WHERE are we going this weekend?"
"But where are we going?"
There are several ports you can sail to - and back from - on a weekend if you keep a boat in the Annapolis area. We usually head for ports that have something interesting to see and a good restaurant to eat in, since by evening the crew has invariably consumed whatever I may have brought along for dinner. Restaurants are also nice after a day of sailing in that they usually don't object if you bring in your toothbrush, shaving gear, etc. and take advantage of the land-style restroom. Here are some of the ports we've called at: ROCK HALL: On a clear day, you can see the stacks of the Sparrows Point steel mill across the bay from Rock Hall, but don't look: There's prettier scenery to see in this peaceful Eastern Shore town. A sleepy place now - except on summer weekends when boat people converge there - Rock Hall in colonial times was an important link in the main south-north post road. Travelers from the south would get on a ferry in Annapolis, sail to Rock Hall and then board carriages for the long ride to Philadelphia, New York, Boston and points north. George Washington crossed here eight times, according to his diary. Tech Tilghman, a Paul Revere in reverse who brought the news of the victory at Yorktown to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, used the ferry on his mission. A name-dropper named Thomas Shippen claimed to have eaten "delicious crabs" with Jefferson and Madison while waiting for the ferryboat at Rock Hall in 1790.
There is no documentation as to the establishment where jefferson, Madison and Shippen ate these crabs. None of the present restaurants goes back that far. But I can document that there are delicious crabs to be had in Rock Hall. Hubbard's Pier, an unassuming-looking restaurant in downtown Rock Hall, is connected with a large wholesale and retail seafood operation, so the seafood is almost bound to be fresh. Most boat people, however, anchor overnight in Swan Creek and eat at the Gratitude Landing Restaurant - about a mile west of the village and near the place where the historic ferry landed.The walk from Swan Creek Marina (which has showers) to the Gratitude Landing Restaurant leads down a dirt road and past turn-of-the-century summer cottages with big old trees in the front yards and wicker furniture on the screen porches.
On summer weekends, the Gratitude Landing Restaurant is where the action is. The sprawling, add-on structure contains an art gallery, a screened "cabana" with a bar where Sunday brunch is served, picnic tables outside where you can eat crabs as messily as you please, and an indoor restaurant overlooking Swan Creek where you can watch for friends' boats to arrive. Hard crabs are currently $7.50 a dozen. (That doesn't include the soup and salad bar, which we fortunately didn't find out until we'd each had two helpings of soup and salad.) The broiled rockfish stuffed with crab imperial does come with the soup and salad bar, and is highly recommended. If you happen to be in Rock Hall on the evening of Friday, July 1, check out the fish fry at the firehouse. CHESTERTOWN
The Chester River, a broad and beautiful expanse of water with some sort of historic manor house around every turn, leads a steady procession of sailboats to Chestertown. Arriving by water, you see the town as it was originally built - as an 18th-century port of entry with the grand townhouses of the wealthy merchants lining Water Street.
Some of th emerchants lived over th store. William Trimball, for example, lived on the two upper floors of River House, built in 1753 at 107 Water St., using the ground floor for whatever business he was in.
The most imposing waterfront home is Widehall, at 101 Water St. Its former owner, a revolutionary activist named Col. Thomas Smythe, must have been prosperous because he built the house in all-header bond - which means the narrow ends of the bricks face out, so it takes a lot more of them. The fluted columns that frame the doorway and the formal gardens that lead down to the river are also touches of class.
In the 18th century, Chestertown, according to Methodist preacher, Francis Asbury, was a "very wicked place," a reference to the town's fondness for horse racing and traveling theatrical troupes. We were a little disappointed to find little evidence of this wickedness, although the students at Washington College in Chestertown are known to streak every spring.
For boat people, the action centers around Kiblers Marina and its next-door neighbor, the Old Wharf Inn, which serves standard shore fare in a pleasant dining room over-looking the marina. Each May, the local citizens reenact the Chestertown tea party of 1774, and in July the yacht club usually has a regatta.
If you don't want to go all the way to Chestertown, the Chester River also leads to the Corica River, which provides many quiet and scenic anchorages and excellent swimming. As you enter the river, you can peer at the Raskob estate, now a recreation center for Soviet embassy employees. We planned to tie up at Centerville, at the head of the river, but shallow water and the aroma of a fertilizer factory put us off. We eventually anchored off, rowed ashore in the dinghy and hiked into Centerville, a gracious Eastern Shore town where England's Princess Anne was received last year. The county courthouse, one of only two 18th-century county courthouses left in Maryland, makes the expedition almost worth it, if 18th-century courthouses are your thing.
If you follow the west fork of Langford Creek, which begins across the Chester River from the Corsica River, you can sail almost to Sandy Bottom, home of St. Paul's Episcopal church, which dates from 1713. In this lovely red-brick church, believed to be the oldest Episcopal church in Maryland in continuous use, prominent families rented pews for 1,000 pounds of tobacco a year. In the adjacent churchyard, you can find the grave of actress Tallulah Bankhead. OXFORD
The only trouble with sailing to Oxford is that when we get there, I always wish we were staying at the Robert Morris Inn instead of aboard the boat. But we compromise by drinking, eating and brushing our teeth at the inn.
There are two ways to sail to Oxford from the Annapolis area. You can go south around Tilghman Island or you can cut through Knapps Narrows and save about five miles. We don't usually save too much time by this shortcut, since there's a rarely resisted temptation to stop at a restaurant called The Bridge next to the drawbridge at Knapps Narrows to watch the boats go by while consuming large pitchers of beer and baskets of soft clams on the patio. Friends who have used Knapps Narrows for an overnight anchorage advise against it. The bridge opens at all hours, quite noisily.
As soon as you turn from the broad Choptank River into the narrower Tred Avon, you can see Oxford - a small settlement of wooden houses, tree-shaded lawns and a ferry landing. The Tred Avon ferry plies the river continuously, taking cars and people from Oxford to Bellvue. The ferry has been in service either since 1682 or since 1760, depending on which book you believe, but in either case it's probably the oldest "free" ferry in the United States. (That doesn't mean you ride gratis; it means that the ferry isn't attached to a cable.) We once rented bicycles in Oxford, took them across the river on the ferry and pedaled to Royal Oak, which has an interesting antique shop, and to St. Michaels.
It's forbidden to anchor too close to the ferry landing. In any case, if we get in early enough, we like to sail past the town and into one of the creeks upriver, Plaindealing Creek being a favorite. The water there is almost like fresh water, suitable for washing hair and gining the kids a bath in the dinghy. When everyone is reasonably clean and has had pre-dinner drinks, we go back to Oxford and row ashore in the dinghy. The Robert Morris Inn, which incorporates the 1774 home of a wealthy tobacco factor and the fathe rof the financier of the American Revolution, is more formal than most shore places, but even the grubbiest boat people are welcome in the more rustic "tavern" section. Meals here are not cheap - a recent dinner for three adults and two children, including soup, dessert and a bottle of Maryland's Boordy wine, came to about $50. But th efood is prepared with a finesse that makes it well worth the tab. The crab soup, rich and spicy, is the best I have tasted. And soft-shelled crabs can be ordered sauteed - which preserves their delicate flavor - rather than deep-fried.
Across Morris Street from the inn is a believe-it-or-not 170-year-old, still-producing grapevine. The Strand, the street that leads past the ferry and along the breakwater, takes you to a small beach and then to Town Creek, where all the marinas are. The Oxford Carryout, on Town Creek, is supposed to have excellent food, but we've never been able to get past the Robert Morris Inn.
Other than drinking at the inn and on its adjacent terrace, we found little nightlife in this quiet town. A friend of ours once made a real splash by sitting in his dinghy at the top of the sloping breakwater and having us push him off. The local kids had never seen anything so exciting in Oxford and begged for an encore, which he graciously declined to perform. ST. MICHAELS
On summer weekends, St. Michaels is a forest of masts where you literally bump into letout Washington sailing set. This is a mark against the place in my view, but I am sometimes overruled and when we get to St. Michaels I'm usually glad we came after all.
During the War of 1812, the British attacked St. Michaels, which was then an important shipbuilding center. Local legend said that the townspeople extinguished lights close to the ground and put lamps in upper-story windows and on treetops. This fooled the British into overshooting the town, which escaped largely unscathed. Whatever the validity of this tale, it would be hard to miss St. Michaels today. The entrance to the harbor is marked by a restored wooden lighthouse, part of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
In addition to the lighthouse, which the museum saved from a junkyard death and moved from another part of the bay, the museum contains many examples of Chesapeake Bay boats as well as maritime memorabilia. If you don't want to pay the entrance fee, you can still enjoy the beautiful grounds and visit the small aquarium.
About a block from the museum and the harbor lies Talbot Street, the main drag. In addition to the chic boutiques that have begun popping out on Talbot Street, there are some funky antique stores and friendly bars with pinball and shuffleboard machines. Talbot Street leads to St. Mary's Square, a quiet village green that was the original nucleus of the town and is now the site of a small museum of local history.
When in St. Michaels, boat people invariably eat at the Crab Claw, which means that there is often a long wait to be seated at the popular restaurant. Crabs are a specialty, of course, and I find them most enjoyable eaten on the restaurant's patio. The Crab Claw offers boat people a free shuttle service to and from their boats on a launch, and nobody checks to see whether you really eat there.