Traveller's world It is not just the book trade that is excited by the release of Dan Brown's new thriller, The Lost Symbol. It has been greeted joyously in Washington DC.
Corridors of power in Washington brace for Dan Brown fans
It is not just the book trade that is excited by the release of Dan Brown's new thriller, The Lost Symbol. It has been greeted joyously in Washington where the newly rebranded tourism authority, Destination DC (formerly the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation) has been working in partnership with Doubleday, the book's US publisher, to promote the city alongside the book.
In the first chapter of The Lost Symbol, on the second page, Brown writes: "Even from the air, Washington, D.C. exuded an almost mystical power. Langdon loved this city, and as the jet touched down, he felt a rising excitement about what lay ahead." Tourist chiefs felt a similar rising excitement when they heard the book was to be located in the US capital. The Da Vinci Code, Brown's earlier blockbuster, was credited with increasing tourism in its various European locations. But while there may have been some uneasiness on behalf of the religious sites regarding the association, Washington DC has no such dilemma.
The book fits perfectly with the US city's product and brand - the core audience for both being history and knowledge seekers - and so Destination DC is eagerly hoping for a "Brown-rush". A website (www.washington.org/lostsymbol) has been launched for travellers to explore locations loaded with symbolism, mystery and the Masonic traditions and themes that feature in the plot. The campaign is also using its Facebook and Twitter pages to keep people updated.
"The day the book came out was the craziest ever," Chris Gieckel, the international media relations manager at Destination DC, says. "The phones never stopped ringing." Television commercials spotlighting the book and its featured backdrop are currently appearing in 15 major American markets (90 per cent of Washington's 16 million annual tourists are domestic) and the international market is now in its sights.
"Dan Brown's books and movies have inspired travellers to look at popular destinations like Rome and Paris in a different light," Elliott Ferguson, the president and chief executive of Destination DC, says. "We want to build on the excitement this book is creating to inspire travellers to see DC's secrets and symbols up close." Among those jumping on the bandwagon is the Marriott International, which owns the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. For a starting price of US$389 (Dh1,429) per night you get overnight accommodation, a copy of Brown's book, breakfast for two and a guide to the secret locations featured in the weighty tome. The Dupont Hotel is offering a copy of the book, breakfast for two, valet parking and a two-night stay for $400 (Dh1,469). Presumably as there is only one book per room, couples have to fight over it. The hotel says that it has sold 14 such deals in the first week.
This is not to say that most of the suggested locations themselves are secret: sites include the Capitol, several of the major monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral and the Botanic Gardens. For Masonic history and lore, readers can discover lesser-known landmarks like the House of the Temple on 16th Street and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Coincidentally, I am in the US capital this week and it is clear that even without the help of Brown the city is enjoying a renaissance, fuelled most recently by the "Obama effect".
There has been an explosion of new restaurants in the last 18 months covering every sort of cuisine; I went to three of the most popular: Founding Fathers, a restaurant run by a co-operative of local farmers using local ingredients; Co Co Sala where nearly everything on the menu includes chocolate; and Sei Restaurant and Lounge recognised for its cool white leather furniture and signature sushi dishes. All were stunning and surprisingly reasonably priced.
As well as the new restaurants, an increased significance is being given to several of the more successful establishments. Last Sunday The Washington Post devoted the front-page picture and around 2,000 words to Ristorante Tosca in F street, the newly hip focus of Washington lobbying power - not that any of the article was about the food. Instead, an illustrated map showed the regular table plan for who sits where - the diners being a mix of the most powerful lobbyists, politicians and lawyers. The "seats of influence" were selected by Paolo Sacco, the Italian owner who opened the restaurant eight years ago and clearly understands the different levels of VIP.
This new cooler image has helped hoteliers survive the recession. While the rest of the US suffers a reduction in tourist numbers of up to 20 per cent, Washington has managed to peg its decline at a manageable 1.4 per cent - and the hope is that the Obama/Brown combo will keep 2009 and 2010 at the very least, flat. Probably the trendiest place of all in the city is the former Washington Hotel, newly reopened as the W Washington, where I am staying. Famous because of its location next door to the White House, it had lost any pretensions of being smart or fashionable. Then Nakheel bought the property, closed it for two years while the developer gave it a facelift, before finally opening again this July managed by Starwood Hotels under its W brand. The roof terrace, with views over the cityscape and to the White House (it is close enough to see the snipers on the roof) is the main draw - so much so that queues start forming from about 5.30pm and continue all night. The cleverer people booked a month ago just to secure a drink.
But some things get lost in translation. Far too cool to have a concierge desk, and loving anything that begins with the letter W, they call the concierge desk "Whatever, whenever". So every time I call down for an adaptor plug or a cup of herbal tea, they answer saying "whatever, whenever" which in my book suggests a shrug and a complete lack of urgency. Thankfully, however, that is not how they have translated my requests.
One of the best things about Washington is the quantity and quality of its museums - and the fact that they are free so visitors can pop in for an hour and return again and again without over-gorging on culture. Now they have a new one, the Newseum, which opened a year ago. There is a $20 (Dh73) entrance fee but it doesn't seem to deter visitors, and for news junkies like me, I could have happily spent all week within its 23,225 square metres. If journalism is said to be the first draft of history, this museum, (which has the Capitol Building as its backdrop) is a massive historical archive.
Around 30,000 old newspapers are housed there, tracing more than 500 years of news. Eighty newspaper front pages from around the world are enlarged and updated daily, there is a gallery devoted to Pulitzer Prize photographs and there are original artefacts related to stories that made the news including the largest collection of lumps of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany. The only gap is that Newseum does not feature The National - something that is about to be rectified.