It was the first week of November, and even though summer had officially ended only two months prior, the fam (my wife Sue and my daughter Diz) and I decided that we needed a break.
The transition from the end of August into the beginning of September was intense: Diz started high school and had a hectic soccer practice/game schedule, I got rolling on a massive consulting project that had me crunching through the weekends, our son entered his freshman year at college, Diz and I spackled/painted our son’s large bedroom and moved Diz and all of her stuff into it (and I moved our son’s stuff into Diz’s smaller bedroom, which I also spackled/painted), and Sue was building a new design business.
As a mind/body/spirit antidote to this whirlwind, we needed a quick getaway - so I thought about an escape destination during Election Day week (after we voted, of course).
Ocean City, Maryland seemed like a good choice, especially since it was the off season. Things would be much less busy there compared to the action-packed summer months, and it wasn’t too far of a drive from our New Jersey crib.
With O.C. in mind, I investigated the options for a top rated, full service hotel where we could unwind and catch our breath for a few days.
The Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel and the Grand Hotel & Spa were nice, but undistinctive: there was nothing beachy or Ocean City about their vibe, design, or decor. Same for the Princess Royale Ocean City Hotel.
The visuals of the Holiday Inn Oceanfront and the Quality Inn Boardwalk were also fairly anonymous, and the rooms appeared to be REALLY cramped. The Carousel Resort Hotel and Condominiums was kinda sorta sufficient, and the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites was a step above the rest, but like all the others, their lobbies, rooms, and facilities appeared to be just… meh.
After more sleuthing, I discovered the Dunes Manor Hotel & Suites on Baltimore Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets, which is rated by TripAdvisor as #2 of 108 Hotels in Ocean City by Popularity. A glorious video on its home page, which was shot from a drone soaring above the hotel’s roof towards the ocean, captured the exact flavor that we were looking for.
Quick facts about Dunes Manor Hotel & Suites:
- It’s independently owned and has 170 rooms, all of which face the ocean and have private balconies.
- It was opened in 1987 by Thelma Conner, who envisioned and crafted the Victorian-themed hotel as a cordial space where guests and locals could relax and mingle.
- It’s a 100-percent non-smoking property.
- It’s centrally located on 28th Street and Baltimore Avenue, and is the closest hotel in Ocean City to the popular Jolly Roger Amusement Park.
- Each room has a refrigerator, coffee maker (with Starbucks coffee), microwave oven, hair dryer, iron/ironing board, and a safe.
- It has a heated pool and jacuzzi.
- The hotel’s back veranda features large rocking chairs and wide views of the beach and ocean.
- It offers free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel and 37-inch, flat-screen TVs in the guest rooms.
- It’s conveniently located near the Roland E. Powell Convention Center (three-minute drive), the Boardwalk Tram (two-minute walk), and the boardwalk (two-minute walk).
- It was voted Best Hotel in Ocean City by the Baltimore Sun’s readers in 2014.
Great stuff, but how ‘bout the reviews? Turns out they were nice. Really, really nice:
Those details were all mighty convincing for us, so we locked in the dates, packed up, stopped off to cast our ballots, keyed in our destination on the GPS, and were O.C. bound.
The drive was just under four hours, and the route was mostly traffic-free. When we crossed the Assawoman Bay Bridge that connects the mainland to Fenwick Island (where Ocean City is situated), we were struck by how empty the streets were. There was activity, but overall, the volume of humans on the sidewalks and cars on the road was sparse - which for us seekers of peace and quiet was perfect.
The consensus in the car: Ocean City in the off season = YAAAS!
The hotel’s lobby is elegant and features Victorian-style details. While at first glance it feels fancy, the atmosphere is actually quite warm and welcoming. As Oyster.com noted, the lobby’s “Victorian staircase, grand piano, chandelier, and classic furniture” give it “a refined atmosphere.” The lobby’s common spaces “are meticulously maintained and have a homey feel, with perks aimed at bringing guests together.”
Deets about the Dunes Manor lobby (and first floor):
- Complimentary tea and Douwe Egbert coffee (a very smooth and light blend) are available each morning from 6 to 9 am.
- Complimentary tea, crumpets, and cookies are served every afternoon from 3 to 4 pm. The tea, which is brewed fresh with cloves and oranges slice, is amazing.
- The Zippy Lewis Lounge, which was named in honor of legendary 19th century Ocean City resident Zipporah Lewis, offers happy hour specials and light dining fare.
- Meeting/conference and reception/banquet rooms are all located off of the lobby’s central area, where guests relax, chat, and socialize throughout the day and evening.
Our two adjoining rooms were bright, comfortable, and tastefully designed. The soft, pastel color scheme had an oceanic influence, and the layout gave us plenty of room to walk around, store our stuff, and cool out at the end of the day.
The beds were pleasantly firm with just the right amount of give. Two sheets, four pillows, and a breathable, comfy blanket topped the beds, and the combo of these various elements delivered restful sleeps that began pretty much as soon as we were horizontal.
A wonderful surprise was the natural white noise of the waves tumbling over each other and hitting the beach. With the windows closed, this delightful “whoosh crash” was a comforting background sound that was soothing during the day and lulled us at night.
Other room perks included:
- Complimentary amenities from H2O+, an upscale line of natural beauty products, were available in our bathrooms.
- The bathroom sink area was wonderfully well lit, allowing for fast, easy, and accurate examination of our faces (Diz loved this when she was putting on her makeup).
- A nice-size desk, bright floor lamp, and nearby outlet made it easy to get work done.
- The microwave oven had a pair of three prong outlets built into the front, which made it convenient to charge our devices.
- The combo fan/heating/a.c. unit was quiet, responsive, and simple to control.
The Victorian Room is the Dunes Manor’s on site, full service restaurant. It’s located on the first floor off of the lobby (across from the Zippy Lewis Lounge), is open seven days per week, and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Quickies about the Victorian Room’s food and beverage director Samantha Mairano:
- She sources local, in season produce for her recipes.
- She also sources local rockfish and crab when it’s available.
- Her culinary goal is to bring the basics of Eastern Shore dining to the Victorian Room by using as many local ingredients - and as much local “from scratch” cuisine - as possible.
The Victorian Room’s customer reviews are pretty impressive:
Also impressive is the Room’s interior. It’s a long space with high ceilings, and the atmosphere is elegant yet totally unpretentious, with a friendly B&B feel. The Room’s stylistic bonus is the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the hotel’s veranda, the beach, and the Atlantic Ocean. In the morning, the view through these windows is spectacular, and the columns of sunshine bursting through them deliver for a lovely wake-up.
We received phenomenal service from two awesome servers: at breakfast, we met Don, whose warmth, humor, and attentiveness were much needed as we were getting our days rolling; and at dinner, we met Gabe, a native of Transylvania (yup, really), who not only did a great job of delivering our requested menu variations, he also gave Diz tips of playgrounds and fields around O.C. where she could exercise and get a challenging workout during our getaway.
Meal-wise, the Victorian Room’s output was stellar for our breakfasts...
Steel-Cut, Cinnamon-Scented Oatmeal
- Menu description: Green apples, walnuts and honey.
- Our reaction: Chunky yet finely textured, pleasantly sweet, and very filling. The portion was massive, and it was the best oatmeal that any of us had ever eaten.
Citrus Greek Yogurt Pancakes
- Menu description: A Dunes Manor favorite! Fresh orange and Greek yogurt blended into our famous pancake batter!
- Our reaction: Light and thin with crispy edges and a big punch of flavor. There was just enough sweetness, and syrup was not needed. Gourmet all the way, and so tasty.
- Our reaction: As with all of our breakfast portions, the omelette was huge. It was also cooked well and packed with fresh veggies. The home fries were slightly spiced and nicely browned. The biscuit was plenty buttery as is, with a texture that was dense yet fluffy, and soft in the middle. One bite and Diz was in heaven.
Side of bacon
- Our reaction: A bacon review usually isn’t a big whoop, but this was thinnest, crispiest, and best we’d ever had. However the chef is preparing it, it’s slammin’.
… and dinner.
- Menu description: Blackberry brandy, blueberry liqueur, cranberry juice, and strawberry mix.
- Our reaction: Frosty, berry-licious, and not too sweet. A indulgent libation featuring a clever crush of complementing flavors that get the taste buds revved up.
Milton’s Crab Dip
- Menu description: Creamy crab dip and melted cheddar cheese served with pretzel toast points.
- Our reaction: Gabe recommended this, and he was spot on. Smooth, tangy, rich, and a killer crab-packed accompaniment with the toast points. Diz got annoyed when I dug in with a spoon after the toast points were gone, but I couldn’t help myself.
- Menu description: a half-pound of steamed shrimp tossed in Old Bay. Served with lemon and cocktail sauce.
- Our reaction: Nicely spiced and sized, fresh, and steamed perfectly.
Chesapeake Bay RockFish
- Menu description: Pan seared rockfish, sweet potato and blue crab hash with lemon butter.
- Our reaction: Another tip from Gabe. Mild and flaky, with a savory sauce. The hash was an inventive combo and a delicious surprise. The flavors of everything on the plate popped and delighted.
Cedar Plank Salmon
- Menu description: 8 oz. salmon fillet broiled over a cedar plank and spooned with a whiskey maple glaze. Served with wild rice and vegetable du jour.
- Our reaction: The salmon was dense, meaty, and moist with a tangy/sweet glaze, the rice was fluffy n’ nutty, and the roasted vegetables (carrots, string beans, root veggies) were firm and crunchy. The plate’s tastes were balanced and diverse, and it looked beautiful.
Warm Apple Cobbler
- Menu description: Topped with salted caramel ice cream.
- Our reaction: Diz flipped over this hot/cold, salty/sweety melange of yum. A creative and delectable coda to an amazing dinner.
- Wi-Fi speed at the Dunes Manor clocked in at a peppy 3.7 Mbps in our rooms, and was strong throughout the hotel.
- The hotel’s distinctive Victorian motif was cheerful, cordial, and cozy.
- During our entire stay, we received friendly, attentive, and personalized service from all of the hotel’s staff members - each of whom were focused on ensuring that every element of our getaway exponentially exceeded our expectations.
- While it would certainly deliver superb comfort and outstanding quality in the “on-season” of late spring and through the summer, in the off-season, the Dunes Manor is an affordable gem that offers a fantastic escape - especially if you need to decompress from the stress of back-to-school, pre-Thanksgiving/Christmas/NY Eve, post-Thanksgiving/Christmas/NY Eve, or whenever luxurious oceanside rejuvenation is desired and/or required.