NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The Wheel at the National Harbor alone made me want to plan a visit. But when you added in a chance to tour the replica of Air Force One, well that was the clincher.
This 350-acre development — located a 15-minute drive south of Washington, D.C. — is the work of a single developer, Peterson Companies (one of D.C.’s oldest, family-owned real estate firms).
Just as much an experience as a destination, the National Harbor has it all — two of Maryland’s four-diamond-rated hotels; more than 40 restaurants; 160-plus shops, including 85 designer stores at Tanger Outlets; gambling in one of the largest casinos outside Las Vegas; $22 million of public art scattered about the site; a state-of-the-art, 3,000-seat theater; water sports, such as paddle boarding, pedal boats and kayaking; a Top Golf franchise; water taxi service to D.C. and Old Town Alexandria; free outdoor movies; and year-round special events.
Let’s start with the Capital Wheel, a 180-foot tall Ferris wheel with enclosed, air conditioned and heated gondolas that seat up to six. Because The Wheel operates throughout the day and after nightfall, I decided to check out both views. During my daytime ride, I could see the Washington Monument and Capitol building in the distance, but the nighttime perspective was enlivened by the colorful array of lights in the harbor area. In short, it’d be difficult to recommend one over the other.
Wheel riders generally get a total of five or six revolutions, plus a stop at the top when The Wheel lets others on and off. When boarding, the attendant points out the “panic button” for those who might find the trip too lofty. (I doubt there are many that use it). For a special VIP experience, try the deluxe gondola that comes with wine coolers and a glass floor.
The Wheel is located at the end of a long pier that juts out into the harbor. On your walk to the admissions gate, check out the five-piece sculpture of a giant (a long arm, a hand, a head, a leg and a foot) rising out of the sand on the beach.
Like merry-go-rounds? Nearby, the Carousel is a 36-foot Americana-themed ride with a herd of whimsical creatures instead of horses.
Remember those yellow, sugary-coated marshmallow chicks you got in your Easter basket? If so, you’ll want to stop at Peeps, a bright and colorful store where you can sample chocolate candy, have your photo taken near the yellow Peep-mobile car, and buy assorted candies and related apparel.
For an eyeful of sights, walk along American Way, which starts at the waterfront and is modeled after Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain. While browsing the landscape, keep your eyes open for lifelike statues of notables like Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
And speaking of which, Old Abe never had a chance to fly on Air Force One, but I relished the chance to take a tour of the world’s most famous airplane. Or at least its replica. To recreate the iconic presidential plane, folks in Rhode Island took a retired Boeing 747 and refurbished it to look like its real deal counterpart, housed 10 miles away at Base Andrews. They then loaded it on a barge, sent it along the Atlantic Coast, then up through Chesapeake Bay to the National Harbor.
My first impression of the famous flying facsimile was its mammoth size, with a black Secret Service car parked under one wing. A red carpet walkway leads to the blue-and-white plane dignified by large letters on its side that read “United States of America.”
With a wingspan longer than a football field, the flying Goliath is approximately 63 feet tall (more than four stories high) and 232 feet long, and meant to give visitors a look at what the real deal is all about.
An hour-long audio tour — accessed by smartphone and narrated by Howie Franklin, who served as onboard steward for nearly 20 years — takes a look at the presidential office, meeting room, infirmary (where George W. Bush would have a massage) and living and sleeping quarters. At the rear, the interior of the plane has been left exposed to show the shell, cables and some of the mechanical infrastructure, as well as the area assigned to the press.
The museum also displays photos of past “flying White Houses,” rare presidential artifacts — some from the days of Washington and Lincoln — and mementos associated with the plane, such as presidential packs of cigarettes and playing cards. On the way out, you can have your photos taken at the top of the metal staircase, just like The Donald and Melania.
For some nighttime fun, pop into Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano Bar, where two avid pianists try to outdo one another on the keyboards, then try your hand at bull-riding amid a rock ’n’ roll-inspired environment at Cadillac Ranch.
For live entertainment that has brought in stars like Anita Baker, John Legend and Paula Abdul, check out the the gorgeous and comfortable theater at the MGM National Harbor Resort and Casino. Upcoming shows star Tony Braxton, Gladys Knight and Mariah Carey.
Something the entire family would enjoy, but only during the Christmas season, Ice at the Gaylord Hotel took two million pounds of ice and turned it, with the help of Chinese ice sculptors, into colorful Charley Brown figures and four two-story-tall slides. Before entering the displays, visitors don parkas to help stave off the cold in the temperature-controlled environment kept at 9 degrees Fahrenheit. The end of the walk-through features an impressive, full-size nativity scene made from crystal-clear ice.
In the summer, family movies are screened outdoors on Sundays on the 18-by-32-foot Jumbotron. Date night films are also screened on Thursdays, with free outdoor concerts offered on the Riverside Stage on Friday evenings.
To help plan a visit, the destination’s website nationalharbor.com includes a link that guides visitors and helps tailor a personalized itinerary built around personal preferences.
For a place to dine, Succotash features a progressive perspective of classic Southern favorites. James Beard Award nominee Edward Lee brings his Korean roots and Southern repertoire to a soulful Southern menu with items like shrimp and grits, crispy local blue catfish, and fried chicken and waffles. Phone 301-567-8900.
If Asian fusion is more to your liking, Grace’s Mandarin serves up a bevy of modern Asian-inspired dishes done with a flair in an elegant and refined ambiance. Phone 301-839-3788.