Weekend Getaway

Washington, D.C. and the Potomac River

Mid-Atlantic
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July 2013
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By
Paul
Foer

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.

national-harbor

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.

potomac

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.

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Day 1: Wickford Cove

Wickford Cove is the smallest town in the smallest county of littlest Rhode Island. That's not to minimize its quaint downtown full of waterfront gardens, charming architecture and tremendous yachting heritage. Stroll Wickford's self-guided marker tour of historic seaside homes, then pop into some darling boutiques around the harbor like Serendipity and Pink Parasol.Conclude your walk at Wickford on the Waterfront with a salty cocktail, local oysters or stuffed clams (stuffies in Rhode Island lingo). Tate's Italian Kitchen serves hearty classics across the village's main Brown Street. Moorings can be reserved at Wickford Yacht Club or go to Safe Harbor Wickford Cove for a full-service marina with dock space.

Day 2: Block Island

Wickford to Block Island 29 NMCruising down the western shores of Narragansett Bay under the Jamestown Bridge, passing magnificent mansions then Point Judith Light, you are soon on your way across the open expanse of Rhode Island Sound to Block Island. The farthest island from land on the entire Eastern seaboard, Block Island is even more remote than Monhegan in Maine (10 miles out by comparison).

Block Island - weekend warrior - marinalife
Block Island, RI | Greg Burke

Block Island has a vacation vibe, and everything is relaxed, truly on island-time with their moniker of Bermuda of the North. The 1,500 happy humble Block Island residents claim they've been social distancing since 1661, so they've got humor to carry them through the long off-season. Block's pear-shaped 7 x 3-mile island is cool, casual and fun to explore for a few days, yet not so stuffy-chic or celebrity-crushed as Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard.Getting around by bike or moped is the best way to explore Block's entire 16 miles of perimeter roads. Along the undulating country lanes, you may feel transported to Ireland with the lush rolling fields, stone walls, dramatic Mohegan Bluffs and the contrasting blue sea. Passing dozens of unique beaches, you may plan to return later. Highlight sights are Block Island's two impressive lighthouses – North and South East – with the busier main village of Old Harbor in between.Block Island has two boating harbors: the more protected New Harbor in Great Salt Pond, which is preferred by pleasure boaters, and Old Harbor with its primary ferry landing and bustling downtown of shops and grand seaside hotels. Staying at Great Salt Pond overlooking your mooring or dock slip, you should enjoy sunsets, pub fare and a boaters' block party atmosphere at The Oar or Dead Eye Dick's (opens in May). While in the Old Harbor after browsing boutiques, find a perfect chair and cocktail at either grand seaside hotel: Spring House or Atlantic House.For a delicious local dinner, Kimberly's serves littlenecks or calamari followed by lobster mac n' cheese as a beautiful ending to a day of exploring. Live music may be piping out from next door Poor People's Pub to lure you over for a nightcap.Block Island's public moorings in New Harbor are assigned daily by the Harbormaster. Private slips can be reserved at Champlin's Marina, the Boat Basin and Oar House. They book up quickly in prime summer season, which results in boats rafting-up with strangers (friends you haven't yet met!).

Day 3: Newport

Block Island to Newport 25 NMDeparting Block Island, perhaps after fresh coffee and pastries delivered to your boat by enterprising locals, you will be in the company of power boaters and sailing vessels, plus the occasional charging ferry heading to Newport. It's a direct course northeast to the Sailing Capital of Newport.

Bannisters Wharf - weekened warrior - marinalife
Bannisters Wharf, Newport | Greg Burke

No boater worth his Sperry's can miss out on the yachty harbor of Newport, established in 1639. As a visiting boater, contact the Harbormaster or Newport Yachting Center for an affordable mooring or a much pricier dock space in this prime harbor. Water taxis ply the harbor frequently to take you to the town docks.Newport is full of magnificent vessels, lively waterfront pubs lining Bowens and Bannisters Wharfs, and scads of inviting seaside shops on cobblestone streets. Getting off your boat, stretch your sea legs with a scenic 3.5-mile cliff walk by the Gilded Age mansions of our fine affluent families (Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Dupont, Astor and Morgan). Before sunset, head for Newport rooftop drinks overlooking the harbor at The Vanderbilt or the Hotel Viking to toast your good fortunate in this big little state.

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Day 1: IslamoradaKey Largo to Islamorada 15 NM

It's a short leg from the diving hub to the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, which boasts the largest charter fishing fleet per square mile on Earth. At dawn, captains head out on deep-sea excursions or idle through mangrove islands and shallow seagrass flats of the backcountry. The silver flashes in the sunlight at Robbie's Marina dock are enormous tarpon, 50 to 100 feet long, doing daily water acrobatics for snacks thrown by visitors into the clear, shallow water.

Islamorada - weekend warrior - marinalife
Islamorada | romrodinka on Canvas

The Keys have a motley past: shipwrecks, pirates, buried treasure, movie stars and especially luscious Key Lime pie. History reaching back to Native American life is outlined at the Keys History & Discovery Center at the Islander Resort.Downtown Islamorada's patchwork of boutiques and galleries is overflowing with original creations of artists, sculptors and jewelers inspired by life on the islands. The Morada Way Arts & Cultural District is a bustling six-block corridor of shops, restaurants and studio spaces. Thirsty shoppers can duck into the welcoming back garden of Florida Keys Brewing Company. Beside the seasonal beer on tap, they serve a Key Lime cocktail so delectable that it could be counted as dessert.Transient dockage to 100 feet is available at Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina, a premier facility with 15 sprawling acres of white sand beach. Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina, located in the fabulous Founders Park, is ranked among the top marinas in the world and is a designated Clean Marina.

Day 2: Duck KeyIslamorada to Duck Key 21 NM

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Day 3: Key WestDuck Key to Key West 52 NM

Before adventuring out in the heat to pet the famous six-toed cats at Hemingway House or view the spartan simplicity of the Truman Little White House, grab a Cuban Café con Leche and wander around town absorbing the laid-back, culturally diverse life of island time.Nightly pub crawls guide visitors along Duval Street's legion of barrooms. Much like the revelers doing the Duval Crawl, the Key West chickens strut the streets and crow at all hours. Colorful roosters and mother hens with tiny chicks weave in and out of traffic and through open cafés around town.

ocean reef club - weekend warrior - marinalife
Buccaneer Island, Ocean Reef Club | Ocean Reef Club

Much quieter winged creatures reside in the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a tropical paradise home to hundreds of species of magical butterflies and birds. More of nature's birding and fishing wonders lie just off the western shore. Accessible only by boat, Key West National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 208,308 acres with only 2,019 acres above sea level. Wading birds, pelicans, shorebirds, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins all live within or visit the refuge.There's an eatery on nearly every corner from the quirky Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe to the beautiful Seaside Café at the Southernmost Mansion and Louie's Backyard for fine dining. It's best to experience Key West on a bike or a golf cart so you can catch the quirkiness of the island including the popular drag show at 801 Bourbon Bar and the famous cemetery. And at the end of the day, join the locals for live music at the Green Parrot Bar.Several marinas welcome boaters with a range of pleasant amenities and convenient locations: Conch Harbor Marina in historic Old Town, Stock Island Yacht Club and The Perry Hotel & Marina.

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Day 1: Solomons Island

Just a sliver of land measuring a mile and a half long, and in some spots it's just the width of a single road, yet Solomons is alive with eateries, shops, a tiki bar, marinas, a scenic sculpture garden and a world-class museum.

Drum Point Lighthouse - weekend warrior - marinalife
Drum Point Lighthouse at Calvert Marine Museum | Wikimedia Commons

Local residents seeking to preserve the maritime heritage of the area began the Calvert Marine Museum as a community project in 1970. It has evolved into a research museum, renowned for local history exploration while actively looking toward challenges of the future, especially environmental issues. Maritime history, estuarine biology and paleontology are brought to life through hands-on experiences. More than 500 artifacts include a 28-foot three-log canoe, a tobacco press and boats from Solomons' long-gone shipyards and oyster industry.

On the surrounding grounds, stroll the marsh walk home of great blue heron, osprey, hermit crabs and more. Nearby is the River Otter Habitat where residents Bubbles and Squeak frolic between naps.

A short distance away, the synergy of art and nature on the grounds of Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Art Center encourages creativity and reflection. Along the walking paths, tiny fairy gardens are dwarfed by rotating artworks on loan from the Smithsonian.

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Several marinas on Back Creek include the resort-style Solomons Harbor Marina close to the town's center, and the larger, 246-slip Spring Cove Marina that offers a courtesy shuttle to restaurants and shops.

Day 2: St. Mary's City

Solomons Island to St. Mary's City 36 NM

"Where's the city?" is a frequent question from arriving tourists who haven't yet realized they are standing on the archaeological site of Maryland's first capital. Tours of replica buildings bring that era back to life. Trails along this historic exhibit on the St. Mary's River wind past a replica of the Dove (one of the ships that carried Catholic settlers), the Godiah Spray Plantation and a fully excavated 17th century building at St. John's Site.

St. Clements Island - weekend warrior - marinalife
St. Clements Island | Susan Elnicki Wade

After a 90-year search, a fort-like formation the size of a football field was recently uncovered. Ground-penetrating radar scans revealed a brick cellar guardhouse and dwellings -- possibly Native American -- within the walls. Native communities in the area can be traced back 10,000 years, and a quartzite arrow dating back 4,500 years was unearthed.

Eating options are limited but tasty. Tiny Enso Kitchen has amazing breakfast sandwiches and lunch salads, but its fame comes from scrumptious bread and pastries. Although it's located in a gas station, St. James Deli & Spirits is known for excellent take-out pizza and subs.

Boats can dock for the day on site, and the closest full-service facility, Dennis Point Marina in Drayden, offers gas and diesel.

Day 3: Coltons Point

St. Mary's City to Coltons Point 26 NM

Off-season, the pace of life in this peaceful little community on the Potomac is lower than the speed limit. That all changes as warm weather tourists arrive at St. Clement's Island Museum to learn about the 1634 arrival of two ships, the Ark and Dove, whose English passengers sought to establish a new colony based on religious tolerance.

Bald eagle in flight - weekend warrior - marinalife
Bald Eagle in Flight | Frank Cone

A half-mile offshore is the 62-acre St. Clement's Island state park and federal nature preserve. A towering white cross marks where the first Catholic mass was held in the new colony. The park includes a hiking trail, beach, picnic pavilion, and fishing and hunting grounds.

In 1967, local preservation groups organized the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a time-honored traditional benediction for the boats and the St. Mary's County watermen. The event also raises awareness about the island's future, currently one-tenth its original size due to rising sea levels.

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