I think that I’m probably like most people in that I’m really bad at experiencing all there is to see and do in my own hometown. I’m willing to fly to far-flung spots around the globe, but once I’m back home in the Washington, DC region I tend to rarely venture out. Last year I started to make a determined effort to correct that oversight – I do live in one of the most interesting cities in the world after all. A few days ago I had another opportunity to get out and see the best of the capital region during the holiday season at the Gaylord National Resort.
The Gaylord National is located in National Harbor, a large shopping, dining and hotel space along the banks of the Potomac in Maryland. To be more specific, it’s literally 15 minutes from my house and yet since this newest addition to the DC area opened in 2008, I’ve only been a couple of times and never to the Gaylord hotel itself. I’m not exactly sure why this oversight happened, but it did and last weekend was the first step in correcting it. The entire National Harbor site, but the Gaylord National in particular, goes all out for the holiday season and from my own personal experience, I can attest to the fact that it’s one of the most festive areas around town. I was surprised though. Surprised by all of the activities offered and how much fun it all was. I was overjoyed to see that while there is a definite family focus, even those without kids could go, have fun and simply act like kids again. My afternoon and evening spent there was the most fun I’ve had around town in a long time, so I thought I’d share a few things not to miss during the holiday season at both Gaylord National and National Harbor.
I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered the massive ICE! Experience, except that it would be cold. Outfitted with gloves and a hat, before entering staff also handed me a special parka – believe it or not it’s all needed since the attraction is kept at a constant and definitely chilly 9 degrees. That’s because inside are more than 2 million pounds of ice, sculpted into a dazzling wonderland of figures, scenes and even small towns. This year, the experience shares the classic TV special telling a story as guests wander through the rooms of the experience. At first it didn’t dawn on me that absolutely everything was carved of ice, from the colorful characters to the five functioning ice slides, but once it did I was amazed. Artists literally work all year to develop these scenes and walking through it was a lot more fun than I ever would have guessed. Kids and adults alike were just as stunned as I was after realizing how much fun it all was.
The ICE! attraction is at the heart of the Christmas on the Potomac experience, but there’s a lot more to see and do than just that. Recreated at the Gaylord National is the Village of the North Pole, a decorated Christmas town square with holiday gifts, a carousel, Santa’s sleigh and of course a hot chocolate stand. The first PEEPS® store is located in National Harbor, and they’ve extended their influence to the Christmas festivities as well. Visitors can visit a gingerbread decorating corner sponsored by PEEPS® where they can decorate their own tasty treats.
One of my travel rules is that whenever there is a chance to see things from a higher point of view, I take it, which is how I found myself sitting high above the Potomac on this riverside Ferris wheel. Debuting in 2014, the Capital Wheel is one of the latest in what seems to me to be a global trend of adding these fun attractions to cities around the world. The DC wheel features 42 enclosed gondolas, which technically can accommodate 8 people, but you’ll usually be able to travel with just 2-4 folks. The Capital Wheel is thankfully a far cry from the sometimes-too-big London Eye, which packs in their gondolas with way too many strangers in my opinion. No, the DC version was perfect and it was a great way for us to start our evening, watching the sun set over the river through the all-glass gondolas, designed to provide amazing views of the city.
Window (or Real) Shopping in National Harbor
National Harbor is a lot bigger than I had suspected. A multi-use site, the area is made up of hotels, restaurants, shops and even places to live. It’s currently the largest of its kind on the East Coast without a casino, although that will change next year when the MGM National Harbor is slated to open its doors. Walking around National Harbor it was impossible not to fall into the Christmas spirit, with carols streaming from magically hidden speakers and a massive Christmas tree in the middle of the town center. With more than 150 retailers and a nearby outlet complex, there is literally something for everyone here. A personal favorite for its quirkiness though was the PEEPS & COMPANY® store – the first retail store the iconic marshmallow maker ever opened. If you love these bright yellow treats, then this is a most stop store. More than just Peeps in every color and flavor imaginable, the store also features other candies and a whole host of Peeps related gifts. It was fun to visit and fit well with our “adults acting like kids” day spent at National Harbor.
I finished out my evening with one of my favorite meals – a classic steak. I’m picky though about steakhouses, which is why I was at first a little unsure about dining at this upscale restaurant located within the Gaylord National Resort itself. Almost immediately though, whatever concerns I had immediately vanished thanks to the warm hospitality I was met with from the very start, and the luxurious look and feel of the restaurant itself. Named after the 7th President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, the Old Hickory Steakhouse absolutely has the traditional steakhouse feel that I love, but with a lot of modern touches as well. With views of the river, elegant decor and subtle finishings, the decor expertly sets the stage for what is honestly a wonderful dining experience.
Our waiter that evening, Ruben, looked like he came out of central casting for a steakhouse waiter. After chatting with him I could tell that he was a true professional in every sense of the word. Caring for guests and knowing everything there is to know about steak in a way that only great servers can do. Right away I noticed something a little different on the menu though and immediately I knew I had to try it. The Old Hickory is one of just a few restaurants that has a dedicated cheesemonger on staff, which they affectionately call the Maître Fromage or Cheese Master. As a lover of all things cheesy, I decided to try this as our appetizer, as smart a dining decision as I’ve made in a long time. Within minutes the Maître Fromage wheeled out her cheese cart, sharing important details about each one before allowing us to choose the ones we wanted to try. Prepared tableside and presented with jams, fruits and nuts, the cheese service was one of the best I’ve ever tried and it is an absolute must for any guest.
But of course the true test of any steak house is the steak, and I eagerly anticipated my first bite of the 1855 Black Angus filet I ordered. Accompanied by generous portions of family style sides, the well seasoned steak was one of the best I’ve had in a long time and my partner and I soon fell into silence as we savored the delicious meal. I was surprised in all the right ways by my dining experience at the Old Hickory Steakhouse and since it’s so close to home, I know we’ll be patronizing it far more often.
Overall I had a great time exploring the Gaylord National Resort and the entire National Harbor complex and I’m a little embarrassed that it took me this long to visit. I know though, that it won’t be the last and I can’t wait to go back and experience more of this fun area close to home.