Scandal at the Watergate

I admit it: I’m partial to a scandal. Especially here in Washington DC, hot bed of political lobbyists and powerbrokers. And I’m in the right place to become embroiled – the Watergate Hotel, an infamous locale that reopened in June 2016 after a decade of closure and a US$200m overhaul by owners Jacques and Rakel Cohen.

The refurbished hotel has 336 guest rooms and is one of six buildings – including offices and apartments – that comprise the Watergate Complex. In the 1970s, the dodgy dealings that occurred here prompted the only presidential resignation in US history. (And yes, this is where the suffix “–gate” comes from to imply any scandal.)

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On 17 June, 1972, a team of burglars was arrested inside the Democratic National Committee (DNC) office, part of the complex. The thieves were attempting to bug the premises. Two of the men were stationed in the Watergate Hotel’s room 214 – directly opposite the DNC – to remain in contact with the team via walkie talkies. An ensuing investigation uncovered a murky web of corruption that implicated US Republican President Richard Nixon and the Whitehouse.

But controversy has existed ever since the Watergate Complex opened in 1965 on the Potomac River as one of the country’s first blended residential and commercial spaces. Designed by architect, Luigi Moretti, this avant-garde building had a quirky sail-shape and white stucco exterior.

Watergate

Socialites, however, adored its unconventional design and the hotel attracted dignitaries and movers and shakers: the likes of Louis Armstrong, Elizabeth Taylor and Lucille Ball propped up the bar, and other celebrities chatted over the indoor swimming pool in the health club (the original club is still there, as is the lovely pool, the Argentta Spa and a hi-tech gym).

Forty-five years after the Nixon fiasco, I’m wandering through the hotel, scrutinising a diverse – and so far fairly scandal-free – clientele. Millennials sip on cocktails over lovely views from Top of the Gate, the hotel’s lively roof top bar; cast members head out the doors on their way to the neighbouring Kennedy Center (during my stay, residents included actors from Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights); and tourists from all over the world lounge in the foyer’s bright red rounded chairs.

Reception The Watergate

Indeed, the foyer is a creative focal point in every sense; mid-century curves feature strongly. The retro-chic gold-hued reception has columns that are encased in metal tubes. The circular walls of the Next Whisky Bar consist of layers of whisky bottles that emit soft amber hues (on my first evening, I relax here over a flight of Japanese whiskies).

The same amber-gold shade is echoed in the male receptionists’ suits, as well as in the checkerboard fabric of the female’s funky A-line dresses. It’s even a feature of the bellmen’s pants. The entire scene screams chic, suave and very ‘Don Draper’. So it’s no surprise to learn that Mad Men’s costume designer, Janie Bryant, was responsible for the uniforms. And the TV references don’t stop there.

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Scandal’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo, designed Room 214 (now numbered 204), the so-called ‘scandal room’ that overlooked the DNC Headquarters. I’m eager to see it but I must wait a couple of days until it’s available.

Managing Director, Jeff David, explains the hold up. “It was intended to be a showroom but clients started demanding it, and are happy to pay the rate,” (up to $1200 a night, or double the daily fluctuating rate).

Finally, I get my chance to enter. The room’s decor doesn’t disappoint: it’s a playful homage to the time. Press clippings line the wall; a lovely bright red sofa reflects the era; and the desk is replete with fun props: a retro telephone and portable typewriter.

Watergate

Afterwards, I retire to my own room – plain, but stylish nonetheless. Despite the grey carpet (which is looking a tad tired), it features contemporary woods with grey accents. Mine has a small balcony (although not all do because of the building’s original configuration). And there’s even a Nespresso machine for an early morning jolt.

Even better are the clever nods to the scandal: A pencil with the words “I stole this from The Watergate” (confession: I pocketed it), room card keys imprinted with “no need to break in”, and the ultra-comfy bathrobe embossed with the words “Cover Up”.

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The next morning, I set out to explore. While the Watergate isn’t in the heart of downtown DC, it’s a mere five minute stroll – or easy bike ride on one of the hotel’s bikes – to Georgetown, a  pretty neighbourhood and boutique shopping strip. And it’s handy to the Mall and many of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 free museums.

First stop is the National Portrait Gallery where I eyeball the recently-unveiled portraits of the Obamas, which are superb. Next, I hit the US Capitol where, during the 45-minute tour I get my head around what makes the US constitution tick. (Serious espionage hounds might like to check out a new Spy Museum, due to open this year 2018).

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Next, I wander through the thought-provoking National Museum of African American History and Culture that pays homage to African Americans, their history and contribution to contemporary culture.  At the National Gallery of Art I drool over works in the recently-refurbished East Wing (designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei). Its exhibits include wonderful pieces by Alexander Calder and Rothko.

Then it’s back to the hotel for dinner at the hotel restaurant, Kingbird. This large space has been ingeniously transformed: stunning spiral lights hang from the ceiling and Italian steel-tubed columns create attractive dining sections. The modern American menu is decent, with the likes of moule frites and the pan roasted Ora King salmon. I split a 28oz dry aged beef ribeye that’s as tasty as it’s pricey ($94).

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The hotel’s coffee, however, is another story. Although the free brew in the lobby is good, I’m shocked by Kingbird’s $6 cappuccino that’s served in a thimble-sized cup minus the mandatory creamy froth. Instead, I infiltrate Georgetown’s bean scene at Baked & Wired and Grace Street Coffee (an Australian owned hole-in-the-wall Bluestone Lane has opened recently).

But, I ponder as I sip on a perfect flat white, if lack of a decent cuppa is as scandalous as it gets, life is pretty good at The Watergate.

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These days, the only likely break-ins might be to the rooms’ well-stocked minibars.

For those enjoying waterfront views, grab a water taxi from the nearby Georgetown waterfront, near the hotel, to The Wharf, that opened in 2017 as DC’s river-facing locale. Here you’ll find Mi Vida, an affordable spot serving higher end Mexican fare, and Del Mar, an upmarket Spanish eatery. Funkier Union Market is home to Bidwell – it serves fabulous fresh local fare and is great for brunch. After this, you can always head for a tipple at the hip tasting room, Cotton & Reed.

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In the Penn Quarter, downtown, reliable bets are Jose Andres’ many restaurants, located in the downtown (Penn Quarter) district: there’s fabulous modern Greek at Zaytinya, or splurge at his Michelin eatery Minibar. •

Photography by Kate Armstrong

Watergate

TRAVEL FACTS

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  • Spring and Autumn (Fall) are the most pleasant months if you want to avoid winter chills or summer humidity.

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