As a travel professional (and wannabe travel writer), I have been to a lot of places across the globe. And at this point in my travels across the United States, I rarely find places that are truly unlike anything I have ever seen before. I can almost always compare some element of what I am seeing, to a place I have previously visited. Not so with Ocean City, Maryland, where I found myself for four days during a weekend at the end of June.
While preparing for this trip, I was discussing the destination with someone who was explaining the boardwalk concept to me. I must have looked puzzled because I was asked, “Haven’t you ever been to a beach?” I was a little shocked. Of course I have been to beaches. I grew up in the Great Lake State, I’ve lived in Florida twice and swam, waded, walked or fished on all of it’s various coastlines. I’ve traveled all along the Pacific Coast from the Fish Market in Seattle to the cliffs in La Jolla, the tranquil bay in Puerto Vallarta and asked Angela to marry me in a completely out of the way little beach town in Costa Rica. I’ve explored half a dozen Caribbean islands, walked the expansive stretch of Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, and the postage stamp sized beach in Vernazza, Italy. Oh, you’ve never heard of that last one…do yourself a favor and click the link.
After that conversation I realized that despite my travels, I had never been to an Atlantic Ocean Beach, north of St. Simons Island (on the Georgia coast). The iconic beach towns of Virginia Beach, Atlantic City, Jersey Shore, Long Island and Cape Cod are all mysteries to me. Of course, in my profession I am well versed in what to expect from their big city cousins like Washington DC, Baltimore, New York and Boston, but I have never seen where those cities go to relax on hot summer weekends.
So…what happened? We came across the bridge onto the stretch of land that is Ocean City, Maryland on Friday afternoon and it was like stepping back in time, or like stepping sideways into the real version of a modern oceanfront developers retail fantasy. Did you follow that one? I will elaborate. At one point, after walking past dozens of actual mom & pop gift shops, independent and one-of-a-kind local restaurants, real street performers and a fully functioning permanent carnival, I commented to Angela, “This is really authentic.” The sentence was not even all the way out of my mouth when I new it was an absurd thing to say because this actually was an authentic vacation experience. Nobody had conceived this entire Boardwalk in a conference room with a storyboard and a scale model. No sponsorship deals existed. I didn’t see a Bubba Gump, Chili’s or Johnny Rockets anywhere we walked (I have since confirmed via Google Maps, that these restaurants do not exist on the island…the closest Chili’s is 31 miles away. Crazier yet, the closest McDonalds is on the north end of the island, 2.5 miles away!). This place was the real deal. The little french fry shop my wife had gone to as a child, was still there, still greasy, and still only sold french fries…and no t-shirts.
Another comment I made to Angela during our visit was, “This would be a really hard place to book a program for a client.” Why? Because no two hotels appeared similar. Yes, there was a clear line of demarkation between those with beachfront access and those across the street, but other than that, I would not have known anything about any hotel on that island because just as with the restaurants, there were no familiar brands. At this point, I must say that we have always taken great pride in the fact that at VenueQuest, we always drive a large share of our client bookings to independent and “small chain” hotels because we commit a lot of time and energy into learning about them and what they have to offer. But the abundance and variety of small hotels, motor inns, B&B’s, resorts and guest houses was only matched by the number of times my son asked for money for a toy shop, arcade, ride, funhouse, midway game or one of those ridiculous crane games that have the 3 pronged claw with all the grasping power and torsional strength of sauerkraut.
There were many highlights of this trip. Among them was not the 13 hour drive from Atlanta, although without that, I would not have experienced the Chesapeake Bay Bridge which starts out as a bridge, then becomes an underwater tunnel, then jumps back out of the water to be a bridge again before plunging under the water a second time, and then finally rising up one last time to transition back to terra firma. It was the most bi-polar bridge I have ever seen. Why does the Chesapeake Bay Bridge go up and down? I never got an answer. I assumed it was because the aircraft carriers that sail in and out of Norfolk are too tall to go under a bridge, but I also suppose it could have just been engineers showing off.
Early on our first morning at the Frontier Town campground, Dominic woke me and insisted we go fishing right away. I obliged, but we came completely unprepared with fishing rods, hooks, lures and bait. We should have brought chicken necks, string and a scoop net. There was only one type of action off that pier and it was crabs. I should have expected that one. At least the goofy southerners trying to catch crabs with their fishing poles were good entertainment for the other fisherman when the bite was slow.
On our second day, we spent the entire afternoon at Angela’s aunts house for the official family reunion portion of the weekend. It was great for me to get to really spend several hours with the whole family and get to know everyone a little better. Thanks to Jane for hosting, and to Mark for organizing the old farts vs the young farts kickball match. I introduced the good old Italiano game of bocce ball to this Pennsylvania family and some of them picked up the technique so quick they gave me a bad beating.
And finally, before departing on the last day, Angela took me for a real Maryland crab feast. She has talked about this rite since we met, scoffing at every mention of crabs on any restaurant menu, anywhere in the world…maintaining her position that there is nothing like Maryland crabs. Having now experienced it for myself, I agree with her and still occasionally taste the spiciness of the old bay, the saltiness of the sea and the savory of the butter in my imaginary place of excellent meals from days gone by. That crab feast now sits right there in that box of memories, the most recent addition of a collection containing the short ribs from Commanders Palace in New Orleans, the fresh salsa at the bar on the ferry dock on Isla Mujeres, the first time I had heirloom tomatoes with Joe and Gemma at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, and many other delicious foodie moments.
I had doubts going into this trip. It seemed like there was so much potential for things to go wrong. It was our first camping trip as a family and we were doing it 700 miles from home with equipment and supplies we had just purchased and never tested. We were going to a destination and actually a region I had not even known existed for most of my life. But it turned out to be a fantastic experience and I loved every minute. We are already talking about when to go again next year.