food, history, hotels, travel, wine

Mid-Atlantic Road Trip

When you pretty much live on I-95 between Massachusetts and Virginia, what do you do every year for your birthday but take a mid-Atlantic road trip?

This year, our first destination was Atlantic City, where Caesars comped us a cozy room with a partial view of the Ocean.  From there we headed over to Bally’s, where I promptly lost a few dollars on video poker, and decided to take a twilight stroll along the beach.

We were looking forward to checking out the old Claridge Hotel, recently rebranded as a Radisson.  I don’t often stay at Radissons, because, decades ago, when I was young and first travelling for work a lot, I called (on a desk phone!) to join their frequent-travel program, only to be told that membership was “by invitation only”.  Okay.  So over the years, I’ve built up points and status at Hilton and IHG, who welcomed my business from the beginning, and it doesn’t make sense to expand my loyalties now.

But that doesn’t rule out a roof-top happy hour.  The night air was cool, and the views from the Vue were great.  It was a little hard to forget my VP losses though.

In the morning, we stopped to see the site of the home Donald Trump tried to abuse the power of government to seize from elderly widow Vera Coking.  Then we headed back to the wooden Boardwalk, with its greasy food stops, kitschy sundry shops, and sadly shuttered casino hotels.  A highlight of the walk was watching the hideous turrets being removed from the formerly Trump Taj Mahal, where I’d spent my 2012 birthday road trip in a suite with a kitchenette and a raised hot tub.  I remembered sitting on the sofa in the living room, watching Mitt Romney debate Barack Obama, a long life ago in an America far far away.

On this trip, I had three tubs to choose from–hot, tepid, and cool–at Caesars Qua Baths and Spa.  I prefer super-hot water, but I loved the large raised tepid tub.  Its waters cascaded over the sides and gave me a feeling of being carried away.  Then I stripped down to my birthday suit for the best salt scrub I’ve had since my ski trip to Topnotch Resort in Stowe (not counting my dip in the Dead Sea).  The best part was that the luxury feel continued as the masseuse rinsed my newly smooth skin with coconut milk on a washcloth, instead of swinging a Vichy shower over me or sending me to a standing stall, as even some high-end spas do.  And then began one of the best massages I’ve ever enjoyed.  Since I was still on my back, the masseuse started with my forehead and worked her way down, sitting on a stool to rub both my tired feet at once.  Then I turned over, and she worked her way back up, finally kneading the knots in my shoulders with strong symmetrical pressure.  As a nice extra touch, she gave me a one-day pass to return to the spa.

Moments later, I was dressed and walking along the Boardwalk with my friend toward the Tropicana, where we’d spent my 2014 birthday.  We started off at The Palm with perfectly prepared Sesame-Crusted Ahi Tuna, accompanied by a fabulous moist seaweed salad.  From there we moved next-door to Cuba Libre, where the friendly bartender mixed us wonderful Margaritas as we perused the menu.  We settled on the fire-roasted vegetables–an excellent round platter including carrots, onions, beets, Portabellos, zucchini, and generous amounts of goat cheese.

In the morning, my companion and I set off alone on the beach and then the Boardwalk, thinking a couple of friends would join us.  We paused at the Miss America statue.

“There she is!” my companion exclaimed as one of our friends texted.

We met up for later for lunch at Caesars’ surprisingly extensive buffet, with a varied anti-pasto bar.  Then we drove to Baltimore, and spent the evening on the roof deck, as flocks of birds circled above us.

Wednesday was transition day.  We stayed in Baltimore, washed laundry, and repacked.  For lunch, we headed to Nick’s Fish House, an ultra-casual waterfront spot.

Seated at our long wooden picnic table out on the open back porch, I feasted on the cream of crab soup, some of the best I’ve ever sampled, thick and rich and creamy and lumpy with meat.

My actual birthday began with a walk around Baltimore to check whether the statue of Christopher Columbus was still standing.  It was.  From there we went to Federal Hill Park to ensure that our flag was still there.  It was.

Then we loaded up the Jeep and headed for Hershey.  Our first stop was Nissley Vineyards, where the nice pourer was almost apologetic about having to charge us a tasting fee, explaining that too many people took too much advantage when tastings were complementary.  We liked the sweet but light Black Raspberry enough to buy a bottle.

But much of the fun of the place was following its binder full of wines along an independent tour of the property.  I especially liked the ancient look of the lime kiln.

Next we drove along flat roads, past Craftsman-style homes on large lush farms.  Mennonite children, girls in dark dresses and white caps, boys in suspenders and straw hats, bounded from school buses.

We arrived at Mount Hope Winery, located on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, making it the most unique winery we’ve visited.  We liked the dry Riesling enough to order a glass, or, more precisely, a plastic covered sippy cup, and went out to walk around.

As it was a weekday, the Faire wasn’t open, so we simply strolled along the outskirts.  I love Renaissance festivals and try to go to one every year, but this was the first time I’ve had occasion to say, “Hold my sippy cup; I want a picture of the gargoyle.”

We headed to the Hotel Hershey for my birthday dinner at the Circular.  My companion loves halloumi, and one of the reasons why I chose the elegant restaurant is that they have a grilled halloumi appetizer.  It was fabulous, nicely charred outside, satisfyingly firm inside.  For dinner, I chose the swordfish, which was also excellent.  Knowing how much I love them, my companion had pre-ordered chocolate-covered strawberries for dessert, and they didn’t disappoint.

But “second dessert” was the best bite of the meal.  Another reason why I chose the Circular is that my friend loves caramel, and reviewers raved about the ones the restaurant offers after dinner.  It was easy to see why.  Soft, sweet, salty, and buttery, we were addicted on the first taste.

And so on Friday we began a quest for more caramels.  We started off at Hershey’s Chocolate World and hopped aboard the free 15-minute Great American Chocolate Tour.  Characters including an animated kiss and singing dairy cows explain the process of making chocolate, from cacao bean to candy bar, a small sample of which each rider receives after the tour.

From there we searched the enormous gift shop for caramels.  Finally we asked for help and were told that we were looking for Lancaster caramels.  We purchased two bags and tucked in to them as we left the building.  They were very good, so good that we would probably have loved them had we not tasted their fresher, creamier cousins at the Circular.  But we had, so we didn’t.

We drove back to the Hotel Hershey and searched the sundry shop.  The clerk told us the caramels were available down a hallway at the Sweet Shop–and there they were, nestled in white paper candy cups on the bottom shelf of the display case!  We bought a box.

Mission accomplished, we headed to the Hotel’s Harvest Restaurant for lunch.  Seated at a large booth in the elegantly casual dining room with its exposed wood and lots of long windows, we both ordered soup.  My companion selected the she-crab–velvety smooth and richly warm from the sherry.  My pumpkin pear soup was also very good, thick and textured and autumn-y, with a touch of sweetness.

When you’re born in Salem during October, you’re accustomed to Hallowe’en build-up as the back-drop to your birthday.  I had really wanted to go to the Hershey Park in the Dark pre-celebration of the holiday and ride the Thrilling Thirteen, a baker’s dozen of roller coasters.  But it was drizzling rain just enough to be miserable, so we decided to go to more wineries.

We arrived at Cassel Vineyards as a handful of friendly workers were preparing to press newly harvested grapes.  Sipping from stemless glasses in the small tasting room, we tried the dry Winner’s Circle White, a blend of vidal, chardonnay, and the traminette we had so much enjoyed in the Shenandoah Valley.  We both loved how the light floral flavor of the traminette came through and bought a bottle.  As the pleasant pourer was wrapping up the glasses for us to take as well, a young couple came in, looking to learn about wine, explaining that they were beer drinkers expecting wine-loving guests.  We were glad they picked such a nice winery for their crash course.

Then it was on to CrossWinds Winery, where a jewelry sale was taking place in a smaller room to the side of the larger tasting room.  We both liked the light and crisp dry Riesling.  When I commented that it was like the one we’d enjoyed yesterday, one of the owners standing nearby broke away from her conversation to interrupt, “Where did you have a dry Riesling?”, expressing great surprise that another nearby winery was making the same thing.  We didn’t buy anything there.

We moved on to the large tasting room at J&P Winery.  I asked the pleasant pourer what was in the two uncommonly named blends, Tipsy Cat and Dazed Dog.  “That’s a family secret,” she replied.  “They’re not going to tell me.”  Okay.  The other unique thing about this winery is its slushies.  We both best liked the Margarita, which tasted just like the frozen version of one of our favorite cocktails.

From there we headed to Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course.  We went out to look at the horses, but the rain was still drizzling, so we went back inside to play slots.  The night ended well enough, as we both won–not a lot, but we did win.

On Saturday’s drive back to Baltimore, we stopped for lunch at Oregon Grille, a renovated 19th-century stone farmhouse in horse country with good service and great food.  Seated at a dark leather booth in a cozy quiet dining room, we both started with the lobster bisque, which was excellent, creamy with generous chunks of sweet meat.  I had the Malibu burger and chose house-made chips as my side because my friend loves them.  The burger was fabulous, the meat well charred and the avocado fresh.  Besides some chips, my companion had the delicious Duck Confit and White Bean flatbread, the not-greasy duck set off by the mild flavor of the cannelini beans.  Back in Baltimore, we finished out the night on the roof deck, sipping the white blend from Cassel Vineyards and savoring the caramels from Hershey.

On Sunday, I got the best birthday gift I could want:  I got to spend a night alone in my apartment.  I read; I made dinner; I took a long hot bath.  On Monday, I filled a suitcase with warm clothes and drove back to Baltimore.  We supped shiverring on the roof deck, knowing it was probably the last time.  Then we finished up Season Five of The Americans.

About ten minutes from Baltimore, Historic Ellicott City is much like old towns across the globe, with quaint taverns, boutique shops, and historic sites set along narrow roads, uneven sidewalks, and natural sources of flowing water.  Founded in 1772 by the Ellicott brothers, a Quaker family of millers, in a Southern state on the Mason-Dixon line, it has the complicated history that arose when slave-holders and abolitionists lived side-by-side.  Its Elkridge Furnace Inn was a stop on the Underground Railroad; there were almost certainly others.  But its court house was the setting for the trials, convictions, and sentencing of fugitive slaves and those who helped them run.

Many times the waters that enabled the milling that gave the town life have tried to destroy it.  On July 30, 2016, a flash flood caused by an intense rainstorm killed two people and devastated homes, cars, and businesses.  The town is still rebuilding.  I wanted to see how it’s been faring.  Water damage is not just physically devastating, but it’s also emotionally exhausting.  It ages you and steals your energy and washes away your health.  It leaves you afraid to go away and afraid to come home, always imagining the next time the unimaginable will strike.

But the sun was shining and the air was crisp and the town’s vitality was returning when we visited for the first time since the flood.  We started with lunch at Manor Hill Tavern, which opened in February after months of delays caused by the flood damage and the county government’s permitting process.  But neither of these obstacles was evident in the bustling and darkly furnished dining room where we sat at a large comfy booth.  My companion’s burger was moist, well charred, and bursting with meaty flavor.   The accompanying succulently salty bacon-fat fries were among the best I’ve ever tasted.  But my Cobbecue Salad was even better.  The pulled beer-can chicken was fork-tender and plentiful; the traditional Cobb ingredients were fresh and flavorful, and the Carolina Gold Vinaigrette was textured and slightly sweet.  And it was so enormous that I couldn’t finish.

After lunch we poked around the sites and shops before settling onto bar stools at Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant, where we’d last lunched about a year before the flood, which cost the charming place its wine cellar, bake shop, and two walk-in refrigerators and 30 employees their jobs, according to our engaging bartender Erin, who also works part-time as a hula-hoop performer at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.  The tiny bar was quiet as we sipped sparkling wine and looked over the now-smaller menu.  My friend was thrilled that they still serve their outstanding escargots.  Baked in a pewter plate with butter, white wine, and generous amounts of chopped garlic, they rival any we’ve had in New Orleans.  We placed an order but were still so full from lunch that we couldn’t eat anything else.  That is, until we made it back to Baltimore and supped on cheeses before continuing the day’s history explorations by starting the mini-series based on David McCullough’s excellent tome John Adams.

The next morning, I was going back to Massachusetts.  As I did last year, I drove along the Palisades Interstate Parkway and stopped at the State Line Lookout, a scenic point about half a mile south of the NJ/NY border, overlooking the Hudson River.  The Palisades are a line of steep cliffs forming the west bank of the River.  The Lookout is the site of the cliffs’ highest elevation of 520 feet.  Just like last year, the foliage wasn’t yet near peak, but the sun glistened on the blue waters of the River.  A couple of dozen people with binoculars and long-lensed cameras were gathered for a “hawk watch”, observing soaring raptors on their annual migration from Canada and New England.

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