Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas in D.C. - Next Best Thing to Being Home for the Holidays

Along Pennsylvania Avenue Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

Any time of year, our nation’s capital is an interesting and exciting place to visit with loads of attractions for a visitor to see, many of them free of charge. But, during the holiday season, the city sparkles and glows with a myriad of lights, tall Christmas trees like the one on the White House lawn, and elaborate toy train exhibits, including the ever-popular one at the National Botanical Garden.
I began my own Christmas visit with a walk through ZooLights, where 500,000 LED colored lights line the walkways through the National Zoo. The 40 minute round trip hike took me past topiary-like animals formed from strings of light, trees immersed in falling "snowflakes," whole gardens of flowers that change color in sequence and beautifully floodlit buildings - all contributing to a blaze of color set against the evening sky.
ZooLights Elephants at National Zoo Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

    Admission to ZooLights is free of charge and includes live entertainment, entrance to some exhibit buildings, special events and more  Holiday treats like hot chocolate, eggnog, gingerbread and holiday cookies are also available for purchase.
Christmas Scene at Nage Bistro Photo Credit Bill Rockwel
    Dinner that evening took me and photographer, Bill Rockwell, to Nage Bistro in Scott Circle across from the Australian Embassy where kangaroos on the lawn pull Santa’s sleigh, giving his reindeer some needed time off. We arrived on Burger Night (Monday), when executive chef, Dwayne Motley, offers three hand-crafted burgers made from ground chuck, steak and short rib and cooked to order over an open flame.
    The burgers come with a choice of home made fries (garlic or white truffle oil and herb or the potent Ghost fries, dusted with the third hottest chile in the world and 900.5 times hotter than your feeble Tabasco sauce). Note: You can see several courageous folks eating one of these torrid chiles (or trying to) at various locations on youtube.
Wild Mushroom Baklava at Nage Bistro Photo Credit bill Rockwell
    While the burgers were tempting, we went for more labor-intensive selections such as wild mushroom baklava with berry compote and chevre, grilled Gulf prawns on dirty rice, a little pumpkin stuffed with root veggies, quinoa and cranberries and a fall apart-tender braised short rib served on a bed of Yukon Gold potato puree with mustard greens. 1600 Rhode Island Ave, NW Phone 202-448-8005.
    Day Two took us first to the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. I’d been to the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing before but never its NeoClassic older sibling, completed in 1941. Our main goal, besides exploring the wondrous rotunda under the dome was to view the current El Greco exhibit - up through Feb. 16, 2015. The exhibit includes seven paintings from the gallery’s own collection as well as three others on loan from regional museums.
Rotunda under the Dome at the National Gallery of Art Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

    As a follow-up, we took the 12-minute tour and talk on a related painting by Spanish artist Diego Velazquez titled "The Needle-Woman." The gallery offers many guided tours daily, including free audio tours and a do-it-yourself Collection Highlights tour. Www.nga.gov.
    Nearby, the "Seasons Greetings" exhibit at the National Botanical Garden features model trains and reproductions of many Washington buildings and monuments. This year, the exhibit’s theme "Exploration Along the Seas," includes lighthouses meant to navigate the way through the scenic wonderland. Interestingly enough, the model buildings are all made of plant material.

Ice Rink in Sculpture Garden with National Archives in Background Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    On the way to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the National Archives, we lingered a few moments to watch ice skaters circle the rink in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. The way most of the folks cautiously made their way around the rink gave me a deeper appreciation for those truly adept on the ice.
Entrance to Old Ebbitt Grill

    Dinner that evening took us to the Old Ebbitt Grill, whose roots go back to 1856 and whose patrons included Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt. After walking past two giant Nutcracker soldiers, which flank the entrance door, we moved into the historic eatery, which claims the city’s most popular oyster bar. As an appetizer, we took manager Dan Harding’s recommendation and tried the Peconic Bay Scallop Capellini, tender, thin and long, house-made noodles with meaty scallops tossed in a cream sauce. Yummy!
Interior Shot of Old Ebbitt Grill Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    Follow up dishes included duck breast and Atlantic Salmon with sautéed autumn vegetables, red quinoa, farro, kale and walnut pesto. On our way out, we noticed the big platters on the bar and some tables full of oysters, clams and shrimp. The platters come in five successively larger portions with the Orca platter at the top of the price list. For $126, Orca patrons get a 1 pound lobster, 6 Jonah crab claws, 6 clams, 24 oysters and 12 shrimp
Oyster Appetizer Plate at Old Ebbitt Grill Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    While it’s meant to be shared, Harding did say that a single customer once managed to down the entire platter without anyone else’s assistance. If you get a seafood craving and are on a fixed budget, keep in mind that from 3 to 6 p.m. and from 11 p.m. to closing, seven days a week, Oyster Happy Hour allows patrons to order any platter at half off.

    Day 3 started at the Newseum, located at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the modern Canadian Embassy. Outside, the words of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press, are inscribed into the face of the wall. Inside, after paying for your admissions ticket, which gives patrons two consecutive day access for the price of one, three theaters on the concourse level give an brief orientation to the Newseum along with the signature film "What’s News?"
Looking Down From Level Six at the Newseum Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    A current exhibition titled "The Boomer List" is made up of 19 larger-than-life photos by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders - one for each year of the Baby Boom Era (1946-1964). A more powerful exhibit made up of the most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photos dating back to 1942 can be found on Level One. Be advised that some depict quite brutal and emotionally charged images.
Pulitzer Prize Winning Photo of Starving Child in Newseum Collection Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    The museum brochure advises starting at the top on Floor Six and working your way down. At the top level, step out onto the terrace for a great vantage point high above Pennsylvania Avenue with the Capitol looming largely to the East.
    With a total of 15 theaters and 15 galleries, it’s a good thing the admission ticket allows a two day visit. The galleries cover everything from the Berlin Wall, 9/11 - which includes the wreckage of the radio antenna atop the South Tower, the Civil Rights Movement at 50, the FBI, with artifacts of the agency’s biggest cases of the past 100 years, press freedom (or the lack of it) in countries around the world, even photos of the Presidents’ dogs.
    With a mike in hand standing in front of a green screen, you can also try your skill at being a news reporter in the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, then take in a 4-D adventure through time and journalism history in a special theater with 3-D visual effects and seats that move as part of the screening. Phone 202-292-6100.
    To get an orientation overview of Washington, we decided to take a Big Bus Tour, offered onboard a double deck bus. Big Bus has four different routes, two of which take you across the Potomac into Virginia for a look at the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery.
    Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who narrates all sorts of interesting information on the city, its history and its famous people, the tours last 2 and a half hours and allows people to hop-off at a landmark they’d like to explore further, then hop back on the next bus to continue the tour. eng.bigbustours.com/washington or 877-332-8689.
    Dinner that evening took us to Zengo, just off the Chinatown Metro stop, where the kitchen comes up with some very creative, adventurous dishes that blend Asian and Latin styles and flavors, and the decor is as sophisticated and eye-catching as the cuisine.
Trio of Shrimp Tacos and Octopus Bibimbap at Zengo Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    Our bill of fare included a trio of shrimp tacos, scallops and short rib tamales, octopus carnitas "bibimbap" served in a sizzling hot kettle with mushrooms, roasted corn, jicama, chile toreado and salsa roja-gochujang sauce. For dessert, the Mexican chocolate tart is incredibly delicious. Phone 202-393-2929.
Seared Scallops and Short Rib Tamales at Zengo Photo Credit bill Rockwell
    That evening we headed to the campus of Catholic University of America for Christmas Eve mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in the U.S. and North America and one of the ten largest in the world. Despite its size, the church had standing room only for the service.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

The music played on the organ with choir accompaniment was incredibly beautiful, and when the congregation lit their hand-held candles, the lights in the church dimmed and a procession of clerics and laity brought the infant Jesus through the basilica, then laid him in the manger near a side altar. It proved to be an emotionally charged, magical and spiritual evening.
Basilica Interior Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
 For a place to stay, the Harrington Hotel, 436 11th Street in Washington, opened on March 1, 1914 making it the nation’s oldest continuously operating hotel. Just a half block from Pennsylvania and two blocks from the White House, the Harrington is within walking distance to many DC attractions and the Metro.
    While not in the luxury class of DC hotels, the Harrington is clean, tidy and has some excellent family-friendly room rates, although the decor is a bit outdated. The hotel, celebrating its 101st anniversary this year, also houses a full service restaurant and pub. Phone 202-628-8140 or www.hotel-harrington.com.

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