DC's Grand Playground Under Glass
Remember “The Truman Show,” in which the entire home town of the film’s hero is a set built under a giant dome? That’s the image that flashed to mind the first time I saw Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside Washington, DC. Consider: Its most visible WOW factor is a huge glass atrium that covers 1.65 acres, including two life-size Colonial-era houses, several restaurants, full-grown trees, shrubs, and a footbridge over a meandering stream, among other man-made marvels.
Everything about it is big. As big as a small town. Two thousand rooms, hundreds of which have balconies overlooking the atrium trees and gardens. The double-height, 18-story, barrel-vaulted glass cocoon rises 230 feet at its peak. Dancing fountains shoot multi-colored jets 50 feet high every evening on the hour, synchronized to lights, special effects, and a patriotic musical score. If they remind you of Las Vegas’ Bellagio, it’s no accident; they were designed by the same team. Of course, there is a full-service spa, which we cover in a separate story, “Potomac Pleasures.”
What’s not immediately visible is how Gaylord channels the culture and history of its mid-Atlantic region. Those two buildings in the atrium, for instance: the red-brick one represents a mercantile shop found in nearby Old Town Alexandria, the white clapboard house represents federalist-style farmhouses that once dotted the Maryland hillside; both contain shops. Another atrium shop, Key Provisions, is a nod to Francis Scott Key, who wrote our national anthem at nearby Fort McHenry.
Outside, the hotel’s rolling riverside terraced lawn was inspired by the one at Mount Vernon. Inside, room decor is classic American—blue, ivory, cognac color scheme, cherry and walnut woods. What distinguishes the different room categories is mainly size–of rooms and of flat-screen television sets. All have high-speed Internet access, oversized glass showers and soaking tubs, plus homey amenities like coffeemakers and ironing boards. The hotel considers that the best rooms have atrium views; I prefer looking out over the Potomac and the marina.
You could stay at Gaylord for a long weekend and not run out of eating options. Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine is by that little stream in the atrium, its casual outdoor tables a kind of wharfside shout-out to Chesapeake region seafood. Inside, it’s sophisticated modern: a long open kitchen, a dazzling wine wall, fish flown in daily, a raw bar, and sushi-sashimi creations.
On an upper level overlooking the Potomac, Old Hickory Steakhouse, a nod to President Andrew Jackson’s nickname, recreates the more formal ambiance of an 18th century Georgian row house by dividing a huge space into several intimate dining areas with wood floors, dark walls, white trim, and blessedly well-spaced tables. Before you get to the dining rooms, you’ll pass through the bar, a wine-cellar room, a Spanish humidor with the restaurant’s collection of fine cigars (there’s a cigar terrace overlooking the Potomac for actually lighting up), and an artisanal cheese cave. No, it’s not a cave but a kind of cheese humidor regulating the temperature and humidity for a few dozen carefully chosen cheeses. By the time you’ve passed by these enticements, you’ll be ready for one of the house’s Black Angus center cuts, and a cheese presentation by “Maitre d’Fromage” Carolyn Stromberg.
You can get just about anything Mediterranean at Pienza Italian Market, and light snacks at Java Coast, but I have a soft spot for National Pastime–The Official Sports Bar & Grille of the Washington Nationals. I’m not a baseball fan, but I’d kill to watch Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on the 30-foot wide, high-definition video wall (while eating a Maryland crab cake).
From its private front-door pier on the Potomac River, you can hop a water taxi to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate; or cross the river to Alexandria and wander around Old Town; or go upstream to Georgetown. Every hour a shuttle bus makes the 15-minute run to Union Station and the Post Office. For the self-propelled, hikers and bikers can follow the newly-completed Woodrow Wilson Bridge Pedestrian Path over the Potomac connecting to Old Town Alexandria and the Mount Vernon Trail.
All these excursions make the Gaylord eminently kid-friendly, and I saw families with young children on all of them, especially going into DC to visit the Spy Museum and the Newseum.
I was at Gaylord in early fall, but the hotel was already gearing up for “Christmas on the Potomac” (Nov 19-Jan 10), a major family attraction. The atrium turns into a winter wonderland, it snows nightly at 9:30, and a 60-ft tall, 7,000-pound glass Christmas tree hangs from the rafters. Nearby, forty ice sculptors from China were carving two million pounds of ice into ten holiday scenes—Santa’s Workshop, of course, a penguin village, even a two-story-tall ice slide—from ICE!
A word about Gaylord’s major function as a convention center. I came as a leisure guest, with no connection to it other than a quick peek at its monumental 600-foot-long “Hall of Flags,” where one flies for each state plus the District of Columbia; that is two football fields, long enough to hold the Washington Monument laid on its side. Conventioneers have their own building, elevators, multi function rooms, and general access, rarely coming into contact with leisure guests. For that alone, I give it 5 stars.
Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, 201 Waterfront Street, National Harbor, MD 20745, 301-965-2000 (Main Hotel Operator), 301-965-4000 (Reservations), www.gaylordnational.com.