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Living Potomac style

More than a setting for movies about partisan politics, marble monuments and smoky backroom deals, Washington, DC, often gets tagged as a city that’s all about the grandeur of being a world-class capital. But make no mistake; business matters in Washington, a town that will have hosted some 15 citywide conventions this year alone and regularly puts on parties seen around the globe.

Meetings in DC, whether expo-sized or intimate, are met with more dining options, hotel styles, geo-location choices and post-meeting pizzazz than ever before. Beyond the influx of wealth generated by business and government, the city is alive with a sense of vibrancy that pervades every nook and corner – from bicycle-bustling Dupont Circle to the stately, tony tree-lined streets abutting the southeast side of the Capitol Building.

That energy is playing out these days through a cascade of neighborhood re-dos, and all the restaurants, shopping and attractions that $9.2 billion in urban investment spending can bring.

“Washington, DC, is known the world over as a place for government and diplomacy, monumental arts and culture,” says Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, the visitors and conventions bureau. “But there’s a new and decidedly independent creativity in the city. We’ve become a city of great neighborhood restaurants, live theater and music, world class sporting events, bike lanes and now, a streetcar. At Destination DC we call this mix of the familiar and the new DC Cool,” Ferguson explains.

“DC has long been a city that attracts high achieving young professionals. With an influx of physical development – $9.2 billion is currently invested – DC has become a compelling place,” he says.

Visitor numbers topped 20 million in 2014 with 18.34 million originating in the US and 1.9 million coming in from overseas, (2015 figures are not yet available). A steady rise of 2 to 3 percent a year is expected through 2018, according to Destination DC.

And Washington has the hotel room inventory and options to accommodate, adds Ferguson, with some 2,004 rooms in the pipeline for this year and some new properties opening in the coming months. Business travelers make up 43 percent of domestic arrivals and account for 62 percent of spending.

Sweet Dreams in DC

Among the latest debuts is the Watergate Hotel, reopening in Foggy Bottom this year as a luxurious 337-room escape following a $120 million renovation. Worthy of notice: Top of the Gate, which is the rooftop bar with panoramic views of the Potomac River, offers a fine-dining restaurant and two event spaces. Evoking its 1970s roots, the hotel remains a high-styled nod to the Nixon years with period furnishings and staff uniforms created by “Mad Men” costumer Janie Bryant.

Glover Park Hotel is a new Kimpton property in a highly desired location high on the hill overlooking Georgetown. The eight-story property sits amid 3,000 spacious acres of city parkland with inspiring views of the Potomac from many rooms. When it opens in June it will be the city’s tenth Kimpton-branded hotel.

Another Kimpton, Mason & Rook, is opening this month in a spot anchoring the bustling 14th Street neighborhood. A chic stay-work-play space, the contemporary hotel (formerly the Helix and many years before that, a Howard Johnson’s Hotel) presents 178 rooms, 18 suites and a restaurant called Radiator serving Chesapeake oysters and local brews.

“Kimpton’s coming to DC represented an interesting evolution for the city,” says Donte Johnson, Mason & Rook’s new general manager. “There were really no hotels like them and the city responded. When the Helix opened, (a Kimpton Hotel that is now the new Mason & Rook) there was not a lot of development in this 14th Street neighborhood, but now we are seeing a new era of hotels and styles and neighborhoods all around the city evolving along with them,” Johnson notes.

“DC is very neighborhoody and when visitors stay at a place like Kimpton in a neighborhood like 14th Street they are experiencing the neighborhood and a way of life and a community, not an anonymous hotel in a cold, unfamiliar city,” Johnson adds. “Now 14th Street, close to the diplomatic area and also the K Street law firms and lobbying offices, is a destination within a destination and with personality and pulse. And you are seeing a lot more of that happening now, neighborhood by neighborhood, all over Washington.”

For business travelers, Washington, DC, offers all manner of eateries – celebrity chef bistros, traditional gourmet rooms and curious hideaways for burgers and beer. Places that were once no-gos, such as Chinatown and 4th Street, NW, are teeming with tourists taking in such classic attractions as the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the always amusing Spy Museum, and journalism’s Newseum.  

Train travelers have a whole city within a city to explore within the café and boutique lined corridors of Union Station. Dupont Circle is still the spot for hipster sophisticates, with art museums, smart social clubs, banks and businesses and a colorful plethora of apartment houses-turned-chic hotels, including Kimpton’s Carlyle Hotel and the Embassy Row Hotel, a Destination Hotel.

And it’s all a stone’s throw from Georgetown, 1.17 square miles of history that never loses its luster as an atmospheric shopping and dining haven. There you’ll find some of the city’s most precious hotel properties as well, including The Capella Washington, the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, and The Graham, a boutique hotel that opened in 2013. The narrow, brick Civil War-era row houses line the streets leading down to the C & O Canal, where various preserved bike and pedestrian towpaths run 185 miles along the course of the Potomac towards Cumberland, Maryland.

Virginia Is For (Wine) Lovers

On the other side of that river lies what is now becoming another great reason to head to the District of Columbia for business, pleasure and exploring: The Virginia Wine Country.

Enjoying a renaissance as the Napa of the East, it turns out Virginia has always had its eye on wine. Ever since Thomas Jefferson tried to turn Monticello into an American magnet for French claret, wine has been the focus of a succession of wealthy land barons who thought they could vanquish the ubiquitous phylloxera and turn the rolling hills of Old Dominion into the Loire Valley.

The deadly vine fungus prevailed again and again – until now. Where only 20 years ago, the state could count possibly four dozen wineries, mostly producing viognier and petit verdot, today there are some 250 wineries now bottling blends that are winning awards and attention from the top wine panels.

Virginia now ranks fifth in the US for wine production. And local DC hotspots, such as Blue Duck Tavern, Eno and District Commons, keep the Virginia labels pouring strong.  

What all this means is fabulous wine trails amid rolling hillsides and horse country horizons. Sprawling 200-year-old stonehouse estates and modern mansions of glass and teak are opening up their tasting rooms off long gravel roads on country lanes.

Less than an hour outside of Washington DC are some of Virginia’s best chardonnays and viogniers to be tasted on warm patios with views far from anything that looks like asphalt or steel. Loudoun County is considered the epicenter of DC Wine Country, as it was dubbed in a movement that began in 1984 at Willowcroft Farm Vineyards with successful harvests of cabernet sauvignon, riesling, chardonnay, and seyval.

Today, Loudoun County’s wine trail offers some 40 Loudoun wineries and tasting rooms, the most of any county in Virginia (along with an organic spirits distillery and eight craft breweries) 25 miles from the nation’s capital.

Two wineries that should not be missed are Stone Tower Winery and Sunset Hills Vineyard. Both feature the cavernous estate tasting rooms and cozy nooks you’d hope to find in such magical settings, and both render their own versions of what it takes to be a Virginia wine maker.

Stone Tower sits atop Hogback Mountain in the hills just beyond Leesburg, only 20 minutes from Dulles International Airport. Amid cattle farms and the expanse of Bull Run, visitors wander the Harvest Barn and Tower View tasting rooms for some of the estate’s whites, reds and rosés, many processed with a bud to bottle philosophy at this family-owned operation.

“Spring comes slow and steady and there are those wonderful 80-85 degree spring days you can count on,” says Stone Tower winemaker Tim Crowe. “There are only a few varietals that do really well here but then you have great food establishments and beautiful settings. Virginia is progressively becoming the place to be if you love wine.”

Nearby, at Sunset Hills Vineyard, wine connoisseurs and visitors are treated to tastings within an 1870 Amish restored barn with wine making operations powered entirely through solar energy.

The dream of physicist and math engineer Mike Canney and his wife, Diane Canney, a former intelligence officer in Langley, Sunset Hills started with three acres of cabernet franc and viognier in 1999. Today the establishment measures hundreds of acres through multiple vineyards throughout the county steeped in cabernet cauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, viognier, petit verdot, albarino and petit manseng.

Celebrities are cashing in on the region’s new wine cachet as well. AOL founder Steve Case and his wife Jean own Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison outside of Charlottesville. Blenheim Vineyards, opened in 2000 by Charlottesville musician Dave Matthews, sits on a historic estate in Albemarle County just south of Charlottesville, near Jefferson Vineyards and just up the road from Trump Winery, which is owned by Donald Trump, specializing in sparkling blends.

Virginia Sojourns

An easy and convenient hub for those who want to sip and stay would be a room at the Lansdowne Resort, a Destination Hotel, located less than an hour’s drive from Washington and possibly 30 minutes from some 25 local wineries. The 296-room property is finishing an expensive top to bottom redo, giving the accommodations a fresh edge. The resort focuses heavily on the corporate client with extensive golf, spa and meetings amenities that make it a full destination in its own right on 500 acres in rolling horse farm country.

Another scenic spot to stay is Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, once considered the nation’s horse and hunt capital and the be-seen spot for Hollywood and Beltway glitterati. The resort was opened by Sheila C. Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, in summer 2013 and offers 168 rooms and facilities that include a culinary studio, wine bar, billiards room and a full-service equestrian center.

The circa 1728 Red Fox Inn and Tavern in Middleburg will appeal to history buffs with its 15 guest rooms and the Middleburg House, an antique two-bedroom home, all within walking distance to businesses and shops on Washington Street. The tavern pours from some 40 local wine options. Not to be missed: peanut soup, fried chicken and crab cakes.

Taking it farther south to Richmond, a stay at The Quirk, a Destination Hotel, is worth the time and effort. This is a most creative revamping of a former department store on what was once swank Broad Street in the Virginia capital, and a wonderful vision of how neglected center cities can be made to flourish again. The four floors and 75 rooms feature plenty of the eponymous quirkiness, from 13-foot ceilings to whimsical wall art, a revolving gallery for local talent, and an inspired lobby restaurant. Must love pink.  

By Lark Gould