The nation's capital sits right along the fall line of the Potomac River, and while important decisions may be made in the grand buildings on shore, it all seems a bit far away when you're cruising the river. The city may not have the skyscraping waterfront or bustle of Baltimore, Boston, or Norfolk, but it is a delight for boaters, and its marinas and tourism appeal continue to improve.The nearly hundred-mile trip up the Chesapeake Bay begins at the almost ocean-wide mouth of the Potomac, where you might even be out of sight of land. You'll pass by George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon, but only tour boats can dock there and admission is required.If you want to stay a bit outside the city, tie up at the Belmont Bay Harbor (703-490-5088, belmontbay.com), in Woodbridge, Virginia, from where you can easily reach Mount Vernon or hop a train straight into D.C. Across the river. Fort Washington Marina (301-292-7700, coastal-properties.com) also has great amenities for transients. Those seeking some urban excitement should try the upscale National Harbor Marina (301-749-1582, thenationalharbormarina.com), in Maryland, just four miles south of D.C. With state-of-the-art facilities, shops, hotels, restaurants, and even a casino, it's a destination unto itself. Floating docks accommodate vessels up to 250 feet, and rental cars, taxis and water taxis are available to take you to Alexandria or downtown.
From National Harbor by boat, you'll quickly pass under the renovated Woodrow Wilson Bridge and arrive in Old Town Alexandria. Today this densely populated city has a busy and attractive waterfront that makes for a fun stop. From there, you'll go by the Naval Research Lab, a massive under-construction Homeland Security complex, the Washington Channel, and the mouth of the Anacostia River. Keep an eye out for glimpses of the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol's dome, and the Washington Monument.If you're visiting in late March or early April, you may catch the famed cherry trees in bloom along the beautifully landscaped Tidal Basin waterfront, right next to the Jefferson Memorial. Continuing onward under a series of low bridges, you'll also cross beneath one of the region's Metro lines, and you'll almost certainly see jets as they come and go from Reagan National Airport. You may even see military helicopters whirring above as they make their ways to and from the Pentagon and CIA headquarters.
Next, you'll cruise by the stunning John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the famed Watergate Hotel complex (whose suffix -gate spawned a series of scandal-gates now enshrined in history). Grab the binoculars to view Arlington's National Cemetery on the Virginia hillside or Georgetown University on a bluff on the Washington side. Across from forested Theodore Roosevelt Island is the distinctive Washington Harbour complex, set in the historic, chic Georgetown neighborhood. On summer weekends, this section of the river can be busy as boaters raft up along the wharf to enjoy the urban waterfront scene.The Washington Channel is like a large canal at the mouth of the Anacostia that is separated from the wider Potomac by a cape-like island known as Haines Point. Lining the Washington side is the Southwest Waterfront, a long promenade with restaurants, a seafood market, and the Gangplank Marina (202-554-5000, gangplank.com). The Gangplank has secured floating docks and a restaurant-bar overlooking the water. The marina, which bills itself as the largest live- aboard community on the East Coast, is within walking distance of the Washington Monument and the attractions of the Nation's Capital.The channel rounds to the Anacostia and the historic buildings of the National War College at Fort McNair. You'll then turn up the heavily silted Anacostia, once a waterway for deep-draft sailing. James Creek Marina (202-554-8844, jamescreek.com), which has secured entrances and a fuel dock, welcomes transient boaters. Note the building overlooking the marina: it's the headquarters of the U.S. Coast Guard.It's easy to hop aboard the Metro system from the Gangplank or James Creek. Once you're in the nearby downtown areas or on the National Mall, much of the city is walkable, clean, safe and heavily policed. Bicycles can be rented easily, and there is an ever-expanding network of bike paths.Most of the monuments, museums and galleries on the National Mall are free and open 360 days per year. Well, they're free if you don't count your tax dollars. Speaking of which, why not make an appointment with your congressperson while you're in town to lobby for more waterway improvement funds? If only sailors could can some of their hot air for becalmed days! You can also try scoring a pass to watch Congress in session or snag tickets to watch the Washington Nationals play ball in their new stadium.Sure, it's a long trip up the Potomac, but staying aboard your boat at any of the fine marinas in and around D.C. can be an exciting and very convenient way to enjoy all that the nation's capital has to offer.