Archive for the ‘Washington 2016’ Category

It’s nearly four weeks since we got back from the USA. In that time I’ve been monitoring my credit card account and had watched all the money we’d spent hit the statement. In fact, the transactions were all there within a few days of getting home so I’d relaxed.

This morning I was contacted by my credit card supplier to the effect that there was some fraudulent activity on my account. I quickly got onto my on-line banking account for the card, and checked things – and there were a couple of pending transactions for just over £200, for Federal Express. Well, I haven’t FedEx’d anything recently! – or ever, come to that. So I was straight on the phone to my card supplier.

There’s a happy-enough ending to this. These transactions are going to be reversed, and apparently there were others, for larger amounts, that were rejected – they were identified as being potentially fraudulent. Of course, it’s also the case that my card has been cancelled so I’ve got to have that re-issued, and I shall have to update all the payments that get made automatically from it. But it’s worth it; and thanks to Halifax for a) spotting at least some transactions as being fraudulent and b) accepting the cost of the two that had got through.

The fraudulent transactions were all made, or attempted, in the USA so obviously my card was cloned while we were there in October. After the transactions had been identified and I’d gone through the formal fraud process, I had a conversation with the telephone advisor about the most likely cause of the problem. He suggested that it could have happened anywhere I’d used the card, but suggested this hierarchy of likelihood, from least likely to most likely:-

  1. least likely – in a reputable hotel. You never lose sight of the card, and it’s either a national chain (we paid for a couple of nights in a Holiday Inn with the card) or it’s a personal business, e.g. the two bed & breakfasts we stayed at;
  2. reduced likelihood – in a restaurant. In these case the waiter/waitress takes you card off you, and returns with a slip to sign. However, the great majority of restaurants are reputable, honest businesses (although individual employees may not be). But restaurant managers are aware of the potential for criminal activity, and if an employee is caught using a skimming device the police are called;
  3. most likely – non-attended card readers. One example that was mentioned specifically was pre-pay fuel pumps, and I think we may have used one such. There could be a very small skimmer inserted into the card reader which the perpetrator (who may have nothing to do with the gas station) can insert and remove secretly.

One general piece of advice was to use the card in places for large items such as hotels, car hire, etc, where it will never leave your sight, and use cash for everything else. In my case I suspect I’d got a bit blasé about the risks – this was my third visit to the US in about 18 months and the first two did not produce problems, so I’d relaxed my awareness.

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Woodward House porch

Woodward House porch

I must make a mention of Woodward House in Front Royal. We spent three great nights here.  (I’ve stayed there before, on my trip to DC and Virginia in 2015, but that was on my own.) It’s a B&B, but what a B&B! Incidentally, B&Bs in the US are nothing like B&Bs in England. Often they’re medium-to-high priced rather than cheap-as-chips, but they do offer quality to match.

It’s situated about half-mile from Main Street in Front Royal, and is just off the main road through town (South Road). It’s also lifted above the main road, and backs onto open ground, with the town cemetery not far away – so it’s pretty quiet. It’s an oldish house, with lots of bits apparently added on over the years. Downstairs is all service areas – the office, the kitchen, a lounge, the breakfast room and the bar – and upstairs is all bedrooms. There are maybe six or seven bedrooms, and they are wonderful. Ours (with the name “Kathleen’s Retreat”) had a sleeping area, then a separate sitting area with a settee and TV as well as the bathroom. Very comfortable. Finally, there’s a porch at the back. (more…)

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greatfalls_4223On the way home back to Dulles airport we visited the Great Falls National Park which just a few miles away. This is a set of waterfall or rapids on the Potomac – it marks the point above which navigation definitely isn’t possible. (There is another set of falls, Little Falls, about five miles further downstream.)

There are three ‘Overlook’ points – numbered 1, 2 & 3, with #1 being the furthest upstream, and the closest to the falls – almost along side, in fact – and #3 being the furthest away (but only a hundred yards or so) and giving the best overall picture. There’s also a visitor centre near to the Overlook points with lots of information about the falls and the river. In fact, the National Park itself extends along the river for several miles, and includes some good walks.

We only had half-an-hour or just over before we had to head off to the airport, so we cherry-picked and just visited the three Overlooks in turn. A pity; we would have liked to explore more.

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On a previous trip I took a different phone from my usual one and bought a sim from 3 with a view to using their ‘FeelAtHome’ package.  It worked very badly. So this time I decided on a different course.

I made sure my iPhone 6 was unlocked and bought an AT&T ‘GoPhone’ sim from an AT&T outlet in Washington. This cost $50 and gave me unlimited phone calls and texts for a month, and crucially 3 Gb of mobile data. This “just worked”, as they say; I had good 4G coverage pretty much everywhere I went. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw it drop into non-4G functionality; there were a couple of places out in Virginia (e.g. on the Skyline Drive) where there was no coverage at all, but that was only to be expected. (more…)

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On the way home

So here we are at Dulles airport, waiting for our flight to board. Our last day in the USA has been a bit confusing, but ultimately alright. For example, it cost me $12 to buy $6 of gas. Don’t ask….. We had a Taco Bell experience (interesting). We failed to visit Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, but we did succeed in navigating our way from Short Pump near Richmond to Great Falls National Park on the Potomac, and from there to Dulles airport, all via the intricacies of the US Interstate system. The bits around the northbound I95/I495 junction were especially fun.

We’ve just enjoyed our last bit of Americana – a juicy, sloppy cheeseburger + fries in the terminal – and now we’re waiting to board our flight home. Then it will be 7 hours in the air, overnight, before landing at a no-doubt cold and possibly wet Manchester at around 7am. We’ll really enjoy that; it will cool our sunburn nicely.

(Update: in the event there were some problems with the flight home. We boarded the plane on time and then it turned out that it wouldn’t start! So we all de-planed back into the terminal. Eventually they found a different aircraft which worked, and we eventually took  off at 9:45, so about 3 hours late. We got home just after 12 noon on Friday.)

That’s it from the trip. I’ll do the usual review in a few days.

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Historic Jamestown


Jamestown musketeer

We left Virginia Beach and headed up I64 towards Richmond, where we are staying tonight. On the way we decided to visit ‘Historic Jamestown’, one of the sites in the historic triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. We expected we would be in and out quickly, but in the end we spent nearly five hours there.

There’s an ‘interpretive display’ gallery which traces the history of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement on the North American mainland from its foundation in 1607 to the beginning of its decline when the colonial capital (of Virginia) was moved to Williamsburg in 1699. These displays were interesting and involving. I was pleased to see that they didn’t just tell the story of the English at Jamestown but also cover the history of the native Americans, the Powhatan, and of the africans – the very first africans in British North America arrived in Jamestown in about 1617. One of them, a woman called Angelo or Angela, is the very first african in North America whose personal history can be traced back to Africa, i.e. who she was, where she originated, and how she came to North America.

Then there’s also an outdoors area. This includes a recreation of the Jamestown Fort at a fairly early stage of its history; a dock, with replicas of several of the ships, including the Susan Constant, the largest of the ships that did the original voyage; an a recreated Powhatan village. The fort and the village are based on solid archaeological evidence.

This was an excellent visit, and was one of the highlights of the whole holiday.

Now we’re in our hotel on the edge of Richmond. We fly home tomorrow evening, so tomorrow morning and early afternoon will be our last hours in Virginia.

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Virginia Beach


Virginia Beach from north of the end of the Boardwalk

So now we’re in Virginia Beach. This is the other side of Virginia from Front Royal, but it also means that we’re seeing a very different sort of Virginia. This is, as you might guess from the name, on the ocean, facing a 10-mile (or 15-mile or 20-mile) beach, with Atlantic breakers crashing onto it. Behind the beach is a 2.5 mile boardwalk; and behind the boardwalk are 2.5 miles of high-rise hotels.

We drove here yesterday. It’s about 250 miles or so, and it took us most of the day. We left Front Royal at just before 10 and we got here at about 3:30. ‘Here’ is a big Holiday Inn on six floors with two wings,so it’s all a bit different from the two cosy B&Bs where we spent the previous six nights. Partly the aim of coming here was to do something completely different, and partly it was to have a day or so where we didn’t have anything to do, when we could just relax.

And that’s what we seem to be doing. We went out for a pizza yesterday evening, which Val described as “possibly the best pizza I’ve ever had”. A 14″ thin-crust base, lots of mozzarella and tomatoes, and lots of pepperoni, Val’s favourite topping. Mine was certainly good as well – a veggie version on the same base.

Today we’re chillin’. We walked north along the beach for mile or a bit more, and paddled at the edge of the water. We had coffee at the northern-most hotel (a Wyndham, and well beyond the boardwalk) where we heard that last weekend’s storm (caused by Hurricane Matthew) brought the ocean over the beach and onto the hotel’s outdoor patio. And in some cases the ocean got into the hotel. Either the ocean or the day-long driving horizontal rain….

But the storm has passsed through and right now we’re sat on a bench on the boardwalk, reading and relaxing. Well,Val is – I seem to have been writing blog posts for the past hour or so….

Update: after doing more relaxing we went for a drink later at the interestingly-named (to UK eyes) ‘Lager Heads‘ bar and restaurant. We both enjoyed a glass (each) of craft beer – I had a bitter and Val had a Pilsner. A look at the menus suggested that the food looked good so we went back there for our evening meal.

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A quick post to mention a few places that we visited and used in Front Royal.

We were there for three nights so we had three dinners. We went to Main Street Mill and Pub for the first night; Joe’s Steakhouse for the second; and Osteria 510 for our last night. The first of these is basically a diner, and did what it did perfectly efficiently. Not what you’d call fine dining, but a tasty burger at a good price. Joe’s Steakhouse was exactly what it says, and we each had one of the tastiest, tenderest and most enjoyable fillet steaks ever. We thought that the accompaniments to the steak were a bit ordinary, but we enjoyed a bottle of Virginian wine with it, Cabernet Franc from the Rappahannock winery. Finally, Osteria 510 is an Italian restaurant run by a genuine Italian, Vincenzo, and provides a range of Italian-style dishes, from pizza to pasta to other Italian. This was our favourite meal taken as a whole, and we washed it down with a bottle of Primitivo from Puglia in Italy. Vincenzo, who’s origiginally from Bari, said that the winery was about 10 miles from his home.

During the days we snacked and had tea/coffee at a few places. One was The Daily Grind, a coffee shop on Main Street that also sold sandwiches. It was OK. We had an excellent cup of tea at Happy Creek Coffee and Tea, on High Street (just off Main Street). This is located in an old barn and was very characterful, and was busy. Finally we had another cup of tea at a small specialist tea and wine place on Main Street,but I can’t remember the name. But they had a range of teas in glass jar – I had a Darjeeling and Val had a rose petal tea, and both were excellent.

Finally, we stayed the three nights at WoodwardHouse. We had a great time there, and I’ll do a post about it later.

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The Blue Ridge Mountains

Yesterday we drove along the Skyline Drive and did a hike from it. For those that don’t know it, it’s a road along the top – or near the top – of the northern Blue Ridge mountains. The road is just over 100 miles long and has just four entrances – the two at the northern and southern ends and two exits at traditional crossing points where highways cross the mountains. These two crossing points are known to date back to pre-European times, as the native Americans had trails across the mountains at these points. The road also reaches quite a height – a couple of points along it are at 3,500 feet above sea level, so higher than any ground in England (though not the UK, of course). There’s a general speed limit of 35mph along it, so driving along it will inevitable take a while.

We just drove half-way along the Drive, stopped a few times to enjoy the views, did a hike, had a cup of tea (well, sort of) and a sandwich at the Big Meadow restaurant, and then turned round and went back to Front Royal. That doesn’t sound much but we were away from the B&B where we were staying for over seven hours. So it was a pretty full day.

Two of those hours were spent doing the hike. We got some advice from a ranger at the Skyland visitor centre. We said we wanted a walk of not more than about 4 miles that visited a waterfall, and he recommended one that visited the Rose River and Dark Hollow falls, which was about 4 miles for the round trip. That sounded alright, we agreed. What we’d forgotten was that the hike also involved a lot of descent from the road to get down to the falls along quite steep and stony paths. Still not a problem. But – if you’re doing a circular walk then each descent must be matched by an equal ascent, and it might be that this had slipped our minds. So the first third or so of the hike was great – downhill all the way  – but the next section, from Rose River falls to Dark Hollow falls, was very hard work. Then it finished with a long but steady ascent along a fire road which was at least easy underfoot. We were both pretty shattered when we got back to the car. I gather that the total drop was ‘only’ 720 feet, but when you’re not used to those climbs it was hard.

All that said, the effort was worth it. The waterfalls on the flanks of the Blue Ridge mountains are very beautiful, and we got to see a couple of them. But we were pleased when it ended.

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We were going to do the Skyline Drive today, but as a result of Hurricane Matthew it rained all day and there was very low cloud over the mountains. So we spent the day in Front Royal.

It was actually the day of their ‘Falling Leaves’ festival, a day-long event they hold in the town to welcome the fall. Main Street is closed to traffic, there are stalls, all the shops and restaurants are especially welcoming, and all the museums are open. The bad weather meant that attendance was about less than half what they were expecting, and all sorts of outdoor events were cancelled – a parade, and various bands. But the museums in the historic houses were open, and we spent the day, from 10:30 until 4pm doing a 1 hour guided walk around them. Ok, we stopped for tea, lunch and more tea, but even so we spent a lot of time exploring the various houses and having conversations with the various re-enactors. We especially enjoyed talking with the two women in the (separate) kitchen of the oldest house in town who were cooking food using late 18th century ingredients and late 18th century cooking techniques. We also enjoyed talking to the guys in the just-opened Virginia Beer Museum – both of these on Chester Street. So a day that initially we didn’t think would offer much ended up full of interest and conversation.

This evening we had a steak at Joe’s Steak House. Val said it was possibly the best fillet steak she’d ever had, and we washed it down with a very nice bottle of Cabernet Franc from the Rappahannock Cellars winery; i.e., a Virginia winery. Not far from Front Royal, in fact.

Tomorrow we’ll do the Skyline Drive….

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