The sun has disappeared behind the trees, the sky around them a fingerpainting in deep orange. I'm nursing a Maker's Mark in a wooden rocker, letting the river air cool my brow. The strumming of a folk guitar, so vivid you can hear fingernails sliding on strings, fills the courtyard surrounding the emerald Manor Lawn. And I'm thinking: Boy, the folks at Hyatt have invested in one awesome outdoor sound system.
But the song stops, there's a fumbled half-strum or two, then silence. Another song begins.
I turn around and discover it's no sound system. It's a guest out on his third-floor balcony, enjoying the same view and the same breeze, playing the guitar for his own pleasure and the benefit of anyone else who happens to be around. In addition to me, that would include a couple nursing martinis the size of the Tin Man's headgear and two guys holding Heinekens as they play boccie on the pristine lawn.
It's the sort of unscripted moment you might not expect at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay. The facility, open for two years in August, brings something new to Maryland's Eastern Shore: a high-service, high-volume resort that's luxe enough to appeal to both mid-Atlantic corporate retreaters and long-weekenders in search of a scamper-and-pamper getaway. It has a golf course, tennis courts, three pools, the requisite spa/health club/hot tub trio, a kids' camp, an activities concierge and an on-campus Starbucks. But it also offers some local flavor.
Take, for instance, the crab cake I had at a soaring lounge called Michener's Library. The patty was as thick as one of the kickboards down at the pool, made nearly entirely of firm fingers of crab meat dusted with just a hint of Old Bay and broiled, not fried. Hyatt may be based in Chicago, but it knows it needs to produce a local experience. (The only books in the "library," I should point out, are the copies of James Michener's "Chesapeake" that are stowed behind the bar and available by request. Ask for a copy and sink into one of the cushy chairs overlooking the courtyard to read. A few Maker's Marks could transform Michener's hammer-and-nails prose into a James Joycean tumult: riverrun!)
The hotel's lobby and main dining areas, as well as many rooms, overlook the Choptank River, providing a pervasive waterscape. While the multi-winged, -storied and -gabled architecture is a commonplace of 21st-century resort design, this one is capped by a round white tower that recalls the classic (largely defunct) Chesapeake lighthouses that sit on pilings just above water level. It's got a marina and a small fleet of canoes, sailboats, skiffs and kayaks.
It also has an 18-acre private nature preserve, just the sort of thing you want to know is there when you start thinking, as you inevitably do, about locating large-scale development on such ecologically sensitive real estate. Oyster-shell trails lead from the hotel to the preserve, where blue herons and bald eagles nest.
Alas, I couldn't get very far. Boards blocked the entrance, a sign explaining that the area is closed, per state regulations, during the February-to-July blue heron nesting season. I walked some of the perimeter and heard a magnificent glottal ruckus coming from deep in the thicket.
When the resort opened two years ago, the golf course, the marina and some facilities and services were still in the works. I can report that most of the bugs are now worked out. The approach remains startling. The resort is just off a particularly blighted stretch of Route 50, and when one crosses the Choptank Bridge, it's hard to imagine that you're headed to such splendid isolation. The only reminder of this while on-campus is the omnipresence of the bridge itself in nearly every water view.
There are five eating venues, ranging from the white-tablecloth Water's Edge to poolside sandwich-and-salad service. All three pools are open, including a big indoor facility, whose side doors are thrown open wide in temperate weather; a water-slide pool; and one of those neat "infinite edge" pools designed so that if you look at them from just the right angle, the waterline merges with the natural waterscape beyond.
The marina is at the far end of the resort, anchored by a seafood restaurant and supply store topped by a canvas sail and other flourishes of neo-maritime architecture. The kids' club was in operation, as the resort was full of meetinggoers and at least some of their families. Though three groups were there during my visit, I didn't feel crowded out. They tended to meet and eat by themselves in ballrooms and whatnot. (Well, one night I felt the squeeze. I returned to Michener's for a nightcap and the bar was crowded four-deep with Maryland auto dealers. Afraid I would not escape without buying a car, I turned in early.)
The Hyatt has a beach, but let me be plain: Nobody should go there for a beach vacation. It consists of three strips of sand. One is taken up by the small watersports facility and the other "large" one is only big enough to accommodate a dozen or so lounge chairs. A few moms and kids played in the cool river, but signs warned that jellyfish enjoy the same territory. The resort extends its beach by adding some rafts that tether to the shore and let you bob in the sun. But if it's beach you seek, the ocean resorts are another hour down Route 50.
I played golf early the next morning. River Marsh Golf Club lies gently on the Chesapeake landscape, the holes threading around ponds and lake and strips of ungroomed wetlands that add both beauty and menace. Water comes into play on half the holes.
My threesome was serenaded by bobwhites, and we spotted more than a handful of orioles, with those distinctive orange shoulder patches, flitting out of the brush. A bald eagle, one of four known to make a home on the Hyatt grounds, did an unscheduled flyover of the second green. The birds were so big they appeared to the naked eye as if seen through binoculars.
Like any good resort course that wants players of different talents to move along, River Marsh has multiple tee boxes, wide fairways and big greens. But it'll test you.
The scariest hole in the mid-Atlantic might be No. 17. The tees are on one side of Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Choptank, and the green on the other, about 170 yards away. A long wooden bridge spans the water, and the white tee is connected to the bridge via a narrow plank causeway. You hit from a peninsula tee, a deck covered with artificial turf, with water on all sides.
I will never know how I managed to put the ball on the green in my first shot. But I know I was disappointed. I was sort of looking forward to arcing a few extra balls into that placid creek. Instead, I had to reveal my ineptitude with a far less satisfying four-putt.
Golf course writers have made much of River Marsh's 18th hole, a par-5 that doglegs slightly along the Choptank. A long set of narrow sand traps runs between the fairway and the water. They've compared it to the famed finishing hole at Pebble Beach, which is of similar length and layout, but lined by the Pacific Ocean.
One of my playing partners, Greg, a bond trader from Brooklyn, had a Pebble Beach tag on his golf bag. So I asked him about that comparison as we were about to tee off on 18. He looked and gave a long, judicious pause. From the fairway we were staring directly at the hotel, with its gabled courtyard and lighthouse topping.
"Well, it's not unlike it," he said. "But it's not the Pacific Ocean."
Which is, I think, the whole point of the Hyatt-on-the-Choptank. It's the kind of place where, as golfers say about a shot that winds up in some unexpected spot, you play where it lies.