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A diverse network of vacation sites is among the Navy's best-kept secrets.

As the main hive of the United States Navy, Naval District Washington (NDW) is perpetually abuzz with activity. Encompassing 4,000 square miles in two states and the District of Columbia, NDW oversees the operations of 400 commands, including the Washington Navy Yard, the National Naval Medical Center (also known as Bethesda Hospital), the US Naval Observatory and nine major bases. Given the high density of this region, one might be surprised to learn that NDW is also home to one of the Navy's most relaxing destinations.

Navy Recreation Center Solomons -- only a 90-minute drive (but seemingly a world away) from the nation's capital -- is situated on 295 acres at the confluence of the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. Billed by the Navy as "the best-kept secret in southern Maryland" and operated by NDW's Morale, Welfare and Recreation department, Navy Recreation Center Solomons features a wide array of lodging, including campgrounds, cottages, bungalows, cabins and apartment rentals, many of which are either located on the beach or offer scenic water views.Picnic pavilions, a recreation center, a 124-slip marina, a fishing pier, 400 feet of sandy beach, an outdoor aquatic complex, a miniature golf course, a driving range, and basketball and tennis courts are just a few of the recreational amenities available.

Navy Recreation Center Solomons may sound like a resort because it is a resort -- although one designed specifically for members of the United States Armed Forces, reserves, National Guard and the Department of Defense. Vacation destinations like Navy Recreation Center Solomons are operated by Navy MWR in 44 states and three foreign countries and are popular especially among military retirees. But they are also seeing increased use in recent years by active-duty servicemembers who, after returning from tours in Southwest Asia and elsewhere, take advantage of these vacation spots to reconnect and spend some much-needed rest and relaxation time with their loved ones.

The Navy's vacation destinations run the gamut -- from full-scale resorts, like Navy Recreation Center Solomons, to rustic and woodsy, like Great Pond Outdoor Adventure Center, located 140 miles northeast of Naval Air Station Brunswick, Maine. Nestled among 396 acres of wilderness, Great Pond boasts both backwoods camping and quaint cabins featuring stone fireplaces, log-beamed lofts and televisions -- though, according to Mark Verhey, the NAS Brunswick recreation supervisor in charge of operations at Great Pond, few guests spend much time in front of the tube. "It's a place to put up your feet, relax and enjoy the outdoors," he says. "When you want to get away and unwind, it's a perfect spot."

Places like Great Pond Outdoor Adventure Center and Navy Recreation Center Solomons may be ideal getaway spots, but they're also seen as essential tools in the Navy's ever-expanding effort to keep servicemembers mentally and physically fit. "Surveys indicate that MWR programs, services and facilities such as Navy Recreation Center Solomons contribute to the recruitment and retention of those who work for the military and the federal government," says Janiah Miles, marketing supervisor for the MWR department at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, which has run the Solomons recreation center since 1971.

Operating such a facility is no small task, especially considering that Navy Recreation Center Solomons receives more than 450,000 visitors each year. In its off-peak season, which generally runs from Labor Day to Memorial Day, the Solomons center carries a staff of 40 employees. That figure jumps to 130 during the summer. Add to the mix the requirement for Navy MWR vacation sites to be self-sustaining, and one starts to get the picture of how challenging it can be for facility operators. Though unable to provide detailed budget information, Miles says that "the recreation center receives little appropriated funding, and as such relies heavily on revenue."

That revenue comes not only from lodging reservations of overnight guests, but also from fees daytime guests pay to use the Solomons center's recreational amenities. One-day leisure passes allow patrons unlimited admission to the miniature golf course, the "Barnacle Billiards" pool hall, the Riverside Aquatics Complex, the beach, the Sunset Pier, ping pong, basketball, tennis and most programs operated from the Adventure Zone Recreation Center. (The Solomons center charges a different set of fees for the rental of boats, bikes and group picnic facilities.) Activity passes are also available for patrons who wish to use only one facility, such as the aquatics complex, which has two 25-meter lap pools, a toddler wading pool, and a diving pool with a 1.5-meter springboard and a water-powered, double-loop spiral slide. Both the Adventure Zone and the Riverside Aquatics Complex are equipped to host private parties and a variety of programs, including learn-to-swim classes and outdoor movie nights.

During summers at Great Pond, guests (or more accurately, their children) practically live in their bathing suits, taking advantage of the lakeside location to enjoy boating, canoeing and swimming. Wintertime brings ice fishing, tobogganing and cross-country skiing. Verhey and his two site managers are assisted by a small army of housekeeping and maintenance personnel and a handful of recreation aides -- or as he calls them, "jacks of all trades" -- to help run Great Pond's small camp store and gear rental shop. They also conduct guided fishing, whitewater canoeing and sea kayaking trips. "They're up there handling the day-to-day meet-and-greet duties and ironing out problems with customers," says Verhey of his onsite staff, which he thanks for making less necessary his two-and-a-half-hour trips to Great Pond from Brunswick, where he handles "most of the paperwork, hirings, firings and purchases."

In recent months, however, maintenance has demanded the majority of Verhey's attention. After a 10-year dormancy (Great Pond was formerly known as Dow Pines, and operated as a Loring Air Force Base property until closing in 1994), the recreation site reopened under the Navy's jurisdiction in the summer of 2003. A decade of neglect had left many of Great Pond's 1930s-era cabins in poor shape, though. "The first summer we weren't 100 percent operational, since we still had some cabins that were being renovated," says Verhey. "Right now, the renovations are probably 95 percent complete."

The hard work of Verhey and his crew is finally paying off. As of this writing, Great Pond had reserved 90 percent of its available dates for the summer season, and some expected guests will come from as far away as California and Texas. "The military has an interesting network of RVers," says Verhey, citing word of mouth, especially among retired military personnel, as the key to Great Pond's success. "There's a retired gentleman who puts out a whole series of books on military lodges, campgrounds and golf courses. For these people, that's like their Bible."

Verhey also credits Great Pond's affordable rates. The facility charges $10 a night for "wilderness campsites," guest cabins cost anywhere from $60 to $90, depending on the season, and prices for Bigelow Lodge -- which sleeps 10 to 12 people -- range from $80 to $125. "Our rule of thumb is to try to charge 25 percent less than what's outside the gate," says Verhey, who can't help but suggest that guests of military recreation destinations like Great Pond are getting a heck of a deal. "If they go from base to base, they can usually find someplace that's going to be considerably less expensive than what's out in the marketplace. Plus, they can keep in touch with other military people."

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