A refreshing change Deep Creek Lake: For a family grown weary of the sand, tar and crowds of ocean-side resorts, a cabin in the woods is very cool indeed.

August 02, 1998|By Maria Hiaasen | Maria Hiaasen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Call us brave or foolish. Craving a break from a lemming-like pilgrimage to the shore this summer, our family of five booked a place in the mountains, sight unseen. Having thumbed through a Realtor's flier in March, we found lakefront rentals cheaper than comparable oceanfront units. So, promptly, we booked an A-frame cottage on Deep Creek Lake and gladly paid the extra security deposit so that our Labrador retrievers could accompany us.

Great outdoors, here we come. We posted the paragraph describing the "Islamorada" on our refrigerator door and counted down the weeks.

"You booked a place blindly?" a friend inquired in April.

I tried to camouflage my knee-jerk reaction with cliches about crisp mountain air and a laid-back pace.

Then, a cool May triggered another tinge of doubt, and we began to long for moist ocean breezes. But by late June, Baltimore's weather forecast mirrored Miami's, and radio traffic reports began to include backups on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. On a 90-something- degree day in Charm City, we hitched up our 17-foot Boston Whaler, piled the two dogs and three kids into the car and headed west for the cool hills of Garrett County.

Our instincts served us well. Deep Creek Lake broke the dreaded summer vacation rut and introduced us to a slower-paced, secluded sliver of Maryland. It felt as if we had escaped to Maine in a fraction of the required driving time.

What should have been a three-hour car ride took us about four hours. Blame our aging minivan's resistance to towing a boat up the Allegheny Plateau. I think we willed the 8-year-old Mazda up the incline near Rocky Gap State Park along Interstate 68 and on through the hills past Cumberland and Frostburg. The old girl revved her engine beyond 5,000 revolutions per minute on those stretches. But she seemed to coast down U.S. 219, cruising uneventfully through Accident (I still want my photo snapped beside the town-limits sign) and on to McHenry, site of our rental office. Here, we collected keys and printed directions to our rental.

Our anticipation swelled during the brief, winding drive from the realtor's office to the Islamorada, but sweet relief followed. With its native stone fireplace and skylights, the chalet - nestled in a wooded acre - oozed rustic charm. Plunked in a stand of hemlock trees, it was framed by blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. Cliched or not, the air was crystal clear. A thread of a waterfall trickled outside the kitchen window.

Children and dogs followed Mom and Dad down the steps from the deck, then headed toward the lakefront along a path through hostas and ferns. (There was no lawn). My husband and I relaxed on a cedar bench swing perched above a finger of a cove. The kids, meanwhile, scampered toward boulders of sandstone scattered in the woods.

This seemed heavenly, especially after driving for hours with dogs and children. Then came a sudden burst of splashes. My husband, Rob, and I were jolted back into responsible parenting mode, but, thankfully, only briefly. The dogs - not the kids - had decided to swim unsupervised.

First things first

A few preliminaries consumed that first afternoon at Deep Creek Lake. We launched the boat at the boat ramp in the lake's state park (some marinas also have boat launches), then got our bearings on the water and drove the boat to the dock behind our house. Someone had to fetch groceries. Serendipitously, our location was near the Arrowhead Market, a small but full-service grocery complete with gourmet takeout and freshly cut steaks. Planning ahead for a rainy day, I made note of the new movie theaters across the street.

Chores behind us, we rustled up a grilled dinner (the Islamorada had both a charcoal and electric grill) then squeaked in a presunset cruise around the lake. It took awhile. Deep Creek is the largest freshwater lake in Maryland, 12 miles long and covering 3,900 acres.

That 3,900 acres is accompanied by 65 miles of mostly wooded shoreline. While my family discussed the week's potential for water sports and fishing, I kicked back and relished the day's last rays of sunshine while gazing at the stately hills. Except for a few palatial homes on partially sheared peaks, most chalets and cabins were tastefully hidden among the trees. Not exactly the Maine woods, but for Baltimore suburbanites, this looked downright rustic.

After reaching the dam that created Deep Creek Lake 73 years ago, we zipped back to our dock and headed inside. The kids lobbied for and won a few rounds of Go Fish and checkers, then retired with the dogs. Mom and Dad unpacked novels and read by the fireplace.

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