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Quirky Route 1 is a worthwhile change of pace
Limited-access highways can be great ways to get between points quickly. But in the Baltimore-Washington area, speedy travel along I-95 or even its more scenic sister, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is never guaranteed. When you're stuck in traffic on those highways, there's no escape.
But then there's Route 1. Sure, it's tawdry, punctuated by fast-food joints, motels, auto parts stores and a stream of stoplights. But sometimes, tacky scenery beats boring endless expanses of scrub woodlands for those who lurch along I-95 or the parkway between the two cities.
The stretch of Route 1 also known as Baltimore Avenue that runs from Hyattsville to College Park offers plenty of places to eat, most of which are reasonably priced, good book shops and a clothing store with dirt-cheap name-brand clothes.
The town is also home to the world's oldest continuously operating airport, adjacent to a respectable aviation museum.
South of College Park is Riverdale, named after the gracious stucco-covered brick mansion in the center of the sleepy village. The social and civic center of town seems to be a cozy cafe/used-book store famous for its annual fall pet costume contest.
Don't have a pet to dress? Drive two miles south to Hyattsville, where Franklin's general store carries the most realistic stuffed Labradors imaginable.
It would be impossible to pass through without seeing a Terrapin, one of the 35,000 students at University of Maryland, College Park. The 1,500-acre campus plopped in the middle of town is a well-spaced complex of redbrick buildings. In warm weather, students play sports on the capacious lawns that slope down to Route 1 from the west.
Chartered in 1856 as Maryland Agricultural College, the university is famous for a few things beside athletics. Jim Henson, the Hyattsville native who created the lovable Muppets, earned his degree here in 1960. Students commissioned the life-size bronze statue of him chatting with Kermit the Frog on a bench outside the Stamp Student Union.
Then there's the other claim to fame: ice cream. True to its agricultural roots, the university makes its own ice cream in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, butter pecan and cookies 'n' cream.
So the next time you're chugging along Route 1, stop in Turner Hall (the visitor center), get a scoop or a root beer float and sit on the lawn to watch the games.
Can't do that on the interstate now, can you?
What to see
From Baltimore, your first stop should be the University of Maryland campus in College Park. There is limited parking at the visitor center (Turner Hall) on the west side of Route 1. Get a map and an ice cream cone before heading west along Campus Drive to pay homage to the late Jim Henson in statue form with Kermit at the Stamp Student Center. (301-405-1000, www.umd .edu)
Riversdale House Museum has had a wide variety of tenants since Flemish emigre Henri Stier began building it in 1801. The most notable ones were Stier's grandson Charles Benedict Calvert, who founded what is now the University of Maryland, and Hattie Caraway, first woman U.S. senator. (4811 Riverdale Road, 301-864-0420)
Where to eat
Downtown College Park is an oddity in these parts because tea shops outnumber coffee shops. Ten Ren's Tea Time on Route 1 specializes in bubble teas or boba, a Taiwanese import that features chewy, flavorless pearls of tapioca starch or sweet potato flour.
Get it iced, hot, mixed in a smoothie or Jell-O in a wild variety of flavors from lychee to taro (7418 Baltimore Ave., 301-864-8920, www.teabay.com)
The English Tea House and Cyber Cafe serves tea more traditionally. Customers can choose from more than 100 blends, served in the tranquil, dark-hued tearoom or on the charming patio. (4513 College Ave., 301-887-1777)
The Bagel Place is a lively, bright joint with the best bagels outside Manhattan. The 18 varieties are dense enough to be chewy without destroying dental work. The cheerful staff spreads on a judicious but not messy slab of cream cheese. (7423 Baltimore Ave., 301-779-3900)
The prize for best atmosphere goes to the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant near the College Park Aviation Museum. Designed to look like a French farmhouse near the trenches in World War I, the 94th is a sight to behold.
The French theme doesn't spill onto the menu, but if you pretend, beer cheese soup and pot roast with chive dumplings might work.
Walk it off afterward on the Anacostia Tributary Trail alongside the restaurant's extensive grounds. (5240 Paint Branch Parkway, 301-699-9400)
Farther north is Mandalay, a wonderful Burmese restaurant on Route 1. Ignore the desultory exterior; what's cooking inside is some of the most exotic, perfectly seasoned food in the region. One bite of the fermented tealeaf salad, and you'll be showing up at 6 p.m. like the rest of Mandalay's fans. (9091A Baltimore Ave., 301-345-8540)
Where to shop
Franklin's could easily have gone in the eats section; the general store is attached to a lively, two-story restaurant specializing in American fare and beer brewed on site.
But the shop is what's truly unique. The 19th-century building with delightfully creaky floorboards has been turned into a toy land for children of all ages.
Young ones can find dollhouses, wooden puzzles, lifelike stuffed animals and anything Hello Kitty has ever adorned.
Older ones will chuckle over Plato and Lao Tzu finger puppets, and Sister Discipline, the nun punching bag designed for anyone who hated Catholic school. (5123 Baltimore Ave., 301-927-2740)
For cheap clothes and accessories, make a beeline for the Rugged Wearhouse in the College Park Shopping Center south of campus (but be forewarned that the center's parking lot has meters). During a recent visit, scores included Ralph Lauren polos in an array of colors for $12.99, Versace pants for $19.99 and Express sundresses for $14.99. (7326 Baltimore Ave., 301-864-8700)
In the same shopping center is Vertigo Books, formerly of Washington's Dupont Circle. The small store boasts an intriguing selection of titles with a noticeable strength in those by or about African-Americans. (7346 Baltimore Ave., 301-779-9300)
At the Riverdale Bookshop & Coffee Depot, browsers can curl up with a used book in a comfy chair and a steaming cappuccino. The delightful place trades quietude for live music every Saturday night. And in October, cats, dogs and other pets strut their stuff in the depot's annual pet costume contest. (4701 Queensbury Road, 301-277-8141, www.riverdalebooks.com)
Take I-95 south to the College Park exit right at the Washington beltway. Follow signs for Route 1 south.