By Patricia Lee Hall, FairfaxFamilyFun.com
Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all — but you can’t. Whether it’s limited time, limited funds, or a reluctance to travel far, a vacation out of town is sometimes just not possible. Luckily, though, you can still “get away” without having to get out of town, especially if you live in the metropolitan Washington, DC, area. With so much to visit — museums, monuments, and memorials (nearly all of them free), plus other historic sites and landmarks, parks, theaters, sports venues, and more — even those of us who live in this area can’t possibly see it all, but it’s always there for us.
Often, area residents get to see these attractions in bits and pieces, with visits of a few hours or a full day. But why not visit Washington, DC, like the out-of-towners do? With an extra few days off from school recently because of teacher workdays, we decided to see DC like a tourist with a little “staycation.” Without having to worry about parking or drive back home, we had more time to explore the city and even take our son to some places he had not yet visited.
Our home for two days was the beautiful Hotel Sofitel DC at Lafayette Square, which is in a fantastic location near the McPherson Square Metro and just a short walk from the White House, the Smithsonian Institution museums, and the monuments on the National Mall. This luxury hotel offers modern, beautiful, and extremely clean and comfortable rooms. While much of its clientele are business and international travelers, this hotel, part of a French hospitality chain, is family-friendly.
In fact, as part of its family packages, the hotel has “The Little Prince” experience for kids. Based on the cherished classic children’s book by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, children can explore the area with Le Petit Prince as their guide. Young guests of the Sofitel receive a personalized travel book with activities and space for them to draw, jot travel notes, and post photos.
Kids also get the royal treatment: soon after arrival, we got a call from the front desk to see how our son was enjoying the room (thanks for asking… his “majesty” was doing just fine, and um… so were we, ha!). This actually was a nice touch and a special surprise for our son. Another nice “plus” was the kid-size robe (with The Little Prince embroidered on it) and slippers. Along with his was a nice set of baby bath products in the bathroom and a rubber ducky you can keep.
The hotel staff also demonstrated incredible attention to detail. Prior to our arrival, I had alerted the hotel to our son’s peanut allergy. When we checked in to the hotel, we were delighted to find in our room a plate with three chocolate chip cookies (yes, he shared!) and a big glass of milk. In that call to see how we liked the room, the staff also reminded us that they were aware of the allergies and the cookies were peanut-free. The Sofitel’s Magnifique Family Package, available at more than 100 properties worldwide, also includes a 50 percent discount on a second room for children, free breakfast for children, and optional late checkout up to 4:00 pm.
Because of its size and location, the hotel does not have all the amenities you might find at other luxury hotels (no pool or spa, for example), but in a place such as Washington, DC, where you will spend most of your time exploring outside the hotel, these features are not all that necessary. The hotel does have a restaurant, the ICI Urban Bistro offering French cuisine, and a chic lounge, Le Bar, offering a late-night menu.
We had checked in late on a Sunday after visiting the National Museum of the American Indian nearby, so we took it easy that night and had a simple meal at Le Bar. Robin, of the hotel’s hospitality team, greeted us warmly and engaged us in a fun French lesson. My son is a bit of a francophile, and seems to have taken a very strong liking for the language, culture, and food (he keeps asking me to take him back to L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls!). Knowing this, Robin gave us a little “exercise” to write a passage in French (I got to help with my very limited knowledge of the language), and afterward we were greeted with a surprise in our room — a little certificate for my son noting he was now a member of the “French club.”
The hotel, by the way, is also pet-friendly — so much so, in fact, that the room service menu even has a page of options just for pets! I have never seen such a thing, and while we were not traveling with pets, I thought this was a nice touch. And in keeping with the luxury theme, the meals are beef, salmon, and chicken (no Alpo here!). Side note: when I asked the front desk team about the pet menu, I was told that this was in honor of a frequent guest who would travel with his dog. When his dog died, the hotel wanted to do something nice in his honor and the idea of a pet menu was born, a nice gesture, indeed.
When it came time for “lights out,” wow, the lights really were out. As soon as we flipped the switch, the room became pitch black. It was such an incredible pleasure to not have to adjust and pin down the room blinds to get total darkness! Those readers who are sensitive to light while sleeping will know exactly what I mean. As for the bed itself, the Sofitel touts its luxurious bedding, and this was no exaggeration. This was easily THE most comfortable bed I have ever experienced at any hotel and possibly anywhere.
The bathrooms are spacious and absolutely spotless, although my son did note that the glass shower door and French doors that don’t lock did not provide much privacy. This was not an issue for us, but it’s worth noting if you have two kids or more, particularly those who might have a problem with it. The shower was spacious but the water stream is gentle, so if you like more water pressure, please note there is no way to adjust it. The tub has a hand-held shower head.
The next morning, we did manage to drag ourselves from the comfy bed and and enjoyed a delicious breakfast downstairs in the hotel. Then it was off to explore! Although the hotel is close to The White House, we had not planned this trip far in advance enough to take a tour. We could have toured the new White House Visitors Center, but instead decided to take advantage of the “free” weekday to visit Congress and other attractions on Capitol Hill. Our tour of the United States Capitol was a timely lesson in government, since the next day was an election day in Virginia.
At night, the weather was nice, just slightly cool, so we went for a walk in the neighborhood. We had a great dinner at the legendary Old Ebbitt Grill and then walked around the White House and other attractions nearby.
The next morning, we headed out early to get in the last of our sightseeing done. We took the Metro to Capitol Hill and began our day with a tour of the Library of Congress, followed by a visit to the U.S. Botanic Garden. Even spending at least one hour in each place, we still made it back to our hotel in time to check out by noon or 1 pm.
Rates at the Hotel Sofitel DC start at $198 per night. This may be a “splurge” for some local families, but considering the savings — no air or rail travel, free admission at most attractions — it’s worth treating yourself to see our nation’s capital as our tourists do, and still be back home within an hour after your visit is through. This is a nice option for anyone who decides to stay in town for the holidays and still wants to have a special experience.
Parking at the hotel is available, but is limited to valet service. At nearly $60 per night, it’s pricey, but this is something you can easily skip since you can take the metro into town and most places in DC are easily accessible by public transportation.
Good to know:
- The hotel also has an outside restaurant open during the spring and summer.
- There is no in-room coffee service but you can find complimentary coffee and croissants in the lobby early in the morning.
- The hotel produces its own honey on the roof! (Unfortunately no visitors are allowed, but you can buy honey jars).
- The mini-bar in each room is sensitive and you may incur charges just for opening it, so tell your kids to steer clear if you don’t want to buy anything. At the end of our stay, I did purposely treat my son to the $12 jar of gummy bears, which he calls especially delicious.
- Each room has a doorbell that rings just as a regular doorbell at home would do. Our son got a kick out of this and we had a ceremonial “last ringing of the bell” before we left. Our son is well-behaved and old enough, but you may want to beware the bells with kids who are younger and/or more impulsive so they do not disturb the neighbors, since they could easily push the buttons outside each door.
Disclosure: My family was treated to a complimentary stay at the Hotel Sofitel to include one night of accommodations, breakfast, parking, and a gift bag, and we extended our stay (at a discounted rate); no other compensation was received. This article is my original writing and opinions are my own.
All photos (c) P. Hall