Issue: December 2009
The Next BIG Thing

Two travelers on a small sailboat try to put the whole National Harbor experience into perspective.

by Jody Argo Schroath
photos from NH Press Kit

Night had fallen, and behind us 18 stories of lighted glass and steel atrium glowed like a colossal moon. It was July 3, and my old college friend Jean and I were just about to join a group of boaters from Occoquan, Va., at the end of National Harbor Marina's A dock to watch the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center's first ever July fireworks show. But first she wanted to take a few pictures. As usual. Jean was using her underwater camera, which she had packed for our sailing trip up the Potomac River because she hadn't been sure whether this kind of sailing would involve as much tipping over and getting wet as sailing Sunfish in college had--the last time she and I had been on a sailboat together. I understood. We had tipped over a lot. 

But Jean didn't understand. I don't mean about the tipping over. She got that now. No, what she didn't understand was the whole idea of National Harbor, which she was having trouble putting into perspective, despite the fact that we had now been here since the end of June. 

"I mean it's crazy cool in an alternate universe kind of way, but I still don't get it. What is it really, and why is it here?" 

Big questions indeed. How to explain? 

We were standing on the dock as Jean turned away from the river to snap pictures of the thousands of spectators that had gathered along National Harbor's shoreline in anticipation of the fireworks. Finally, she stopped and pulled a brochure out of her pocket and began reading off its facts and figures. "National Harbor is built on 300 acres, has six hotels and about 20 buildings," she said. "When it's completed, it will have 7.3 million square feet of mixed use community space, 4,000 hotel rooms, 2,500 residential units, 500,000 square feet of class A office space (whatever that is), 1 million square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space and 10,000 parking spaces."

"Yes," I said, "it will be bigger than the Mall of America, the world's largest shopping mall."
"Then it's supposed to be a giant shopping mall?"
"Um, I don't think so."

We walked slowly toward the end of the dock; the lights on the atrium moon changed from white to red.

"I think it's supposed to be a kind of all-purpose destination, where you can spend your whole vacation or use it as a base for visiting Washington, D.C., which is a kind of uber-destination. Or you can make sidetrips to Alexandria or Mount Vernon by boat. At least I think that's the idea." I tried a little history. National Harbor's developer, Milton Peterson, wasn't the first one to think that this old gravel pit on Smoots Bay, in the shadow the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Beltway, would be the perfect place for something really big. In the 1970s and 1980s there were several big projects for the property that ultimately fell through. One of them was called Bay of Americas and another PortAmerica. "All very grand-sounding too, like National Harbor," I said. "But this was the one that came through--not that it didn't take an act of Congress." (In 1999, Congress passed legislation that exempted National Harbor from Federal review and protected it from environmental lawsuits--though there's no reason to believe any lawsuits would have occurred.)

We greeted our new Occoquan friends--we'd met earlier in the day when they had trickled in for their Fourth of July weekend rendezvous at National Harbor--and watched the city of Alexandria's fireworks arc silently into the jet black sky across the river. I reminded Jean that the tree-lined boulevards and specially commissioned public works of art, the hotels, restaurants, shops, water taxis, tour boats, bass charters, art works, and even the fortune-teller's kiosk, were all meant to give visitors plenty to see and do. "There are just more of things and they're just bigger than we're used to, at least around here. Hey, you live in Orlando, you should be used to this kind of thing."

"That's a point," she admitted.

"Take these folks from Occoquan," I went on. "They understand it." They had told me earlier that they'd made the trip to National Harbor four or five times already. "They can get in their boats and spend an hour or two coming upriver, pull into their slips, take out their deck chairs and relax. They barbecue, shop, listen to a calypso band, walk their dogs and go soundly to sleep in their own beds. When the weekend's over, they pull in their docklines and go home."

"We used to anchor out in the river for the fireworks," volunteered Alan Gross, who was sitting at the edge of the group with his German shepherd Schatzi and had overheard our conversation. "But then we had to get back to Occoquan in the dark with all that traffic. It was nuts! This is so much better!"

The first rocket shot into the air off a barge out in the river and exploded into a shower of color above our heads. Behind us the Gaylord atrium changed from red to blue.

Jean and I had arrived at National Harbor on a sunburst Saturday afternoon in late June aboard Snipp, my Albin Vega 27. After a week of zigzagging lazily up the Potomac against a persistent headwind (is there any other kind?), we had finally eased Snipp out of the Potomac's main channel and into National Harbor Marina. We were glad to get there.

We had spent the previous night at Smallwood State Park on Mattawoman Creek, where we had run smack into a hornet's nest of mid-tournament bass fishermen--men with steely eyes and gritted teeth and only three things on their mind: catch bass, catch them fast and catch them big. They had no patience for people on sailboats. We, on the other hand, just wanted to get off the creek and check into the marina. The problem was that we became so wrapped up in not running aground in the narrow channel into the park that we fell into the clutches of the many headed Hydra of marine vegetation lurking just beneath the surface. It caught us fast. Were it not for heroic action with a boat hook, a paddle and a Swiss army multi-tool, we felt we would soon have been sucked under to join other hapless wanderers. Once freed, we docked--as per earlier phone instructions--then had to undock because we couldn't get to the office from the dock. (There was a padlocked gate at the end of the dock.) We redocked near the office, where we were assigned a slip where we couldn't dock because it was shallow enough to ground a bass boat. We picked out a deeper empty slip and re-redocked. This slip naturally turned out to belong to the Seatow guy, so we re-undocked and re-re-redocked opposite a sailboat sunk at the dock. It was not an inspiring evening.

The stretch of Potomac above Mattawoman is crowded with things to see. First there's the broad entrance to Occoquan Bay on the Virginia side, with lovely Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the bay's north shore, and then a good long view of George Mason's handsome Gunston Manor, high on a bluff looking down on Gunston Cove and the Potomac. The river narrows here to a friendly size, and the channel moves restlessly from one bank to the other.

Soon we had our first view of Mount Vernon, that most familiar of American stately homes, as we crowded the edge of the channel to give a three-story-tall tour boat a wide berth as it bustled toward the Mount Vernon channel. Jean was entranced--as well she might be--but I stubbornly insisted that she pay less attention to the scenery and more to spotting floating logs and other debris that often litter this bit of the river. Soon after, Fort Washington loomed above us on the Maryland shore, and then finally we could see the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and beyond it, the Washington Monument, a sight that never fails to thrill me.

Between Indian Queen and Rosier bluffs, the channel bellies up to the Maryland shore. Here it was just Snipp and yet another very large tour boat, both of us enjoying an all-too intimate moment between the closely placed red and green markers, and so close to the shore that we could just about touch the red clay and maples. But before long we had shot through to follow the channel toward the middle of the river, where it lines up for the trip through the center span of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Not that we were going as far as the bridge. But I need to mention the channel because it's heref--about the time you reach the middle of the river and just as you clear South Point--that National Harbor is suddenly, without prelude, just there, like Xanadu or the Emerald City. It's enough to make you feel like either Kublai Khan or Dorothy--I'm not sure which. Either way, it's straight out of a storybook.

"Good heavens," Jean exclaimed from the bow, "what on earth is that?"

"That is National Harbor, of course, silly girl." "And what you are particularly exclaiming over, no doubt, is the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center, which is three times the size of everything else." I had been to National Harbor with friends in the spring and so was in a position to be annoyingly blasé about the whole thing. But really there's no denying that it's a stunner.

A moment later, however, something else had caught her eye. "Look at that gigantic sail!"

"You are referring of course to the eight-story tall semitransparent glass mainsail that decorates the front port side of the Westin Hotel."

She shot me a dark look and abandoned the binoculars in favor of her camera. Click.

"Jean," I called forward, "what's our next marker?" Click. Click.

"Sheesh," I said (or words to that effect), "find the next marker!"

I sympathized with Jean's desire to take pictures because the approach to National Harbor from the water definitely has it all over the land route for impressive views. But Smoots Bay is shallow and our charts, though pretty new, were not new enough to show the new entrance markers to the marina. And suddenly we also found ourselves rolling in the wake of a lot of very big powerboats. Did I mention that this was a Saturday afternoon? Click. Click.

"Jean, stop that!"

She sighed and put her camera away, then scanned the bay. "There . . . red," she said, pointing to a marker just off South Point.

I made a sharp turn to starboard and immediately asked for the next marker, which turned out to be two markers, a red and a green, just beyond. We continued to follow the markers as they skirted the shoreline until we had reached the outermost dock, which is also the fuel dock. There we turned in to look for our assigned slip: B17. An apropos number because the slip was almost big enough to hold a B-17 bomber. I roughly calculated that it would also hold eight of my Albin Vega 27, if you rafted them up two deep. I don't mean to say we felt a little out of place--no place could have been more welcoming--I mean that National Harbor is just the kind of place where you have to keep readjusting your sense of proportion.

Click. Click. Jean was at it again. But this time I didn't object, because we were tied up in our slip and had already been greeted by the congenial partiers on the boat next to ours. So I left her to it and went off to find harbormaster Eric Bradley. I found him in his office/kiosk on the outside dock, deftly juggling fuel fill-ups and assigning slips to boats looking for a few hours of parking or an overnight stay. A small battalion of dockhands moved efficiently between A, B and C docks, making fast a steady stream of arriving boats.

"Wait until the July Fourth weekend!"Bradley said when I remarked on the congestion. "We'll be completely full, and we're expecting three yachts of more than a hundred feet on the north side of the main dock."

Before coming to Washington to open National Harbor Marina, Bradley was dockmaster at Annapolis Landing on Back Creek in Annapolis. "It's an entirely different set of boats," he said. "[In Annapolis] we had predominantly sailboats and transients from up and down the East Coast. Here we have predominantly large powerboats, most of which never go south of the U.S. 301 bridge. They're happy right here."
A large part of the marina is given over to annual slipholders--they had about 60 percent occupancy by mid-summer--but a generous number of slips are set aside for transient boaters--both overnights and hourly. "We are getting more and more boating and yacht clubs holding their rendezvous here." The groups especially plan their events around special programs scheduled by National Harbor nearly every weekend, like wine-tastings and a Beef and Suds Festival, or seasonal events such as Oktoberfest and repeating Christmas Market, which runs weekends from Thanksgiving until Christmas.

"I was thinking this would be a great place to come around Christmas," I said. "Do you stay open all winter?"

"We move boats off the C dock in winter, because we get a lot of ice pushed up against it by the river, but we keep the marina open all year." Eric explained that there is a breakwater under C dock to protect the inside docks from at least some of the wind-blown chop that builds up across the exposed water of Smoots Bay, especially during the winter.

At this point in our conversation, three boats pulled in and idled at the dock, waiting their turn, so I walked back to B dock, wondering idly whether Jean had used up her camera battery yet. Click. Guess not.

"Shower," was all she said. I held up the electronic key to the slipholders' facilities and smiled. We dove into the cabin for a couple of reasonably dry towels and some fairly clean clothes and went looking for the showers.

"Whoa, what's that?" Jean stopped suddenly and stared at a small beach, just to the left of the main dock, where a giant face, legs and hands poked dramatically out of the sand. Over, under and around the Volkswagen-size body parts, dozens of children scrambled eagerly, as dozens of parents snapped photos with equal enthusiasm. Click. Jean did too.

"That's The Awakening," I said, trying not to sound too annoying. "For about twenty years it was at Hains Point, there on the other side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in the middle of the Potomac, and practically zillions of people came to see it." I pointed vaguely in the direction of Washington and East Potomac Park, five miles upriver. "But somebody in his or her wisdom decided it didn't fit the image of the park, so it was put up for sale, and Petersen, National Harbor's developer, bought it and built a beach for it to rise out of."

When I finally got Jean moving again, we crossed a courtyard, which looked as if it doubled as a small stage, and turned right down the first street we came to, National Plaza. There, just across the street from the Westin Hotel and next to Olympia News, was the entrance to the harbormaster's office and the marina restrooms, laundry facilities and showers. Showers!

As I emerged sometime later, I ran into John and Betty Lockard of Arlington, Va., who keep their boat Irish Ayes at the marina. The Lockards had gotten their slip the previous May and their boat that June. "We love it!" they enthused. "The only issue is that we need to remember to make reservations at a restaurant if we want to eat dinner when we're here on the weekends."

Hmm, good thought. As we waved goodbye, I pulled out my cell phone.

All cleaned up, it was time to explore this all-American Oz on foot. The first thing we did was head for the Spanish steps.

"Spanish steps?" Jean asked.

"Yup, Spanish steps," I replied. "Probably because they lead to American Way, National Harbor's Main Street, which," I continued quickly because I could see this was making no sense, "is modeled after a main shopping street in Barcelona called Las Ramblas, which Petersen apparently fell in love with and so wanted to copy here. So," I continued, "like many southern European cities, it's a boulevard, shaded by a canopy of plane trees. This makes it a cool and shady refuge in the hot summer sun and bright and warm in the winter, when the trees are traditionally pruned back, practically to stubs.

"I know, I've seen plenty of European boulevards" she replied a little coolly, "I grew up in France, remember."

"Oh, yeah."

"And the Spanish Steps are in Rome, not Spain."

"Oh, yeah."

Fortunately, by this time we had reached the steps, which are flanked by two large mosaics placed in the walls on each side. Both mosaics are by Washington, D.C. native Cheryl Foster and depict Marylanders, especially those who've made a living on the water.

At the top of the steps is the belvedere. "A place that commands a view," I parroted. This belvedere is a large platform that overlooks the beach with the awakening giant, and beyond that the marina, the Potomac, and finally Alexandria on the opposite shore. A "view" by any standard. But Jean wasn't admiring the view. She had her head down and was meandering this way and that over the belvedere, studying Maryland artist Steven Weitzman's 1,600 square-foot map, which portrays the early American history of the Chesapeake Bay. The piece, Chesapeake Journey, is made of Fotera, a kind of structural concrete, like terrazzo, that Weitzman developed for public art pieces.

"Enough of this," I said finally, "let's go shopping!"

And so we did, wandering up one side of each of National Harbor's half-dozen streets and then down the other, sometimes cutting between streets through cunning little pedestrian passages. On Waterfront Street, we dawdled through Art Whino and Fossil. On National Plaza, we sampled gelatos at Aromi d'Italia. And on American Way we browsed through South Moon Under and Govinda Gallery, then carried off an espresso from Mayorga Coffee Roasters and continued up the street until the shops, restaurants, hotels and residence buildings gave way to coming soon signs and a fenced-in dog walk area. We peered hopefully into the fortune-teller's kiosk, but it was empty. I guess they didn't know we were coming. The plane trees have a few years to go before they make a canopy over the street, but the center boulevard is already dotted by various arrangements of stones, brought from New England and shaped and sometimes polished. The effect is a little like southern Europe's old fountains, which often anchor their old main streets.

Before our walk up American Way came to an end, we passed the site of the future home of the National Children's Museum. This 150,000-square foot, Cesar Pelli-designed building is projected to open in 2013. It will be within easy walking distance of another project: a Disney hotel. Just before we arrived at National Harbor, Disney had announced that it had purchased a 15-acre site at the end of American Way, where the company plans to build a 300-room resort hotel at a date yet to be named.

Oh yes, all that, and we hadn't even gotten to the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center. So we did, and spent another few lazy hours marveling on what you can do with 2,000 rooms and nearly half a million square feet of convention space. We learned that you could hypothetically use the 800-foot-long convention hall to store the entire Washington Monument, if you laid it on its side. And, we were able to answer the question: What can you do with a cavernous 18-story atrium? Aside from the obvious answer--enjoy the view--you can actually build a small Colonial-style town chockablock with shops and restaurants, including a sports bar with a 30-foot-high video wall. You can also run a small stream through the atrium and out into the gardens in front of the building. And you can build fountains inside that shoot 65 feet into the air and dance to the music between 7 and 10 p.m. each evening.

Whew! Thank goodness it was time for dinner. Jean and I were able to summon just enough energy to pick our way out of the atrium and into the gardens. Then we walked along Harborwalk and back into "town." We found Rosa Mexicano restaurant on Waterfront Street, and collapsed happily into chairs on the terrace overlooking the marina. We could see Snipp, which looked a little lost in its colossal slip, surrounded by a phalanx of sleek big-boy powerboats.

Several cold beers, a couple of tortilla soups and mole dishes later, we zombie-walked back to the boat and tumbled into our bunks. But not before Jean had taken just a few photos of National Harbor by night as seen from the bow of a small sailboat in slip B17. It was a beautiful sight . . . and very big . . . and maybe even a little strange.

"Maybe tomorrow everything will fall back into perspective."

"Sure. Good-night, Jean."