travel - washington, alexandria & annapolis

fly into washington, rent yourself a car and explore. waiting for you is not only one of the world's great cities but close by, historic alexandria & the maritime centre of annapolis. jonathan crouch reports

Washington DC. What do you think of? The White House? Capitol Hill? Various monuments and memorials? Yes, it's all these things, but it's also much more if you're prepared to get over there, get yourself a car and get around the place.

Before recently visiting, I hadn't appreciated just how close the US capital is to the other 'happening' cities on the American East Coast: Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York are all just a short drive North. Before planning yourself an itinerary that takes all of these places in however, checkout what's closer to the capital itself.

Take the suburb of Alexandria for instance, which lies far enough away from the centre of DC (lying the other side of the Potomac river) to have its own identity. If you've never heard of Alexandria, then you're in good company with most Americans we met. "It's one of those places I drive through but never stop at," one of them told me vaguely, unwittingly in UK terms likening the hometown of 1st US President George Washington to the status of Slough or Bedford.

Like many modern visitors, Washington preferred Alexandria's more peaceful streets to the bustling city centre just across the water and kept a town house in what is now classy Alexandria Old Town. Most Americans are more familiar however, with his mansion at Mount Vernon, eight miles or so South. Though this residence attracts literally hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, the Alexandria area itself isn't on the general foreign (or domestic) visitor's route: it should be. In a land over-filled with fast food joints and outlet malls, the Old Town's traditional High Street is a refreshing change. So are the varied shops and the friendly attitude to strangers from local hotels, even the chain ones like the Holiday Inn Select we tried.

More to the point, this unprepossessing and comfortable place can combine its charms with a position that makes it a great base from which to explore Washington DC itself - though not by car. Aside from the 15 minute drive south to Mount Vernon, it's best to leave your vehicle in the Hotel garage. Like DC, Alexandria seems to supplant its income with parking tickets and inspectors are everywhere.

That's not such a problem in the newer part of town of course: if you want 'real America' (Wall Mart, fast foot, mall shopping), then you can have that too without crossing the Potomac. Most however, will simply prefer to wander the neatly laid out grid-style criss-cross streets of Old Town poking into little stores, a Starbucks coffee in one hand and a guidebook in the other. Oh and the best restaurants are in this area - of course - priced far lower than what you'd pay in Washington.

On a journey like this, it's easy to approach a trip to Washington DC as something you feel you ought to do rather than a pleasurable excursion. And sure enough, your first day there may well end up feeling like one of those school field trips as you tick off the White House and the various monuments and memorials from your must-see list. Get beyond that however and the appeal of the city can begin to quickly unfold, particularly if you've your own wheels with which to explore after dark when parking is plentiful and traffic light. If you can afford it, the best accommodation choice here is a good downtown chain hotel. We tried Hilton's Homewood Suites off Thomas Circle.

Make sure you visit the Georgetown district with its traditional High Street that's home to countless shops and designer stores. Then get yourself a booth at Clyde's restaurant on M Street, order steak and eggs and blueberry pie and sip your iced tea as you watch the world go by. Back in the centre of DC, things are a little more formal of course, with small restaurants like Signatures on Pennsylvania Avenue and thought-provoking museums like that on 14th Street commemorating the Holocaust. Surprisingly perhaps, Washington doesn't have much of a theatre district but what there is is well done. We tried the Shakespeare Theatre on 7th Street.

Time to move on once more, this time just 45 minutes to the East. "A museum without walls" is how the folks in Annapolis like to describe their city. Not that the capital of Maryland feels like a city. There are the usual industrial and chain food strips surrounding the place of course but once you get into the heart of the 'historic district', it's all very town-like and quaint. Down by the harbour, the wealthy jostle to show off their boats and the tourists (nearly all American) troop round the gift shops and rib shacks.

The US Naval Academy is here, imbuing the lace with an extra dose of history. Surprisingly, for a country currently obsessed with security and anti-terrorism measures, you can actually walk around much of the Academy after showing your ID to the uniformed guard at the gate. Under the huge church that serves the religious needs of all 16,000 students on the base lies a grand crypt housing a tomb that must be the most resplendent of any in America. In it are the remains, not of a President but of a once-forgotten navy hero, John-Paul Jones.

Jones was America's Horatio Nelson but unlike Nelson, his life was posthumously ignored for 175 years until the beginning of the 20th Century when the Navy got around to wondering what had become of him. They eventually found his remains (perfectly preserved in rum) buried under a nondescript apartment building in Paris and brought them back to Annapolis for a grand, if somewhat belated, hero's funeral. Ever since, a guard has been at his coffin 24 hours a day. It's all a good example of how the Americans like to do things properly - or overdo things, depending on your point of view. If you like bigger and (possibly) better, then, as everyone knows, you'll like it here.

As everywhere, there's a wide choice of accommodation in Annapolis and, as everywhere, you'll do better by choosing somewhere further out of the centre of town where rooms are easy to come by and rates are more flexible. We tried the Country Inns and Suites, which offers pretty much what it says on the tin. In other words, a 'suite' you can stretch out in for, in our case, just $65 a night all-in.

If you want something a little plusher, the Loews Annapolis Hotel nearer the historic district is worth a try: if you can't afford their room rate, just visit their Corinthian restaurant for breakfast as we did. Down at the harbour front, you'll need to make sure that you eat crabs (smashing them with a provided mallet) fresh from the Chesapeake Bay at Buddys Crabs and Ribs and take in a light lunch and a long drink at Pussers Landing at the waterfront Marriot Hotel. Once you've eaten fit to burst, you'll need one of the Visitors Centre's walking tours to shake it all down. Or maybe a harbour cruise, assuming it's not too choppy.

Once you've done all this, you may find that the US East Coast's other famous cities must wait for another trip. Taking time to explore is everything around Washington. Which is just the way it should be.


Alexandria - / Accommodation Suggestion - Holiday Inn Select [703.549.6080]

Washington - / Accommodation Suggestion - Homewood Suites by Hilton [202.265.8000].

Annapolis - / Accommodation Suggestion - Country Inns & Suites [ 410.571.6700]