Cultural guide to Washington DC
Beneath the surface, Washington, DC is a city thriving with a unique history and culture, diverse food scene and some of the most beautiful architecture in the USA. DC-native Shayla Martin
goes beyond politics to share the best of her home town.
When I was growing up, a lot of people didn’t set foot in Washington, DC after dark.
The city saw most of its inhabitants during the hours of seven in the morning and six in the evening.
By 1980, the city’s population had dwindled, with most wealthy residents opting to move out to the cookie-cutter suburbs of Virginia and Maryland in search of what they couldn’t find in the city: lawns, good schools and safety.
Despite being the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, the nationwide crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s took a strong hold in Washington, increasing violent crime and earning the city the moniker ‘murder capital’ of the United States.
By 1995, much in part to the federal government’s renewed interest in its city, DC recorded less than 400 homicides for the first time in years and the decrease in violence has, for the most part, continued.
As with most major cities that were touched by the war on drugs, when the drugs left, in came gentrification.
Housing projects were replaced by mixed-income developments, with a smattering of sparkling new condos to lure in the young, six-figure-making population of the mid-2000s.
It’s been said that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ and DC has been building and on the rise ever since, its dark glamour depicted by Hollywood producers in TV shows like Scandal and House of Cards.
But there’s something these shows don’t get quite right. Sure, DC can be the playground for dirty politics, but Hollywood has completely missed the distinct and vibrant feel that DC has cultivated over the last 15 years.
Travellers still hoping to check out the US capital, but who may have been put off by the antics and policies of its newly elected reality TV show star-turned president, can be thankful that DC is so much more than politics.
Walkable neighbourhoods, a buzzing creative scene, some of the best restaurants in the world, one of the ‘52 Places to Go in 2016’ according to The New York Times.
This is not the DC I grew up with, but I think I like it.
While getting into all the nooks and crannies of DC during a holiday would be impossible, you can dive beneath the surface if you hit certain neighbourhoods.
Perhaps the best way would be to divide the city between old and new: the tried and true places that have been doing it right for decades, and the new wave of DC-based designers, restaurateurs and culture-pushers.
Don't miss out on visiting these Washington neighbourhoods:
- Logan Circle/U-Street
Qantas and Virgin Australia flies to Washington, DC via Dallas and LA respectively from Sydney; and via LA from Melbourne.
The Hay-Adams: An elegant hotel on Lafayette Square that sports the tagline ‘where nothing is overlooked but the White House’. Enjoy incredible city views, plush linens and make sure to tuck into a corner booth at the subterranean bar, Off the Record.
Four Seasons Washington, DC: A chic and stylish property located within walking distance to all of the major attractions in Georgetown.
Better yet, if you can’t bear to leave the room, unwind in the deep soaking tub.
Four Seasons Washington, DC: Feel like a true local in this boutique hotel from the Kimpton Brand on a tree-lined street in the heart of Logan Circle. Styled more like a swanky apartment complex than a hotel, enjoy spacious suites, a rooftop pool and an innovative cocktail bar.
Four Seasons Washington, DC: Steps from the Capitol, this contemporary building blends seamlessly with the charming brick rowhouses and historic structures on Capitol Hill. It’s a great value option with breakfast included.
Travelling to Washington DC? Here are our 8 Things you have to do in Washington DC.
Review: The Dwell Hotel, Chattanooga
This deep-south city might not be on most travellers’ list of must-visits in the US, but swerving it would mean missing out on one swell dwelling.
Most people wouldn’t register Chattanooga as a must-see city when it comes to planning their visit to the States, not when the likes of New York and Los Angeles are there to suck up so much oxygen.
But this Tennessee city has much to offer those who deviate south, not least a peach of a boutique hotel.
The Dwell Hotel is the brainchild of Seija Ojanpera, who studied medicine and worked on humanitarian projects around the world before finally indulging her childhood dream of starting a hotel.
“I have loved hotels since I was a child,” she says.
“I am fascinated by the idea that you can create an experience for so many different types of people.
Hospitality is in my blood, and I have always treated guests who visit my home as if they were at a hotel; great bedding, luxurious toiletries, grand feasts.
It felt natural to purchase an actual hotel and open up that experience to everyone.”
The Dwell Hotel is the result.
Housed in a charmingly weathered building built in 1909, all exposed brick and limestone, inside the industrial heritage of the exterior is usurped by the exuberance of colour and whimsy.
“We say the hotel is a swanky take on mid-20th century modern,” Seija explains.
“It’s a super-eclectic mix of textures and patterns; the colours are very bold, but combined in a clean, simple way.”
The 16 rooms and suites each possess their own unique personality, filled with enough vintage finds and quirky touches to fill an Instagram feed for days.
“Almost 100 per cent of the furniture, art and light fittings are vintage from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” says Seija.
“My friend Laurel and I scouted high and low for months on end late into the night.
We searched eBay and Etsy into its deepest crevices; we went to junk shops all over a 300-mile [480-kilometre] radius.
It was a blast!” The rooms are each individually named to reflect their character, from The Dandelion Suite (quiet and peaceful) to The Kite Suite (bright and summery), two of Seija’s favourites depending on her mood at the time.
As befitting a boutique hotel of this ilk (it is a member of Design Hotels after all), there’s also a be-seen-here restaurant on site, Terra Máe, and a cocktail bar, Matilda Midnight, both of which have the same more-is-more charm of the rest of the property, with banquettes and snug seating areas; fake foliage as art on the walls; and lots of light streaming in through the huge windows at the front of the building.
In the end, the myriad fanciful elements at play in The Dwell Hotel come together to create a brilliantly cohesive and thoughtfully curated space.
“Each room, hallway, bathroom is a different experience,” says Seija.
“It’s a visual feast of something new.”
A guide to Washington DC. Neighbourhoods – Logan Circle/U Street
West of Shaw is the Logan Circle neighbourhood, where the main drag of 14th street is lined with DC’s hottest eateries and home décor stores.
If it’s the weekend, start the day like a local with brunch at Le Diplomate.
The French brasserie gives major Paris vibes with subway-tiled dining rooms, gorgeous crown moulding and arguably the best steak tartare this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Walk off brunch with a stroll up 14th street, stopping to admire the quirky vintage home furnishings at Miss Pixie’s Furnishings & Whatnot and the futuristic-looking light fixtures at Urban Essentials.
Continue north en route to the U Street Corridor, pausing to reflect at the African American Civil War Memorial honouring the free, and in some cases still enslaved, African American men who fought during the American Civil War.
If time allows, stop into the nearby African American Civil War Museum to see historic documents, photographs and exhibits dedicated to the names on the monument.
Once you hit U Street, welcome to ‘Black Broadway’.
The neighbourhood earned the nickname much in part to its native son, jazz legend Duke Ellington, and a host of famous African American artists including Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey who performed in the area’s theatres in the early 20th century.
However, since the 19th century, U Street has been the site of African American owned businesses, rowhouses and restaurants and is home to Howard University, a historically black university.
Stop by long-standing local restaurant (and one of Obama’s favourites) Ben’s Chili Bowl for a signature half smoke sausage, before checking out the line-up at the recently refurbished Howard Theatre, where a large sculpture of Ellington in front of an abstracted piano is erected in his honour.
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Aspen – 13 secrets the brochures won’t tell you
The clichés about Colorado’s shiniest ski town, Aspen, roll as fast and true as a mid-season snowball. Yet the town is not all just about Gucci, private jets and being seen with celebs (actually more difficult than you think). It has a quirky edge that money can’t buy too. Here are a few strange but true Aspen facts that break the mould, finds Steve Madgwick.
1. Aspen's mountains shrines
Among Aspen town’s four mountains resorts, hidden within it trees runs, are 74 makeshift shrines, created and looked after by locals (at last count Aspen Mountain 38; Snowmass 18; Aspen Highlands 12; Buttermilk 6). Musicians dominate, from John Denver to Liberace, with plenty of other pop culture icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, getting attention too. Strangely, there’s even a shrine to golf – who knew it was dead? For more information on this peculiar alpine tradition, see Sanctuaries in the Snow
2. Rent a pet
Brooding over Spot, left in that kennel back in Australia, while you ski your two weeks’ holiday away? Help is at hand. Aspen Animal Shelter offers a ‘rent a pet’ program to soothe your pining soul. Everyone wins: you get your fill and the shelter pooch gets a walk. Aspen even offers free leashes at trail heads, if you feel like a companion for a long walk.
3. Uphilling is the new downhilling
The super-fit humans who call Aspen home apparently don’t class down-hill skiing as good enough aerobic exercise these days, so they’ve taken to skiing uphill as well. If you catch first lifts in the morning, you’ll see solo and tribes of ‘uphillers’, purportedly the fastest growing alpine sport in Colorado. They have special skins which make their skis grippy enough to trek up the mountain. They do still ski down the mountain – probably just for a rest though.
4. Jennifer Aniston. Sorry, who?
You can buy your way into plenty of ‘exclusive’ clubs in Aspen, but your name, no matter how renowned or reviled, won’t necessarily get you inside. Case in point: Jennifer Aniston, who was reportedly refused entry to private members-only Caribou Club because she wasn’t a member. Apparently the doorman didn’t recognise her.
5. Trump fight over lunch
Yes, ‘The Donald’s’ sphere even extends to alpine Colorado. His two former leading ladies, Marla and Ivana, got into an intense squabble (that reportedly turned physical) in Bonnie’s Restaurant (Aspen Mountain) back in the ’90s.
6. Putting the boots into the Highland Bowl
One of the most difficult ski runs around any of the four resorts is the Highland Bowl (requiring a ski cat ride and a 45-minute walk above Aspen Highlands). It’s double-black diamond steep, which usually means that there’s a fair to strong avalanche risk. However, the ski patrol has instituted a ‘boot packing program’. They employ people to stomp down the snow (literally walking back and forth) at the beginning of the season. The resulting firm snowpack is said to lessen the avalanche risk.
7. Thousand-buck wine with a hip-hop soundtrack
The wine cellar at The Little Nell, one of Aspen’s most refined accommodation options, is the total and utter opposite of its five-star persona. Based in a carpark storeroom, the cellar is covered in graffiti scrawled by patrons, plays hip-hop (loudly), and features red-light-district style lighting. In keeping with the ‘Aspen way’, minimum spend is $1000 and there are single bottles inside that could literally bankrupt mere mortals in one fell swoop.
8. Rugby, anyone?
Strangely, for a country that doesn’t embrace the sport, there is a rugby pitch in the middle of town. The field does actually see action, from the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club and their nemeses.
9. Justice for sale?
Not unusually, Aspen’s Pitkin County Courthouse features a statue of Lady Justice holding up the Scales of Justice. What is unusual, however, is that she is not wearing a blindfold. In Aspen, money talks, so they say, the inference being that justice is not blind and, perhaps, therefore for sale.
10. Mammoth find
Rather recently, Aspen accidentally discovered its prehistoric past, by complete serendipity. A building crew in 2010 dug up a juvenile female mammoth’s bones at a reservoir just outside of Snowmass. Find it and they will come: after the initial discovery, more than 30,000 individual bones have been located originally belonging to everything from sloths to camels.
11. A legal ‘high-end’ boutique
Yes, it has been legal to buy marijuana in Colorado (and therefore Aspen) since 2014. The pick of the places to ‘score’ in Aspen is the ‘high-end’ Silverpeak Apothecary. There are a few legal ‘pot’ holes dictating where you can smoke your stash, however. You can’t do it in the shop or indeed public for example (even though you can clearly smell it in the street).
12. Kennedy’s accident
One of JFK’s nephews, Michael LeMoyne Kennedy, was killed in a skiing accident on Aspen Mountains’ Copper Bowl, back in 1997. He was reportedly throwing a football around when he hit a tree at speed. There is no shrine for him on the mountain.
13. Thrifty Aspen
Of course you can find just about any high-end label of note somewhere in Aspen town, but you may also find some of their merchandise at a bargain basement price too, in one of the town’s charity consignment (thrift) stores. You may even uncover that pre-loved Gucci clutch at the Thrift Shop of Aspen, which is across the road from the real Gucci store.
MORE... Everyone does winter... What about Aspen in summer?
If you do just 7 things in Yellowstone…
America’s most famous wilderness, Yellowstone National Park, is one of the world’s most remarkable protected places. Why? This list of Yellowstone attractions put the 'high' in highlight, writes Daniel Down.
The USA’s National Park Service embarks on a new century of protecting the country’s wilderness areas this year. Within its charge is Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park founded in 1872, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
This sprawling landscape of fire and ice, forests, mountains and lakes, with a thriving ecosystem of some of the world’s largest mammals, makes it a park you have to see at least once in your life.
And more than 4.25 million people did so last year, a record for Yellowstone. Don’t worry, at 8991 square kilometres it’s a big place.
They came to see its many wonders, from show-stopping geysers (approximately half of the world’s total are here) and colourful volcanic springs, to the soaring peaks of the Grand Tetons to the south with countless bison grazing the grasslands below.
It’s a picture of much of the continent as it once was, home to Native Americans for more than 11,000 years before it became the rugged frontier of the New World. Yellowstone’s grand age makes it the old man of national parks, a fitting start to our series exploring the most wondrous natural spaces on the planet.
The must-see sights...
1. Hayden Valley
Drive along this broad valley and keep your zoom lens close as you spot herds of bison and elk grazing on the lush grasslands. If you’re lucky you’ll see a roaming grizzly or a pack of wolves; it’s a good opportunity to see a thriving ecosystem of large mammals – something you’d normally need to embark on an African safari to witness.
2. Old Faithful
The reason most people head to Yellowstone is surely to witness this famous natural showpiece, a geyser that erupts with (almost) boiling water around 20 times a day. In the 19th century people would throw their linen and cotton clothes into its roiling pool to be cleaned by being blasted up to 56 metres into the air.
3. Petrified Forest
Yellowstone sits on a subterranean super volcano (which could go off at any time, destroying a large portion of the US!) that drives all its spectacular geothermal activity. Eruptions over the millennia have created its remarkable forest of fossilised (petrified) trees. Having been encased in volcanic material from eruptions thousands of years ago, the trees eventually became rock themselves and remain standing after the softer rock surrounding them wore away.
4. Grand Prismatic Spring
At 110 metres across, the largest hot spring in the US is also one of the most photogenic lakes in the world. Its beauty owes to the fact that its colours match the rainbow that you get when you split light through a prism (hence the name). Going from a brilliant red/orange through to yellow, green and deepening shades of blue, the colours are a result of various layers of microbes that exist in its boiling waters.
The three walks...
Take these Yellowstone trails to reach new peaks and perspectives.
5. Bunsen Peak Trail
Hike to the summit of Bunsen Peak – a 6.9-kilometre round trip – and you’ll be able to see all the way from the western Gallatin Range out across the plateau that comprises much of the park, to the Beartooth Mountains.
6. Observation Point Trail
Walk up into the forests surrounding the main geyser site to get a different perspective of Old Faithful firing its plume. Head up in the early morning to have these views to yourself on this 2.8- or 3.7-kilometre walk.
7. Lamar River Trail
Take this 11.2-kilometre trail to find yourself in rolling prairie country with ample opportunity to spot bison, elk and wolves; the Lamar Valley is referred to as the American Serengeti for good reason.
MORE... Tick off the 'Big 5' Yellowstone wildlife list
Lodging and camping inside Yellowstone National Park fills up fast. It’s recommended that for summer trips you book six months to a year in advance; for autumn/spring trips, three to six months. Visit National Parks Service - Yellowstone for more information.
Yellowstone’s ‘Big 5’ wildlife-spotting guide
Yellowstone is perhaps most renown for its grand landscapes, but its the animals here which makes it one of (if not the) premier North American national parks. Here is your Yellowstone 'Big 5' wildlife list to tick off.
1. The Grey Wolf
European settlers had eradicated wolves from Yellowstone by the 1930s, and for the rest of the century the strange side effects of removing the predator started to appear.
Tree species like willow declined; without wolves to keep elk numbers in check, too much flora was being consumed. This reduction in plant life then meant that beaver numbers declined, willow being a food source, as well as various insect and bird species.
Following a reintroduction of wolves in 1995 and an ongoing effort to establish packs, the sound of a beaver slapping its tail on the water to warn of an approaching wolf pack has made a welcome return to the park.
The largest herd in the States can be found in the park, an icon of North America, and its biggest land animal. They migrate to Yellowstone’s lower ground in winter and are fed upon by wolves and grizzlies. If disturbed they can be aggressive and weighing up to 900 kilograms, you don’t want to get in their way.
3. Grizzly bear
A threatened species, Yellowstone is one of the best places to see this fearsome predator, the males of which can weigh up to 317 kilograms and easily outrun Usain Bolt. So there’s no point in making a run for it if one approaches. If you’re going for a hike in the park you’ll need bear spray for protection, but you may also be lucky enough to see one from the road at places like Hayden Valley.
There are about 800 of these unusual-looking animals ranging between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The largest member of the deer family lives in the marshy land near lakes and rivers, with specially adapted legs and feet to help bear its weight on unstable ground.
5. Bald Eagle
The USA’s national animal flies here. The birds can stand 114 centimetres tall with a wingspan of up to 2.3 metres and hunt small animals and scavenge on elk and bison carcasses. Successful nationwide conservation saw the bird taken off the federal endangered list in 2007.
MORE... If you could do just 7 things in Yellowstone
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