By Everett Potter
Where do you go in the depths of winter on the East Coast when you need a quick getaway that will amuse you, your spouse and your 10 year old daughter, a getaway that doesn’t involve expensive air travel or a ski slope?
A city, of course. In our case, we headed to Washington DC from our home in New York for a quick weekend via Amtrak.
The solution was easy, given that we have a little girl fascinated by Sasha and Melia. My daughter’s shortlist obviously included a visit to The White House. It was a great opportunity to open up her eyes to the amazing sites of our Nation’s capital.
This was her first time in Washington and it was a first visit made memorable by being met by my wife’s Uncle Jerry, a witty and amusing long time resident of our nation’s capital. With a background as an architectural historian — he once dragged me to the little-visited National Building Museum to see an exhibit on the history of air conditioning and it was amazing — Jerry seemingly knows every bit of history, scandal and incident about every square inch of the capital. He’s the reason we explored the extraordinary National Postal Museum, next to Union Station, when we were early for our train home. He also brought us to local favorites like Paul, a French bakery with authentic Parisian ownership, for lunch. His enthusiasm and remarkable knowledge about every corner of DC fueled our short visit and amused “Princess,” his preferred moniker for our kid.
Here are some of the things that made our weekend so memorable.
Yes, Amtrak. Sure, I wish the tickets were cheaper, but when our much-maligned national rail system works, it works reasonably well. Living 10 minutes from an Amtrak station makes it easy to travel, sleep, work and daydream while spending four and half hours rolling through the winter landscape of the mid-Atlantic and find yourself in glorious Union Station. It’s not only architecturally stunning, but it provides a cinematic view of the Capitol building when you emerge – cue the Aaron Copeland soundtrack. It clearly beats parking in DC and the traffic and tolls of the Jersey Turnpike any day.
2. Fairmont Washington DC Georgetown
Base camp for the weekend was the Fairmont Washington DC, Georgetown, which lies at the edge of Georgetown in the West End area, a short walk from Dupont Circle. Great location aside, the lobby has a wall of glass that looks out onto a welcoming (winter) garden that was dusted with snow and was the essence of coziness in the midst of an atypically cold spell in Washington. The hotel calls itself “an urban oasis” and for once, the writer was not exaggerating. Our room was incredibly comfortable, with a newly refurbished bathroom feature separate soaking tub and walk-in shower. After a day of chilly DC, it was a great refuge. We also loved the Fairmont’s Sunday Brunch as well as its afternoon tea, aimed to delight a little princess with a diminutive tea set. Every parent gets bonus points when an urban hotel has a pool, and this one fit the bill. The Fairmont has a number of good package deals available, like the Family Adventure Package, which is for two adults and two kids and includes breakfast, with rates from $289 per night (or if you’re coming sans kids, The Cherry Blossom Package starts at $209 for two adults). Visit Fairmont Washington DC Georgetown
3. Martin’s Tavern, Georgetown
This dark, clubby, well worn bar and restaurant from 1933 is known for the roster of presidents who’ve dined there – Truman, Nixon, Johnson, LBJ and most famously Jack Kennedy. JFK would enjoy Sunday breakfast alone in the narrow two-person booth called the Rumble Seat. Even more famously, he occupied in booth number 3, the so-called Proposal Booth, where he is said to have proposed to Jackie. Even if the absolute truth of that might be disputed, it gave Uncle Jerry a chance to give my daughter a little light presidential history lesson. One thing I couldn’t argue with was Martin’s bison burger, crab cake, and the smile on a face when she saw the kid friendly pasta. That and the warm, cozy atmosphere as the snow fell during DC’s recent cold spell.
4. Air & Space Museum
This extraordinary museum, stuffed to the gills with some of the most amazing inventions of the 20th century, remains the most popular museum in the United States. I’m speaking here about the original museum on the Mall, not the even larger branch out by Dulles. I first visited in 1976 when it opened and honestly, it’s still thrilling even if it looks rather well worn from too many visitors. Let’s make that well-loved. The hordes of teens in hoodies and adults with strollers come to peer into John Glenn’s Mercury “Friendship 7” capsule, gawk at the Wright Brother’s fragile-looking Flyer and go “eeeww “ when they learn about hygiene issues in the Space Station. It’s one of those rare museums where kids and adults have a similar grin on their faces as they wander around. My daughter and I liked the vintage Eastern Airlines Douglas DC 3 passenger plane, gleaming and suspended. Now if the Air & Space Museum could only get Purell to sponsor a giant dispenser next to the moon rocks that every visitor in this tough flu season feels obliged to touch.
5. American History Museum
Julia’s Child’s kitchen, artfully removed and reinstalled from her home in Cambridge, is literally a magical window into the life of America’s favorite chef at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. Even if you have yet to read my friend Bob Spitz’s new opus Dearie, on the life of Child, it’s a glimpse into a past of copper pots and crepe pans from France on pegboard walls her husband Paul built. The well-used kitchen is the centerpiece for a remarkable exhibition called “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000.” But there is loads more to love in this remarkable repository of American icons, history and kitsch. Led around by my curious daughter, we found the hat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing the evening he was assassinated and the red slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. We really loved the “America on the Move” exhibit, with its locomotive, cars, travel trailers and Chicago El train, where my wife and Uncle Jerry could pretend they were riding as they did in the 1960’s. But what we all found most moving was the Star Spangled Banner, enormous, tattered, and reverently protected in a low light situation.
6. National Geographic Museum
I’ve written for National Geographic Traveler for years but I had never toured its remarkable and highly kid-friendly National Geographic Museum in the Society’s headquarters. We saw an exhibit on the inventiveness of the Islamic world – with some well chosen words from Uncle Jerry, who has lived and worked in Mali — and then an equally compelling interactive exhibit by photographer Tim Laman and ornithologist Ed Scholes called Birds of Paradise: Extreme, Bizarre, Extraordinary. It might not turn my daughter into an explorer, but on the other hand, judging by her interest in the spotting scope and camera that kids are free to use, it just might.
7. The White House
Our visit to Washington was too last minute to get tickets to visit the White House. Nevertheless, when there are two girls ages 11 and 14 living inside, that’s reason enough for it to be high on the list of any visiting 10 year old. So that’s how we found ourselves clinging to the fence on a blustery afternoon, with my daughter wondering aloud what Sasha and Malia might be doing, what windows might be their bedroom windows, and whether they were looking out at her. We never found the answer to any of these questions but it didn’t matter. After gazing at it for a while, her mind was made up: ”Next time, we’re going to see the inside.”
8. Lincoln Memorial
It was late on a very gray day, our visit was winding down and I asked my daughter where she wanted go before we headed to Chinatown with Uncle Jerry. “The Lincoln Memorial,” she said definitively, as only a Fifth Grader who’s been reading up on American history can say. So we hailed a cab on a freezing street corner and five minutes later, walked briskly up the many steps to see the extraordinary statue of our nation’s greatest President. She stared and stared at the Daniel Chester French masterpiece, not saying much. I began to wonder if this moment was akin, for her, to seeing the great man in person. Then she turned, smiled and said, ‘Okay Daddy, now let’s go get some dumplings.”