Far-Flung Surprises, Close to Home

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"An eyesore. A ghetto . . . dilapidated buildings, fast-food joints, less-than-stellar hotels and multiple auto dealerships." That's how a recent article in The Post described Triangle, Va., after its commercial strip along Route 1 was razed to make way for the widening of the road.

So why go there? Well, I was checking out Expedia.com's new "Local Weekend Getaways" feature: Plug in your home town, select whether you want to use a full, half or quarter tank of gas, and you get a list of nearby getaways. When I entered Washington and chose "Quarter tank," up popped Harpers Ferry, Annapolis, Baltimore, Gettysburg . . . and Triangle. I had to get out a map. The tiny town, squeezed between Interstate 95 and the Quantico Marine Corps base, seemed an unlikely destination. What on Earth was in Triangle?

The mystery only deepened. Expedia's Triangle attractions list included a trolley tour and a historic home in Fredericksburg (about 20 miles south of Triangle), the Potomac Mills mall in nearby Woodbridge and two Marine Corps museums, one in Quantico and one in Triangle. Those places made Expedia's list based on reader reviews on the TripAdvisor Web site. Was this any way to plan a vacation?

On Labor Day weekend, I set off to find out.

When I entered Triangle on Route 1, I saw yellow earthmovers atop muddy patches of dirt on either side of the road. In the empty lots, loose cables jutted from the ground next to broken shop signs and colorful wildflowers. It made me wonder: Why spend a quarter tank of gas to go see roadside blight?

Instead of lingering in Triangle, I sped on toward Fredericksburg. At the visitor center downtown, I bought a ticket for the next trolley tour. The trolley paused outside dozens of the town's historic sites, including a slave auction block, a Colonial-era apothecary and tavern, the homes of George Washington and family, plus churches and homes whose exteriors are still dotted with bullet holes and cannonballs from Civil War battles.

Later, on a tour of Kenmore, where Washington's sister, Betty, lived with her husband, Fielding Lewis, the docent pointed out an interior window that still had its original glass. That's rare in Fredericksburg. During a Civil War battle in December 1862, windows all over town were shattered by gunfire and cannon blasts.

After my tour, I grabbed a bite at Sammy T's on bustling Caroline Street, an incongruous combination of smoky bar and vegetarian-friendly restaurant. It is one of the top 10 Fredericksburg restaurants on TripAdvisor.

Back in Triangle, I checked into the tidy but empty Ramada Triangle/Quantico Area, which sits on a woodsy side street near vacant lots and housing developments, the I-95 traffic roaring just beyond the tree line. I figured the Ramada made Expedia's shortlist by virtue of location: It's the only hotel in Triangle proper. But I half-wished I'd booked a room in downtown Fredericksburg instead.

Then again, I slept like a log, stretched out on a king-size bed, and when I woke up and scurried to the breakfast room, I found a generous spread including make-your-own waffles. My gloomy first impression of the hotel turned sunny, despite the morning's drizzle.

Though Expedia listed two Marine Corps museums, there's only one. TripAdvisor reviewers praising the Marine Corps Air-Ground Museum had actually visited the National Museum of the Marine Corps, which replaced the Air-Ground Museum in late 2006.

The light-filled museum is a stunner, with a 210-foot spire echoing the image of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. The Making Marines gallery has video, audio, interactive displays and panels showing the grueling boot camp experience, including a phone-booth-size chamber where a recording of a drill instructor barks orders: "Say, 'Good morning, sir!' I can't hear you!"

The history of the Marines gets similar interactive treatment throughout the museum, and there's more to come once other galleries, landscaping and a chapel are finished.

Earlier this month the museum installed a tribute to 23 members of Ohio's Lima Company who were killed in Iraq in 2005. Artist Anita Miller painted 6-by-8-foot panels with portraits of the fallen Marines; in front of each man's depiction are bronzed combat boots and ever-burning candles. It is stirring and beautiful.

Although I was reluctant to leave the museum, I had one last attraction on my Expedia list.

So I went to the mall.

Potomac Mills has more than 200 shops, kiosks and eateries. I entered at Saks Fifth Avenue's Off 5th store and wound up at Neiman Marcus Last Call two hours later. The longest line in the mall was at the Foreign Currency Exchange kiosk.

As I drove home along I-95, I thought about the random mix of attractions I'd just visited, thanks to Expedia's list. I thought about the mall, about shopping as an engine of our economy.

Then I thought about the razed buildings in Triangle, about cannonballs lodged in church facades, about the boots of young Marines who were killed in Iraq -- all the sacrifices that go into the making of a nation.

Does that sound like a corny conclusion, maybe simplistic or cheap? Well, for a quarter tank of gas, and for a trip to Triangle, I'd call it a bargain.

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