Jaunt to D.C. was a  (bargain) Blast!

... flew down, great hotel, succulent food, all for $600 ...

by Don Norris

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, only a stone's throw from the White House, is one of the shining highlights of any Washington tour. In this case, we paused to rest in the quiet solitude of an American Impressionist gallery. At the left is Lorry Norris of Melrose, retired public health (and school) nurse.

It started out as an inexpensive three-day weekend flier to Washington, but ended up costing six hundred. Not that I'm surprised at today's prices, but you have to realize that we (the two of us) went to one of the most expensive cities in the world, we flew down and back, we stayed in one of the nicest hotels we couldn't afford, and we dined on marginally succulent foods that just aren't available in Boston.

Six hundred. I had in mind two, when we thought of this project.

Hey, that's life. We had a ball, a blast, a blowout. We had laughs, we had good fortune, we had an abundance of good things to eat, and we got to view the very best art in the world -- from a distance as close as a couple of chin whiskers away. Spectacular.

Here's how it came about. First, we subscribe to an on-line travel service that hunts out good deals on short notice. Since we're retired, we can go any time, any where. Our passports are up to date, so it becomes a matter of how much dough we want to lay down, and how much we're going to benefit from our limited retirement funds.

So first, Travelocity came up with a $76 round trip fare, Boston to Washington, D.C., on a well known and reliable airline. It was so cheap that while riding the people mover at Dulles, we drew a lengthy (but good-hearted) lecture about the cost of flying a 10 million dollar aircraft the 500 miles between here and there -- and back. The lecturer was no less than a pilot riding the people mover out to his chariot!

"Why, that doesn't pay for your share of the fuel to get you there", he said, tilting his captain's hat back and stroking his chin. "How can they sell you a ticket for that paltry amount!"

"Look at it this way, Captain," I offered. "This flight is going whether we're on it or not. And chances are there won't be enough people aboard to pay your salary, much less amortizing the aircraft. This happens to be one of the deadliest weekends of the year, for travel". (It was the last weekend in August, just after most vacations ended and just before school opened for the fall season).

So second, we recognized the signs -- desperation prices -- and called the Clarion on New Hampshire Avenue, near DuPont Circle. Now the Clarion is the top of the Choice chain of hotels, and some time ago we learned that by calling a reservation number that isn't advertised any more, that we can get the lowest of the low rates for an outstanding room and excellent service.

Like, $75 for a $190 room. Now this spectacular price isn't available always. Just when history shows management that they'd better do something out of the ordinary or the chain isn't going to be profitable this weekend. Like the last week of August.

There is beauty and design everywhere you look in downtown D.C., such as the skylights of the new East Wing of the National Gallery of Art.

Why is this time so good? 'Cause everybody else stays at home. Even Congress. Both teachers and the pupils are gearing up for the annual battle, people are making last-gasp plans for the Labor Day weekend -- and Washington empties out. Nobody goes to DeeCee -- except those in the know.

For a change of pace, we thought we'd like to do most of this trip on a shoestring, so we'd begin by getting to the airport via the MBTA -- the subway to you folks not from Boston -- and we mooched a ride to the subway station with our good-hearted neighbor, and saved eight bucks on a taxi fare. The trip in town on the Orange Line was great at 9:30am, as well as the second leg on the Blue Line out to Logan. The longest we had to wait was four minutes for the free airport shuttle from the subway station. In fact, we were slightly early, and with this new electronic ticketing, we were able to grab an earlier flight -- and hour earlier. Now what's an hour of your time worth in Washington? This was a special treat.

The flight was a breeze. The pilot took off, climbed to 33,000 feet, and then began his descent in preparation for landing. One hour in the air, take-off  to touchdown, at better'n 500 knots. And we got a free CocaCola to boot. And peanuts too.

Now here's a hitch. You can fly to either of two airports servicing Washington. One  is Washington National, which sits on the bank of the Potomac about two miles south of Metro Center, right on the Blue line. It takes ten, maybe 15 minutes to get downtown. The other is Dulles, about 40 driving miles west of  D.C., which is far less convenient, but supposedly far less expensive to use.

Here's the plan the airline offered us: Fly via Dulles and get a $150 ticket for $75. Or fly to National and get a $150 ticket for $150. Take you choice. For us it was Dulles, all the way, on a piker's budget.

But here's the catch. Dulles is serviced only by highway. No train, no subway. Only cars, vans or buses. And so it appears that the airport is constantly under siege by armies of automobiles. It's true that the airport expressway has an inner four-lane highway for drivers going expressly to and from Dulles --- the less important folks that live out that way have their own road, with exits, entrances, and toll booths. We rode fast and free of tolls, except the $16 a head for the ticket, each way. Plus tips.

So you can go the speed limit to Dulles, but then you have to enter the perpetual traffic jam that occurs at every city airport in the world. It looks horrendous.

And to rub salt into this raw and unreasonable means of transportation, we (two of us) had to pay a van operator $40 (including tip) for a rather maddening trip of 40 miles to Washington. That's $80 for round trip. And the trip takes a little less than an hour, but the driver will take you right to the door of your hotel -- nice if you're first of the seven van passengers.

Escalators for the Metro system are awe-inspiring, which is to say, frightening for the unaware tourist. But what a marvelous system!

Are you getting my drift? Next August we are going via Washington National, then grab one of those beautiful, very fast, very clean Washington Metro subway trains, and for two bucks it will drop us off one block from our hotel. We lose some on the plane ticket, but pick up some on time, a lot on convenience, and put the $80 for the Dulles shuttle toward our increased airfare.

The Food and The Museums ...

Our primary purpose on re-visiting the Nations Capitol is to see a special show of the Impressionists at the National Gallery of Art -- specifically a special collection of Monet's paintings, some of which we had never seen before. But visiting the National Gallery and the new East Wing is something every American should do at least once in his/her lifetime. It is spectacular, it is handy, it has dining facilities and it is the center of the art world -- well, one of them, anyway.

And of course everyone visiting DeeCee has to walk by the White House, and join the crowd of citizens pressed against the wrought iron fence. No, we didn't see anybody of significance -- I think they were licking their wounds from recent scandal. But go next door and see the old Executive Building -- it has an architecture that I've seen nowhere else -- and it is beautiful.

By the way, Pennsylvania Avenue is closed off in front of the White House. That large chunk of tarmack isn't going to waste, however, as there was a spirited game of hockey going on, using in-line skates. Almost in front of the White House!

For dinner our first night in Washington, we were so tired from walking that we picked up deli-special sandwiches and 'all-natural' soda-pop, which we consumed at the outdoor cafe. It was fun to watch all the Washington working folk heading home for the weekend. Still, people are as beautiful in DeeCee as they are in most metropolitan cities, including, of course, Boston.

We saved the big bucks for dinner Saturday night, having planned for a blow-out. But then we saw an ad for a place down by the river, where, for twenty dollars, you can eat all the seafood your belly can hold. What the heck, give it a try. So rather than taking a cab, we walked from the nearest subway station about half a mile, across the thruway and through a lovely park, to the waterfront.

And it was worth every cent. We ate and ate and ate. Oysters, clams, crab legs, seafood casseroles and souffles, fried clams, scallops, all sorts of fish. I think we probably made some four or five trips back through the food line. It was plain good -- not gourmet certainly, but good.

Let sleeping lions lie, in front of the Corcoran Gallery. That impressive architecture up 17th Street belongs to the old Executive Office building, adjacent to the White House.

The problem with the perfect evening was that we decided to walk back uptown -- so the walk through that lovely park became pretty spooky. Then, in our search for the subway, we got into an underground mall, and all the stores were closed, and we couldn't find a way out. In was comical and just a mite unsettling, but looking back, we must have been a couple of rubes in the big city. No DeeCee person would have walked through that park at night.

We visited Ford's Theater where Lincoln was assassinated, and the rooming house across the street where he died -- something we had never done before. We went to the Corcoran Gallery, not far from the White House, where there is an outstanding collection of American Impressionism -- as well as a special show of World War II photographs.

We had a marvelous lunch at a gorgeous old place called Ebbitts, near the State Department Building as I recall. Very fancy, super service and out-of-this-world Chesapeake crabcakes. At one point in our traipsing, we got so tired that we finally broke down and took a cab, from the National Gallery to the Corcoran.

And a word about our room. It was lovely and spacious with a sitting area and a small kitchen. The ice box had a modest supply of nips, wine, beer and Cokes, all on the honor system -- which we honored several times. The rooms were upscale, well appointed, and had an interesting view of a DeeCee back alley, and a peek into what in New York would be called old Brownstones. Looking up, however, we could see the northwest quadrant of the city, including the Naval Observatory, the vice-president's home, Georgetown, Georgetown University, and the hills to the west of the city.

Above all, our stay at the Clarion was restful, a refuge for tired tourists. And it was only a block and a half from the subway at DuPont Circle and Embassy Row.

It was a great get-away. All except for the van ride back to Dulles Airport. Traffic moved steadily all the way out there, until the last mile. At that point the driver began using the exit ramps, then scooting back down the opposing entrance ramp, some three or four times. We made our flight -- in fact, we were again an hour early, and boarded an earlier flight back to Boston.

I can account for some $500 in largish bills -- airfare, vanfare, hotel for two nights, three major meals, and we spent another hundred on souvenirs and stuff. It was worth it. Reserve that weekend!

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