Undeniable luxury at The Watergate Hotel (but bugs to work out)

By Molly Sinclair McCartney

After a US$125 million renovation, you can sleep in a burglar's room with a Potomac view at this Washington DC landmark, writes Molly Sinclair McCartney.

The Watergate Hotel's Next Whisky Bar boasts a curved wall of 2500 illuminated bottles. Photo / Ron Blunt
The Watergate Hotel's Next Whisky Bar boasts a curved wall of 2500 illuminated bottles. Photo / Ron Blunt

My destination is the newly reopened Watergate Hotel, and my intention is to check out its rooftop views, swim in the indoor pool, eat in the restaurant, tour the underground spa and stay in one of the burglar rooms. I want to see for myself what a US$125 million, six-year renovation looks like inside an iconic hotel that is part of American history.

The plot by a gang of men to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Four of the burglars were anti-communist Cubans from Miami who used fictitious names to register at the Watergate Hotel on Friday, June 16, 1972. They were booked into Rooms 214 and 314. A few hours later, at 2am on Saturday, June 17, they were caught and arrested by plainclothes police officers in the DNC headquarters, which then occupied the sixth floor of the office building adjoining the hotel.

These memories in mind, I walk to the hotel and check in for a one-night stay to celebrate a milestone birthday.

I won't say which birthday. But I will say I am old enough to remember what was initially characterised as a "third-rate burglary" but grew over the following two years into a government crisis. Nixon fought back, declaring, "I'm not a crook," but he was eventually driven from office.

The hotel, which opened in 1967 to rave reviews before falling into decline and closing in 2007, has now embraced the burglary as a marketing tool for its return as an urban resort where "modern design blends with a storied past".

The Watergate Hotel's reception area. Photo / The Watergate Hotel
The Watergate Hotel's reception area. Photo / The Watergate Hotel

Text on my room key card reads: "No need to break in." The recording I hear when I call the front desk is Nixon speaking. My room is stocked with black pencils stamped with gold letters that declare: "I stole this from the Watergate Hotel."

Then there is this entry in the hotel information book: "June 17, 1972: Five men break into the DNC headquarters located on the 6th floor of the Watergate office complex using hotel rooms 214 and 314 as their home base and forever tying the Watergate name to the country's biggest political scandal."

(I can't help but think that the Watergate burglars wouldn't need to break into the DNC today; they would only need some hacking skills, as the Russians recently demonstrated.)

The living room of The Watergate Hotel's Presidential Suite. Photo / Ron Blunt
The living room of The Watergate Hotel's Presidential Suite. Photo / Ron Blunt

For my special birthday, I request Room 214 even though it has been changed as part of the hotelwide renovation. As a one-year resident of Watergate South, the co-op building opposite the hotel, I have had a bird's-eye view of the reconstruction work.

From my living-room windows, I have watched men in orange vests and hard hats clambering up, down and around the 15-storey hotel to restore its former glory and repair the section of the lawn that collapsed in May 2015, crushing several cars in the underground garage.

From the outside, it looks great to me. But what about the inside?

The new Room 214's furnishings have a grey-and-black theme. The bathroom has a black granite countertop and black marble floor. This is one of 336 smoke-free rooms, and one of the least expensive, but it has everything I need, with a comfortable king bed, a wall-mounted flat-panel television and free WiFi.

For those who want more luxury, there are deluxe rooms and two presidential suites. Prices for all rooms vary, depending on the timing.

Waiting for me in Room 214 is a note of welcome from the hotel management along with a complimentary bottle of water and four small bowls containing nuts and grapes. Best of all, the room has a balcony with a glorious view of the flowers, shrubs and grass in the landscaped garden outside.

From the balcony, I can lean out and look right to see joggers along Rock Creek Parkway and boats on the Potomac River. Gazing left, I look up and see the sixth floor of the office building where the burglars were caught. Today that floor is occupied by Sage Publications, a publishing company. (This year, Sage hosted an exhibit commemorating the burglary that took place on its premises.)

The Watergate Hotel's library. Photo / The Watergate Hotel
The Watergate Hotel's library. Photo / The Watergate Hotel

The temptation to retrace the steps of the burglars is overwhelming. I recruit my friend Jane, and we walk out of the hotel and down a nearby staircase to the underground parking garage. From there, we find an open door into an adjoining parking garage with an elevator. But the elevator works only with an access card. While we discuss our next move, a woman joins us. She has a card. We ride up with her to the sixth floor and step into what was once the DNC headquarters — the scene of the crime.

We try to imagine the break-in that took place 44 years ago on the spot where we now stand. This is where the burglars were caught in possession of bugging equipment, two cameras, 40 rolls of unexposed film, three pen-size tear-gas guns and US$2300 in cash. When police officials searched the burglars' hotel rooms, they found an additional US$4200.

The bathroom of The Watergate Hotel's Presidential Suite. Photo / Ron Blunt
The bathroom of The Watergate Hotel's Presidential Suite. Photo / Ron Blunt

As hotel guests, Jane and I have free access to the hotel's Argentta Spa & Wellness Center, where we find dim lighting, fresh orchids and scented candles. The walls are covered with grey and silver mosaic tiles. Jane has a manicure and pedicure, emerging with dark-blue nails. I have an appointment for a facial at 12.45pm, but am kept waiting for 25 minutes. The attendant apologises for the delay and gives me a discount and a gift to compensate.

I head to the pool for a swim. But the water — which had seemed warm earlier in the day — is now cold. I sit in the sauna room, thinking I will get so hot that cold water will feel good. I am hot when I emerge from the sauna but not hot enough to venture into the cold pool water. The attendant checks the pool thermometer and says the water is 21 degrees instead of the usual 31. He tells me he will call someone to fix the problem, but I give up after 10 minutes and return to Room 214 to dress for drinks at the rooftop bar that was added during the renovation.

From Top of the Gate, as the bar is called, I have some of the best views in Washington. I can see the Potomac River winding from Roosevelt Bridge to Key Bridge. Boats of all sizes ply the water, especially on weekends. Helicopters fly at about the same level as the roof where I stand.

The view is especially stunning in the evening, when the sun sets behind Key Bridge and turns the sky into a kaleidoscope of colours that can range from soft pinks and blues to fiery reds and deep purples — all reflected in the silvery waters of the river. It would be easy to get drunk on the colours.

A gin cocktail at The Watergate Hotel's Top of the Gate bar. Photo / The Watergate Hotel
A gin cocktail at The Watergate Hotel's Top of the Gate bar. Photo / The Watergate Hotel

And if the sunset scene isn't intoxicating enough, there is alcohol galore at the ship-shaped bar on the roof, the Next Whisky Bar in the lobby — with a curved wall of 2500 illuminated bottles — and the bar in the Kingbird restaurant, where the countertop reflects the bottles behind the bar.

Our dinner reservation is at the Kingbird, which has windows overlooking the river and large spiral chandeliers. The space is divided into two sections: regular dining with grey booths and tables, open seven days a week, and fine dining, with a red banquette, open Tuesday through Saturday with a fancy, fixed-price menu.

For our evening of fine dining, we each order the set-price three-course meal. Jane selects the tuna crudo as her first course, the pan-roasted John Dory as her main dish and warm apple cider doughnuts as dessert. I choose a first course of "braised ravioli of local short rib," which includes Burgundy truffle, Parmesan cheese and horseradish cream. For dessert, I want the chocolate noisette. For my main dish, I order the bouillabaisse, even though it comes with a surcharge.

The Watergate Hotel's Kingbird restaurant. Photo / The Watergate Hotel
The Watergate Hotel's Kingbird restaurant. Photo / The Watergate Hotel

What I get is a show as well as a meal. The waiter first brings me a bowl with lobster and seafood. Then he brings a device with two round glass containers, one with the broth and the other with the herbs and seasonings. Using something that reminds me of a Bunsen burner, he heats the broth so that it rises into the top container to mix with herbs and seasonings. After a few minutes, he turns off the heat and the broth returns to the bottom container. Now he pours the broth over the seafood in my bowl. Voila!

As I finish my meal, I think of the break-in again. The team had dined on lobster here at the hotel the night of their stay. This is my first Watergate dinner, but, unlike the burglars, it won't be my last.

IF YOU GO

The Watergate Hotel is at 2650 Virginia Ave NW, Washington DC, USA. Phone: +1 202 827 1600.

- Washington Post

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