Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Autism on the Seas

I have a little confession to make.  I am a travel agent who has  had never been on a cruise.  With all of our moving and living in Europe for so many years, it just wasn't a logical choice for us...until recently.  So when I had the opportunity to go on a cruise AND learn more about Autism on the Seas, I knew the time was right- especially since it fell during my husband's Fall Break and I could take him along!!  Win-Win-Win situation!!

Our cruise was a 3 night cruise to the Bahamas on Royal Caribbean's newly renovated Mariner on the Seas.  Marketing itself as the "boredom busting getaway for the whole crew" with the tagline "Weekend Like You Mean It," on the Royal Caribbean website, the Mariner is full of activities, cuisine options, and entertainment to cram a whole lot of fun into a quick getaway.  RCL is not exaggerating.  The energy and activity on this ship was never-ending and they did deliver on their promises.

As much as I loved the food, the activity, the relaxation and the time away with my husband, the highlight of the weekend for me was experiencing and being part of the Autism on the Seas family on board.  Autism on the Seas (AotS) is an international organization that began working with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in 2007 (and has since expanded to other cruise lines) to help adults and families with children with disabilities accommodate regular cruise services and enjoy a family vacation.  Autism on the Seas offers select staffed cruises throughout the year.   The AotS staff on board are volunteers who have degrees relating to special education, child development, or behavior therapy.  An added bonus of their services, is that they extend to family and friends of these families so grandparents, extended family and friends travelling with a special needs family can also take part in their services.

Autism on the Seas Staff on duty can always be identified by their orange t-shirts.  This team of ladies were amazing!  I was so touched by the love they had for these children and their families, as well as how adept they were at making sure everyone's needs were met and any difficulties overcome.  We met them at the entrance to the ship and were escorted in to avoid lines and crowds. (The same service was provided on our final day as well with early disembarkation and staff assistance to avoid the crowds and chaos of mass disembarkation.)

We were given a schedule and after finding our room and settling in a bit, we reported to our own conference room where we had introductions, each staff member met with the families to learn more about their children and how they could best be served, and we had our own private muster drill away from the crowds.

And then we headed to the HeliPad for our send off and away we went.  (Orange lanyards were provided to each of us in the group.)

 We had our own special seating area in the dining room.  The wait staff was super attentive and special orders were awaiting the children to expedite getting them fed.  The staff attended to antsy children so parents could enjoy their meals as well.

As I mentioned above, the Mariner on the Seas is full of activities!  The AotS staff arranged private sessions at the various venues so  the children, the families, and the extended friends and families could participate in all the offerings of the cruise ship but without the added burden of waiting in line or navigating a crowd.

I was super impressed with the Royal Caribbean staff as well.  They took the time to offer extra lessons and doses of patience to be sure everyone had a great time, including one who gave up her personal time to come and offer one little friend a second chance at the rock climbing wall when she was too tired and overwhelmed to participate during our regularly scheduled time.

The AotS staff was also on hand for some assistance during our beach excursion.  Parents had added assurance and assistance with extra hands and eyes so everyone could enjoy the water - or stay on the beach as they wished.

Reserved seating at the evening entertainment meant no one had to show up early and wait long to ensure seats for the performances.  Seating was also situated so that a quick getaway could be made if necessary.

And respite care was provided daily as well. The AotS staff lovingly played with the children while parents and family members enjoyed time focusing on each other and being refreshed.

On our final evening, the staff presented each child with a reward and we each got a special memento to take home.  I have my ladies in orange on my fridge and they make me smile every day.

This post is written with much gratitude and appreciation to the ladies in orange who took us in, answered my MANY questions, and let us be part of their family after our own little friend's family had to cancel, and to the families in our group who graciously welcomed us in and allowed me to post photos of them.   

Monday, October 22, 2018

National Gallery: Part 2 of ?-Series

Greetings, travelers. So, you’re planning a trip? What’s wrong with you?

(side conversation)

OK, the blogette (my wife) has just reminded me that I am guest writing for a travel blog that, in general, is looking to encourage travel. So, allow me to rephrase my initial question: You aren’t already on a trip? What’s wrong with you?

(side conversation)

OK, the blogette has just informed me that she would like me to avoid risking sounding snarky with her potential client base. My apologies. Allow me to re-rephrase my initial question: So, you’ve decided to take a trip? Congratulations! You could not have made a wiser decision. And you’d like to visit Washington, D.C., you say? Brilliant choice! Are you by any chance interested in visiting the National Mall? You are? Wonderful! My, you just cannot seem to take a wrong step!  

(side conversation)

Ok, the blogette, who at this point is starting to seem kind of picky, has just informed me I’m laying it on a little strong. Let’s just move along, shall we?

This is part two of our ?-part series on the National Mall, wherein we’re going to talk about the National Gallery of Art. The Mall, you may remember, is a large section of land in downtown Washington, D.C., given over to several memorials and to the many buildings and organizations that collectively make up the Smithsonian Institute. As far as getting to the Mall, I covered parking, ground and underground transportation in the city in a previous post. For today’s purposes, suffice it to say your best option is to arrive by helicopter, provided the pilot can avoid incoming anti-aircraft fire from the White House.

Despite what the map below seems to indicate, the National Gallery is actually housed in two separate buildings which are situated next to each other, in the Northeast portion of the Mall, on the East and West side of 4th Street NW.

The two buildings are called, respectively and descriptively, the East Building and the West Building. This naming convention is itself a noteworthy achievement in that it is both perfectly accurate and completely unhelpful. Designating them by cardinal direction certainly makes it easy to locate them on a map, but it could also lead one to assume the two buildings are more or less equal. They are not.

The West Building is where the actual art is housed. By “art” I mean works of artistic, aesthetic, and historical value that required talent and skill to produce, such as paintings, sculptures, artifacts from distance cultures, etc., which by their mere existence enrich the world and make it a more vibrant and colorful place. The East Building houses what is known as “modern art.” It might be more appropriately titled “Gallery of Oddities Aimed at People with More Money than Sense,” or perhaps simply “What?” for short.

To illustrate, this piece is currently on display in the East Building:

This is called The Block Head by Edward Kienholz. It is a cement block which has been made to resemble an old television set by gluing four knobs and a few bits of wood to it. Though I’m not sure why, the faux control panel also appears to have been smeared with tomatillo salsa. Take a moment to appreciate whatever it is the artist is trying to communicate here.

(tick, tick, tick)

Well, I’m moved, how about you?

By contrast here is an example of what you’ll find in the West Building:

This is Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son by Claude Monet. Take just a few moments and look at it, really immerse yourself in the crisp air that’s blowing her skirts and moving the clouds behind her. You almost want to shield your eyes from the sun her parasol is blocking. Notice how her facial features are evident yet vague enough to force you to imagine your own specificity. Why is her face more distinct than her son’s?

(tick, tick, tick)

See? You’re welcome.

In fairness to modern art, I should acknowledge it can have a certain entertaining quality. I once spent a very amusing 15 minutes in the modern wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art. There was a high school class trip that day and most of the students were looking at a special Impressionist exhibit. There was, however, one amorous couple that took advantage of their classmates’ distraction and made their way to the modern art wing for a little privacy. This was a viable option as there was no one in the modern art wing.

Almost no one, anyway. I’d already worked through most of the museum at this point and so wandered over to see whether the modern wing could offer a chuckle or two. And yes – yes, it could. As I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of the two lovebirds as they leapt apart from one another in that trying-to-act-casual-but-totally-failing style often seen on sitcoms. I pretended not to notice them and they soon walked off into a different room. By the purest coincidence, this happened to be the same room I walked into precisely three minutes later. They jumped apart from each other all over again, looking even less suave this time. I, of course, still gave no hint of having noticed them. I didn’t want to be rude, after all. They eventually moved into yet another room of the wing, which again (what are the odds?) happened to be the same room I wandered into in another three minutes. Yet again they jumped awkwardly apart. Apparently, they’d had their fill of modern art at this point since they promptly left the wing all together.

But I digress.

We’re going to focus on the West Building today, for reasons that should be abundantly clear by now. There are two floors which share mostly the same layout – roughly this:

The ground floor houses galleries of prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, a cafĂ© and gift shop, along with a lecture hall. The second floor, which the museum calls the Main Floor, has European paintings and sculptures, American art and rotating temporary exhibits. All well and good but the bottom line is the second floor has the really good stuff. Here’s a small sampling:

This is The Shipwreck by Claude Joseph Vernet.

This is The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David.

And here is one of the true gems of their collection: Givevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci. This is the only da Vinci on permanent display anywhere in North America.

I am not sure who Ginevra was or why she appears to have been in such a bad mood the day da Vinci painted her, but the portrait is truly amazing to see. Not for its size – it’s actually pretty small, less than two feet high. No, it’s amazing because 1) in person it is absolutely beautiful (photos do not do it justice), 2) it’s painted not on canvas, but on wood, and 3) there’s an image on both sides of the plank, so it’s mounted in a floating half wall the middle of the gallery room, allowing patrons to view both images.

Anyway, there are thousands of pieces on display at any given time. If Ginevra doesn’t float your boat, you’re not into naked sculptures, and impressionist work just looks out of focus to you, there will still be something there to appreciate. You could possibly spend an entire day, open to close, in the West Building and not see every exhibit.

A quick word to those for whom wandering through a sterile, perpetually quiet museum isn’t your cup of tea, fear not! There is yet another marvelous use for the National Gallery, which I can attest to from first-hand experience: it is a killer location for scavenger hunts!

With the aid of the blogette, I’ve planned two large, multi-museum, puzzle-driven scavenger hunts on the Mall, both of which were pretty big hits. We incorporated the Gallery into the second Hunt, which was a popular addition with the hunters. A friendly word of advice, though, if you decide this is something you might want to try: DO NOT assume your hunters are familiar with museum etiquette! A few of ours were not and one unfortunate young lady found out precisely what happens when you look like you are about two seconds from physically touching a priceless work of art.

I will only say the memory is likely to be with her a while.
Next time: The National Museum of Natural History, a.k.a. The American Taxidermy Hall of Fame!

With the exception of the map of the Mall, which I blatantly ripped of Google Images, all pictures are either my own or are publicly available through the National Gallery of Art. If you believe otherwise, please notify the blogette immediately. She will pass the information along to me so we can enjoy a hearty laugh because you are wrong.

Monday, October 15, 2018

My "Staycation" is Your Vacation

I live in Virginia where they say Virginia is for Lovers.  I'm sure there are wonderful places for Lovers to vacation, but today I'm going to focus on some of the wonderful offerings for families in my "neck of the woods"!

We have beach fun, amusement parks, history, arts, and great food just to name a few!

Neptune welcomes all visitors to Virginia Beach - a beautiful beach that can be enjoyed in the winter

and the summer -

Basically, its a fabulous beach any time of year!

And if you want some activity beyond the beach, there is always The Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium for some outdoor fun.

Next up is an amusement park - Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers fun for the whole family 

Are you a family of history buffs?  We have plenty to offer in that regard as well.

Colonial Williamsburg is the world's largest history museum.  Plenty of hands on activities and guided tours and special events take your family back in time to experience life in the 18th century and learn about American and Virginia history.

And experience authentic food in one of the local taverns on site.

My family is a big fan of the arts - fine arts and performing arts.  One probably doesn't often think of Norfolk, VA as a tourist destination but we love it and it has many great things to see and do.  Very close to Virginia Beach it has some great rainy day or just break from the beach day activities.

The Chrysler Museum  offers a very broad collection of artwork and is sure to please anyone who appreciates art.  And admission is FREE!  Closed on Mondays and select holidays.

Also in Norfolk is Chrysler Hall which offers its Broadway in Norfolk performances.  This production of Les Miserable surpassed the one I saw in London.  

My area offers so many great activities for tourists and locals alike.  These just scratch the surface.  As I tackle my "bucket list" I may revisit this topic again on this blog!  

And if these don't entice you to come see my neck of the woods,  let me plan your vacation here and I'll even share with you where to find this plate of pure yumminess!  

I close this blog with Nutella Calzone!

Monday, October 1, 2018

A little Sandals Resorts TLC

On a recent trip to Jamaica we flew into Kingston late at night. To be honest, it was the very last plane in for the night!   The Sandals Resorts Agent met us outside customs/immigration with a warm Jamaican smile and walked with us to Club Kingston. She had her work cut out for her because we had airline issues and were not even supposed to be at the Kingston Airport at all. 

This agent fixed everything!

 Due to the late hour, Club Kingston was closed for the night and there was no food available to us.  Our Sandals agent made sure we had water while we waited and gave us a bottle for the road.  

Most travelers go through Montego Bay to get to Jamaican resorts so let me share a few observations about the Kingston Airport for those who are unfamiliar with it.  The airport is very clean and simple to navigate.  Just as Montego Bay airport has Club Mobay, Kingston has Club Kingston, a VIP lounge for arrival and departure where you receive VIP service, fast track through customs and immigration and complementary food and drinks among other things.  Please note, if you are traveling with children, there is no kids club in Club Kingston.

Our transfer to Sandals Ochi was about an hour and a half.  Even with traffic and a fair amount of road construction,  we were able to move along at a consistent pace and arrived at our destination comfortably and safely and were ready to let the fun times begin!

A classic Sandals Lounge can be found at Montego Bay airport in Jamaica.