You blew it. Again.
Here it is, smack midsummer, and as usual you've let all the Early Warning Markers that provoke the cap-on-the-toothpaste crowd into urgent vacation-planning action pass. Easter came and went. Memorial Day's history. Even the last day of school is past. And now it's the end of the July 4th weekend, your mood's headed south, you crave some time with the sand and the sun and the sea gulls and . . . by now the entire East Coast beachfront is booked for the rest of the summer as solid as last winter's fruitcake. Between capes May and Hatteras, there's hardly a room at the inn, the seaside condo, rental house, chain motel or (go ahead, check) trailer park. It looks as if you're out of luck until next year.
"Part of the problem is that the East Coast has more traditional repeat vacation business than any other region in the U.S.," says Michael Sarka, executive director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association in Santa Cruz, Calif. "People book the same property each year and that contributes to the congestion." What this means is that repeat bookers generally send in their deposits for next year while they're still at the beach this year. Which doesn't give the rest of us much of an opportunity to join the fun.
And yet, with tens of thousands of places to stay scattered from Cape May, N.J., to the Delaware and Maryland shores, and from Chincoteague and Virginia Beach to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, including hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfast inns, condos and houses, it can't be possible that every place near the beach is fully booked for the summer.
First Stop: Chambers of Competence
Every beach area offers a chamber of commerce-like group whose primary summer job is to link latecomers with available accommodations. Upon request, they'll mail you a plump packet of promotional info, ranging from real estate rental offices to motels and bed-and-breakfast inns -- all of which is possibly useful if you have three weeks or three months to deal with, but of no use whatsoever if you're dealing with just days or hours. The smartest shore towns have put their brochures on the Internet -- or offer links to accommodation-oriented sites (see box) -- so you're not hostage to the U.S. Postal Service.
Still, in a pinch you'll need to find a place to stay via phone. Levels of service vary, however. In laid-back Lewes, Del., for instance, if you call after 4 p.m. you'll find everyone's gone home; your only option is to leave a message. Bethany Beach/Fenwick Island will fax you a list of real estate agents or motels, though the staff has no idea who's got vacancies. Other chambers are more service-oriented. In Cape May County, which includes communities from Wildwood to Stone Harbor to Cape May, the tourism folks have set up a phone tree that offers a relatively last-minute hot line and a fax-on-demand service. Lists, according to Bob Patterson, executive director for the Cape May County Chamber, are updated "regularly," a tad less reassuring than "daily."
But the area's two standouts -- and a fine starting point for last-minute trippers -- are the services of Virginia Beach, Va., and Ocean City, Md. The staff members who answer the phones at the city of Virginia Beach can actually make your room reservations, working from a fresh database of vacancies. And because they are required to tour every hotel they represent, they can offer invaluable descriptions as well. Also check out the Virginia Beach Central Reservations line, which performs a similar service.
The Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association represents 115 hotel and motel properties and updates its vacancy list daily during prime summer season. It acts as a matchmaker for callers -- who sometimes number up to 400 per day (tip: summer Mondays are the busiest phone days) -- by trying to link latecomers with preferences relating to location and amenities. It doesn't, however, make the reservations.
Beach Houses: It Can Be Done
Beach houses, more desirable for many travelers, are tougher to crack at the last minute. Renting a Saturday-to-Saturday seaside cottage with six months' notice is difficult enough; attempting to lock in a house with a mere few weeks' notice requires the luck of the gods. Houses open significantly, and rates go down, after Labor Day, when most local kids go back to school. If you can't wait, however, the most common approach to finding a beach house is to position yourself for a cancellation. Be forewarned: Cancellations in prime summer weeks are as common as 20 percent humidity. "I know one family that got sick and couldn't come, but, rather than cancel, left their rental vacant for the week so they wouldn't lose it for the next year," says Chris Godack, a 20-year same house Topsail Island, N.C., vacationer. Says Rene Reed, who has rented out two Lewes summer cottages for 40 years, "I don't even remember a cancellation."
If you want to take your chances, order the free Vacation Rental Managers Association directory (call 1-800-871-8762 or peruse the Web site at http://www.vrma.com). Here you will find hundreds of real estate firms, categorized by state, that specialize in vacation rentals. You may get lucky, but don't count on it -- or on a good deal, or oceanfront. "I don't want to say that it's going to be slim pickin's this year and discourage people from trying," says Jerry Milko, a broker at Holiday Real Estate in Ocean City. "But you shouldn't plan to shop around."
Happily, there are a couple of other house rental options:
Midweek group house rentals. Group houses, in which singles team up to rent five- and six-bedroom houses for the season, are a three-decade-old tradition in Dewey and Rehoboth beaches. "Singles, however are only interested in the weekends," says Diana Urbanas, a group house veteran and author of "The Beach Connection: An Insider's Guide to Group Beach House Life at Dewey/Rehoboth Beach" (urbanHaus, $19.95) "They're busy during the week being yuppies. So to offset the costs, the big houses really do rent out during the week."
The midweek rental is a phenomenal deal. Geared to families, the rental, which lasts from Sunday night to Friday afternoon, entitles you to spacious digs at less than half the price you'd pay for a Saturday-to-Saturday. Terry Mullen, who's been renting a group house for nearly 20 years -- and leasing it out midweek -- charges $900 for an ocean-block retreat that would rent through a real estate agent (for a full week) for about $1,700. The catch: Midweek group house rentals are marketed almost solely by word of mouth. It's nearly impossible to find one off the street (though ads have been known to show up in The Washington Post's classified pages under "Seashore Rentals" -- look for such buzz phrases as "Sunday-Friday rental"). The best tactic, unhappily, is the low-percentage method of asking around or posting notices in the office or gym.
A few other suggestions: Urbanas (301-913-9688) will provide a handful of potential for-rent group houses for a nominal fee of $20 -- but makes no guarantees of availability. Or you can get ahold of "The House Book," an annual guide that publishes names, addresses and phone numbers of all the group houses in Dewey Beach, and make cold calls to see if anyone's got a midweek available. Best place to get one: the Starboard bar in Dewey. Tip: In the book, "house coordinators" for each share are the best contacts and are listed in boldface.
Partial-week rentals. Atlantic Realty, which represents some 250 houses and condos on the Outer Banks, offers a partial-week rental that's designed to fill last-minute vacancies. The way it works: You call five days (not four, not six) before you plan to arrive. There is no Saturday-to-Saturday requirement and stays range from three to six nights. On a recent Monday morning in late June, sales associate Angela Cohoon was able to pull up a few options, including one condo, 10 houses in Kill Devil Hills, one in Kitty Hawk and one in Duck.
Other Outer Banks vacation rental firms offer similar programs, such as Britt Realty's "short week" rentals in which you must call 10 days prior to arrival. Still, there are no guarantees. "We just don't have many of these during peak season," says property manager Beverly Cline.
Small Favors: Inns
One outstanding last-minute service is Historic Accommodations of Cape May, a last-minute booking service coordinated by a 60-plus member group of innkeepers. Each member property spends a week staffing a hot line for the desperate. This is a service not only for last-minute vacationers; it's good for the members, too. "Room nights are a perishable commodity," says Jack Davis, owner of Inn at Ocean. The service "is manna from Heaven for the inn that has a cancellation."
The Thrill of the New
Because of their youth, new hotels, motels and B&Bs tend to have more vacancies than their more established peers: They have yet to establish a tradition-bound guest list, and haven't made it into latest guidebooks. For instance, the 11-month-old Holiday Inn Express in Hatteras, N.C., had vacancies throughout the summer when we called in late June, whereas more established properties along the same beachfront are densely booked all summer long.
Especially vulnerable to empty summer nights are new B&Bs; "It usually takes five or six years before you become a household name," says Laura Beth Kelly, owner of the three-year-old Bay Moon Bed & Breakfast in Lewes. In fact, Lewes has a bumper crop of new B&Bs this year. Shelly Sposato, whose Pine Hollow House, a two-bedroom B&B, opened in May, is hoping that overflow from sold-out area inns will send clientele her way, though certainly she wouldn't object to a direct phone call. Lynne Chichi, whose artfully designed Summerhouse opened this winter, also helms an as-yet undiscovered treasure.
How do you find out who's new? Simply ask the folks at the chamber of commerce for properties that have opened within the past year.
Pick Up Cancellations
The prime territory here is the large chain hotels. At the Sheraton Fontainebleau in Ocean City, Md., guests without guaranteed reservations must check in by 6 p.m. Otherwise, the computer wipes out the booking. So the best strategy for weekend latecomers is to call after 6 p.m. Thursday. At the Holiday Inn Sunspree in Virginia Beach, all reservations must be guaranteed with a deposit or credit card; cancellation, for full refund, must be made by 6 p.m. three days in advance. So if you're looking to squeeze into a sold-out weekend, plan to phone the hotel Tuesday night at 6:01.
Try a Travel Agent
We know, most travel agents are in the business of selling air-and-hotel packages. But a travel professional, who has access to a massive variety of accommodations and may even be entitled to bulk discounts that consumers would never find, charges the same fee for booking your room at the Ramada Inn in Virginia Beach as for planning a trip to Amsterdam -- exactly nothing. If you have an agent you trust, you may be able to get him to scan for vacancies you can't get at.
Consider a Package Deal
For some reason, people who regularly book full vacation packages for domestic or overseas trips never think about seeking them out at the shore. Packages combine such items as accommodations and amusement park admission fees into one price. And packagers reserve blocks of rooms that are unavailable to the public; hence, a hotel may be "sold out" but the packager may still have a dozen rooms.
In promoting itself as a family destination, Virginia Beach is a magnet for packages. Surf, Sun & Revolutionary Fun, a five-day, four-night package for a family of four, starts at $799 and includes two nights each in Virginia Beach and Williamsburg along with unlimited access to five Virginia attractions, including Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg and Water Country USA.
Another package is "See the Sights," a Virginia Beach-oriented promotion that includes accommodations along with admission to the Edgar Cayce Foundation and a visit to the Christian Broadcasting Network. While this deal caters to highly specific tastes, at $165 per person double occupancy for three nights, it's almost worth booking just for the hotel (you certainly won't be penalized if you don't make it to the attractions). And the Vacation Unlimited Package in Wildwood, N.J., includes passes to amusement parks and other attractions along with accommodations at select hotels.
Call your travel agent to book any of these GoGo Worldwide Vacation packages.
Take the Golf Course
The dead of summer is low season for Outer Banks Golf Getaways and other golf tour planners. According to spokeswoman Kelly Shields, summer is a family time and golfers generally prefer to play without their kids. As a result, the company, which oversees more than 600 rentals ranging from condos to beach houses, is willing to lease properties with or without the golf portion. Ocean City Golf Groups (OCGG) also offers packages that combine golf outings with hotel stays at some of the island's better properties, such as Princess Royale, Princess Bayside and the Howard Johnson 12th Street.
If you do want to play, though, tee times are easy enough to arrange, says OCGG President Rich Marts, because the area's prime golfing seasons are in fall and spring. Where he can be helpful, he says, is in booking rooms at prime hotels in tight times. "We have a pretty good relationship with local hotels," he says, "so often they'll save us a limited inventory." It must work. Two weeks before the Fourth of July, summer's prime holiday weekend, OCGG was able to secure for me a three-night package. For two people, the cost was $613.96 and included accommodations at the Princess Bayside and two rounds at the Beach Club.
Don't Go to the Water, Go on It
If you're willing to look at a waterfront vacation that's off the well-trod path, you might consider the quieter tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Last summer, Patty Devaney and seven pals enjoyed a four-day stay in the ultimate waterfront location: a 41-foot Hunter sailboat that they sailed from one quaint Chesapeake Bay port town to another. They had such a blast they're going again this year.
Chartering a sailboat -- whether you're a novice sailor or someone like Devaney, who's teaming up with an experienced friend -- is a terrific way to explore such Chesapeake Bay hamlets as Chestertown, Rock Hall, Oxford, St. Michaels and Annapolis -- under the power of the wind. Sailors can take advantage of two rental options: bareboat, which means someone in your group is an experienced skipper, and chartered, in which a captain guides you to destinations of choice.
According to Bruce Wagner, director of AYS Charters and Sailing School in Annapolis and president of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Charter Association, there are 16 charter companies with more than 200 vessels for vacation lease. While boats get booked ahead just like a well-placed summer cottage, Wagner says, there's always something available for last-minute travelers. Surprisingly, low season is mid-July through mid-August because of the heat, humidity and lack of wind, so latecomers may stand a better chance then. Prices range from about $650 (for a weekend, bareboat) to $1,800 or more (for a week). A captain can be hired for $150 per day extra.
For every well-established bucolic Eastern Shore hamlet that's packed all summer, there's another smaller town in the shadows that's not as booked. No question, St. Michaels, on the Miles River in Maryland, is cute -- full of interesting shops, antiques stores, inns, marinas and restaurants. But in high season, streets are crowded, there's no place to park, inns always seem booked. But Oxford, just a half-hour away via the magical Oxford Bellevue Ferry, is a wonderful place to stay. Equally historic, it's a quiet place with a few good restaurants, a couple of inns and one hotel, the rustic, slightly shabby Robert Morris Inn. You can usually find a room at this marvelous retreat.
Same goes for Chestertown and Rock Hall. When the weather's warm, Chestertown's sidewalks pulse with the footsteps of visitors surveying its array of shops and restaurants. But 20 minutes away is Rock Hall, which is in the midst of a transformation from waterman's community to a boaters' and artists' retreat. It's got terrific atmosphere, wonderful restaurants, interesting inns -- including the Inn at Osprey Point -- and no crowds.
Even Ocean City, Md., has a shadow town: The historic village of Berlin, just a few miles west, seems a continent away from the beach crowd.
The B&B strategy recommended in oceanfront communities does not necessarily apply, however, in quaint towndom where such home-stays are actually the bread and butter of the lodging scene. But: Elegant country inns, determined as such by prices that rise rapidly from a minimum of $200 per night (with attendant extras such as waterfront locales, marble en suite bathrooms and four-star restaurants), attract, for obvious reasons, a limited audience. If the price gives you heatstroke, consider bargaining -- particularly if you're calling at the absolute last minute. If there is a last-minute vacancy at a high-priced place, you might have leverage. Cathy Magrogan, manager of Combsberry 1730, an English country manor in Oxford (410-226-5353) where rooms start at $250, remembers a customer who wanted to reserve a "basic" room when all that was available was the $350 super-luxe Carriage House. "Call me the night before you want to come down," she said. "If it's still available, you can have it for $250."
He got it.
Carolyn Spencer Brown is a Chestertown, Md.-based freelance travel writer.
DETAILS: LAST-MINUTE BEACH GUIDE
Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, 609-465-7181, http://www.beachcomber.com/beach.html
Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May, 609-884-5508, http://www.beachcomber.com/Capemay/ c_o_ccm.html
Historic Accommodations of Cape May, 609-884-0080
Lewes Chamber of Commerce, 302-645-8073, http://www.leweschamber.com
Rehoboth Beach/Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-441-1329
Bethany/Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-962-7873
At the Beach, http://www.atbeach.com
Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-626-2326, http://www.ocean-city.com
Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, 1-800-626-2326, http://www.ocean-city.com/ochmra.htm
Holiday Real Estate, 1-800-638-2102
Ocean City Golf Groups, 1-888-465-3477, http://www.ocgolfgroups.com
AYS Charters and Sailing School, 410-267-9151
Maryland's Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Home Page, http://www.covesoft.com/Eastern
At the Beach, http://www.atbeach.com
Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, 757-336-6161, http://www.intercom .net/local/chincoteague
City of Virginia Beach, 1-800-446-8038, http://www.vabeach.com
Virginia Beach Central Reservations, 1-800-766-6782
Outer Banks Tourist Bureau, 1-800-446-6262, http://www.outer-banks.com/visitor-info
Atlantic Realty, 1-800-669-9245
Britt Realty, 1-800-334-6315, http://www.brittrealestate.com or http://wmi.cais.com/duck
Outer Banks Golf Getaways, 1-800-916-6244, http://www.outerbanksgolf.com
Surf and Sun Beach Vacation Guide, http://www.surf-sun.com/usa/northcar/outerban.htm
Insiders' Guide to North Carolina's Outer Banks, http://www.insiders.com/outerbanks/index.htm
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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