Saturday, July 24, 2010

Playing Tourist in Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 16 - Thursday, July 22, 2010
Picture've sailed (okay, motored) 100 miles up the Potomac from the Chesapeake. As you pass under the newly-completed 75' Woodrow Wilson bridge, you hear the roar of airplane engines taking off and landing at Regan National Airport to port. It's a hazy morning, but you begin to see a familiar shape straight ahead of you...some sort of obelisk that stands out from the rest of the skyline... Yep, it's the Washington Monument! Turning towards the James Creek Marina and our home for the next three nights, we can see the US Capitol behind the marina in the distance. Talk about being in the heart of history. How cool is this?!

Thanks to currents in our favor, we've made it to James Creek Marina in under four hours. They have a very helpful staff, and we're in our slip before noon. We cab it to an urgent care center for a quick doctor's visit (don't worry, Mom!), and take Rene on his first metro ride back home. It's nearly a mile from the nearest metro station to the marina, but Waterfront station will eventually be part of a large retail/residence center that's still in progress. For now, there's a massive Safeway that just opened a few months ago - talk about convenience! We can bike from the marina to Safeway, lock the bikes on the rack by the front door, stop in for a quick Starbucks, and take the metro to the sites. The neighborhood is a bit isolated/dodgy (Pizza Hut won't even deliver here!), but the marina folks have told us where we should and shouldn't go. We'll stick close to the military base and should be fine.

Back on the boat, we have a new neighbor on the fuel dock: a 147' mega-yacht named Fighting Irish. The boat "lives" at another marina, but they've contracted to take on fuel at James Creek...over 9,500 gallons of it! (Anyone else have a $25,000 fuel bill??) The only downside is that James Creek doesn't have a speedy fuel pump; at close to 800 gallons per hour, it takes 12 hours for Irish to fill up. They weren't able to finish up before closing time on Friday and had to come back the next morning. Poor guys - someone actually had to watch the pump the entire time. Talk about a sucky job!

Our D.C. experience really begins on Saturday when we buy a 2-day pass on the Tourmobile, a bus that runs past the museums and memorials and offers on/off privileges. We ride down to the Washington Monument and WWII Memorial for pictures (it's 10am and tickets for the WA Memorial are long gone), and catch another bus back up to the Capitol for our 11:30am tour. We're five minutes late thanks to a long security line, but the woman at the check-in desk takes pity on us and lets us through. After a short film telling us about Congress's history and the hard work they do (go ahead, insert snide remarks here), we line up like cattle for our guided tour. All kidding aside, it really is a beautiful building. The tour starts in the Crypt, a room containing 40 columns that hold the weight of the dome. The room also has an entrance to a tomb that was created for George Washington, who refused the honor in favor of a final resting place at his beloved Mount Vernon. Next on the tour is the Rotunda, where the famous mural, Apotheosis of George Washington, adorns the inside of the capitol dome. Ever wonder what the statue at the top of the dome looks like? You can see the model for the Statue of Freedom in the US Capitol Visitor's Center. The Old Senate Chamber has been renovated to its original splendor, and now contains statues, artwork, and plaques in the floor designating where congressmen-turned-presidents were seated. Finally, an underground passage leads from the Capitol to the Library of Congress. The library has gained some notoriety in recent movies and novels, and we wanted to see what all the hype was about. What a gorgeous building! The primary reading room is off-limits to tourists, but you can view it through plexi-glass on either of two floors.

We manage to spend nearly three hours in the Capitol and Library of Congress, and decide to grab a quick lunch back at Union Station's basement food court. That enables us to hop on another Tourmobile ride around town, giving our tired feet a rest. The Tourmobile takes us through the Mall past the Smithsonian museums, around the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and across the river to Arlington National Cemetery. We hadn't planned to take the cemetery tour, but a bus is just leaving to view the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Afterward, we catch the last bus back into town, where we grab a metro back to our home base.

It all starts again on Sunday, where we began the day at the Air & Space Museum. Always suckers for planetariums, we watch two shows: "Black Holes" and "Journey to the Stars". Both have incredible effects involving a combination of actual footage and computer models. We also get to see the original Wright Brothers flier, after having seen a replica at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC, a few months back. Air & Space is a massive museum, and our two-hour rush-through doesn't do it justice. Fortunately, many exhibits were a reinforcement of things we've already seen along our journey - Kennedy Space Center in FL, other planetariums, the Wright Brothers memorial, etc. After Air & Space, we walk to the National Archives for a quick viewing of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Lunch is homemade noodles at Chinatown Express in Chinatown, followed by a tour of the Natural History museum. Run, run, run!

Monday we gave up our marina slip, but found an even better spot anchored in Washington Channel in front of the Capital Yacht Club. We'd been told this was a nice anchorage, but were nervous about starting out here due to the heat, security, etc. We needn't have worried - it's a well-protected spot, and we kept the boat open all day while we toured DC. We had the option to dinghy to either the CYC or the Gangplank Marina, and chose CYC because their GM had been so helpful in trying to find us a slip the week before. We're soooo glad we chose CYC! For $15/day, you get full access to the club and its facilities - dinghy dock, laundry, library, lounge, bar, wireless internet, etc. The people there were incredibly friendly, and we were constantly reminded of our Watergate friends back in Kemah. Live-aboards aren't allowed in Washington DC, so there are a lot of "full time cruisers" in the marinas there. People stop by their mail boxes, which just happen to be next to the bar, on the way home. It becomes a real social center after work, and everyone made us feel right at home. Come to think of it, it's probably a good thing we didn't have a bar on-site at Watergate - we got into enough trouble with our impromptu dock parties!

Tuesday began with an attempt to catch a bus to the American History museum. Easier said than done! After walking to the spot where the DC bus/metro website directed us, we couldn't find a bus stop sign. We waited 20 minutes past the pick-up time and finally gave up. We ended up walking to the Botanical Garden, then back to Chinatown at Tony Cheng's for dim sum. (By the way...if any of our lunch spots sound good, check out this site for more cheap sightseeing and food ideas.) We had much better luck with a DC Circulator bus that took us to the American History museum. Called "America's Attic", it holds an eclectic collection of artifacts, including the original Star-Spangled Banner, the Fonz's leather jacket from Happy Days, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, plus exhibits featuring Motown, wartime history, musical instruments, Julia Child's kitchen, Women's Lib, etc. There's so much to see and read about that you'd need at least a week to cover this one museum. It's exhausting! We were actually relieved that the museum closed early (5:30 instead of 7:30) for a private function, and we found another DC Circulator that dropped us off a block from the marina. We had to be back in time for dinner, after all... The regulars typically hold dinners on Tuesdays and Fridays, plus breakfast on Saturdays, for a small fee. One or more boats volunteer to shop and cook, and another group is responsible for clean-up. Tuesday turned out to be BBQ ribs and sausages night, and for $7, we were stuffed full of BBQ, coleslaw, potato salad, veggies, and cream puffs.

We originally intended to leave DC on Wednesday, but never realized how much playing tourist would wipe us out. Our initial plan of seeing both the American History Museum and the National Zoo in one day drew looks of disbelief from some of the CYC guys, and boy were they right. We ended up postponing the zoo tour for Wednesday, which allowed us to spend the entire day there AND make a detour to Adams Morgan for lunch at the Amsterdam Falafelshop (think fried chickpea patty in a pita and twice-fried fries with 20 possible toppings). They had real Dutch mayo and peanut sauce for the fries...Rene was in Dutch junk food heaven! Before you think lunch was the highlight of the day, we have to say that the zoo was fantastic. Lions, tigers, and bears...oh, my! Plus gorillas, orangutans, tarantulas, panda bears, elephants, lemurs... the list goes on and on. We made it back to the yacht club that evening for a last bevvie with our new friends, and were sad when we had to leave our key in the drop box. We had a fantastic time in D.C., and really want to thank everyone at Capital Yacht Club for treating us like family.

We finally pulled up anchor on Thursday morning. Our first stop was Mount Vernon, home to George Washington. We anchored off the channel in 8' of water and dinghied to the tour boat dock. Mount Vernon remained in the Washington family until the mid-1850s, when the great-great-nephew of George Washington could no longer afford to maintain it. He tried to sell it to the federal government or to the Commonwealth of Virginia, neither of which was willing to spend the money. A group of 12 ladies, led by a South Carolina socialite, thus created the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Their motto? "If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can't the women of America band together to save it?" The women raised $200,000 (over $5 million in today's dollars) and bought the home, the outbuildings, and 200 of the original 8,000 acres. Mount Vernon is still owned and maintained in trust by the MVLA. The home has been beautifully restored, and the interior looks much like it did when George and Martha Washington lived there. You can see the first two floors of the house, but the third floor - where Martha moved after George's death - is off limits. The gardens are especially gorgeous, and the upper gardens are filled with flowers that attract hundreds of butterflies. The "Pioneer Farmer" site covers four acres near the mansion and offers visitors a look into Washington's innovative ideas, including a 16-sided barn designed for thrashing wheat (demonstrations are done on-site).

All in all, we had an incredible trip up the Potomac. We have about 400 pictures of DC alone, so we have some editing to do before we include the link here. Please bear with us, and check back in a few days. :-)

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