Downtown Rock Hall

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Editorial Review

Chesapeake Bay on the Half Shell
By Patricia E. Dempsey
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Even the small towns en route to Rock Hall say hello. American flags wave from countless front porches as I ramble north, windows rolled open, through some of the prettiest farmland on the Eastern Shore, dipping up and down past red barns, white silos and soybean fields as wide open as the palm of your hand.

I nod to the rumpled fellow who waves his greeting, his tractor climbing a hill (he's in no hurry, why am I?), and pass roads whose names still tell stories: Flat Iron Square, Union Church and Clannihan Shop. I slow down to cross the Chester River into Chestertown where historic homes line the riverbank, welcoming bridge crossers into Kent County, and keep driving west along a finger of land that reaches back to touch the Chesapeake. At its tip, where the river meets the Chesapeake, is the waterman's village of Rock Hall.

On the corner of Sharp and Main streets, in the heart of Rock Hall's small downtown, I wander into the America's Cup Cafe, taken by the unusual assortment of used books for sale and hungry for something Chesapeake-esque. Inside there is a dining area with gourmet coffees and newspapers, and a menu that doesn't lie: Miss Camille's Crabcake is indeed "exquisite," lightly browned, creamy, with thick lumps of backfin -- and maybe the best I have ever had. I order a second sandwich to go.

My plan? Well, originally to reach the beach, albeit one on the bay, by driving just a few miles farther to the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, an island with great biking roads and small beaches. But I may just suffer through a day-long detour in Rock Hall, a town that combines my two favorite things: a) history and b) food.

Once called Rock Hall Crossroads, the town has the kind of authentic yet newly gentrified feel you might find in a New England fishing village. The small town on Block Island, R.I., or coastal Maine comes to mind as I survey the weathered shanties -- some in fancy cedar shake, some unadorned cinder block -- and the brightly colored shop signs, flags and wild roses peeking out from the white fences along Main Street.

There has been a quiet rejuvenation taking place on Main Street, as turn-of-the-century homes and businesses have been transformed into shops selling seaside bric-a-brac, kayaks, even waterfront condos.

A half-mile away, at the marinas that have long replaced the seafood packing houses that once lined the harbor, burgeoning numbers of pleasure craft crowd the floating docks. Rock Hall is a seasonal haven for boaters -- sailors, power boaters, sport fishermen -- and, in dwindling numbers, Chesapeake watermen, the original backbone of this town.

In the last century, Rock Hall was a winter home for watermen who came from places like Smith and Deale islands in the southern bay. They dredged oysters and lived in one-room shanties propped on top of flat-bottomed workboats, warmed by small potbellied stoves, hot oyster stew and their companion dogs. They would return home once crabs were running again. Fishing for rockfish -- or striped bass -- was also a serious industry until 1985, when a moratorium limited commercial and recreational rockfishing to help preserve the species. (It has since been lifted.)

Reminders of Rock Hall's hardworking past are everywhere: Stacks of oyster shells are packed along the marshy edge behind the Waterman's Museum on Swan Creek and rim the walkways in an outdoor shopping enclave, called Oyster Court, behind America's Cup Cafe. Delicious oysters -- fried, Rockefeller, on the half shell, at the bottom of beer shooters -- are served all over town.

Other local foods also speak to the town's history, including the sweets at Durding's Store on Main Street. Durding's is a vintage soda fountain and former pharmacy where customers "come in and out all day for another ice cream," says manager Patricia Kelley. Kelley has a flair for making nostalgic desserts, like strawberry shortcake buried in an avalanche of whipped cream or a sweet bumbleberry pie. "It's a Southern recipe, with rhubarb, raspberries and blackberries," she says. "Most folks prefer it warmed, with ice cream."

Mary Sue and Art Willis purchased the store a decade ago from Helen Durding. "She helped us keep the store intact and had all the original furnishings, which date to the 1920s when the store was last redone. What you see today is exactly how it was then," says Mary Sue.

What you see is a gleaming chrome soda fountain, a marble countertop with the soft patina that comes from countless elbows propped over sundaes, bar stools with red vinyl seats and rows of pharmaceutical bottles.

"The first owner was a Merck, as in the company," she adds. In a corner of the store is a gem, the shop's original wooden phone booth. The Willises were lucky enough to acquire it from a farmer who had stored it in his barn.

"We appreciate the history in Rock Hall," says Mary Sue, "and we bought Durding's to preserve it. We didn't want to see it go the way of development and be torn down."

Certain parts of Rock Hall may never change. On the small town beach, where picnickers sit in shady gazebos and a couple of boys climb the rocky jetties, there is a dramatic view of the Bay Bridge -- about 10 miles across the water. I inhale deeply (sounds like yoga, I know) and slow down, trying to approximate the pace of the smiling farmer I passed earlier. I may just stick around for a Rock Hall sunset. They say that after it goes down, you can watch the bridge lights go on, and they twinkle like stars.

Maybe I'll make it to the wildlife refuge in the fall.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Rock Hall is about two hours from the Beltway. Take U.S. 50 east across the Bay Bridge; at the split, follow U.S. 301 north. Take a left on Route 213 through Chestertown and another left on Route 291, then take a right on Route 20 to Rock Hall.

BEING THERE: For a dollar you can ride all day on a trolley car that makes 35 stops. The Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (410-778-6697) has the key to the Waterman's Museum, a tribute to the men who spent winters on boats moored near Rock Hall. The Mainstay Performing Arts Center (call America's Cup Cafe; see below) has live concerts, and after the show you can stroll the Shoppes at Oyster Court, where artisan crafts, gifts and gourmet fare are sold beneath the shade of a historic boxwood elder. The Reuben Rodney Gallery (410-639-2494) is a co-op for multimedia artists.

The pristine Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (410-639-7056), seven miles south of Rock Hall, is a 2,285-acre island with more than 240 species of birds and six miles of roads and trails that lead to marshes, small beaches and a picnic area. The public landing, Bogles Wharf, is an entree to excellent kayaking and canoeing, but you must bring a boat and a permit (call the refuge for details). For small boat and bike rentals, try Swan Haven Rentals (410-639-2527). Rock Hall's special events include an Independence Day celebration and a FallFest.

WHERE TO STAY/EAT: In town, the America's Cup Cafe (410-639-7361) has gourmet food, coffee and outdoor dining. For great desserts, check out the "treat menu" at Durding's Store (410-778-7957), a 100-year-old soda fountain shop. On Main Street, Old Oars Inn (410-639-2541) has a family menu that includes hush puppies, spicy perch sandwiches and seafood platters. Bayside, P.E. Pruitt's (410-639-7454) offers all-you-can-eat fried seafood specials dockside, where Chesapeake workboats are anchored. At the Waterman's Crab House (410-639-2261), steamed crabs are piled high on tables overlooking the harbor.

Most lodgings are in the $85 to $160 range. In town, Tallulah's (410-639-2596) has spacious suites with kitchens. The Bay Breeze Inn (410-639-2061) has antique-filled common rooms and offers packages that include a sunset kayak trip. A block from the water, the Swan Point Inn (410-639-2500) offers summery rooms with wicker and floral prints, and serves such specials as Eastern Shore chicken stuffed with crab imperial. The early-American-style Inn at Osprey Point (410-639-2194) sits on a secluded stretch of marsh and has several well-appointed rooms, including a two-room suite with a whirlpool. The restaurant has elegant fare, such as cream of crab soup served with sherry.

DETAILS: Kent County Office of Tourism, 410-778-0416, www.kentcounty.com or www.rockhallmd.com.