Solomons Island floods with spring revelers; In a seasonal rite, thousands gather for Tiki Bar opening


SOLOMONS -- Basically, it's just a block party. Like the Queen Elizabeth is just a boat.

This weekend, thousands jammed -- or tried to -- into a 94-seat bar on the harbor that's done up to look like a little grass shack. The crowd, most of them in their 30s, spilled onto the parking lot, the street out front and onto a pier for what has become Southern Maryland's rite of spring -- opening day at the Tiki Bar.

People come from next door and from as far away as California and Alaska to down uncounted gallons of the bar's signature drinks -- mai tais and Kokomos -- and catch up with old friends they haven't seen since October, when owner John Taylor closed for the winter.

Forget finding a room in southern Calvert County. Hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts have been booked for weeks. Boaters began jockeying for good spots at the Tiki Bar's dock nearly a month ago. Friday, they were rafted up three and four deep.

Ken Clemens hurried "Dog House," his Sea Ray 300 powerboat, from winter storage at a marina across the Patuxent River in St. Mary's County to the second slip from the bar three weeks ago.

"I don't know when they got here," he said, motioning to boats in better slips on the other side of the pier. "That's prime territory over there."

Taylor, 65, and his wife Kathy have been running this bar for 20 years. It wasn't until 10 years ago that the opening weekend of the season took off as a commercial bonanza.

"It was just, bingo. Now, it gets bigger every year," Taylor said. Last year's crowd was about 10,000. "It seems to signify the beginning of the summer season."

"It's like Mardi Gras," said Joan Biro, manager of the bar.

Not everyone is happy with the booming success of the Tiki Bar. Some residents of this half-mile-wide island at the mouth of the Patuxent River complain about revelers doing lewd things in their yards, not to mention the traffic jams, drunken drivers and the cost to the county for police overtime, trash hauling and other services.

A Calvert commissioner, David F. Hale, touched off a dispute last month when he asked aloud whether the county should spend an estimated $25,000 a year "to benefit one business." Others, however, contend that the Tiki Bar's annual opening lures ample business to town, said Carmen Nance Sanders, owner of an art gallery and president of the Solomons Business Association.

"The restaurants and hotels love it. They're filled to the brim," she said. "Most people who come here on that Friday are on a mission, to go down there and party and have a good time. I've closed early and gone there, too."

The state police and county sheriff's deputies brought in about 100 officers this weekend to set up road blocks to contain the crowd and control traffic. They also announced a "zero-tolerance" policy against underage drinking, carrying open containers of alcohol past the roadblocks and public nudity.

"We're not gonna let things get out of hand," said 1st Sgt. Brian Cedar, a state trooper on duty at one of the roadblocks. "And I think this way, they're going to have more fun."

Police arrested 15 people on drunken driving charges and about 30 for disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and other violations Friday and yesterday, according to Sgt. David Cameron of the state police. There were no arrests for public nudity.

It isn't total nudity that flowers in the spring down here, so much as women flashing their breasts in exchange for strings of plastic, Mardi Gras beads.

"I got red ones, I got red ones," said Naomi Stevens as she joined friends on the parking lot. She traded for them, she said.

The bar isn't supposed to open until 2 p.m., but the public parking lots were crowded by noon. Streams of party-goers lugged their own coolers toward the bar along the only street that runs the length of the island.

Victoria Clossen and her friend, Maureen Auld, were putting the finishing touches on a wooden stand where they were selling beads, drink holders, bracelets and necklaces.

"I'm a mortgage banker, but I wanted to do something different," said Auld, of California, St. Mary's County. She approached Clossen, a graphics artist from Lusby in Calvert County, and in three weeks they assembled their stand.

By 1: 30 p.m., the rush was on for mai tais and Kokomos sold from the back window of the bar.

At the China Harbor next door, owner Yvonne Lee was turning away customers unless they were willing to settle for carryout.

"It's crazy. Very, very crazy," she said as she and her employees wrestled tables from the dining room in place for a makeshift bar. "I can't sell food to regular customers because I don't have enough help for table service. And I can't do a regular menu."

She conceded, however, that it's only once a year, and "we make a lot of money."

Bob Somerville, of Park Hall in St. Mary's County, was sipping a drink with friends and watching the passing parade.

"We're just drinking socially," he said. "This is a place you can come for a good time and there's not a lot of trouble, not any violence."

When Mike Barancewicz, who grew up in Tidewater Virginia, moved to the Washington suburbs, Solomons Harbor and the Tiki Bar became his "escape from concreteville." The 36-year-old energy consultant has since moved to Suffolk, Va., but he still makes the three-hour drive to Solomons for this event.

"I met a girl here last year. She was from Alaska," he said. "You just got to be here."

Carlos Diaz was an opening-day regular years ago when he lived in Calvert County and worked at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant. He's still comes for opening day, even though he now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

"I get to see everybody I haven't seen all winter," he said. "I've been to all sorts of places, and there's nothing like this."

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