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Washington, DC

Washington, DC

There may be more reasons than ever to flee the capital of the free world – but thankfully there are places nearby where nature and culture still rule. Charlie McCann steeps herself in their peace

There may be more reasons than ever to flee the capital of the free world – but thankfully there are places nearby where nature and culture still rule. Charlie McCann steeps herself in their peace

Charlie McCann | August/September 2017

1 MOUNT VERNON
35 MILES 
30 MINUTES BY CAR 

The man for whom the nation’s capital is named never lived in the city. George Washington made his home on a Virginia plantation known as Mount Vernon. Over 45 years, he slowly enlarged the farmhouse built by his father into a 21-room mansion (main image). It was the project of a lifetime, and he continued to supervise construction during the revolutionary war. Many high-profile guests passed through, including the Marquis de Lafayette, who gave Washington the key to the Bastille, which hangs in the central hall. Have a nose around the house, which looks much as it did during Washington’s time. Then ride a boat down the Potomac river to Alexandria, a colonial town founded in 1749. As an apprentice surveyor, Washington planned some of Alexandria’s pretty, tree-lined streets – and, later in life, frequented Gadsby Tavern, where he indulged his love of dancing. Head to the tavern to learn some of his moves, then reward yourself with a meal at Restaurant Eve, one of the kitchens that has made Alexandria a culinary destination. On your post-prandial walk, admire the Federal-style row houses – and look out for a memorial erected by the Freemasons in honour of their most famous member, Brother Washington.

2 BALTIMORE
39 MILES 
ONE HOUR BY CAR 

“The Wire” made a star out of Baltimore – for all the wrong reasons. Maryland’s largest city, which stands sentry over Chesapeake Bay, is home to hip bars, great museums and a thriving arts scene. Start your day at Lexington Market, the oldest of its kind in America, and grab a glazed doughnut from Buttercup Bakery. Then atone for the sins of the morning by heading to the National Museum of Dentistry. There you will learn that, contrary to legend, George Washington’s dentures were made not of wood, but of gold, ivory and lead, with human, horse and donkey teeth. Then take in the American Visionary Art Museum’s fantastic collection of outsider art (pictured). If insider art’s more your thing, go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has the world’s largest collection of works by Henri Matisse. By this time you may have worked up an appetite. Whet your whistle with home brew at Brewer’s Art, then tuck in at the Woodberry Kitchen, a brick mill-turned-restaurant that makes food like an ode to the Chesapeake (clams and grits, devilled eggs with chipped ham). If you can stomach more art, head over to Station North, home to the Maryland Institute College of Art and quirky little galleries in old warehouses like Load of Fun and Area 405. As you head home, toss a penny on John Wilkes Booth’s gravestone – seems only polite to give Abraham Lincoln the last word.

3 THE NORTHERN NECK
53-114 MILES 
THREE HOURS BY CAR 

A 61-mile long peninsula bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and spilling into Chesapeake Bay, the Northern Neck is a land of rolling hills and meandering creeks known as the “birthplace of America”. Explored in the early 17th century by Captain John Smith, and later settled by tobacco planters, it produced three of the five first presidents (Washington, James Madison, James Monroe), two signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and Robert E. Lee. For all its history, the Neck is mercifully free of tourists – all the better for those who prefer the road less travelled. As you drive through small towns and along thoroughfares with names like Good Luck and Devil’s Bottom, stop off to explore bracingly austere 18th-century churches and stately residences like Stratford Hall, Lee’s ancestral home and one of the most elegant houses in the Union. If you see a roadside stand, pull over. Like generations before them, Northern Neck watermen catch and sell rockfish, blue crabs and Virginia oysters. As you chow down, look up. Here, locals will tell you, bald eagles are as common as crows. When you finally make it to land’s end, having gone berry-picking at Westmoreland Farm and wine-tasting at Ingleside Vineyards, stay at The Gables in Reedville. It was built over a century ago by a Captain Fisher who erected the wooden mast of his beloved schooner, the John B. Adams, through the top two storeys of the mansion.

4 CHINCOTEAGUE ISLAND
170 MILES 
THREE HOURS BY CAR 

In 1947, Chincoteague was an anonymous fishing village on Virginia’s eastern shore. That all changed when a woman named Marguerite Henry checked in to Miss Molly’s Inn. She came for the wild ponies, which live on the neighbouring island of Assateague. The story goes that these sturdy creatures were the descendants of horses that survived the wreckage of a Spanish galleon. One foal caught her eye and she wrote a children’s novel about it, “Misty of Chincoteague”, which was adapted for the silver screen in 1961. Tourists began coming in droves, to lounge on the pristine beaches, revel in the island’s natural splendour, and to catch a glimpse of the real Misty.

Unfortunately she died decades ago, but you can see her hoofprints in the sidewalk outside the Roxy Movie theatre, and ride her descendants at the Chincoteague Pony Centre. Head over to Assateague to see the wild ponies in their natural habitat, and book a front-row seat on a boat for the annual Pony Swim (above), when ponies are herded through the water to auction in Chincoteague. While onboard, look out for dolphins, snowy egrets and great blue herons. And if you tire of all this horsing around, you might just be able see the bright lights of Ocean City in the distance.

5 GARRETT COUNTY
173 MILES 
THREE HOURS BY CAR 

Nestled between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the Maryland panhandle is home to farmers and coal miners. But affluent urbanites have been coming to this plateau in the Allegheny mountains to escape the heat of the cities since at least the 1870s, when the president of the B&O Railroad built the Deer Park Hotel for his Gilded Age friends. When the 13-mile-long Deep Creek Lake was created in 1925, it enticed a new generation of wealthy city-dwellers to its shores. Today, it is dotted with the second homes of Washingtonians. They come to take in the mountain air and spectacular scenery, and to play: golf, boating, jet-skiing, hiking and skiing in winter. If you’re craving culture, head to the town of Oakland for free summer concerts, a community art gallery and a bookshop. But don’t expect too much: this is a remote, rustic place. There are no malls, few designer shops and liquor sales on Sundays are illegal. The Amish have lived here for generations. If you are loth to return to the city, prolong the inevitable by cycling part of the journey back. You can pick up the C&O Canal towpath in Cumberland. A trail almost entirely free of cars, it wends for 185 miles through old coal and rail towns and sites of interest to history buffs (Antietam battlefield, Harper’s Ferry). 

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