Washington DC, USA - Pencils, politics and protests

Published: March 22nd 2019
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When Steve was looking for accommodation for our stay in Washington he said ‘Oh look, the Watergate – we should stay there!’ With rooms starting at upwards of several hundreds of £££s per night, he quickly decided we shouldn’t – those prices would blow the budget big time. He went a bit quiet after that but nothing unusual there – normally he beavers away to draw up a short-list of possibles before I join the conversation to reach a decision. His eventual choice (the River Inn) would suit us just fine. But Steve is quite tenacious and can be a bit like a dog with a bone when he really wants something and he really wanted to stay in the Watergate Hotel! He finally presented me with a convincing argument – if we booked four nights instead of the five we were staying in Washington, used up a free night we had accrued via previous bookings with hotels.com and didn’t opt for an upgraded room with a view of the Potomac River, it would be more affordable. Given that it would be the last hotel on our trip I was easily persuaded. And that explains why we trundled up to the Watergate Hotel in Washington, on foot and pulling our cases behind us instead of in a limousine that other clients were arriving in, looking forward to going out from a luxury 5* hotel, with a bang not a whimper, at the end of our journey!

Check-in was smooth and efficient, and we were offered an upgrade to a room with a river view, at an additional $40 per night. It was tempting but as we had already signed up for ‘unabashed luxury’ we decided that would do. As well as being the location for reception and access to the restaurant, library, spa and function rooms, the lobby was home to the impressive whiskey bar which was fashioned from hundreds of bottles with golden hues and tones. The receptionist, Emily, was very attentive and gave us lots of useful information before escorting us to the lifts. The call button for the tastefully mirrored lift directed us to the one which would arrive first and get us quickly to our room (910) on the ninth floor without us having to press the floor level button again once inside the lift. The room was super, as anticipated, but was perhaps not quite the ‘unabashed luxury’ I had expected, though I couldn’t put my finger on what it didn’t have that would make it so. Other hotels we had stayed in easily measured up to it in terms of space, quality and amenities, but I grant that they didn’t have the history, notoriety and location! Our room did have a balcony, as we had booked, and when I went outside to have a gander I discovered that it also had a fantastic view of the Potomac River. Fab-u-lous! What was all that about an additional $40 per night for a river view, then ... ?

The hotel building has had a recent major overhaul and it makes a feature of its links to the notorious Nixon and Watergate scandal. It offers tours of the ‘Scandal Room’ where the associated events took place but someone was staying in it when we went to arrange a viewing, so we missed out on that. It had a rooftop, the Top of the Gate, which offered panoramic views of the city skyline and river and was home to a small ice-rink during the time we were there. At ground level it had igloos which could be booked for a unique dining experience. It was pet friendly and some guests had brought their dogs along with them. The pencils in the room had ‘I stole this from the Watergate Hotel’ imprinted on their sides so I did as invited – I stole a pencil from the Watergate! I really wanted to steal one of their wonderful, fluffy, fleece lined, super-cosy dressing gowns but decided not to risk going that far. I regularly dressed myself from head to toe in Watergate couture, especially after a shower, and I think a pair of their slippers may have somehow been inadvertently packed in our suitcase as we were leaving ... It was lovely and I’m glad we made the decision to stay there.

The Watergate Complex not only houses the hotel but also many private apartments, office buildings and a shopping area. The grounds cover about 10 acres in total and the six iconic, curvilinear, concrete buildings were not well received initially but are now recognised as one of the finest examples of modern architecture. With its gardens, open public spaces and amazing river views, it was considered to be one of Washington’s most desirable living spaces, occupied by members of government and political appointees as well as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Redford, Placido Domingo and Monica Lewinsky’s mum. It has had a chequered history and its constituent parts have had several owners over time and I was surprised to learn that the office building was at one point owned by the UK’s National Coal Board! Go figure ... I spent hours on the balcony, in the freezing cold but wrapped up in my thermal dressing gown, admiring the views and reminding myself that I was staying in this iconic hotel that features so prominently in the memories of those of us of a certain age!

After we had dropped off our luggage in the room we went out to eat in the Watergate Complex’s underground shopping area, mentioning to the receptionist on the way that we could use an additional large cup to go with the one large and one small cup next to the coffee machine in the room, as we both drank copious amount of morning coffee and the one small cup for one of us just wouldn’t do. We returned to find that the evening turn down service had delivered not only the additional cup, as requested, but also a whole tray of additional coffee and associated accoutrements sufficient to satisfy us caffeine addicts for the whole of the rest of our stay! Maybe such customer service was an element of the ‘unabashed luxury’ we were promised!

We had a marvellous time exploring Washington during the rest of our stay there. The weather was decidedly cool at about 3°, though the wind made it feel considerably colder and the weather forecasts were predicting heavy snow. We had anticipated that, though, and were prepared! We used the HOHO buses a lot, but many of the sights are centrally located and easily accessible on foot. We walked past the Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts, the US Department of State and the US Institute of Peace down to the Lincoln Memorial which I thought was really impressive with its views from the top over the Reflecting Pool and Washington monument. A group of American Indians were protesting over something-or-other (I couldn’t determine what but I’d guess it was Trump-related) and a Pro-Life demonstration was being held in the city which affected the route of the next HOHO bus we caught until some of the roads were reopened. On this trip we saw the FBI headquarters, Smithsonian ‘Castle’ (all the Smithsonian museums were closed due to the government shutdown), Jefferson Monument, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Constitution Avenues and the National Archives before grinding to a halt after getting caught up in the Pro-Life demo. Oh. My. God. Complete gridlock. We were aiming for Union Station and we saw passengers abandoning their stationary taxis and running, hell for leather, to catch their trains. Drivers lost patience at traffic-light-controlled intersections and just went for it when a gap presented itself, regardless of the red stop lights, which only made the gridlock worse. Traffic police tried to direct the vehicles and improve the situation but they were on a hiding to nothing and in the end they seemed to give up and just left everyone to it.

We had got the front seats on the upper deck of the bus but eventually had to admit defeat and move downstairs after the freezing cold seeped through all our layers of clothing and chilled us to the bone. It took us forever to get to the station but we had to wait there to transfer to another bus as our driver needed to be elsewhere and he had run out of time. We could see our transfer bus battling its sloooooow journey through the traffic and I eventually got off our bus to stand in the weak sunlight while I waited, figuring it had to be warmer out there but also to escape the somewhat affected and inane commentary of the guide on the bus (though in fairness it’s hard to point out things of interest when you’re at a standstill). I chatted with our current driver while we waited and he was pleased we were enjoying our visit to Washington. In return I extolled the virtues of Yorkshire, which he promised to visit should he ever make it to the UK! Finally, we were able to board our alternative bus, and we retraced our journey back to the Lincoln Memorial. It wasn’t the best of sightseeing trips, which was a shame as it would be our last one on this journey and all our other HOHO experiences had been exceptional. No matter. Our walk back to the Watergate was teeth-chatteringly cold and had us shivering to our boots. We bought a hot food takeaway in Whole Foods, en route, and took it back with us to our room, where we quickly thawed out in our climate controlled atmosphere and fluffy, white, Watergate dressing gowns!

On our penultimate day in Washington we had a ‘day off’ and lit up the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign so we could have a lie-in. The chambermaids respected the sign and, when we eventually opened the door, we found that they had left a supply of clean towels, shampoo, soap, etc, and a newspaper in a bag on the door handle. That’s service! We wandered up to the ‘Top of the Gate’ for a last look at the Washington night-time panorama and, as we sauntered past reception on our way out to eat, discovered there was a ‘normal’ bar on the lower ground level which sold things other than whiskey (which we don’t drink)! Too late now ... Maybe Emily needs to include that bit of crucial information in her welcome spiel?!

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