France: My Essential Planning Tools

It’s a luxury to have a long lead time to plan our summer trip to France, but it also allows for me to get somewhat obsessive. When researching a country, I like to read about the history, read other blogs/travel sites, talk to people who have visited there and, for the first time, I’ve added Periscope to my information search tools. From now until the end of June, I will be a Francophile.

The essentials for my planning purposes are:
1) Map of France ~ I highly recommend getting a map of the location you’ll be visiting and a marker so you can circle all the interesting places you’ll want to see. My map already has my top “must visit” locations circled: Paris, Versailles (I’ve been but my husband and daughter have not), Mormant, Le Mont-St Michel, Rochefort, Les Cabannes and Beaune. I’ve also added Andorra. We’ll be so close when we’re in Les Cabannes, it would be a shame not to explore the sixth smallest country in Europe.

2) Skyscanner for the cheapest airfare
I check Skyscanner first for the lowest priced flights. Their site allows you to look at an entire month for the cheapest day to fly. Once I’ve narrowed it down to which carrier is the best price, I go to the airlines website to check on flight schedules and then book it.

3) Tripadvisor for hotel information
Tripadvisor is my first stop for hotels, Bed & Breakfasts and Vacation Apartments. I appreciate the personal reviews and read them within context. A few years ago, while researching places to stay in Inverness (Scotland), a B&B received a low score but it was due to the establishment not allowing children under age 5 to stay. The person giving the review never stayed there but gave it a “1.” I actually liked the policy since B&Bs are too small/thin walled for younger children. We ended up staying there and really enjoyed ourselves all thanks to a bad review.

4) Lonely Planet:France Guidebook (lots of useful info even if out of date)
We keep all our outdated Lonely Planet books because there is timeless information in them. Lots of background information, the history of the area, and safety tips which are always helpful. Our library carries the most current issues of most travel guidebooks but my old Lonely Planets can be highlighted and scribbled in.

5) Reading blogs is one of my favorite ways to get a locals perspective of a city or town. For France, I’ve been catching up with Les Photos de Suzanne & Pierre  ~ expats who wrote updates while living in Paris for two + years (it’s in French and English). If you have any suggestions on other ones, please let me know.

6) Periscope ~ I find Periscope to be fascinating but scary as well. It has the potential to get sketchy quickly. It’s a live streaming app that allows you to interact with the person scoping. So far, I’m only following a few “travel” periscopers and one friend. For my trip planning, I’ve found an amazing tour guide named Claire who uses Periscope. She’s been a wealth of information and makes me want to stay the whole time in Paris. Click here for more information about Claire and her tours. Once our dates are confirmed, I’m hoping to book an actual live tour with her. She’s lived in Paris for twenty years and speaks French and English fluently. Her love for Paris is very apparent and I really like her positive attitude.

Planning trips are a lot of fun and I’m thankful my fellow travelers (husband and daughter) trust me to make the right decisions for an intriguing adventure. I get very few complaints. Every once in awhile, they’ll go rogue and decide to do something completely and utterly touristy.

Please leave me a comment with any advice you might have for me ~ especially about a town or area we shouldn’t miss while on our explorations of France. We’ll be traveling the northwestern, west and southwest areas of France.

Washington DC Ideas for Locals

It’s easy to impress first-time visitors to Washington DC. A lot of people have a negative preconception of the capital city and they are pleasantly surprised when they see all it has to offer. By far, the most common comment I hear from first timers is “We didn’t realize DC is so green and beautiful.” Followed closely by “There are a lot of good looking guys here.”

Last week, I invited a long time Northern Virginian to go into the city with me. Since she hadn’t been to the city in a long time and had already seen all the typical tourist sites, I decided to expand her horizons a bit.

My first suggestion was for her to visit the Madison Building located at 101 Independence Avenue SE to get her Library of Congress Reader ID card.  The free Reader card gives a person access to multiple reading rooms including the stunning Main Reading Room. It’s best to register online prior to going to the ID office where they will take a photo then print your ID card. It takes less than ten minutes. Click here for all the information needed to obtain a reader ID card.

Library of Congress Reading Room I
Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress
Library of Congress the stacks

Once she obtained her card, we decided we should utilize our cards. There are several reading rooms to choose from but, since we’re both interested in photography,  we headed to the Prints and Photographs room. The head researcher was incredibly helpful and we really appreciated her taking the time to explain in detail how to find photos both online and in the reading room.

We then ventured a couple of blocks over to the Russell Office Building  (2 Constitution Avenue) to visit Senator Warren’s (VA-D) office for gallery passes. Both the Senate and House galleries are open to visitors whenever either legislative body is in session. I’ve been to both galleries on a few occasions and find it fascinating to watch our Representatives in action.

The galleries are not part of the U.S. Capitol tour but passes to enter either gallery may be obtained from the offices of your respective Senator or Representative. For International visitors, go to the House and Senate Appointment Desks on the upper level of the Capitol Visitor Center to inquire about gallery passes.

The passes are good for one year (October to October) and when the House of Representatives is not in session, visitors with passes may visit the House gallery on weekdays from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm. The House gallery is closed on holidays and sometimes due to unplanned temporary closures.

The Senate gallery is open during scheduled recesses and visitors are admitted to the gallery weekdays from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm. The Senate gallery is closed on holidays (unless the Senate is in session), and during any recess or adjournment of less than one week.

Both the Senate and House are closed on weekends, unless they are in session.

To get your gallery passes, you’ll need to visit your respective Senator and Representative. If you’re not sure who your elected officials are, please go to League of Women Voters and enter your zip code.

If you’re a local or frequent visitor, you may want to get your own Reader card to do research or visit a Senate session to see you government in action.Library of Congress rain day II

At the United States Capitol

For the last few weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about Port City Brewing Company. They recently earned the national title of Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival in Denver. They beat out the other 517 breweries in the small brewery category.
We were welcomed by a friendly, good looking bartender who explained how the flights worked: $12 for six tickets and an extensive taster menu:;
Tidings Ale ended up being my favorite one. It’s a Belgian Strong Blond and has honey, ginger, cardamom and coriander. I mostly tasted the ginger – mild and very refreshing.  
Every Friday night, the Borinquen Lunch Box food truck parks out front from 5:30 to 9 pm. DELICIOUS! I had the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), tostones (fried plantains) and a vegetarian empanada. John devoured his Cubano sandwich. If you’re looking for some authentic Puerto Rican food, I highly recommend stopping by for a bite (or take away).
This was the first of many visits – I’ll definitely be checking out Trivia Night but will pass on science fiction night. I’ll wait for history trivia. There’s also Beer Yoga and Comedy Night.

Port City Brewing Company is located at 3950 Wheeler Avenue, Alexandria. Give it a taste…

Philadelphia: Who is an American?

Philadelphia Common Sense
The marker is located at SE corner of S 3rd Street & Chancellor Street (Thomas Paine Place)

During my recent visit to Philadelphia, I came across the area where, on this day in 1776, Thomas Paine published his 47-page pamphlet “Common Sense“. He sold 500,000 copies which influenced both the political leaders and average colonists in uniting toward a common goal of independence.

The building is no longer there but I was thrilled to see the site where one of the most important documents of the Revolution was produced. “Common Sense” was definitely a game-changer. He wrote:

Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.  This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.  Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”

It’s fascinating to me how quickly Paine became a supporter of American Independence. While he was still living in England, he met Ben Franklin who happened to be at a debate in which Paine was impressing everyone in the audience. It was Franklin who encouraged him to immigrate to Philadelphia in 1774 and within two years he wrote “Common Sense”. After writing his pamphlet, he served in the US Army and with the Committee of Foreign Affairs. He returned to England in 1787, where he bravely continued to write in favor of Independence. He wrote “The Rights of Man” in which he supported the French Revolution. Because he was targeted as an anti-monarchist, he fled to France but was arrested in 1793 for not supporting the beheading of Louis XVI. Thomas Paine was scheduled to be executed himself, but thanks to the efforts of James Madison (who was serving as US minister to France), he was released in 1794. He remained in France until 1802. By invitation of Thomas Jefferson, he returned to the United States and died in 1809 in New York.

Although Thomas Paine was British, to me he was the epitome of an American. To be an American, I think less of where a person was born and more about their state of mind. He was courageous, opinionated, and envisioned what could be, not what was. He also had a positive long-term outlook which I admire. And what an exciting life he led.

Virginia: Alexandria Archaeology

While the construction crew building the Hotel Indigo dug deep, the remains of an 18th century ship’s fifty-foot hull was unearthed at 220 South Union Street in Old Town, Alexandria.

It had been scuttled sometime in the late 1700s when the town used it as part of the landfill for the waterfront which was extended out to a deeper part the Potomac River. The new waterfront allowed Alexandria to become a thriving international port.  In photo: Before the landfill (late 1700s), the waterline went to where the crane is located.

3-D laser scanning, photographs and measurements have been completed and now the ship is being dismantled so it can be moved to a wet environment for further study and hopefully conservation.  For more information about this and other discoveries in Old Town, go to: Alexandria Archaeology Museum which is located in the Torpedo Factory on King Street.

When they announced the area would be open to the public for two hours, I was hoping to get onto the construction site for a closer look but it was not to be.

My Love Affair with Lush…

…has been going on for fourteen years, ever since I first walked into the wonderfully aromatic Lush store in Ljubljana. Unable to read Slovenian, I had no idea what I was buying but they did have a few words in English such as “natural ingredients” and “handmade” so I took a chance. After one use, I became a big fan and there are usually 3-4 jars sitting on my bathroom counter at any given time. 

As I was going through photos (an ongoing project), I noticed Lush stores have been a big part of my travels. Anytime we traveled with friends or family we would drag them into a Lush store. Stores didn’t open in the US until the late 2000s so it was a novelty.

Lush in Ljubljana, Slovenia
With sister-in-law and niece in Ljubljana (2004)

Lush in Lake Bled with a good friend.

Lush in Ljubljana with a good friend (2005)

Lush in Quebec City

Lush in Quebec City (2009)

Lush in Amsterdam

Lush in Amsterdam (2004)

Lush in Ottawa

Lush in Ottawa (2007)

Besides the fabulous products which makes my skin feel wonderful, the company is environmentally forward thinking, no animal testing and ethically source their ingredients. They are 100% vegetarian with most being vegan. All their packaging is recycled, recyclable and biodegradable. Lush products don’t contain microbeads which were recently banned in the US by President Obama’s executive order. Every container has an employee’s sticker with their likeness and name. Makes me think it must be a fun place to work.
At the spa – so lovely.

Recently my daughter requested a Lush spa treatment as a reward for a stellar report card. There are only two spa locations in the United  States: New York City and Philadelphia. It was a great excuse to return to Philly for a visit. The spa offers several different themed treatments ~ my daughter got the Validation and loved it. They want it to be an external (glowing and vibrant skin) and internal (relaxing) experience. The estheticians at all Lush spas have been trained at the headquarters in the UK so you can expect consistently fabulous facials at anyone of them. Before the facial begins, you will be taken into the store to handpick your preferred products to be used during the facial.

This is my personal opinion: I don’t know anyone at Lush nor have I received any monetary or product payment for this review. Although I’m sure my husband wishes I did. Just a big fan. 


We decided to take advantage of the record-breaking warm temperatures this winter and go on a hike to celebrate the last day of 2015.   At the top of Buzzard Rock

Located in the George Washington National Forest , just west of Shenandoah National Park, is the Buzzard Rock trailhead. It’s just outside Front Royal and the address is 3087-3189 Mountain Road/Route 629. Parking is limited (if it’s full, see the link at the end of this post for larger parking areas). The drive from Washington DC takes about an hour and a half.  The 1.5 mile trail is marked with white spray paint on either a tree or rock along the path. At the beginning, the terrain is rolling and  gentle with a sprinkling of small creeks and a campground area. As you approach the top, the hike becomes steeper and rockier.   Beautiful stream My daughter jumping across the stream
For all the biology enthusiasts: lots of lichen along the trail. My favorite is the blaze orange…  Looking out toward the Front Royal Fish Hatchery and Passage Creek.

Note the white marking on the tree on the right. Good thing there are marks because some areas become a bit rocky.   At Buzzard RockThe views are lovely, even in the winter. I’ll be back to see the scenery in spring and autumn…

A quick comment on hiking etiquette: Most hikers we saw, greeted us with a “hi” or “hey”. But almost all of them didn’t realize hikers coming down should yield to hikers going up. Also, hike quietly ~ there was one woman speaking loudly into her cell phone as she walked down the hill (not stopping for us as we were ascending) and her partner gave us an embarrassed shrug.

If you decide to go, you can get detailed information, maps and how many calories you burn on the hike: here.


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