but they had some special Valentine’s Day drink specials on the menu. They all sounded really good, but the one that really caught my eye was “Love at First Bite,” which was described as a “strawberry rattle snake margarita.” I love margaritas, and I love strawberry margaritas. So I ordered it.

Isn’t it pretty? Well, let me tell you – looks can be deceiving! My mouth burned from the very first sip, because I neglected to ask what the rattlesnake reference was for. After the initial sip, when I realized that the rim was coated in Old Bay seasoning, I drank the rest through a straw in an effort to cool the burning sensation on my lips and tongue. Big mistake. It turns out that the tequila used in this particular margarita was infused with some really hot pepper. I can’t remember if it was jalapeno or habanero – either way, it was too much for me! But then again, I think Chipotle is too spicy. Your mileage may vary.

Needless to say, that’s the last time I will order a drink without finding out what’s in it! Fortunately, the food was much more to my liking. I ordered Chicken Chesapeake and Hubs had Grouper stuffed with crab imperial, both served with some yummy mashed potatoes and a vegetable. Then we split a creamy, decadent Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake for dessert.

It was a great evening, and we couldn’t have been more pleased. The next time you’re in the Delaware beaches area, make sure you check out the Salted Rim and see if you can have dinner on a train!

NOTE: I have not received any compensation for this article. My husband and I paid for our own meals.

The Best Place for Lunch in Easton, Maryland

The Best Place for Lunch in Easton, Maryland

Back before Christmas, I met a friend in Easton, Maryland to spend the afternoon catching up. It was a welcome time of relaxation in an otherwise hectic December. We enjoyed some coffee, strolled through the town admiring the various shops and historic buildings, and then we decided to have some lunch.

We stopped at a place called Sunflowers and Greens, and it was nothing short of amazing. What follows is my review of the restaurant. To be clear, I walked in off the street with no knowledge of the restaurant. I paid for my meal and received no compensation for this review.

The Best Lunch in Easton Maryland - Sunflowers & Greens

The Best Lunch in Easton Maryland

When we walked in, an employee promptly greeted us and asked if we had been there before. When we replied that we had not, she took a few moments and showed us around, explaining how the restaurant operated and what sort of foods they offered. The warm welcome we received was a breath of fresh air in a day when customer service is a dying art.

The Salads

While the restaurant offers soups and sandwiches, the real star of the menu is their salads. The blurb on their web site says it best: their salads contain “the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients… composed to each guest’s specification”. All salads come with handcrafted dressings and a piece of traditional sourdough bread.

Best Lunch in Easton Maryland - Signature Salads at Sunflowers and Greens.

I ordered the Poached Pear Salad (pears are my very favorite fruit), which is one of the chef’s signature salads on the menu. It consisted of garden greens & baby spinach, maple roasted Cheshire pork loin, poached pear, roasted pecans, Vermont Creamery goat cheese, honey balsamic vinaigrette.

As soon as I placed my order, the folks behind the counter got to work. It was interesting to watch them preparing the salad because they made it with their (gloved) hands. They placed all of the salad components in a large wooden bowl and hand mixed them. It seemed really strange at first. However, I realized it was probably a far more efficient method than using an awkward pair of tongs to do the job!

Best Lunch in Easton Maryland - poached pear salad at Sunflowers & Greens

I have to say, it was quite possibly the best salad I have ever eaten! The slice of bread that came with the salad was scrumptious. We could tell that it had been baked fresh that day.

Customers who don’t find the signature salads appealing can create their own custom salad by specifying which ingredients they want. (But trust me, you really need to try that Poached Pear Salad!) You can’t go wrong with their fresh ingredients, procured from a number of local and artisanal sources and is organic whenever possible. Working with the finest purveyors of meat, poultry and fish, Sunflowers & Greens serves select cuts of Wagyu and Prime Beef, Russ & Daughters’ smoked salmon and antibiotic and hormone free poultry.

If You Go

Sunflowers & Greens is located at 11 Federal Street in Easton, Maryland. The menu changes daily, but you can see the daily menu on their website.

There is not a lot of room for customers who wish to dine in, and I would imagine that they are very busy on weekdays around noon, when nearby office workers stop in for lunch. I would recommend going before noon or after 1:30 to minimize wait time.

The best lunch in Easton Maryland is at Sunflowers and Greens on Federal Street.

Most Decadent Desserts: Crazy Shakes at Black Tap

Most Decadent Desserts: Crazy Shakes at Black Tap

I love having special treats for special occasions, so I am constantly in search of the most decadent desserts. When I treated my daughter to a trip to NYC for her sixteenth birthday party this past June, we intended to celebrate by getting Crazy Shakes at Black Tap. Sadly, our time between other activities was in short segments that would not have sufficed. We went to Black Tap twice and both times the line was so long outside the door that we would not have gotten inside and ordered in time to move on to the next activity. So when we went to NYC again this month, we were determined to get those Crazy Shakes.

Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer

I know, their name doesn’t even mention their Crazy Shakes. But trust me, these Insta-worthy, most decadent desserts are what’s drawing the crowds to their three New York locations. (They also have a location inside The Venetian in Las Vegas, and one in Singapore. More restaurants will soon be opening in Downtown Disney Anaheim and NYC’s Herald Square.) We dined at their midtown Manhattan location (136 W 55th St).

There’s no doubt about it – Black Tap is a fun place to eat. The decor is a cross between old fashioned soda fountain, 1980s retro, and street art grafitti. Our booth was next to this bit of artwork:

Decadent Desserts (and Decor) at Black Tap in NYC

Also, the music was awesome!  Just the right mix of my old 1980s favorites and some more modern songs. All of it was upbeat… the kind of music that you find yourself bopping along to in your seat even if you haven’t heard the song before.

The Burgers

They describe their restaurants as a new take on the classic burger joint. The menu is fairly simplistic at first glance – offering burgers, salads, fries, and shakes. But when you look a little more closely, you realize that these are not your average run-of-the-mill burgers. Black Tap’s “Greg Norman” burger won the People’s Choice Award three years in a row at the New York City Wine & Food Festival’s annual Burger Bash. Ranging from $16 to $20 per burger, you can choose from the classic All-American, a falafel or vegan burger, pizza burger, or a Carolina BBQ pulled pork burger.

We decided that for the four of us (Hubs and my daughters friend were also there) would split two burgers and two crazy shakes. We did this not only to save money, but also to keep us from leaving there looking like engorged ticks and feeling even worse. I selected the Bison Burger (bison burger, fresh mozzarella, pesto mayo, arugula, shaved Parmesan, roasted tomatoes, $19), and my daughter chose the Pizza Burger (prime burger, zesty tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, $17). Both came with a side of fries.

The burgers and the fries were very good. I’d never eaten bison before, but it honestly didn’t taste much different to me than a beef burger would have.

The Crazy Shakes

Black Tap serves classic milkshakes ($9) in nine different flavors, from standard chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, to the more exotic caramel, Nutella, and coffee. But it’s the Crazy Shakes ($15) that grab the glory.

The Most Decadent Desserts: Crazy Shakes at Black Tap in NYC

If these Crazy Shakes aren’t the most decadent desserts you’ve ever seen, then please tell me what is!

On the left is the Cookie Shake: vanilla frosted rim with cookie crumbles topped with a ‘cookiewich’, crumbled cookies, chocolate chips, whipped cream & chocolate drizzle. And that’s on top of a vanilla milkshake! On the right is the Cookie & Creme Supreme: vanilla frosted rim with crushed Oreos topped with a ‘cookies ’n cream’ sandwich, crumbled Oreo, whipped cream & chocolate drizzle, served on top of a cookies & creme milkshake.

Here’s a closer look at each one.

Most Decadent Desserts - the Cookie Crazy Shake at Black Tap in NYC

Most Decadent Desserts - the Cookie & Cream Supreme Crazy Shake at Black Tap in NYC

And when the description mentions a frosted rim, they don’t mean it in the sense of frosted glass, or a coating of sugar. No, they mean frosted as in cake frosting. So essentially you have a milkshake with a couple tablespoons of cake frosting, cookies, an ice cream sandwich, and whipped cream. Thank goodness they don’t publish calorie counts on the menu!!

Other Crazy Shakes at the midtown Manhattan location include:

  • Sweet & Salty (peanut butter/chocolate/pretzel)
  • Cotton Candy (strawberry shake with cotton candy and other candies)
  • Sour Power (black cherry shake with sour candies)
  • Brooklyn Blackout (chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate)
  • Bam Bam (Fruity Pebbles, Pop Tart, candy)
  • Cake Shake (cake batter shake with a slice of cake and lots of sprinkles)

Honesty, you can’t go wrong here. It was difficult (but obviously very necessary) to pick just one!

If You Go

Get there plenty early, because lines do form outside the restaurant (even when it’s ridiculously cold outside, as it was when we were there). You may have to wait about an hour for a table, possibly more in nicer weather.

Consider sharing an entree and/or dessert with a friend, so as not to overdo. You don’t want to end your euphoric dining experience feeling like you’re going to be ill.

 

Historic Annapolis Maryland & the State House

Historic Annapolis Maryland & the State House

Why You Should Visit the State House in Historic Annapolis Maryland:

Dating to 1772, the Maryland State House in Annapolis is the oldest state capitol building still in continuous legislative use in the USA. It housed the Continental Congress, and is the only state house to have ever served as our national capitol. It is such a significant symbol of Maryland’s history that it appears on the “tails” side of Maryland’s state quarter.

But that’s not the only thing that makes it special, and worth checking out if you travel to historic Annapolis. Here are some other reasons.

The Architecture & Grounds

The brick building consists of two stories constructed in the Georgian style, with large symmetrical windows. An imposing set of steps and a columned portico provide an dramatic entrance to the building.

The State House in Historic Annapolis Maryland
Photo courtesy of Kevin Galens by CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The dome of the Maryland State House is the largest wooden dome in the United States. Constructed of  cypress wood, the dome has eight sides. The dome was constructed without nails, held together instead by wooden pegs reinforced by iron straps. The dome differs from many similar structures in that it actually has a balcony from which the city can be seen. The story goes that in 1790, Thomas Jefferson spent three hours on the balcony with James Madison and two other men, one of whom entertained them with the gossip related to each of the houses they could see from their perch above the town.

A lightning rod built and grounded according to the specifications of Benjamin Franklin sits atop the State House.  It has been protecting the building for over 225 years! The use of the Benjamin Franklin lightning rod could be interpreted not just as a precautionary measure, but also as a political statement, symbolizing the independence and ingenuity of our young nation.

The Dome of the State House in Historic Annapolis Maryland
(public domain photo)

The grounds feature a statue of Baltimore native and former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Justice Marshall was the first African-American to serve on that high court.

The Old Treasury Building, built in 1735, also stands on the grounds of the State House. It is the oldest public building in Annapolis. Currently, the building is closed to visitors as it undergoes extensive historic preservation and archaeological investigations. When it reopens, it will contain exhibits relating to its history and that of 17th century Maryland.

The Old Senate Chamber

The Old Senate Chamber of the State House in Historic Annapolis Maryland
Photo courtesy of Bestbudbrian [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
The Old Senate Chamber served as the meeting room for the Continental Congress from November 1783 to August 1784. Two future presidents – Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe – participated in those meetings.

Also in this room, two days before Christmas 1783, General George Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief of the continental army. The State House Rotunda includes a display of Washington’s copy of the speech, which historians consider the fourth most important document in American history. Why? Because it set the precedent of the military being under civilian authority. A bronze statue of George Washington is placed where it is believed that he stood to deliver his address to Congress. Washington is depicted in the emotional moment when he was compelled to steady his handwritten speech with both hands.

Above, in the upstairs gallery overlooking the room, you will find a resin statue of Molly Ridout. The gallery was the only place where women could view the proceedings of Congress and the Maryland Senate. Molly witnessed the resignation and authored one of the only written accounts of the event.

The walls of this room also bore witness to the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War in 1784.

The Caucus Room

The State House Caucus Room houses most of a 48-piece silver service from the armored cruiser USS Maryland. The pieces in the set show 167 scenes from Maryland history. Each piece focuses on one of Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City.

In addition to the silver, the Caucus Room contains portraits of nine former Maryland Governors,and historical furniture.

The Old House of Delegates Room

The exhibits in the Old House of Delegates Room center around the expansion of rights in Maryland during the 19th century. For instance, during this time period Jews were given the right to hold public office and slavery was abolished in the state.

Visit the State House in historic Annapolis, Maryland and see Francis Blackwell Mayer's The Burning of the Peggy Stewart
The Burning of the Peggy Stewart (public domain photo)

One painting in this room, The Burning of the Peggy Stewart, depicts the Annapolis protest over tea importation that took place in 1774, prior to the American Revolution.

The Archives Room

The Archives Room houses a portrait of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, otherwise known as the Marquis de Lafayette. Fans of the Hamilton musical will recall that Lafayette was “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman”. He served as a major-general in the Continental Army under George Washington and became his close friend. Lafayette made several trips to Annapolis both during and after the war. In 1784, in gratitude for his service, Maryland named Lafayette and his male heirs natural-born citizens of the state.

The Annex

The more modern (1902-1905) addition to the original State House is referred to as The Annex. The Annex is the part of the building that houses the current Senate and House of Delegates chambers. Each chamber contains a distinctive black and gold marble to represent the black and gold colors of the Maryland flag. Both chambers also feature skylights made by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The Maryland Senate Chamber of the State House in historic Annapolis Maryland
Senate Chamber By Irteagle102704 of English Wikipedia – self-taken photo by the author, Public Domain

Woven into the Senate chamber’s carpet is the state seal of 1648.

The House of Delegates Chamber at the State House in historic Annapolis Maryland
House of Delegates Chamber By Irteagle102704 of English Wikipedia – self-taken photo by the author, Public Domain

A line of black limestone with fossils dating to 450 million years ago separates the annex from the original State House. A large marble staircase, called the Grand Staircase, leads up to the second floor, where the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and other staff offices are located. The observation galleries for both houses of the Maryland government are also located on the second floor. The most important feature of the grand staircase is the 1858 painting of Washington Resigning His Commission, by Edwin White:

Washington Resigning his Commission by Edwin White, depicting one of the most famous events to take place at the State House in historic Annapolis Maryland.
Washington Resigning His Commission by Edwin White [Public domain]

To Visit the State House:

If you’re in Annapolis, the State House is surely a must-see. It’s open to visitors from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day of the year except Christmas and New Years Day. Visitors may take a self-guided tour with information available in the Office of Interpretation on the first floor. Alternatively, specialized curatorial tours of the building and its artwork can be arranged by appointment by calling 410-260-6445.

Please note that security measures are in place for all state buildings in the Annapolis complex. Visitors must show a picture ID for entrance. Other security measures include metal detectors and bag searches.

 

Header & pinterest image photo via Flickr by Dougtone.

 

Must See in historic Annapolis Maryland - the State House
Glassblowing Class in Berlin, Maryland…

Glassblowing Class in Berlin, Maryland…

Glassblowing Class

Very few things – other than super cute animals and longer than normal posts from friends who are normally just lurkers – get me to stop scrolling and really take notice of something in my Facebook feed. But when I happened upon a Facebook event for a glassblowing class that said “Make Your Own Blown Glass Christmas Ornaments,” my fingers froze. Tell me more, Facebook!

Berlin, Maryland

The small town of Berlin, Maryland (population 5000) was named Coolest Small Town in America in 2014. It was also the setting of the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere movie, “Runaway Bride.” As you can imagine, it’s quaint and picturesque and has a lot to offer its visitors, from boutique shops to bathtub races. (Yes, really!)

Berlin is also home to a small art glass studio and gallery:

Jeffrey Auxer Designs

The studio and gallery showcase the work of Jeffrey Auxer, as you may have guessed. Jeff was a candidate for a degree in Business Administration at local Salisbury University. In the final semester before receiving his Bachelor’s degree, he decided to take a glass blowing class as an elective. That whim changed his life.

Jeffrey Auxer started blowing glass in college and now shares his passion with others - giving them the opportunity to creat blown glass Christmas ornaments at his Berlin Maryland studio.

In 2009 he opened his own studio in the Berlin Arts and Entertainment District. The gallery serves as a showcase and storefront for his colorful glass works such as these:

Blown Glass Christmas Ornaments and More at Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin Maryland

And, since we were there in December, there were quite a few colorful Christmas ornaments to choose from:

Blown Glass Christmas Ornaments for sale at Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin Maryland

In addition to the styles you see above, Jeff also does Chihuly style glass work. I thought this lamp was just stunning:

Chihuly Style lamp at Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin Maryland.

Jeff also does metalwork. His two skills are paired in a number of unique pieces, like this one:

Blown Glass Christmas Ornaments and Metal Work by Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin Maryland

DIY Time!

I bought two ornaments as gifts. But that’s not why we were there.  We were there to make our own blown glass Christmas ornaments.

While we waited for our appointed time slot, we looked over the 20 or so different color combinations we could choose. Some of the color combinations were themed for sports teams, with coordinating ribbon emblazoned with the team’s name.  Orange and black ornaments sported a Baltimore Orioles ribbon, for example.

Ultimately, I chose the turquoise, lime green and white combination, while Hubs chose yellow and black. Our first task was holding the long metal rod in the furnace and spinning it so it heated evenly.

Heating the rod prior to making blown glass Christmas ornaments in Berlin Maryland

Jeff then took the rod and dipped the end in a pool of molten glass located inside a 2000+ degree furnace. He dabbed it in the colored pieces we chose and began shaping it into a ball, then gave a small blow to get it started. At that point, he sat down on the bench and we slipped our protective mouthpiece on the end of the rod. (Because no one wants to do communal glassblowing. Eeuuww.)

Making blown glass Christmas ornaments in Berlin, Maryland.

He told us to blow into the mouthpiece while he shaped the ornament. It was easier than I thought it would be. After a couple of blows and repeated rolling & shaping, Jeff placed the ornament on a pad of soft cotton and snipped it off the rod.

Blown Glass Christmas Ornaments from Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin, Maryland.

His assistant added a clear glass “loop” to the top of it so that the ornament for hanging it, and the ornaments went into a kiln at 900 degrees to finish up. The next day, I returned and picked up our ornaments, which turned out beautifully.

Yellow and black Christmas ornament made in Glassblowing class at Jeffrey Auxer Designs, Berlin, MD.

Blown glass Christmas ornament made in glassblowing class at Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin MD

This is not something you want to do if you’re all about instant gratification, though. Not only do you not get to take your ornament home with you when you leave, you won’t even know what it really looks like. That’s because it will be so hot that the colors will not appear true. In both of the photos above, the ornaments appear red and orange but neither had those colors in them.

Glassblowing Class: What You Need to Know

Jeffrey Auxer Designs offers glassblowing classes for individuals as young as age 4. While I refer to these as Christmas ornaments, it’s important to note that they can be hung in a window all year round. They’ll look especially pretty when the sun hits them.

Reservations are required and the cost is $25-$30.

NOTE: I did not receive any compensation for this post.  

Glassblowing Class Review - Jeffrey Auxer Designs in Berlin Maryland
A Post-Election Celebration: Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware

A Post-Election Celebration: Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware

The tiny town of Georgetown, Delaware (population 6000) has a special holiday every election year called Return Day. In many ways, it’s a holiday the whole nation could learn from.

What is Return Day?

Dating back as far as perhaps 1792, Return Day came about after a law moved the Sussex County Delaware seat from the coastal town of Lewes to a more geographically centered site, Georgetown. That same law required all citizens to cast their votes in Georgetown on election day. Two days later, voters  could return to Georgetown to hear the official results of the election.

Voting districts were established in 1811, eliminating the need for a central polling & results location. And today’s technology enables us to know who won within hours of the polls closing. However, the tradition of meeting two days later in Georgetown to announce the final vote tally has continued for over 200 years. It has even achieved the status of state holiday, with government offices in the county closing for the afternoon.

Return Day is celebrated every election year in Georgetown, Delaware.

What Happens on Return Day?

The festivities start with a concert and a traditional free ox roast in the town circle. Like most local festivals, Return Day features food vendors, competitions, musical entertainment, arts and crafts, and  so on.

The candidates – winners and losers from both parties – ride in horse drawn carriages or antique cars in a parade through town and around the town circle.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has participated in Delaware's Return Day tradition more than once.
Former Vice President (and Delaware Senator) Joe Biden has participated in the Return Day celebration more than once.

As the parade draws to and end, the ceremonies open with the national anthem, followed by an invocation and opening remarks by the mayor of Georgetown. Then – can you believe it? – a town crier reads the election results.

On Return Day in Georgetown, Delaware, the town crier reads the results of the elections.

The chairmen of the political parties (Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, and Independent) in Sussex County then partake in a ceremonial burying the hatchet. They meet on stage, clutch a hatchet and together plunge it into a box of sand. Even the sand has symbolic significance, as it’s from the original county seat of Lewes. When party leaders bury the hatchet, that signifies the end of the political competition.

Following the ceremony, all attendees receive a free open pit roast beef sandwich. Another tradition for Return Day is the ox roast and, well, if you’re going to roast an ox, you might as well share it with your neighbors.

Why Talk About Return Day?

In a political environment that seems to get nastier and more divisive each year, there’s a lot we can learn from this little town in Delaware. On Return Day, political opponents come together and symbolically bury the hatchet, signifying the end of their competition, no matter how antagonistic it may have gotten. Additionally, the election is officially declared as finished business.

What’s the bigger message here? Once the election is over, it’s over. Let’s put the nastiness behind us, roll up our collective sleeves, and get to work at fixing the problems that face us.

The next Return Day will be held in Georgetown on November 5, 2020.

Return Day - a unique post-election celebration in Georgetown Delaware.
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