Plus, I said confidently, Bay Bridge traffic would be a breeze compared with summer. We'd get a great rate — the Hyatt was offering a promotion with rooms starting at $99 a night. It's a huge resort, so we'd likely have at least some portion of it to ourselves. As long as the weather held out, it would be a great escape.
We left on Saturday morning just as a huge windstorm swept in. It was partly sunny with howling 50-mph gusts of wind. Signs along U.S. 50 warned the bridge was subject to crosswinds and, looking down into the Chesapeake Bay, we saw a sea of whitecaps and churning gray waves.
Traffic was so light that we decided to make an unplanned stop in Easton, a town we had not visited in several years. For good measure, we would take a total detour and check out Tilghman Island and St. Michaels too, about 30 miles or so from U.S. 50.
It was before noon when we hit the main drag in St. Michaels, and several shops appeared to be closed. Still, the town looked as lovely as ever and even a little bit in love: Tacked to the light poles lining the main street were large red Valentine hearts with the names of couples and other messages handwritten on them. It was thoroughly charming.
Less charming was the development that has sprung up along the way back to U.S. 50, very close to Easton's historic downtown. There's a Chili's, Target, Chick-fil-A and other chain stores at Waterside Village at Easton. Even a Panera and an Applebee's. That's progress, I guess.
Our destination was Washington Street, just a couple of miles away in Easton. Walking the downtown and fighting off the wind chill, we took refuge in Lanham Hall Design, a blocklong boutique for home furnishings and accessories. We also stopped in at the Green General Store, a boutique devoted to eco-friendly wares and renewable energy.
For lunch, I checked my Urbanspoon iPhone app and turned up a nearby restaurant that was fairly new and getting great reviews. It's a smallish place called The BBQ Joint. Being fans of well-smoked delights, we decided to give it a try.
There's a reason the restaurant gets a 93 percent approval rating on the app — the food is delicious. We tried the ribs and barbecue sliders, with sides of coleslaw and potato salad and a plate of "redneck" nachos. We skipped dessert, but the fried chocolate chip cookie, topped with vanilla ice cream and served in a cast-iron pan, sure was hard to pass up.
Back on the road, we were now falling behind on our goal of getting to the Hyatt Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge before check-in at 4 p.m. Turns out there was no real reason to hurry. Our room wasn't ready. And based on the number of people in the lobby, we weren't alone. It seemed the hotel was booked solid for the weekend. The line to check in stretched from one end of the lobby to the other. There went my idea of peace and quiet.
My plan to get a great rate had already gone out the window days earlier. We paid $170 per night, using our AAA membership, and also received a $40 voucher for breakfast. Not too shabby. (The $99 rates were for Sunday-Thursday stays, but even for a Sunday night, the available rate was $149 — without any vouchers.)
Seems we weren't the only ones surprised by the popularity of a winter weekend escape to the shore. We waited nearly an hour for our room to be ready, sipping on pear mimosas the staff passed out to soothe antsy guests. The lobby is huge, with plentiful comfortable seating areas and a view of the Choptank River that's simply spectacular.
The Hyatt Chesapeake Bay has 400 rooms in a sprawling, 400-acre waterfront resort. The hotel charges a $20 resort fee per room, per stay, to cover some of the activities, including tennis, swimming pools (indoors and out), game rooms, hiking and biking trails, miniature golf, beach volleyball and more.
Our room on the sixth floor was superb — especially spacious and with a vaulted ceiling and water view to boot. If the weather had been warmer and if the step-out balcony had been the kind you could sit on, we might have enjoyed spending the entire weekend right there. But we wanted to get out, see the resort grounds and spend some time at the indoor pool. What we didn't realize was that the pool would be pretty much overtaken by children and their inflatable water toys. It's not a huge pool to begin with, and filled with dozens of super-enthusiastic (i.e. screaming) water babies, it wasn't exactly the atmosphere for a couple. The Hyatt provided a list of weekend activities that did note the pool was reserved for "adult swim" from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. That didn't fit our schedule.
As we passed rooms filled with kids playing pingpong, kids playing pool, kids playing games, kids playing in the gym and kids running through the lobby — many of them soaking wet — we began to realize that the Hyatt Chesapeake Bay is extremely kid-friendly. It's also pet-friendly. But couple-friendly? Not on this particular busy holiday weekend.
For example, we waited more than 30 minutes at the Water's Edge Grill, the hotel's casual restaurant, to be seated for breakfast. Families and groups of four and six were seated ahead of us, some of them with no wait at all. Turns out, the restaurant was placing couples at two-seat tables only. If there was a table with four seats available, it went to a party of four. This may be the most efficient use of space, but it's not the most satisfactory customer service.
Still, there are some places where couples can escape. Michener's Library is a comfortable bar that's off-limits to children in the evenings. There's also a bar at the resort's golf clubhouse, but it appeared to be closed for the season. The Stillwater Spa is another part of the resort where mostly adults hang out.
Also, in summer, as more of the resort opens up to activity, I would imagine the additional space means the crowds spread out instead of everyone being pretty much trapped indoors.
We ended up taking a drive to downtown Cambridge, a few miles from the hotel. It's obvious that the area is undergoing a revitalization effort with some newly painted storefronts and others that appear to be in some stage of renovation. It's a very quick walk along Race Street and there are a few restaurants, including Canvasback, a casual pub; Jimmie & Sook's, a raw bar and grill; and Bistro Poplar, an upscale French eatery. The Harriet Tubman Museum – the leader of the Underground Railroad is a celebrated native of the area — is also here, but we arrived after it had closed for the day.
Nearby High Street is home to the Dorchester Center for the Arts, which offers gallery shows, classes and a gift shop. You can also drive along Water Street for a scenic route or take a walk in Long Wharf Park.
Back at the hotel, we had dinner at the Blue Point Provision Company, the hotel's seafood specialty restaurant with magnificent water views. It's located at the edge of the resort — probably a nice walk in good weather — but Hyatt also offers a shuttle. The rockfish and crab cakes were meltingly good, but the place was packed. It's a good idea to make reservations for the restaurant, which is popular with local residents too. On our walk back to the hotel, we stumbled upon the resort's conference center. It may have been because it was late in the evening with no meeting in sight, but the area seemed a perfect quiet spot with lots of comfy seating for reading.
The next morning, we took a walk along one of the several hiking paths on the resort property. It was still breezy, but not nearly as bad as the day before. We had breakfast and then left the resort just before the noon check-out time. We considered taking a trip over to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but the call of the mall was stronger than the call of the wild. We had just one last stop to make on the way home: the Queenstown Premium Outlets (formerly, Prime Outlets).
The stores appeared to be thriving, with hordes of bargain-shoppers. We hadn't even counted on doing any shopping here, but with a lineup that includes Calvin Klein, Coach, J. Crew, Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Under Armour, who could resist?
I also couldn't resist having an early dinner at Cracker Barrel in Stevensville. Even though it violated my rule of avoiding chain restaurants while on vacation, the down-home eatery is a mecca for motoring travelers. This location has been open only a couple of years and is an easy detour off U.S. 50.
We ended our winter weekend road trip heading back across the Bay Bridge with the sun setting on the horizon. Traffic was slow. Just how I planned it.