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Monday, 16 January 2017

Four days in Washington DC. Day 1

I’m sure it’s nice to land in Washington DC on the presidential helicopter, Marine One, but arriving in the US capital by Amtrak’s Acela Express didn’t seem too bad an alternative.

The first and business class train plies the 457 miles between Boston and Washington, calling at New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places on its way south. We picked up the train at New York’s Penn Station, the terminus an architectural shadow of its former self (the old Beaux Arts style building shamefully demolished in 1964) and a complete contrast to the magnificent Union Station in Washington.

It was a smooth two and three quarter hour trip - an occasional commentary pointed out places of interest - and then a 20/25 minute taxi ride to our very welcoming hotel, Donovan House, now the Kimpton Donovan.

Within a few minutes of checking in we were back out, heading south down 14th Street towards the White House, 15 minutes away. Like New York, Washington is built on a grid system but, unlike New York, it’s low rise (stipulated by Congress). In fact the centre of the city has a stately, almost imperial feel to it, grand and spacious, with lots of marble, stone and granite in its buildings and monuments. The Jefferson Memorial (pic), modelled on The Pantheon in Rome, is a good example.

Washington’s showpiece is the two mile swathe of green known as The National Mall which stretches from the Lincoln Memorial in the west to the US Capitol, the home of Congress, in the east and encompasses many of the city’s most important memorials, monuments and museums.

Just to the north of The National Mall is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the address - often a quiz question - of the White House, one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. And suddenly we were there, behaving like a couple of excited children, taking in the north front first before moving round to the south side, the one that most people are familiar with. Two and a half days later we were back again and this time there was a lot more going on.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Four days in Washington DC. Day 2

This was a monuments and memorials day, a day that was sometimes stirring, at other times sombre and sad. From the hotel we walked to the Washington Monument, the towering obelisk on The National Mall which was completed in the 1880s to commemorate George Washington, the first American President.

A little further on, across 17th Street, is the impressive World War II Memorial which honours the millions who served in the armed forces during the war, the 400,000 who died and all those who supported the war effort at home.

In essence it is composed of 56 pillars (48 of those represent the 48 American states of 1945) which are arranged in a semi-circle around a plaza. A triumphal arch, one bearing the word ‘Atlantic’ and the other ‘Pacific’ stand at each end. There are numerous bas reliefs of war scenes and a Freedom Wall with 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war.

We passed a large group of ex-servicemen visiting the site and there were scores of other people, each with their own thoughts and memories. A long reflecting pool took us to the Lincoln Memorial, built like a Greek temple and commemorating Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US. The outside was impressive enough but inside is a huge seated sculpture of Lincoln in white marble, peering down at all who gaze upon his face.

Nearby was the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the latter consisting of two walls that form a V-shape, meeting at their highest points but then tapering away at each end. More than 58,000 names of those killed or missing in action are etched on the polished black granite, which makes it a very personal and moving monument.

We then crossed a bridge over the Potomac River into Virginia and made our way to the Arlington National Cemetery where in the beautiful, wooded and undulating grounds, soldiers, generals, admirals and presidents alike are buried. We got hold of a little map and found our way to the graves of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. As a young boy, President Kennedy’s death made a huge impression on me so it was a poignant moment to stand in front of his grave and gaze at the Eternal Flame beside it.

We climbed higher up the hill to Arlington House and from there got a wonderful panoramic view of the low lying city across the Potomac (see the picture in Day 1). Back down the hill we hopped on a blue tour bus which took us past The Pentagon and into the centre. There we changed to a red bus for another short tour, one made even more lively by the sight of three helicopters, flying low towards the White House. We guessed that one of them contained President Obama.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Four days in Washington DC. Day 3

Less than two miles west of the Kimpton Donovan is the historic ‘neighbourhood’ of Georgetown where a yellow tour bus took us first thing in the morning. Sadly we didn’t hop off the bus and explore the old streets and 18th century buildings, the Potomac waterfront, the cafés, shops and restaurants, so that’s something for next time.

The reason? We wanted to see some of the 19 museums and galleries that collectively (along with other places) make up the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian is Washington’s great gift to the world although the actual bequest that founded it came from an English scientist called John Smithson. All its museums are free to enter.

After a quick break for a burger we started with the National Museum of American History whose exhibits range from Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and a pair of Muhammad Ali’s Everlast boxing gloves to the original (and enormous) Star-Spangled Banner (1812) and Michelle Obama’s 2009 inaugural gown.

Heading east down The National Mall we passed the press and press freedom museum called Newseum (pic). It’s not part of The Smithsonian but it was another place we earmarked for the future.

Closer to The Capitol we turned back on ourselves, making our way on the south side of The Mall to visit the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Air and Space Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (modern art).

How different the architecture of each building is and what a vast and extraordinary collection of artefacts they contain. Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia (1969) and the cylindrical-shaped Hirshhorn building itself were three special memories. Last year the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on The Mall so that’s on the future list too.

Of course we couldn’t come to Washington without bringing home a few bits of political and presidential memorabilia. Just as well then that the White House Gift Shop covered every possibility: mugs, coasters, T-shirts, chocolates, mints, books, pens, hats, fridge magnets, ties, blankets, flight jackets and so on, some of it quirky, some of it serious.

We got back to the hotel in time for the complimentary wine hour, and then sampled the Asian-fusion food in the hotel’s Zentan Restaurant. A fine meal to end a great day.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Four days in Washington DC. Day 4

This being our final morning in Washington we wanted to take one last look at the White House. For a while we stood by the railings on its south side until a security guard asked us to move well back and away from the perimeter. We guessed something was about to happen and sure enough half an hour later three helicopters came into view.

Two peeled off but one landed on the White House lawn where a large group of people had gathered. Shortly afterwards Marine One took off again and we assumed that Barrack Obama - a few weeks away from being re-elected in November 2012 - was inside. Admittedly it all happened at some distance but nevertheless it was a thrill to witness.

This Friday, the White House will have a new President, the 45th. Since 1937 Inauguration Day has always fallen on January 20, the term of office officially starting at 12 noon.

Information: official tourism site of Washington DC

The travel section of The Daily Telegraph last Saturday (Jan 14) mentioned four places for ‘power lunching for politicos’. They are The Old Ebbitt Grill, The Occidental, The Round Robin bar at the Willard InterContinental and the Off the Record at the Hay Adams Hotel.

Other places to eat/drink that I’ve seen recommended include Tail Up Goat, Café Milano, 2Amys, The Capital Grille and The Jefferson at the Jefferson Hotel.

Likewise hotels mentioned include.....Hotel Madera, The George and Hotel Palomar which like the Kimpton Donovan are Kimpton hotels. The Watergate Hotel, the Tabard Inn, Four Seasons, The Dupont Circle, Chester Arthur House and the Mandarin Oriental.

It was over breakfast in Edinburgh that I was given the first ‘surprise’ envelope of the day. ‘We’re having coffee at Gleneagles,’ said the note inside and so, as the last of the morning rush hour made its way south across the Forth Road Bridge, we headed north towards the M90, Perthshire and the Ochil Hills.

By no stretch of the imagination is Gleneagles an average coffee stop. The 232 bedroom hotel is one of the best known hotels in Britain, a five star byword for luxury which attracts golfers, foodies, sporting types, outdoor enthusiasts and those who simply love the comfort and great service of this ‘Palace of the Glens’.

We knew we were getting close to the hotel when we spotted the sculpture of six giant golf clubs - created for the 2014 Ryder Cup here - at the Gleneagles Station roundabout. A few minutes later we parked near the large covered ice rink which is put up in the grounds every Christmas. Outside the main entrance, hall porters John and Andrew (pic) - the perfect meeters and greeters - were welcoming a steady stream of guests and visitors.

John fetched us a map of the hotel grounds from the concierge and pointed out the two or three places where we could get coffee. Then we were inside, stepping across the front hall carpet which, with its motifs of railway sleepers, pays tribute to the Caledonian Railway Company that built the hotel in the 1920s.

Turning left at reception we made for Braid’s Coffee Lounge, close to The Spa (golfer James Braid designed both the King’s and Queen’s courses at Gleneagles), taking in the shopping arcade on the way (pic) where you can buy fashion, jewellery, accessories, gifts, newspapers and magazines.

Retracing our steps we peered into the grand looking Strathearn Restaurant and poked our heads into the more intimate Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, the only two Michelin star restaurant in Scotland. Remember Andrew Fairlie’s name for the third ‘surprise’ of the day.

Finally, for our cup of coffee we settled on the Century Bar (pic), its glamorous new look (by David Collins Studio in London), unveiled in June. Within seconds of the coffee arriving came a piece of Scottish shortbread, made that morning, said the waitress - as she whipped the glass dome off the stand - by the hotel’s patisserie. Perfect.

Saying our goodbyes, we passed the new American Bar (opening tomorrow, December 22) and the large Christmas tree in the front hall, one of about 60, said John, that were dotted around the building at this time of the year. They certainly know how to do Christmas and Hogmany at Gleneagles. Imagine what the party’s going to be like for the hotel’s centenary in 2024.

Of the 120 or so single malt whiskies offered by the Century Bar at Gleneagles (pic), I’d like to think that one of them is The Glenturret. That was the name inside the second ‘surprise’ envelope of the day: a visit to what claims to be Scotland’s oldest working distillery - ‘making whisky by hand and by heart since 1775’.

The distillery is located just outside Crieff and is home to The Famous Grouse Experience, where the general manager, Stuart Cassells was Visitor Attraction Manager of the Year at Whisky Magazine’s ‘Icons of Whisky Scotland’ 2016. If you’ve never seen a grouse, pull into the car park at Glenturret. You certainly won’t miss the bronze statue of one.

It took us about 30 minutes from Gleneagles, so we arrived in time for lunch: oak smoked salmon sandwiches and salad in the Wilde Thyme at Glenturret cafe/restaurant. Part of the room was festively laid up for a wedding at 4pm but by then we’d done the guided tour and bought the whisky.

It was an excellent tour, just the two of us being walked and talked through the process of making whisky, half of the annual production here being peated, half non-peated. There was a distinctly low-tech feel about the place, what with the 120 year old milling machinery, the hand stirring (rousing) of grist and water in the mash tun, the washbacks made of Douglas Fir and, of course, the old stone buildings themselves.

Some of the finished article joins other whiskies in creating The Famous Grouse, the biggest selling whisky in Scotland. Because production of The Glenturret is pretty small, its main retail outlet is here where the full range, including the 10 and 16 year olds, is available. So too is The Famous Grouse. You can bottle your own as well, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did when they opened the new visitor experience in May 2014.

We had a short lesson in nosing and drinking whisky (complete with scratch and sniff cards) and then a little tasting. I got a ‘driver’s dram’ to take away and savour later. And just as we were figuring out the notes of vanilla, orange and sultanas, we heard the sound of a bagpiper tuning up for the bride’s arrival. Perfect timing.

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