Western Maryland: The state has high hopes that Rocky Gap & Lodge & Golf Resort will become a magnet for upscale relaxation. But the service and the Jack Nicklaus-designed course still have a few holes.

July 11, 1999|By Les Picker | Les Picker,Special to the Sun

A couple of times a year, I tire of the monotonous, flat coastal plain that we eastern Marylanders call home. Or perhaps I need a break from the harried pace that we collectively create and endure. Whatever the reason, each spring and fall, as the leafy harbingers of spring paint a subdued canvas of green, or die in an explosion of reds and yellows, I find myself drawn to the rock-solid mountainous beauty of Western Maryland.

I pack some clothes, get in the car and weave through the frenetic Beltway traffic, and head west on Interstate 70. Somewhere east of Frederick, I trade the angst -- and fun -- of Marc Steiner's radio talk show for the twang of country music (sorry, Marc), in what has now become a Western Maryland vacation tradition.

Driving past places such as Licking Creek, and the tiny outposts of Flintstone and Rush (which the residents never seem to do), the pace of life decelerates a notch or two. Soon Western Maryland's undulating vistas work their magic and soothe my eyes and soul.

So I eagerly anticipated my midweek trip west this spring, doubly so because I was to visit Maryland's newest resort attraction, the 220-room Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort located a few miles east of Cumberland and about 2 1/2 hours from the Baltimore Beltway. I had booked a $262 golf package, entitling me to a night's lodging, dinner, breakfast and two rounds of golf at the much-talked-about Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course.

An expensive undertaking

The $56 million Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort was built partially with our contributions, to the tune of $16 million in state aid, and another $4.5 million donated by Allegany County residents through a bond issue. The rest of the construction package was financed by private capital, brokered by the Maryland Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental organization. Rocky Gap's high price tag and unproven economic development formula have created a lot of controversy since the resort was proposed more than a decade ago to help revive Western Maryland's economy. Operated by Buena Vista Hospitality Group, a Florida-based resort-management company, the development has been touted by Maryland officials as a wonderful resort experience since it opened in April 1998.

As you approach Exit 50 from Interstate 68, the earth-brown hulk of Rocky Gap Lodge looms large in front of you, its teal roof blending seamlessly with ice-blue Lake Habeeb and the emerald forest of Evitts Mountain, which rises 2,100 feet behind the lodge.

The convenience of the lodge to I-68 is both a blessing and a curse. While being located right off an interstate is surely convenient, the road noise can be a distraction, as I was to discover.

I parked in front of the six-story lodge and dashed in to register, hoping to get situated quickly so I could make it to the practice range before my fast-approaching 3:30 tee time. Having no one available to greet arriving guests or to park cars is understandable for a resort that bills itself as rustic. But not having anyone at the front desk even offer bellhop service as I lugged a suitcase, golf bag and gym bag to my fourth-floor room was inexcusable.

Complicating my check-in was a desk clerk who, to put it mildly, was not very receptive to my 2:30 check-in. How, I explained, could I possibly fit in a round of golf if I adhered to their 3 p.m. check-in policy? That would put me on the practice range around 3:30, meaning I'd probably not be able to start until at least 4 p.m. On a challenging, hilly course such as Rocky Gap's, that would bring me in well after dark.

After listening to my harangue, the young man conferred with a supervisor and signed my check-in card with a bureaucratic flourish, dutifully making a note on it that I had checked in at 2:30. I had to wonder whether I'd get detention if I ever did that again.

But, I soon forgave the poor start when I oppened the door to my room, which had a panoramic view of Lake Habeeb. I could see a few families hiking around the lake and dozens of others swimming right next to the hotel at Rocky Gap State Park's public beach.

My simply furnished room included a mini-refrigerator and bar, a queen-size bed, a dressing area, a clean bathroom and a small armoire. Ten minutes after entering, I was out the door, golf bag in hand, and heading for what was to be a terrific golf experience. Or, so I thought.

Signature golf

State officials hope that Rocky Gap Lodge will become a destination site, in large part due to the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, 18 holes laid out amid beautiful mountain scenery. Only nine holes were available for play last year when the lodge opened, resulting in major financial losses for the resort complex as a whole. However, in May the resort announced the full course ready for play.

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