Sunday, March 06, 2011

[Travel] Cold Beach Mix

Cold Beach Mix I had no business doing any travelling. I really am trying to dedicate myself to the house for the plannable future. But I also really needed a break from house fretting -- it's a very bad sign when you haven't changed your TV off the DIY Network in four days. So last minute trip was planned.

The plan: Get to Washington DC, then make for the Delaware shore, Rehoboth Beach in particular. But "last-minute" means pricey flights. So I decided to drive. Did it make sense?

Plane ticket: $400
Airport Parking: $50
Rental Car: $150
Total: $600, about 4 hours

Gas: $100
Tolls: $50
Total: $150, about 9 hours

So at a cost of 5 hours I saved $450. That implies I value my time at about $90/hour. Of course all such calculations are muddled with risk. Lord knows you can't count on flight timing and you can't monetize the massive annoyances of plane travel. On the other hand, you can't predict traffic and you might come back from your car trip to find you check engine light on (I did).

The biggest risk, in either scenario is the weather. In this case it was a killer snowstorm, but a strangely localized one. I left Dexter at 6 AM and by the time I reached Toledo it was pretty much a white out. I was travelling at about 35 MPH and praying they would not close the turnpike. Honestly, it was as bad winter driving as I have ever encountered. Strangely, back home, not 50 miles north, they found the snowfall trivial. And after an extended slog across a snow-packed turnpike, once I was past Cleveland it was as if someone drew a line and the roads were clear the rest of the way. Still, it added an extra couple hours of driving to the day. So instead of nine hours to DC it was eleven and after a stop for dinner, it was another four to Rehoboth Beach.

I am a lifelong fan of the resort towns on the Atlantic seaboard. I've hit just about all of them in Florida, then on up through Tybee Island outside Savannah, to Hilton Head, up the Carolina to the Outer Banks, and now to Rehoboth Beach and Cape May. After that, there's a big gap until you hit Kennebunkport, ME. The crap-shop charm of the boardwalks, the sea air, and the big summer homes are quite appealing to me.

Still, any beach town loses something in cold, gray weather. The colors grow drab. The gentle ocean breeze becomes a frigid wind. The streets are deserted -- although perhaps not so much. Getting into a restaurant on Saturday and Sunday night was not trivial. There were crowds at many, and the bars tended to be quite full. I can't imagine it was just locals.

Rehoboth Beach is about 4 hours from Washington DC and presumably a good deal closer to Baltimore. It has an unusual dual reputation as being both gay friendly and family friendly. When you pull into town you'll see things like an advertisement for something called "mandance" but you'll also see toy stores and arcades and such. Rehoboth Beach is dominated by one broad main street that runs perpendicular to the shoreline. It is lined with the requisite shops and restaurants and bars and such. Cars are allowed but it's very walker friendly. It lacks any sort of central architectural theme that I could see, other than what might be called "beach town cute". Follow it less than a mile down to a nice long boardwalk with more of the same. I strongly suspect this is alive with activity in season.

It's tough to get a really good feel for a place when it is out of its usual character. I suspect summer nights in Rehoboth might be over to the lively of the spectrum, but the existence and proximity of some clearly pricey homes and rental properties suggests that things rarely get out of hand. Reputation also suggests that the 20-something-beach-weekend-hook-ups tend to occur in the next town south called Dewey Beach, although there are some high-end looking beach rentals down there too.

Even in the winter, though, the beach is quite lovely, but what it may not be is the best place for swimming. Reports (mostly from Trip Advisor) suggest that efforts to replenish the sand have resulted in sharp drop offs and waves that crest close enough to shore to make it awkward.

Not sure how I feel about Rehoboth Beach. I don't think it would be my first choice. It would work for a weekend with friends as a getaway from DC/Baltimore, and I suspect that is what it is mostly used for. But I don't think it's worth a jaunt across the country.

Perhaps a bit more interesting is Cape May, New Jersey. You can reach Cape May from Rehoboth via a car ferry. It's about ten minutes to the ferry in Lewes, De, an hour and a half ride over ($70), then another ten minute drive to Cape May proper.

Unlike Rehoboth Beach, Cape May has a layout closer to an organic beach town. Instead of one wide main street there is a grid of small residential streets peppered throughout with shops and restaurant, with the two major areas being the beachfront and a closed off segment of Washington St. three or four blocks inland. The natural layout of the place is enhanced by the numerous Victorian houses that populate the side streets. Most seem to be in excellent repair and many have been converted to bed and breakfasts or rentals. It makes Cape May seem like something for substantial than just another beach town. Like Rehoboth, it seems upscale enough not to give off the vibe of a place that gets overwhelmed by Jersey Shore guidos (but I suppose you never know). Nicely done.

But there are downsides too. Parking was no problem in the winter, but I suspect in season it is troublesome since most of it seems to be street side. Nor is the beach free in season; you need to buy a pass: $5 for a day, $10 for three days. Preservation, such as it is, requires a certain amount of control, it seems.

While I think I prefer Cape May to Rehoboth, again, I don't think it would merit a visit were I not already local. On the other hand, Atlantic City is not far away. I could see a trip including a mix of Atlantic City gambling and beach time in Cape May. Possibly. But I would more likely head to points north or south for an Atlantic Ocean fix.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Annapolis. Not a beach town but we stopped for lunch on the way back and I must admit I would take it over either of the two beach towns in anything but perfect swimming weather, but of course I knew this. I have done it to death over the years, which is why it wasn't the final destination. Great place, with history and sailing and excellent food. Don't miss the mussels at McGarvey's.