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Cruisers’ watering hole gets 2nd chance

Vera’s White Sands Beach Club reopens under a new owner, but with the glitz patrons remember

Vera’s White Sands Beach Club reopens under a new owner, but with the glitz patrons remember

A landmark Chesapeake Bay marina and restaurant, fallen upon hard times and in need of TLC, has been born again with hopes of a new lease on a commercial nautical life.

Read the other story in this package: How a legend was created

Way back in the early 1950s, the glamorous Vera Freeman arrived from Hollywood and opened her private White Sands Yacht Club on a promontory overlooking St. Leonard Creek in Southern Maryland. Over time, it gained fame because of its exotic South Seas décor and Vera’s eccentricities. Eventually it opened to the public and evolved into a unique rendezvous for cruising boat clubs.

Last June, however, after a million-dollar rehab of the restaurant and the marina, it reopened under new owners as Vera’s White Sands Beach Club. Remarkably, much of the funky flavor of this curious establishment was saved.

This legendary destination in the boonies, featuring canned Don Ho Hawaiian music and temperamental piano players who came and went, had become less and less of a marina while struggling on as a seasonal-only restaurant. Deferred maintenance took a toll and most of its 85 deep-water slips went empty after boaters long ago bypassed Vera’s for new full-service marinas and restaurants in nearby Solomons, once a working watermen’s village.

Road traffic had also diminished to a point where the faux Polynesia off the Patuxent River began to fade as a personal fantasy sustained by the elaborately gowned Vera. Determined to preserve a South Seas motif in Lusby, Md., she stubbornly presided as the Empress of the (increasingly unprofitable) White Sands.

But by the 2005 season, those colorful days seemed numbered as the once-ageless and bejeweled Vera (now frail and in her 90s), struggled to keep her beloved escape open on weekends. Although she was anxious to sell the property and retire, she could not bear the thought of a new owner demolishing her disintegrating illusion.

Waiting in the wings, however, was neighbor Steve Stanley, a paving contractor and newcomer regular at the bar with a sentimental streak who came to love the old place as much as Vera.

Finally, a $2.3 million purchase package was struck early this year and Stanley moved in his crew with heavy equipment and work barges. The interior was gutted but much of the flavor was retained, even reserving a seldom-used atrium as a kind of Vera Land museum filled with odd souvenir items picked up during her world travels.

The June 24 grand opening drew a large boating crowd not seen at the White Sands for many years. Loud, high-powered speedboats filled A Dock and spilled over onto B Dock. Waitresses in skimpy nautical attire moved to the rhythm of an Elvis impersonator’s orchestra.

Vera looked around and said, in wonder, “Isn’t this fabulous? It looks as good as the day I opened it.”

Abandoned vessels and liveaboard squatters were mostly gone. Rotted pilings and rickety docks were replaced. New power and water lines were also being added, along with a new fuel dock. Crumbling bathhouses and changing rooms left over from the old days were demolished.

A sculpted, concrete block bulkhead went up to keep one side of the restaurant from sliding down a steep hill. The massive retaining wall was in place just in time to handle the torrential, record rainfalls of late June.

A tottering side deck was rebuilt and opened again for spectacular sunset viewing, along with a tiled patio overlooking the site of U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney’s defensive encounter with a British Fleet in June 1814. The Brits chased Barney’s little flotilla of gunboats up the Patuxent River and then marched on Washington, D.C., to set buildings ablaze.

There is no plaque commemorating Barney’s daring heroics, but Vera has left her hand imprints and signature in cement on the patio.

During the marina’s decline, as time and boaters passed the marina by, the peaceful creek was left to resident boaters and cruising sailors. It became a quiet backwater again, favored by those who prefer anchoring out to marina docking and dining in.

Tranquil St. Leonard Creek is one of the loveliest creeks on the Chesapeake — hilly and deep, with coves and protected anchorages. Occasionally, grazing cows cool off in the shallows with only their heads above water. Lovely homes on rolling woodlands and lawns add to the bucolic setting.

This could all change if Vera’s Beach Club, restaurant and marina catches on and the powerboat set returns. Time will tell.

Stanley, who owns a high-powered performance boat, wants the restaurant to attract families. His girlfriend, Lisa Del Rico, manages the restaurant.

He felt a commitment to continue using Vera’s name.

“That’s how everyone has always known the place,” he explains. “Calling it Steve’s White Sands Beach Club would not have made sense.”