Snuggled up to the Potomac River is D.C.’s first waterfront resort: the Gaylord National Hotel & Convention Center. I’d been been meaning to get over to see it ever since it opened two years ago. But the prospect of family coming into town suddenly made the idea of a trip that much more appealing. Why stay home when we could all meet up to enjoy Christmas on the Potomac?
And less than 40 miles away from Baltimore, the Gaylord became our home-away-from-home for an extended weekend. This “hotel” is little short of a city unto itself, and stuffed with a full week’s worth of activities and spots to explore. Factor in 2,000 guest rooms (with both bustling atrium and harbor views available) and 20 guest elevators, and you begin to understand the scale of the place. (I was tempted to people-watch for hours from my 12th-floor atrium lookout.)
As I stepped into the hotel lobby, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln figures (in the wax stylings of Madame Tussaud) greeted me, and I noticed that the lobby seemed to go on and on before branching out into more lobbies and rooms and restaurants and escalators and, well, everything. I had to slowly take in the 18-story glass atrium, built to resemble a Colonial village with shops, walkways, gardens, a sparkling stream and a “dancing” water fountain with jets leaping 50 feet high. This is truly a resort destination: come here to stay and play without ever having to go outside. As a family reunion spot, the Gaylord National is a first-rate choice for those (like me) who need lots of space and activities to keep the good times rolling.
When all my exploring (did I mention that this place was huge?) left me with the munchies, the Gaylord’s four restaurants and a dotting of cafes, lounges and ice cream spots were begging for a visit. To my family’s delight, there are eateries for every time of day and price range, from the 24/7 Java Coast cafe, to National Pastime Sports Bar and Grill, to mid-priced theme restaurants, to the fine dining offered at my personal favorite: Old Hickory Steakhouse.
The design of the steakhouse gives the impression that a diner has entered an elegant Georgetown townhouse, with a matte-black-and-white color scheme, handsome lighting and sumptous furniture. Premium cuts of Black Angus beef satisfy the meat lovers, while side dishes— such as the Truffle Mac & Cheese— made more than one cousin beg for a second helping. And just when you feel you can’t take another bite, the Maître d’Fromage shows up with an entire cart of artisanal cheeses! Throw in a 2006 French Voillot Volnay Red or a 2004 Napa Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23— and my Couverture Chocolate Brioche Pudding Soufflé (well worth the 30-minute preparation time)— and you’ve got the makings of one memorable meal.
Of course, with all that eating, a good spa workout should probably follow. Hello Relâche Spa! My aunt and I dropped off most of the kids at the Junior Olympic-sized swimming pool while the workout junkies in our group gravitated to the fitness center. She and I headed to the spa and considered our options: hot stone massages, hair highlighting, facials, mani-pedis, Botox treatments… it’s quite a list. After much deliberation, I booked a Tropical Island Glow treatment and let the warm coconut milk and sugar scrub take care of my winter-chapped skin. My aunt embraced a combo of facial, manicure and Signature Massage. We left in excellent moods.
Back in the atrium— where the family usually chose to rendezvous— piano stylings from Belvedere Lobby Bar wafted through as we headed over to Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine for a seafood dinner. But our breakfast and Sunday brunch favorite was Pienza Italian Market, with its brunch buffet loaded with fresh fruits, pancakes, waffles, breakfast casseroles and smoked salmon.
And then there is the bed— an activity in itself if you’ve brought a few good books along, as I had. Marble entryways usher you into luxe suites with Sealy Posturepedic pillowtop mattresses and luxurious bedding. All the amenities are here, including a 32-inch HD plasma TV, wireless Internet and a safe designed to house and recharge laptop computers. The rooms come in two different Chesapeake region themes: some are regally decorated in deep reds and white gold, while I personally went to dreamland under Federal blues and ivories. Suites have corner rooms that offer Potomac River views and come with a comfy living room, a dining area that seats six, chaises, a round bed-sofa in the bedroom, and a guest room connected to the living room. And the bathrooms? One of the little cousins told me that her shower was big enough for her neighbor’s horse. And she wasn’t lying.
For those seeking even more nightlife, there’s the Pose Ultra Lounge, which wraps 180 degrees around the hotel on the 18th level. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the Potomac and the D.C. skyline, while the Infusion bar’s mixology-savvy bartenders blend up liquid temptations.
Despite the many shops and things to do within the hotel, the outdoors beckoned. So one afternoon I ventured out to visit the National Harbor complex (nationalharbor.com) with its multitude of activities: chartered cruises, bass fishing tours, historical sites and monument tours, sailboat and canoe rentals and a water taxi. Trips to Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria and other sites are literally minutes away. And within the National Harbor itself rests a huge shopping complex that’s loaded with yummy restaurants (Ketchup, CakeLove, Sauciety, Thai Pavilion, etc.) and fun shops (Godiva Chocolate, South Moon Under, Life Is Good, Coco Blanca, Fossil and a Peeps store— who doesn’t want to take home a T-shirt or coffee mug with a cute Peeps chick on it?).
But one of the best treats for my family was right outside the hotel at the ICE! show, a 15,000-square-foot tent that holds 2 million pounds of sculpted ice depicting scenes out of Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Probably the biggest hit is the two-story ice slide, but activities roll around hourly: kids can breakfast and take photos with the Grinch, meet Santa Claus, get artsy with Mrs. Claus and go ice skating at the indoor rink. Even with all these kinds of kid fun, there’s holiday cheer for the adults, too, including the nightly tree-lighting show on the 60-foot glass Christmas tree, with 2 million lights twinkling on the branches. Gaylord has even manufactured its own Northern Lights (50 150-foot light curtains), nightly indoor snowfalls (regardless of the temperature outside) and Christmas decorations that seem to go on forever.
Other holiday highlights to sign up for are the “A Christmas to Remember” dinner show at the Pienza restaurant, snacks of milk and cookies delivered right to your room and a Christmas-themed scavenger hunt in the atrium. The pool’s weekly movie screenings feature Christmas classics, and the spa rolls out some seasonal surprises. (To learn more about the holiday offerings, visit gaylordhotels.com/gaylord-national/christmas-on-the-potomac.)
After three days of restaurants, sightseeing, spa treatments, ice shows and tree-lighting ceremonies, I (and a handful of parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews) can give the Gaylord a healthy, family stamp of approval.
Gaylord National Hotel
201 Waterfront St.
National Harbor, Md.