Thursday, October 21, 2010

National Harbor--not Disney on the Potomac (quite)

view of Potomac from the Gaylord Hotel atrium
I wasn't sure I'd like the hotel/tourist trap/convention/local shopping-dining destination known as National Harbor before I came here on business, and what I knew of it was primarily the Gaylord Hotel, the development's anchor. Don't get me wrong--it's an impressive space to hold a meeting (but don't know what its hotel service is like, as I didn't stay in a room, and won't, if I have to pay for it, as it's too rich for my blood), but I find the rest of National Harbor interesting. (Although I'd like to perhaps head to the Gaylord's day spa someday.) It's nice to have another, scenic spot in the Washington area that takes advantage of proximity to the Potomac.

One weak spot (for me) is the placement of the famous sculpture, The Awakening, relocated from Haines Point. It's too close to the crowded marina for my liking, and appears cramped:

The Awakening statue almost obscured by billboard

The Awakening statue near marina
It should have been placed further down the shore, in a more peaceful area, like this:

shore at National HarborOh, the parking situation. I didn't have to pay for parking the first few times I came (whew!); the next few times I came (for pleasure), I came via the NH1 bus from the Branch Avenue metro, scared as I was of the ridiculously high parking rates, which can reach $20 if you stay long enough! (And when you can find the parking lots, which I somehow think are mostly for the condo residents.) I've heard that it's easy to get a ticket if you park at a meter, so I'm not eager to try that either. For the 'burbs, the rates are a bit much.

As the summer's over, there are no more movies being screened over the Potomac Sunday nights (bummer!). However, there are decent walking paths along the shore (see above), and a walking trail to the nearby Wilson Bridge has been completed, if you're in the mood for more of a hike. In fact, there are lots of walking paths, and places to sit down, which makes this a good area for a leisurely stroll.

Closer to civilization, yet away from the hotel proper (as hotels themselves tend to have the most boring, yet pricey, shopping and dining options), the shops and restaurants are somewhat varied, if upscale. There's an intimate looking outpost of Mayorga Coffee that opens early for hot coffee and accompanying noshes.

outside of Mayorga CoffeeHowever, there's also coffee and tea available early at Aromi D'Italia, as well as breakfast (and later, lunch) panini/sandwiches, a view of the harbor, and frozen dessert (early in the morning).

gelato display at Aromi d'Italia
Better, you don't need to run back to a hotel to take care of certain necessities after eating, because on the same level as Aromi and the Cakelove outpost (which is next door to Aromi, and whose baked goods I have conflicted feelings about), as seen from the following sign from heaven.

(Better still is that the ladies room is kept quite clean.) Somehow, though, Desserts by Gerard (a local patisserie located down the road with the most luscious cakes) would seem a better fit for National Harbor than Cakelove. But then, Gerard's prices would probably have to increase.

I can't recommend Ketchup for a breakfast option, as it wasn't open for breakfast as it stated (on a door); an employee at another Nat Harbor store told me that Ketchup advertises somewhere that it serves breakfast, but doesn't. The manager I spoke with seemed less than friendly, so I won't be returning. (What kind of name is that for a restaurant anyway?)

Lunch and dinner are available at a number of restaurants, which tend to be on the pricier side. A cousin raves about Elevation Burger's grass-fed burgers, and a friend enjoyed dinner at Rosa Mexicano, but mentioned that it will flatten the wallet. Of course, there are various seafood establishments, including a McCormick and Schmick's, as well as upmarket Thai and Chinese restaurants (Thai Pavilion and Grace Mandarin), so there should be something to please everyone. Also, there's a Rita's Ice and a Ben and Jerry's for ice cream after dinner if you don't want gelato for a frozen treat.

As to shopping, there are a few upscale stores, some of which actually carry items I might like to splurge on. There's South Moon Under, but even better, Fossil. For the men, there's the venerable Joseph A. Banks, and for the ladies, not just cutey-patootie stores like Charming Charlie, but two, count 'em, two expensive shoe stores. The newer one, Simply Soles, has a good selection of quality shoes, at a variety of sizes (not just the size 6's of the world). However, as its goods are in the $300 to $400 range, I don't see myself buying pumps there anytime soon. The local chain, Comfort One Shoes, has a nice store here, with a variety of styles for women and men. But again, it would have to be a major sale (again) for me to shop here in the near future.

Now, the National Harbor project is still a work in progress, as the new National Children's Museum is being built there, as well as as a CVS and a gourmet market, presumably for the condo residents who need more than the snacks that can be procured from Onsite News. Perhaps a sign of the times is a ride that was supposed to be completed this past summer, the Calleva Challenge (a type of battering ram, I think).
But then, perhaps this is simply in keeping with the Children's Museum that's being built, and this might be somehow related to that, as a type of demonstration, when it's finally finished. As for the Disney property up the hill from this battering ram, who knows?

My final gripe about National Harbor is not with the development itself, but how it and the county have fallen down in promoting its own proximity to history, in Maryland as well as Virginia. For instance, you will find nowhere on the National Harbor website that the harbor is literally next door to the historic Oxon Hill Manor, a picturesque site often used for weddings (and, apparently used by a number of Gaylord guests in town for weddings held at the manor). Or that Fort Washington is also nearby. Why couldn't that be a water taxi stop in the summer? Oh well, nothing's perfect, so neither is National Harbor. But it's a scenic, varied place to hang out with family and friends once in a while.

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