Alexandria: Connected to the Past

The door creaked open on the second floor of the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum in Alexandria’s Old Town. Ross, my 17-year-old, and I were halfway through a ho-hum tour when all of a sudden we walked into a dream. Here behind a heavy door—in a room untouched for nearly a century, a collection of relics from the past spread before us, covered in a patina of dust.

Perched on counters and peeking out from nooks and crannies were dozens of glass bottles and wooden boxes and bins bearing labels like: dragon’s blood, parsley seed, cuttle bone, pennyroyal, cassia buds, lobelia seed, and guaiac wood. In a drawer more labels—chamomile, camphor, chloroform, cod liver oil, and castile soap—were stacked neatly in compartments. Here in this room apothecarists concocted formulas for health remedies that Alexandria’s early residents relied on to maintain their health. Even George Washington frequented the shop, located a few short miles from his estate at Mount Vernon.

It’s hard to turn around in Alexandria without bumping into history. Ross and I visited this summer on a scorching hot weekend in search of connections to America’s past. We found history and much more in Old Town, a cozy warren of cobblestone streets gently sloping down to the picturesque Potomac. And while we were only a few miles from D.C., we felt far away. Old Town has a small-town vibe. It’s the sort of place where people greet each other on the street and a weekly farmers’ market welcomes locals and tourists alike. In fact, even the farmers’ market is connected to America’s past. It’s the oldest continually operating market in the U.S.

Taking a teen on vacation can be a risky endeavor—especially when you’re planning a trip through the pages of American history. I’ve been bringing Ross with me on trips since he was one, still nursing, and his dad and I took our three boys to Europe for a month. A year later, Peter and I took Ross and his brothers on a six-month camping journey through Europe. And yes, we visited a lot of historic sites.

As a child, Ross never complained, but now that he’s a teen, I can never be too sure what to expect. So I tried to include activities on the itinerary that he would enjoy and skipped a few I knew he wouldn’t.

After checking into our hotel—we stayed our first night at the Embassy Suites—we caught the convenient trolley back down King Street to the visitor’s center for a Ghost Tour with Alexandria Colonial Tours. Our guide, Katie, dressed in period clothing, began the tour by saying in a rather spooky voice, “I know where the ghosts are.” On market square, she told us about criminals who would spend up to five days dressed only in their underwear, locked up in stockades. Hangings also occurred at this square, and Katie shared a scary story about a bon vivant named Victor who met an untimely end.

As we strolled along the streets of Old Town, Katie regaled us with tales of murders and mayhem and mysterious strangers, including a female whose tombstone reads “Committed to the memory of a female stranger” and whose identity remains unknown to this day. The tour ended in a graveyard from the Civil War. As we stood in the grass under a leafy oak tree, Katie told us that the grave markers, made of wood, had been burned for warmth by Union soldiers, so beneath our feet lay the unmarked graves of brave Confederate soldiers. Thankfully, it was still daylight when the tour ended because I am sure I would not want to be in that graveyard after dark!
   
The next morning after a delicious breakfast at Embassy Suites, we checked out and headed a couple blocks away to the Westin Alexandria, where our room offered a stunning view of the city. Temperatures were rising rapidly, and I was a little nervous about the 10-mile bike ride we’d planned that day along the Mount Vernon Trail. It was part of a package offered by Bike and Roll, which included admission to Mount Vernon and a leisurely cruise by boat down the Potomac back to Old Town. Ross was game, so I decided I would brave the scorching heat.

Luckily, much of the paved path was shaded, and the nice thing about biking is you generate a breeze as you pedal along. So our bike ride was bearable. I’d ridden on this trail before and love the pastoral landscape and the tranquil river views as you ride along.

If you haven’t visited Mount Vernon yet, you should plan to. Peter and I took our sons to see Washington’s famous estate many years ago, and since then, the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center has opened, which offers an even more in-depth experience. With 23 galleries featuring state-of-the-art exhibits and interactive displays, the center is the perfect place to spend a steaming hot day. On the grounds of Mount Vernon, you can explore gardens, a pioneer farm, a distillery, and gristmill. There’s also a slave memorial, ongoing archaeological digs, and themed tours available. Make sure you take the time to sit on George’s back porch and enjoy the stunning view of the Potomac from a comfy rocking chair.
   
After our boat trip back to Old Town, I sent Ross—armed with a pizza—back to the hotel and joined my college friend, Stacy, for dinner at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Old Town. What a cute, lively place. Long and narrow with a bar running down much of its length, Hank’s features simple, approachable dishes with an emphasis on fresh oysters and seafood, of course. The décor and vibe are very laid-back, making Hank’s the kind of place where you’re free to focus on the food—which is amazing.

Stacy and I opted to share small plates, so we could taste more of Chef Jamie Leed’s “Urban Beach Food.” The menu changes daily, but judging from our delicious meal, you can’t go wrong no matter what the menu features. Stacy doesn’t care for oysters on the half shell, but I slurped down three, accompanied by a perfect mignonette: a York River—large and rich, a Malpeque—small but flavorful, and a Ware River—plump and sweet. Mmmm. Next we shared a ceviché, one of the evening’s specials. Tender bits of scallop, shrimp, calamari, cilantro, and jalapeño combined to create a parade of tastes in my mouth!

Then we ordered a griddled crab cake, which delivered a hint of heat and a load of delicious lump crabmeat, and another starter: smoked mozzarella with grilled eggplant and zucchini, surprisingly decadent with rich, chewy cheese, and perfectly grilled veggies cooked al dente. I could not resist one of the evening’s specials: a cornmeal-crusted soft shell crab on a bed of greens with a soy-ginger vinaigrette. Happily, Stacy isn’t a fan of soft shells—she was full anyway—so I relished this absolutely over-the-top rendition of one of my favorite foods in the world piece by blissful piece. A pleasant meal, indeed.

More history was in store for Ross and me the next day. First, we fortified ourselves with a delicious brunch at the Westin Alexandria. Our room, by the way, was uber-luxurious, especially the signature heavenly beds. This property also offers a great family deal: you can add on a connecting room for just a buck! After brunch, we headed for the Torpedo Factory Art Center, located right at the foot of King Street by the Potomac. Formerly a manufacturing facility which produced—yep—torpedoes, the three-story brick building is now home to over 160 artists’ studios. From ceramics to woodworking, oils to pastels, there’s art of every description on display, as well as artists creating art. The Torpedo Factory is also home to the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, where city archaeologists invite residents and tourists to learn more about Alexandria’s storied past.

An active lab in the museum offers visitors a chance to watch staff archaeologists and volunteers work with actual artifacts excavated from area digs. “We’re constantly bringing history to life,” said archaeologist Paul Nasca. He explained that Alexandria has a strict resource protection code to ensure that historic sites are not disturbed until careful surveys of the property take place. The museum also offers Family Dig Days and day camps during the summer, perfect for introducing archeology to your  kids.

Ross and I had signed up for a Family Dig Day that afternoon, but because of the 100° temps, the event had been canceled. We didn’t mind, given the heat, and spent the rest of the day exploring the many shops and boutiques all along King Street. In fact, there are 100+ shops in Old Town featuring museum-quality antiques, trendy fashions, jewelry, crafts, home décor—you name it and you’ll find it in Old Town.

After being on our feet in the heat all afternoon, we were grateful to slide into a booth at King Street Blues, a colorful family restaurant just off King Street. Suddenly, we felt ravenous, and this was the perfect place to be. Featuring BBQ and old-fashioned American cuisine—think country-fried steak, big salads, and juicy burgers—King Street Blues will please every palate. 

I ordered the All-American Special with ribs, pulled pork, beans, cornbread, potato salad, and cole slaw. Then just because I felt like it, I also ordered the crusty mac-and-cheese, a house specialty, and a side of greens—yum! Of course, I couldn’t eat it all, so I had quite a doggie bag when I left. Ross loved his California-style chicken breast sandwich with avocado, lettuce tomato, and bacon—plus the ubiquitous order of fries. The best part is you get your money’s worth; prices are low and portions are huge. But beware, it’s a popular place, so on weekends come early or be prepared to wait for a table.

That night we strolled along the historic waterfront, where buskers performed daring acts and duos crooned love songs while the sun melted into the western sky. Ross couldn’t tear himself away from a pretty young girl playing a marimba. As for me, I was happy to watch day turn into night sitting on a bench overlooking the Potomac, a view I’m sure George Washington appreciated from his back porch at Mount Vernon many an evening.


For more information:
• visitalexandriava.com
• bikethesites.com
• alexcolonialtours.com
• hanksoysterbar.com
• kingstreetblues.com
• westinalexandria.com
• embassysuites.com
• mountvernon.org
• alexandriava.gov/apothecary
• alexandriava.gov/archaeology

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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