Penguin Tour of the Mideast, June 2006

by Michelle Erica Green

Tuesday, June 20th we got up, threw everything in the car and drove into the mountains to Fort Necessity, where we had a picnic lunch in a gorgeous wooded area where we watched chipmunks and saw, nearby, a deer, then toured the fort and national park information center (one of the fun walk-through ones with interactive talking models and artifacts). There were re-enactors at the reconstructed fort, which is surprisingly small. Nearby we stopped at Mount Washington Tavern, long a major stop on the National Road, Route 40, that went north and west through Pennsylvania from Virginia. The old Route 40 is little more than a ditch now that runs parallel to the highway, but George Washington's onetime superior British Major General Edward Braddock was buried right under it when he died after a failed attack on Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War and his soldiers did not want Indians disturbing his grave. When his remains were discovered in the 1800s, they were reinterred at the top of the hill, and we visited that marker too.

Then we headed toward Fallingwater and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, stopping to see the Ohiopyle Falls on the Lower Youghiogheny River, which is a beautiful resort area at sufficient elevation that there are evergreens all around. Fallingwater is only a few minutes away, through some of the most gorgeous woods in Pennsylvania; the house is directly over Bear Run and I've read that it's the second most visited private home in the US after Mount Vernon. Paul and I were there when Daniel was a baby and again when he was about three, but the tour is more extensive since then -- one of the cantilevered terraces that was closed for repairs is now open, the entire guest house is open and the carport has been turned into a visitor center with a film about the conservancy. The kids were a little restless but suitably impressed by the swimming pool built right out of the creek and who wouldn't love those grounds -- Adam wanted to know how much we could buy the house for.

Click here for photos of Fort Necessity and Fallingwater.

We spent the night in Pittsburgh, took the kids swimming and went to bed early to get up and go see Fort Pitt. Only the blockhouse remains of the original fort -- and bricks marking the outline of the earlier Fort Duquesne from before the British took the land from the French -- but there's a reproduction with an excellent interactive historical museum, much bigger than the one at Fort Necessity, with two films and a variety of computerized maps and recordings about the history of Pittsburgh and the French and Indian war. I keep being amazed at the things I never learned in school: I knew, for instance, that Pontiac was a Native American chief and that was why Detroit car dealers named a line of cars in his honor, but I don't think I learned in school that he fought with the French against the British, who were cast as the "good guys" in my high school textbooks. Adam knows more about the Iroquois than I do, having just studied them in school, and he also surprised us with how much he knew about Pittsburgh's history as a steel town and the effects of mining and industry on the lungs of local residents. One can see a lot of the city from Fort Pitt, which is at the forks of the Ohio -- football and baseball stadiums, about eleven bridges, numerous churches along the upper coastline, riverboats and coal barges headed side by side up the river.

At lunchtime we stopped at the Mellon Arena, the stadium where the Pittsburgh Penguins play, to buy the kids Penguins merchandise -- a reflection of their taste in animals, not teams -- then drove to the National Aviary, which admitted us for free as members of the National Zoo. We ate in the outdoor enclosure and then went through the exhibits, which includes two big flight rooms where there were birds pecking people's shoelaces and dive-bombing heads. (Adam bonded with a bird he dubbed Little Birdie and cried when we had to leave -- this is a boy who also cried about not being able to take an enormous piece of sea kelp twice his size that he had named Spiffy home from the west coast.) Early in the afternoon there was a chance to meet one of the aviary's four penguins -- not a breeding population, as they are all descended from other captive penguins and they don't want too many of the same genes replicated in the captive penguin community. This one's name is Stanley and was quite friendly about eating fish and parading about in front of a crowd. There are also cranes, bald eagles and hundreds of little birds from all over the world.

The Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium also has penguins -- Gentoo, King and Rockhopper -- so we went there later in the afternoon. Of course we also went to the petting zoo, flight cage, African savannah, bear trail, kangaroos, great cats and reptile areas; there were meerkats in an exhibit where the kids could stand under them in plastic domes and a tank full of stingrays where the kids could crawl into plastic tunnels "underwater" to see them, and lots of rides and things that we didn't have time for. The aquarium area has a big central tank with small sharks and deep sea fish, and there are coral reef exhibits, leafy seadragons and seahorses, pirhanas, eels, etc. The penguins all live in a big refrigerated area behind thick glass, so we didn't get very close, but we got to see two with babies and two Rockhoppers in various stages of moulting.

Paul had planned for us to ride the Duquesne Incline, which is kind of like a cable car ski-lift, but Adam doesn't like heights and balked at going up the steep hill to look down on the city from above, so we just watched from the platform and then came back to the hotel for swimming and dinner. Adam was already having a rough afternoon, having discovered that his brand new stuffed penguin from the aviary had a small tear. I've been reading Susan Cooper to the kids (trying to stir up excitement for Wales next spring) so we read aloud for awhile and repaired Swimmy -- the new penguin.

Click here for photos of Fort Pitt, the National Aviary and the Pittsburgh Zoo.

Thursday morning we drove to Columbus, Ohio by way of West Virginia, reading Susan Cooper and watching Valiant in the car. We had lunch at Columbus' Deaf School Park Topiary Garden, in which bushes have been trimmed and wrapped around wire in the shapes of the figures from Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There is also a flower garden there with water and lily pads in the style of those painted by Monet.

Then we went to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. It was nearly 100 degrees, with stifling humidity, and I had a raging headache within half an hour. We went to see the penguins, of course, which were outdoors and being fed by a marine biologist who told us about the two new babies; then we went to see the reptile house and the manatees, both of which thankfully were indoors. We saw several other animals in the Australia exhibit including a baby koala bear and kangaroos, and took refuge in a terrific exhibit on nocturnal animals in a very dark building where there were active kiwis, bats, geckos, some kind of small leopard and several rodents. By the time we had made it to the gibbons, the sky was turning very dark, so we started to head back toward the front of the zoo.

Columbus proceeded to be hammered by one of the worst thunderstorms I have ever experienced, which we watched from inside the zoo gift shop along with many other damp refugees. I thought that perhaps Ohio typically has more impressive storms than we've had on the east coast or Chicago, where the hills and water tend to hamper the severity somewhat, but apparently this one was a big deal even by local standards and northern Ohio declared a state of emergency after severe flooding. When we finally escaped (into rain and temperatures which thankfully had dropped nearly 20 degrees), we arrived at our hotel to learn that the cable was out and there were reports of uprooted trees and downed power lines. So we had a quiet evening in the hotel making microwave chili and reading.

Click here for photos of the Columbus Topiary Garden and Zoo.

We spent most of Friday in Columbus, beginning with COSI, the wonderful science museum by the river. Our original plan had been to stop in Canton at the Football Hall of Fame on Thursday and then see the Columbus Zoo Friday, but the kids had little interest in football and then we discovered that the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit would be at COSI so the plan seemed obvious. The biggest revelation was that we actually enjoyed the rest of the museum as much as the wonderful Star Wars exhibit, which had a smattering of costumes and props but unlike the Lord of the Rings exhibit also had a lot of accessible, hands-on science, from building magnetic Lego speeders to see what sort of balance was necessary for them to run suspended above the ground like Luke's speeder to programming little R2-D2 models to follow simple commands. The kids were far more interested in that than in David Prowse's costume, though I was surprised at how small Han Solo's seemed and conversely how much taller Ewan McGregor must be than I thought. It was a lot of fun getting to see my childhood nightmare the interrogation droid in person, complete with injection needle.

But the museum also has many wonderful permanent exhibits -- a recreation of a city street from the 1860s and 1960s to show the changes in technology and commerce, an "ocean" area with water pistols, building with wet sand and pipes, singing bowls, a "shipwreck" and the like, plus a little submarine that kids could board, a life science exhibit with a soundproofed room, optical tricks, etc., a gadget area where kids could build with gears, study how electricity operates and all that, "Rat Basketball" where two rats conditioned to throw a little ball through a hoop compete for Cheerios, and the kids' favorite -- one of those rooms with a big spinning wheel that you walk through on a platform and feel like you're falling over. And there was a pendulum, an electricity demonstration where a man made Rice Krispies fly out of a girl's hand into the audience, a unicycle on a wire overhead in the lobby...I am sure I am forgetting a lot, but I highly recommend this museum for anyone with kids within driving distance of Ohio (they also have an IMAX theater and exchange with other science museums, so we would have gotten in free had it not been for the Star Wars exhibit)!

Then we walked over the bridge across the river to the replica of the Santa Maria built by the city of Columbus in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the original Santa Maria's voyage from Spain. This is a replica of the oldest ship we've been on -- the decks curve much more steeply than the ones on the Mayflower or later ships and the masts are a very different configuration. The Santa Maria has an enormous, thick mainmast, which required the ship to be sailed across the river from where it was constructed because the mast couldn't be taken down to go beneath the bridges, and a sterncastle as well as a forecastle. The tour went down into the hold, though it is filled with modern brick ballast and there's a flat floor and room to walk. Even though it's entirely a replica -- supposedly the most accurate one in existence, though the original sank on Columbus' first voyage so it isn't like anyone could compare -- it was a neat ship to visit!

We drove in the evening to Cincinnati -- well, actually Hebron, Kentucky, across the river, since we could get a huge two-room suite here for the same price as a little room in the city. We met my friend Deborah who had driven in from Bloomington and had dinner at an Appleby's which had a surprisingly excellent and inexpensive pecan chicken salad. We were in a Country Inn and Suites instead of a Comfort Inn like the past two nights, and the room was nearly twice the size -- with a door separating the bedroom from the living room, hurrah -- and a great huge bathroom!

Click here for photos of the Blaster, the Nibbler and the Santa Maria.

After a huge breakfast at the hotel buffet, we went first the Cincinnati Art Museum, which is in beautiful Eden Park on a hillside above the city. Since we had kids with us impatient to go see penguins, we only saw about half of the museum -- most of the major European galleries, the Baroque, Renaissance, Dutch Masters, 19th Century British and Impressionist galleries, plus the American portrait and landscape artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Cincinnati artists' display, the Egyptian, Greek and Roman collection and a wonderful exhibit of decorative musical instruments. There's a great display of local African-American art and a huge Dale Chihuly chandelier as well.

Then we went to the Newport Aquarium across the river in Kentucky, very near the place where I first visited the state -- the last (and only other) time I was in Cincinnati, for a Redskins-Bengals game in 1992, when we walked over the bridge to cross the Mason-Dixon line and ended up near the riverboats in Covington. The aquarium is wonderful -- after an initial installation with fish and animals from local rivers, followed by exhibits on rivers around the world, there are two big tunnels that go over and under fish from rainforest rivers and the deep sea, so that unlike Baltimore and Boston where the fish are generally below or beside viewers, these were all around -- at one point there was a goliath grouper under our feet, rays on either side of us and a shark overhead. There was also a lorikeet landing like the one we visited at the Maryland Zoo last weekend -- this one is permanent and also has a kookaburra -- a big otter tank with parents and ten children, two big touch tanks (one with crustaceans, one with little sharks) and an overhead view of the massive tank through which the tunnels run.

But our main reason for visiting, as usual, was penguins, and there were many -- a colony of Gentoo and King penguins, including two big fluffy brown babies plus an older one that looks like the parents now but they still can't tell the sex so it doesn't have a name. We went to both the otter feeding (an affair that involves a lot of rolling over one's siblings, wrestling, throwing fish into the water and other antics as well as conditioning performance for the feeder/trainer) and the penguin feeding (which involved throwing lots of little fish into the water for the Gentoos to dive after so that the King penguins could waddle over and get their own fish, which they apparently demand to be hand-fed so they can go regurgitate for the babies).

It was adorable and a lot of fun, and I suppose I should consider it perverse that we then went out for excellent seafood at Mitchell's Fish Market with Deborah, who then had to go back home. We stopped at Target and Best Buy for trip necessities like Mini DV tapes for the camcorder, extra underwear and socks for boys and Eight Below on DVD, then came back to the hotel to swim. Cinderella Man was on HBO, which made for a lovely evening diversion.

Click here for photos of Cincinnati seaforms.

We spent nearly all of Sunday at the Cincinnati Zoo, which has a wide variety of penguins -- Rockhopper, King and Magellanic inside the bird exhibit Little Blue outside and African in the bird show, so it was our largest single-day total of penguins. At 10 a.m. they had a feeding and Q&A with a zookeeper, so we had to get up earlier than I would have liked, but we had the place practically to ourselves and unlike other zoos and aquariums we've been at, these penguins are fed live fish for which they must dive in the water, so it was entertaining getting to watch them hunt! Cincinnati's zoo is enormous, and there are botanic gardens as well, so we were there for a long time -- we went before lunch to a bird show that was part comedy routine as the parrots showed off that they had been trained to steal water bottles, talk, pull on ropes, etc., and part display of how the hawks and eagles (all injured and unable to survive in the wild) have been trained to fly within the arena without trying to escape. There was an African penguin trained to run across the stage and dive into the water, and an alligator trained to chase one of the keepers that had a rubber baby alligator with which he teased one of the birds, so we all enjyed this a lot.

This zoo also has manatees, koalas, kangaroos and some of the more exotic animals that we don't have at the National Zoo, plus a lorikeet landing, a petting zoo with little goats and sheep, several excellent Great Ape enclosures, a reptile house, a superb houseful of Great Cats including many varieties of the smaller ones we don't have in DC, an Amazon exhibit, a nocturnal exhibit, several varieties of bats and an awesome insect display. It was very nice early in the day since we got there at about 9:15 in the morning, though by the time we left at 3:30 it was both hot and more crowded. We drove to Louisville and cooked spaghetti in our hotel room.

In the evening we had intended to go to a free outdoor performance of As You Like It in a Louisville park, but younger son -- who had already had a long day, six hours walking around a zoo -- broke his penguin squishy and was beside himself after dinner so we ended up deciding just to go swimming at the hotel's pool. This Quality Inn is by far the grungiest hotel we've stayed in (has one of those showers that wavers between "DAMN that's cold!" and "OW that's hot!") but ironically it has the best pool, heated and large and empty save ourselves for nearly the entire time we were there. We read nearly to the end of Over Sea, Under Stone and did some necessary laundry.

Click here for photos of the Cincinnati Zoo.

We made four major stops on Monday: Churchill Downs, the Louisville Zoo, Lincoln's birthplace in Hodgenville and Mammoth Cave National Park. One was more awesome than the next. We got to the racetrack just too late to watch the horses being put through their paces -- they don't race Mondays and Tuesdays -- but we took the tour of the track and Kentucky Derby Museum and met the resident thoroughbred, Phantom on Tour. I have a strange and ambivalent relationship with horse racing: on the one hand, I agree with everyone who believes that animals should not be exploited in that manner, and on the other hand I find it completely thrilling and absolutely loved the 360-degree movie and all the exhibits on the champions.

From Churchill Downs we went to the Louisville Zoo, where we had a picnic surrounded by adult and baby geese trying to mooch food from us, then went to see what we considered to be the critical exhibits given our limited time: the African animals and gorilla exhibit, the herpetology house including the albino alligator (with a fond thought for Viggo Mortensen), and of course the penguins, which in this case were Rockhoppers...and not entirely behind glass, so the exhibit was lovely and cool and it was possible to take photos without either blur or flashbulb glare!

The Lincoln Birthplace was pretty much on the way between Louisville (dominated by its university sports teams, the Cardinals, whose logos were everywhere) and Mammoth Cave National Park, so we stopped long enough to see the log cabin replica preserved inside a monument that resembles the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and to walk through the visitor's center exhibits, though we didn't stay for the movie. We had reservations for a 4:30 tour at Mammoth Cave and despite crossing the timeline knew our timing would be tight.

We did a walking tour of the part of the cave system with Frozen Niagara and the Drapery Room, and we also walked down to the original cave entrance -- Mammoth Cave National Park was originally two privately run, competitive entertainment complexes which the federal government did not control until the Depression, when the entrepreneur determined to find his own piece of the fortune who kept blasting into sinkholes until he found one he could purchase sold out his share. The parts of the cave I saw reminded me of Shenandoah and Luray Caverns -- it is hard to fathom that there are likely 800 miles of underground paths! We didn't get to the hotel until nearly 8 local time, had a very late dinner after letting the boys take a quick swim in a very grungy Quality Inn (and believe me, if I notice the grunge it's pretty grungy).

Click here for photos of Churchill Downs, the Louisville Zoo, the Lincoln Birthplace and Mammoth Cave.

Early Tuesday morning we drove from Kentucky over the line into Tennessee, a state I had never visited before. I wasn't expecting it to be so lush with forests, somehow, nor so hilly -- we passed the Nashville skyline on the way to Memphis and it was beautiful. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop dedicated to Patsy Cline on the Country Music Highway and arrived in the city in the early afternoon. We took the monorail over to Mud Island; Adam had his doubts about this at first, citing his fear of heights, but he ended up enjoying it a lot once Paul did not contradict Daniel's declaration that the monorail car probably had a parachute in case of emergency (the monorail is less than 30 years old and has never had an emergency) and we got an interesting partial-aerial view of the city and the river.

Mud Island has a Mississippi River Museum which is fantastic: not only does it have the expected artifacts and historical displays about how the Native Americans, Spanish, French and English used the river, plus a history of slave life and a long section on the Civil War with recreations of both a Union battleship and a Confederate battery complete with cannons, but it has a partial recreation of a steamboat complete with music parlor, dock ramps and steering cabin and an exhibit on the history of music from early field work songs and spirituals through the blues to Elvis. Outside is a scale model of the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota through all the states and major cities it traverses, leading to a big pool with ducks representing the Gulf of Mexico. The model fills with rainwater like the actual river, so it reflects at least the local flood points; water rises when it's very wet and subsides when it's drier. There were people walking barefoot in the water (older son managed to step in wearing sneakers) and many red-winged blackbirds ducking in for a quick bath.

Late in the afternoon we took a riverboat ride on the Island Queen between the bridges that mark the boundaries of Memphis (and technically were in Arkansas waters at one point, so I have now been in that state too!) The tour guide was very knowledgeable about local history, particularly Native American and African-American history, and since I know next to nothing about Memphis proper -- I certainly did not know about the nightmare of the sinking of the riverboat Sultana, which killed 1500 people, nor the 1878 yellow fever epidemic and the African-Americans who figured out that the mosquito infestation in the sewage system and not the wrath of God was killing people. We are probably not going to have time to visit Elmwood Cemetery nor the Chucalissa Archaeological Site, so it was nice to get this overview.

We had dinner at the home of my friend Erin, a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known As Captain Kate -- she did the covers for several issues of Now Voyager back in the day and bears a passing resemblance to a certain Star Trek captain. I had never met her in the flesh despite having known her for nearly nine years! She lives in a house on a lake with her husband who was regrettably out of town, two dogs and her nine-month-old son who was probably scarred for life by exposure to my children, but it was so great to get to meet her after all this time! We arrived very late at our hotel and promptly had a flood in our room because the people upstairs didn't use their shower curtain properly -- the hotel is completely full, no chance of moving -- but the kids got to swim, which is all they cared about!

Click here for photos of Memphis, Mud Island and the Island Queen Riverboat.

We were in three states on Wednesday, including one I'd never been in before -- Mississippi, where we had lunch specifically so we could say that we had had lunch in Mississippi (I have now been in most of the 48 contiguous states, though I'd have to sit down and look at a map to figure out which I've missed...definitely Alabama and Louisiana). But before that we went to Graceland, on the deluxe tour that includes the car museum, airplanes and all those fun sideshows as well as the mansion. I like Elvis and know a reasonable amount about him, but given that there were people in full Elvis regalia and sniffling at his tomb, I cannot compete.

The house itself was smaller than I was expecting, and unpretentious in a way -- kitchen in the same harvest gold-type colors we had in my house in the '70s, Jungle Room more high tackiness than any reflection of wealth, and he had red shag carpet and a faux fur bed with mirrors and all sorts of other cheesy wonderful stuff! I mean, there are also rooms and rooms of gold records and the like, but given how much he must have been worth, it seems like he could have lived much more like a king...collecting cars notwithstanding, there wasn't a lot of serious affectation of wealth in evidence except on his plane, the Lisa Marie. Sure the guy can have a pool and a pool room among his multiple music rooms! I'd love to know what's in the closed-off upstairs bedrooms. I wondered whether George Bush and the Japanese Prime Minister would get to see when they were at Graceland a couple of days after we were.

In the afternoon we went to the Memphis Zoo, which is beautifully put together: their pandas, for instance, are housed in a Chinese pavilion with architecture and art from China, and a lot of other animals live in enclosures designed with artificial artifacts from the part of the world they're from. Of course our first mission was to see the penguins, which we did -- African penguins here in an outdoor exhibit along with cormorants and cranky pelicans who tried to bite the other birds to get their fish because the pelicans don't move as quickly. There's also an excellent tropical bird house, herpetorium and a seasonal exhibit on arachnids with some really impressive spiders! We didn't spend a huge amount of time at the zoo, as we wanted to see Beale Street before the evening dinner crowd started to arrive (we figured the kids would never last through a meal and a set of the blues at that point).

We had been warned that the neighborhood right off Beale was very questionable, which proved to be the case -- there were some decidedly scary people in the parking lot and a number of others begging for food and money between the lot and the corner where B.B. King's blues club and company store stand. There was live blues in W.C. Handy Park and another trio playing on the street between two restaurants, several of which also had acts warming up inside. We didn't stay long as we were all very hot and tired, and had promised to let the kids swim for awhile if they agreed to be schlepped around, but we did stop to take photos at Sun Studio on Union Avenue, the birthplace of rock & roll, where Elvis got started.

Click here for photos of Graceland, the Memphis Zoo and Beale Street.

We woke up Thursday and drove from Memphis back to Nashville, which we had passed on the highway from Kentucky but didn't stop. Our first stop in the city was the Parthenon, because how could we resist? Though the building itself and its giant gilded statue of Athena are very neat, I was also pleasantly surprised by the art museum inside -- a decent collection of American landscape artists, Church, Bierstadt, et al, and a special exhibit on a Virginia painter, Elliott Daingerfield, who appears to have been a student of both Hudson River School artists and their peers (Inness, Gifford) and the Pre-Raphaelites, so I found his work very appealing. We had seen most of the originals of the sculpture from the Parthenon -- Tennessee's are copies of pieces in the British Museum for the most part -- but the giant temple is still an amazing sight!

The kids had strongly voted against the idea of going to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Paul and I were ambivalent -- it's expensive, and while we listen to some country music, there aren't really any musical stars of whom we'd call ourselves real fans except Johnny Cash. So instead of going there, we drove around Music Row, where the studios and publishers are located, and went to the Tennessee State House, which was closed to the public but a guard let us park in one of the handicapped spaces long enough to get out and look at the building and take photos. Then we came to the hotel to check in and let the kids swim so we could go out in the evening.

We ate in Opryland Mills across the street from the Grand Ole Opry House -- an enormous mall with a 20-theater multiplex including an IMAX, a Barnes & Noble, Tower Records and all the expected mall stores from anywhere in the US, and several restaurants including one with live music and the one where we had dinner, which is now Adam's favorite restaurant in the world -- the Aquarium Restaurant. There are two little aquariums in front, including a tunnel like the ones in the Cincinnati Aquarium, but the restaurant's centerpiece is a 200,000 gallon tank with sharks, rays, giant eels, a "guitar shark" named Gibson and dozens of species of fish and coral. Our waiter was extremely knowledgeable both about local music and about the fish in the tank, and the restaurant also has a wandering magician doing card tricks, balloon man twisting balloon animals, and its own arcade with a ray touch-tank and sea-themed arcade games and a carousel, plus a gift shop rather like the Rainforest Cafe's -- there was one of those in this mall too, but the food at the Aquarium Restaurant was vastly better than I've ever had there (we had three different kinds of shrimp, I couldn't bear to eat salmon while looking at a fish tank). Considering that it was a free visit to the aquarium the prices were reasonable and the kids had a wonderful time.

We paid a brief visit to the Grand Ole Opry House which was closed that night -- there are only performances certain nights of the week, and we didn't try to time our trip around them because again we thought the kids would get restless and it would be a lot of money. So we didn't linger, but went to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, which my in-laws had had seen and told us we might want to check out. The place is beyond description -- it's like a city, with its own indoor river and boat rides in one section, an enormous jungle room with waterfalls in another section, a recreation of a Southern city with little shops and fountains, three swimming pools, indoor and outdoor courtyards, numerous restaurants, all the mall-type stores not in Opryland Mills itself...a convention center, an enclosed theater and a public courtyard where at 8:30 a troupe of Chinese acrobats performed. It was like a Southern Las Vegas without the sleaze (though I must note that for such a Southern Baptist city, there are a lot of porn shops and gentleman's clubs advertising prominently around Nashville!)

Click here for photos of Nashville's Parthenon, Grand Ole Opry, Aquarium Restaurant & Gaylord Opryland Hotel.

Friday morning we drove from Nashville to Knoxville, losing an hour in the process. We therefore had to wake up very early to get to the Knoxville Zoo in time for the penguin feeding and meet-the-keepers. Knoxville has African penguins -- seven on display and several more not out in public, including the oldest penguin in captivity at 42 years. There is also a lion cub no longer with its mother because it wasn't nursing sufficiently, so it's in the mole rat exhibit in a cubbyhole with stuffed animals and blankies, a very active tree sloth that was climbing all around the bars of its cage and a trio of squawking macaws that could be heard as far away as the zebras.

We had a picnic at the zoo and then drove through the Great Smoky Mountains into North Carolina, stopping to take photos at a welcome center. Then we went to Asheville, where we visited the Basilica of St. Lawrence, a 1909 Catholic church with a magnificently decorated altar and pulpit, the life of Christ in stained glass in a circle around the sanctuary, and the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America. (I love beautiful old churches of any denomination.) We met my friend Cara for dinner, and she pleased the kids immensely by directing us to a Chinese buffet, one of their favorite things. After dinner we came to the hotel to swim and discovered first Whose Line Is It Anyway on ABC Family and then Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Pegasus" on G4, so of course we had to watch!

Click here for photos of the Knoxville Zoo, Great Smoky Mountains and Asheville's St. Lawrence Basilica.

We went to the Biltmore Estate on Saturday, billed as the largest home in America -- more than 250 rooms in the mansion, 43 bathrooms! The grounds are magnificent -- the house is at the top of a hill surrounded by woods, which is in turn surrounded by the mountains -- and the mansion is almost beyond belief. The first floor felt very British to me -- a lot of the decorations were brought from Europe and are older than those in Castle Howard, including medieval tapestries and wall panels. George Vanderbilt also apparently had a French Revolution and Napoleon fetish -- he has a chess set that belonged to him, several paintings and prints and rooms decorated in various French styles.

I must admit that I found the servants' rooms on the very upper and lower floors more interesting in some ways than the huge magnificent living rooms that dominate each of the first three floors or the canopied Vanderbilt bedrooms; they are plain, though not outrageously small, but surrounded by big alarm-type bells so that people can be woken at all hours of the night. It looks like for all the bathrooms in the house there was only one for every ten servants, so everyone had bedpans and pitchers in their rooms. The kids were getting bored by the time we reached the bowling alley and swimming pool and were quite disinterested by the time we got to the numerous pantries and kitchens in the basement, so we rushed through those, but we got a good look at all the Sargent and Renoir paintings and the amazing interior decorating.

We had lunch in the courtyard -- we had brought sandwiches, but we got drinks and chocolate from the stores there -- then walked to the conservatory, which has lilies and orchids in the hothouse, plus hundreds of flowers in several outdoor gardens both formal and wild, the landscape designed by Olmsted and featuring several ponds and the creeks that run through the property. Then we drove to the winery a few miles from the mansion, which has a little tour -- the buildings were a dairy until a few decades ago, and have been converted for fermentation, storage and sale of a variety of wines which can be tasted in a massive wine bar. There are also samples of fruit juice, salad dressing, cheese and other local products, and more excellent chocolate. We had to hurry to drive over 300 miles so we didn't have time to see the inn, the stables, the whitewater rafting or any of the numerous other things to see and do on the estate -- there's several days' worth of things to do there.

In keeping with our *ahem* tradition from last year when we were trapped in the Denver airport, we had our anniversary dinner at McDonald's! We were en route from Asheville to Jacksonville, somewhere outside of Raleigh -- we went by the exits for Wake Forest, Duke and Chapel Hill but couldn't stop to see either, and now we are five minutes from Camp Lejeune which we saw from several angles while lost for an hour trying to find the hotel amidst various military installations. The dinner McDonald's had a McCafe -- an attempt to move in on the Starbucks market -- that had wireless internet, which was a revelation to me! And the chocolate muffins looked about as good as Starbucks', which is to say not the best but good enough for a fix. When we finally made it to the hotel it was too late to swim, so we watched a special on leopard seals on Animal Planet which had lots of penguins but things ended badly for many of them so younger son was quite unhappy. He was already in a bad mood because he had just finished the last of the ten Warrior Cats books (which ended on a cliffhanger) and must wait till September for the next sequel. Reading Susan Cooper was only small consolation.

Click here for photos of the Biltmore Estate.

Sunday was a somewhat chaotic, though enjoyable, day. After breakfast we parked in a satellite lot and took a shuttle into Beaufort for the America's Sail festival. While we were on the bus we met people who had had tickets for the day before but couldn't even get on the docks, there were so many people. While one had to have tickets to board the ships, there was no sort of entry to visit the piers, so there were hundreds of people who'd paid hundreds of dollars and couldn't even get near the ships since the police kept shutting down the area due to overcrowding. So we went to see just the ships docked in Beaufort -- all of which were closed to visitors -- but the Morehead City State Ports were closed completely and the old Beaufort Seaport was only open intermittently. Rumor has it that ticket prices would be refunded for people who couldn't get to the ships, so we're hoping this is true.

Since we couldn't board the ships, we looked at the skipjack Ada Mae, schooners Compass Rose and Serenity and ketch Three Belles and visited the North Carolina Maritime Museum in downtown Beaufort, which has exhibits on southern coastal maritime history, local marine wildlife and Blackbeard's connection to the region, including exhibits and artifacts the wreck of a ship believed to be the Queen Anne's Revenge. We also saw most of a film about a voyage around Cape Horn in the 1930s. There was a "Pirate Encampment" in the middle of historic Beaufort (home to Civil War leaders and the like) with re-enactors in pirate costume and cannons and such. We had lunch, then decided we were too overheated to wait another two hours to see if the docks reopened and took the shuttles back to the van.

We had plans to meet up with our friends Kay and Chris and their kids in the evening, since they were coming to North Carolina for a week at the beach, but since they were just arriving when we called, we decided to go to the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium since we could get in for free with a reciprocal zoo membership. This is a lovely little aquarium, part of a group of which we had visited another at Roanoke Island when we were in the Outer Banks several years ago. The focus is on local marine life, meaning that there are sharks, jellyfish and a variety of fish, but our favorite exhibits were the outdoor boardwalks over the salt marsh, where we saw several varieties of crab, turtles, fish, egrets and various other animals. The aquarium also had reproductions of local underwater shipwrecks and what they looked like surrounded by fish, crabs, eel, etc.

We went to Emerald Isle to meet our friends and went to the beach. My first venture into the Atlantic for the season was entirely successful: we caught and released sandcrabs and little burrowing clams, found scallop shells and came back to Chris and Kay's beachhouse with so much sand in the kids' clothes that it required sweeping the bathroom floor twice. The kids bonded over GameBoy and making lots of noise. Then we had pizza and drove back to Jacksonville to get ready for the long drive home Monday.

Click here for photos of Beaufort, America's Sail, the Maritime Museum, Pine Knoll Aquarium and Emerald Isle.

After breakfast in a mobbed Best Western lobby, we had a fairly easy drive home through North Carolina and Virginia, with lunch at a Subway and a good view of Richmond coming up I-95. We watched Eight Below and read the end of The Dark Is Rising and most of the first half of Greenwitch. And got home to find the cats, as always, demanding food!