Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer Road Trip 2015: Assateague Park and Ocean City, MD

Ocean City, Maryland 

While clicking through one of the "road trips you should do" slideshows on the Internet, I saw information about Assateague Park, Maryland, not too far from Ocean City. I wondered how I missed that and of course I was determined to go. I missed seeing wild horses running around the beach in the Outer Banks, NC and I be darned if I was going to miss them again.

I put Maryland into my itinerary and after Valley Forge, we headed off to the Ocean City area. Since this was an afterthought, I booked lodging in Salisbury, rather than overpriced Ocean City, at a surprisingly luxurious looking Sleep Inn. We were impressed. 

Although this is a national seashore, the fee is a bit steep ($20 per car) but you can purchase an annual pass for $10 more. In hindsight, I should have done that because I could go next January when my husband has a business conference there. It will be interesting to see the park with snow. 

As soon as we turned out of the parking lot, we glimpsed a horse at the edge of the water as we traveled over the steep Verrazano (yes, really) Bridge. So, they were really there. We followed the road toward the beach area and sure enough, as if they knew to be on display for tourists, horses were lunching on the side of the road. 

If you're biking, beware of horses, deer and the droppings they leave behind. It can be an obstacle course. We decided to forgo the bike ride and sit on the beach instead. You have to be careful there also. The horses were in the parking lot and near the concession stand. We found a manure free area on the beach but you should be very watchful. 

There are warnings every where about approaching the animals and feeding them. They are wild, descendants of domesticated horses probably from the 1700's. We heeded the warnings, others did not. I didn't see anyone get kicked or bitten but I'm told it happens. In addition to your medical bill, you'll also get fined! 

Horses can been seen by entering from either Maryland or Virginia (Chincoteague, a privately owned fenced in area). Assateague in Maryland fills up quickly during summer weekends. 

After the park, we wandered into Ocean City, a colorful, noisy and crowded conglomeration of food one should never have regularly (but can't be resisted), amusement park rides that only exist now in state fairs rather than theme parks and game rooms (play lands) that one sees in movies from the 1960's. This is a boardwalk on steroids, one that can only exist on an Eastern American shore. It's a step back in time and if you haven't been for a while, you'll feel immediately transported to your childhood. 

Like Coney Island, the amusement park areas are not all owned by the same people, so tickets are not transferable. Suck it up and pay to park if you are not staying right there. You'll save yourself the aggravation and you'll have a (perhaps false) sense of security of leaving your car in a lot. Pay the fee, grab some cash (some businesses are cash only), get an ice cream cone and stroll along the boardwalk. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bayside Skillet, Ocean City, MD

Upon the advice of a friend, we had breakfast at the Bayside Skillet in Ocean City, Maryland. The first impression is the large parking area and the website saying that reservations are not taken for breakfast, just dinner, meaning that during high season it probably gets very crowded. 

(Editorial Use only)

The outside is a whimsical pink that introduces a greenhouse interior speckled with strawberries, including the restrooms! 
Bayside Skillet, Ocean City, Maryland (Editorial Use only)

The sign outside says "The Crepe and Omelette Place" and they mean it. No pancakes, waffles or french toast. They also serve frittatas, known to some of us as a Spanish tortilla: an omelette that's stays open faced with a choice of toppings, with or without marinara sauce. 

The bar opens at 9AM, it's the law, even though the restaurant opens at 7. It closes at 2PM during the off season. You can perk up your breakfast with a cocktail, which were not designed to get you falling off the chair. 

Portions were generous (which accounts for the higher end prices). We could have shared our crepe and a portion of potatoes (which we saw at a neighboring table). Add to that the fruit we had and we left stuffed. 
Seafood Crepe

The staff was very friendly and efficient. Like many breakfast places, if you become fond of your cup or admire the staff's t-shirts, you can purchase a souvenir on the way out. 

I'm sure dinner is just as tasty, but I would heartily recommend breakfast so that you can work it off during the day!

Berries and the homemade Chantilly Cream

Bayside Skillet, 7701 Coastal Highway (US Rte. 1), Ocean City, MD; tel:410.524.7950,

Monday, January 19, 2015

Carnival Cruise Line: Revisited


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Typical stateroom. (Carnival trademark, editorial use only)

Since my husband has declared himself to be a cruiser, it's off we go as often when we can. From December 27- January 4, we sailed on the Carnival Freedom to bring in the new year. And I must say, I commend Carnival Cruise Lines for literally "stepping up their game."

Carnival is a British-American cruise line owned by Carnival Corporation & plc based in both Miami, Florida and Southampton, England. The corporation owns 9 lines, among them Carnival, Holland, Princess (of "The Love Boat" fame) and Cunard, all ships I have seen docked at various ports.

From the start, Carnival provided cruises that were shorter and less expensive, thus taking cruising from the privileged and making it more accessible to the middle class. When I talked to more experienced cruisers, they told me how their friends used to look down on them for sailing Carnival, presumably a lower class of vacation. As part of a corporation that offers 9 different brands, Carnival can retain its party and fun reputation since other more luxurious offerings are on their sister lines.
Carnival Pride (editorial use only)
Well, after my relatively brief time as a cruiser, I can honestly say that Carnival is now playing with the big boys and have upgraded features on about half their 23 ships with more to come. Not all upgrades went to every ship at once. For example, some ships have the Seuss at Sea but may not have the Hasbro Games, yet. It seems to be a work in progress. When you explore the website, it will tell you which ship has what:  
Theatre on the Pride (editorial use only)
1.       New entertainment on some classes of ships with Playlist Productions. At the Future Cruises talk on the Pride last year, the representative shared how expensive contracts were but Carnival knew that an entertainment overhaul was needed. The cast was energetic, enthusiastic and engaging. Although some of the singers may not quite be Broadway worthy yet (I’m from NYC), the quality of the shows was certainly better in terms of content (familiar sing-a-long themes like Motown, 80’s pop, etc.), choreography, multi-media aspects like projections screens and special effects. The Freedom’s shows featured music on tracks, though, not a live band. Be assured, this is still the party line, which good DJs, the Cupid Shuffle and the hokey little contests. But be nice, don't forget to Groove for St. Jude (the children's hospital). It's the only time you'll be allowed to use cash on the ship.
2.       Branded eating experiences such as Guy’s Burger Joint, the RedFrog Rum Pub, the BlueIguana Cantina, EA Sports Bar and the various clubs are on more ships, not just the higher classes.
3.       Pool side movie screens (Drive-In Movies): about half the ships feature popular movies at certain times (not all day like Disney, which has the luxury of having it’s own library). Free popcorn is available at the bar. Ironically, it was a Disney film we saw!
4.       Seuss at Sea: Character appearances and the additional cost Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast event (very popular, the dining room was full) are now on 11 (soon to be 12) of the 23 ships.
Carnival Freedom (editorial use only)

5.       Another popular event: Hasbro Game Show. Popular Hasbro Board games come to life with you as the game piece. Again, about half the ships have this.
6.       Carnival Live, with real concerts, are on 7 ships. They claim to have acts such as Journey, Smokey Robinson, Styx and others for the 2015 tour. This activity costs extra.
7.       Continued friendly service from the staff: people are always talking about how all cruise lines have hard-working staff and it is an interesting employment situation. I won’t go into details with this article (I don’t know if the rumor that they earn a base salary of $1.50/hour is true, hoping for cash tips as well as the required gratuity), but these people work all day, every day. We have asked if they get some time off and they do (some even get to go ashore at ports) but it’s a very long day for the wait staff and the cabin stewards. Yet, they moved energetically (the main dining rooms are a speedway), never seemed tired and were extremely courteous.
Towel art and chocolates (editorial use only)

8.       Plenty of deck chairs. Of course, for the prime spots, you still have to get there at the crack of dawn, but we wandered up to the Lido around 1PM and found two nice spots (twice!).
9.       Pretty good food, considering. Quantity is not the issue, cruisers are resigned to mediocre quality. But let’s be real: they need to prepare food for 2000-3500 guests 24/7 and it’s not an easy task. The every day menu is actually the best one: whenever I order the salmon, it’s fresh, hot and seasoned nicely (I don’t like much salt). The salads are fresh and crisp and the fruit is good. The buffets are actually good, also. Lunch seems like the most popular meal judging by the crowds. Carnival must know that because their breakfast-lunch hours are actually longer than Royal Caribbean’s and if you were hungry in between lunch and dinner (a small time window, actually), the pizza and deli windows are always open.
Tea Time on sea days (editorial use only)

10.   Internet service: Even Disney can’t top their package (well, actually, they can). Hands down, Carnival is better than Norwegian and Royal Caribbean with their length of cruise package rather than doling the time out by the minute. For $60 bucks, we had 24/7 availability, albeit on one device at a time. Service at sea, on every line, is slower and you have to be tech savvy to know that sea days will even be slower. Yet, it was surprisingly good, considering. The one drawback is that even with the higher package, you can’t stream movies although you can Skype. So how is Disney’s a teensy better: with their higher package you can stream movies (but with their poolside cinema, why would you want to?) but it’s priced by the megabyte. This should be interesting when I sail to Alaska next year. Learn how your phone operates: it can be on airplane mode with the wireless on at the same time.

So, there you have it: a newer and improved Carnival seemingly dedicated to still being a lower-priced cruise line with more amenities. Happy trails!