Maryland's Eastern Shore is a flat land dominated by 600 miles of deeply indented shoreline. The continent's largest estuary, lapping at its banks, provides a living for the watermen who have fished it for centuries and a splendid view for those who have made their money elsewhere and retired here to enjoy it. It is famous as the haunt of the Canada goose, the blue crab and the oyster and -- less widely so -- for its dwindling fleet of skipjacks, the country's last commercial sailing vessels.
Land grants from the British crown settled much of the Eastern Shore, and the county names evoke the mother country. Somerset is the farthest south, so far from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that many of us don't get down there at all. Dames Quarter, Chance, Princess Anne -- you may never have heard of these isolated villages in Somerset County. Easton and Oxford have the famous inns and restaurants, but if you're a bit more adventuresome, come with me farther down Rte. 50 and see a different world.
Take Rte. 13 out of Salisbury and before long the road leads into Princess Anne. It's not much to look at off the exit road and you may wonder why you came so far. The town's 750 people do their shopping at Ben Franklin and the A&P; you have seen hundreds like it before. But chances are you have never seen the 150-year-old Washington Hotel, which was doing business when George II was on the throne of England.
This is no Tidewater Inn with bellboys and carpets in the lobby. This old hotel is more like the inside of a magpie nest. The walls are jammed with pictures of all the presidents, with a collection of Confederate money and clippings and postcards that reach back into the Victorian age. The clipping that caught my eye was the newspaper story about Ann Carter, later mother of General Robert E. Lee, who once (says this clipping) was erroneously declared dead and removed to the family vault before the mistake was discovered.
"Bet you never heard that," remarked Robert Murphy, owner of the hotel since 1956, looking over my shoulder.
The Washington has an old fashioned lobby desk and a menu full of the Bay's catch. I had eaten lunch before I arrived, so I cannot vouch personally for the quality of the food, but the hotel has a reputation for offering good selections at very reasonable prices. I do know that if you want to spend the night you should ask for Room H, a wonderful old bedchamber where the headboard is four feet high and the bureau could hide three or four bodies. The tab for this room overlooking the main street is $22 plus tax, but watch out for substitutions. The entire wing to the back has been brought up to date in early motel modern, and Murphy is planning more renovations when money becomes available. There are other old ones in another wing, but hurry.
Princess Anne's proudest boast is the Teackle Mansion, a replica of a Scottish home dominating the foot of Prince William Street where all the old houses are pleasant to look at. Built in 1801, its gardens exude a gentle air of desuetude and benign neglect. Possibly the biggest boxwood in the world towers over everything close by the house, a mansion that was the setting for the early Maryland novel, "The Entailed Hat," written by George Alfred Townsend while staying at the Washington Hotel. It you want to see inside, you must be there on Sunday between 2 and 4 p.m. (I told you the tourists don't get down there much.)
Not being there on Sunday, we drove on to Deal Island, 15 miles to the west, a waterman's isolated world where the country's largest concentration of skipjacks now ride at anchor. Route 363 leads you over the causeway to this tiny island, a winding narrow road which is an adventure in itself revealing a succession of little white churches, each with its attendant graveyard with tombs above ground, and a small group of houses fanning out beyond. When you round the last sharp corner you have arrived in the port of Wenona where the tall raked masts of the skipjacks reach toward the sky.
Give these boats a close look because there are only some 25 left in the country, half of them on Deal. All but one were built before World War II, and the Dee, finished last year after more than 18 months, is said to have been constructed with an eye to working the tourist summer trade. The oyster season is now over for the season and the boats await repairs. The Caleb W. Jones, the H. M. Krentz -- there are few to match them anymore.
Beyond the small fleet is Henry Brown's sail loft and the bait shop. Henry had a heart attack recently and everybody who gathers at Horace Webster's general store across the way hopes he'll be back in business soon because he's the only skipjack sailmaker around. Buy a soft drink and maybe you'll scrape acquaintance with the captains of some of these boats. Come on Saturday, though, because Horace Webster is a religious man and attends Sunday church.
North of Somerset lies Dorchester County, the home of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and an Eden so hospitable that some of the Canada geese here annually forget to join the V's migrating north in the spring. Cruising through at the 15-miles speed limit, we discovered -- even without binoculars -- brooding bald eagle atop a huge dead tree, his tail feather ruffling in the wind. In a tidal marsh we spotted a blue heron solemnly contemplating his watery home and everywhere flocks of Canada geese feeding as tamely as chickens. This is not peak season for the refuge, but at any time of the year the marshy grasses, the quiet pools of fresh water and the woodlands cut through with a handful of walking trails are a delight.
The talk this spring up the coastline in Talbot County, where the mansions line the Tred Avon and the yachts jam the estuaries, is the new Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael's. This is one of the nicest inns you are likely to find anywhere, right on the water and taking full advantage of the view. Owners are Bob Davies and Harry Meyerhoff, whose horse, Spectacular Bid, made so many headlines not long ago. The pair has restored and filled with handsome antiques this 19th-century residence and lured an excellent chef.
The Perry Cabin has a few rooms for overnight travelers -- if you don't mind shelling out a minimum of $90 -- and if you want one, you'd better book way ahead. The inn takes no reservations for meals since the guests pour in with or without, and the dining room is especially crowded at dinner on weekends. We went for lunch at 11:30 to be certain not to be excluded, and I still remember the oyster pot pie. Expensive and well worth it.
In Oxford, the Robert Morris Inn is well known for its charm and food, but it does not start serving on Sunday until until 1 p.m. Having been on the road early, we couldn't wait. We turned instead down Tilghman Street to the Town Creek Restaurant and Marina and ordered crab cake sandwiches which we ate while watching the boats ply the creek, a smaller watery finger of the Tred Avon. Since we had brought a cooler, we ordered crab imperial to take home packed in ice. (Just put the crab in the oven at 375 until the top is brown and you brought a bit of the Eastern Shore to Washington).
Last, but very far from least, we swung over to see the Riverside Hotel in Greensboro. It's off the beaten track, northwest toward the Delaware border, but take my advice and drive the extra miles.
Greensboro, site of this splendid hostelry, is the quintessential small town. My atlas, admittedly now new, gives it a population of 737, but it has undoubtedly shrunk since then. Crossing the city limits I saw a building quite literally falling down and only a few of the wonderful old Victorian houses on Main Street have had a recent paint job. Nevertheless, you must visit the Riverdale Hotel.
It's not much from outside, but inside it's a glory. To the right of the hall is a library, a real library, and in it, when I was there, sat a couple of old timers passing the time of day and nodding to all newcomers. Everywhere in this room, in the upstairs hall, in the lobby, is an eclectic mix of truly lovely old pieces and really splendid kitsch. At the foot of the stairs stands an organ with the sheet music for "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" open on the rack. On the landing is a department store dummy wearing a dress which Beatrice Czuchrey, co-owner of the hotel with her husband Peter, wore to their son's wedding.
The Czuchreys hail from New York's Rockland County, and when they took over the inn they thought to import a New York menu of steaks and chops. But Eastern Shore preferences and habit had their way, so now the dining room offers the fish customers prefer. Peter Czuchrey himself is the chef and his personality pervades everything from the soup kettle to the lobby desk.
There are 16 rooms -- $18 each -- but nine of them are occupied permanently by local people. These village gentry live happily in the welter of clawfoot bathtubs, stuffed partridges, handsome antiques inlcuding a prie-dieu, funky Victorian county fair prize-type ornaments and books. You share the baths at the Riverside Hotel, but every room has a washstand and handsome old brass or carved wood headboards towering above the bed. One of the elderly residents was recently overheard to say that he considered living at the Riverside Hotel "the next thing to heaven."
I fell in love with the Riverside Hotel long before I saw the "intimate dining room," but if I hadn't I would have then. Picture a room perhaps 9 x 12, with one mirrored wall, a tiny table for two exactly in the middle laid with two wine glasses into which are tucked paper napkins intricately folded. The corner across from the mirror is draped in red plush and heavy crocheted lace, which call to mind the cozy corners the Victorian so loved. There's even a "Do Not Disturb" sign illustrated with a Charles Dana Gibson-type couple for the door.
You can have anything you want at the Riverside Hotel.