THE PORCH of the rustic cabin offered a perfect vantage point for watching the sun set over an uninhabited island on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. A slight breeze freshened the pine-scented water-edge forest, and a few birds staged final maneuvers before roosting time.

It seemed appropriate to sample a beverage and relax while digesting a seafood dinner. Later on there would be a shower to wash away salt spray from a Bay jaunt and then, who knows, perhaps another drink in front of the fire.

It's just the sort of moment for which well-heeled city dwellers invest thousands of dollars in a second home (or spend countless hours charming Uncle Max so he'll invite them to his cabin).

We had not, however, invested thousands in our two-level cabin, just $50 plus tax. And we hadn't worried about buttering up Uncle Max. Instead, our host was the far more predictable (and lower-profile) Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service.

We had taken a shortcut to the good life, for a weekend anyway, by taking advantage of a little-known standing invitation by the Maryland parks people. We didn't even have to put up a tent or bump our heads on the ceiling of a camper.

The state parks rent out 45 cabins in five parks that exemplify the state's geographical diversity and beauty. There are units at New Germany and Herrington Manor state parks in rugged and mountainous Garrett County, at Elk Neck State Park on the northern tip of the Chesapeake in Cecil County, at Martinak State Park on the Choptank River in Caroline County, and at Janes Island State Park on the Bay near Crisfield.

We stayed at New Germany and Janes Island at ideal times -- New Germany in February for skiing and Janes Island the weekend before Memorial Day for water activities -- and had superb, relaxing changes of scenery.

Not only did we enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the parks, but the cabins were attractive and well-equipped, and so comfortable and cozy that parting was painful.

And we weren't exactly straining the budget. The Janes Island cabin sleeps up to six for the $50 a night (only eight-person cabins at Herrington Manor cost more, $60 a night), and our two-person cabin at New Germany was just $42.

Prospective cabin-dwellers should note, however, that because of the small number of cabins and their loyal clientele, planning at least several weeks in advance is advisable for weekend trips. Those with the flexibility of weekdays off will find arrangements far easier. Summer rentals, for a minimum of a week, are another matter; applicants far outnumber available places and a lottery is held early each year.

Once all systems are go, the cabins at Janes Island make an ideal base for anyone interested in activities on or about water. The park is right on the shore (cabins are perhaps 100 feet from the water), with fishing, boat rentals and a boat ramp. Most of the park consists of Janes Island, separated from the mainland by a narrow waterway and accessible only by boat (or swimming).

Just a mile and a half away is the watermen's stronghold of Crisfield, with its marina, seafood bustle, informal but excellent restaurants, the regional J. Millard Tawes Museum and daily cruises to Smith and Tangier islands. Ocean City, Assateague and Chincoteague are less than an hour away. For a glimpse at the backwaters of the Eastern Shore, take your car (or bike) on the free state ferry across the Wicomico River between the idyllic riverside hamlets of Whitehaven and Widgeon, near Princess Anne.

After a busy day of sightseeing, visitors can relax in the Janes Island cabins, with fireplace (firewood's provided), screened porch and all modern conveniences. At the end of a stay, anyone with kids may end up having to drag them physically from the very inviting upstairs loft.

Right across the state, and in a completely different setting, are the cabins of New Germany, surrounded by the wilderness of Savage River State Forest, and Herrington Manor. (New Germany is five miles south of Grantsville; Herrington Manor is five miles northeast of Oakland.) The 11 attractive, architecturally varied New Germany cabins, along a winding alpine-style lane, are a perfect base for downhill or cross-country skiing in winter and hiking and boating in summer. The park has a small lake and beach and miles of trails and cross-country skiing paths, complete with warming stations.

The small but well-laid-out Wisp ski resort is just 25 miles away, and parts of Deep Creek Lake are even closer. Other local sights include Swallow Falls and the towns of Grantsville and Frostburg.

Visitors to New Germany should stop at the ranger station at first opportunity, where the staff dishes out advice about the area (one ranger called the excellent and homey Penn Alps restaurant in Grantsville for us to find out if it would be open by the time we could arrive), gives out maps and brochures and sells commemorative T-shirts and sweatshirts.

The cabins are evocatively rustic but recently renovated and very comfortable. Ours dated from 1935. The rangers provide an informative packet on the park and area and enough wood to get you through blizzards, which are not unknown thereabouts. All the usual amenities are there, plus some you might not expect, such as a ceiling fan.

In the north-central section of the state is Elk Neck State Park, with nine cabins for rent. The park, on a neck of land jutting into the northern reaches of the Chesapeake, offers fishing, boating (rowboats for rent) and swimming. The scenic bayside town of Havre de Grace and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal are nearby.

On the upper Eastern Shore, on scenic Rte. 404 beyond Denton and near Delaware, is Martinak State Park, with a single cabin for rent. The park is small but is much loved by locals as a base for exploring quiet stretches of the Choptank. The other main activity is fishing.

Wherever you may care to head, park officials recommend calling to reserve a cabin well in advance of your hoped-for date -- at least several weeks is suggested -- and having alternate dates in mind. (Applications for week-long rentals next summer must be received by the parks department in Annapolis between December 1 and the second Monday in January.) A nonrefundable deposit of $50 is required to confirm a reservation. Those staying at off-peak times, especially on weekdays, should call the park during office hours before setting off to remind the rangers that they're coming.

Although the cabins generally are well-equipped, for some of them visitors must bring cooking utensils, tablewear, linens and blankets. Visitors at all cabins must provide towels, soap and dish-cleaning materials. RUSTICITY FOR RENT

For a brochure on Maryland's park cabins, contact: Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, Tawes State Office Building, 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis MD 21401. 301/269-3771. TTY: Statewide, 800/492-5062; from Baltimore, 269-2609.

To reserve a Maryland park cabin, write the park office or call between 8 and 4. JANES ISLAND STATE PARK --

Route 2, Alfred Lawson Drive, Crisfield MD 21817. 301/968-1565.

NEW GERMANY STATE PARK --

Route 2, Grantsville MD 21536. 301/895-5453.

HERRINGTON MANOR STATE PARK --

RFD 5, Box 122, Oakland MD 21550. 301/334-9180.

ELK NECK STATE PARK --

4395 Turkey Point Rd., North East MD 21901. 301/287-5333.

MARTINAK STATE PARK --

Deep Shore Road, Denton MD 21629. 301/479-1619.

Chad Neighbors is a copy editor in the Style section of The Washington Post.