Saturday, June 4, 2011

D.C. in a Day - amybatt style

There’s something slightly decadent about hopping a plane and jetting off to a major US city for a day. Decadent, and liberating. I mean, really, for a traveler, there’s no feeling like getting off the plane and getting right to business. No waiting at the luggage carousel, no schlepping bags to a hotel and checking in. As I found out, Washington D.C. is especially good for this, since it is a mere 5 stops on the Metro from the center of pretty much anything you’d be interested in.

I was up long before the alarm clock on Friday morning, as my cat regularly wakes me for his breakfast somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00. I’d gone to bed early the night before, but not early enough that 3:30 was a good time to be up for the day. At that point though, it was hard to convince myself to go back to sleep with only an hour left before the alarm was set. So I stayed in bed until 4:30 and got up and got ready.

Just so you know, traffic at 5:30 a.m. on a vacation week (Memorial Day was just four days ago) is minimal. No, make that non-existent. I was at Park Shuttle and Fly within 45 minutes, which is exceptional. PS&F dropped me at the terminal at 6:20 and I was sucking down a Starbucks iced coffee waiting to board the flight by 6:45. The only thing that slowed me down was the security check. Note to potential terrorists: cargo shorts with lots of stuff (or, as the TSA agent says “lots of gromets, buttons, zips and snaps”) earns you not just the super-duper full body scan but also a pat down. Yee ha. Said pat down wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d read on the internet, and I breezed through. And here I was just wearing my new Athleta gear to see how it’d be to travel in. Those shorts, not so good for airport security, apparently.

Somehow, JetBlue made magic happen and our 90 minute flight was only 64 minutes. I know airlines pad their schedules, but I’ve never been that early. Instead of 9:00 we landed at 8:24. I flew out of my seat in row 5 and breezed to the Metro stop at Reagan National. I loaded up a Metro fare card with $10 (I figured three Metro rides total for the day, and I wasn’t wrong) and off I went. By 9:20 I was walking into the National Zoo, my primary destination for the day.

It is actually sort of funny, this lion cub cam addiction I’ve had. I’ve been watching this pride grow up since late last summer. I can’t recall how I stumbled on to it, but I quickly became addicted. These two moms, one dad and 7 cubbies were my stress relief when times were tough and my entertainment when I was bored. The running joke is that I work 35 hours a week, and most of that is with lion cub cam minimized on my desk top. They are never more than a click away.

I’d only been to the zoo once before and fell hard for the pandas at the time, as well as the one tiger I got to see. That was early November 2009 and the zoo was a ghost-town. What I didn’t realize is that the zoo is open starting at 8 a.m. but the shops and food stands aren’t until 10. Many of the animals are out in their enclosures that early and they are the most active that they will be for most of the day. Because I wanted to see the cubs so badly (I’d actually written on the zoo’s Facebook page to confirm they’d be out there when I was!), I immediately beat feet to Big Cats, which is probably the farthest point from the main gate as anything in the zoo is. It was a gorgeous day though, low 80s, dry air and beautiful blue sky. On my walk up I remember thinking to myself, “it’s a great day to be alive”, as cliché as that sounds. But later on, I overheard a school kid with a similar, relative sentiment: “This doesn’t even feel like being in school!” I couldn’t have agreed more!

I arrived at Big Cats and the first enclosure I came upon was where Luke, papa of the lion pride was. He was all alone, looking regal as he laid taking in the sun. As handsome as he was, and as proud as I was for him and his new pride, I was a bit disappointed there were no cubs. But I figured it was early and I’d just have to make the return trek back later to see if the cubs were out.

So I made my away around the hill that houses the Big Cats. There are three enclosures here; the second was empty, presumably a tiger would make an appearance later. As I was about to give up, I rounded the last corner to see the third enclosure and there they were: my cubbies! All seven cubs and their Moms were out, lounging in the early morning sunshine. I was ecstatic. It was like meeting rock stars, if you could call my fawning over them for nearly an hour “meeting” them! I took more pictures than I care to admit, but just could not believe I was here with the cubs. In my head, I of course pictured them to be the still little cuddly balls of cub they had been all these months, but in reality they are actually medium-to-large dog size now. The males are starting to show some growth of mane around their chins, but most of them still haven’t outgrown the spotted and stripey fur of their baby-hood yet. They are all leggy with gigantic paws, like when you see a golden retriever with these massive paws, you just know they’re going to eventually grow into them. But how cute, how majestic and how amazing they are. I was completely smitten.

The cubs stayed up on the upper level of the enclosure, but both Naba and Shera, the moms, came down to the lower level to take in the unobstructed sun. I could have sat there all day, but it became obvious as time wore on that all were down for long naps, so I bid them adieu and will continue to follow them online.

I passed by the tiger enclosure again, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new female that has just arrived at the zoo, but the one tiger that was out was napping in some tall grass.

I next made my way to the panda enclosure, which most visitors were lamenting was “closed”. I knew from my pre-trip research that only Tian Tian would be outside as the world awaits a potential cub from Mei Xiang, who is now in seclusion in the panda house (along with the red panda, which I just discovered). There was a keeper cleaning up the enclosure and laying out bamboo. I knew if I waited long enough, somewhere around 11:00 they would let Tian out. Just after 11, out he came. I was perfectly positioned for him as he made his way down the hill and plopped pretty much right in front of me. He rested up against a tree stump and started in on his bamboo. He’d peel off the dark green out layers, rip off some of the softer inside and crunch away. And his crunches were audible. I smiled to myself several times as I realized that 90-something days from now, I’ll be in panda-country getting ready to get up close and personal with these gorgeous creatures. Damn!

I took a quick tour of the Asia Trail, where no red pandas were to be had, and then found a neat bridge over the Elephant Lookout where I could see all three elephants from above. But at this point the zoo was crowded, I was hungry and tired, so I hopped back on the Metro and headed toward the National Gallery.

I got off at Metro Center and walked down 10th Street to check out the merchandise at the Hard Rock Café. Nothing new there, so I kept going and looking for lunch. I came across a Cosi, which we have at home, but where I knew I could get a good, quick lunch. With only one day in the city, I didn’t want to waste much time with a sitdown meal, so I got a turkey and brie sandwich and water and off I went.

I walked down to Constitution Avenue and walked through the Butterfly Garden alongside the Museum of Natural History. Much too windy for butterflies, apparently, so I made my way along 15th Street to the National Gallery of Art. My second reason for this visit was the Gabriel Metsu exhibition there. This alone was worth the trip. Metsu is the lesser-known (at least here) contemporary of Johannes Vermeer, but by some accounts the better and more successful of the two. Vermeer fans will spot the similarities immediately, but in reading the exhibition guide, particularly the chapter comparing Vermeer and Metsu, even the staunchest Vermeer fan (me) will start to wonder who exactly influenced whom and who is the better painter of that time. One quote stuck with me: "Why buy a Vermeer if there is a Metsu available" and after three or four passes through this incredible exhibition, I wondered the same thing! Metsu's use of red is amazing. His detail work on dress trims and a pile of coins on the table will leave you breathless. Sure, more than a few of his paintings reminded me so much of a Vermeer (Woman Reading a Letter, Man Writing a Letter, A Man and Woman Seated by a Virginal) but these were just as good, if not better in some respects. I was blown away. Truly, just amazing.

I tried to make my way through the Gaugin exhibit, but just could not do it. I’m not a fan and it’s hard for me to swallow his style. I made my way back to the main building and went through the collection from the lower floor up: the Rodin and Degas sculpture, the Impressionist to Modernist collection (which was on view as the Chester Dale exhibition) "Most" of that collection has been relocated downstairs next to the cafeteria as the "Chester Dale Collection" exhibition. I say "most" because I found some notable NGA highlights missing, like Manet's Dead Toreador and Monet's Woman with Parasol, both of which I love. Then upstairs to just paw my way through the galleries, from oldest to newest, all of it: Spanish, Italian and Dutch. Even some American and British. I ended in the Dutch galleries, where, alas, two, including the one Vermeer I like there, were on loan (and a de Hooch taking its place on the wall!)

After leaving the NGA, I still had about an hour before my dinner reservation. So I walked over to the Museum of Natural History, with the intention of seeing the gems, which I did not visit the last time I was here. I guess after seeing the crown jewels of the United Kingdom and Russia in the last couple years, these were sort of anti-climactic. Plus crowd control was non-existent (another thing we could learn from the UK and Russia!) So I just sort of wandered around the upper levels of the museum and happened to peak into a room that appeared to have a butterfly pavilion, and indeed it did. I’d read a blog recently on “Around the Mall” that pointed out all the places you could see butterflies around the mall. This was, in the end, the coolest thing I think I did all day. Maybe because it was unexpected, I don’t know. Despite the fact the Smithsonian Museums are free, there was an entry fee to the pavilion (reduced for Smithsonian Magazine subscribers, fyi).

Once you enter the pavilion you are hit but the warmth and humidity which must be required to sustain both the plant and the butterfly life. There had to have been over a dozen different types of butterflies flying about. I’d taken a laminated card with information to help me to identify them, but was so overwhelmed by the sheer number that I didn’t bother. It was fascinating to be walking through them, butterflies flying about and landing where they wanted to, whether that be human, wall or plant. It was both relaxing and refreshing, and totally unexpected. And after taking about a billion more pictures, I headed out for dinner.

I made a very early reservation at Cuba Libre, which was about 6 blocks up from the Natural History Museum. I walked up in about 15 minutes and was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t terribly underdressed (glad I wore my sneakers for the amount of walking I did, but was a bit nervous I was too touristy casual for this). This was a great meal to end the day. The atmosphere was relaxing and did evoke a bit of Havana. I had a great waiter who was friendly and had very good recommendations. I started with a classic mojito and plantain chips with guacamole. The Cuban guacamole is fabulous in itself if only for the pineapple they use in it. Heavenly! My main course was Camarones con Caña, which were pan seared jumbo shrimp with a mango BBQ glaze and a crispy Anaheim pepper stuffed with creamy quinoa, sweet potato and Mascarpone cheese. I know that chile relleno is probably the worst thing nutritionally to order off any menu, but if this wasn’t exactly what I needed after nearly 12 hours straight of walking, then I don’t know what was. Oh, that might be dessert (hey, I did WALK all day!), which was torta mendirita, their take on a dessert-style rum and Coke: a rum-soaked dense cake with coca-cola sauce, topped with a dollop of lime sorbet. Throw in a glass of sangria and you have a winner of a meal.

But the day wasn’t over yet. I still had almost 45 minutes before I had to even think about heading to the airport. I had spotted the National Portrait Gallery not even a block away, and right on the Metro line I needed to take to the airport. It was open until 7:00 so I went in, remembering that it had just acquired a portrait of Bill and Melinda Gates, which I handily found (pretty cool) and I went upstairs to wander around the President’s portraits for a bit. Finally about 6:40 I hopped back on the Metro and was at the airport by 7:00. I was through security and boarding at 7:35. The flight wasn’t supposed to leave until 8:05 but we pushed back and were airborne by 7:55! It was only an hour and 8 minutes home. Again, I breezed off the plane, called PS&F to pick me up. Paid $16 to park for the day and was home by 10:15.

What a day! I covered a LOT of ground (most of it on my own two feet) but really feel like it was a mind-eraser. Lots that had been going on in my head was put to rest with a day doing only things that I love. And I like DC more and more each time I visit. Maybe moving there shouldn’t be totally out of the question....

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