The Chesapeake Bay region is so vast it's hard to really know in its entirety. Two facing shorelines span nearly 200 miles from north to south--almost the distance from Washington to New York City. The coastline is riven by dozens of rivers and streams, creating more than 4,600 miles of waterfront property. Counting wetlands, it may even be 8,000 miles, depending on who you ask. That would be equal to about a third of the Earth's circumference. In any event, it's a lot of ground to cover.
So it's no wonder that, despite your residence so near two major bay tributaries (those being the Potomac and Patuxent rivers)--and probably less than an hour, by car, from the bay itself--you likely haven't found your way very far beyond the most obvious and accessible gateways to the Chesapeake Bay. Even many deck-shoed boaters make waterborne beelines only between popular Annapolis and St. Michaels. You? You've still got the map open on the kitchen table at home, puzzling over a port of call. For all its breadth, size and variety, the bay can be hard to get at, aside from its big front doors.
As the author "The Chesapeake Bay Book: A Complete Guide," I've been obliged to try to get familiar with the whole shebang. Eight years have passed since I first dedicated myself to the task of sampling crabcake sandwiches (and critically eyeing the tomatoes, I might add, to make sure nobody tries to sneak by with a pink plastic varietal when every vine on the Eastern Shore is laden with beauties by August), detouring endlessly past deserted lowlands in search of isolated creek landings to launch the canoe, or stopping by Victorian homes to see if a B&B may lurk within. Along the way, I've come to accept the fact that the more I know about Chesapeake country, the more I don't.
But I also figure that, by now, I know my way around the bay as well as anyone. So pull up a chair.
First, a few cautionary thoughts. Getting on the bay, or even a scenic chunk of shoreline, could be a challenge without prior planning. Public access is limited because much of the bay's shoreline is in private hands. So, for direct access to the water, you'll want to get acquainted with the many state and federal parks and refuges along Chesapeake shores or tributaries. Put in your own small craft or, far easier, rent one where you can. Otherwise, expect to pay somewhat dearly to get on the bay itself (an often worthwhile expenditure, I'll grant) by taking a charter, be it fishing, sailing or powerboating. If you are looking for a charter and aren't sure where to find one, check local marinas. Chances are, they'll know where the nearest charter boat docks.
As for swimming on that great body of water: Well, stinging nettles arrive in the estuary's saltier lower reaches during hot weather. Rainy springs seem to stave off the nettles, but this year has been awfully dry. Betterton Beach, on the Eastern Shore's fresher-water upper bay, carries the nettle-free reputation if you want to literally take the plunge.
Again and again, I'm asked a basic question: Where should I go and stay to "do" the bay? Assuming you've visited Annapolis, and perhaps St. Michaels and Chestertown, here are five good answers. Each of the places I recommend will expose you to geographically and culturally distinct servings of the bay, or let you get out onto the water if you're so inclined. Some offer more tourism amenities than others, but none is so obscure that visitors will be stranded. It's just that the lady who handles brochure requests might be doing so from her kitchen phone.
Still, all five let you dive right in, and learn a little more about the big and potentially baffling Chesapeake Bay.
Up here a good 30 miles above Chestertown, where you can't go much farther north and honestly claim to be in bay country, the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal bisects the tiny village of Chesapeake City into north and south. A 17th-century mapmaker first floated the notion of connecting the upper bay to the Delaware River here, but the 1820s arrived before canal construction was finally underway. Now, the 14-mile C&D is the country's busiest canal, shaving 300 miles off the trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia.
This canal town feels less like a tourist trap and more like a place where people live and work, yet also happens to harbor a few delights for the touring public. Almost all are pragmatically contained within a tidy one-by-three-block section of historic district on the south side of town. Included are a dignified sprinkling of antiques or gift shops, where prices always seem improbably reasonable. Pastel Victorian paint jobs with green or purple accents illuminate many homes, an aesthetic born not in the 19th century but in the 1970s, spurred by civic-minded local women and Mrs. Richard C. DuPont (yes, one of them), as citizens set about reclaiming forgotten buildings. By the early 1980s, "Mrs. DuPont," as she's referred to around town, restored what's now the fine dining inn called the Bayard House, general manager Carl Dolde told me after one recent visit. A spoon could stand in a bowl of Bayard's thick spicy crab soup. Snug along the canal, the Bayard House sits just around the corner from the town's boating basin, where the only canal tour boat docks.
"Ship ahoy! There's my neighbor there," calls Capt. Ralph Hazel of the Miss Clare, as the Coast Guard boat rolls past. Hazel's Cambridge-built workboat heads out for an hour-long trip along the C&D, passing a quiet, tidy landscape en route to the Elk River. Hazel points to the peninsula where British troops burned a Revolution-era community, and to a collection of brick buildings where townspeople once built wooden barges to serve the canal.
Alas, we didn't see any of the famed 650-foot container ships that regularly ply the canal. Later, from shore, we watched three red tugs pass by, pushing or pulling their enormous barges. To track maritime traffic, check the computer monitor at the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Museum, the canal's original stone pumphouse that still houses its two massive 19th-century steam engines and waterwheel. You can watch the crafts' silhouettes cruise across the computer screen.
Three B&Bs sit within the historic district; the Ship Watch Inn supplies its eight waterfront rooms with binoculars. Shaefer's Canal House, a venerable restaurant-marina-lodging establishment, dominates the canal on the north side of town. Stay where you like, but visitors will find most of their fun on the south side.
For more information, contact the Chesapeake City Town Hall, 410-885-5298, www.chesapeakecity.com.
If the Eastern Shore town of Crisfield says "crab," then Tilghman Island says "skipjack"--the rake-masted watercraft that constitute the nation's last all-sail commercial fleet. Folks like to talk about how Tilghman has changed since tourists started finding their way 14 miles past St. Michaels to this narrow Eastern Shore island that separates the Choptank River from the bay. But there's still a drawbridge at Knapps Narrows that sometimes keeps go-go urbanites cooling their heels before crossing and, once on the island, you'll find substantial evidence of the waterman's way of life. Workboats dock at both the Narrows and Dogwood Harbor.
The harbor is on your left just a short way from the bridge, and it's home to most of the bay's remaining century-old skipjack fleet, down to something like a working dozen from the 500 to 600 that once plied the bay, says Eastern Shore writer Pat Vojtech, who counted the sailboats when she researched her book "Chesapeake Bay Skipjacks" in the early 1990s.
Here at the harbor, Capt. Wade Murphy Jr. keeps his 1886 skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark. He learned several years ago that he can't make a go of it with just oysters, so he takes two-hour charters out, too. His voice is thick with the round vowels of a classic Shore accent. The morning is balmy with the promise of summer when Murphy ushers his six passengers (that's the limit) aboard the old gal. Nary a puff of wind ruffles the harbor as he fires up the engine on the small yawlboat (also called a pushboat) trailing the sailboat. This is the skipjack's power source. During oyster season, by law the skipjack must be under sail by the time the dredge goes in the water.
When a breeze finally comes up, passengers hoist the aging sails held to the mast with huge wooden rings. Out in the Choptank, at an oyster bed known as "middle ground," Murphy throws a dredge overboard to demonstrate how the real work is done. Lucky customers get to sample the local product, expertly extracted by the wiry waterman with a quick twist of an oyster knife.
If you can't get on with Murphy, the H.M. Krentz takes regular day trips for 24 to 32 passengers, and skipjack rides are offered the third weekend of October during Tilghman Island Day. Although it's evolving from a waterman-only way of life, Tilghman produces evidence that perhaps not all change is for the worse. The laid-back Tilghman Island Inn has operated along Knapps Narrows for a decade now, and it's created a menu that even Gourmet can appreciate. Plump and nestled in a puff pastry covered with a champagne-and-Pernod sauce, Oysters Choptank drew us back even before we learned that the magazine had put them on the cover last year. Have a drink at the patio bar along the Narrows, and stay upstairs in one of 20 rooms.
And don't forget Harrison's Chesapeake House, still taking out fishermen who've overnighted at the lodgings there as they have since the 1930s.
For more information, contact the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce, 410-822-4606, www.talbotchamber.org.
Okay, so your car's autopilot knows the way to your favorite Annapolis bistro. It's time to cross the Spa Creek Bridge from the City Dock area into Eastport for a taste of the saltier side of Annapolis. Starting in the late 1860s, when Eastport was subdivided from a peninsula-wide farm, this place was home to watermen and blue-collar workers, including those who helped build the turn-of-the-century, Beaux Arts U.S. Naval Academy. Gentrification may have arrived, but Eastport retains a laid-back sauciness. Last year when the Spa Creek Bridge was closed for a few weeks of repairs, a jolly group of locals declared the Maritime Republic of Eastport and "seceded" from the city.
While this is primarily a neighborhood of residents and maritime businesses (100 strong, they say, from sail lofts to yacht design outfits), a string of good restaurants and a few get-on-the-water alternatives to Annapolis's busier City Dock make this a nice choice. Even a couple of good B&Bs have arrived of late--and the real plum, if you have any experience visiting Maryland's tony olde capital city at all, is that in Eastport, it's still pretty easy to find free on-street parking.
Neophytes to the waterfront court danger if they head out on the busy, mast-filled harbor without instruction. That said, the Spring River Corp. rents canoes and kayaks out of a warehouse full of boat businesses. Paddlers can avoid the heavy water traffic by heading back into the quieter, residential reaches of Spa Creek, away from the harbor. Looming from their Colonial perch across the way stand the spire of St. Anne's Church and the dome of the Maryland Statehouse.
The schooner Liberte takes tourists during its split season, spring through mid-June and mid-September through fall. It docks alongside the Chart House Restaurant, quartered in the former boatyard of John Trumpy & Sons, which built the presidential yacht Sequoia.
If you're looking for a good meal, some of the city's best restaurants reside here, including the new edition of O'Leary's Restaurant, fine seafood central, and Lewnes Steak House, Lyonnaise potatoes and all. Carrol's Creek Cafe, where we watched water pushed by the early-September hurricane of '96 creep into a car parked in the garage below, remains one of the best shoreside spots around.
In search of a B&B? Check out the not-ye-olde-at-all Inn at Spa Creek, or the L.L.-Beanish Eastport House.
For more information, contact the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Visitors Bureau, 410-268-8687, www.visit-annapolis.org.
The Patuxent River empties into Chesapeake Bay at Solomons, giving village buildings the whitewashed, open-water light of an oceanside town. That's my favorite thing about this former oyster boom town, located at the tip of Calvert County about a 90-minute drive south and east from Washington.
Fishermen have long caught charters from here, and a few restaurants and shops have drawn their day-trippers. But in more recent years, Solomons has been broadening its tourist appeal. The CD Cafe roasts perfect veggies for its bistro-style cuisine, and the Solomons Victorian Inn beats any B&B around for its range of room styles, which suit any taste. An art gallery and a couple of design and gift gallery shops have moved in among the souvenir and antiques stores.
This summer, Solomons has added to the mix, offering two tutorials on sturgeon, the apparently late, lamented and perhaps-to-come-again great creature of bay fishery. With their sharp snouts and spiny armor, the baby sturgeon circling a vat at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory even look like their prehistoric forebears, whose scales can easily be found just north of here, in the fossil-laden Calvert Cliffs. In June, CBL, part of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, launched laid-back, docent-led tours of their facility. If you're lucky, a scientist or grad student will be working in the sturgeon labs during Wednesday or Friday tours, which depart from a tiny, year-old visitors center at the edge of campus.
If not, you're still in luck. In late August, the Calvert Marine Museum plans to open a sturgeon exhibit. Visitors who are further intrigued by bay country's prehistoric past will want to wander the museum to learn more about the sharks and ancient birds that dwelled in this region back when an ancient sea reached clear to Washington.
Solomons is also home to one of the last things you'd expect to find out here: a sculpture garden. Ceramic gates swirling with Chesapeake blues and greens announce Annmarie Garden on St. John, named for the land donor's wife and the creek running alongside the 30-acre property. Six permanent and five temporary pieces stand now, amid the bare trunks of tall pines lining the garden park, awaiting the next of its annual installations.
For more information, contact the Calvert County Department of Economic Development (410-535-4583 or 1-800-331-9771, www.co.cal.md.us/cced) or the Solomons Information Center (410-326-6027, www.sba.solomons.md.us).
The Northern Neck
History is rich along the laid-back and gracious Northern Neck southeast of Washington, down to the curious presence of the birthplace homes of George Washington and Robert E. Lee sitting nearly side by side along the upper portion of the neck, along the Potomac River. Is that karma or what? But Capt. John Smith also explored the bay, including the waters at the end of this Virginia peninsula, and we're headed there, partly because it's such an adventure just to go.
Reach the top of the Northern Neck two ways. Drive down I-95 to Fredericksburg, Va., then head east on Route 3, or take a quieter trip south from Maryland on Route 301, connecting with Route 3 east of Fredericksburg. The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, and once you cross into Westmoreland County, you're officially there. Keep going on Route 3 to Route 360 east, then on to Reedville, clear at the end of the peninsula's Potomac tip.
An up-and-coming regional tourist destination, Reedville remains a working fishing town built by New Englanders who arrived in the late 19th century to capitalize on the menhaden fishery. The Main Street they left behind is full of rich houses, and the dual homes of brother-in-law menhaden barons stand across the street from each other, now B&Bs. The Gables is one of the most interesting houses on Chesapeake Bay, built by a captain who so missed shipboard life he erected his schooner's mast through the third and fourth floors. The neighboring Victorian, the Morris House Bed and Breakfast Inn, has been redecorated in high town-and-country style. To learn about the town's menhaden fishery, visit the Reedville Fishermen's Museum.
At the southern, Rappahannock River-side end of the Northern Neck, down Route 200 from Reedville, lies Lancaster County. This is a gracious, put-your-feet-up destination with perhaps the peninsula's greatest concentration of restaurants and things for visitors to do. History buffs should visit the Colonial Christ Church and the Mary Ball Washington Museum, named for the mother of our nation's father. She was born just up the road.
A handful of little towns thrive here. In Irvington, the famed Tides resort--the now-merged Tides Inn and Tides Lodge--is a Virginia institution, and the third generation of the Stephens family now runs the family business. It's an expansive operation, with everything from golf to a children's playground. You don't have to stay there to take a meal or cocktail cruise aboard the resort's 124-foot, teak-decked Miss Ann. Other nearby lodgings include the beautifully shabby-chic showplace, the Hope and Glory Inn (note its whimsical outdoor bath, complete with a clawfoot tub); and the antebellum Inn at Levelfields, over in Lancaster, where Union troops bivouacked in the back yard.
Then there's Rocket Billy's.
If I've learned anything wandering the waterfront, it's to check for lunch at seafood markets. That's a lesson put to use one day last fall when we found ourselves in White Stone, where Route 3 crosses the most southerly bridge across the Rappahannock River and off the Northern Neck. We were directed a couple of doors down to an 8-by-16-foot Wells Cargo trailer, a little takeout place called Rocket Billy's. Who would have expected curry in the seafood bisque served from a trailer?
That, my friends, is the beauty of exploring Chesapeake Bay country.
For more information, contact the Northern Neck Tourism Council, 1-800-393-6180, www.northernneck.org.
Allison Blake is a freelance writer and the author of "The Chesapeake Bay Book: A Complete Guide" (Berkshire House Publishers).