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Photo by Mike Donahue for Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association
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Photo courtesy George Washington’s Mount Vernon
It's no joke that the most recognizable Freemason symbol testifying to the greatness of the sect is the parade of tiny clown cars driven by fez-wearing Shriners at community Independence Day events.
But for a more fitting monument, try visiting the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in beautiful, scenic old-town Alexandria. As filled with shopping and dining opportunities as it
is with American history — George Washington considered this his hometown, the little-known but pivotal Alexandria Accords were signed here, and it was also here that the first Union officer died
during Civil War — Alexandria is also home to some great hotels and B&Bs. And it's all within easy walking distance of a Metro stop to Washington.
A beautiful testament to the Freemasons' rich history as co-founders of our nation and believers in the cause of liberty, the Washington Masonic National Memorial ( gwmemorial.org ) makes for a fast, fun and affordable history adventure off the beaten D.C. path. Admission is $5 for adults and free for kids 12 and younger. Within walking distance of many fine hotels at the west end of King Street, the structure was built atop Shooter's Hill in the 1920s to resemble the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria in Ancient Egypt. Getting to it makes for a brisk and enjoyable hike.
Once inside, prepare for a sense of having crossed the threshold into a temple. Towering over the grand anteroom of the first floor is a massive bronze statue of George Washington, predictably outfitted in his Freemason's ceremonial apron and sash. On either side of Washington, two wall-size illuminated murals depict important moments in the first president's Masonic life. The entire experience makes for a veritable smorgasbord for the Illuminati-believing conspiracy theorist in your tour group. But it also provides a fascinating parallel history lesson for the entire family. Who knew that the dedication of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building in September 1793 featured full Masonic rites overseen by Washington? Who'da guessed that Benjamin Franklin — remembered in one of three beautiful stained glass panels — was as important to American science as he was to American Freemasonry?
Originally, my family saw the town as a great place to park and sleep. But almost from our first visit, we realized how much the powerful draw of Washington's museums is rivaled by Alexandria's own offerings as a destination.
Augustine Washington, George's dad, was one of five fathers of the town, founded in 1749 because of its deep-water port. Basically, those early Colonials knew a good parking space when they saw one. And there's little doubt, even today, that Alexandria is a great place to park. Many of the hotels boast convenient, off-street garages. After you've parked, try the King Street Trolley, a free trolleybus service making frequent stops along the full length of Old Town Alexandria. Or if you prefer two wheels, try out Capital Bikeshare ($7 for a 24-hour pass, or $15 for three days) by visiting capitalbikeshare.com .
With all that pedaling, it's likely you'll work up an appetite. That's why there's the Old Town Food Tour ( dcmetrofoodtours.com ), at $58 per person, to get you acquainted with great places like Union Street Public House — try the toasted hominy appetizer (a step up from the convenience-store version better known as Corn Nuts). And then there's Society Fair ( societyfair.net ), a concept restaurant in local celebrity chef Cathal (pronounced Ca-hal) Armstrong's growing empire that's part bakery, part butcher shop, part bistro, part wine bar, part provisioner and part cooking classroom.
For a less formal feel, there's Hank's Oyster Bar ( hanksoysterbar.com ). War Shore Oyster Co., based in Vienna, got its start at Hank's. As bartender Tim Farley recalls, it was "three dudes who sat here for about seven hours drinking expensive bourbon and eating oysters." The group declared to Farley that "We're going to raise oysters." True to their word, the three men reappeared a few months later to sell the restaurant the fruits of their labors. My favorites were the Pungoteague oysters, which had a sweet, briny flavor that brought back memories of accidentally gulping a mouthful of Buckroe Beach water when I was a kid.
For sheer grandeur, visit the Carlyle House ( carlylehouse.org ), a Georgian Palladian manor built in 1753 by city co-founder John Carlyle. Check out costumed interpretations of 18th-century life while standing in what was the 1700s version of today's Pentagon for planners of the French and Indian War. At nearby Mount Vernon ( mountvernon.org ), George Washington's home, the recently refurbished grounds feature an impressive representation of slave life on the plantation and an array of artifacts, including Washington's incredibly painful-looking dentures.