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Richmond, Virginia - It'll Surprise You

by Mitch Kaplan

Photo courtesy Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau A word association test: when I say Richmond, Virginia, what comes first to mind? For me - it was nothing. Indeed, Richmond was never anything more than a city somewhere south of Washington, DC, a series of Interstate highway exits.

Guess what? Richmond will surprise you.

Here's a city that not only offers abundant urban family pastimes - like terrific museums - but it affords outdoor adventure that you'd only expect to find high in the mountains or deep in the woods. We're talking whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking in Class III and IV rapids right downtown. We're talking miles of hiking and mountain biking trails in the city's heart. And rock climbing (which is okay if you don't look down). And, did I mention the first-class fishing?

There's history here, too, of course. More Civil War history than you can shake a stick at, historic canal boat floats, and an historic district that's often used for movie sets.

Great Museums

But, let's start indoors. At the Science Museum of Virginia, to be exact. A very impressive place - it was once the city's main train station, so the entry rotunda's ticket counters resemble the former train ticket windows, a huge pendulum hangs from above, and a grand dome encompasses all. Just outside stands the the Mary Morton Parsons Earth-Moon Sculpture, a pair of large-scale granite models of the Earth and moon that float on water in granite bases and can be turned to replicate the light and darkness on the Earth.

Coolest, however, is the Bioscape exhibit. As you pass through its several rooms and seemingly endless displays, you grow from a cell's-eye view of the world to a view from outer space. There are an immense number of hands-on exhibits, and much time can be spent here. We took our own blood pressure, tested our balance and identified smells, that last exercise on an exhibit called the "Smell Sensor" or "The Nose Knows". Throughout, "bioethics" screens ask questions and solicit your opinion on the correct thing to do. For example, is cloning a good idea? Or, who should get preference for organ transplant operations?

"Science detective" was another cool deal. As you move along, you check clues to discover the answer to a mystery. And, since this was once a train station, there's a café in an old train car, and other trains on display out back. The museum covers the gamut of the sciences.

Photo courtesy Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Just across the parking lot stands the Children's Museum of Richmond, an installation that ranks with the best kids' museums in the country. No exaggeration. The museum's myriad activities will keep any naturally curious kid occupied for hours. The displays range from sculptures and soap box derby racing cars in the lobby to a weather station, mini-supermarket, a special play area for pre-schoolers and, one of our favorites, the "Tour of the Tummy" in which an insider's view of what happens in your stomach is revealed.

Go Play Outside!

Outside, few sizeable cities can entertain like Richmond. Maymont, a 100-acre park, is a fine place to start the outdoor explorations. The new visitors center is as warm and welcoming a place as you'll find. It harbors a small nature museum in which a variety of local species can be observed. Charming river otters frolic in a small alcove, the windows to their tank working in a semi-circle along one wall. Watching a toddler chase the otters from one window panel to the next filled ten minutes hilariously.

A multitude of paths wander through the park, climbing shallow hills, passing grassy expanses and, at one point, skirting an enclave where buffalo roam. Other paths climb to the top of a picturesque waterfall, and work their way along a small stream through various gardens. Eventually, you're bound to arrive at the children's farm. Here kids can see in miniature how farms work, and can meet a variety of animals.

In the historic Shockoe Slip district, the Richmond Canal Cruises are touristy, but here's a chance to float in a reproduction of an original flat bottom canal boat. If you're lucky, Captain Cotton will pilot your ship. Completely outfitted in period costume, the good Captain regales you with stories of olden days, as he explains the history of the city's waterways and how they eventually gave way to the railroads. Speaking of railroads, at one point the boat passes under a point where two train trestles, the James River, the canal, and an Interstate highway all converge in layers - representing three centuries worth of transportation methodology.

A quick ride or walk across the river on historic Mayo's Bridge puts you on the Flood Wall. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, the wall offers a walking/bike path along the river's south bank, eventually offering access to James River Park. After passing under a highway overpass, a dirt path leaves the wall and dips to a place where a series of old, brownstone, railroad bridge abutments provide excellent rock climbing.

That's the story of James River Park - most "dangerous" activities are permitted here, from river running in kayaks and canoes, to rock climbing and mountain biking some pretty tricky routes. The people who practice each sport take responsibility for making sure that folks do it right, and signs throughout indicate that while you're out there, you're responsible for yourself. A pleasant change from the usually prohibitive litigious mentality that pervades the country.

The James was once rated as the country's fifth worst polluted river, but sincere efforts by park users, citizens and officials has revitalized the river. The shad and striped bass fishing here is now said to be terrific, and local outfitters can take you rafting through the rapids that rumble right in downtown.

The footpath eventually reaches a pedestrian bridge that takes you to Belle Isle where the site of an infamous Civil War prisoner of war camp can be seen. Another footbridge, this one very modern in design with interlaced supporting cables, returns you to the downtown riverside.

Where History, Nature and Industry Meet

Photo courtesy Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Nowhere, though, does the intermingling of urbanization, history and the natural world come more together than just south of the city at Henricus Historical Park. Henricus is a unique combination of archeological site, historical re-creation and nature preserve. The park ironically adjoins the Virginia Dominion Power Company's Dutch Gap Power Station. Amidst a jumble of pipes, coal piles, cooling ponds and other power generation detritus sits the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, the only large conservation/recreation area sited within a major metro area. The preserve covers some 810 acres, is the home of a major blue heron rookery, is considered one of Virginia's best birding sites, and provides excellent walking and canoeing.

Smack in the middle of all this sits the remains of Henricus. Hernicus marks, according to the park's historian, the true beginning of the American way of life - as opposed to the British lifestyle transposed to the New World. Although the town survived but twenty years and had a peak population of only 350, it was here that the concept of private land ownership was first practiced, that tobacco was first cultivated, and that the new country's first college and hospital were founded. In 1860, this was a Union Civil War stronghold. A canal was cut 1871 to shortcut the James River's myriad loops, creating a tidal marshland on one side and a non-tidal marshland on the other, and establishing a unique combinatorial ecosystem that can be explored on two hiking trails or by guided kayak tour.

A museum illuminates this history, using the European, "open-air, living museum" concept. Visitors pass through the wooded areas to depictions of each time frame. Currently, only a few of the re-enactments exist; the site will hopefully be completed by 2007. But, as with downtown Richmond, here too is witnessed a crossroads of historical epochs and a unique juxtaposition of modern industrialization and

This just scratches the surface. Richmond holds a variety of shopping districts, a resident ballet company and other arts institutions, other museums, and plenty of good eating. Clearly a family can happily spend a number of days here. And, afterwards, will probably want to return.

Information: Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, (1-888-RICHMOND); www.richmondva.org.

...... Mitch Kaplan is the author of "The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with Kids," a contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids," and the author of "The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach" and "The Golf Book of Lists".

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