Capitol time in Washington DC - without bumps in night
HOLY water isn't something that I think about very often but, after my trip to Baltimore, Maryland on the East Coast of the US (south of Philadelphia), I will never leave home without it again. Late at night in my room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel in downtown Baltimore, I wanted nothing more than a bottle of sacred stuff – except for, perhaps, a priest.
When I checked in to the Lord Baltimore, I knew it had been built in 1928, was on the National Register of Historic Places and had recently been refurbished. I had no idea it was also a famous haunted house. After a chance conversation in the lift, I made the mistake of googling the haunted history of the venue. According to the internet, the place is hoaching with supernatural entities – like some sort of Connolly Station for the paranormal.
Despite being scared witless, I'm almost disappointed to report that I had a thoroughly good night's sleep – the bed was extremely comfortable, so much so, that I slept through the alarm the following morning. In the cold light of day, and with some company, I ventured up to the 19th floor, where most of the alleged ghosts appear. It was about as spooky as Dunnes on a Saturday morning.
Downtown Baltimore has been undergoing a rejuvenation programme, but it is still more The Wire than Williamsburg. That's not entirely a bad thing. Fans of the famous show should visit now, as in about five years the transformation will probably be complete.
Baltimore is also home to one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten in. Waterfront Kitchen is a seed to plate enterprise which sources ingredients that are as local and as seasonal as possible. The restaurant itself is beautiful, with fantastic views. The staff were lovely, the food amazing (best meatloaf I've ever tasted) and it was packed out on a dreary Tuesday lunchtime.
Approximately one hour's drive and a world away from Baltimore, Washington DC (District of Columbia) needs no introduction as it's the star of real life politics as well as countless films and TV shows. I've visited DC several times before, but it's a town I never tire of. This was my first stay in the plush Mandarin Oriental which is within walking distance of Capitol Hill and the Smithsonian Institute. To be honest, the hotel was so nice and the staff so lovely (genuinely nice, not servile and grovelling) that I was tempted not to set foot outside at all. It didn't help that the in-house restaurant, Muze, run by Chef de Cuisine Mark McDonnell from Dublin, serves absolutely delicious food. The Kobe Beef Sliders were so yummy I would have had them again for dessert – which is the highest praise I can think of as, if left to my own devices, I'd only ever eat sweets.
DC is such an iconic city due, in part, to the fact that it was designed from scratch. After America won the War of Independence against the British, the new country needed a capital. The city was founded in 1791 in an obscure area of swampland on the Potomac River. The location was a compromise between North and South and, it's also rumoured, because it was only an hour's horse ride away from first President George Washington's home, Mount Vernon in Virginia.
The city was designed by French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant who based the layout on the grand cities of Europe, and you can see the Parisian influence in the broad boulevards. DC is a pedestrian's dream, but if you don't fancy walking, the Metro is clean, safe and easy to negotiate. (The ticket machines for the Metro are not at all easy to operate – save time and ask for assistance.)
Everywhere you look there's a recognisable sight: the Washington Monument (the splendid 555 foot marble obelisk on the Mall), the Capitol building with its familiar white rotunda and, of course, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, better known as the White House.
Apart from the 'big ticket' sights, the Navy Yard area, just south of the Capitol, is a must for a guided tour or, at the very least, a trip to one of the area's numerous trendy bars and restaurants. The district has only fairly recently undergone gentrification and used to be, according to our tour guide, "urbanly challenged". I've since conducted some informal research and the general consensus is that "urbanly challenged" means countryside. What I think our guide was trying to say is that this area was, until recently, 'economically deprived', 'no go' and a 'kip'.
These days, there are still vestiges of the old neighbourhood around but you'd want to be fairly flush to purchase one of the pretty, brightly coloured Victorian row houses, distinctive for their Germanic 'square' bay windows that give the area its very quaint appeal.
Barracks Row and Eight Street SE are liberally scattered with uber hip bars and restaurants. The area is also strewn with uniformed personnel from the Navy Yard itself and the Marine Base.
An exceptionally photogenic example of the latter was standing at the corner of Eighth & L, guarding the Commandant's House (famous for being built by the Marines and being one of the least attractive historic buildings in the area). Despite the fact that it was freezing and it had begun to snow, the young man had his sleeves rolled up and looked as if he was enjoying a balmy day. I was impressed. And yes, quite smitten. I had no choice but to make him pose for photos with me.
Usually, the weather in DC is fairly temperate but my arrival was accompanied by an unseasonal blizzard (they occur once every four to six years). Having been to the city several times before, I wanted to do something different so I'd already booked the Monuments By Moonlight Tour which takes you around night-time DC.
The trolley tour departs from Union Station which in itself is worth seeing because it is so pretty and should be the template for train stations everywhere. The Lincoln Memorial (which isn't even a hundred years old yet) looks spectacular at any time of the day, but at night, lit up, it really is something special.
I would highly recommend this tour. Our tour guide and driver David was fantastic, providing us with knowledgeable and entertaining commentary. After an hour or so, we were one of the very few vehicles on the road, and probably the only tour, as the snow was falling thick and heavy. Towards the end of the journey, David announced, "And to your right you can see the White House."
There was a short pause and then the entire trolley erupted with laughter as all we could see outside was blurry whiteness. Not to be defeated, intrepid David made an unscheduled stop and let us out to get pictures of the home of the leader of the free world. When we arrived back at Union Station, there were very few taxis around so David drove everybody back to their individual hotels in the trolley – giving us additional commentary as we went. Such honest to God decency in a lovely town that's well worth a visit.
United Airlines' non-stop service from Dublin to its Washington DC hub, Dulles International Airport, is operated by Boeing 757-200 aircraft. Visit www.united.com or call 1890 925 252.
Fares start from €572 for outbound between November 1 to December 17, 2014.
Prices are from €607 for outbound between April 1 and June 24 and August 23 to October 31, 2014.
Fares start from €970 for outbound between June 25 to August 22, 2014.
All above fares are inclusive of tax and charges.
For more information on the Capital Region USA, visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk
Lord Baltimore Hotel – www.lordbaltimorehotel.com
Waterfront Kitchen – www.waterfrontkitchen.com
Mandarin Oriental, DC – www.mandarinoriental.com/washington
Monuments By Moonlight – Old Town Trolley Tours – www.trolleytours.com/washington-dc
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