Earlier this month, Tour Director Gene Gray and Driver Mike Smith led 48 Starr travelers through our nation’s capital over a 3-day weekend. On each of our trips, the Starr Tour Director is responsible for submitting a summary of the tour in day-by-day fashion. Gene takes this responsibility to the next level and provides a beautifully written report that makes you feel like you were actually on the tour! We invite you to read Gene’s report below:
Tour Name: Washington DC: Our Nation’s Capital
Date: October 4 – 6, 2019
Driver: Michael Smith
Day 1: Friday, October 4, 2019
Michael and I welcomed our 48 tour guests onto our comfortable bus as we traveled south and made sure everyone (along with their luggage) was safely aboard. On this Friday morning, traffic flowed freely into DC and we made good time. While on the bus, I reviewed the Starr Welcome Letter and showed the Safety Video. I then reviewed the pages of the information packet I made for our tour guests. The packet included maps, dinner suggestions, and a detailed itinerary for each day of our vacation.
We have a fascinating group of tour guests for this trip to our nation’s capital. We have several people in their upper 80s, one who was 95 years young, and one teenager who is currently a freshman in high school. For the first time in my four year Starr tenure, we had tour guests representing each of the Armed Forces: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. Using my music library and the bus’ sound system, I enthusiastically played the “Armed Forces Medley” honoring our Veterans which resulted in resounding applause upon completion. One tour guest, Ed, spent 14 months in Vietnam in 1968-69 and was wounded. This was his first visit ever to Washington, DC and he was looking forward to finally seeing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Our tour bus pulled up to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a little after noon. Upon entering the building at the Foyer Level, you are struck with a long corridor with a 30 foot high arched ceiling containing flags from countries around the world as far as the eyes can see. The area is so vast and spacious, you hear echoes all around you. We took the elevator up to the 15th floor called “The Terrace” for lunch at KC Café. The cafeteria had just opened and we were the only customers buying lunch. The Café was stocked with fruit, soup, sandwiches, and had a grill with people preparing burgers, chicken sandwiches, and hot dogs, along with a variety of drinks. Everyone enjoyed their lunch. I had a chance to touch base with all of my tour guests and answer their questions.
After lunch, many people went outside on the terrace for magnificent 360° views of Washington DC. The skies were clear with patchy cumulus clouds and you could see the 555 foot Washington Monument towering to the left as well as the Lincoln Memorial to the right. The terrace provided magnificent photo opportunities to say the least.
We took the elevator to Level A, one level below the Foyer, to the Gift Shop and the Tour Desk. We were to meet our tour guide at the desk at 2:00 PM for our Guided Tour of the Kennedy Center. Since we were all ready to begin our tour by 1:15, the guides were more than willing to begin immediately and divided us into two groups of 25. Each group went off in different directions to begin their tour.
The Kennedy Center has four large theaters including the largest, the Opera Theater, seating more than 3000 people, from which they hold the “Kennedy Center Honors” awards show each year. We were shown the President’s Box that includes a bathroom, concessions, and very comfortable chairs. The Box seats eight people and is heavily guarded by secret service whenever the President is in attendance. We were shown magnificent artwork hanging on the massive walls, beautiful one ton chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a 3000 pound bronze bust of John F. Kennedy. Since the Arts Center was the original idea of President Eisenhower, our 34th President has a theater named in his honor. The Eisenhower Theater is the second largest theater in the Kennedy Center and has a seating capacity of just under 3000. It is adorned with a bust and photograph of Eisenhower at the theater’s entrance. Our tour concluded at the colorful and delicate chandelier created by artist Dale Chihuly.
Mike delivered our luggage to the Hyatt Centric Hotel in Arlington while we were inside the Kennedy Center and when we arrived at the hotel, the manager was ready with our keys. We now had three hours of “down time” to relax and enjoy a good dinner before our Twilight Riding Tour of DC beginning at 7:00 PM.
Mike and I planned a 90-minute tour for our guests. Although this was supposed to be a riding tour, we made stops at the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial as well as the Lincoln, Korean, and Vietnam Memorials. The tour guests disembarked and walked to see the great statues lit up at night. We then did a drive by of the WWII Memorial and the White House before returning to the hotel for the night.
It was a long and fruitful first day of our Washington, DC adventure.
Day 2: Saturday, October 5, 2019
The Hyatt Centric Hotel was extremely accommodating with very comfortable rooms and our guests gave me positive feedback about the staff and the location. Breakfast was a full buffet with choices of cereal, eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruit, juices, and coffees. The person in charge was constantly replenishing the buffet and everyone enjoyed it.
I met our Washington DC “Step-On” Guide, Michelle Heller, at the hotel and we reviewed her plans for our 4-hour tour. (Local guides that come on to our bus for local touring are aptly called “Step on Guides.”) Michele gave us a thorough tour of DC’s seven memorials plus she showed the future location of the Persian Gulf Memorial for which funds are currently being raised. She was a most remarkable and knowledgeable guide of our nation’s capital.
We did a drive-by of the Jefferson Memorial since it is a longer walk from where the bus has to park to reach the steps and statue. Franklin D. Roosevelt led the way for the building of the Jefferson Memorial and purposely placed the memorial in a straight line from the White House so he could always view Jefferson from his White House window.
We disembarked at the FDR Memorial and Michelle brilliantly spoke about its every aspect. While facing a statue of FDR in a wheelchair at the entrance, Michelle explained this was the newest addition to the memorial to honor people who are disabled. Roosevelt created his own wheelchair out of his most comfortable kitchen chair by having wheels put on it. He always worked to hide his handicap to the public due to public perception concerns. The FDR Memorial is divided into four distinct sections, one for each of his four terms in office. Of course, since he passed away only 80 days into his fourth term, the final section is a touching memorial to this great President. Eleanor Roosevelt is also featured in this fourth section; she is the only First Lady to have a statue in her honor in Washington, DC.
The Martin Luther King Memorial was just as enlightening. Michelle continued to feed us the most fascinating facts. Symbolism abounds all over Washington. The powerful MLK Memorial depicts the face and chest of MLK within a a marble structure that symbolizes a mountain. Since MLK never made it to the mountaintop, his body is purposely left unfinished. His face points in the direction of the Jefferson Memorial since Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “All Men are Created Equal,” and his eyes are staring directly at the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt who strongly led the charge that “Racism Destroys Democracy.” Brilliant words from Dr. King are printed on surrounding walls, but his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” is nowhere to be found because the creators wanted people to learn lesser known speeches at this memorial. Dr. King had a formula for each of his speeches and would include four topics in each; Justice, Democracy, Hope, and Love. This memorial is powerful, emotional, and a must see.
The Korean Memorial is all about the number 38. The 38th parallel divided Korea into North and South. Since Korea was divided in half, the creators erected 19 bronze statues (half of 38) all within a heavily vegetated area to symbolize the difficult terrain of Korea. The flagpole sits at the circular Pool of Remembrance exactly at the 38° angle of the circle. The words “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE” are printed on a wall decorated with flowers.
Michelle continued the tour with great facts about the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. She gave us free time to walk up the 87 (four score and seven) steps to the Lincoln Memorial and time to examine the Vietnam Memorial in detail. I accompanied our Starr tour guest who was the 14 year Veteran of the Vietnam War, and his wife to the Vietnam Memorial. I was surprised and emotional at his first reaction to the memorial when he cried out, “This war was a disgrace. We never should have been involved in it in the first place. The reason for the war was for economic gains of the wealthy in both countries.” He continued, “None of these names should have needed to be inscribed here.” He was emotional, angry, and visibly upset. Both his wife and I felt his anguish and became quite emotional as well.
Michelle gave us a tour to remember for a lifetime. She brought Washington, DC to life for all of us and provided a perspective of the city that everyone should experience.
At 12:15 PM, our bus dropped us off at the Smithsonian Castle for four hours of exploration on our own in our choice of museum(s) within the Smithsonian Institution. Many visited the Air and Space Museum and others walked across to the Mall to the National Museum of American History. A few spent much time in the American Museum of Natural History. Two walked to the National Museum of African American History & Culture and were able to get in without tickets. Although they waited in long lines, they were pleased with what they saw. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Smithsonian.
After returning to our hotel to freshen up a bit, 32 of our 48 tour guests chose to travel into Old Town Alexandria for dinner, shopping, and sightseeing. From the bus drop off spot at 301 King Street to the Potomac River three blocks away down a small decline, the tour guests had 10 restaurants to choose from and a plethora of shops to step into. Restaurants included seafood, Italian, Thai, Mexican, American, and Japanese. Everyone enjoyed their dinner and time in Old Town Alexandria.
Today was a day filled with nationalism, learning, and fun; the perfect combination to feed the soul.
Day 3: Sunday, October 6, 2019
Breakfast today was as good as yesterday. Per my instruction, every tour guest had their luggage outside their door for pickup by 7:00 AM. Most were down to breakfast at 7:00 AM. We departed from the hotel promptly at 8:00 AM to maximize our time at Arlington National Cemetery.
We were the first bus to park at Arlington and I was first at the ticket booth to get our tickets and brochures. After being first through Security, we all left on the first tram of the day. GREAT TIMING!!!
Many Starr guests got off the tram at the John F. Kennedy Gravesite. Others continued on to catch the 9:00 AM Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the Kennedy Gravesite, the first thing to catch your eye as you approach the graves is the Eternal Flame rising into the cool morning air. In front of the flame lie JFK and Jackie side by side. Six feet to both sides lie their two children who passed while very young. The grave area is filled in with cobblestones rather than grass. A waist-high wall at the entrance is inscribed with famous words spoken by President Kennedy throughout his presidency. One section quotes his “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech. As you walk down the the pathway, you see the grave of Robert Kennedy that is represented by a white cross. Another white cross represents the grave of Edward (Teddy) Kennedy. Older brother Joseph Kennedy who died in WWII was moved here and lies near Edward. The entire memorial is beautifully done and a fitting tribute to this magnificent American First Family.
The next tram stop was the Amphitheater. Behind the amphitheater sits The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sal, a Starr tour guest and Vietnam Veteran, proudly wore his Vietnam Veterans baseball cap all weekend. He and I climbed a few marble steps to take a peek inside the circular amphitheater. Once inside, we noticed about 60 teenagers seated and being lectured to by their teacher. Once the teacher saw Sal wearing his hat, he hollered, “You, sir, in the green shirt, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE!!!” All 60 students turned and gave him rousing applause. We both broke down emotionally. The teacher proudly continued speaking to his students, “I knew we would meet a Vietnam Vet. I’m so glad he was here for you so you could see what I’ve been telling you.”
The word “Discipline” defines the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Members of Army Regiment 3 watch over the Tomb day and night, 365 days a year. You see two immaculately dressed soldiers emerge from beneath the Tomb; one higher ranking member and one Guard who will replace the Guard currently on duty. They take one slow disciplined step after another and approach the current Guard on duty. Upon hearing the piercing command, “HALT,” the Guard on duty stops immediately. The higher ranking officer then tediously examines the rifle of the newcomer, inspects his uniform, and only after he is totally satisfied with the cleanliness of his weapon and tidiness of his uniform does he continue with the ceremony. He then turns, faces us, and barks, “YOU ARE ABOUT TO WITNESS THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD. EVERYONE MUST REMAIN ABSOLUTELY SILENT. EVERYONE MUST STAND AT ATTENTION. THANK YOU!!!” He then proceeds with the ceremony, every aspect with strict discipline. At the conclusion, as the former Guard and high ranking official disappear beneath the Tomb, everyone wonders whether it’s alright to talk or, for that matter, breathe again. Someone in the crowd takes the lead and soon people begin to slowly leave the viewing area. Everyone must experience this magnificent ceremony firsthand at least once in their lifetime.
Both the gravesite of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in American History, and the Space Shuttle Disasters Memorial are located adjacent to the amphitheater. Many of us walked to both of these and took pictures. Boxer Joe Lewis is also interred here next to the amphitheater. We then hopped on the next tram and continued with our guided tour around Arlington Cemetery. We passed the gravesite of Howard Taft, the only other President, besides JFK, buried in Arlington Cemetery. The tour guide also pointed out the grave of Abner Doubleday, a Civil War Veteran and probable inventor of baseball. We returned to the starting point and disembarked the tram. Many stopped into the Gift Shop prior to walking to our bus.
Many of our tour guests had enough time to see all of the Kennedy Gravesites, the Changing of the Guard Ceremony, AND take the 10 minute walk to the US Marine Corp War Memorial (aka Iwo Jima Marines Memorial) that borders Arlington National Cemetery. It was fabulous to be the first to arrive and provide extra time for our tour guests to explore Arlington on their own.
We drove to the Air Force Memorial featuring three stainless steel spires soaring into the sky at heights between 210 and 270 feet. They symbolize three airplanes flying in unison with the fourth missing to symbolize those killed in action. The tour guests enjoyed this short stop that overlooks the Pentagon and views of Washington, DC.
Our lunch stop was at the Pentagon City Mall. There are many restaurants to choose from including a full food court on the lower level. There was something for everyone. Back on the bus and heading home, I gave out the Starr Surveys, Starr Catalogs, and showed the film “To Hell and Back,” the 1949 film about the life of Audie Murphy. Audie Murphy starred in the film as well and plays himself. After a short rest stop at the newly designed Chesapeake House, all tour guests were dropped off without incident and in a timely manner.
This was a powerful weekend filled with emotional moments, strong feelings of pride towards our country, and much information and learning about our Nation’s Capital. Everyone had a wonderful experience, including me.
Post Script: Starr offers many trips (day trips and multi-day trips) to Washington, DC. 2020 Tours are still being loaded but click here at any time to see what’s being offered.
Read some of Gene’s previous tour reports:
Starr’s 2019 Alaska Cruise Experience
Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2019 – Westbound – Part 1 of 2
Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2019 – Eastbound – Part 2 of 2
Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2018 – Westbound – Part 1 of 2
Cross Country Adventures by Bus 2018 – Eastbound – Part 2 of 2