D.C. Girlfriend Getaway

As I stood in the Experience Shower at D.C.’s Mandarin Oriental Spa staring at all the knobs and faucets, I tried to anticipate what would happen when I turned a knob. Hmm, maybe I should have brought my glasses.

I turned the first knob. Ahh, a warm, inviting rain-forest mist enveloped me. Next knob? A jet stream of ice-cold water poured over my head. Aah, I screamed and jumped out of the shower.

“Sorry,” I mumbled to my friend, Wendy, who was languishing in the Vitality Pool, trying not to laugh. I hoped I hadn’t disturbed any other spa guests and decided to join Wendy in the jetted pool, leaving the Experience Shower for more intrepid spa-goers. After our soak, we reposed in the Amethyst Crystal Steam Room before showering and heading to the Relaxation Room for herbal tea and girl talk.

Our girlfriend getaway to Washington was off to a great start in spite of heavy rainclouds outside that threatened our Segway tour that afternoon. We’d arrived Thursday afternoon in the metro area and were staying at a new property in Fairfax, the Mason Inn, on the campus of George Mason University. One reason we chose this hotel was because it offers a shuttle to the Metro, D.C’s subway, and Wendy and I wanted to use public transportation as much as possible We ended up loving the Mason Inn’s upscale ambiance and plush amenities. The onsite restaurant, Boxwoods, is known for its seasonal specialties, and over our meal of plump sea scallops and succulent rockfish, Wendy and I talked nonstop about all the fun ahead on our big-city getaway.

Friday we grabbed our umbrellas, hopped on the Metro, and hoped for the best. But after our morning at the spa, the rains came, so Wendy and I lingered over lunch at the Sou’ Wester, Mandarin Oriental’s bustling restaurant. We shared heavenly pan-fried oysters served with smoked pepper aioli, heirloom beet salad, a crab cake sandwich, and an oyster po’ boy. One thing for sure: Wendy and I were not worrying about calories this weekend.

Since the Segway tour was out, we took the Metro to the Smithsonian American Art Museum a few blocks off the mall. Housed in one of D.C’s first public buildings, the museum façade features stunning Greek Revival architecture. Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Albert Bierstadt, and Andy Warhol are just a few of the modern masters whose works you’ll view inside.

Don’t miss Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway, a neon map of the U.S. comprised of video screens showing iconic and odd films somehow related to each state. Also housed in the same building is the National Portrait Gallery, where images of early Native Americans and modern-day celebrities vie for your attention. The museum surrounds a covered courtyard, where you can grab a coffee, enjoy free Wi-Fi, or rest a bit and watch the people go by.

Wendy and I just missed Happy Hour at one of my favorite D.C. restaurants, Acadiana, a couple blocks from the American Art Museum. From 3:30-6:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, you can relish $5 cocktails and half-priced bar food, including their signature appetizer—char-broiled oysters. Next time I’ll set my watch! Nevertheless, we loved our dinner at Acadiana: the aforementioned oysters swathed in garlic butter and melted Parmesan. For our entrée, we shared a delicious preparation of Cajun-spiced redfish. In summer the restaurant offers crawfish boils on the patio every Friday, featuring crawfish, shrimp, and Abita beers direct from Louisiana. Let the good times roll!

On Saturday morning after another restful night at the Mason Inn, Wendy and I checked out and drove into the big city. Traffic is surprisingly minimal on weekends, and parking is not a big deal. The most intimidating thing about our journey was neither of us had a GPS! My husband had ours, and Wendy’s was broken. So there we were navigating D.C.’s network of neighborhoods with tattered old maps and educated guesses.

Our destination was Eastern Market, a colorful city market with both indoor stalls and outdoor vendors. On trips, I tend to seek out unique experiences that aren’t available at home, and D.C.’s expansive Eastern Market, where you can buy exotic food, fresh produce, art, jewelry, soap, and assorted goodies, is well worth a visit. After fortifying ourselves with coffee and a croissant (yum!), we strolled around the market, stopping here and there to chat with craftspeople, admire beautiful herbs, and inhale the tantalizing smells that all markets seem to share.

Not far from the Eastern Market, the U.S. National Arboretum promised an opportunity to commune with Mother Nature. We were wowed by the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which features tiny, artistically trained trees, but be forewarned: it closes at 4 p.m. Our early spring visit meant little was in bloom, but Wendy and I had fun exploring the National Herb Garden, as well as strolling around the grounds. The Arboretum seems a perfect place for a picnic during a visit to the big city, especially for those who want to escape the maddening crowds.

After winding our way across town, Wendy and I found free overnight parking (!) a block away from the Donovan House, a hip hotel near DuPont Circle. Our corner room featured two walls of windows and amazing views of D.C. plus stylish furniture, flat-screen TV, and a very cool bathroom. The Donovan House is known in summer for its happening rooftop bar called Above D.C. (or ADC, for short), where locals gather to dance around the pool and imbibe creative cocktails. A friendly worker at the hotel let Wendy and I have a peek at ADC, which wasn’t yet open for the season. “People dance in the pool,” our friend said. “It’s really fun.” Next time.

Besides ADC, the Donovan is home to Zentan, a chic restaurant serving modern Asian cuisine, where Wendy and I dined one evening. After being seated at a cozy round booth lined by elegant drapes, we began our Asian journey with the Spicy Thai martini, one of Zentan’s signature cocktails. OMG. It exploded with flavor: Thai-chili infused vodka, sake, St-Germain, and a splash of cranberry juice. After that, we feasted on Zentan’s eclectic menu: Asian crudo, delicate morsels of seafood; Singapore slaw, a crunchy, delicious concoction of 19 ingredients (half-orders available); sushi, sashimi, and signature rolls; and finally, Cantonese marinated skirt steak. Besides the food, Wendy and I loved the sensual decor, and judging from the packed house, Zentan has lots of other fans as well.

After two overcast days, Wendy and I were thrilled to wake up to clear blue skies on Sunday. Our itinerary wasn’t too packed: a couple museums and meeting friends for dinner in the suburbs. After a Starbucks’ stop, we headed to the Newseum, one of D.C.’s newest museums, devoted to five centuries of journalism. It’s an enormous attraction, so plan to spend at least a few hours exploring the museum’s six (!) levels.

What will become immediately clear is how news impacts our lives. We perused an exhibit about covering Katrina and then watched a film about journalists who’d covered 9-11, specifically the World Trade Center. The latter film was so intensely emotionally that boxes of tissue awaited at the exits. One teen who watched it was so upset, crying in her teacher’s arms, that it made me wonder whether she’d lost a loved one that day.

All I knew was after seeing such sadness and destruction, I longed for some beauty and healing. We cut our Newseum visit short—and walked across the street to the National Gallery of Art to soothe our souls with beautiful art. In the East Building, a Paul Gauguin exhibit called “Maker of Myth,” awaited, and we lost our sadness amid his sensuous, colorful art. Wooden panels over the doorway of his last home in Tahiti offered insight into Gauguin’s unique outlook on life: “Be mysterious,” he advised. And “Be in love and you will be happy.” Unfortunately, the Gauguin exhibit closed in June, but you have until January 2012 to view “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection,” 83 works representing the extraordinary legacy of art donated to the National Art Gallery by Dale and his wife, Maud. Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Modigliani—it’s an impressive array of iconic paintings.

Our dinner that evening was equally impressive—an array of artful Lebanese dishes enjoyed with Wendy’s friends, Carol and Henrik, co-owners of Lebanese Taverna, a local chain of restaurants around D.C. offering authentic—and delicious—Middle-Eastern food. A couple years ago Peter, Ross, and I dined at the Lebanese Taverna in Baltimore and loved it, so returning for more sumptuous, flavorful Lebanese fare was a real treat.

We began with Lebneh, a refreshing cheese made of strained yogurt, and Hommos, a traditional chickpea spread, served with pita bread. Next we tried kabobs (mmm) and a variety of mezze—small plates of dips, salads, and meat—accompanied by lots of plump, flavorful olives. The extensive menu makes it hard to choose a main course, but my entrée, a lovely lamb chop with mint and garlic sauce, didn’t disappoint. Redolent of garlic and rosemary, the succulent lamb melted in my mouth, leaving a pleasing aftertaste that called to mind camels and sand dunes and starry desert skies.

We dined at the Bethesda location, its cozy, yet exotic ambiance making it easy to feel transported to another land. Other locations can be found in Tyson’s Galleria, D.C., Pentagon Row, and Arlington, which also features a market with groceries and a take-out menu. After two visits to Lebanese Taverna, I can’t wait to return.

Every time I visit D.C., I find it harder to leave. It’s got everything a big city needs—culture, restaurants, history, and a personality all its own. Perhaps because D.C. falls beneath the Mason-Dixon line, it has a southern sensibility. Every time I go I’m amazed at the smiles I see on strangers’ faces. As Wendy and I headed south toward home, we talked about how lucky we are to live close to such a world-class city, a perfect destination for your next girlfriend getaway.

For more information, visit:

• washington.org

• mandarinoriental.com/washington

• acc-masoninnandconferencecenter.com

• acadianarestaurant.com

• thompsonhotels.com/hotels/dc

• zentanrestaurant.com

• lebanesetaverna.com