I love my city, the Nation’s Capital, and I love sharing my insider’s knowledge with readers on my blog and in my two books Unofficial Guide to Washington DC and 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Washington D.C.
This year, the Smithsonian Associates asked me and my co-author Rachel Cooper to lecture on the many recreational activities around the city. We also lead tours for them, in their “Explore Your Backyard” series.
I feel very proud of being from the MidAtlantic region. With so much diversity, you could never run out of wonders to explore. Check out our miles of lush farmland, award winning vineyards, magical inlets along the Chesapeake Bay, the colorful mountain range that makes up the Blue Ridge, the mighty Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and of course all our charming small towns. Really, we have everything a traveler could want. As a result of all this diversity, we have excellent food. With easy access to local produce, seafood and dairy farms, our restaurants serve the freshest ingredients. We also have more ethnic restaurants than just about anywhere (we tie with New York, really!). You can sample Ethiopian, Peruvian, Salvadoran, Burmese, Indonesian, European, Czech, Saudi Arabian, Yemeni and Afghan to name a few. Here are a few stories about MidAtlantic Culture and Food. For an ideal guide to maneuvering around Washington DC check out my most recent books: The Unofficial Guide to Washington DC. And 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Washington DC.
How to Dine Like a President in Washington DC
Before social media, with little fanfare, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy regularly dined at Positano’s in Bethesda, Maryland. George H. W. Bush relished Chinese food and frequently took dignitaries toPeking Gourmet Inn in Northern Virginia. President Bush and wife Laura favored Tex-Mex cuisine, dining at Cactus Cantina in Cleveland Park. Contrary to his reputation as a fast-food lover, Bill Clinton had eclectic taste; he and Hillary were regulars at Bombay Club, an upscale Indian restaurant near the White House.Local restaurateurs protect Presidential privacy by not sharing specifics on the dishes they order, but they do rave about “a spike in business” after a Presidential visit.Ashok Bajaj, owner of DC-based Bombay Club, recalls the first time President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton came in: “President Clinton spent thirty minutes shaking hands before he sat down to eat. They said they liked chicken, so we brought out five different kinds. It felt like a movie. There were 30 to 40 secret service agents posted in the kitchen, the dining room, and outside.” The Clintons returned ten times. Customers still ask Bajaj where they sat and what they ordered.
The Obama Administration hosted a lottery to win dinner with the President. The three winners joined President Obama at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan. Owner Saied Azali describes intense preparation and security, including a tent installed around the restaurant to block bystanders from seeing inside while the event was filmed. Later, President Obama posed for photos with patrons and staff. Azali notes that the first couple was affectionate that night—”They are young in soul,” he says. Azali recalls their interaction: “President Obama asked his wife if he was hip enough. Mrs. Obama answered, ‘You’re the hippest.'”
Photo credits: President Barack Obama at Ben’s Chili Bowl, courtesy of Ben’s Chili Bowl
Summer Guide to Washington, DC
Whether you’re looking to beef up that summertime trip to DC or need a few more excuses to book your vacation in the Capital, our local DC expert has put together the ultimate summer calendar. With places to stay and eat, sports events and fests to attend, top tourist attractions and exhibits, there is truly something for everyone. Summer fun awaits in the nation’s Capital!
I love the charming and unique offerings you find from Kimpton Hotels including the Hotel Monaco, Hotel Rouge and Hotel George. Two boutique hotels, Liaison Capitol Hill and Capitol Hill Hotel, boast the ideal location for scouring the sights on the National Mall, the Smithsonian museums, and around Capitol Hill. Major League Baseball fans should check into the Courtyard Washington Capitol Hill/Navy Yard or splurge for the Mandarin Oriental Washington DC. You can walk from both hotels to Nationals Park. Looking to paint the town? Book your room in DC’s most vibrant neighborhood, Penn Quarter. The Embassy Suites DC Convention Center and the Renaissance Washington Downtown were both recently refreshed and are steps from the Verizon Center, several theaters, and a plethora of bars and restaurants.
The Alexandria Food and Wine Festival in historic Alexandria, Virginia features the best of Virginia wine country and tastings from Alexandria’s top restaurants. The annual Restaurants in Bloom; The Annual RAMMY Awards is a themed gala and award ceremony for DC’s best culinary talent. The event is held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, and includes a cocktail competition, buffet style dinner, music, and dancing. Enjoy Hill Country’s Backyard Barbeque on the West Lawn of theNational Building Museum Wednesday through Sunday on late afternoons until dark with live country music, mini-golf, Shiner beers, and cocktails. Raise your glass at the National Zoo’s annual Brew at the Zoo. Sample beers from forty microbreweries and enjoy live music while hanging out with the animals. Must be 21 to attend.
The 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival is not to be missed. The National Mall is transformed into a colorful gathering of culture, costumes, music, food, crafts, and storytelling. All events are free. Celebrate Independence Day at PBS’s A Capital Fourth on the West Lawn of the US Capitol. Enjoy patriotic music, a parade, and spectacular display of fireworksagainst the backdrop of the Monuments. Or watch the fireworks from a park along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, for an unobstructed view and easier getaway (on the Virginia side of the Potomac, includes Gravelly Point, Lady Bird Park, or the Air Force Memorial to name a few).
ROLLING DOWN THE RIVER
There’s no better way to enjoy the Monuments and DC Waterfront than from a breezy boat ride along the Potomac River. The Potomac Riverboat Company and Capitol River Cruises offer both day and evening sightseeing tours; pirate cruises, crab boats, and water taxis. The fleet from Entertainment Cruises, including The Dandy and The Odyssey, offer brunch, lunch, and dinner cruises with beautiful views of the city; a perfect way to celebrate a special occasion or to relax after a busy day of sightseeing.The National Park offers mule drawn Canal boat rides on the C&O Canal in Great Falls, Maryland. Travel back in time with your period-dressed Park Ranger describing life on the Canal in the 1870’s.
VIRGINIA’s EASTERN SHORE
By Renee Sklarew for the cover story in Northern Virginia Magazine; September 2008
The Eastern Shore of Virginia remains pastoral and unoccupied compared to the rest of the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s recognized by the United Nations as a “biosphere reserve” and has one of the last wetland habitats in the world. The largest coastal wilderness on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, this narrow finger of land separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling south on Route 13, the only major highway on the peninsula, you will pass protected environments—Chincoteague, Wallops Island, the Barrier Islands and, finally, Kiptopeke State Park—until you reach the 17.9-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel leading to Norfolk.
The Bridge-Tunnel itself is a marvel. It barely skirts over the bay, going above water and then under it. At times you’re driving alongside fishing boats or straight toward a container ship. Thousands of years ago, this peninsula was inhabited by the Algonquin tribes. Proof of the tribe’s fondness for seafood are the ancient shell middens, refuse of shellfish-harvesting, buried along the creek beds there. Native-American influence is seen in the names of the villages and the tributaries. The translation for Chesapeake is “great shellfish bay.”
Lisa Traynor, 53, of Chincoteague, said people commonly ride bikes to work. “The speed limit is 25 mph. It’s safe to pedal anywhere.” Asked about cell-phone coverage, she raved: “It’s not great, but I love that fact.” The towns, founded in the late 1600s, are sparsely populated. Ernestine Smith, 76, resident of Belle Haven laughed, “The phone book for the whole Virginia shore is half an inch thick!” The small villages are a picture book of architectural treasures. Homes are Victorian clapboard, streets have old brick sidewalks; both are flanked by lush gardens and picket fences. Between towns lie miles of flat marshes, and in parts the land is only three miles across, huddled between two colossal bodies of water.
Tourism is an important source of revenue. Most accommodations along these country roads are diminutive inns advertising themselves as “a great place to read a book.” A low-tech utopia, the natural environment draws you outside to explore its treasures: eco-tours off the coast of Wachapreague or Thomas Gardens’ rare and unusual plants in New Church. Fairfax County naturalist and historian Tony Bulmer, 40, of Nokesville, makes year-round trips to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “Winter is an amazing time to visit. That’s when you see the snow geese, red-throated loons, all the winter birds that nest in the Arctic.”
The Shore boasts some of its own “green” citizens, who consciously maintain a small carbon footprint. Tessa Brown, 46, works for the thriving Blue Crab Bay Company in Melfa, which donates some of its profit to protect the environment. Manufacturing gourmet food and gifts, this homegrown company was originally known for clam and crab dips. Like many locals, Brown grew up here but left to pursue life in a city. Besides missing the quiet and soothing calm of the region, she was drawn back by the sunsets. “There are only a few places I’ve been where you can see the sun set over the water. I call it God’s little garden by the sea.” She returned a few years ago. “The nickname for people like me is a ‘come-back-here.’”
Inside the Blue Crab Bay gift shop, pungent spices arrest your senses while you admire the nautical decorations in every corner. Owner Pamela Barefoot, 57, collects organic materials from the beaches to create her seaweed soaps, and the cozy store’s food samples boast “the everyday taste of the Eastern Shore.” Their Crab House Crunch is an extraordinary combination of sea salt, vanilla and zesty red pepper, somewhat reminiscent of Old Bay seasoning. Barefoot recommends stopping for brunch at The Inn & Garden Cafe in Onancock (open on weekends only) for the grilled shrimp, smoked salmon and homemade bread. Their menu includes sausage-encrusted oysters and lobster ravioli with lump crab. After your meal, walk down to the Onancock Harbor before sunset to spot dazzlingly pink skies.
To see a PDF of my “Day Trips” Cover Story (90% by me) 0511.NVM.DayTrips
Or a PDF of “Cycling on the Eastern Shore” TenTopTours2009 Adventure Cycling
TOUR DE SHORE By Renee Sklarew in Adventure Biking, 2009
“It’s a good place to ditch your cell phone,” said Larry Knudsen, 70, keeper of Snow Hill, Md.’s The River House Inn, sponsor of Inn Tours—bike excursions between lodges lining Maryland’s and Virginia’s Eastern Shores. Families take Inn Tour vacations to explore this secluded 70-mile neck of land. “When you’re riding along you see lots of farms and water, stands of timber and wildlife,” Knudsen said.
According to Bethesda cyclist Gerald Johnston, 70, “We go on back roads, and you rarely see a car.” Johnston also rides with Carolina Tailwinds, another Eastern Shore operator. “I use the trips to motivate myself to keep in shape year-round.”
The Between the Waters Bike Tour is a Wachapreague October fundraiser that benefits the Nature Conservancy by way of an eco-tourism event that gives riders the opportunity to see the region. According to Denard Spady, director of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, “Routes are loops, winding along back roads, with scenic rest stops and views of barrier islands.” Between the Waters Bike Tour, www.cbes.org; Inn Tours, www.inntours.com; Carolina Tailwinds, www.carolinatailwinds.com.