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The MGM National Harbor (Credit: Papercamera/Tracey Brown Photography)
The MGM National Harbor (Credit: Papercamera/Tracey Brown Photography)

Seconds after I drove into the lofty porte-cochere in front of the lobby at the MGM National Harbor, a smiling car attendant greeted me and asked if I needed help with my bags. He was a harbinger of the prompt and courteous service I would experience on my two-day visit to this huge resort and casino complex, located 11 miles from the center of D.C. in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Open since December 8, 2016, the MGM National Harbor is a massive 24-story resort and casino with 234 guest rooms and 74 suites. It cost $1.4 billion to build. With Vegas-style glam, the hotel portion has so many entertainment options that you might think about making the complex a destination, even if you’re not the gaming type. For one, the views of the Potomac are panoramic, with the Capitol and Washington Monument distinctly visible from many rooms. The suites have floor-to-ceiling windows and light-hued woods and earth tones, complete with fast Wi-Fi, Bluetooth technology and large TVs with screensavers that turn your television into a virtual aquarium.

The spa at the MGM National Harbor (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
The spa at the MGM National Harbor (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

Hitting the spa

When the automatic doors to the resort opened, I was greeted by a stunning Christmas holiday-themed display in the skylit, two-story Conservatory. The display changes five times a year and includes the current one celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year.

After checking in and taking a quick look around my room, I headed to the 27,000-square-foot Spa & Salon and perused the service menu. I could have gone whole hog, as they say, and submitted to the over-the-top Golden Spa Ritual Treatment, described as follows: “a Golden Spa body wrap and smoothing facial. 24 karat gold boosts collagen production for smooth, toned skin while Artemesia Flower detoxifies and Passion Flower restores hydration and elasticity to the face and body. All that glitters is Gold with this luxurious ritual that includes a Golden Powder Puff to take home.”

But priced at $275 for the 60-minute treatment, it was too rich for my blood, and, heck, I needed a massage for my aching muscles more than anything else, so I opted for something more traditional. From the list of six possible massages, I opted for the herbal balance massage, “performed to balance or relax, the light-pressure massage incorporates lavender or ginger oils or extracts.” As I readied myself in the dressing room, my host offered me a choice of a complimentary orange or pineapple mimosa smoothie, which I sipped on my way to the lobby.

About a quarter of the way into my CBD oil experience, my masseuse asked if I wanted a deeper treatment. When I said yes, she buckled down and let me feel the difference. I couldn’t believe her small, delicate frame was capable of such strength, but I was glad I said yes.

The Library Bar at Voltaggio Brothers Steak House (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
The Library Bar at Voltaggio Brothers Steak House (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

A steakhouse to remember

After my hour-long indulgence of somatic bliss complete with mesmerizing wood flute music with a Native American vibe, I felt refreshed, even ritualistically purified, and my olfactory senses were in overdrive from the subtle fragrances of the massage oils. Regrettably, they were all washed away by my subsequent shower, but I left the spa feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and renewed, ready to explore other senses at dinner that evening at the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House.

One of three on-site, chef-driven restaurants, Voltaggio Brothers Steak House is more than meets the eye. Multiple rooms, each with its distinct decor and ambient mood, recall to some degree the brothers’ childhood home in Maryland (the Frederick area, I believe). The bar has the feel and look of a library, the spacious family room is done in formal tones with comfortable booths and classic paintings, and the bright and floral dining room has a view of the kitchen. With its homelike atmosphere, the restaurant brings new meaning to the word steak-“house.”

Knowing I’d choose a red meat entree, I started with a tuna tartar appetizer to assuage my gilt and oil up the arteries with omega-3. Beautifully presented, the tuna was finely chopped and topped with a crispy cracker and drizzles of aioli. Not quite as successful, the calamari in squid ink is a novel and commendable presentation that comes with garlic aoili and marinara for dunking.

Eschewing the beef at a steakhouse may be somewhat rebellious, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to relish the grilled rack of lamb done by an upscale beef house and served with a curried au jus. Perfectly done with a crisp exterior, the lamb mated well with sides of potatoes au gratin and asparagus. Pleased with my first selections, how could I pass on dessert? Making a decision from the bill of fare was a bit like watching Sophie’s Choice, but the lemon upside-down cake was a winning, velvety smooth and sweetly tart treat made even more tasty by the dollop of lavender ice cream on top.

Chocolate lion made to celebrate the resort's second anniversary (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
Chocolate lion made to celebrate the resort’s second anniversary (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

A lion made of chocolate

Next morning, I made my way down to the Bellagio Pattiserie, a cornucopia of gorgeous baked wonders, for a look at the gold leaf-covered chocolate sculpture of the MGM lion. The lion was made for the resort’s second anniversary and must have weighed a full ton. For even more chocolate, I gazed at the intricate flow of the two tons of liquid confection that sluiced down a 12-foot, floor-to-ceiling chocolate fountain, said to be the largest of its kind in the world.

"Cinderella Shoe": One of the many art works exhibited throughout the resort (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
“Cinderella Shoe”: One of the many art works exhibited throughout the resort (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

A gallery’s worth of art

On my way to check out the signature Swiss watches at Brietling, one of nearly a dozen luxury retail shops and boutiques interspersed with the restaurants and food court, I stopped to admire oversized sculptures named “Cinderella Shoe” (it’s seven-feet-tall) and “Fighting Cash,” both by Liao Yibai. Another piece in the resort’s Heritage College, Korean artist Chul Hyun’s “The Wells” is an in-floor installation that plays with the viewer’s depth perception and creates a sense of limitless space using LED light and the interactions between mirrors. It invites the observer to travel through endless, undefined space mentally and emotionally.

Over at the front desk, artist Margaret Boozer used soil taken directly from MGM National Harbor’s construction site to create a wall-mounted interpretation of the environs of National Harbor. Outdoors, John Safer’s stainless steel “Unity” is made up of three 60-foot figures with satin and polish-finished surfaces mounted just outside the hotel’s porte-cochere. At the west entranceway, Bob Dylan’s “Portal” features found objects, vintage scrap metal and industrial artifacts collected from junkyards and welded together to form a soaring archway that guests walk under as they enter the resort.

Chilled lobster appetizer at Fish by José Andrés (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
Chilled lobster appetizer at Fish by José Andrés (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

Fish by José Andrés

On my walkaround, a blue suit with bright red and pink floral designs drew my eye in the window of Stitched, the East Coast debut location of the upscale men’s fashion boutique that features hand-stitched, custom suits, shirts, and more. It was enough to draw me in for a try-on, but I don’t know if I’d ever have the chance to wear the daring, ostentatious outfit considering the informal haunts I mostly frequent.

One place where the suit might be appropriate getup is Fish by Jose Andres. The Spanish-American chef heads the restaurant at which the stellar nautical-themed decor matches his culinary offerings. You might want to start your meal with selections from the raw bar, which includes abalone, an item rarely found in seafood restaurants these days.

The restaurant offers two tasting menus: “José’s Way” is 11 courses and features some of the more adventurous offerings, including live sea urchin. The “Classics” is eight courses highlighting local fare, such as Berkshire pork belly and quail eggs with ham. Each menu can be expertly paired with a selection of rieslings by a master sommelier, or you can select from the full wine and cocktail list.

A supplemental à la carte menu is also available. I went a la carte and started with a beautifully presented chilled lobster appetizer and then moved on to a scallop plate with smoky pea puree and pickled carrots followed by a grilled salmon entree.

At the restaurant’s intimate five-seat Maryland Fry Bar, guests have a front-row view to watch chefs prepare a variety of ingredients—everything from wild mushrooms and local oysters to exotic sugar toads and luxurious scallops with truffles and caviar.

Lobby of the Theater (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
Lobby of the Theater (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

A-list entertainment

Before dinner, I popped in to take a look at the resort’s 3,000-seat theater, a beauty with telescopic seating and a cozy and dazzling VIP lobby area all done in muted purple tones that gives the space a regal feel. The back of the theater highlights 7 spacious VIP suites with private entrances, a full-service bar and personalized catering offerings.

The theater’s entertainment options include A-list concerts, comedy shows, UFC fights, boxing matches and other special events. Cher, Boyz II Men, Britney Spears, and the Who have already played the stage. Coming up soon are Toni Braxton (February 1), Sebastian Maniscal Co (February 8 & 9), Victor Manuelle (February 14), Cheap Trick (February 15), Gladys Knight (March 21), and Mariah Carey (March 31).

During my stay, I missed a chance to dive into the outdoor pool, which was drained for the winter, but I did enjoy the outdoor Potomac Plaza, which features a beautiful fountain and reflecting pool as well as a mesmerizing screen on which huge images pull you in with eye-catching beauty.

Mind-blowing cocktails at Felt

That evening I made my first entry into the casino to visit Felt, an inviting cocktail bar that features live entertainment and DJ-driven sounds most evenings. There, talented mixologists prepare specialty cocktails right at your table. It’s fun to watch them deftly concoct hefty drinks with names like “Doctor’s Orders” (ginger-infused Bulleit rye, ginger syrup, honey syrup, lemon, ginger foam, and a spritz of Lagavulin 16-year paired with candied ginger). A plush decor, oversized plasma TVs, house-made mixers, and craft beers all add to Felt’s overall chic.

The casino: MGM’s second-largest after Vegas

For gamers, the 125,000-square-foot, smoke-free casino is the second-largest of MGM Resort International’s 23 resort properties, behind only MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas (171,000 square feet). Inside, players can choose to try their luck at poker, table games, roulette, blackjack, baccarat, slots, and variations on carnival games.

Ginger (Credit: Bill Rockwell)
Ginger (Credit: Bill Rockwell)

One last meal for the road

After checkout, on day three, I stayed over for lunch at Ginger, a beautiful and colorful pan-Asian restaurant with fastidious service overlooking the Conservatory. The eclectic menu features Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese selections. Signature dishes include “Vietnamese Spring Rolls,” “Soft Shell Crab Fried Rice” and “House Style Live Lobster” along with an extensive dim sum menu, but I went for personal choices like kimchi, Mongolian beef and a wonderfully presented and flavorful Peking duck. For those unfamiliar with Asian food, I highly recommend Ginger to novices with an adventurous palate and sensuous inclinations as well as those with palates experienced in Asian cuisine.

While I dined in some of the resort’s most fashionable restaurants, there are also plenty of casual options to choose from like TAP Sports Bar, Starbucks and National Market, a food court with everything from tacos, salads and bento boxes to deli sandwiches, fried chicken, crab cakes, and ice cream/shakes.

Food, shopping, entertainment, art, spa services, and gaming make the MGM National Harbor an all-inclusive destination—a place where you can enjoy yourself without ever leaving the premises. And if you feel like stepping out for another sort of thrill, the ten-story tall Wheel is just down the road at the end of a pier that juts out into the Potomac.


For more information, visit mgmnationalharbor.com.

Dave Zuchowski

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