What are the best ways to enjoy the Washington area's easiest-to-reach large body of water? Whether you're hoping to be a skipper, passenger or weekend waterman (or just an apprehensive wader), here's a quick guide to getting on and in the Chesapeake Bay around Maryland's upper Eastern Shore:

BEACHES

Beaches are the least troublesome way to enjoy the Chesapeake, and the best one on the upper shore is Betterton Beach, an impressive expanse of sand and typically mild surf about 20 minutes north of Chestertown. While you're there, take in the view of the Chesapeake from the treetops in the three-story gazebo just off the beach. Oxford, a tourist mecca in its own right, boasts a modest beach known for its generous amount of wading room. Shallow for at least 50 yards out and overlooking a bustling stretch of the Tred Avon River, the beach is a nice spot (if not a very glamorous one: a well-traveled street is only 20 feet away) for families with kids. Rock Hall also offers its own "locals" beach, a narrow spit of sand that does the trick for a day of sunning and wading.

BOAT TOURS

If the beach seems too tepid an outing, the next step is to enjoy the water as a seafaring passenger. The Patriot (410-745-3100), a double-decker steamer-style yacht docked in St. Michaels, offers several runs a day on the Miles River. No fishing; you'll have to settle for bucolic shoreline, swirling eagles and passing sailors. Snacks and a bar are down in the air-conditioned main cabin. Four cruises daily; $9 ($4 ages 11 and younger). The St. Michaels Lady (410-745-5776) is a 42-foot wooden Chesapeake Bay workboat that can carry up to 24 on its lazy one-hour cruises up the Miles. The $9 cruises leave daily every two hours from Town Dock Marina; the 7:10 p.m. trip is the popular sunset cruise ($12).

Lunch and dinner cruises are offered aboard the Dorothy Megan, a replica of a turn-of-the-century paddlewheel riverboat docked at Secretary's Suicide Bridge Restaurant (about 15 minutes east of Cambridge). Lunch on the Choptank River is usually served four or five times a week, dinner most every weekend; it's best to call 410-943-4689 to be sure charters haven't altered the schedule. If the $25 lunch or $36 dinner (per person, tip included) doesn't fit your bill, sightseeing cruises are $12 a head.

For a more rugged cruise, check out one of several skipjacks that offer chartered sails. The Rebecca T. Ruark (410-886-2176) and the Herman N. Krentz (410-745-6080) both sail out of Tilghman Island. Some folks go just for the ride, others dredge for oysters (and eat them on the half shell right on the deck) aboard these distinctive ships, part of the country's last fleet of working boats powered by sail.

For the easiest of boat trips, take a ride on the Oxford-Bellevue ferry (410-745-9023). The shortest route from St. Michaels to Oxford, the open-air ferry takes cars, bikers and foot passengers across the Tred Avon River, a lovely 10-minute commute.

BOAT RENTALS

Looking to be your own captain? Most rivers and harbors on the upper Eastern Shore are big enough to offer room for errors by even the greenest of novices. But you might want to start small:

Chester River Kayak Adventures (410-639-2001, www.rockhallmd.com/crkayak) rents kayaks for the day out of Rock Hall but puts most of its energy into guided tours. Half-day tours are $40 ($32 for children), full-day tours are $75/$50. Sunset and moonlight paddles cost about $30 a head. (The owners vow: "Don't worry, you won't be called upon to do Eskimo rolls!") Closer to St. Michaels, Chesapeake Bay Kayak (1-877-8-PADDLE) offers rentals and guided tours on Broad Creek with the promise of serenity and quiet not always found along the Chesapeake's busier waterways. Guided tours cost $45, while half-day rentals run $35. Down the road in Tilghman, Island Kayaks (410-886-2083 or www.island-kayak.com) offers guided eco-tours for $45 and half-day rentals for $35.

Perhaps the most interesting rental choice around, water bikes, can be rented at Chester River Marine Services (410-778-2240) in Chestertown. These "Aqua Cycles," which are oversized floating tricycles, pretty much scream "tourist" to the world--but, truth be told, they're kinda fun. Chester River rents them for $10 an hour (about all you'd want them for). Runabouts, canoes and kayaks are also available there.

Another new water novelty are "Surf Bikes," similar to Aqua Cycles but powered by a pedal-driven propeller on the keel. "It's like riding a bike in second or third gear," says distributor Craig Smith. "You go fast and it's great exercise. Plus, as soon as you get hot, just roll over and fall in the water."

Smith (410-763-6955) can arrange a rental delivery or you can go to the Sailing Emporium in Rock Hall (410-778-1342) which rents them, too. The typical rate is $12.50 an hour, more for a capsize-proof bike or the two-person model.

Island Boat Rentals in Kent Island (410-827-4777) offers a pontoon boat rental that's great for a picnic atop Eastern Bay. (The price tag for a full day is a bit hefty at $195 and probably unnecessary; the $125 half-day rate gives you three or four hours, probably all you'll need.)

Little Boat Rentals in Easton (1-800-221-1523) rents pontoon boats, too, plus canoes and run-abouts. But the most fun can be found with their fleet of small sailboats. The 15-foot sloops (the nautically correct term for a boat with one mast) are about as basic as you can get, perfect for sailors on the upward slope of their learning curve. (No instruction is available, so you'll need to have some idea what you're doing.) Just in case, all the sailboats are equipped with outboard engines. Rental prices are as follows: pontoon boats are $175 a day, $100 a half-day; run-abouts are $85 a day, $55 a half-day; and sloops are $100 a day, $60 a half-day. Little Boat will even deliver to the boat ramp of your choice. (Little Boat Rentals takes cash or checks, no credit cards.)

FISHING/CRABBING

All this boating can make you pretty hungry, so why not walk off the dock with dinner in hand?

One of the bay's most famous fishing outfits is Harrison's Chesapeake House in Tilghman Island (410-886-2121), a combination marina, motel and restaurant with several bars, live music and one of the bay's largest fleet of fishing boats. A day of rockfish hunting on the Chesapeake isn't cheap: You and up to five friends will need to pony up a total of $480 plus tip for a captain and mate. But that does include a country-style box lunch (sandwich, fried chicken, hard-boiled egg, fruit and cake). If you don't have enough anglers for a full party, you can join one for $80 a person. Overnight packages are available, too, and Harrison's is happy to clean or cook your catch once you hit the dock.

If you prefer your fish with a "Mc" in front of it, Harrison's also offers a Saturday sunset cruise on its double-decker fishing boat. They set sail around 7 and the cost is $25. You will, of course, be back in time for dinner.

To try your hand at crabbing, check out the Crab Alley Marina (410-643-7339) in Kent Island. There you can rent 15-foot outboard run-abouts, and all the equipment you'll need: some string, a few chicken necks for bait and a net for $85 a day.

Keep in mind that the locals often disparage hapless tourists from the western shore as "chicken neckers," so you risk cementing the insult. The best way to silence even the crustiest of watermen is to return with a few monster jimmies in your basket.

The Escapist

The Shenandoah Valley Travel Association's 1999 travel guide (1-877-847-4878, www.shenandoah.org) is a fairly handy (though hardly comprehensive) digest of things to see and places to stay or eat around that wide valley between Martinsburg, W.Va., and Roanoke, Va. There's a map (and exit guide to I-81, the four-lane successor to what was once an Indian trail through the valley), but what's really helpful is the guide's calendar of events:

How else would you know about Roanoke's Salem Fair (July 1-11, 540-375-3004); the "First Friday" family programs at Staunton's Frontier Culture Museum (July 2, 540-332-7850); the 500,000 cut-rate new books of the Green Valley Book Fair in Mount Crawford (July 3-11, 1-800-385-0099); or Fourth of July celebrations at Wintergreen Resort (1-800-255-2444), Bryce Resort (540-856-2121) or the small town of Stanley, Va. (540-778-3454)?