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D.C.’s best — and worst — ice skating rinks

The Staycationer visited every outdoor rink in D.C. to find the best and the worst places to get your skate on. (Ben Claassen III)
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Ice skating rinks have popped up all over D.C., especially in bougie waterfront neighborhoods and at all the coolest hotels. Have we reached peak skate? On my recent pilgrimage to every outdoor rink in the city, I found many a lonely stretch of ice. While this may be bad news for Zamboni drivers, it’s perfect for all you aspiring Tonya Hardings out there. D.C. has rinks where you can practice your toe loops without toddlers bombing out on your runway — as well as ones where your kamikaze kid will be in good company.

The Watergate Hotel’s Top of the Gate

2650 Virginia Ave. NW; Wednesdays-Fridays, 5-10 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays, 1-10 p.m.; admission (includes skate rental): $20 (kids: $10).

Have you always wondered what it would be like to skate in a wind tunnel inside the Arctic Circle? You’re in luck! For just $20, you can shuffle around this artificial ice rink — which has all the slickness of recently laid tar — and take in spectacular views of the Potomac for the five seconds before your eyes freeze shut. It’s nearly impossible to get any speed going on the plastic surface, but should you decide to hurl yourself at the air-shaft tower at the center of the rink, you’ll bounce off harmlessly thanks to the gym mats someone has thoughtfully wrapped around the groovy concrete silo.

The skates: Instead of traditional laces, the rental skates have ski
boot-style latches, which are easier for frozen fingers to operate
and offer a snugger fit.
The hot chocolate: The adjacent bar serves boozy and alcohol-free versions, plus hot cider.
The soundtrack: Down-tempo lounge music peppered with occasional, no-longer-seasonal Christmas songs.
Most flagrant rules violation witnessed: A young couple wearing tennis shoes on the “ice.”
Overheard ice skating tip: “Let’s pour some water on here and wait for it to freeze.”

Canal Park

200 M St. SE; Mondays-Thursdays, noon-10 p.m., Fridays, noon-11 p.m., Saturdays,
10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; admission: $9 (kids: $8), skate rental: $5.

Forget those tired old ovals. Canal Park’s innovative rink is roughly the shape of an uppercase B, a design that allows skaters to take big loops around the rink or smaller ones at either side. It’s fun to mix it up, but watch out on the straightaway — there’s a small incline that sends less-experienced skaters flying. Another unique feature: the huge, cube-shaped screen that, for some reason, plays a live feed from the mid-rink security camera, complete with time stamp. I doubt this is what the landscape architects envisioned for this particular design feature, especially because people tend to get distracted by the real-time video and skate into walls while watching themselves skate into walls.

The skates: My brand-new, sharp-bladed rental skates made it easy to glide despite this rink’s well-worn ice.
The hot chocolate: The adjacent restaurant space is vacant, so you have to sprint to the Starbucks across the street.
The soundtrack: A mix of Top 40 hits from about a year ago.
Most flagrant rules violation witnessed: Neighbors standing in stationary clumps around the rink,
gossiping instead of skating.
Overheard ice skating tip: “It’s just like roller-skating, except a lot harder.”

Washington Harbour
3050 K St. NW; Mondays & Tuesdays, noon-7 p.m., Wednesdays & Thursdays, noon-9 p.m., Fridays, noon-10 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; admission: $10 (kids: $9), skate rental: $6.

Though D.C.’s largest ice skating rink is on the Potomac, skaters are denied river views due to the recessed design of the rink and the frequent appearance of event tents on the perimeter. Still, it’s a great place to skate for both novices and experts, thanks to the wide expanses of well-groomed ice, the helpful staff and the push penguin skating aids you can grab as needed without paying extra to rent. This rink is also great for spectators, who can huddle near heat lamps and fire pits on the patio of Farmers Fishers Bakers.

The skates: The red and black pair I rented here was nicer — and newer — than my personal skates. Plus the blades were razor-sharp.
The hot chocolate: Several restaurants offer hot chocolate, including boozy versions, within steps of the rink.
The soundtrack: Just the noise of skates scraping ice, except for the “Rock N Skate” sessions on Saturdays from 8 to 10 p.m.
Most flagrant rules violation witnessed: Adults using push penguins to stay upright.
Overheard ice skating tip: “You want to tie them so tight it hurts.”

The Wharf
960 Wharf St. SW; Mondays & Tuesdays, noon-7 p.m., Wednesdays & Thursdays, noon-9 p.m., Fridays, noon-11 p.m., Saturdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; admission: $10 (kids 12 and under: $8), skate rental: $6.

Located on the Transit Pier of The Wharf, this rink offers nifty views of the Washington Channel and East Potomac Park. Don’t get mesmerized watching the comings and goings of water taxis or you might bump into another skater on this petite oval of ice. You’ll also want to bundle up: This riverside rink is unprotected from prevailing winds and tends to be blustery.

The skates: My rentals’ blunt blades and overly stiff boots left me wishing I’d brought my own.
The hot chocolate: There’s nothing immediately adjacent to the rink, but Dolcezza — purveyor of some of the best hot chocolate around — is just a block away.
The soundtrack: A mix of Christmas songs, even though the holiday had come and gone. “The [District] Wharf Community Association has to approve all our music,” an employee explained.
Most flagrant rules violation witnessed: One woman appeared to be taking a selfie video while skating.
Overheard ice skating tip: “Bend your knees and lean forward. Not that far forward!”

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW; Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fridays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Saturdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sundays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; admission: $9 (kids 12 and under: $8), skate rental: $3.50.

You can’t beat the scenery at this mid-Mall rink. In addition to the whimsical sculptures on the lawn around the ice, the illuminated facade of the National Archives lends neoclassical gravitas to the wintertime scene. This gorgeous setting attracts many skaters, so be prepared to wait an hour or more during peak skate times. Once you’re out there, there may not be much room for figure skating, but you’ll have lots of opportunities to practice your hockey stops when small children fall directly in your path.

The skates: The frayed laces on my rental skates made them tough to tighten, and the dull blades thwarted any attempt to get my glide on.
The hot chocolate: Steps away from the ice, the Pavilion Cafe serves (slightly watery) hot chocolate as well as more substantial offerings.
The soundtrack: Up-tempo oldies, especially jazz and blues.
Most flagrant rules violation witnessed: None. This is one well-policed rink.
Overheard ice skating tip: “Have you tried not falling?”