Changes Everything about Family Vacation in Nation’s Capital
by Karen Rubin
The opening of the Gaylord National Resort changes everything about a family vacation in Washington DC. Families finally have a true family-friendly, four-Diamond full-service waterfront resort to find rest and respite after a busy and exhausting day being immersed in the nation’s capital, taking in the most magnificent museums and attractions that convey the history, heritage and profound issues of the country.
So close and accessible to the downtown, the Gaylord National is set in a new destination, National Harbor, on the Potomac River, complete with such marvelous amenities as indoor pool, spa, arcade, dining. It is so breathtakingly beautiful, you really feel yourself decompress from the intensity and the hubbub of the city.
The Gaylord is a centerpiece of National Harbor, a new 300-acre destination with five hotels, 20 shops, art galleries, a dozen restaurants, a marina (canoe, sailboat and bike rentals), the National Children’s Museum Launch Zone (a precursor to the new National Children’s Museum opening in 2011) and special events and festivals year-round (Gaylord’s Christmas on the Potomac celebration features a spectacular ICE! event that draws hundreds of thousands).
There is so much to do and in such a pleasant environment that National Harbor has become a magnet for day-trippers and locals along with travelers. The development is so huge, there is a new ramp off of I 295 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River, was completely rebuilt and expanded from 4 to 12 lanes, plus a separated biking/pedestrian lane.
The Gaylord National takes the best elements from the Gaylord Resorts’ flagship, the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, with its soaring (an understatement) atrium, wall and roof of glass, and spectacularly dramatic (yet tasteful) interiors.
The Gaylord offers a stunning sense of place and respect for the destination, the mid-Atlantic where Washington, DC., Maryland and Virginia converge and so much of the nation’s history is centered. The architecture draws on these elements – Colonial, Federalist, with scalloped colonnades reminiscent of the monuments. Local artists were commissioned to create paintings reflecting history and nautical scenes.
You simply cannot believe your eyes when you first look into the atrium. You look first through it to the magnificent view to the Potomac River and then your eyes look down a level to two-story replicas of a Colonial-era mercantile shop and a Federalist-style farmhouse, richly detailed and authentic, with white-clapboard siding on the farmhouse, and red-brick masonry on the mercantile, stone finishes, shakes, shutters and shingles, porches, patios and courtyard spaces with lush landscaping and wrought iron gate.
Another focal point is an indoor water fountain which “performs” shows nightly, choreographed to lights, special effects and music, shooting as much as 50 feet up.
Thousands of plants and trees re-create a mid-Atlantic landscape, both inside and outside where there are magnificent gardens and another magnificent fountain with pleasant seating areas and walkways afford a spectacular setting beside the river, where there is a dock for the new water taxi service, and a promenade along the water. The historically themed garden palette features a colonial garden, a tree-lined river walk promenade, 1,200 oak, cherry and chestnut trees, and more than 40,000 flowers.
And the quality of the craftsmanship and materials! That is one thing that struck me about Opryland Hotel, which is a massive, sprawling complex of 2,800 rooms (the resort is just reopening after suffering $250 million in damage from the spring 2010 floods) where the rates are geared more to an upper-middle market.
The Gaylord National, which has been earned a 4-Diamond rating from AAA, also is large – one of the biggest in the DC region – with 2,000 rooms, but it is high (20 stories), instead of wide, and actually gives the feeling of being more compact and “intimate” (if that is even possible). Here, too, the materials and craftsmanship are high quality – marble, granite, fine wood furnishings, detailing in the moldings, lush landscaping – but pricewise, it is moderate, and matched with Hilton, Hyatt and Westin, yet offers supreme quality and unmatched service and amenities.
As befitting a major resort, the Gaylord National offers a world-class Relache Spa (Gaylord’s own brand).
The largest hotel spa in the region, the full-service retreat has 11 treatment rooms in a 20,000 square foot facility, including a Couple’s suite with hot tub and floor-to-ceiling windows; a signature Tea Relaxation room with sweeping water views, for meditation, plus steam rooms, full-service beauty salon, not to mention panoramic views of Potomac River and DC landmarks (book appointments, 301-965-4400, GNRelacheSpa@GaylordHotels.com).
The conventioneers and business travelers we noticed particularly enjoy the 4,000 sq. ft. fitness center, accessible 24 hours a day, with 24 pieces of cardio equipment, each with a personal television and radio (ear plugs are even available if you forgot yours); Life Fitness strength equipment, free weights and aerobic areas; personal yoga and fitness training is available.
A key attraction of the Gaylord National, especially for families, is the pool – junior-Olympic sized so that it is marvelous for lap swimming – set in another magnificent space with a wall of windows so you see to the gardens and Potomac River, stone floor, with luxurious wicker lounge chairs, potted palm trees (okay, not so mid-Atlantic, but so what), perfect temperature. There is a lifeguard on duty (open 5 am. to 9 pm.), a hot tub, and I notice various pool toys available.
Families will also enjoy the Playzone Family Arcade and the billiard tables – a diversion from a day of immersion in history.
Indeed, the Gaylord National, DC’s first true resort, offers a completely different way to experience DC, which can be overpowering with its majestic stone buildings, the intensity of the people who work there. The Gaylord offers respite from that, and enables kids (adults, too), to decompress.
It is also DC’s first waterfront resort. “For years, Washington turned its back on the river. Now National Harbor has been credited in the region as a destination that is causing people to see the river in a whole new way,” says Amie Gorrell, Director of Public Relations.
Indeed: there is a new water taxi service, which started when the Gaylord opened, which comes right to the Gaylord’s dock, and from here, leaves hourly across the river to Old Town Alexandria (a fantastic destination in its own right) where there are charming shops and dining, not to mention bike rental shops that provide access to the most marvelous trails); to Georgetown and to Mount Vernon. Arriving at George Washington’s home by water taxi adds immeasurably to the feeling of really having traveled somewhere, and arriving at Mount Vernon as Washington did.
The hotel also has shuttle service into downtown, about 15 minutes away (non-rush hour) stopping at Union Station and the Old Post Office ($16 roundtrip, departs hourly). A family could just as easily hop a cab into town (about $25 for the 20 minute ride during non-rush hour to National Mall, the Smithsonian and the Capitol Building).
National Harbor is also well plugged into DC’s fantastic mass transit system – less than a block from the hotel is a public bus (NH 1, $1.70 each way) which departs every 30 minutes for a 15-minute ride to the Metro (Branch Avenue station, the last stop on the Green Line).
All of this means that the Gaylord National is a wonderful hub for visiting the region – and you can easily spend three or more days.
Dining Out, Inside
As befitting a complete destination resort, the Gaylord National offers an array of restaurants and dining options within the hotel, and there are many more just outside, in National Harbor.
The sense of place that is throughout the hotel is particularly apparent in the Gaylord National’s signature restaurant, Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine that recreates the ambiance of the Chesapeake region’s early fish markets. Moon Bay boasts a show kitchen, an impressive white-wine collection and a wharf-side bar and lounge. The menu features seafood from American waters with a modern twist (in the way of surprising seasonings and preparations), including fish flown in daily and sushi sashimi creations.
Moon Bay’s menu showcases regional favorites like Maryland crab cake prepared with carrot, honey-black peppercorn and ginger; as well as a range of seafood such as Prince Edward Island mussels, shrimp tempura, Maine lobster, Atlantic salmon, Maine lobster. And they do many delightful things that bring a smile: to begin with, we are offered that day’s complimentary “shooter” with Absolut vodka, white cranberry juice, Sprite and lemon (the flavoring changes each day); fresh sourdough bread, still hot from the oven, served with an herbal butter; and at dessert time, cotton candy served in a giant decorative glass, which invariably brings smiles of a childhood memory (and started conversations going between two tables of strangers); Nutty Buddy (mint chocolate coated ice cream cone, sweet and salty nuts and caramel cream).
The Gaylord is famous for the Old Hickory Steakhouse, and guests at the National will not be disappointed will find its Old Hickory Steakhouserecreates the ambiance of an 18th century Georgian rowhouse. The setting includes an intimate lounge, wine-cellar room showcasing award winning wines from around the world and, most unusual, an artisanal cheese cave presided over by the Maitre d’Fromage who will advise on the handcrafted cheese selections. It offers the Gaylord National’s most sophisticated dining experience boasting a serious menu steeped in the traditions of the finest steakhouses, with signature entrees like the 120-hour slow-raised short ribs, and showcasing fresh, locally sourced ingredients and mid-Atlantic specialties like almost-crusted jump lump crab cake on avocado mousseline.
“It isn’t something you’d expect of a restaurant in a big hotel,” said Robert Stanfield, Vice President of Food and Beverage. “But for Old Hickory, we are courting relationships with local farmer sot supply fine, seasonal produce whenever possible In some cases, we are even contracting with them to grow specific varieties just for us.”
More casual dining can be had at National Pastime – The Official Sports Bar & Grille of the Washington Nationals. It features an artful blend of urban design and sports memorabilia, a signature 30-foot wide, high-definition video wall, and dozens of flat-screen TVs. Two bars and various lounges offer curved banquets, custom sofas and individual lounge make for a comfy environment to socialize and watch the games. Near the front entrance is a life-size solid wood statue of the legendary Babe Ruth – a Maryland-native – who is posed as if he’s watching a homerun leave Yankee Stadium.. You can practice your best swing over an actual homeplate used during the Washington National’s 2007 season at nearby RFK Stadium. Inside, a VIP room offers privacy, as well as tall wing-back chairs and sofas to accommodate groups centered around their own large-screen TV.
Pienza Italian Market is casual and atmospheric, and perfectly captures the spirit and ambiance of Italy.This Mediterranean journey begins with a touch of “tableside” herb clippings and an offer of Bellini,created with sparkling wine and white peach nectar. Six market-inspired stations reflect seasonal changes, and include an artisanal bread and antipasto station, a fresh produce market station, a rotisserie and carvery station, a pasta and risotto station and a traditional dolceria/sweet shop.
Pienza Italian Market is also the place to go for a festive and relaxing buffet breakfast(served 6:30-10:30 a.m.) A continental style breakfast, with a choice of pastries and breads, yogurts, fruits, smoked salmon, is $15.50; an American breakfast with freshly prepared omelets and waffles is $20.50.
There is also a quick service, “grab and go” eatery, Java Coast, for coffee and espresso selections, freshly baked pastries, sandwiches, gourmet salads, desserts, beer, wine and other gastronomical delights.
The sophisticated Belvedere Lounge is surrounded by a perpetual spring of blooming forsythia and azaleas, with a bird’s eye view of the Potomac River. The offerings here include a selection of champagnes by the glass, retro cocktails, nightly live music and impressive sunset views.
For nightlife, take the private elevator up to the 19th floor for Pose Ulta Lounge, a two-story nightclub. It is quite a scene, with pulsing music to a DJ, dramatic vistas of the nation’s capital through 18-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor balcony (open 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.)
And for sheer convenience, there is Key Provisions, a sundry shop where you can find most of the essentials you might have forgotten (though our bathroom was equipped with toothbrush, toothpaste, shaver, soaps, shampoos and creams, and a CVS full service drugstore is opening in the National Harbor shopping area).
There are lovely shops, as well, like Stars & Stripes and another interesting convenience, a Best Buy vending machine for any electronics you might need.
But if this is not enough, just outside Gaylord’s door in National Harbor are a host of other restaurants, shops, galleries, and marina where there are canoe, kayak and sailboat rentals, plus bike rentals (in season) (NationalHarbor.com, 877-628-5427.
In 2013, National Harbor will also be the venue for the new National Children’s Museum, which closed in its former location in 2009. But Milt Peterson, the developer of National Harbor, donated the land. Until then, kids can discover the National Children’s Museum Launch Zone, a preview center, for the museum.
Be My Guest
The Gaylord National is enormous – with 2,000 guest rooms – and yet does not feel as big or overwhelming. A third of the guest rooms overlook the atrium, and you can sit on your balcony and see the activities below – including the Dancing Fountains display – choreographed, colorful, that happens on the hour between 6 – 9 pm, and gaze through the wall of windows to the river.
It is odd to feel like you are outside, and realize you are in this glass-enclosed bubble, as if you were living in a settlement on the moon.
The other two-thirds of the rooms are on the exterior, facing Washington DC or towards Mount Vernon, or on the opposite side, the Maryland Hill.
The rooms are elegantly furnished with warm cherry and walnut furniture, yet so comfortable, affording 400 sq. ft of space and all the comforts of home including high-speed internet access, flat-screen 32-inch televisions, oversized glass showers and soaking tubs; a refrigerator stocked daily with two bottled waters; in-room safe; coffeemaker, iron and ironing board, full-sized desk, coffee table, loveseat.
The suites, ranging from 800 to 2800 square feet, have expanded living and dining area, marble finishes and custom furnishings, and 42-inch LCD flat screen TVs.
Our suite, 14-209, is magnificent, spacious, and luxurious, with a balcony overlooking the atrium, stunning furnishings, lighting, two flat-screen TVs, Wifi, soft plush towels, luxury bedding.
There is a hotel within the hotel: National Bay, with 300 guest rooms, offers the amenities of an upscale boutique hotel and the services of a five-star mega-resort. Rooms have marble entries, high fidelity sound systems, elegant elevated beds, and crown molding. It has its own meeting facilities that provide an elegant and more intimate environment for executive conference, board meetings and high-level incentive events.
The Gaylord National Resort was built as a convention hotel – in fact, the largest in the region – and it would be a crime to leave your family home.
It offers the largest convention facilities of any hotel in Washington DC – 470,000 square feet convention center, accommodating meetings and events for groups from 10 to 10,000. Four ballrooms, 82 meeting rooms, and a 180,000 sq.ft. exhibition hall are located on three levels, connected to the hotel by an enclosed walkway. It boasts the largest ballroom in DC, at 50,000 square feet (In fact, the Gaylord hosted the biggest of President Obama’s inaugural balls, the Texas State Black Tie & Boots ball the night before the inauguration, with 13,000 guests).
The Prince George’s Exhibit Hall is the size of three football fields and has enough space to accommodate up to 400 full-size, tractor-trailer trucks.
In fact, if you are coming to the Gaylord National for a convention and want to take the kids, many convention or meeting planners arrange for supervised children’s activities during the day or Kids Nite Out programs; otherwise, the hotel can arrange for babysitting.
Center of Attention
The Atrium is a marvel, and is the focal point for many of the activities.
The atrium is 240 feet wide and at its highest point, 230 feet high – which means it is big enough to easily park the 150-foot tall Space shuttle under it. White atrium trusses which straddle the top of the resort, weigh 50 tons each. Together, they total 1,200 tons or 2.4 million pounds. Why so heavy? They support 2,000 individual pieces of glass, each weighing 500 pounds. To put that weight into perspective, it would take at least 45 Space Shuttle missions to launch this load into the Earth’s orbit, which would be more than one third of the 117 total Space Shuttle launches to date. The 50-ton trusses that make up the atrium are welded to the roof on just one side of the building – the south side. But, they actually “free float” on the north side of the building (the side that faces Washington D.C.). This engineering feat allows for the glass roof to expand and contract in the heat of the sun.
I think about this as I watch workmen straddling the top trusses to haul up the banners and holiday lights that will hang down 10 stories.
Through the windows, you can watch the sun setting in the west.
Each evening, you can watch the Dancing Fountains perform a 15-minute water ballet (on the hour, at 6, 7, 8 and 9 pm), choreographed with music and colored lights, and sprays that shoot up as much as 60 feet.
For its size, the building is compact and easy to get around. You do not have the feeling of being overwhelmed. The corridors are even graphically beautiful.
As befitting a fine resort, there is a concierge and tour desk to offer information about visiting attractions and making arrangements, from the water taxi to tickets to Mount Vernon.
Washington DC is an ideal family destination in every season – spectacular attractions that have profound effect on learning and understanding like the National Archives, the National Air & Space Museum, the Museum of American History, the American Indian Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Art Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery (and on and on), the Capitol Building, are all free and most are around the National Mall (plan your visit to the museums of the Smithsonian atwww.si.edu/museums).
Others have an entrance fee, but are absolutely outstanding: including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which is operated by a private foundation ($15/adults, $7/child, open daily, free parking,www.MountVernon.org), which is not to be missed; the International Spy Museum, Holocaust Museum, and Newseum (the museum devoted to news coverage.
What may be less appreciated is what a fantastic destination Washington is for biking (particularly in fall) – right from the Gaylord National there is a bike path over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Alexandria, which connects to the nearly 20-mile long Mount Vernon Trail. It goes south eight miles to Mount Vernon (the more scenic part of the trail, with much of it through the Dyke Marsh, www.fodm.org), and nine miles into Washington DC (past Reagan National Airport, and with views of landmarks).
Alexandria, known as a Bicycle friendly city, has many rental shops. We were really impressed with the quality of equipment and services of Bike the Sites, which provides helmets, keyed U-lock, bicycle bag, bicycle rack, map, tire changing kit all as part of the rental, and offers everything from comfort hybrid and kids bikes, to trailers, tandem, performance bikes, road bikes, mobility scooter, wheelchair, umbrella stroller, jog stroller. We picked up from their Old Town Alexandria shop, One Wales Alley (703-548-7655), but they also have locations in downtown DC (The Old Post Office Pavilion, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, 202-842-453), and Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave NE, 202-962-0206), www.bikethesites.com).
There is also the C& O Canal, out of Georgetown, that goes for miles and miles.
Christmas on the Potomac
There are festivals and special events through the year, but probably the most sensational is Gaylord’s “Christmas on the Potomac” when the resort truly becomes a winter wonderland, Nov. 18, 2010-Jan 9, 2011. (See slideshow of sneak peak.)
Washington is particularly wonderful destination for the winter holidays – because so much is indoors, and the Gaylord National completes the resort experience.
What is more, winter is considered low season (but that is not likely to be the case for long).
Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, 201 Waterfront Street, National Harbor, MD 20745, 301-965-2000, www.gaylordnational.com.
Tuesday, 23 November, 2010
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