The Chesapeake is the most delightful water I ever saw, being between two sweet lands.
Father Andrew White, passenger and sage on the Ark voyage of 1634.
ON THE WINDY morning when Father White penned those thoughts, the Ark was gliding up the Chesapeake Bay, and the "two sweet lands" flanking him and his fellow pioneers were the peninsulas of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
Soon after, the cleric stepped onto the shoreline at St. Clements Island and called down the Lord's blessing on the land, apparently throwing in eternal protection against no-down-payment resort condos and caramel popcorn. Southern Maryland was -- and is -- much a place where misty salt marshes and grassy fields give way to forests of spiraling pine and cliffs of jagged earthtones.
A lot of Washingtonians don't quite know what to make of the sister counties of Calvert and St. Mary's, Maryland's southern beauties. Fact is, Southern Maryland doesn't coax visitors to come on down; maybe it suffers from a sense of isolation, getting snubbed as it does when the topic of discussion turns to vacation destinations.
Barrelling toward our favorite water playgrounds on Maryland's Eastern Shore, who among us changes course and takes a sharp turn south before the Bay Bridge?
If you cross that bridge, you'll miss some sweet pleasures. How about a Chardonnay on the shores of Solomons Harbor? There is a tasteful collection of decked restaurants here that might be just the recipe for a balmy spring sunset. An oyster dinner by the columned flagstone terrace at Sotterley Plantation, perhaps? Or, as a warmup to summer, maybe a May Day Weekend at Historic St. Mary's City.
Route 5, Branch Avenue, might be a suburban jungle as it approaches Washington, but if you stay on it for a while as it winds south, you find yourself suddenly sharing the asphalt with horsedrawn carriages. Here, life moves as slowly and deliberately as an Amish farm couple going to market with their fresh-from-the oven buttercream-frosted chocolate cakes, neatly halved in plastic wrap. Every single Amish stall at the Charlotte Hall Farmer's Market offers the same cake at $2.50 a pop.
This hunk of Southern Maryland is a long and happy marriage of land and water. Look at the map -- it's peppered with points. Graveyard Point, Protestant Point, Priests Point, Pagan Point, Point Look-in, even Point No Point: the point being, they're all here. Point Lookout is situated at the very tip of the peninsula and is the spot where the Bay and the Potomac meet before flowing to the Atlantic. By land, you'll find raccoon, quail, fox, otter and mosquito. By sea, bluefish, sea trout, crabs -- and more mosquito. Linger long enough, and you will witness Point Lookout in motion, from farmer's fields several miles wide, to a sandbar that vanishes at high tide.
If this sounds like a drag, you can zip back in the fast lane at Maryland International Raceway, where cars with jet engines from Navy fighter planes hit speeds of 300 miles per hour in the quarter mile from a standing start. An evening here is a spectacle of burner pops and balls of fire.
Say hello to Margaret Duffy -- but feel free to call her "Mom," like everyone else in Scotland, Maryland. For two decades, she stirred up yarns and steaming bowls of oyster stew for her customers at Duffy's Tavern. Duffy's retired now, but she still embodies the homey feeling you get down here. "I've seen young children grow up and have kids who still call me Mom," she says.
Including a young man who left for college, returned with a journalism degree, and started his career on the Southern Maryland Enterprise. One of his feature assignments for the small weekly was to interview Duffy, this woman he had known so well all his life. Just before the story went to press, the reporter called her and asked urgently, "Hey, Mom, do you have a first name? I've never heard anyone use it."
GETTING HOOKED ON SOLOMONS ISLAND
In Solomons Island, you can't always spot 'em by the way they dress. One self-assured man parks his car near the docks. He is decked out in coordinated polo togs, with collar turned up and Timberland boat shoes stylishly downtrodden. Plastered to the back of his shiny new Saab is a bumper sticker that reads: "I'm a Good Ol' Boy From Southern Maryland."
Across the street from the shimmering waters of the Patuxent River, Jack Johnson, one of Solomons' favorite good ol' boys, is doing what he loves best: outfitting ever-hopeful anglers and steering tourists in the right direction. By 5 most summer mornings at his Woodburn's Fishing Center, the line for rental fishing boats has queued up to Our Lady Star of the Sea a block away. The early bird gets the worm. Bloodworm. And soda, beer and snacks are going out the screen door as fast as the delivery drivers can stock the coolers and shelves.
"My tonsils are glued to my throat from licking these stamps," complains Johnson, 63, taking care of some paperwork during a momentary lull. "I sold 5,000 tidewater fishing licenses last year -- more than anyone else in the state."
A slow-talking Ohioan by birth, Johnson taught elementary school in Montgomery and Calvert ("Culvert" down here) counties from 1953 until he retired in 1980. Then it was back to the water fulltime and the store that his father-in-law founded in the 1920s.
"Spot is the best," Johnson maintains. "That's the money fish. Word gets around about 'em, and they bring in the crowds. You could say the population explosion is outrageous."
A very old white-bearded black man limps in. "Anywhere 'round here get a drink o' water?"
"Yessir," says Johnson. He comes back with a cup. "Artesian well water from 100 feet below the surface of the earth."
The swinging of the ancient screen door keeps rhythm with the fan. A VHF marine radio crackles on the counter as the network of boaters in the tidal waters greet one another heartily and exchange vital weather information.
Solomons was called Bourne Island circa 1680, then it became Somervell's Island around 1740. It wasn't until 1870 that Isaac Solomon and his flourishing oyster-packing business left their mark. His home still stands on the front of the island. Today, Solomons brings to mind a sleepy New England fishing village, complete with 19th-century shipyards developed to support the island's fishing fleet. The deep, protected harbor has been a teeming marine center ever since the War of 1812, when a flotilla sailed from here to attack British vessels in the Chesapeake Bay.
Waterfront Victorian guest houses greet weekend escape artists from the Washington/Baltimore area. So much to do. So little time.
As late afternoon gives way to early evening, an ornery straggler docks his charter fishing boat, ambles into Woodburn's and slumps into a folding chair to recap his day for anyone interested in listening. King Neptune was not in a generous mood this day. It shows on the old waterman's leathery face. You ask his name, and he flatly refuses to give it, saying something about how he's not a licensed captain. Seconds later, his eyes target another man walking down his street. "Gordy's got a brand new captain's license," he says wistfully. "Been tryin' five years. Chokes up on the written part so they gave him a flash card test . . . passed it just like that. Been there so many times to take the test, they put his name on the seat. . . . but he's a tremendous fisherman. Tremendous fisherman."
Another tile is set in the rich mosiac of Solomons.
GETTING THERE --
Solomons Island can be reached by taking Pennsylvania Avenue (Route 4) south about 90 minutes to the end of Maryland Route 2 and 4. Turn left onto the island before you cross the Thomas Johnson ("Nosebleed") Bridge. If you cross the bridge, you've gone too far. The island is the southernmost point in Calvert County.
WOODBURN'S FISHING CENTER --
Charter fishing and supplies, fuel and ice, open daily during fishing season. 301/326-3241.
TOUR BOAT EXCURSIONS --
Scenic 50-minute tours of Solomons Harbor, Monday and Friday, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Departure from Lore Oyster House Museum; $5 adults, $2.50 children. Ride the Mystique, a 24-passenger tour boat, from Solomons to Hoopers Island across the Chesapeake. Operates Wednesday and weekends, $15 round trip, $8 one way. Call Captain Cynthia Riggs, D.C. number, 554-9278; runs regularly from April 3 until mid-November, then as weather permits. Where is Hoopers Island? Riggs' answer tempts you toward the one-way fare: "It's sorta no where," she says.
CLARK'S CHARTER FISHING --
Call Bob Clark, 301/326-3582.
WILLOW POINT GUEST HOUSE --
Waterfront bed and breakfast, pool, open daily, call Mary Cusato, 301/326-4023.
THE DAVIS HOUSE --
Charming Victorian guest house, open year round, call Runa Howley, 301/326-4811.
BACK CREEK INN --
Calvert and A streets, Solomons. Closed month of January; four rooms in main house, two suites in cottage, jacuzzi, herb gardens.
HOLIDAY INN SOLOMONS --
Hotel, conference center, marina, 301/326-6311.
COMFORT INN --
Jacuzzi suites, 60 rooms, pool, waterfront restaurant and marina, 301/326-6303.
CALVERT MARINE MUSEUM --
Located 200 yards on left as you enter Solomons, the museum emphasizes local maritime history and estuarine biology of the Bay and Patuxent River. Exhibits, boat tours, gift shop, open Monday to Friday 10 to 4:30, weekends noon to 4:30. 301/326-2042.
SOLD ON CHARLOTTE HALL
He is sitting there in the soft, early morning light, surrounded by a heap of antique tables and desks and the pungent aroma of horse manure. He has no future as a color commentator on NFL Monday Night Football, this middle-aged Amish gentleman at the Farmer's Market in Charlotte Hall.
The stream of consciousness questions begin. Is there a name for that hat you're wearing? "Straw."
And suspenders, right? "Suspenders."
You buy and sell furniture? "Yup."
Ever watch TV? "Nope."
Have electricity in your home? "Uh-uh."
Do you drive a car? "Nope."
Go to the movies? "Nope."
He strokes his graying beard. He fires up a Dutch Masters thin cigar.
Got any other bad habits besides smoking? "Not that I know of."
Not everyone at this market -- which is open Wednesdays and Saturdays year-round -- is so reticent. In fact, most of the farmers are not Amish, and they fairly pant for your attention as you walk past, like puppies in the pound. Why do you come here? you ask John Wagner, 75, of Myersville, Pa. "People get married by the Bible," he begins, "divorced by the law, and old people fade away. This keeps my bones from rusting."
Renie Gott, 58, of Hollywood, is not Amish. But her father was a cabinetmaker in St. Mary's County, and she inherited from him a friendship with one of the Amish families whose farms can be seen near Mechanicsville along Routes 6 and 36 and the sideroads. The settlement here dates back to the mid-1930s, when several Amish clans arrived from Pennsylvania. Most of their farms have no electricity, although some have windmills or use water to generate power for themselves.
"We have no free time," says Gott. "Why don't we? They do. With no labor-saving devices, they have more free time than we do. They have time to visit friends."
Gott, who is with the St. Mary's County Chamber of Commerce, once told her friends that she disapproves of the Amish views on education. "Their children quit school on the day they turn 14. They don't even finish the year," she explains. "I was told quite firmly that at 14, they have all the schooling they'll need for the life they're going to lead.
"They're actually a very party-oriented people. They take turns meeting in each other's houses, as they have no separate church buildings. One week, my Amish friend had 300 apple pies cooling on the back porch."
If you're lucky, you'll find apple pies cooling at the Farmer's Market, or shoofly pies, or muffins, or jars of jams and preserves glistening like jewels in the sunshine. "Everything they bake is heavy; you'll know it's there," says Gott.
There are not as many Amish tables at the market as there used to be, but you can still run across an Amish couple reading in customary stillness across the beat-up counter while you wonder about the taste of tomato jelly.
CHARLOTTE HALL FARMER'S MARKET --
South on Route 5, the market is on the left a few miles south of the St. Mary's County line. Open Wednesdays and Saturdays, 8 to 5. Farm fresh produce, antiques, flea market.
BACK IN TIME AT ST. MARY'S
"The pace of life here is typically southern, and friendly, terribly friendly," says Bleecker Harrison, 70, executive secretary of the St. Mary's County Historical Society. "It's a very slow pace, and that's good."
She considers it a pleasure to take visitors on a tour of the cozy Old Jail in Leonardtown, which houses the Society headquarters, a museum and genealogical library. She plies you with maps, brochures and local lore so you can draw your own conclusions.
In the library, the air is thick with the smell of old tomes. How old is the oldest volume? we ask.
"I don't know that, but they are certainly old enough," Harrison replies.
Like most folks down here, she will tell you as much as she knows and you get the feeling that'll have to do.
Further south on Route 5, past rolling hills of corn and tobacco, lies St. Mary's City, the oldest city in Maryland and site of the first European settlement in the state in 1634. A resolute and faithful band of 140 people, all English settlers, came here to write a story of survival and opportunity. A dear price was exacted in their struggle for colonization. "They died like flies when they got here," observes Karin Stanford, who directs public affairs for St. Mary's City.
"The first settlers found a rich and abundant environment, but it worked only for those strong enough to survive it," says Stanford. "They had no immunity to new diseases here. The only place in the world more deadly than the Cheaspeake in the 17th century was downtown London during the plagues."
There were a lot of orphans. The rich treasure trove of records in this area is due largely to the orphan's courts. There are records of an 8-year-old girl who was in charge of an entire plantation for a number of months after her parents died.
A highlight of this 850-acre outdoor history museum is the Godiah Spray Plantation, a living-history recreation of a 1660s tidewater tobacco plantation. Actors and actresses assume the identities of the Spray family to transport you to another time. You might see the master of the house splitting fragrant cedar logs in the backyard while Baby Spray -- barefoot and wearing a homespun woolen frock -- snitches a branch of dill in the garden and stuffs it in her mouth. Ask them about their tasks, dreams and opinions; they won't break character.
Theirs is a tale of being shaped by the land. "We're the time between the Pilgrims and Williamsburg," says Stanford. "We're in the period when the people were still English but in the important process of becoming American."
ST. MARY'S CITY --
In southern St. Mary's County on Route 5. Visitor Center open 10 to 5 daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Historic townlands open dawn to dusk daily except Christmas, free. Exhibit areas (tobacco plantation, nature center, State House, Dove and 17th-century inn) open 10 to 5 weekends only from last weekend in March through Memorial Day, then daily through Labor Day, and weekends only from Labor Day through November. Adults $4, seniors $2, children 6-12 $1.50. Special rates for groups and schools, guided tours available. Call or write: Historic St. Mary's City, P.O. Box 39, St. Mary's City, MD 20686. 301/862-0990.
UPCOMING ST. MARY'S CITY EVENTS
MARCH 26-27 --
Maryland Days. Ceremonies marking the founding of Maryland. Free admission all weekend, entertainment, food, special exhibits.
MARCH THROUGH MAY --
The Planting Season Living History Program, weekends only from 10 to 5. Watch the sowing of fields and gardens and other 17th-century agricultural tasks.
APRIL 30-MAY 1 --
May Day Weekend; gardens, exhibits, call 301/862-1666 for details.
MEMORIAL DAY THROUGH LABOR DAY --
Publick Times Living History Program, daily 10 to 5. Lively reenactments of trials, market days, politics and intrigue, all based on Maryland history.
JUNE THROUGH AUGUST --
Maryland Shakespeare Festival. Theater under the stars. Works by the Bard and contemporary playwrights are staged outdoors on the Historic Townlands; separate admission. Call 301/862-0243 for schedule.
JUNE 18-19 --
Grand Militia Muster/Charter Days. The premier event of the season, with encampment of 17th-century reenactment groups.
AUGUST 6-7 --
Tidewater Archaeology Weekend. Special tours of completed and on-going excavations. Hands-on opportunity to help uncover the past, not to mention Indian pipe fragments, buttons, ceramic shards.
SEPTEMBER THROUGH NOVEMBER --
The Harvest Season Living History Program. Weekends only, 10 to 5. See the harvesting of crops and preparation of the colony for the winter ahead.
OTHER SOUTHERN MARYLAND MEMORIES
THE OLD JAIL --
In Leonardtown, open to the public Tuesday to Saturday, 10 to 4, St. Mary's County Historical Society Headquarters. 301/475-2467.
BATTLE CREEK CYPRESS SWAMP --
Route 506, off Routes 2 and 4, north of Calvert Cliffs plant. This is the northernmost significant stand of swamp with 100 acres of giant Bald Cypress trees, elevated nature trail.
CALVERT CLIFFS STATE PARK --
Route 2/4, 14 miles south of Prince Frederick and 3 miles south of plant. Thirty miles of fossil cliffs along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, with more than 625 species of fossils. Open March through October.
POINT LOOKOUT STATE PARK --
Take Branch Avenue south to Waldorf, pick up Route 5 south to Route 235. Route 235 will bring you back onto Route 5 just north of the park. Southernmost point in the state, once the location of a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers. Amenities include sandy beach on the Potomac, picnic area, camping facilities, boat rentals; call or write Park Manager, Point Lookout State Park, Star Route, Box 48, Scotland, MD 20687. 301/872-5688.
COVE POINT LIGHTHOUSE --
Located 5 miles east of Lusby, off Route 2/4 on Route 497. Built in 1828, it is the oldest lighthouse still in service in Maryland.
SOTTERLEY PLANTATION --
Built around 1710, the nation's longest continuously operating plantation. Not a museum, no ropes or "Do Not Touch" signs -- bring the kids. Follow the signs near the intersection of routes 235 and 245 near Hollywood; $4 adults, $3 seniors, $1 children 6-12. Open 11 to 5 daily to September 30, by appointment in October and November. Call or write Sotterley, Hollywood, MD 20636, 301/373-2280.
MARYLAND INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY --
Drag strip, open every Saturday, March through October, Rte. 234 at Budds Creek. 301/932-2177.
NAVAL AIR TEST AND EVALUATION MUSEUM --
Only U.S. museum dedicated to the testing and evaluation of Navy aircraft. Open 11 to 5 Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 5 Sundays, free. 301/863-7418.
ST. CLEMENT'S ISLAND --
Accessible only by boat from Colton's Point. Passage on a private tour boat will be available later this spring, $4 adults, $3 children, $10 maximum per family. Museum on Colton's Point open Monday to Friday 9 to 5, weekends noon to 4; no fee, donation appreciated. For special events, call 301/769-2222.