The beach. The beautiful water. The strolls along the boardwalk for summer foods. The lovely house with the wraparound porch and the sunny breakfast nook.
And the two-hour backup on the Bay Bridge. The rowdy, half-naked crowds pushing in line for french fries and saltwater taffy. The expensive rental house with the unstable porch, not to mention the dingy decor.
Beach vacations can be a mixed bag — and that's when you've taken care of the things you can plan for. Bad weather, unexpected traffic and incompatibility among friends who don't work so well as weeklong housemates can all put a damper on what you hoped would be a great vacation.
One solution? Beach day trips. Thanks to the Chesapeake Bay, most places in Baltimore are within two hours of a beach. Some are free; others have a small admission fee. They may not have Thrasher's fries and video games, but they offer something else: beautiful views, excellent swimming and a good night's rest in your own bed at the end of the day. Best of all, in most cases you can avoid the Bay Bridge. Take a week and try them all. And if you happen upon a few rainy days, you can just stay home and do something else.
Sandy Point State Park
This beach just before the Bay Bridge in Annapolis is not much of a secret; on any summer weekend, it's likely to be filled with swimmers. That shouldn't stop you from joining in the fun. If the beach is too crowded for your tastes, there are hiking and jogging trails. You can also stop at the marina store and get some gear for crabbing. Wherever you are, you'll get a beautiful view of the Bay Bridge and the waters beneath it.
If you do choose to swim, head to the South Beach and look for the lifeguard. A part of the park's South Beach is guarded from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends and holidays.
The park also offers several large picnic pavilions and snack stands.
Location: 11 E. College Parkway, Annapolis
Distance from Baltimore: 28 miles
Cost: From April to October, it costs $5 per person for each Maryland resident and $7 for each out-of-stater on weekends, and $4 for Maryland residents and $6 for out-of-staters on weekdays; the rest of the year, it's $3 per vehicle.
Hours: 6 a.m. to sunset in summer
Rocky Point Beach and Park
Baltimore County operates this 375-acre park, which includes a beach, 18 picnic areas, several pavilions for picnics and a playground. Children can enter free, and there is a $8 charge for each adult, $5 for seniors.
Lifeguards patrol the beach, which offers beautiful Chesapeake Bay views. On weekends, it's crowded, but not crazy, with children building sand castles and splashing in the water. Bring food with you for a nice picnic, and plan to stay all day; there's plenty to do here, from nature walks to pickup volleyball games.
Location: 2200 Rocky Point Road, Essex
Distance from Baltimore: About 17 miles
Cost: Free for children; $8 adults, $5 seniors
Hours: Sunrise to 7 p.m.
If you know a lifelong Marylander over the age of 80, chances are they'll remember summers at Betterton Beach. Baltimoreans would take the steamboats from the Inner Harbor to this resort town in Upper Kent County on the Eastern Shore. There they'd spend the week swimming, fishing, and eating food prepared Maryland-style: crab cakes, corn on the cob, and warm rolls with butter.
But after the Bay Bridge was built in the 1950s, the steamboats faded away. In time, so did Betterton's grand old hotels and shops.
But the beach is still there, and it's free. Kent County operates this 5-acre waterfront park with 700 feet of shoreline access, a boardwalk, and a public restroom. Look straight across the bay and you will see Aberdeen, making you wish one of those ferries was still available. Don't fret about the loud booms; it's just practice drills at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. In addition to swimming, tourists like to hunt for sea glass at Betterton; Richard LaMotte, a Chestertown businessman, wrote a book about hunting for the gems that focused on the beaches near here. Also, because Betterton is north and has lower salinity, sea nettles aren't a problem.
There is no lifeguard, so it's swim at your own risk. In the summer, there's a concession stand.
Location: Follow Route 292/Main Street until it ends at the beach.
Distance from Baltimore: About 86 miles if you take the Bay Bridge; 96 if you take Interstate 95 north and U.S. 301 through Delaware.
Hours: Dawn to dusk, daily
Rona Kobell is a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal and its sister publication, Chesapeake Bay Journeys. She can be heard on Midday on the Bay with Dan Rodricks on WYPR every month.