Washington wins my vote

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have eyes only for the White House. For the rest of us, the US capital offers much more. John Woodcock reports.

It’s been described as the largest, the longest, the costliest and the cruellest exercise in democracy on the planet, which explains why Washington DC right now is even more electrifying than usual.

The battle for the White House will be won and lost in states far beyond, but what happens in this city is fundamental to the outcome of every campaign to become America’s President. This is such a politically-fevered place that even a menu gets infected.

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In the Afterwords Café at Kramerbooks off Dupont Circle, where the food is taken as seriously as Dostoevsky and Salman Rushdie, they were offering a “split ticket dish” – the Obama Family Chilli on the same plate as Mitt’s Birthday Favourite Meat Loaf Cake, “an improbable combination and maybe a good one”. Such unexpected coyness on avenues of great egos. The waitress said the chef’s idea was proving a vote-winner at $15, and the exchange rate made it excellent value.

Washington is full of bargains for the tourist. Where else presents so much riveting history without charging a cent? The desire to educate, inspire and entertain, minus an admission fee, is best expressed at the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian. It was established 166 years ago thanks to an Englishman – the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland – who never set foot on American soil but was apparently so impressed with the new nation’s democratic ideals he bequeathed his estate to the United States.

James Smithson was a scientist whose curiosity led him to studies as varied as coffee making, the chemistry of human tears and snake venom, and an exploration of Kirkdale Cave near Kirkbymoorside and research into the fossils discovered there.

There’s another link with North Yorkshire in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, surely one of the greatest free shows on earth. Its impact is thrilling, humbling and instant. At the entrance you can touch moon rock, a fragment of basalt nearly four billion years old, one of many exhibits connected with the Apollo missions, lunar landings and the astronauts who went into the unknown. They are given poignancy by Yuri Gagarin’s space suit, the recent death of Neil Armstrong and the fact that retirement homes already beckon for technological wonders – that very day the Space Shuttle Endeavour was bound for a museum in California.

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More affecting still is the room dedicated to the remarkable Wright family, and dominated by the wood and muslin contraption in which brothers Orville and Wilbur made man’s first powered and controlled flight on December 17, 1903. On the wall is a fulsome tribute to another aeronautical pioneer, Sir George Cayley, who had died at Brompton, near Scarborough, 46 years earlier almost to the day, and whose experiments helped to make the Wrights’ breakthrough possible when he defined “the basic form of the airplane”.

Whereas in New York or Chicago even giants can become lost among the skyscrapers, the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson will never be dwarfed in the government town of DC because no building is allowed to be higher than the US Capitol. Each day their memorials, and others around the National Mall, draw thousands of visitors. Portable loos are supplied by a company called Don’s Johns, a reminder that although Americans waste huge amounts of food – partly because many restaurants and diners serve alarming portions - they tend not to waste words. Another example in this ad: “Got teeth? We’ll help you find the perfect dentist”.

After a day’s sightseeing, which took in a cruise on the Potomac river to Alexandria, whose Royal, King, Queen, Prince and Princess Streets signify its loyalties in pre-Revolutionary days, there was a further example of unusual generosity, courtesy of our hotel. It’s part of the Kimpton chain and company policy is to provide limitless free wine and snacks in the lobby between 5 and 6pm every evening. Surprisingly, no-one is asked to confirm if they’re a guest so, regardless of whether you’re in room 410 or turn up uninvited, a buckshee happy hour can become an interesting study of human behaviour.

Not much more than an hour’s drive from this largesse is the wonderful Skyline Drive which follows the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the Shenandoah National Park. You have to take your time to cover the route’s 105 miles because the speed limit is 35mph, and anyway in this scenery who wants to rush?

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South of Washington is Richmond, state capital of Virginia, and an area that stirs intense feelings in Americans because this is where their country was born, and then came close to self-destruction less than a century later.

On the peninsula between the York and James rivers is the colonial Historic Triangle. In what became Jamestown, 104 men and boys disembarked from three vessels in May 1607 and established the first permanent English settlement. Survivors and those who followed them were forced inland by starvation, disease and attacks by Native Americans and built a town that was eventually called Williamsburg, after their monarch at home, William of Orange. Yorktown, by then a busy tobacco port, is where the British finally lost America, though you’d never think so from the simple inscription on the memorial close to the Victory Centre.

The Richmond area is unrivalled in its associations with the Civil War. In a restaurant on the outskirts of Richmond, our ‘server’ says too many folk are still fighting the Civil War in their hearts and minds.

Another lady we met was wrestling with an altogether different issue. She’s from Glasgow, was brought to the States by a sailor, but remains a fan of EastEnders. The problem is that the episodes she watches are seven years behind the storylines back home. “Tell me, is Dot really still alive?”

Getting there

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Fly direct to Washington Dulles (IAD) from Heathrow or Amsterdam (using KLM connecting flights from Leeds Bradford or Humberside).

www.washington.org and www.virginia.org offer good starting points for travel research.