From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, National Harbor

National Harbor in June 2015

Clayton Embly
Clayton Embly

I was totally drawing a blank when I sat down the first 10 times to write this column and maybe there was a reason for that. It isn’t that there aren’t a ton of things to write about here in the Harbor but I had no inspiration whatsoever until Memorial Day. We entertained a good friend of ours, Clayton Embly, with a day in National Harbor.

In order to fully appreciate this story you need to know a bit about Clay. He lived in the Alexandria area for several years until leaving so his wife could pursue her lifelong dream of being an equine vet – about 10 years ago. He now is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky and she is tending to some possible future Derby winners – I may have some inside scoop on a future Triple Crown winner someday! Clayton is a water guy – he runs a car ferry in Lexington, is a Merchant Marine, is the former owner of Potomac Pintail cruise boat, is a tug boat captain and the list goes on. In fact, he is here in the area working on his sailboat in Deale, Maryland. That being said, he has been coming and going between Lexington and Old Town Alexandria to visit and do business ever since he left but it never donned on him to make National Harbor a stop.

To be honest, I didn’t realize that he had never been to the Harbor until we had finished our lunch and set out to take a whirl on the Capitol Wheel. Guess I assumed that since he has been in and out of the area so much, he had checked it out. His last experience in the Harbor area was when it was still called “Smoot’s Bay” and it consisted mostly of hydrilla, weeds, dirt and scraggly trees. He was truly “blown out of the water” with what it has become.

Since I sort of pride myself on being an “unofficial” tour guide and food and beverage expert in the Harbor, when we left newly opened Granite City Food & Brewery we headed down American Way toward the water. As we walked I filled him in on Milt Peterson’s concept from the beginning and some of the other history behind why it is layed out like it is. Our first stop was at the overlook on Waterfront Street. The engraved granite benches and the tie in to the mosaic impressed him but he really was shocked to see that the “Awakening” had moved from Hains Point to the Harbor. It was always a part of the tour he used to give on the Pintail. He is very happy to see it in a place where so many more people have access to it. He commented on how nice and “shiny” he is now.

He commented several times on the number and quality of the stores as we walked by and the quality of the artwork that adorns the steps going down to the plaza really amazed him. The fact that the artwork is done by local artists made a big impression. I just realized I failed to tell him about the American eagle sculptures at the end of American Way and the Beckoning at the entrance to the harbor. Guess we will do that next time he is here.

He was amazed at the diversification of the people visiting that day. I told him that it was one of my favorite things about the place. I have had so many fun conversations with people from all over the world in my travels back and forth on the water taxi and just sitting around on the plaza – as well as in the bars and restaurants that I haunt!

Speaking of that, we decided we needed a snack, an adult beverage and somewhere to watch the Nationals baseball game so headed to McLoone’s Pier House. Clayton prides himself on being a “pretty witty” guy so he entertained the patrons at the bar along with our fun bartender. All the time talking about how amazing everything he had seen was. It was time to get in line for the spin on the wheel.

The ride on the Wheel was a first for Bob, my partner here at the OTC, as well, and he has a little bit of the acrophobia going on so it was a fun ride. I will be really honest here – I have always thought that the price of the ride was way too steep and I expressed that opinion to the boys. Both of them told me it was worth every bit of $15 and that I needed to rethink my stand. I will take their comments under consideration. It was a beautiful day and we could see all the way up and down the river and it was nice to see it through the eyes of someone else. The photo accompanying this is one Bob took that overlooks the site of the MGM Grand. It was fun watching our guest contemplate that in completion and what this side of the river will look like this time next year! He also got a great aerial view of the Gaylord Hotel & Resort. It is a good way to get a handle on the enormity of the resort.

That was our next stop. We walked up Plaza onto Waterfront Street and took the waterfront entrance into the hotel. He made the comment that between the Gaylord and the rest of the harbor it could be likened to a “Mini Dubai”. We stopped at the Belvedere Lobby Bar and took in the gorgeous atrium and the lobby and visited with our friends behind the bar. We pointed out National Past Tme, the Pienza and Old Hickory but we were on a mission. It was unfortunate that we weren’t there when the fountains were doing their dancing. That will also be something for us to do on his next trip.

We couldn’t neglect our friends on Fleet Street so we left the hotel via the front entrance and continued on to Fleet. We wanted to introduce Clay to our friends at Public House so it was good to see that Amanda and Alicia (former Behind the Bar profiles) were hard at work. Was good to catch up with them. We stopped in Harrington’s but were running a bit short of time so continued to our last stop, Bond 45. Once again, as he had been “oohing and aahing” about everywhere we had been, he was taken aback at the décor and scope of this restaurant. We didn’t forget all of the other fabulous eateries and bars here in the harbor but there is only so much you can do in an afternoon. Gotta leave some places to go the next time!

Although he has traveled all over the world and been to many beautiful places, Clayton says that he never imagined that the landscape across the river from his “adopted hometown” could have ever turned into the impressive river front property it is now. He told me that if he still lived in the area, National Harbor would be one of the top places he would take visitors. That is pretty impressive since we do have the Smithsonian, Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown, and Mount Vernon that rank right up there! He also is happy to know that Old Town and National Harbor have a fantastic working relationship! He has known our friend, Charlotte Hall, from Potomac Riverboat Company for several years and commented on what a great job the water taxi is doing. The taxi takes Harbor visitors to see some of the most historic sites in the country in Old Town and shuttles visitors in Old Town to see one of the east coasts prime resort properties. It is a win-win for sure.

Those of you who have been reading this section on a regular basis know we have been encouraging everyone in our distribution area to make the trek to the harbor. Having a former local -who is in the area on a regular basis- visit and be so impressed with what the Harbor is becoming will hopefully encourage others to do so.

According to Clay, “On a scale of 1 to 10, National Harbor is a 20!

Written by: Lani Gering
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