We love the beach. But sometimes, when we're sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge, contemplating higher tolls and the mob scene in Ocean City, we begin to wonder: Isn't there another great vacation spot nearby?
As it turns out, there is. From Baltimore, just point your car in the opposite direction of the Eastern Shore, drive the same three hours, and you'll end up at Deep Creek Lake, a treasure trove of summer fun without the crowds.
For the locals and visitors who come every year—many of whom have summer houses on the lake, which has 69 miles of coastline and is the largest inland body of water in the state—it is a well-guarded secret. (Sorry, guys!) The lake's sandy beach, with swimming and multiple boating options; a surprising diversity of warm-weather activities, many at nearby Wisp Resort (296 Marsh Hill Rd., 301-387-4911, http://www.wispresort.com); a great nature center; and lots of dining and shopping attractions make it an excellent, family-friendly alternative to the ocean.
The drive from Baltimore is a sightseeing adventure in itself, passing through Frederick and Cumberland, either of which would be a good place to stop for lunch. In our case, as our two- and four-year-olds dozed in the back, my wife and I just enjoyed the quiet and gorgeous scenery—particularly Cumberland's glorious old architecture and church spires.
The lake itself is nestled in the western tip of Maryland, just miles from both the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders. It's surrounded by state parks, including Deep Creek Lake State Park, New Germany State Park, and Rocky Gap State Park, each of which offers campsites and hiking (http://dnr.state.md.us has information on all state parks).
In fact, on our first night in the area, we joined up with some friends who were camping in New Germany for a pleasant short hike to the lake, followed by some fireside guitar-strumming and s'mores (no doubt the highlight for the under-five set). The kids—or more correctly, their parents—weren't ready to endure a night under the stars, so we hightailed it out at bedtime.
If you're not into the idea of roughing it at a campsite, you might prefer to rent one of the many comfortable homes nestled in the woods around the lake, many with their own private docks and boats. (The Garrett County Chamber of Commerce's site, http://www.visitdeepcreek.com, is a good place to look for rentals.) Alternatively, Wisp makes for an excellent base of operations, with the added amenities of an indoor pool, several restaurants, and easy access to all of the area's best attractions.
We stayed at Wisp, which is probably better known as a ski resort. It was really a deal at $129 a night, especially compared to the cost of hotels on the Eastern Shore. We all shared a two-bed suite, which, frankly, was a little tight, particularly for our kids who are early risers. It would probably work great for older kids. (Good tip for parents looking for an activity before breakfast: The front desk is surprisingly okay with you borrowing the bellhop's luggage rack to give your tykes rides around the premises.)
Wherever you sleep (or don't), we recommend waking up to a big, homestyle breakfast at Annie's Kitchen Country Restaurant (414 S. Main St., 301-746-8578), one of the many family-run eateries along Main Street in nearby Accident (you'd think they wouldn't use that name so close to a ski resort!) or McHenry. Fluffy omelets and biscuits and gravy are house specialties. And, if you brought the kids, ask for the box of toys, along with crayons so they can draw on the paper tablecloths.
After fueling up, head to the lake, where there is an outdoor beach hut that rents boats and gear for an active day or umbrellas and chairs for a totally inactive one with a book beachside.
Guides will also rent you paddleboards and one-person or two-person kayaks (the doubles are perfect for exploring with young kids), along with life jackets and paddles. They can point you in the direction of the best spots to observe migrating birds. We found that looking at the homes, docks, and boats—some, especially spectacular—along the shores was just as much of an attraction. There are also plenty of clearings around the lake where you can pull up and enjoy your own totally secluded piece of beach. Try imagining that anywhere near the carousel in Ocean City.
My four-year-old and I had terrific bonding time in a double kayak out on the lake. He was so proud to help steer and navigate and investigate our surroundings with me. He lasted a solid hour before falling asleep in his berth, paddle at the ready. Did I mention we didn't sleep well?
If you want to be on the lake, but with less paddling, book a pontoon boat tour, which leaves from the Deep Creek Lake Discovery Center (898 State Park Rd., 301-387-7067), near the beach hut. The partially covered boats will take you all over the man-made lake and explain its history and development. Our crew loved catching the breeze—and some surf—on the high-speed excursion. Try a sunset cruise for the especially extraordinary views. There are also plenty of boats and instructors for hire at or near the lake, offering waterskiing, tubing, fly fishing, and whitewater rafting. Wisp Resort Lakeside Club (1077 Deep Creek Dr., 301-387-8861) is a good place to start.
For lunch, you can feast on burgers and dogs sold right off the grill at the beach hut, or head to one of the many restaurants just off the lake. Our favorite was Canoe on the Run (2622 Deep Creek Dr., 301-387-5933), which offers great wraps, sandwiches, and starters, like a smoked-Gouda-and-caramelized-onion quesadilla, served on a beautifully rustic deck amid the woods by the lake.
The Discovery Center is a destination in itself, especially if the weather isn't cooperating. Filled with snakes and other critters—some alive, some stuffed—the place aims to educate about the history and ecology of the lake and its environs. There are lots of classes and activities, too.
Whether you're staying at Wisp or not, the resort has many activities for summer visitors. There's a full 18-hole golf course on the premises, but the newest and (for our money) greatest attraction is the Flying Squirrel Canopy Tour, which allows adults and kids over 10 years old to fly among the trees on zip lines, ranging from 180 to 400 feet on a course that also includes rope and plank walks.
New this summer, Wisp has added adventure courses for younger kids, too. The Chipmunk Challenge Course, for ages four and up, includes two zip lines of 60 and 200 feet, along with various climbing and swinging stations. Squirrels Den and Marsh Mountain Mining Company are two features designed for kids two and up and include a smaller climbing adventure course and a mock mine, where kids can sift through the sluice for gems. Another good choice for the littlest visitors is the duck and swan paddleboats on the nearby pond.
The Mountain Coaster is as thrilling as the zip lines, and available to kids as young as three years old (with an adult). It's a true one-car roller coaster, full of drops and spins, which is entirely controlled by gravity. Each car has its own hand air-brake that allows users to control just how scary they would like the ride to be. My little guy, apprehensive at first, wanted to ride this again and again.
If you're looking for a more relaxed view from the top of the mountain, take the scenic chairlift, which runs year-round. You can stop at the top for lunch at the Pumphouse Cafe, or make it a round-trip ride. If you can't resist the slopes, rent a mountain bike and helmet, and hit the trails that range from beginner-friendly and cross-country to freestyle and expert downhill.
Among the other landlubber diversions at Wisp are Mountain Buggies—off-road vehicles sure to make a mess. Rent coveralls for $10 and get revving. There are also Segway tours—although these aren't your typical mall gliders: Fitted with all-terrain tires, these bad boys run on a bumpy mountain course.
Older kids might appreciate the nine-hole disc-golf course or the skate park, which offers board, in-line skate, and helmet rentals.
Parents looking for time alone can take the kids ages five to 12 to the Adventure Day Program at Wisp, where they'll take part in activities at the beach and at the resort, supervised by counselors. And on Saturday nights, Wisp offers "Kids Night Out," where the little ones join other kids their own age for entertainment while mom and dad go out on the town.
You won't necessarily find fine dining or glamorous nightlife here, but you will enjoy the sweet, warm comforts of country living.
We won't hold the name against DC's Bar & Restaurant at Wisp, which offers a cozy setting for a relaxed meal with dishes ranging from steaks and seafood to sushi and tacos. The Deer Park Inn (65 Hotel Rd., 301-334-2308, http://www.deerparkinn.com), just a couple minutes from the lake, offers a more refined setting for American-influenced French cuisine, like house-made country pâté with cornichons, petite filet of beef with Cabernet Sauvignon sauce, or chicken "savoyard" with bacon and Swiss cheese.
Another dinner option is Archie's Barbeque (25259 Garrett Hwy., 301-387-7400, http://www.archiesbbq.com) with its luscious baby-back ribs, pulled pork, burritos, and wraps.
If you (or, more likely, your kids) can't live without the rides, go-karts, mini golf, and arcades that they're used to at the Boardwalk, visit the redundantly-named Funland Family Fun Center (24450 Garrett Hwy., 301-387-6168, http://www.deepcreekfunland.com) or one of several other similar amusement spots in the region.
We stopped at Funland on our way out of town. It was, indeed, fun—and, more importantly, it served the useful purpose of exhausting the kids for the ride home. But mostly, it reminded us of what a wonderful, nature-filled time we had without all that noise.