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Family Travel Ink
Washington, D.C: Capital Treats for Kids
Our walking tour around Washington, D.C.'s monuments stopped abruptly as the kids came up against a long black wall, the memorial to Vietnam veterans. There, right in front of them, a woman sobbed openly as she ran her fingers over some of the 58,000 names carved into the black granite. Another man in a cowboy hat was making an etching of a name on another panel. With pencils and paper, he quietly and carefully scratched the letters one by one and added a symbol from another part of the memorial. A young woman lay down a bouquet of roses in front of yet another name and bowed. Our three grew silent as more arriving adults and children tried to find the names of their loved ones who had died or were still missing in action during the Vietnam War. It was an emotional moment for them and for us.
Washington truly is a living history museum. Much of it is packed together into two walkable miles, from the Capitol Building and Botanic Gardens at one end of the Mall to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Lincoln, sitting with pigeons on his head, at the other end. But there are many other reasons for taking the kids to this family-friendly city. Because a city ordinance limits building heights to 13 stories, it's very open with lots of green space. It's only a day's drive from Toronto (around 10 hours). And because it's south of the snow belt, the weather for us during March break was a balmy 55F degrees. Best of all, many of the attractions, such as the museums belonging to the Smithsonian, are free. In fact, there are so many things for families to see and do, you can't possibly pack it all into a couple of days.
In honor of the city's namesake, George Washington, whose birthday will be celebrated today with a ceremony at the Washington Monument, here's a list of the absolute must-sees for families. All are free of charge. A word of caution: Washington's crime rate, like any big American city's, is not to be trifled with. But if you take taxis after dark and stay in the tourist areas during the day, you should be fine. More than 18 million people, over half the total Canadian population, visited the city last year without incident.
THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT: This marble and granite obelisk is Washington's Eiffel Tower. At 555 feet, with walls that taper from 15 feet at the base to 18 inches at the top, it's an engineering marvel. Zoom to the top in less than a minute for a spectacular view, especially at night when the buildings are illuminated. If enough park staff is on hand, you can take a "Down the Steps" tour and descend all 897 stairs by foot through the interior of the monument. But be warned: once started, there's no going back. It's not for very young children or the claustrophobic. To avoid long lines at the monument, come on weekdays and arrive before 8 a.m. or after 8 p.m.
THE NATIONAL ZOOLOGICAL PARK: Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the zoo with some 3000 creatures is the premier attraction for kids in D.C. Go early to the Reptile Discovery Centre with its hands-on exhibits and Amazonia, a steamy recreation of a rain forest. Two new Rhino babies were born recently, and a new female panda has just arrived from China for Hsing-Hsing, the giant panda who will hopefully produce rare offspring with his new mate.
THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION: Often called "America's attic," the Smithsonian complex includes 14 Washington museums. The most popular with kids are the National Air and Space Museum, with Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk Flyer among the 240 aircraft and 50 missiles on display, and the National Museum of Natural History. Must-sees here are the Dinosaur Hall, the Insect Zoo with dozens of live creepy crawlies, and the famous Hope diamond, smuggled out of India in the 17th century and said to bring tragedy to whomever owned it.
THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: Watching the FBI in action is often a highlight for a certain age of child (and adult). The hour-long tour conducted every 15 minutes Monday through Friday take visitors past the Ten Most Wanted to weapons confiscated from gangsters, from the white-coated technicians examining bloody fabric (or gloves) to hair and fibre labs. The finale of the visit consists of watching agents shoot at paper targets with machine guns, certain to change the mind of any young teen contemplating an easy life of crime. Afterward, head around the corner to Ford's Theatre where Lincoln was shot. A small museum preserves the presidential box where he was assassinated.
MORE PRESIDENTS: Our kids wanted to see the White House where Bill lives, but were much more impressed with where Lincoln and Jefferson permanently reside at their monuments on the Mall. It took 28 blocks of marble and four years of carving to complete the 19-foot statue of Abe sitting in his limestone setting. And Canadian youngsters may have never heard of Jefferson. But once they've seen his domed temple-like structure at night or from a rented paddleboat alongside, or at cherry blossom time in the spring, they'll know he was a somebody. As for the White House, it was because of Canadians
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