Peter Greenberg abides by a handful of rules when it comes to soul-satisfying travel: no watches, no maps, no interstates, no destinations, no frills. A vacation, as defined by the 41-year-old owner of the Morrison House hotel, means setting out from the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., with no particular place to go, and taking just about any random way to get there, so long as it’s not a highway.
Greenberg’s disdain for convention is both refreshing and a bit surprising, given the context: We are sipping martinis in the library of the 45-room Federal-style manor house that has been his anchor since 1996. Greenberg sighs wistfully about a six-month joy ride he took with his wife throughout the Northwest. This hotelier’s idea of a good night’s rest on the road happened, more often than not, in the sleeping-bag-lined bed of a beat-up pickup— sans Frette linens, mahogany poster bed and Italian marble bathroom— far, far, far from the gracious, inside-the-Beltway mansion where my husband and I now are observing our wedding anniversary.
If the word “observing” sounds a tad cold— official, even— consider that our Big Day coincides, all too appropriately, with Veterans Day. Not Valentine’s Day. Not New Year’s Eve. Rather, we married on a day to honor those who have done battle. A day hunkered down in a dark month that is the polar opposite to the traditional wedding season. After professing “til death do we part” on a frigid Friday night, we roared away from church in my husband, Brian’s, yellow Corvette— a major concession on his part. Given his druthers, he’d have orchestrated our escape on his beloved orange Harley. My skinny sheath of Alonceon lace was not motorcycle-riding attire, however, not even with a black leather jacket slung over my bare shoulders.
That was then: before a cedar-sided house and two freckled kids caused us to become regular with mortgage payments and predictable about meals; before a gallon of 2 percent milk replaced the bottle of Cabernet on our dinner table.
And this is now: Having kissed the kids goodbye, slipped away early from work and already toasted our escape with a welcome-bottle of champagne (compliments of the Morrison House), my husband and I are feeling celebratory, of course. But still and all, after 15 years worth of meat and potatoes, we’re also feeling… well, conventional.
Even the concept of this “getaway weekend” has about it an air of acceptable predictability. About the only thing it has in common with the exhilarating adventure travel Greenberg extols is that we, too, had set out without map and directions, inadvertently, however. But of course (alas!) we carried a cell phone. I dialed the Morrison House 800-number as we sat in Friday rush-hour traffic on I-95 and a receptionist graciously directed we old-marrieds to Old Town.
To Greenberg’s credit, it was upon the moment of our arrival at the Morrison House that my sense of being stodgy and staid started to lift. A smiling attendant met us in the driveway and whisked our bags out of the car (mercifully saving us, until it was too late, from the realization that the soccer team’s ball bag was stuffed in the back). By the time my husband and I had thought to clasp hands and ascent the staircase to the columned portico of the brick building, the attendant already had secured the key to our suite and had the elevator doors waiting open. The utter lack of a tedious registration process caught us off guard in a lovely way and set the welcoming if unconventional tone that would characterize our stay.
“I hate check-in,” says Greenberg, a real estate investor who was a neophyte to the hospitality business when he purchased this property at a foreclosure sale in 1996. “I’m very impatient.”
Likewise, he has effectively jettisoned the stuffy formality that some might associate with members of the prestigious French-based Relais & Chateax association, which the Morrison House is. Greenberg has assembled a widely multi-cultural staff (French, German, South African and South Korean, to name a few) with ready smiles and keen eyes and ears for detail; none more than he, himself.
While we’re chatting and sipping in the library, Greenberg notices that I’m sitting a tad too upright in my Federal-style chair and, surmising that a pillow is the problem, promptly extracts the pretty culprit from the small of my back. I slouch appreciatively. Looking good is simply not good enough for the Morrison House. Here, it’s also about feeling fantastic. Greenberg suggests that I should take ample time to sample the menus of two local day spas, both within walking distance of Morrison House: Circe and The Sugar House.
I opt for a tasty appetizer: The signature offering at The Sugar House (111 N. Alfred St., 703-549-9940) is the Sugar Scrub. A spa aficionado, I’ve been scrubbed raw countless times before in all corners of the world— with everything from sea salt in Italy to a tar-like mixture of who-knows-what at a communal bathhouse in Marrakech— but never with the addictive mixture of sugar crystals and essential oils (I opt for lavender) used by The Sugar House. I learn that traditional remedies relied on topical applications of sugar, a natural antiseptic, to cuts and wounds to accelerate healing and inhibit scarring and infection. At The Sugar House, this sweetest of exfoliations is followed by an exhilarating Vichy shower treatment. I’m so smitten with my newly glossy skin— achieved sans stinging or irritation— that I purchase a jar of brown sugar body polish and sugar body oil in hopes of glowing on a more regular basis.
Marching my polished body just a few blocks away, I arrive at Circe (123 N. Washington St., 703-519-8528) for some finishing touches. I’m handed a test and a pen with a flower blooming out of the eraser end— evidently there are no wrong answers in an “elemental nature questionnaire.” But I’m dead wrong, it seems: I would have guessed that my sometimes flighty nature makes me an “air” person, but my test results say “fire.” Calming, soothing, hydrating treatments are the keys for me, says Kate Roley, a creamy-skinned body specialist with an Irish brogue that’s almost as strong as her muscular hands. To the soothing tones of Peruvian flutes, she treats me to a 50-minute facial that involves not only my face but also my shoulders, back, neck, arms and hands.
The fact that she leaves me with very bad hair does not faze stylist Wendi Betts in the least; she washes my limp locks sympathetically with a rosemary-mint concoction. My blow-dry complete, she delivers a casually tousled me to Min Han for the manicure and pedicure I’ve been meaning to get for, oh, about a decade. Min massages a delicious vanilla oil into my heels that sink deep on beaded Moroccan pillows while she paints my toes with a bright apricot polish. Nearby are bowls full of cherries. “Life is…,” as they say, here at Circe, at least. Lastly, Timothy applies fresh makeup to my rejuvenated face. The ground tourmaline in the eye shadow makes me radiant, he says, without causing me to sparkle.
After my sessions of anniversary day pampering, I heed my husband’s cunning suggestion not to return “too early.” He subtly insisted before I set out that I take my time and enjoy some rare moments to myself. (Unbeknownst to me, he has invited eight dear friends— some of whom were in our wedding— to join us this weekend, and he is back at the Morrison House greeting them and making final preparations for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to be served to our party in the library, followed by a seven-course dinner in the private dining room.)
In the meantime, it’s perfect fall weather for roaming Old Town’s cobblestone streets.
Alexandria was founded in 1749 as a Colonial seaport and was a site of bustling international trade as well as pivotal action during the Civil War. Historic Old Town, part commercial and part residential, begs to be strolled by history buffs, ghost hunters, antiques enthusiasts and, perhaps most of all, discriminating shoppers who seek everything from Italian ceramics and French linens to Irish sweaters. King Street is the focal point of much of the retail action, but I also find myself poking around the alleys and side streets such as Columbus, Cameron and Royal for fine art and antiques galleries.
I peruse one-of-a-kind clothing and jewelry at Imagine Artwear and check out the Lilly Pulitzer signature line at Tickled Pink. I linger longer than I intend at American in Paris (1225 King St.) not only because of the intriguing fashions but also because owner Joelle Solimano is as exuberantly welcoming (“Bonjour!”) as she is tres chic. She pulls out a half-dozen pieces that would take me quite stylishly from a reception at the White House to a picnic on the Potomac. I covet each and every one, especially a short tweed skirt that she pairs, unexpectedly and flawlessly, with a sexy glittery shirt.
The fact that I’ve worked up an appetite with all my spa-ing and shopping does not compel me to rush. I settle my polished body on a flight of steps that leads up from Union Street to the waterfront. The romance of Old Town and the bustle of historic King Street are an intoxicating mix. My eyes close as I delight to the music of Bajro Ajkic, a street musician who, with his cello, frequents this central location. His plaintive rendition of “Memories” prompts me to buy a couple of his CDs as last-minute anniversary gifts for my husband: fitting if conventional additions to the get-your-motor-runnin’ “Harley-Davidson Road Trip Music Collection” that he blasted on our way to Alexandria.
Bajro’s music will be something we can savor when we’re old, sedate and predictable— on the occasion of our 16th anniversary, for instance— when I hope that we’ll be doing battle on the Beltway, making our way back to the Morrison House.
Maryalice Yakutchik is a free-lance writer based in Baltimore County.
Morrison House, 116 S. Alfred Sta., Alexandria, VA., 703-838-8000; http://www.morrisonhouse.com. Rooms and suites range from $175 to $399. For tourism information: Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, 800-388-9119, http://www.FunSide.com.
The Grille is the Morrison House’s elegant but relaxed restaurant. French-American entrees run from $15 to $28. Bilbo Baggins Global Wine Café and Restaurant (208 Queen St., 703-683-0300) has eclectic cuisine and international wines. Ecco Café (220 N. Lee St., 703-684-0321) is a local favorite, known for its bouillabaisse. Vermilion (1120 King St., 703-684-9669) and its lengthy sandwich menu is a good bet for lunch. Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St., 703-706-0450) offers an upscale lounge, a French-inspired bistro and a 34-seat “tasting room” where chef Cathal Armstrong gets to show off his acclaimed talents.
Local boutiques include Imagine Artwear (1124 King St.,) and Tickled Pink (103 S. Saint Asaph St.). Shop for fabulous clothes, toys and books from around the world for all the kids on your list at Why Not? (200 King St.). For home and garden furnishings as well as unique gifts, visit Random Harvest (810 King St.), Rugs to Riches (116 King St.) and My Place in Tuscany (1127 King St.). For high-end arts and crafts, don’t miss a visit to The Torpedo Factory Art Center, on the waterfront of Old Town. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, it is home to more than 80 working artists’ studios. If someone on your list would thrill to sparkling baubles, visit The Arts Afire Glass Gallery (102 N. Fayette St.). Featuring more than 300 artists, it is America’s largest glass jewelry store and specializes in kaleidoscopes. For all your holiday trimming needs, there’s The Christmas Attic (125 S. Union St.), a must-see shop inside a 1785 warehouse; and House in the Country (107 S. Fairfax St.), located next to the Visitors Center in a historic 200-year-old home. For fresh flowers and delectable goodies, don’t miss the farmers’ market on Old Town’s historic market square, held Saturdays year-round, from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. It is the oldest continuously running farmers’ market in America.
If the weather’s fine, pedal throughout the city on a popular trail that hugs the bank of the Potomac River and leads south to Mount Vernon and north to Washington, D.C. For an altogether different perspective of Alexandria— from the water— try kayaking. For bike rentals, contact Wheel Nuts (703-548-5116), and for kayak rentals and tours, contact Atlantic Kayak Co. (703-838-9072). If you tire of schlepping by foot and want a sense of what it was like to shop Alexandria in its early years, call a carriage: Fantasy Carriage Co. (301-854-5243) now offers regularly scheduled carriage rides with Percherons, cousins of the famous Clydesdales, that stand over 6 feet and weigh more than 2,000 pounds.