They say that everything in life depends on where you are when you’re making your observations. I was reminded of such thoughts earlier this week. The better half and I were having lunch at Ketchup, one of National Harbor’s restaurants with a primo location. From our al fresco spot, we could see Alexandria, whence we came.
This eye-level view was one we had never taken until National Harbor opened up four years ago. This new perspective got me to thinking about this part of Washington as something perhaps very unique, a four corners on the river, if you will, each with something different to offer.
We start with the Wilson Memorial Bridge, a 12-lane span built five years ago. In the 1980s, when the old one could no longer support the growing capacity, a nightmare bottleneck backed up traffic during rush hour and then some. Northern Virginians like myself avoided Maryland like the plaque. It got so bad, I actually put off medical treatment at Andrews Air Force Base.
With the new thru/local lanes on both sides, the bridge is the best welcome mat both Governors ever had. We’ve been to National Harbor over a dozen times and not one time did we do anything but slip over there with ease.
Looking straight ahead from our table, I could see Old Town - picturesque, historic and urban. Gazing leftward, the landscape changes to the forested heights in Belle Haven, and the suburban homes of Fairfax County. To the right, I couldn’t see Oxon Hill Farm, but a previous trip there revealed its beauty as an oasis of green space, and an active farm.
These three places have always been there, but it wasn’t until National Harbor (Phase I) opened up in 2008 that we had the new perspective. Sure you can see the Virginia shore as you approach the bridge, but I’m not usually in a contemplative mood when I’m behind the wheel on the Capital Beltway.
When National Harbor was proposed, conservationists and some nearby residents opposed it. What to build and what to save is always a tough call, but there it is. This resort offers not only a good selection of shopping, entertainment and dining, it’s the marina and little touches that give it a first class feel. Close to the river on the steps up to the street level, DC-native Cheryl Foster’s paintings on panels pay homage to the Chesapeake seafood industry. On the patio looking back down, a set of smooth-stone benches are etched with the names of icons such as Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Banneker. A mosaic inlay-map of the region is not to be missed (Please take away that bar!!)
Dining ranges from a quick grass-fed beef burger at Elevation to four-star dining. Abbey Road on the River, a Beatles music festival recently spent five days and nights by the water, and Cirque du Soleil is wrapping up its run of “TOTEM.”
As bold and beautiful as it is, there’s a cruel paradox with National Harbor. The surrounding trees and limited access means some residents on the Maryland cannot see the resort or only the backside. These 300 acres are a glittering spectacle at night, but that view comes from the Virginia side.
Still, National Harbor is a huge success story. Well-heeled convention goers wearing their laminated nametags shop at upscale retail outlets. At times, the scene is reminiscent of tony Georgetown, but a balance is achieved when the denim shorts and tennis shoes crowds flock to the seafood and music festivals. Whatever you wear, you’re sure to be amazed by Gaylord National, a glass behemoth that towers over the rest of the property.
Until the full build out is finished, there’s always something new to see here. But with casinos and outlets coming soon, maybe National Harbor will “jump the shark.”
For now, it’s a fascinating place, one situated at a unique part of the Washington region. If you go, we hope you get a chance to take in the views and contemplate those new perspectives.