One hundred days. That’s how long I’d been in lockdown at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey when the idea of a family vacation—a proper, weeklong, get-yourself-out-of-office trip with my husband and two daughters, ages one and three—went from a daydream to an obsession. There’s been much written about the plight of working parents during the coronavirus pandemic so I won’t drone on about the challenges here. In fact, we’ve been the lucky ones: displaced from our recently purchased home in Brooklyn, where we were still in boxes, yes; living out of suitcases and toiletry bags and working out of a childhood bedroom, yes. But my husband and I were both still employed and able to cobble together child care through the extreme generosity of all the grandparents, who shared the domestic load of cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping. Our pod was functional and our health was fine—physical, at least. Mental was another story.
My panic attacks started in early June. Just logging onto Zoom made my pulse race; normally benign actions like making a meal or opening my email had a veneer of stress I couldn’t wipe, no matter how many workouts, White Claws, silly movies, and therapy sessions I tried. My anxiety was omnipresent, simmering beneath my skin like an electric current. I was already on anxiety medication—where could I go from here?
Maryland, my brain whispered. Wait, what? Upstate New York. Anywhere but here.
Our bosses had encouraged us to take time off for weeks, and my go-to joke was, “Time off just means I have to watch my kids all day!” Don’t get me wrong: I adore my children. They’re the main reason I smile these days, the source of all my perspective. But being at home with them for a week isn’t a vacation.
Then in early June the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut started to see a steady decline in COVID-19 cases; states from Massachusetts to Maryland slowly reopened businesses, beaches, and barriers to entry. Hotels and resorts announced their plans to return after the Fourth of July weekend. And my husband and I started having what felt like clandestine conversations about (shhhh) a road trip. The kids were bouncing off the walls (literally); my husband and I got giddy in a way we hadn’t known—or allowed—for months.
We certainly did the guilt tango, asking ourselves these CDC questions about whether we should travel in the first place—we didn’t want to be part of the problem just because we wanted a change of scene. How could we—would we—be responsible travelers? We looked into states that didn’t require a 14-day quarantine, either when we got there or when we got home, and for destinations that mandated masks indoors and outdoors in crowds. “Family-friendly resorts in the Northeast” was our go-to search, until we further narrowed the field to a three- to four-hour drive from our base on the Jersey Shore. The Catskills. The Berkshires. Lake George in the Adirondacks. We compared each resort’s cleanliness policies while also confirming that some amenities were available—restaurants and a pool were non-negotiable. Only a handful of places were available though not for the reasons you’d expect. In the Northeast, resorts were open and booked. We weren’t the only ones with this idea, which was, frankly, astounding.
And so, after much soul searching and Googling, we decided to risk a family trip to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
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Our three-year-old Hailey took a deep breath in the lobby of the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Maryland, and exhaled with an audible “ahhhhh,” followed by, “It smells so gooooood.”
Couldn’t agree more—what was that smell? It was rich, heady, kind of floral but not overpowering. Could I bathe in it? Drink it? As we walked through the front door of the resort, the distinct scent seemed to reinvigorate senses that had been in hibernation for four months. Our shoulders had already dropped; our toddler was living her best life, whooping “Weee-who!”, which we immediately adopted as the trip slogan.
Masked valets greeted us—we chose to park our own car—along with a sign that read, “We respectfully mandate masks be worn indoors in public spaces.” (The same rule applies across the state of Maryland; masks must be worn in public areas, businesses, and on public transit.) The check-in desk was behind a layer of plexiglass, and Purell dispensers were stationed like sentries at every major entry point. So far, so good. Between the front desk and the 100 or so steps to our room on the second floor, we never saw a soul. Managing director Michael Hoffmann later told me the resort was capped at 50 percent occupancy during the week—and 67 percent on weekends—which meant it felt like we had this corner of the resort to ourselves.
And the hotel room was exactly what I had hoped for: incredibly clean, though not in a medical-grade way, smelling of Lysol and with safety seals everywhere. Instead, it was clean in that luxury resort way: fresher, tidier, and saner than my own home. It felt like we were the first people to ever stay in this beautiful one-bedroom suite overlooking the Miles River. I had come armed with a roll of paper towels and enough Clorox wipes to clean every surface in the resort, but I never took them out. That was how comfortable—how confident—I was in the safety of our setting and the staff who risked their own lives to come to work. (Note if you go on any trips during COVID: Please, please tip aggressively.)
Did I feel a pang of fear when my kids ran around touching every doorknob and phone in the room? (They had never seen phones with cords before!) When they made a game out of “calling Grandma” from the bathroom phone? Of course I did! You don’t shake four months of relentless mom fear in five minutes. One deep breath and a quick re-read of “CDC Says Surfaces Aren’t the Main Way Coronavirus Spreads” later, and I was picking up that bathroom phone—the most unlikely of novel treats—and “calling Grandma,” too.
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Over the course of five days and four nights, we did a half-dozen things that would be fairly standard vacation fare in pre-COVID days but felt incredibly special given their rarity in 2020. We ate breakfast every morning in a nearly empty indoor dining room, covering the table with crayons and Paw Patrol pups and digging into impossibly fresh berries and biscuits with sour cherry jam. We ordered strawberry daiquiris and chips and guac at our socially distanced chairs by the pool, taught a one-year-old how to play bocce (not knowing whose hands had touched the balls before), and had dinner indoors at an actual restaurant, Limoncello, that had the most straightforward mask-wearing signage I have seen to date. (Wear masks when you enter. Take them off at the table. Put them back on if you move around the restaurant.) We even went to a museum, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which was mostly outdoors with a working shipyard and the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse, to poke around. And of course, we ate crabs—with sanitized hands—at the nearby Crab Claw.
In St. Michaels, we made it our goal to sample ice cream from every establishment (support small business!). Judging by the constant cluster of folks outside, Justine’s seemed to be the local favorite, but we were partial to the chocolate gelato and air-conditioning at Skipjack’s. We bought handpainted souvenir ornaments from the Christmas Shop on South Talbot Street and stressed over the absence of visitors with the shop’s owner; the shop didn’t have an online presence to maintain a steady drumbeat of business during the lockdown. Would they still be around a year from now? We promised to return.
This stretch of the Chesapeake Bay was certainly making a bid for “annual Redman family vacation destination,” especially once we got out on the water. Under clear skies and with a barely there breeze—just enough to raise the sails on the Inn’s 38-foot Stargazer—we were off, criss-crossing the river with Captain Rich. Though normal capacity is only six guests, we had the sailboat to ourselves on this particular weekday morning so we bonded with Captain Rich, swapping tales about family and our hometowns while keeping an eye out for local landmarks and wildlife. “There’s a bald eagle!” he shouted. Hailey, our three-year-old, one-upped him with “LOOK, DOLPHINS!” A pod of what looked to be a dozen dolphins, maybe more, were fishing just off the bow of the boat, leaping out of the water like they’d been hired by Sir David Attenborough to film a scene in Planet Earth. There were no dolphins in our backyard back in Brooklyn or New Jersey.
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Turns out nirvana smells like Australian Beach Sandalwood. That was the intoxicating scent of the Inn at Perry Cabin, one I pledged to buy to recreate the sense of freedom—from fear, anxiety, and doubt—I had encountered at the resort. We weren’t normally “resort” people, preferring to visit cities pre-COVID, but this indulgence cured what ailed us. Just a four-hour drive in a rental car from home was a blissed-out slice of America, where there’s an Adirondack chair for everyone and pints of ice cream are served on a silver platter. What a privilege, what a luxury this kind of travel is, ten times more so in the age of coronavirus. A week after we returned home, Maryland landed on the quarantine list for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The doubt returned—had we been part of the problem?—and a single cough out of my one-year-old sent us running to look up COVID testing centers nearby. As we await test results, I think about the shop owners we met, the waiters and cleaning staff, who all said—to a person—they were worried that business wouldn’t come back. Can we find a path forward with masks on, sanitizer at hand, and distance between us? Or should we be content looking for bunnies in our backyard, rather than dolphins?