Laurel is often lost in the shadows of Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis. Indeed, for many people, Laurel is just a place they pass on their way somewhere else.
For those who slow the car down, however, Laurel has much to offer.
A nationally known racetrack, an internationally respected wildlife refuge and a well-kept historic mansion are just a few of the places that give Laurel its unique character.
This city of 19,000 also has a thriving arts community and a hopping nightlife as well as restaurants serving a variety of cuisines.
What to do
Laurel Park Race Track (Route 198 and Racetrack Road, 301-725-0400): It has just reopened after a multi-million dollar renovation, and horse racing at Laurel is expected to be better than ever. The track is wider with a new dirt surface. Higher stands offer better views of each race. And new amenities include Horse Wizard, wagering machines that are the closest thing Maryland has to slots. Racing is offered Wednesday through Sunday.
Gardens Ice House (13800 Old Gunpowder Road, 410-792-4947): Three-time U.S. national figure skating champion Michael Weiss trains here. But there's still plenty of ice time for amateurs because the Gardens boasts three rinks - one Olympic-size and two that meet National Hockey League standards. Sports training includes ice skating, figure skating, speed skating and hockey leagues for a variety of abilities. The Towson Tigers and University of Maryland Terrapins college hockey teams use the Gardens as their home ice. The National Capital Curling Club is also based at the Gardens (think shuffleboard on ice if you didn't catch curling in the last winter Olympics.) Public skating and pickup hockey sessions are offered at scheduled times.
Laurel 6 Cinemas (Laurel Center Shopping Center off Route 1, 301-604-2885): Bypass the popular releases you can see everywhere and go for the latest Indian films, straight out of Bollywood. Call 301-352-6987 for screening dates and times.
Montpelier Cultural Arts Center (12826 Laurel-Bowie Road, 301-953-1993): Visitors are welcome at this art gallery with 18 artist-in-residence studios. Many of the artists teach classes to the public throughout the year. The center also offers jazz and classical concert series, as well as CDs issued by its own record label. New this year is a folk and blues concert series that will showcase, among others, Richie Havens (the '60s folk legend who was the first to take the stage at Woodstock) in May.
Montpelier Mansion (Route 97 and Muirkirk Road, 301-953-1376): This historic mansion played host to George Washington, Abigail Adams and others in its 18th-century heyday. The home of Thomas and Ann Snowden - both of prominent Maryland families - was once a 9,000-acre plantation, Today, the house (a great example of Georgian architecture) and about 70 acres remain. Tours are offered Sundays at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.
The Little Teapot tea shop in the mansion offers tea-related gifts and other items as well as afternoon tea on specific dates. The next teas are set for 1 p.m. Feb 19 and 26. (For reservations, call 301-498-8486).
In March, Montpelier's popular What Is It? exhibit returns as the mansion is filled with historical gadgets and gizmos so visitors can guess their uses.
Patuxent Research Refuge (Scarlet Tanager Loop off Powder Mill Road, 301-497-5760): Established in 1936 as the nation's first wildlife experiment station, Patuxent is an internationally recognized research center and refuge. One of the center's most innovative efforts is its breeding program to save the whooping crane. In 1950, there were fewer than 20 whooping cranes left in the world. Today there are about 400, two-thirds of them bred at Patuxent. Visitors can "adopt" cranes and underwrite the survival of this endangered species with financial support.
The National Wildlife Visitors Center includes interactive exhibits, hiking trails and an art gallery. The tram that carries visitors through a variety of refuge habitats reopens weekends in March. Volunteer opportunities this month include a Patuxent River bird count and the monthly calling frog count. Free nature activities include Refuge Walking Tours on weekends.
The refuge's 8,100-acre North Tract, off Route 198, is home to more than 200 species of birds including bald eagles. It's open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day through this month. Visitors can fish (with proper state license) and observe wildlife. Free events include an evening "Owl Prowl" Feb. 19 and a Bird Walk Feb. 20 (pre-registration required).
Where to eat
El Charro (933 Fairlawn Ave. in the Laurel Center Shopping Center, 301-490-8740): Traditional Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine that hasn't been toned down for the American palate.
Little Tavern Shop (115 Washington Blvd. South, 410-792-9364): These familiar green-roofed hamburger stands were a ubiquitous part of the local landscape 50 years ago. This is one of the few that remain.
Sapphire Restaurant and Lounge (13308 Laurel Bowie Road, 301-490-0555): Try the popular 25-item Indian buffet or order from the extensive menu.
California Inn (Route 1 and Whiskey Bottom Road, 410-792-4595): Rock and blues are king here. Pool, Keno and karaoke are also offered.
Club Amazon (13501 Baltimore Ave. (Route 1), 301-210-3466): High-energy dance club where DJs play hip-hop hits. Latin music on Fridays and 18-and-over dance party Sundays.
Jokes on Us Comedy Club (312 Main St., 301-490-1993): Five shows every weekend showcasing local talent and nationally known comedians.
The Greene Turtle (14150 Baltimore Ave., 301-317-6650): The Laurel location of the Ocean City landmark.
Take Interstate 95 South toward Washington. Follow for about 20 miles to Route 198 East toward Laurel.
For the city of Laurel, call 301-725-5300 or visit the Web site www.laurel.md.us.