Every Washingtonian needs a way to unwind. (There’s a war on after all, and our fair city is its nerve center, conducting the chess moves from afar.) My newest favorite method is to rent a kayak with friends or kids on a weekend afternoon, and paddle—guilt- and carbon-emissions-free—the quiet tidal backwaters of the Potomac River. Just south of town, in Alexandria, the Belle Haven Marina rents kayaks—no experience necessary.
The busy marina abuts a 380-acre wildlife preserve, Dyke Marsh, home to an astonishing array of animals, especially birds. It’s managed by the National Park Service, as part of the George Washington National Parkway. Mount Vernon, the first president’s expansive estate, is just down the road. The boats make it easy to glide in close to egrets and herons, red-winged blackbirds and Canada geese, and in the marina, ospreys with their oversize nests improbably balanced atop pylons. There are also small mammals such as foxes and beavers, and water dwellers like bullfrogs and snapping turtles. The marsh waters are calm and the kayaks so ridiculously easy to handle that, except in windy weather, even kids and not-so-fit adults (as we stressed-out, sedentary Washingtonians tend to be) can do it. We always end the outing with a picnic lunch, or a drive into Old Town for a bite. A restorative interlude before heading back to the trenches.
One-person kayaks rent for $20 for two hours; two-person kayaks are $30. Reservations are recommended. Hours are generally from 8:30 a.m.
to 8 p.m. or sunset (whichever comes first). The marina also rents canoes and small sailboats. There are two other outfits that rent kayaks in or near town: Jack’s Boathouse, under Key Bridge in the heart of Georgetown, and Thompson Boat Center just a little up the river.