Annapolis B&Bs: Full of Character(s)

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008; Page P08

Ruth Cort of Annapolis is a bit nonplused when I call an hour or so before her bedtime, asking if one of the three rooms she rents is available that night.

"But I have no strawberries," she blurts out. Given that this is a Tuesday in winter, she has no other guests at the Peninsula House, and most people call way ahead, she says. "I haven't been shopping. But wait; if you want, I can give you a special price if you go elsewhere for breakfast. How's $125?"

Since that's $40 off the normal lowest rate, no problem. I rush by for a key before going out for the evening and find I'm staying in a beautiful modern home and have a big, nicely decorated room with a reading nook near a window overlooking a garden, and a luxurious bed with soft linens.

Cort is long in bed before my return. Next morning, I'm surprised to find she has spread the dining table with fresh-squeezed juice, a fruit plate, jam, coffee and a big, warm, homemade blueberry muffin.

"I just couldn't bear to send you off with nothing," Cort says. Why is she being apologetic, I wonder? I understand later, when I check her Web site and discover the things she usually serves for breakfast: a "drunken crab frittata," stout and gouda pancakes with lemon butter, crab Benedict, or crab and white wine strada. No wonder breakfast requires a shopping trip.

Luxuries, however, are just some of the delights you can find among the dozens of accommodations available in Annapolis. Among the choices that ended up in my "favorites" category: the Governor Calvert House, an inn that was once the home of the Lord Baltimore clan, which once basically owned the 7.6 million acres we now call Maryland. I also liked the Annapolis Inn, a B&B that was the opulent home of Thomas Jefferson's physician, who over the years hosted at least six signers of the Declaration of Independence. Also hosted: countless slaves on the Underground Railroad, who made a stop in a tunnel that runs through the cellar of the house.

And then there is the town itself, which encapsulates an authentic piece of Americana. It's Colonial Williamsburg without the entrance fee and costumes. A Disneyland version of small-town America, only real.

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On a recent winter's day, one section of Annapolis reminds me of Greenwich, England, which in the past I've spent a lot of money to reach. I've also gone way out of my way to watch the changing of the guard at London's Buckingham Palace. Yet here, less than an hour from the District, the midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy gather in formation every weekday before lunch. The academy ceremony is much closer to home in more ways than one: As I watch these young men and women show their colors, tears come to my eyes. What faith they have in our country, counting on it to repay their devotion, trusting they will not be sent into harm's way except in exigent circumstances.

Main Street, lined with historic buildings, ends at a circle dominated by St. Anne's Episcopal Church. Separation of church and state? Not so much in 1696, when the first church at the site went under construction: The Maryland General Assembly contributed to the building fund. The communion silver that's still in use was a gift from King William III.

By lunchtime, I discover this is a town not only with character, but with characters. At Galway Bay, an Irish restaurant and pub, I am escorted to my seat by Miss Peggy, a thin woman who is clearly past retirement age. She confides that things are awful in town, that another state legislator has just died. A framed article near the door notes that she's been working here for more than 50 years. The big shots at the Naval Academy -- Miss Peggy has known them since they were plebes.

Restaurant manager Niall Gilsenan tells me that when new owners bought the place nine years ago and applied for a liquor license, neighbors agreed they wouldn't object, on one condition: that Miss Peggy have a job. "She's the real boss here," he says in his thick Irish brogue.

While strolling through town checking out lodging options that afternoon, I also browse through clothing boutiques and art galleries, and tour the William Paca House, a mansion with an English-style garden built beginning 1763. I'll have to return to take tours of two other historic homes turned into museums: the Hammond Harwood House and the Chase-Lloyd House, where Francis Scott Key was married in the parlor.

After a dinner at Osteria 177 of the quality you'd expect to find only in Italy, I head back to Galway Bay for the Tuesday night trivia quiz, which raises money for charity. Questions as varied as "What religion did Adolf Hitler profess?" and "What phenomenon appeared the day Mark Twain was born and the day he died?" are created each week by owner Fintan Galway. Another character, this one from Dublin central casting.

The next morning, even though I've had breakfast, I head to Chick & Ruth's Delly for the daily Pledge of Allegiance (8:30 a.m. weekdays, 9:30 weekends.) Gov. Martin O'Malley is at the crowded deli most every day, and I've just missed him this morning. Ted Levitt, son of the late Chick and Ruth, has roped off a booth for him, although he'll let a judge or maybe a senator sit there if the deli is full.

Levitt has been doing magic tricks for customers so long that little kids who enjoyed the tricks now bring their kids. He also performs magic shows for parties; all proceeds go to charity. His latest venture: He has painted a 1931 Buick red, white and blue and plans to take it around the country raising money for the families of military and emergency personnel killed or injured in the line of duty.

Before ending my visit, I visit the State House. Completed in 1779, the grand and interesting structure is the oldest U.S. capitol still in legislative use. Among the items on exhibit is a draft of a speech given here by George Washington.

Despite years of American history courses, I'd never realized that Washington was an eloquent writer. To inform the nation that he is resigning his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he begins: "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action and bid an affectionate farewell to this august body."

The building, by the way, will be closed for an $8.4 million renovation from April through December. Yet another reason to get to Annapolis soon and to return when it's done. A tour of the town will immerse you in history. When the day is done, you can sleep in the homes of our forefathers. Unless, of course, you're hankering for a drunken crab frittata.

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