Sunday Surf

Picture of the ocean taken in Ocean View, Norfolk, Virginia

Ocean View, Norfolk, Virginia

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Back in Business

Well, I came back from London and, about two weeks later, moved to southern Virginia! The cats and I are settling into our new home and I’m still unpacking, so apologies for the delay in posts.

There are so many exciting destinations in this part of the country—Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown are all right down the road. There’s the Battleship Wisconsin and fossil-hunting grounds. Wineries, breweries, and strawberry-picking farms. And the beach!

This means I’m retiring Mondays in Maryland, or at least won’t post to it weekly. Instead, I’m looking forward to sharing with you my adventures in my new home state and beyond!

Tuesday Tip: Trick-or-Treating at Mount Vernon

Still figuring out your Halloween plans? Trick-or-treat at Mount Vernon!

Built by our first president on his family’s Virginian land, Mount Vernon was George Washington’s home until his death there in 1799. Just 15 miles from the capital city that would bear Washington’s name, Mount Vernon opened to the public in 1860 and has continued welcoming visitors ever since.

Mount Vernon is a gorgeous palatial estate on the banks of the Potomac River. The museum offers various events throughout the year, from whiskey sampling to candlelight tours, and it is always a popular destination for history-buff tourists.

For the first time, Mount Vernon will this year be hosting a special trick-or-treating event on Halloween. Among the themed events will be a costume parade, creepy stories, and chocolate-making demonstrations. Costumed interpreters will interact with the kids, and there will even be a Martha Washington on hand!

Parents will enjoy the location, and kids will love the Halloween-y fun. It’s a great way to trick-or-treat, tour the grounds, and experience history all at the same time.

Activities begin at 3:30 PM on Friday, October 31. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children; buy passes online here.

Beach Dreams

This has been an atypical summer on the US east coast, with low humidity and cooler-than-normal temperatures. Although I do prefer cold weather, this summer has put me in a bit of a funk. I find myself yearning for beach days that are not likely to come. So instead I’ll just reminisce about some of my favorite warm-weather spots in the hopes that it will tide me over until I can feel warm sand underneath my toes again.

What are your favorite beaches?

Picture of beach at Santa Monica, california

Santa Monica, California

Picture of pelican at Hermosa Beach in California

Hermosa Beach, California

Picture of Virginia Beach, Virginia

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Picture of Virginia Beach, Virginia

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Picture of Cancun, Mexico

Cancun, Mexico

Picture of beach at Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, Mexico

Picture of beach at Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, Mexico

Southern Virginia’s Hidden History

The cliffs peel back after a heavy rain, revealing shells that have not been warmed by sunlight in at least five million years. A shard of pottery washes ashore. Thrust into the kiln centuries ago, it was last felt by human hands around the time that John Hancock scratched his name across the Declaration of Independence. The nearby Historic Triangle may grab the press, but a hidden microcosm of American history sits just across Virginia’s James River at Chippokes Plantation State Park.

Established in 1619 as a farm for Jamestown, America’s first successful English settlement, Chippokes offers a rarely visited view of bygone Virginia. Here you can catch a peak of Algonquin homeland while walking the many acres of a 400-year-old working farm. There is the plantation house to tour, a forestry museum to visit, and an English-style garden to explore. The state park also has hiking trails, kayaking routes, and places to picnic.

When I arrive with two friends on a sunny spring day, however, I am completely unaware of Chippokes’ comparatively modern history. What I’ve instead come for are the fossils. Millions of years ago in the Miocene era, much of Virginia and Maryland were under water. Prehistoric marine animals called this area their home, and we’re hoping to find a fossilized remnant of them.

I’ve given the park a call that morning to confirm there will be fossils. When I ask if we can keep what we find, the confused park ranger tells me that so long as we don’t discover an entire prehistoric animal, we can keep it. If we find an intact dolphin skeleton or something, though, the paleontologists are going to want it. We might find a whole animal? Holy crap! We’re giddy.

It’s the weekend, and yet Chippokes is nearly devoid of visitors. We easily find parking and make our way to the James River. In a few minutes, we and a handful of other fossil hunters are along the river’s sandy beach. It doesn’t take long before we find what we’re looking for: a recent rain has stripped off the outermost layer of the modest cliffs along the river, revealing hundreds, thousands, of prehistoric shells.

Picture of Miocene-era fossils found in the cliffs at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

Deposit of Miocene-era fossils, sticking out of the cliffs along the river

We can’t walk but a few feet without tripping over fossils that have not seen the light of day in millions of years. We pick up shells, carry them for a few yards, and then switch those out for better specimens. My friends find a complete clam shell—top and bottom—while I am drawn to fossilized barnacles. What we are most hoping to find, though, are sharks teeth.

Another group of fossil hunters gives us a tip that teeth tend to collect along a sandy outcrop farther down the beach. They tell us they once found a tooth as large as a man’s hand. We’re psyched and traipse down the sand. We search and search, but the only things we find are more million-years-old shells—how blasé we’ve become.

Picture of the beach along the James River at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

Down the river

One run-in with a small water snake later, we give up on this part of the beach and hike down to the other side. Along the way we pass a herd (gaggle? pride?) of sand crabs, who scurry away as soon as they hear our footsteps, and a giant brown snake whose memory will haunt me until the day I die.

At the other end of the beach, we find more excellent shells but sadly, no teeth. Finally we call it a day.

Picture of fossils and other items found along the James River at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

My catch: ancient shells, fossilized barnacles, a piece of metal (naturally occurring, I think), and a chunk of brick.

I am pleased with our discoveries but also secretly heartbroken. We make plans to return and continue our quest for the elusive megalodon.

However, the time to visit these important treasures is fading. Southern Virginia is critically threatened by climate change, and Chippokes may soon be lost to rising tides. If you get the chance to visit Chippokes, don’t wait! There really is something for everyone—camping, historical homes, river walks, and, of course, fossils.

But if you find a shark’s tooth, that bad boy better go in the mail for me.

Vietnamese Spice in Richmond, VA

I’m in Richmond for a wedding, so I immediately do a Happy Cow search of the area for vegan food. One restaurant looks particularly interesting – Phoenix Garden, a Vietnamese noodle house. It has many positive ratings. I’ve never had Vietnamese food before, so I head on over.

It’s late afternoon on a Saturday, and I’m the only car in the parking lot. I tentatively walk in, expecting the place to be closed until dinner. It’s a huge restaurant with a bar at the back where one customer is sitting, waiting for take out. Otherwise, it’s completely empty.

A very happy older woman emerges from the back to welcome me. They have several imported beer options. I order a Tsingtao—she seems impressed that I pronounce it correctly (or, you know, as correctly as I can muster)—and a few seconds later an older man brings me the beer with a giant smile on his face.

Phoenix Garden is entirely vegan, and I’m overwhelmed with choices. I settle on the spicy eggplant and tofu dish. It comes quickly and again with a giant smile. There is a bowl of soup with the tofu/eggplant dish and rice, and I’m not really sure what to do with it. It’s a thin ginger broth with onions, cilantro, and lemon. It tastes good, but I’m confused. The tofu/eggplant dish is incredibly spicy—just the way I like it, though perhaps not for everyone—and flavored with scallions, baby corn, and cilantro. I end up alternating the dish with the soup, and I think that’s the intention as the ginger and lemon seem to recharge my taste buds after the spicy food. It’s a wonderful combination. As I eat, I start posting to Facebook about what an exciting find this restaurant is. The food is layered with different flavors, the heat and acidity melding into one another. My only complaint is the number of carrots in the dish—I’m just not a fan of the squirrely little orange vegetable. Next time I’ll ask them to hold the offending item.

The older woman—one of the owners—comes over to my table, and we talk a bit about how great the food is. She notes the out-of-state plates on my car, so I explain I’m there for a wedding. When she finds out I’m single, she starts telling me about her son who lives in New York City, what a nice boy he is but he’s single, too… She’s very sweet and it’s great talking to her, but I’m sure her son would be mortified to learn his mom is trying to set him up with random strangers.

When I’m ready to leave, she and her husband both come out to thank me for coming and to wish me well on my drive back home. They are incredibly genuine people, so happy I liked the food and so excited that an out-of-towner had heard of them.

I notice later that many reviewers have commented on how few customers Phoenix Garden seems to have, and it’s a bit distressing. When I’m passing through Richmond again many months later, I ask my now-married friend to meet me there for lunch. He is a local, but has never heard of the place. When we get there, only one other table is taken. Again, the owners greet us with such pleased looks that we can’t help but smile ourselves. The food is still wonderful, and I think I drafted my friend onto the pro-Phoenix Garden team. But I do hope others start going there; it would be a shame if such a great place didn’t make it. If you’re ever on the Eastern Seaboard, make a special trip to Phoenix Garden. You won’t regret it.

Chimichanga Paradise

“I’ve never had a chimichanga before, but I love the idea.”

“Oh my god. They’re sooo good!”

And thus begins the adventure to Burrito Perdido in Chesapeake, Virginia. I’ve just driven from Baltimore to visit friends in Norfolk, and I am moderately delirious from lack of food. We hop back in the car, and ten achingly slow minutes later we pull up to a Shell gas station on a fairly deserted road. Bright red canopies line half the building, donkey logos lighting the way. This is where we’ll be eating.

Inside, the air conditioner is humming, and the flat-screen tv is broadcasting the World Cup in Spanish. Goooooooaaaaaaaaal, the announcer screams as we settle into a booth. The décor borders on kitsch, with bags of rice and photos of famous Spanish-speakers hanging on the wall. Pablo Picasso intently stares at me throughout my meal.

Picture of vegan chimichanga at Burrito Perdido

The loaded vegan chimichanga

Burrito Perdido’s mission is to use local, organic, and sustainable ingredients. They also have many vegan options, so we are right at home. We each get a reasonably priced sautéed vegetable chimichanga with the works. The manager sends us to our table with complimentary chips and salsa. Minutes later he brings us our food. The deep-fried tortilla is filled with piping hot pinto beans, sautéed vegetables, and vegan cheese, and it’s topped with guacamole, fresh salsa, and vegan sour cream. We are so giddy we take pictures.

I have never had a chimichanga before, but this is clearly a superior specimen. It’s bursting with garlic, chilies, and onions, wonderfully complimented by the sour cream and homemade guacamole. If everyone ate these chimichangas, there would be no more war.

I immediately like Burrito Perdido on Facebook. Might as well end the trip now – these chimichangas will not be topped.