Dressed to the nines, my youngest son admired his image in the mirror of our room at the Ritz-Carlton in Northern Virginia. The two of us were spending a few days in our nation’s capital, and Ross had donned a suit and tie for the very first time. Initially I was afraid he’d balk at trading in his “skater” attire for fancier duds. Yet here he was, combing his hair, straightening his tie, even fashioning a napkin into a spiffy hanky to decorate his breast pocket.
I could tell he liked what he saw in the mirror. I did, too. My little boy was growing up—right before my eyes.
I had decided to take Ross, who’s eleven, on a spur of-the-minute spring break trip to D.C.—just the two of us. We planned to see new sights, visit old favorites, dine in stylish restaurants, and enjoy the big-city vibe. Besides spending quality time together, I looked forward to showing my son what marvels exist beyond the confines of his sixth-grade worldview.
Just like adults who get caught in a rut, doing the same thing week after week, kids need a break from the ordinary now and then. Sure, a week at the beach offers R & R, but vacations that introduce kids to new ideas and great art pique their natural curiosity. And parents everywhere will agree that encouraging children to look past two-dimensional screens requires extreme effort. I’ve found removing them from their comfort zone and placing them in a different environment helps kids to be more open to new experiences.
With that in mind, Ross and I decided to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Tyson’s Corner in McLean, Virginia. This luxurious property offers surprisingly good value, especially on weekends, and is perfect for introducing your child to the finer things in life. As we entered the hotel, Ross, normally a rough-and-tumble boy, suddenly seemed calmer, as if the soothing ambience of the Ritz-Carlton entered his soul. After checking into our room, which had a fabulous view northward toward Maryland, Ross and I were ready to head toward the city.
With all the choices of what to see and do in D.C., making a game plan is important. You may be tempted to fit in as much as possible, but with kids, planning fewer activities ensures you and they won’t get burned out. Each day consider visiting only two or three attractions, and if your stay in D.C. extends beyond a weekend, build in some recreational outings. Plan meals carefully because they represent a chance for your family to rest before gathering steam for the next activity. Allow for flexibility, too. If one of your chosen attractions is totally packed, then look for a more peaceful venue nearby. Sometimes the unexpected detours yield the most rewarding experiences.
For example, on our first day in the city, after visiting the National Zoo and the National Building Museum, Ross and I had about an hour before our dinner reservations. The only museum open until 7 p.m. in our vicinity was the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both housed in an exceptionally beautiful building resembling the Parthenon. Ross and I wandered inside and found a folk art exhibit that enchanted us both. There’s something about folk art that’s childlike and innocent, making it more accessible for children than formal portraits by European masters. And let’s face it: some folk art is downright wacky.
Ross was drawn to a sculpture exhibit by an artist who enjoyed playing with the same motifs in each work. Amazingly Ross deduced this after a few moments of studying the sculptures.
“Look, Mom. Each one has a ladder-like thing, a pyramid, and a sphere,” he said. I was impressed not only that he saw the connection among the sculptures, but that he could articulate it so easily. Maybe I have a budding artist on my hands.
That’s why museums are so important. They open up the world to our kids, inspire them to make connections and to see their surroundings in a different way. Video games, on the other hand, with their noisy sound effects, garish colors, and repetitive tasks seem like blinders, keeping kids from experiencing the real world around them. Can you tell I’m not a big fan of gaming?
PLENTY TO PLEASE
Another way we educate our children is by introducing them to fine dining, and Washington, D.C. offers world-class cuisine prepared by top-drawer chefs. Of course, taking kids to elegant restaurants may be dicey if your child is a difficult eater. Luckily Ross has an adventurous palate and usually finds plenty to please him.
Our first night in the “big city” we dined at a fashionable restaurant called Acadiana. Casually chic, it proved to be a perfect choice. The welcoming décor—downhome Louisiana meets upscale urban—added to the happy Friday-evening vibe.
Not long ago in New Orleans a friend introduced me to Pimm’s Cup, a cocktail which combines the liqueur of the same name with a sour mix. When I saw that on the menu at Acadiana, I knew Ross and I were in for classic Cajun cuisine. From the melt-in-your-mouth charbroiled oysters to the trio of housemade sorbet, our meal was an amazing journey that transported us from downtown D.C. to the land where roux and remoulade, gumbo and jambalaya are king. My entrée was a perfectly prepared redfish served atop soul-satisfying seafood risotto. Ross tucked into his New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp, voted a Top 25 dish by USA Today, and he was in heaven.
In fact, Ross behaved like quite the gentleman that evening, placing his napkin in his lap and using his fork and knife properly. Don, our waiter who was originally from Transylvania, provided charming service, and by the time dinner ended, I was already contemplating when I would come back for more of those charbroiled oysters.
The next day we lunched at a unique restaurant near the International Spy Museum called Zaytinya, which specializes in Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese cuisine. We’d eaten there once before, and Ross remembered the “puffy” bread, which is like a very delicate pita puffed full of air. Served with olive oil dotted with pomegranate molasses, the bread is a treat by itself. Ross and I studied the assortment of mezzes on the menu and chose tzatziki, a cucumber-yogurt dish; French fries cooked in olive oil and served with a yogurt sauce—decadently divine; a green salad, which Ross promptly put in a piece of “puffy” bread, and kolokithokeftedes, savory zucchini-cheese patties. The atmosphere at Zaytinya is Middle Eastern, but we felt right at home.
That night we traveled, figuratively speaking, to Italy, a cozy restaurant called Notti Bianchi near Georgetown University featuring authentic Italian fare. At first Ross was taken aback by the Italian on the menu, but when I showed him the translations, he relaxed and found what he was looking for: spaghetti—the quintessential kid-pleaser.
I pursued a more adventurous path, first sampling a house specialty comprised of braised pork cheeks, tender and flavorful, balanced perfectly by creamy porcini polenta. Next I ordered asparagus served with housemade pancetta, a farm-raised poached egg, and parmesan vinaigrette. My entrée, a half portion of risotto simply prepared with chantrelle mushrooms and garlic, tasted like spring. For dessert Ross and I shared espresso semifreddo, a frozen dessert served with hazelnut biscotti, light and delicate with a toothy crunch.
A FEW FAVORITES
When we weren’t eating, Ross and I wandered the streets of D.C. from one cool museum to the next. Here are a few of our favorites:
• The International Spy Museum – The only public museum in the U.S. solely dedicated to espionage, the Spy Museum will keep you and your family riveted with its historical exhibits, artifacts, and fascinating displays about spying. Entry fee. www.spymuseum.org
• National Museum of the American Indian – This huge museum features the largest collection of American Indian art and cultural objects in the world. Free entry. www.americanindian.si.edu
• The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum – The haunting sadness and powerful images of the permanent exhibit are appropriate for children 11 and older. Free entry, but advance tickets needed during busy months. www.ushmm.org
• National Gallery of Art – Ask for a copy of “The Great Picture Hunt” at the information desk, which lists paintings of special interest to children. After finding them all, Ross entertained himself by sliding down the banisters on the front steps while I found a sunny spot and watched the world go by. Free entry. www.nga.gov
• The National Museum of Natural History – If your kids like dinosaur bones, they’ll love the 40-foot T. Rex on display. With surprises around every corner, this museum is a favorite with my family. Free entry. www.mnh.si.edu
• National Zoological Park – Besides the famous giant pandas, you can view komodo dragons, Asian elephants, scarlet macaws, and orangutans. Visit the website beforehand and print out activity sheets for your kids. Free entry. www.nationalzoo.si.edu
• National Air and Space Museum – Embark on a journey from the early days of balloon flight to modern exploration on Mars. A new branch of the museum called the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport contains even more artifacts and exhibits. Free entry. www.nasm.si.edu
• The National Building Museum – Housed in an impressive building, this museum is dedicated to structures large and small. A David Macaulay exhibit opens this summer that promises to entertain. Save time for the gift shop when you visit. It’s been voted a D.C. favorite. Free entry. www.nbm.org
• The National Mall - Visiting the memorials on the National Mall is a must, but wear comfortable shoes because it’s quite a hike from one memorial to the next. Your kids will definitely want to go up the Washington Monument, so make sure you call the National Park Service Reservations system in advance to procure tickets: 800-967-2283. Free entry. www.nps.gov/wamo
TAKE A BREAK
If your children are like mine, they can only take so much art, history, and culture. Do yourself a favor and take a breather at one or more of these picturesque spots around D.C.:
• Mount Vernon Bike Trail – Rent bikes at the Washington Sailing Marina and follow the trail south along the Potomac River twelve miles to Mount Vernon (worth a visit as well!) or north six miles to the Washington Monument. Next door to the marina, Indigo Landing is an awesome place to eat. www.washingtonsailingmarina.com
• Rock Creek Park – An oasis in the middle of D.C., this park is perfect for picnics, Frisbee, a hike, or a snooze on a summer afternoon. Free. www.nps.gov/rocr
• Great Falls Park – Fourteen miles upriver from D.C, this Virginia park is known for its magnificent scenery. Entry fee. www.nps.gov/grfa
• U.S. National Arboretum – One of Washington’s best-kept secrets, this living museum features stunning collections of shrubs, trees, and flowers. Free entry. www.usna.usda.gov
Every time I visit I find more to love about our nation’s capital—and more reasons to come back. As Ross and I headed back home, I realized sharing the city with children makes it even more special. It’s hard sometimes to justify taking time off from our busy lives, especially when there’s always so much to do. But those daily tasks will never mean as much as enjoying a big-city adventure with my youngest son.
For information about visiting the nation’s capital, visit www.washington.org
For information about the Ritz-Carlton Tyson’s Corner, visit www.ritz-carlton.com and click on locations. Weekend rates are as low as $179 per night. Summer packages are available for concerts at nearby Wolf Trap. Sunday brunch is highly recommended.