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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Travel and Beaches

Duck out of D.C. for a day (or more) to check out this historic Virginia seaport

So you’ve done D.C. — every monument, memorial and museum. You toured the White House, cruised the Capitol and took a selfie outside the Supreme Court building.

What’s next?

How about a quick trip south to a hip getaway where the heritage is leavened with plenty of fun?

Just 8 miles from D.C., Alexandria, Virginia’s independently owned shops, cosmopolitan-casual restaurants and friendly taverns occupy beautifully preserved 18th-century architecture along red-brick sidewalks.

Founded in 1749, the seaport is easy to reach, with Reagan National Airport a 10-minute Metrorail ride away, and its spectacular Old Town neighborhood is simple to navigate by foot, rental or bikeshare bike, or the free King Street Trolley.

The city’s fresh attractions pair beautifully with timeless favorites, making for a culturally rich and lively escape for all tastes and ages. Here’s a sampling:

♦  Breweries that rock. Port City Brewing could rest on its medals, especially after earning top “Small Brewing Company” and “Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year” honors at 2015’s Great American Beer Festival. But it keeps releasing winners; recently patented its oxygen-blocking Hopzooka tank; and offers free events such as bluegrass jams, Joggers and Lagers social runs, and 10-mile Pedals and Pints guided bike rides.

This summer, the great-great-granddaughters of Robert Portner, who ran the South’s largest pre-Prohibition brewery, will open Portner Brewhouse.

♦ Mount Vernon by Bike and Boat. This new tour idea pairs history with recreation. Starting from Bike and Roll in Old Town, I pedaled 9 miles along the Potomac River on the winding Mount Vernon Trail. Then I wandered around George Washington’s estate before taking a narrated boat cruise back to Old Town.

♦ Mercy Street Tours. Free self-guided walking tours and value-priced guided tours highlight events that inspired “Mercy Street,” the new PBS Civil War drama about Union-occupied Alexandria. Carlyle House, an 18th-century estate preserved top to bottom (including clocks and wigs!), has added displays about the harsh realities of Civil War medicine.

♦ Locals’ secrets for great drinks and eats. A sliding door at the Sugar Shack doughnut shop gives you entry into softly illuminated Captain Gregory’s, where the bartenders do magic with the likes of smoked pineapple, peppery bitters, coffee liqueur and candied yams. Devilish snacks include an oozy-boozy java cream-crowned donut. The music’s all vinyl, from Devo to LCD Soundsystem.

On King Street, a lounge named PX recalls an era of secret doors and sensual drinks. I loved a fiery pepper-powered cocktail; my friend swooned over one swirling with tobacco tea.

Hungry? Savor Ethiopian dishes at Caboose Cafe; big bowls of fabulous pho at Caphe Banh Mi; Greek delicacies at legendary Taverna Cretekou; and housemade noodles, Tuscan bean-cranberry soup and sweet pea-infused apertifs at newly opened Hank’s Pasta Bar. For a romantic dinner, townies suggest Restaurant Eve. For fun, hang out at the Lost Dog Café, a new casual hub that advocates for dogs in need of good homes.

For quick energy, The Sugar Cube satisfies any sweet tooth with jars of rare and gourmet candies, some made locally (but not the Key lime truffles; they’re from Fort Myers). Find healthier but equally tasty alternatives at new Whim Pop — on King Street and at the Saturday morning Farmers Market at Market Square. These handcrafted popsicles are flavored with real fruit, veggies, herbs and spices — including chili.

♦ Classic lodging, modern amenities. Several Old Town hotels are being updated. Renovated last year, Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton boutique property, combines four-star luxury, history-inspired decor and amenities such as loaner cruiser bikes, nightly wine tastings and doggy happy hours. Its a great value, especially given the location.

♦ Only in Old Town. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum preserves a business that had George and Martha Washington as clients. Shelves hold jars with ingredients from the years it operated: 1792 to 1933. During the July 30 and 31 annual celebration of Harry Potter’s birthday, you can learn about “Dragon’s Blood” and other remedies mentioned in those best-sellers.

The Torpedo Factory Art Center is based in a former munitions plant on the waterfront. It houses the studios of artists such as Alison Sigethy, who creates kinetic glass sculptures, and metal artist Chris Erney.

♦ Chic boutiques. There are plenty of newcomers like Curated (gifts and home goods), Red Barn Mercantile (decor and furniture), La Cuisine (classy cookware and obscure ingredients), and the Shoe Hive (trendy footwear and handbags).

Alexandria’s new vitality makes its heritage shine even brighter. For more information, visit www.visitalexandriava.com

Robin Soslow is a Florida-based writer who covers art, culture, healthy food and outdoor adventure. She can be reached at [email protected]

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