David Bear: What makes a great vacation?

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First, thanks to our neighbors and friends Barbara and Mark Taylor, who offered us a week at their family cottage on a quiet estuary along the northeast shore of the Chesapeake Bay near Chestertown, Md.

My wife, Sari, and I had been to Maryland's Eastern Shore before, both to check out the upscale enclaves around St. Michaels and to cross over the DelMarVa Peninsula to the Delaware beaches. But we'd never ventured north of the Bay Bridge, so the quiet but distinct charms of Kent County proved to be a wonderful surprise.

This was to be a family vacation, including our son, Ben, a recent high school graduate who'll be leaving for college in a few weeks, and our two chocolate Labs, Leo and Shiloh. Unlike previous summer vacations oriented around more distant and often foreign destinations, the idea was to keep things as simple as possible, just to have time together to relax, play and enjoy each other's company. The trip planning was strictly last-minute, something we could manage because it didn't involve airline reservations. We wanted a place that offered creature comforts and also activities to occupy an 18-year-old.

The opportunity to take the dogs was a big plus, besides meaning that we didn't have to worry about pet care at home. On many previous vacation walks, we speculated about how much the dogs would have enjoyed being with us. It meant taking two cars, but that also gave us greater flexibility.

I'd planned a circular driving route. On the Sunday morning of what would be the year's hottest week to date, our short caravan headed east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Harrisburg and then southeast past Lancaster and though Pennsylvania Dutch country to DelMarVa. Then last Sunday, we drove back to Pittsburgh via the Bay Bridge and Washington, D.C., where we got to visit our older son, Zach's, new home. I'm pleased to report both trips went smoothly, with no traffic delays or misadventure other than a missed turn or two.

The Taylors' house turned out to be a real delight, a private, peaceful enclave situated in a shady grove above a quiet cove along Still Pond, a short tributary that empties into the Chesapeake. Its elegant, exposed post and beam construction reflected the Quaker simplicities of the four bedroom, 25-year-old home. Its many amenities included the personality and decor of the family that created it, a character so often missing from rental property. We had no trouble making ourselves comfortable, but there were initial concerns about what we'd do for a whole week with no real plans.

As it turned out, our time flew by. Despite successive days of triple-digit temperatures, we managed to keep our cool. Mornings were ideal for relaxed breakfasts. We walked with the dogs or enjoyed watching them swim off the short beach by the house. Afternoons were too hot for the bikes we'd brought or the kayaks we had at our disposal, so we explored the attractions of Kent County by car.

Chestertown, a charming Colonial town, is celebrating its tricentennial this year. Taking the self-guided walking tour offered by the Kent County Visitors Bureau (www.kentcounty.com) made an interesting afternoon. It showcases a dozen well-preserved 18th-century buildings that encapsulate an interesting slice of early-American history. Most are privately owned and maintained, but the Gedes Piper House is a small, free museum filled with artifacts and life. Chestertown also features some charming shops and nice restaurants, but it retains the feel of a real working place that doesn't entirely depend on tourism for its existence.

Another afternoon we headed through the small port of Rock Hall to the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge, a 2,285-acre island in the Bay. A prime stop on the migratory flyway, the refuge is a superb bird watching spot with several blinds situated at the end of marsh boardwalks. Although the birding is better in spring and fall, we did get to watch a flock of two dozen white swans lazing in the waters of Tubby Cove.

We also ventured out to two small beaches, at Betterton and Tolchester, but soon retreated to shadier places. Everywhere we went was easy to find and uncrowded, with free parking. Not surprisingly, Kent County has a distinct sailing culture. Its countryside, however, is agricultural, with huge fields of corn and soybeans reminiscent of the Midwest.

We enjoyed steamed crabs and fresh fish, but other than several dinners in area restaurants, we eschewed outside evening activities, preferring to hang out at home. There was a TV, but we generally read, talked and enjoyed the quiet. Ben and I even got a series of Scrabble games going, discovering a new mutual interest.

From start to finish, the week was one of the best family vacations I can remember. Somehow, it's always reassuring to re-discover that pleasures aplenty can be found without traveling to great distances.

On a completely different note, my July 30 article about airport connections generated a number of reader responses.

Among them, JoAnn Jenny, director of communications for Pittsburgh International Airport, wrote to let us know that the on-time performance ranking cited in the article would have been more reflective had we'd used year-to-year figures rather than figures for one month. On that scale, Pittsburgh International ranks fourth best, rather than 17th, which only confirms the estimation of many travelers who responded to our connection poll, that we have a wonderful airport. Now, if only we could land some international destinations.

Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear can be reached at 412-263-1629 or dbear@post-gazette.com .


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