There are at least three different ways to visit Mount Vernon, the plantation home of first President George Washington and his wife, Martha. You can drive, ride a bike along the Mount Vernon bicycle trail or take the Miss Christin from the Potomac Riverboat Company.
My favorite way to go is by boat on the Potomac River.
While cruising on the Potomac you get the feeling of what it might have been like to arrive at President Washington’s house in the late 1700s.
On a warm, sunny day, a friend and I took a day trip to Old Town Alexandria. This is where we found the Potomac River Boat Company in front of the Torpedo Factory.
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Tickets for the cruise from Old Town down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon can be purchased either in advance online or at the kiosk at the dock. The ticket price includes the boat ride and admission to Mount Vernon.
As we boarded the Miss Christin, our guide, Mark introduced us to nautical terms: bow, stern, starboard and port. As the cruise progressed he would refer to landmarks according to these directions.
Captain Eric blew the horn and we pushed off from the dock. Mark pointed out the different buildings on the Alexandria riverfront and said, “Alexandria is the third oldest city in the US, founded in 1659. It was known for tobacco and shipbuilding.”
On the starboard side we saw Ford’s landing, an area once used by Henry Ford. The Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation was located there and during WWI built 22 all-steel ships at this area.
Cruising under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Mark described Jones Point Park.
“This is where in 1855 the Greenwald family built a river lighthouse. We can see the small white lighthouse still standing just under the bridge.” Mark added that river lighthouses are designed to be below the tree line and used as a marker for the edge of the river.
The Greenwald family lived in the house and lighthouse for 50 years, and raised 13 children. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1926.
The first stop we made was at National Harbor on the opposite side of the river in Maryland.
Phase One of the National Harbor was built in 2008 with the Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center.
It is the largest non-gaming hotel on the East coast. One of the most obvious landmarks is the Capital Wheel, a large Ferris wheel completed in 2014. Phase Two, including the MGM Grand Hotel, will be completed in 2017.
Back on the river, Mark explained that the term Potomac is an Algonquin name for “great trading place” or “place where people trade.”
The Potomac is now one of the cleanest urban rivers in the world. Because of its unique placement emptying into the Chesapeake Bay it’s affected by two tidal cycles each day and can have a three- to five-foot swell from the tides.
We passed the Piscataway River where John Smith encountered Native Americans in 1608 and Mark talked about “cobblestone” roads next to the river that turned out to be oyster shell beds.
In 1895 there was a Piscataway summer resort there. It burned in the 1960s and the land became part of the National Park Service.
We cruised past the Dig’s Point, surveyed by George Washington as a young man. Fort Warburton, on the Maryland side of the river, was built as a three-sided wooden river fort in 1809 but was destroyed in 1812.
Fort Washington, completed in 1824, replaced Fort Warburton and was used as an artillery fort in WW I, after which it was converted to an administrative facility.
Fort Hunt, land originally part of the Mount Vernon estate, was built during the Spanish American War and used during WWII to hold and interrogate German officers captured in Europe.
We arrived at Mount Vernon, disembarked and were given a ticket with an assigned time to visit the mansion.
When disembarking from the riverboat you are at river level and to get to the mansion, you can either hike up the “wooded trail” or ride the small shuttle bus to the top.
I suggest checking the Mount Vernon website to plan your visit. www.mountvernon.org/ There are many buildings, gardens, animals and the visitor’s center to visit. (Make sure you wear good walking shoes; most of the trails are dirt, not paved.)
I recommend taking a specialty tour like the “National Treasure” tour. It’s fun and informative and you have the chance to see part of the mansion that the general public can’t see.
The Miss Christin leaves the dock at 4pm sharp for the return trip. Captain Mark says, “If you miss the boat you can take a taxi back to Alexandria or walk the 20 miles back to Old Town.” So make sure you are on time to take the cruise back to Old Town.
The ride back is just as enjoyable as the ride to Mount Vernon. We passed close by a few channel markers with osprey nests on top, and were surprised with a view of fledglings poking their little heads up.
Chadwick's is a cozy local restaurant within walking distance of the dock where we relaxed with a “sailor’s have sea legs” cocktail. We split two different entrees, Seared Sea Scallops and Jumbo Lump Atlantic Crab Cakes.
Both were delicious and a perfect completion to the adventure filled day at Mount Vernon, George Washington's historic plantation home.
– Virginia Jones
Photos by Rob Shenk for MountVernon.org, freetoursbyfoot.com, Chadwicks, and Virginia Jones.
Virginia Jones is a retired chiropractor and self-proclaimed gypsy. Every chance she gets she’s off exploring someplace new, even those places close to her Alexandria, Virginia home.
Currently she’s an independent corporate trainer, a vocation that allows her to travel all over the US, having adventures and exploring new places she never imagined visiting.