DC and Downtime

Washington DC, 2014-12-19

So it's been a busy couple of days in Washington DC. Today both Andy and I were feeling a little depleted, so we've declared a rest and laundry day to recharge.

Wednesday was our flight from Boston to DC. I'd deliberately booked a midday flight to try to give us a lazy morning. We had a (mostly) relaxed breakfast, packed the suitcases and headed off to the nearby South Station hub to catch the Silver Line subway out to the airport. The Silver Line is part of the subway in name and ticketing, but as we discovered when we got to the platform, it's actually that most ludicrous of public transport vehicles, the trolleybus. After we boarded, the journey became more strange. I had assumed that we were just boarding at an underground platform to maximise the use of space at South Station, but the line actually stayed underground for a few stations. It was a bit surreal being on a trolleybus driving through a one-lane tunnel from station to station.

At least in this context the use of a trolleybus made a little more sense. If you're running busses in a long network of underground tunnels, you probably don't want to have them burning fossil fuels. After a while we surfaced in the seaport district. After we drove up the ramp into the open air, as we pulled into a stop, a somewhat strange pre-recorded announcement was played.

The engine will briefly turn off as this bus switches to diesel power.

This was doubly strange - not only was this a most impractical form of hybrid (since it has to stop and shut down to switch modes), but they also felt the need to announce the cutover. Presumably this is to prevent mass panic and possible rioting as the engine momentarily cuts out while the vehicle was stationary at a bus stop.

The rest of the journey was as spectacularly exciting as you might expect a bus full of travellers and their luggage to be. We arrived about 2 hours before our flight, despite already being checked in, because I had no idea what our airport transit time was going to be like. The line for bag drop was fairly long, but unlike Customs and Border Protection at Newark, Jet Blue have worked out that if you have a long line, you simply open more service windows and keep people flowing through.

I honestly had no idea what to expect from TSA screening except that there would be a millimetre wave scanner. All I had read online over the years were the horror stories and blog posts highlighting the worst of the worst stories, but obviously nobody writes a blog post saying "TSA screening was awesome". What we got were clear instructions, ample open lanes with appropriate staffing for the number of passengers, and probably a better experience than we had in most other airports. It was certainly more efficient than Zurich, who made me unpack my entire backpack because they got spooked by a bag of laptop/device chargers. Andy opted for the pat-down instead of the mm-wave, and that was still reasonably quick and efficient. All in all, it was a very smooth airport experience and quicker than any domestic flight I've had in Australia where I've needed to check luggage.

B6689 BOS -> DCA

We flew in to Reagan National Airport. Very convenient, since it's just across the Potomac from Downtown DC. The airport does feel a bit like a relic from a bygone age though. The architecture, inside and out, just felt incredibly dated, and definitely designed for a time when air travel was more exclusive and passenger volumes were far lower. It was kinda refreshing actually, being in an airport that wasn't overrun with bright lights and glass walls. From the airport we went straight to the Metro. This was opened in the late 1970s, and doesn't appear to have been updated since. This was less refreshing.

After a very short Metro ride we arrived at our designated stop, conveniently located across the road from our hotel. The Hotel Monaco continues our tradition of funky hotels, this one being the old General Post Office and quite bizarre inside. A bust of Thomas Jefferson watches over us in our room (and every room, apparently), as well as in the lobby. But there's free tea and coffee in the lobby every morning from 06:00 to 10:00 and then free wine and nibbles from 17:00 to 18:00 every night. We basically just unpacked and chilled out in our room until 17:00, looking up places to eat and explore nearby.

The wine reception was pretty good. They offered a single red and a single white, one or two beers, as well as hot toddies with a spiced bourbon. The Californian sangiovese on offer was quite a nice, light wine for drinking while chilling out in the oversized armchairs. We ended up in a conversation with a couple (Don & Mary) from Harper's Crossing, VA who were in town to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra at the large venue across the road. We had a very interesting discussion about religion and witchcraft (inspired by our trip to Salem), how the Hotel Monaco was haunted, sub-genres of Metal, and Game of Thrones. We also had the requisite group-rant about the price and availability of alcohol and other food and drink in stadiums, and how the price gouging was not limited to any one country.

After a couple of glasses we went across the road to stroll through the Holiday Markets, hoping that we might actually make a start on Christmas shopping for family. We did manage to make a few purchase "on-mission", but the big win was finding a stall from Vigilante Coffee Co, a Maryland-based company. The had a "flat white" on their menu. I ordered one. It was one of, if not the best flat white I've ever had. Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed was not related to the quality of the coffee, but more that the milk wasn't hot enough to strip skin from my lips. It wasn't long before the aroma and the texture cut through my (pleasant) surprise though. The beans had a very distinct sweetness and an aftertaste unlike any of the single origins I've had at home. Somewhere along the way I lost my ability to form words and just muttered incoherent delight as I sipped. Having picked up amazing coffee, a couple of presents and a light takeaway dinner, we rited to our room and HGTV.

The next morning we had no problem waking up, but thanks to the wonders of HGTV we had a little trouble leaving the room. I think this might be a problem. Eventually, the need for food outweighed our desire to watch renovations we will likely never be motivated enough to attempt, and we ventured out for bagels.

Breakfast was unremarkable, except for the server's complete inability to pronounce sriracha1 and thus inability to understand what I was ordering. Once we cleared that up and finished our bagels we moved to our next planned stop, Chinatown Coffee Company. This place came highly rated online, and lived up to expectations. The decor is about what you'd expect from a third-wave coffee shop, and the barista had a right and proper hipster beard going on. The coffee was very good, although I would've preferred a slightly stronger flavour to cut through the milk, but I appreciated the priorities in a country of black coffee drinkers probably differ to mine.

Our main plan for the day was to walk down to the National Mall and mostly shoot pictures, but pop in to any of the museums along the way if we felt so inclined. We had come down 5th street2 so we were right at the Capitol Hill end of the mall. We stopped for a couple of photos, but didn't really feel the need to get up close and personal with the Capitol building.

We did, however, get excited by the Botanic Gardens, even more so when the magical words "Model Train Entrance" became visible. The first couple of rooms were dedicated to replica buildings made out of wood and other plant matter, and weaving between, through and over them: model trains doing circuits. We witnessed several kids losing their shit over some of the displays, and while I am better (slightly) at controlling my external behaviour, I was right there with them. Apart from the trains the Botanic Gardens were really interesting. Not surprising given the cold climate, but the entire gardens are indoors, split into several distinct climate zones. While I'm still glad to be overseas in the cold as opposed to in Australian summer heat3 I did enjoy a few minutes in the tropical room, savouring the warm and humid air.

After the Botanic Gardens we kept walking down the Mall until we reached the National Air and Space Museum. I don't know how much I can really say about it other than we spent around 4 hours there and only made it through half the ground floor and the museum shop. It was interesting walking through some of the obviously older exhibits, such as the origins of the universe and information on the Cold War, space race, and high-altitude surveillance and then contrasting those exhibits to the modern and up-to-date exhibit on the Space Shuttle program and International Space Station. We only really covered the space exhibits, as that was higher up Andy's list than the aviation side of the museum. Hopefully we'll get back to the air part of "Air and Space" before our time in DC ends, but given our "wishlist", it doesn't seem likely.

Thursday night and our wine social introduced us to a family of four in town to celebrate "Mom's" 60th birthday. What we've noticed so far is that everyone (n=2 groups) comes from a small town that was central to the Civil War. This group were also of the opinion that the hotel was haunted (by the ghosts of postal workers from the GPO days), but we still hadn't had any sightings. We did end wine hour with a chef's invitation to go have dinner at the restaurant of another hotel in the DC area, although we probably don't have time to follow through (unless reviews turn out amazingly positive and we make the time)4.

All this talk led us in to our own dinner. We'd both been craving any form of Asian cuisine, so we booked dinner at a well-rated dumpling restaurant nearby. All I can say is that either "Ping Pong Dim Sum" was having a bad night, or Americans collectively know nothing about good dumplings and all the reviews were wrong. The ideas, as on the menu, sounded good. The execution was not. Some dumplings were way too sticky and tore when to tried to pick them up. Others were too dry and hard, requiring major effort to pierce the surface, with either teeth or chopsticks. The hoi sin duck sliders could've actually used some hoi sin sauce to keep from being so dry. All up it was a very disappointing and expensive meal.

Which brings me to today, Friday. Both Andy and I had separately disrupted sleep, and neither one of us was particularly motivated to get up and moving in the morning. We decided to take the day "off" and when we eventually rose we headed to a cheap and cheerful waffle shop for brunch. It was cheap. It was cheerful. I had a waffle. We won't go back though.

After brunch we dropped our dirty laundry off at a laundromat and walked over to Chinatown Coffee Co to settle in for a few hours of coffee and writing for me, tea and DS games for Andy. While I felt a little guilty for being on holiday in DC and just camping in a cafe, it was exactly what I needed and I wouldn't change it.

When the coffee eventually ran out, we did a couple more errands, picked up our laundry and hit the hotel gym for a mini-session in the warm before dinner. Having only sub-par waffles and enough coffee to see through time, I was hankering for a big meal and some comfort food. We ended up in Fuddruckers, and I was so impressed with my burger and sweet potato fries that I promptly demolished it without a photo. Rest assured, it looked good and tasted better. After washing it down with a bottomless cup of Dr. Pepper, I think I've more than made up for Dr Pepper's general absence from Australian fast-food restaurants now.

The evening brought with it the scary realisation that we only have 2 days left in DC, and so much more on our "must see" list, let alone the 2nd and 3rd tier to-do items. I think Saturday and Sunday are going to be busy!

  1. For a clear example of how to pronounce it, followed by the horrible American mangling right at the end, see this YouTube video

  2. A true bureaucrat that named all North-South running streets in numerical order and all East-West running streets in alphabetical order. Our hotel is on the corner of 7th and F. Logical, easy to navigate, and devoid of personality. 

  3. Although Pocket Weather's daily weather notifications are still coming through at 07:00 AEDT, and it appears that Sydney is not actually that hot. 

  4. From the future: no, we didn't get there. 


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