Silky notes from a golden harp float across the sun-dappled dining room, where fine settings of silver and china adorn white-cloaked tables.
A waiter approaches and offers champagne to my friend Robin, and me.
“Why, certainly,” we answer and watch as bubbly liquid fills our fluted glasses. I pick mine up and propose a toast: “Here’s to champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” Robin and I clink glasses, take a sip, and then, almost in unison, sigh contentedly as we look around at our elegant surroundings.
We’re sitting in the Ritz-Carlton, Tyson’s Corner, beside the Beltway in Northern Virginia, enjoying the last precious moments of a girlfriend getaway weekend that can only be described as extraordinary. Sunday brunch is truly the icing on the cake, or should I say the Grand Marnier on the strawberries and whipped cream? But before I elaborate on our exquisite brunch, let’s go back to Friday, when Robin and I first rendezvous for our whirlwind weekend.
PEDALING ALONG THE POTOMAC
On a blue-sky September morning, Robin and I meet for a bike ride on the Mount Vernon Trail in Alexandria. She’s just driven up from Richmond and I’ve come from a conference up north. We rents bikes at the Washington Sailing Marina, and soon we’re pedaling along this picturesque multi-use trail paralleling the Potomac.
Heading southwest, we pass through Old Town Alexandria with its quaint historic district and tidy brick town homes. Once upon a time I lived in Northern Virginia, and the area always recalls my youth. As we bike alongside a schoolyard where children in uniforms race around during recess, I envision my grade school years in a parochial school much like this one and look longingly at the boys and girls, trying to remember when life was so carefree.
One of the reasons Robin and I have planned this girlfriend getaway is to try to get in touch with our inner child, the little girl inside us who used to play dress up, plan tea parties and picnics, and celebrate the pleasures of life. Now the simple joys of childhood seem so distant. As one who worries too much, I try to disconnect from my fears. This often means going somewhere—anywhere, distancing myself physically and emotionally from the disquietudes that shadow me. Maybe on this trip I would learn to bring some of that joy back to my regular world—and leave a few of my worries behind.
It’s easy to forget your troubles when a good meal beckons. Hungry after our two-hour bike ride, Robin and I head to Indigo Landing, an upscale restaurant adjoining the marina, which features the talents of Executive Chef Bryan Mostacello. Decorated in soothing shades of blue, this popular eating spot is known for its tantalizing array of low-country comfort food rooted in the Deep South. Robin goes nuts over the lighter-than-air biscuits served with honey butter, and we make a rule not to count calories this weekend.
Succulent salads come next—a “mess o’ greens” bathed in a pickled onion vinaigrette for me and, for Robin, buttercrunch lettuce with candied pecans and sweet potato dressing. After our salads, we order the “short” seafood tower, a colorful assortment of fresh shellfish and seafood served with four dreamy sauces. I have a hankering for something hearty, so I request a side of collard greens. Soon a large mound of steaming collards appears. After taking a bite, I decide these are absolutely the best collards I’ve ever tasted: hints of smoke bring out the bittersweet flavor of the greens. I immediately vow to return to sample those delectable collards again.
After a short drive, Robin and I arrive at the Ritz-Carlton, where attendants whisk our bags away while we self-park our cars in an adjoining garage. We’re staying on the Club Level, which offers a private concierge, extra amenities, and five complementary food and beverage presentations each day. Robin and I barely have time to check out our room (it’s gorgeous) before we’re summoned downstairs for our spa appointments.
Side-by-side pedicures give Robin and me the chance to unwind and start a conversation that will last all weekend. While a two-hour drive is all that separates us, my friend and I get together only once or twice a year. After graduating from Radford in 1979, we’ve spent the years since growing our careers, getting married, having kids, and becoming caught up in the vortex of life. I look forward to having the luxury of time this weekend, time to get to know Robin again.
After Venus, our nail technician, helps us choose our nail polish, I close my eyes and settle into my comfortable chair. Venus makes foot baths for Robin and me, and we chat a bit before falling silent, each of us taking pleasure in the moment as the soothing bubbles wash away the cares of the week. After our toes are painted and pretty, we head off for our massage treatments. Mine is deep-tissue, just what I need after having run a half-marathon recently. Robin enjoys a relaxing massage and tells me afterwards how much she needed it.
“We all do,” I respond. “We just have to make time for it.”
Time is actually running out for us. We’ve planned to drive into D.C. for dinner at a trendy Latin fusion restaurant called Ceiba (say-bah). But first we need to get all dolled up. We’ve both brought overstuffed suitcases, happy to have a chance to play “dress up.” That’s part of the appeal of going to the “big” city, we agree, and soon we’re sharing jewelry and helping each other choose which shoes to wear.
Before leaving, Robin and I stop in the Club Lounge for a cocktail. Stately furnishings and views of the surrounding cityscape await as well as a lovely banquet of cheeses, cocktail shrimp, nuts, and other tasty hors d’oeuvres spread in an artful presentation. It’s hard to resist, but we take only a small sampling of cheese and a handful of nuts. Shyma, our concierge, welcomes us with a beaming smile and offers to make us a drink. Robin and I order Cosmopolitans and sit at a table by the window and watch the orange sun sink slowly in a pale grey sky.
“May I get you a pillow?” Shyma asks after bringing us our drinks. Robin and I nod gratefully, and Shyma places plush pillows behind our backs. It’s the ultimate luxury: having someone take care of us for a change. When we explain that we won’t be back for the final Club Level presentation—cordials and chocolates, Shyma offers to leave treats for us in our room. Robin and I feel as if we’re in a fairytale, and Shyma is our fairy godmother for the weekend. Later we’ll watch her care for all the Club Level guests with the same sincerity and commitment to exceed the guest’s wishes. It’s this level of service that makes staying in a place like the Ritz-Carlton such an amazing experience.
Another amazing experience awaits at Ceiba in downtown D.C. With MapQuest directions in hand, we find our way easily to this trendy restaurant not far from the White House. It’s packed on this Friday night, and Robin and I join the happy crowd in anticipation of a magical meal.
We aren’t disappointed. Ceiba totally rocks. The chef de cuisine, Victor Albisu, draws from his Cuban and Peruvian heritage to create simple Latin American dishes with flavors that tango in your mouth. Robin and I decide to order only appetizers so that we can sample more of the restaurant’s specialties. Our journey begins with a sampler of Ceiba’s signature ceviché: four selections of seafood served in sauces that sizzle and pack a spicy punch. My favorite is the grouper served with lime, manzanilla olives, fresh herbs, and shaved relish. Our server John Kevin, whose Tennessee accent reveals his rural roots, provides wonderful commentary about our menu choices, assuring us with each item we order that we are venturing into culinary nirvana.
For her next course, Robin chooses the grilled octopus salad, a legend in the D.C. area, I’m told, served with gazpacho vinaigrette, queso fresco, and black olive aioli. It’s every bit as tasty as it sounds. I’m hungry for foie gras and delight in Ceiba’s rendition: seared and served over a corn pupusa, a tasty cornmeal cake, with cabbage slaw and tomato garnish—a gold mine of flavors.
My absolute favorite dish at Ceiba is the Yellow Tomato Gazpacho. First John Kevin presents a boat-shaped glass bowl containing raw veggies, finely chopped. Then with a flourish he pours a cream-based gazpacho over everything, taking care not to disturb a mound of tomato sorbet that sits in the middle. The simple flavors combine to create a masterpiece, and I savor every bite. Robin tries the “Hot Lava Stone” Queso Fundido, a signature dish of skirt steak, melted cheese, and pablano chilis, served with tortillas. We eat until we can’t eat anymore, but somehow John Kevin talks us into dessert: a chocolate mousse whose bittersweet flavors linger on our tongues all the way back to our hotel.
There waiting in our room, complements of Shyma, are a few small desserts and a Bailey’s Irish cream for each of us. We nibble, sip, yawn, and set the alarm for an early morning workout in the fitness room.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be hungry again,” Robin says before turning out the light. But I’m certain after a good morning workout we will, in fact, be ready for more.
PICNIC AT WOLF TRAP
Following a strenuous workout, a few laps in the exquisite indoor pool, a sauna, and a shower, Robin and I decide we have an appetite again and settle ourselves on a comfy sofa in the Ritz-Carlton’s Lobby Lounge for High Tea. We take dainty bites of cakes and cookies and finger sandwiches and sip our delicious Teavana teas. Robin tries a tea recommended by our server with buttery caramel notes, and I choose an herbal tea flavored with tangerine. Glasses of champagne add an elegant touch and put Robin and me in the proper fame of mind for our next activity: shopping at Tyson’s Galleria.
This classy collection of high-end department stores and charming boutiques adjoins the hotel and makes a shopping expedition as easy as a stroll down the hall. In fact, the Ritz-Carlton, in partnership with Nieman Marcus, offers special shopping packages featuring gift cards and a welcome gift. We visit Nieman Marcus and find mobs of women crowding the cosmetic department—thanks to a promotion offering a free handbag with a minimum purchase of beauty products.
Robin and I spend a couple of hours browsing through Tyson’s Galleria. We make small purchases, but mostly window shop and people watch. Perhaps it’s the champagne we had with High Tea or the busy itinerary, but suddenly Robin and I just want to go back to our room and rest. Luckily our accommodations are only a short stroll away, and while we don’t have time for a nap, Robin and I do enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet.
Before long we’re primping for a night out at Wolf Trap, the open-air venue in Vienna owned and operated by the national park service in partnership with a private foundation. Our visit coincides with a multi-media cultural event called “Face of America: Hawai’i,” which features Hawaiian dance and music. Waiting for us in our room, packed in a suede knapsack with a matching plaid blanket roll, is a picnic prepared as part of the Wolf Trap package offered by the Ritz-Carlton. Downstairs the other part of the package awaits: a smiling driver who welcomes Robin and me into his shiny black limo.
After arriving, we spread out our blanket on a grassy hillside and dine on overstuffed sandwiches, salads, and cookies. The show surpasses our expectations and Robin and I talk about taking a getaway to Hawaii one day. Afterwards Mohamed picks us up and drives us back to the hotel, where waiting in our room is another special treat from Shyma. Our plush beds feel extra good after our busy day.
EVERY GIRL’S FANTASY
Brunch at the Ritz-Carlton has all the ingredients of every girl’s fantasy. First you get all dressed up in a pretty outfit with high heels. You put on make up and fix your hair. You sit in an elegant dining room where beautiful people talk in hushed tones as the tinkle of silverware blends with the strumming notes of the harp. The scene is worthy of kings and queens, dignitaries and diplomats…and anyone else who wants to splurge on this incredible culinary experience.
Robin and I stroll through the open kitchen of the restaurant, where the brunch offerings are on display. Everything is almost too gorgeous to eat. The desserts in particular are works of art, and Robin and I are tempted to start with the desserts and work backwards. But like proper ladies we start where we’re supposed to: with the appetizers. Duck prosciutto, anyone? Or would you prefer caviar with your champagne?
Somehow we make our way through this incredible buffet and even save room for a sinfully good chocolate soufflé made to order and served warm with a drizzle of cream. Robin and I agree that the Ritz-Carlton buffet is the perfect ending to a girlfriend getaway that is everything we thought it would be. The best part of all is the chance to be a little girl again, to return to childhood days when playing make believe helped us figure out what we wanted from life.
Robin and I say goodbye to each other, climb into our cars, and drive back home, where the routine of regular life waits for us. It’s safe to say we both feel rejuvenated by our little getaway. As I drive south, I realize that we succeeded in awakening the little girls that reside inside us. I hope they will decide to get together and play again real soon.
For more information:
• Washington Sailing Marina – 1 Marina Dr., Alexandria, VA 22314. Call 703-548-9027 or visit www.washingtonsailingmarina.com. Besides bikes, you can also rent sailboats and take sailing lessons.
• Indigo Landing – 1 Marina Dr., Alexandria, VA 22314. Call 703-548-0001 or visit www.indigolanding.com. Sunday brunch from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. is rumored to be spectacular!
• Ceiba – 701 14th St., Washington, D.C. 20005. Call 202-393-3983 or visit www.ceibarestaurant.com.
• Wolf Trap – Call 703-255-1900 or visit www.wolftrap.org.
• Ritz-Carlton – 1700 Tyson’s Blvd., McLean, VA 22102. Call 703-506-4300 or visit www.ritzcarlton.com. Weekend rates at the Ritz-Carlton, Tyson’s Corner start at $179 night.