The Capital Wheel At National Harbor

Standing at 180 feet high, the National Harbor ferris wheel has become the dominant structure along the Potomac River.
Standing at 180 feet high, the National Harbor ferris wheel has become the dominant structure along the Potomac River.
The high-tech, environmentally controlled ferris wheel will give you the sensation that you are floating on air.
The high-tech, environmentally controlled ferris wheel will give you the sensation that you are floating on air.
Accommodating up to eight people, the glass-enclosed gondolas offer panoramic views of the harbor and the nation's capital at the distance.
Accommodating up to eight people, the glass-enclosed gondolas offer panoramic views of the harbor and the nation’s capital at a distance.
The heavy metal structure ensures that ferris wheel has the stability of an Egyptian pyramid.
The heavy metal structure ensures that ferris wheel has the stability of an Egyptian pyramid.
The huge structure has forty-two gondolas, allowing 336 passengers to enjoy the views at the same time.
The huge structure has forty-two gondolas, allowing 336 passengers to enjoy the views at the same time.

London has one and now there’s one within view of downtown Washington, DC.  As if Maryland’s National Harbor needed anything else to establish it’s leading development role in the area, here comes one of the most exciting structures we’ve seen in the land of boxy government buildings: the 180-foot high Capital Wheel right at the edge of the Potomac River.  This is an imposing structure, but it will no doubt cement the notion of National Harbor as one of the leading places to have some fun in the metro area.  In fact, there’s nothing in DC that comes even remotely close to this structure and the way it makes you relive the joyful days of another era.   And while I was there during the day, the friendly folks operating the wheel informed me that most of the crowds show up at night when the city and the harbor area are at their best illuminated selves.  Even better, the lively nightlife is just down the pier just beyond the sunken Neptune.  I guess I’ll be crossing that river from staid Alexandria a little bit more often from now on.

Getting To The Other Side: A Potomac River Crossing

One of the most fun and less discovered adventures in Northern Virginia is crossing the Potomac River on a harbor boat.
One of the most fun and less discovered adventures in Northern Virginia is crossing the Potomac River via water taxi.
The water taxi connecting Old Town Alexandria with the new National Harbor development arrives at the Alexandria dock.
The water taxi connecting Old Town Alexandria with the new National Harbor development arrives at the Alexandria dock.
While not the cheapest way to cross the Potomac River, the experience makes the sixteen dollar roundtrip a real bargain.
While not the cheapest way to cross the Potomac River, the experience makes the sixteen dollar roundtrip ticket a real bargain.
Coastal and maritime traditions are maintained by the city of Alexandria in spite of pressures by local developers to alter the sleepy nature of the place.
Coastal and maritime traditions are maintained by the city of Alexandria in spite of pressures excerpted by local developers.
During the winter off-season months you could pretty much have the entire water taxi to yourself, even if you are not interested in the views.
During the winter off-season months you could pretty much have the entire water taxi to yourself, even if you are not interested in the views.
As in larger vessels, the boat Captain sits majestically over water taxi with the best views in the house.
As in larger vessels, the boat Captain sits majestically over water taxi with the best views in the house.

Funny how sometimes we convince ourselves that traveling always involve getting into a jet and flying to some exotic, faraway place.  Sure, that’s a lot of fun, but the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realize that distance may not have as much to do with the “travel experience” as I once thought it did.  Sometimes the experience can be a lot closer to home.  You know, the places we usually see from a few thousand feet above ground when taking off from the local airport to our great, once-a-year adventure.  Those places do look quite fascinating from the air, but like so many of them we see in aerial photographs, they tend to remain abstractions in our lives.  They are things we momentarily glance at on our way to destinations.

Well, yesterday I decided to change all that.  On what turned out to be a rare, beautiful mid-December day in northern Virginia, I ventured out to cross the Potomac River by water taxi.  Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it?  But I can guarantee you that it was, and the reason may have had as much to do with the absence of crowds as with the incredible views that are only possible from a river boat.  Bald eagles, bridges, historic shorelines, and the soothing sound of a river boat gently slicing the river waters.  It was a surreal experience magnified by the fact that it was so out of character (in a good way) with the crazy, busy world that exist in the area a mere mile inside the river shores.  The ride, which connects Old Town Alexandria on the Virginia side with the National Harbor complex on the Maryland side, lasts less than half an hour each way and will set you back $16 for a roundtrip ticket.  Would it be cheaper and faster to just zoom down by the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in your private automobile?  Sure, provided the destination is all that matters to you on any given day.  But if it’s the journey you are after, then that slow, undulating ride across the river will definitely do the trick.  And the view of the cluttered, busy highway above the bridge is quite nice too.

Ever Heard Of Dragon Boat Racing?

Serious competitors begin gathering early in the morning for local regattas.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 ED VR.
Serious competitors begin gathering early in the morning for local regattas. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 ED VR.
While seemingly easy to the uninitiated, Dragon Boat Races are grueling events involving teamwork and lots of grunting.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.
While seemingly easy to the uninitiated, Dragon Boat Races are grueling events involving teamwork and lots of grunting. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.
Dragon boaters are quite a mixed group, with everything from women-only  to mixed visually-impaired teams.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.
Dragon boaters are quite a mixed group, with everything from women-only to mixed visually-impaired teams. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G.

Talking about a change of scenery.  No sooner did I return from discovering parts of Eastern Europe that I found myself at the shores of the Potomac River in Maryland watching Dragon Boat races.  Sure, it’s not the Danube, but what can you say; it’s water, and if you can put a boat on it, then you can certainly have a race.  Ever heard of Dragon Boat Racing?  I must admit that until a few days ago, this form of competition was a foreign to me as what’s located on the other side of the moon.  And from the looks of it, I was definitely missing on something.  This Dragon Boat racing is serious stuff, with teams all over the country competing for a chance to go to what I was told, would be the world championships in Italy sometime next year.  Italy?  It’s already sounding interesting to this humble traveler.

After reading on the web that this regional competition was to take place at Maryland’s elegant National Harbor development, I simply had to go check it out.  Since the event description had the word race, I sort of expected a little competition to take place.  To be perfectly honest, and considering that we live in a city where underwear races and national pillow fights take place right under President Lincoln’s stony gaze, I was sort of expecting another “fun” event to help mark the dwindling days of summer.  What I saw could not have been more different.  Early morning group calisthenics, groups of people rhythmically air-rowing with the kind of facial expressions that reminded me of Mike Tyson, corporate teams, and a team consisting of visually-impaired folks that was being assisted to their boat, but who looked like they were there to kick some you know what.  And while these folks were seriously pumped-up for competition, they were also some of the nicest people I’ve met in a while (could it be because I wasn’t competing against them?).  So here I am, fresh from the cafes of Vienna and Krakow and now becoming a Dragon Boat racing closet expert.  Well, not quite, but I surely had a great time meeting these folks and watching the regatta; and who knows, maybe I’ll check out some of their future races.  Did I hear someone mention Italy?

Reminders Of The War Of 1812

Step inside the grounds of Fort Washington and you may think you have just entered a movie set from the War of 1812.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The inside of Fort Washington looks like the inside of a War of 1812 movie set. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
Completed in 1809, Fort Washington sits majestically over the Potomac River.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
Completed in 1809, Fort Washington sits majestically over the Potomac River. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The door by which the British entered in 1812 after burning the burning of the capital.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The door by which the British entered in 1812 after burning the burning of the capital. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.

This weekend I had the opportunity to visit a place that I have been seeing from afar for almost ten years now.  This gap had nothing to do with a lack of curiosity, mind you.  A million times I’ve driven south down the scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, and a million times I have seen the majestic Fort Washington sitting high over the Potomac River on the Maryland side of the shore.  You can’t miss it.  It is as imposing as a giant keeping his eyes on the waterway that 200 years ago was both a critical commercial route to the capital and a major avenue of attack.  But as impressive as it looks from the low ground on the Virginia side of the river, it is twice as impressive when you are standing up high on one of its many canon positions with a clear view of our nation’s capital.  A great place to make a final stand against the British during the War of 1812, if it were not for the small detail that its occupants beat feet from the place upon getting word that the British were moving on the fort after having burned the capital.  Two centuries later and you still can’t help but feel that the place was recently occupied and abandoned, specially if you get there early in the morning and there’s no one around you when you set foot through the fort’s imposing door.

But there is a lot more to Fort Washington than history.  Namely, the incredible view.  Looking out over the spot where the southern-flowing Potomac River bends west before continuing its hasty march onto the mighty Chesapeake Bay, the views from the fort are nothing short of breathtaking.  Veer your eyes north and you will clearly see Old Town Alexandria and the Capitol building in the distance.  Look west and you will see the undulating river gradually disappearing in the distance past the historical Mount Vernon plantation.  A panorama adorned by the emerging colors of spring, and a reminder of the unassuming beauty of our country.  Now I know that I should have crossed that river long ago.

A Stroll Through Sykesville, Maryland

A number of large, beautiful mansions on top of hills watch over the one-street town of Sykesville.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
Large, beautiful mansions on top of hills watch over the one-street town of Sykesville. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The amazing Baldwin's Station restaurant at a converted 1883 train station.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The amazing Baldwin’s Station restaurant at a converted 1883 train station. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
White picket fences are the perfect backdrop to this quaint, laid-back town in northern Maryland.  Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
White picket fences are the perfect backdrop to this laid-back town in northern Maryland. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.

Like some folks out there, there are places in the world that simply move at their own pace without the apparent time-limit constraints that have brought us the wonderful world of hypertension.  One such place is the small town of Sykesville, Maryland.  Sitting by the banks of the Patapsco River and a stop along the Old Main Line (the nation’s oldest railroad line), Sykesville seems to be a study in laid-back existence.  Looking for a cup of coffee before 11:00 AM?  Keep on driving.  An early riser?  You’ll be mighty lonely down Main Street.  But if what you are looking for is some good amount of Americana,  friendly people, beautiful homes from the golden era in American history, and incredible restoration efforts like that of its 1883  train station (now the Baldwin’s Station Restaurant), then you’ve come to the right place.  Will I ever visit again?  Well, let me just say that there’s an out-of-this-world bison burger deliciously cooked in duck fat at the Baldwin’s Station that has my name on it.  We shall meet again, my friend.