On the Waterfront at MGM National Harbor
by Mark A. Thompson
Soon after we arrived in the massive sunlit Conservatory at MGM National Harbor, we began to notice the young men. Groups of three and four striding through the two-story atrium, ascending the grand staircase, riding the escalator. Scores of well-groomed young men entering the lobby beneath the 85-foot-high glass ceiling. Spit-polished youth in uniform walking with purpose, one of whom explained to us, “It’s the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.”
Well, then, and how fortuitous for us to arrive at National Harbor on the weekend of such an auspicious occasion. How very fine to be surrounded by such model military youth along the banks of the Potomac a few minutes south of D.C. In the eleven years since its opening in 2008, National Harbor has become a year-round destination attracting more than 12 million annual visitors to a vibrant waterfront community in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Notable for its iconic 180-foot observation wheel known as Capital Wheel and a riverfront Carousel, the 350-acre, $4-billion mixed-use development offers an array of maritime activities, including water taxi service to and from Old Town Alexandria, District Wharf, and Georgetown. In addition to National Harbor’s seven hotels with 3,300 rooms, visitors and residents mix and mingle at more than 30 restaurants and 160 retailers.
All very nice for a town of fewer than 4,000 residents—but what really upped the ante for this arts-focused community was the opening in December 2016 of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor and its 3,000-seat theater. Architecturally inspired by the Washington Monument visible on the horizon, the 24-story luxury casino offers a 308-room hotel with 74 suites—and more than 3,100 slot machines and 200 table games. In short, MGM National Harbor is Maryland’s largest and highest-earning casino: a taste of Vegas on the Potomac with a star-studded roster of entertainers that include favorites such as Cher, Mariah, Britney, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, and Sarah Silverman.
For those guests who wish to entertain friends, the Executive Corner Suites at MGM National Harbor are perfect for hosting intimate soirées or cocktail parties. Larger than many Manhattan apartments, the 1,465-square-foot suites offer panoramic views from the floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the corner apartments. Guests are greeted in a spacious living area with an integrated entertainment center and executive console. A king-sized bedroom is flanked by a private seating area with views of D.C. landmarks. The expansive bathroom features a powder room with a backlit vanity table, as well as a water closet—and a double rainforest shower large enough to serve as a yoga studio.
Located on a private deck with landscaped flower beds, the hotel’s adult-only pool is maintained at 84 degrees throughout the summer season—and when the cooler weather arrives, there’s rest and relaxation to be found at The Spa at MGM National Harbor, a 27,000-square-foot sanctuary of well-being.
While several of the resort’s various restaurants celebrate Maryland’s maritime bounty, Fish by José Andrés takes pride of place with a spectacular nautical setting overlooking the Potomac that offers some of the best of the Michelin-starred chef’s signature seafood specialties.
For a restorative brunch after a late night at the tables, head over to the waterfront district and into the award-winning Succotash, where the James-Beard-nominated chef Edward Lee blends Southern soul food with his own Korean culinary heritage for the best of both worlds. Nota bene: skillet cornbread with sorghum butter and fried green tomatoes with buttermilk dressing. Oh, and also: chocolate bourbon pecan pie.
How better to work off such finger-licking gluttony—and let’s not forget that we’re talking about the South here, where butter and bacon are the backbones of home cooking—than with a round of retail therapy? Designated as The District, the luxury shopping corridor at MGM National Harbor includes the first outpost of Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP Collection of high heels, stilettos, and handbags. Be forewarned: the SATC actress has been known to work the floor at the store to help customers shop each season’s new collection.
Equally tempting for the sartorially savvy male is the haberdasher Stitched, a brilliantly-curated collection of bespoke clothing and accessories housed in a space evocative of a London gentlemen’s club. There’s also the Cinderella Shoe, a gigantic seven-foot-tall stiletto made entirely of stainless steel. Created by artist Liao Yibai, the high-heeled shoe fits every selfie fetish.
For gamblers in need of a good deal, Tanger Outlets is a short walk from the front entrance of MGM National Harbor. Built on the grounds that once housed Salubria, a 40-acre antebellum plantation, the outdoor mall features a memorial garden and history walk near the Potomac River Heritage Visitors Center, thereby enabling a dose of American history alongside consumerism. With more than 85 outlet stores, it’s possible to shop until sunset—and then return to the waterfront for a dinner cruise and fireworks.
National Harbor’s two 700-foot piers provide access to kayaks, paddleboards, pedal boats, water taxis, and yacht rentals at the 62-boat marina, as well as the outdoor bar and lounge known as Flight Deck. Each year, the Capital Wheel attracts nearly one million passengers for a spectacular ride within the observation wheel’s 42 climate-controlled gondolas. In the summer months, the waterfront offers outdoor fitness classes, concert series, and movie nights.
Though MGM National Harbor is located less than ten miles from Capitol Hill, there’s often a sense of living high above the political fray in a world designed for entertainment and leisure. Sometimes what you need most is the fantasy of escape.
A member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and New York Travel Writers (NYTW), Mark A. Thompson is an editor, journalist, and photographer whose work appears in various periodicals, including Travel Weekly, Metrosource, HuffPost, OutThere, OutTraveler, and MRNY. The author of the novels Wolfchild (2000) and My Hawaiian Penthouse (2007), Mark has been awarded fellowships and residencies at various artists’ colonies, including The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.