for a surprisingly relaxed and inexpensive visit. [July 2007]
By Connie Bond
It looks like a giant Venus flytrap, lying in wait for us!" joked my friend Amy Smith, as we approached the Wilson Bridge on our way up the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. We were on the flybridge of Medusa, Amy's 34-foot Marine Trader trawler, staring in wonderment as we approached the bridge. With its two new spans under construction, it looked to me like a giant Erector set gone awry. A half-dozen enormous cranes flanking the main channel dwarfed the closed drawbridge that was visible just beyond, where cars and trucks speeding back and forth made a loud metallic whir.
I had joined Amy on Medusa's spring shakedown cruise on the Potomac River, and now we were returning to the Gangplank Marina in the Washington Channel, where she lives aboard the boat. For me it was strictly deja vu; I lived on the D.C. waterfront for many years, including three aboard my own trawler at the Gangplank, and I was eager to see what had changed and what had stayed the same in the old neighborhood. With a peppery wit that somehow seems related to her long red hair, and an offbeat sense of humor that leans toward The Simpsons and New Yorker cartoons, Amy was perfect company for this adventure. An electrical engineer for a downtown firm, she rides her bike to work, as I used to do. And, as Amy has now, I too had a drop-dead view from my floating home of the Washington Monument, floodlit at night with its red eyes blinking.
But at the moment, on this sunny April afternoon, the view from Medusa's flybridge was somewhat less enchanting. We passed underneath the bridge quickly, though, only momentarily enveloped by the sound of vehicles racing overhead, then continued past Alexandria, Va., and National Airport, where jets took off with a roar every few minutes and dozens of small sailboats looped back and forth in the shallows off the airport runways. And there it was, the nation's capital, its individual landmarks gradually becoming recognizable against the deep blue sky--the tall Washington Monument, the lacy National Cathedral, the ornate domes of the Capitol and the Library of Congress. At the far right, along the Anacostia River, was another sea of cranes, at work in the latest city neighborhood to be "rediscovered." There, office buildings have been mushrooming along the Navy Yard corridor, just upriver from the site where the much-anticipated stadium for the Nationals baseball team will be built (spurring sarcastic pundits to suggest that maybe the new team ought to be named the D.C. Developers).
As we motored along the last long, sun-drenched stretch of river before reaching Hains Point--where the Potomac, the Washington Channel and the Anacostia River converge--the dome of the Capitol hovered above the bow of the boat, a phenomenon that I have always found magical, especially at night. Ahead of us, we watched as the Odyssey--a tour boat that can only be described as a giant floating sardine can--lumbered around Hains Point from the channel and headed up the Potomac toward Georgetown. "There goes the Oddity," deadpanned Amy.
By the time we turned off the Potomac and doglegged into the channel, the panorama of the city was replaced by the waterfront neighborhood itself. On our left, separating the channel from the Potomac, was East Potomac Park, where kids climbed on the legs of The Awakening, a sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth amid trees lush with light-green spring growth. On our right, beyond the appealing row of red-brick, white-porched officers' quarters of Fort McNair, we passed some big condos, the harbor police station and the tour-boat docks before pulling in at the Gangplank. Beyond us were the docks of Capital Yacht Club (CYC) and Washington Marina, and the Seafood Wharf--a festive cluster of floating barges where you can buy fish, crabs and produce, uncooked or carryout.
It occurred to me, as we secured Medusa in her slip, that coming to Washington by boat may be the most stress-free approach of all. If you drive into D.C. and stay at a hotel, there's all that nasty traffic, especially during rush hour when the direction of many key streets is switched. Then there's parking--or should I say, then there's not parking. Hotels cost a bundle. You could stay at a hotel in the suburbs, but then you'd spend a lot of time on the Metro (the subway) getting to the heart of the city. But if you come by boat, it's a whole different story. In place of traffic hassles, you cruise 96 serene miles up the Potomac--with great marinas, waterfront crabhouses, quiet anchorages, and a mostly forested shoreline punctuated by Mount Vernon, Fort Washington and other historic landmarks. Then, once here in the Washington Channel, you can stay at the Gangplank or Capital Yacht Club, both of them filled with friendly people and very secure. Or, in what must be the deal of the century, you can anchor in the channel and get dinghy privileges at either place for a mere 10 bucks a day, allowing you to use showers, laundry and, in the case of CYC, a terrific clubhouse with one of the most beautiful varnished-wood bars in town and a great cast of characters seated around it--from Bud Soucy (ask him about the time Guy Lombardo's hydroplane did a full-loop crash in the Potomac) to 90-year-old club mensch Sam "The Shark" Sharkey, former head of NBC News.
And talk about location. If you walk northwest for 10 minutes, you're standing on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, looking over the Tidal Basin at the top of the channel. If you walk northeast for 10 minutes, you're standing smack in the middle of the National Mall, with the Washington Monument to the west, the U.S. Capitol to the east, and the Smithsonian museums, National Gallery of Art and U.S. Botanic Garden (the oldest one in the country) ranged around you. And they're all free, which brings me to the second point of this story: Although a lot of people think a visit to Washington, D.C., must be hard on the pocketbook, I'm here to tell you it ain't necessarily so--especially when your boat is your transportation and lodging.
So there we were, in the heart of the nation's capital, two longtime denizens of the waterfront, with happy hour upon us. We walked to the down-channel end of the Gangplank, where the two-story tower dock and adjoining tented terrace have been transformed into a bright blue-and-yellow-painted floating restaurant called Cantina Marina. We waded into the chattering crowd of boaters and landlubbers from the nearby condos, ordered a couple of glasses of merlot from the bar, and immediately ran into old friends like retired Justice Department employee Neal Berg. Neal now lives in one of the condos, but he lived aboard when I did.
"Gosh, Neal, I remember how you used to sit on the front of your boat after work and play bluegrass on your banjo," I said. "That was great."
"You were always on your top deck, reading," he said. "You were blonde then." Neal had been legendary among the liveaboards because of an incident one spring evening. Hearing yells for help, we had all run to the T-heads of our respective docks to see him--waving and bobbing frantically out in the water--as his dinghy ran in circles around him. Fortunately, the dinghy eventually ran down one of the fairways, sparing him. ("I didn't have a dead-man switch on the outboard, but I got one right after that happened!" he said.) The price of survival? Happy hour ribbing, of course.
Having agreed on a goal of the best possible visit to D.C. for the least amount of moola, Amy and I decided on carryout from the Seafood Wharf for dinner. To get there, we walked along the raised waterfront promenade that extends from Fort McNair to the wharf. Behind the section of the promenade where the marinas are located is a row of big, boxy restaurants that I have always called "the bunkers"; everything here--the promenade, the bunkers, the surrounding condos--was built during a massive waterfront redevelopment project in the 1960s, guided by a utopian vision that got carried away at times, chopping the Southwest neighborhood into street bites instead of creating a cohesive whole. But that's okay; the channel side of the restaurants has a neighborhood feel, with a view over the boats and the rustic Hains Point peninsula beyond, and a promenade populated by joggers, dog-walkers and fishermen. Walk along the opposite side that faces the city, though-- along Water Street and Maine Avenue, the wide boulevard parallel to it-- and you dodge around rows of diesel-belching buses waiting for the tour groups that are eating inside.
When we'd almost reached the CYC clubhouse--the last in this long row of buildings--we ran into Penne Barton, CYC vice-commodore, out for evening exercise with earphones on. Penne works on the Hill for a senator, so I asked her if it's true that people now have to book White House visits through their senator or congressman. Yes, she said, adding "Groups of ten--has to be groups of ten or more."
Visiting the White House requires the most advance planning, but other major tourist draws, such as the Capitol and the Washington Monument, merely require timed-entry tickets. You can pick them up the same day at nearby kiosks, but if you try it in the summer, come equipped with water, a hat and a small library for your wait in line. This leads me to recommend that, when you visit D.C. in the warmer months, leave these celebrity visits to the off-season--say, a weekday in January or February--when you have a shot at seeing all three of them in a day. In the warmer months, concentrate on what's outdoors--the many fabulous gardens, fountains, outdoor monuments and sculptures--and then, if for some reason the lines aren't too long, sure, duck into the major monuments and museums.
We wove our way to the Captain White carryout barge at the back of the wharf and placed our dinner orders. The 10-minute wait was fun, because this open-air market is the closest thing D.C. has to the United Nations--people of all ages, classes and ethnic backgrounds, and everyone in a good mood, from the guys on the barges hosing down the live crabs and taking orders, to dads with kids riding on their shoulders, teenagers picking up bushels of steamed crabs, a trio of construction workers standing in a circle contentedly snarfing down raw oysters from paper plates, men and women in office garb stopping off on their way home to the 'burbs. Our dinner came in two white styrofoam boxes, each containing two breaded trout filets, fried oysters, perfectly seasoned hush puppies, cole slaw and bread. Grand total for both: $21.67. We ate dinner on the boat and turned in early.
That night, as I slept in the main saloon, something woke me. I wriggled out of my mummy bag, got up, looked around. The total calm here in the middle of the night, in the middle of the nation's capital, has always surprised me. Water gurgled softly against the boat's hull. Through the windshield, the bright, thin obelisk of the Washington Monument appeared to sway against the pitch-black sky, for some reason reminding me--as it always has--of a giant planaria worm, its red eyes winking as if to say, "Don't take this town too seriously." From a distance, the soothing rumble of a freight train floated on the air.
The quiet didn't last. At 6 a.m., "the liveaboards' alarm clock," as Amy calls it, went off right on time as the first jet took off across the river at the airport. Over the next half-hour, three helicopters from the presidential fleet (their top halves are painted white) thundered overhead. By now, incoming commuter traffic on the 14th Street bridge, which crosses the top end of the channel, was rolling, and garbage trucks were banging and beeping on the city side of the restaurants . . . another day dawning in the Theme Park on the Potomac.
After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, Amy and I set out for a day of exploring. First stop was Washington Marina at the top of the channel just above the bridge, home to the only boating supply store on the waterfront. Bob Stickel Sr. (one of four Stickels who run the place) stood behind the counter, instantly recognizable by his shock of unruly gray hair and the glasses low on his nose.
Washington Marina is the oldest one in D.C.; it opened in 1939, Stickel said, "after FDR came to town and asked, 'Where's the marina?' " The Stickels have run the business since 1953. Long known for its well stocked parts department, it now has new floating docks with more than a hundred slips, which makes it an additional choice for transient powerboaters (no large sailboats, since the marina is above the bridge, which has a 37-foot clearance). In the 1960s, Stickel told us, the original redevelopment plan included a pedestrian bridge across the channel over to Hains Point--below where the Gangplank Marina is now--so that people could walk there from Maine Avenue. "I said, you've got to be kidding! You mean you're gonna stop all the boats from comin' up the channel?" said Stickel. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" The planners lost that battle. As it happens, the city is now planning another waterfront redevelopment project--this time with upscale condos and trendy shops replacing the row of restaurants. "Maine Avenue's gonna have a rework," he said, adding that we shouldn't hold our breath for it to be finished.
It was time to explore the waterfront's backyard--the National Mall. We walked up the grassy hill on the other side of Maine Avenue to quiet Banneker Circle and over the Southwest Freeway, which is perpetually clogged with commuter and tourist traffic. For many years I biked this way to work, and I'd always yell "Fools!" from the overpass, my own little running joke. Amy and I continued through L'Enfant Plaza, a small complex of cookie-cutter office buildings, and voila, there we were at the Smithsonian's Victorian Garden. It's another bonus of visiting D.C. by boat--when you walk from your boat to the mall, you enter in style, through this elegant garden in front of the multitowered Smithsonian Castle. On this spring day, pale pink magnolia blossoms were the backdrop for elaborate geometric patterns of deep-orange tulips and purple petunias. At the garden's west corner, behind the entrance pavilion for the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, are two rough-hewn stone gateways flanking a serene pool, and on the opposite side, behind the African Art Museum entrance pavilion, there's a small waterfall and shaded seating nook. Washington is filled with pools, waterfalls and fountains, and these two little oases are particularly lovely and seldom crowded when many others are.
You could come a hundred times to the National Mall--an incredible cluster of art, architecture, monuments and gardens--and never see everything. But we made a dent. We made a brief stop in the underground Sackler Gallery and lingered over its exquisite Buddhas. Then we headed out to the mall, past the carousel--where little kids rode in circles to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"--and across to the American Museum of Natural History to see the new mammal hall. Here is where you realize, once and for all, that the age of the diorama is coming to an end. This is a bright, cavernous space in which several hundred stuffed animals are freely posed, as though hanging out at their local watering hole. A giraffe cranes its neck to munch on an overhead branch, a bobcat stands on its rear legs reaching for a bird, an aardvark pokes its nose into a 15-foot-high termite mound. There are still a few dioramas here, and Amy dragged me across the Rotunda to show me her favorite--an underwater tableau of prehistoric jellyfish. It was so bad it was good, its faded yellow animals and pink bladelike grasses looking like they'd been cut out of 1950s Tupperware.
Our tour continued next door at the National Museum of American History, where we concentrated on maritime exhibits. Standing on a long platform, we looked down at the 54-foot-long gunboat Philadelphia, the oldest American man-of-war in existence. It was sunk in Lake Champlain in 1776, in a battle with the British, and raised in 1935; on the starboard side of its much-weathered but intact white oak hull, near the bow, is the tidy round hole that spelled her doom--and the actual ball that made the hole. Farther on, we were peering down into the engine room of a U.S. Lighthouse Service buoy tender built in 1921, when the sudden roar of a 750-hp steam engine (a tape recording) gave us quite a start. At an exhibit of ship's rigging, we laughed over a penciled note a visitor had neatly laid on top of a chunky wooden pulley. Written in old-fashioned capital letters, it said, "This pulley is incorrectly rigged. Rigged this way it would break." Way to go, sailor!
Leaving the mall behind us, we wandered up to Pennsylvania Avenue and popped into the jewel-like lobby of the legendary Willard Hotel. A longtime favorite hangout of politicians, it was the birthplace of the word "lobbyist," specifically, when President Ulysses S. Grant, who used to go there for cigars and whiskey, complained about "those damned lobbyists." We continued on to the Hotel Washington, across from the White House, where we had a snack on the Roof Terrace. We didn't go for the food; we went for the panoramic view over the White House, National Mall and Potomac River.
During the afternoon, we walked past the White House to the Renwick Gallery, an elegant French Second Empire-style building built in 1861 that was the city's first art museum. It now displays the Smithsonian's crafts collection and--pleasant surprise--is also temporarily exhibiting masterpieces from the Museum of American Art (which is being renovated). In the style of 19th-century Paris exhibitions, the paintings covered every square inch of all four walls of the grand salon. We spotted plenty of famous marine paintings, from Thomas Moran's huge, ethereal canvas of a tiny ship dwarfed by the lights of the Aurora Borealis to Albert Pinkham Ryder's small, turbulent oils of sailboats under moonlight and Jonah getting swallowed by a whale. Then we ambled back down to the mall, the entire route lush with tulips and petunias. We checked out the WWII Memorial (impressive, but where's the shade?) and then found a bench at the Tidal Basin, opposite the Jefferson Memorial. Plenty of shade there, as the entire basin is lined with cherry trees. The bright whitish-pink blossoms had fallen the week before, but the dark pink inner flowers resonated subtly against the green foliage.
On our way back to the boat we ran into old friend Mike Gutterman, a retired D.C. cop who now works as a diver. He'd parked his blue "diver services" truck at Washington Marina and was standing next to it in his black swim trunks, shaking Gold Bond powder into the inside surfaces of his wet suit. A boater, he told us, had been washing a panel he'd taken off his houseboat when it had blown into the water. We tagged along with him down to the boat, where he lowered himself into 28 feet of 50-degree water. Last October at CYC, he told us, he was sent down to look for a woman's diamond-stud earring that had dropped into the water. He found it. The houseboat panel, apparently carried off by the current, proved more elusive, but we worked up quite an appetite watching Gutterman's bubbles go in circles for a half-hour.
Dinner was a big tossed salad with the last of the Parrano cheese and peppered smoked salmon that I'd picked up at Eastern Market before our cruise. Afterward, we dropped in on a liveaboard friend whose boat is at the end of a T-head, one of the marina's coveted spots, with an unobstructed view of water, trees and passing boats.
The next day Amy had other commitments, so I was on my own. It was another perfect spring morning as I followed the same relaxed route to the Castle, but this time I turned right at the carousel. My plan was to work my way up to the top of the mall and then around to the National Gallery. I strolled through the sunken Hirshhorn sculpture garden, where high-school art students had spread out, sitting on ledges, sketching what they saw--Matisse's series of a woman's back, David Smith's intriguing steel sculptures, Rodin's Burghers of Calais. I bypassed the Air and Space Museum, where an unending row of buses was already parked and a long line had formed, and then I was alongside the new National Museum of the American Indian, which was designed by architect Douglas Cardinal, a Native Canadian. Clad in warm-toned limestone, the massive building is all curves, with a waterfall at one end, like a giant mesa transplanted to the capital. Directly opposite on the north side of the mall is I. M. Pei's cool, geometric East Building of the National Gallery of Art, flat surfaces and sharp angles, the perfect twin for Cardinal's building. Next, I came to the recently renovated Botanic Garden, with its high greenhouse-roofed interiors. Inside, I climbed metal stairs to the rain-forest walkway, which led through a steamy canopy of tropical trees.
For lunch, I met a friend in the Garden Court of the National Gallery of Art--the one meal I splurged on this trip, and well worth it. Afterward, I roamed the galleries, my feet appreciating the wooden floors of the grand old neoclassic building. The NGA is truly one of the great art museums of the world; you could spend weeks here. But don't miss Gallery 67, on the west end of the main floor, which is filled with maritime paintings by American masters John Kensett, Frederic Church and Martin Heade. Nearby, you'll also find seascapes by Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran and Fitz Hugh Lane.
Before lunch, on my way to the National Gallery, I had passed its soaring, modern East Building. One of its corners, facing the mall, has such a sharp angle that people have felt compelled through the years to touch it, resulting in a dark smudge. There, I ran into Caroline Sohie, a young Belgian tourist, holding her camera upward to photograph this narrow slice of architecture against the sky. She had just come from New York, she said, and was amazed at the difference between the two cities. "In New York, everything is built up vertically," she said, "and here everything is very horizontal. In New York you feel like light is coming down in shafts, but here it's soft light everywhere."
She was right. Maybe that's why spring suits Washington so perfectly--so many flowers, against so many white buildings, in that soft light. A city for impressionists. Of course, summer and fall have their own cachet. Summer means the Fourth of July--with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (which brackets the two long weekends on either side of the Fourth), a big parade and a National Symphony Orchestra concert at the foot of the Capitol, followed by a stunning display of fireworks over the Washington Monument. Of course, most boaters miss the concert; they've long since anchored out in the Potomac awaiting the fireworks. The downside of summer? In two words, hot and crowded. Then there's fall, with its strong, deep colors, when the town gets back down to business and the tourist crowds thin out.
Regardless of the season though, one thing is certain: The best way to come is by boat. It's the most relaxing, you can do it on a surprisingly small budget, and if you choose, you can use your own two feet to get where you want to go. Then, when you leave, rather than facing that impossible traffic, you just aim your bow south, and by the time you pass under the Wilson Bridge, you might just be tempted to look up and yell, "Fools!"
Cruiser's Digest:WASHINGTON, D.C.
Because the Wilson Bridge is still a major construction site, boaters should monitor its status (www.wilsonbridge.com). Getting to the Washington Channel from the bridge is straightforward, but do not stray outside the Potomac River's well marked channel. To the right of the channel, opposite old town Alexandria, are hidden pilings, and to the left of the channel, off the airport (greens "7" and "11") it is extremely shallow. Also, arriving at night can be confusing because the array of city lights can make it difficult to spot some of the marks.
In the Washington Channel, transient dockage is available at Gangplank Marina (202-554-5000), Capital Yacht Club (202- 488-8110) and Washington Marina (powerboats and small sailboats only; 202- 554-0222). All three have restrooms and showers, and Capital Yacht Club has a clubhouse and bar. Fuel (gas and diesel) is available at James Creek Marina on the Anacostia River (202-554-8844).
If you plan to anchor in the channel for more than 24 hours, you are required to contact D.C. Harbor Police (VHF channel 17 or 202-727-4582); they will include you in their boat patrols. Maximum stay is one week. At present, there are no special security alerts relating to navigating in D.C. waters; however, any vessel seen lingering in the vicinity of bridges, the Navy Yard, National Airport or any other sensitive areas can expect the Coast Guard to come calling. When fishing or anchoring, stay at least 100 yards from all bridges and 500 yards (that's more than a quarter-mile, mind you) from the airport.
Knocking Around Town
As there is so much to do in Washington, D.C., my recommendations are merely a starting point. Moon Handbooks and Insight Guides, available at almost any large bookstore, provide especially good overviews, and for details on festivals, museum exhibitions and other events at the time you visit, check the "Weekend" section in the Friday Washington Post (available in hard copy or at washingtonpost.com).
A few caveats. Since you're in the nation's capital, you will see a lot of security measures--Secret Service agents standing on the White House roof, Jersey barriers around the monuments, 50 police cruisers lined along a single city block for who knows what reason. Also, the two Metro stops near the waterfront--at L'Enfant Plaza and Waterside Mall--teem with activity during the day, but they can be spooky after dark (L'Enfant serves daytime office workers, and Waterside Mall is about to be renovated, so its stores are empty except for a Safeway and a few others). If you're returning to the waterfront after a night on the town, take a cab.
The Smithsonian museums, National Gallery of Art and Botanic Garden are all free. All open at 10 a.m. and close at 5:30. The Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in Washington, if not the world. If you can't swing a weekday or off-season visit, the best strategy, as with the others, is to arrive at around 9:45 a.m. and wait in line until the doors open. As the newest museum on the mall, the National Museum of the American Indian is also heavily visited. Its central lobby is a spectacular interior space; others around town are the skylit atrium of the National Gallery of Art's East Building (while there, be sure to see the "domes" installation that was recently hand-built in the adjacent walled garden by artist Andy Goldsworthy); the National Building Museum, with the tallest pillars you've ever seen (it also has an unusually imaginative gift shop and an excellent exhibit on the history of D.C.); and the main reading room of the Library of Congress (free group tours throughout the day).
As for food, there are great restaurants all over town (for an excellent listing that you can search by quality, location, type and cost, check out washing tonian.com/dining), but they can be expensive and there are few on the waterfront. My favorites include Cantina Marina (at the Gangplank, 202-554-8396, with a great view over the channel and good burgers) and Jenny's Asian Fusion (above Capital Yacht Club; 202-554-2202; great view, dependable Chinese food). A good strategy is to make lunchtime the main meal and eat dinner aboard (you can use a grill if you're anchored in the channel, and you can row your dinghy to the back door of one of the Seafood Wharf barges for your main course-- just yell to get their attention). Two especially good bets close to the Mall and White House area are Bread Line (1751 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.; sandwiches on home-baked bread and great Mediterranean fish soup; open weekdays for breakfast and lunch, and Saturday for lunch from late April through October); and Teaism (corner of 8th and D streets N.W.; bento boxes, chicken curry, best chai in town, and Blue Ridge and Wild Goose beers; open daily for all meals). My favorite splurge lunch is the buffet at the National Gallery of Art's Garden Court (ground floor of the main building); for $16.95, you'll sit next to a splashing marble fountain and fill up on perfectly cooked salmon with dill sauce, salads, cheeses and cakes.
For a good provisioning stop and a flavor of small-town D.C., take the Metro from the L'Enfant Plaza station to the Eastern Market stop on Capitol Hill. Built in 1873, Eastern Market is a classic, red-brick Italianate-style market building filled with vendors--bakery, cheese, produce, meat, fish, flowers, you name it. On Saturday and Sunday, farmers pull up alongside and crafts stalls proliferate at the end facing North Carolina Avenue, one of the city's prettiest residential streets. Close by are a Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Shop, a pharmacy, the oldest natural-food store in D.C. (Yes!, on Pennsylvania Avenue), restaurants, bars, a library, a post office and banks.
For a last-minute theater fix, try Arena Stage, one of the country's finest regional theaters, across the street from the Gangplank. Its season runs September through early June; half-price tickets are available on the day of the performance (for details, call 202-488-3300). The Kennedy Center offers a free performance of music or dance every day of the year, at 6 p.m. on its Millennium Stage (no tickets necessary; Foggy Bottom Metro stop, free shuttle bus from the Metro to Kennedy Center every 15 minutes; for schedule go to www.kennedy-center.org).