Birthday Vacation, D.C. Edition: Day 1.


Obligatory birthday selfie. Note: neither of us are wearing makeup because we’re headed to the spa. Hopefully you consider posting this pic “brave” and not “stupid.”

Believe me when I say that no one in the world needed this birthday vacation more than I did this year. I mean, if you follow this blog you have a decent idea of the kind of crap the universe has been hurling at me. But that isn’t even the entire picture.

So, yeah. I needed this. Badly.

Day 1 started off with me paying the mid-month bills, because I am – above all else – a responsible adult. Once I got the grownup stuff out of the way, I loaded up the car and headed to Wendy’s.

Our first stop was…Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s sort of a tradition, especially when we’re heading south. But then it was back on the road and onto our nation’s capital.

We rolled into town around 12:30. Hotwire had landed us a room at the Hotel Palomar, on P Street in Dupont Circle. From the website the place looked posh but it was NOTHING compared to the actual hotel. A valet greeted us and took our car (for a steep fee, of course, but we have 24/7 in-out privileges and the room itself was very affordable). The lobby was gorgeous – super plush and with a real fire burning on one side.

I have to give this place major props. One, they let us check in early. Two, when we got there, they decided to change our room from the prepaid king size (with Hotwire, you don’t get to choose) to one with two queen beds. We got vouchers for free drinks and learned that they serve wine and snacks in the lobby every night from 5 to 6. Everyone was so nice and accommodating. It’s honestly one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had.

And then we saw our room.

Hotel Palomar Room

Can you believe that shiz?

We did some quick unpacking because we are nerds like that, then headed over to Teaism for lunch. It was about a five-minute walk from the hotel. We selected it because of its proximity to both the hotel and the spa we were off to afterward, but oh – it was lovely. Obviously the name tells you that tea is their bailiwick, but the food was tasty and perfect for a spa day. We each got bento boxes (or, as my mom used to call them, “benito boxes”). Wendy had the salmon while I opted for the vegetarian, mostly because it had spaghetti squash and pepitas in it. Both were crazy tasty and now Wendy wants to eat every meal at Teaism (no joke).

Bento Box Lunch

Then it was off to Spa Logic, for our half day of pampering. When we got the magical Groupon deal, we had no idea how close this place would be to our hotel. Literally a couple of blocks. It’s as if all of the stars aligned for us.

Wendy started off with the massage portion while I went off with Lana, the facialist. She was a small, soft-spoken woman who nonetheless had ZERO problems lecturing me on how I was taking care of my skin. I needed Vitamin K cream to hide the capillaries in my cheeks. Vitamin C serum to stop the signs of aging (this she felt was DIRE). I needed to stop relying on the “sun cream” in my moisturizer and use a separate sun cream. My pores were filthy. Had I ever considered full-face waxing?

Even so, I loved Lana, because I love getting facials. I haven’t had one since our last birthday trip, because I’m also cheap, but still.

An hour later, Wendy and I traded spots and I landed on Monica’s massage table. The Groupon was for a “reflexology” massage. I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured it would be massage-like and that’s all I needed to know.

Let me tell you: Reflexology massage is hardcore. At least, Monica’s version was. She did a lot of painful poking, squeezing, pulling, rubbing. At points I was singing Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in my head. No joke.

I think it’s safe to add reflexology massage to the master list of Things That Lara Does Not Enjoy All That Much.

Later I told Wendy that half the time I felt like I was a lifeless body she encountered and she was shaking me to see if I was dead or not. Parts were okay, though. During the second half, Monica spent a lot of time on my feet and calves, and that was nicer. In between, there was a weird butt rubbing thing that caught me off guard, but I tried to just go with it.

Then we were whisked off to the basement for manis, pedis, and complimentary glasses of wine. I chose a lovely ruby color for my toes and a burnished gold for my barely there fingernails. Wendy went cherry on the toes and shell pink on the hands.

Mani Pedi Time

The mani-pedis were fine but nothing special. When we were done, I let Mike (the one who’d been working on my nails) rip the excess cavewoman hair from my eyebrows. He left behind two red welts on my right one. I never have luck with waxing. Or threading. Hence the reason I had cavewoman eyebrows in the first place.

Back to the hotel, where they were having Happy Hour. Another complimentary glass of wine (theme for the weekend: people getting us tipsy for free), some crackers and gourmet olives and we were happy ladies.

After a quick freshening up (which involved reapplying makeup over our newly facialed skin), we walked half a block to Panas Gourmet Empanadas for dinner. It’s a fast casual type place. We got a tray of empanadas for two, selecting eight different flavors so we could sample as much as possible. It came with razor-thin plantain chips and four dipping sauces. The crust on the empanadas was crisp and the fillings were inventive. My favorite was the BrieArt (brie with mushrooms and artichoke hearts) Wendy liked the CubaNovo (roasted pork, onions, cilantro, and lime). Best of all, the meal was CHEAP – only $16 for everything.

Yards of Empanadas

Using our superior navigation skills, we found the Dupont Circle Metro station and took the red line to Union Station, where we picked up our Monuments by Moonlight tour. (Tip: you save 10% when you book online, which makes it more affordable than the Goldstar deal.) We loaded the Old Time Trolley, helmed by the affable “Hoya Hank,” our tour guide for the evening.

When the weather is warm, the top of the trolley is mostly open. In the winter, the windows are encased in vinyl. This helps keep things warm(ish) but it also obscures the sights and makes for poor photography. Even so, there were three stops on the tour where we were allowed to get off and explore. The first was right on the water and it was OH-EM-GEE cold. Like, chilled-to-the-bones cold. Still, I’d never seen the MLK or FDR monuments, so that was cool (in the figurative sense, I mean).

The next stop was to a place I’d also never seen in person: the famed U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial commemorating the Battle of Iwo Jima. We only had five minutes at that stop, so there wasn’t much lingering. We also drove by Arlington Cemetery. You couldn’t see much, because it was dark, but you could make out the rows and rows of white headstones. It was eerie.

Iwo Jima Memorial

The final stop on the tour was the Lincoln Memorial. This was a place I had been to before, years ago. In fact, when I did the math in my head, I’m pretty sure my dad took me there when he was the age I am now.

We walked down to check out the Vietnam Memorial, which was also difficult to see in the dark, and then got back on the bus. Some of our more adventurous comrades managed to see the WWII memorial and Korean War memorial as well.

Hank was full of interesting trivia and historical anecdotes. Wendy said, “He makes me want to see a bunch of things I never wanted to see before.”

The tour wrapped at 10, and we made an impulse decision to head out to U Street for second dinner (“It’s a late-night snack!” Wendy said). We’d been trying to figure out how to fit the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl into our itinerary and weren’t able to. So this was a perfect detour.

There’s a sign behind the counter declaring that the only people who eat free there are Bill Cosby and the Obamas. I wondered if the Cos was still welcome. I’m guessing yes, because his mug is EVERYWHERE.

Ben's Chili Bowl Hearts Bill Cosby

We ordered what you’re supposed to order: two half smokes with chili and the works. We also opted for a side of cheese fries and a vanilla milkshake to split.

Half Smokes

I’d been to Ben’s Chili Bowl once, at least a decade before. Some friends and I bought tickets to see Cat Power at the 9:30 Club and ate there before. That night it had been crazy crowded, but at 11 on a Thursday? Not so much.

It had taken us about 45 minutes to get to Ben’s, because the DC Metro runs slowly at night and the trip required two trains. After our half smokes I felt like I was going to fall asleep right at the table. So I suggested that we treat ourselves to a cab ride back to the hotel, which was literally a mile and a half away (but would’ve likely taken us another 45 minutes to get to by train).

Our driver was like the Best Cab Driver Ever. His vehicle was clean, he drove like we would drive, and he kept up a lovely stream of conversation. We learned he was from Nigeria and visited his parents there once a year. He’d been to Delaware, he told us, and he liked it. Almost moved there, even, but cab drivers can’t make a decent living like they can in D.C.

It was the perfect ending to a great first day!