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weekending with the kids:A Presidential Tour Of Washington, D.C.

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

After the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, White House and U.S. Capitol, what’s left in our nation’s capital for vacationing families?  Plenty, especially if you choose to hone in on our Presidents, who are well-remembered in some little-known yet wonderful ways.  We start our winter weekend on Theodore Roosevelt Island, a small strip of land on the Potomac River occasionally feuded over by Maryland and Virginia.  Roosevelt visited the island during his presidency and after his death, his many fans wanted to erect a memorial to him where the Jefferson Memorial now sits.  The Tidal Basin site was deemed too prime for our 26th President so the island was purchased instead.  The main plaza, dedicated in 1967, features a statue of Roosevelt in full orator mode (“My father loves to talk so make a statue of him talking!” said his daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth) and is flanked by four large granite slabs etched with Rooseveltian quotes on Nature, Manhood, Youth and The State.  The mile-long Loop Trail takes in much of the island’s highlights (deer, marsh birds) and magically, our son Steven stumbles upon a brick from one of the island’s colonial-era houses.  nps.gov/this

Just up the road along the George Washington Parkway is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, a park-like setting chosen by Lady Bird Johnson as it was a favored spot from which to gaze across the Potomac onto Washington, D.C.  nps.gov/lyba  Farther downstream and at the western edge of the Tidal Basin is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a series of four outdoor rooms devoted to the various Presidential terms of one of our most important presidents.  The setting couldn’t be better and we walk in and out of the maze-like display while developing an easy rhythm:  I read inspirational quotes from the soft granite walls while Steven gawks at the large statues showing Roosevelt riding in everything from a car to a wheeled chair (as opposed to a wheelchair), which is exactly how our 32nd President would have wanted it.  nps.gov/fdrm

Back in the city center, we visit the National Portrait Gallery and tour “America’s Presidents,” a collection of Presidential portraits from George Washington to (almost) Barack Obama, the latter expected to return to full-time display by late 2010.  First up is George Washington as rendered by Gilbert Stuart and tendered by Americans on the dollar bill.  A second portrait by Stuart portrays Washington as elegant but never regal, a man who served at the pleasure of his countrymen and not as emperor or king.  The portrait of a cocksure Andrew Jackson is almost as elegant though our 14th President prided himself on his opposition to elitism and was much loved by the working class.  Abraham Lincoln is dark of hair and pensive of mood as seen by the painter George P.A. Healy while a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt inspired scenes from the hit movie “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and fills my young son with glee.  The portrait of FDR by Douglas Chandor is most interesting for the study of the President’s hands near the bottom whereas JFK is a flight of abstract expressionism done largely in emerald green – a nod to the President’s Irish roots?  The likeness of Richard Nixon is remarkably sweet thanks to Norman Rockwell’s brush and it is said that Ronald Reagan was the first President to smile for his official portrait.  A video reel of famous Presidential speeches (“Ask not what you can do for your country...”) is near the end of the exhibit and Fen, Steven and I wind down by listening to the lines that shaped our times.  npg.si.edu

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Mount Vernon, the stately home of George and Martha Washington, is sixteen miles south of Washington, D.C. and worth a full day’s visit thanks to a couple of 21st century additions.  While our son is eager to visit the estate, he’s especially keen on seeing George Washington’s dentures, which are said to be here.  We begin at the brand-new Ford Orientation Center, where an 18-minute film on Washington’s life presents a young general who is a brave and courageous leader in battle and selfless in service to his country.  On our way out, we pick up the “Adventure Map of Mount Vernon” in order to collect clues that complete a puzzle and this gambit quickly becomes the focal point of our visit.  Once in the actual Presidential residence, I realize that Martha Stewart has nothing on Martha Washington since the First Lady splashed bold colors on most every wall and had an enviable china and crystal collection (many of the items in the house are original).  The Washington’s bedroom was remarkably roomy for a house of that day and his study is filled with books and whimsical inventions that sparked a curious President.

After a walk along the well-manicured grounds (the view from the back of the house onto the Potomac is spectacular) and with our Adventure Map in tatters thanks to a stiff wind (Steven refuses to lose the map), we end up at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, a collection of 25 new theaters and galleries that present a detailed, multi-media re-creation of George Washington’s life.

“Mom, are George Washington’s teeth HERE?” my son grimaces, his patience waning.

I assure him that the teeth are at hand as we work our way throughout a series of displays that portray an enterprising, self-made man dedicated to his troops and his country; a man of character and not without flaws but sure of his cause.  The flip side of the general is seen in exhibits that show Washington as farmer, fisherman and whiskey distiller and, finally, we come face-to-face with the teeth.

“They’re smaller than I thought,” says Steven, “and not very neat.”  Indeed, the dentures are a set of uppers haphazardly arranged but I assure Steven that it was better than having no teeth at all.

“The power of the constitution will always be in the people,” I remind Steven, quoting one of George Washington’s more famous lines as we head out into the cold winter air.  mountvernon.org

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The Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel is in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol and you’ll be hard-pressed to decide if you enjoy the view of this iconic structure most in the early-morning light or late at night as they are equally stunning.  Back indoors, our room is a compact yet extremely well-laid-out square of gray and steel blue graced by sink-into-me beds that sport a six-pillow menu.  Smart light fixtures, flat-screen HDTV and a wired sensibility are a nod to modernity while permanent shampoo/soap dispensers (no more tiny plastic bottles!) give the hotel green cred.  In the lobby, an amalgam of black, white and red seating areas is perpetually filled with laptop-toting hipsters (and their offspring) enjoying the journey – and the destination.  415 New Jersey Avenue, N.W.  (202) 638-1616; http://affinia.com/Washington-DC-Hotel.aspx?name=Liaison-Capitol-Hill Doubles from $119; special Internet rates available.

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One of the best reasons to visit Washington, D.C. is to EAT, since the district is known for excellent restaurants across a variety of cuisines and at every price point.  At Rosa Mexicano, Steven is presented with a small apron the minute we walk in the door and invited to “Rock the Guac.”  Our son will be preparing guacamole table side, which gives Fen and me a reason (!) to indulge in premium-tequila margaritas.  With a couple of trusty aides, Steven is soon spooning this and mashing that and the result is, well, delicious, which is exactly how it should be when you use fresh ingredients.

“Amazing!” shouts Steven, on having a taste of my sopa de tortilla, a warming broth thickened with roasted tomatoes and pasilla chiles.  The dining room is awash in a pink glow and is the perfect backdrop for my rack of lamb and Fen’s whole butterflied snapper.  Steven digs into enchiladas suizas bathed in a creamy tomatillo salsa while Fen and I try to sneak bites.  Mexican churros, light cinnamon doughnuts that end our meal, come with three dipping sauces and I wonder if a family of five would receive as many since the service here is unfailingly gracious.  575 Seventh Street, N.W.  (202) 783-5522.

Art and Soul at the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel is one of those hotel restaurants that gets it all right.  The baby of Chef Art Smith, a two-time James Beard Award winner and one-time personal chef to Oprah Winfrey, Art and Soul is the place for artfully-prepared Southern fare that warms the soul.  Our server, Byron, greets us with mini-skillet in hand and plops a just-out-of-the-oven hunk of bread on our table and the warm challah with butter and herbs is positively addictive.  “I can bring you another one,” Byron says as he checks back with us a few minutes later and we nod in agreement.  The Chesapeake Fish Fry is a generous appetizer of oysters, shrimp, calamari and hush puppies and it isn’t long before Steven monopolizes the pups.  No problem, since Fen and I are sharing the ahi tuna appetizer with fried green tomatoes.  Byron’s recommendation of a Carmanere Chilean red is the perfect accompaniment for my apple-glazed veal chop with a chestnut puree and tossed with a handful of caramelized Brussels sprouts.  Steven digs into a braised pork shank resting atop black eyed peas while Fen’s plate of succulent blackened scallops alongside a sweet potato puree is deemed the winner among these top-flight dishes.  Our shared dessert of apple fritters calls to mind the previous night’s Mexican doughnuts but with a Southern twist.  415 New Jersey Avenue, N.W.  (202) 638-1616.

Over at Five Guys Burger and Fries, you need only know two things:  Little Hamburger and Regular Fries.  Portions are huge at this no-frills establishment that prides itself on fresh patties cooked right (read: no trans fats) and while the burgers are indeed good (and served with a variety of toppings at no additional charge), it’s the fries that will keep you smiling.  “These are the best fries I’ve ever had!” exclaims my knows-his-fries son and our regular-sized order is served in a tall cone placed inside a paper bag half-filled with even more delicious fries.  It comes as no surprise when we learn that this D.C.-area restaurant can now be found in over thirty states.

“Told ya they know their food in D.C.,” I say.

“Yeah, Mom, but you need to wipe the ketchup off your face,” razzes Steven.  808 H Street, N.W.  (202) 393-2900; other locations throughout the city.

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Washington, D.C. is a city known for special events, Presidential and otherwise, and nowhere is this more apparent than on our visit to the National Geographic Museum, which is playing host to the “Terra Cotta Warriors.”  Thousands of life-sized clay figures created at the behest of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi  over 2,000 years ago to accompany him into the afterlife were found buried in a massive pit in China in 1974. The cross-section of statues and other artifacts on display are remarkably well-preserved and a Kneeling Archer still bears some of his original red paint!  Steven is riveted by the audio tour, as are we.  nationalgeographic.com/terracottawarriors  Also touring D.C. and points across the U.S. and Europe is “Star Wars In Concert,” where warriors from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away return via film clips accompanied by John Williams’ signature score.  Our son is thrilled to see the greatest hits of his six favorite movies while Fen and I are enthralled by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s interpretation of some of the best movie music of all time.  starwarsinconcert.com

As if to say “anything you can do, I can do better,” the folks at goSmithsonian, a guide to the various Smithsonian museums, have put together a slim Treasure Map as “a key to finding real artifacts that inspired scenes” in the movie “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”  We spend the better part of a day moving between the Smithsonian Castle, the National Air and Space Museum, the neighboring National Museums of American History and Natural History and the National Portrait Gallery in search of a Lockheed Vega, Custer’s Jacket, an Easter Island head and other treasures featured in the movie.  We had spotted the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt in question a few days earlier and return to the Portrait Gallery to check it off our list.

“Mom, this is FUN!” exclaims Steven and the history lesson-cum-adventure we’re  having on this sunny winter afternoon paints a smile across my face.  gosmithsonian.com/nightatthemuseummovie/


Elaine Sosa Labalme
is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and seven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

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