Curse them all you want, but the highways and interstates that entangle Washington make an ideal runway for day trips. In that spirit, and for those without plans for Labor Day weekend, we offer up five last-minute jaunts, all about 80 miles — or less — from downtown. Options include a wine lover’s retreat, a seaside getaway and a history buff’s dream destination. Pack your bag and get moving.
The tiny seaside town of St. Michaels on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is overflowing with nautical charm, including sweeping harbor views and an annual oyster fest in October. Outdoorsy types will appreciate the water sports and bicycle trails, while landlubbers can explore the town’s burgeoning booze scene, including a rum distillery, a brewery and a winery all within stumbling distance.
This impressive St. Michaels landmark is way more than a museum. The sprawling 18-acre campus houses a fleet of historic boats, a restored 1879 lighthouse and rotating exhibits on maritime art, photography and history. You’ll probably spot shipwrights restoring vessels in the working boatyard. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they’re up to or whether there are workshops. There’s also a 45-minute cruise along the Miles River — a steal at $10 — and for early risers, you won’t find a better place in town to catch the sun coming up. 213 N. Talbot St., 410-745-2916, cbmm.org.
You’ll probably smell Foxy’s chargrilled fish and hear revelers guffawing before you lay eyes on the harbor-side restaurant. Tucked within the St. Michaels Marina, this anything-goes haunt encourages visitors to let loose and sip tropical drinks beneath tie-dye umbrellas. There’s seafood aplenty, including peel-your-own wild-caught shrimp, an Ahi tuna filet sandwich and a pretzel topped with crab dip and cheddar cheese, one of the restaurant’s star dishes. The scene heats up on Caribbean night, when you’ll find food and drink specials and live reggae.
125 Mulberry St., 410-745-4340, foxysharborgrille.com.
Jaime Windon, co-owner of Lyon Distilling, which specializes in rum and is just off Talbot Street in the Old Mill District, notes that there’s no shortage of ice cream shops in St. Michaels. But, Windon says, Justine’s is the best. “It’s an institution,” she says of the quaint shop, which opened in 1987. Ownership has since changed hands, but one thing has remained the same: quality scoops of good old-fashioned homemade ice cream. “What differentiates us from being another tourist town is we’re a town of makers,” Windon says. “There’s a heart and soul that comes from people producing things here.” 106 Talbot St., 410-745-0404, justinesicecreamparlor.com.
— Holley Simmons
Cambridge is a convenient place to grab lunch or stretch your legs on your way from Washington to Ocean City, but the historic town — one of Maryland’s oldest — is more than just a pit stop. It’s teeming with shops, sights and places to eat and drink.
Dorchester County is the heart of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile network of roads connecting sites related to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. A museum dedicated to Tubman is on Race Street, near the historic courthouse where slaves were sold, and not far from the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden. 424 Race St., 410-228-0401, visitdorchester.org/harriet-tubman-museum-educational-center.
Cambridge’s industry is historically tied to the water. Long Wharf Park on the Choptank River is home to a reproduction of the Choptank River Lighthouse, which is open for tours. On weekends, visitors can sail on the skipjack Nathan, a likeness of the boats that were the backbone of the oyster and crabbing industries in the 19th and 20th centuries. High and Water streets, 410-228-9111, visitdorchester.org/long-wharf-park.
Bradye P. Todd and Son began as a crab-processing factory on the Eastern Shore in 1947. Three generations later, the family still packages crab meat and runs the homey Ocean Odyssey restaurant on Route 50, just outside Cambridge. They specialize in steamed local crabs by the dozen or half-dozen and make crab cakes with little filler. On a warm day, take a seat in the beer garden and wash the seafood down with local craft beers. 316 Sunburst Hwy., 410-228-8633, toddseafood.com.
RAR Brewing, in the heart of downtown, is both a hip, small-town bar with live music and shuffleboard leagues as well as a brewpub that makes some of Maryland’s most sought-after (and delicious) craft beers. Look for experimental brews alongside Nanticoke Nectar IPA and Minelayer Saison. 504 Poplar St., 443-225-5664, rarbrewing.com .
Cambridge native Chris Brohawn, the co-founder of RAR Brewing, recommends driving about 11 miles south of Cambridge to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a 28,000-acre preserve of wetlands and forest. Hike or bike along scenic trails from the visitors center to see bald eagles, migrating waterfowl and other wildlife. 2185 Key Wallace Dr., Route 1, 410-228-2677, fws.gov/refuge/Blackwater.
— Fritz Hahn
History buffs and nature lovers will find plenty to do in this town, which lies on the eastern tip of West Virginia at the merging of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. You can hop over the Maryland and Virginia state lines in a matter of minutes.
Check out the historic Lower Town area, where restored 19th-century buildings line the cobblestone streets and reenactors talk about life in the 1800s. Abolitionist John Brown led a slave revolt here during the Civil War. 171 Shoreline Dr., 304-535-6029, nps.gov/hafe.
For a jolt of adventure, sign up for a day of white-water rafting, canoeing or leisurely tubing on the Potomac. The Harpers Ferry area is also home to more than 20 miles of trails, including the Appalachian, with its panoramic views of the river and quartzite rock formations. Hike the B&O Railroad Potomac River Crossing Bridge and the Maryland Heights Trail to see the faded Mennen’s “Borated Talcum Toilet Powder” advertisement, which was painted on the rock in the 1900s. River Riders, 408 Alstadts Hill Rd., 800-326-7238, riverriders.com. Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, 37410 Adventure Center Lane, Purcellville, Va., 540-668-9007, harpersferryadventurecenter.com.
A full day by the river requires a substantial meal. Guide House Grill hits the mark with its filling house burger — a juicy patty on a buttery bun, pickled red onions, blue cheese and bacon. Order it with a side of crispy fries and toss in some Old Bay seasoning. The veggie burger — portobello, baby spinach and red peppers — also comes highly recommended. Guide House Grill, 19112 Keep Tryst Rd., Knoxville, Md., 301-655-3663, guidehousegrill.com.
To cap off your trip, grab a mug of hot apple cider or a vanilla latte at Beans in the Belfry on your way back to the city. The cafe is housed in an old church with stained-glass windows, kitschy decor and antique photos. Beans in the Belfry, 122 W. Potomac St., Brunswick, Md.,
Pam Ott of True Treats Historic Candy on High Street says the shop may be haunted by the building’s former owner, Colby Jones, who is said to move the candy baskets at night. For more supernatural activity, Ott recommends the town’s popular nightly ghost tours, especially closer to Halloween. “I just love the old buildings,” she says. “There’s so much history here. I like learning about the people who used to live here.” Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry start at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, 110 Church St., 732-801-0381, harpersferryghost.20m.com.
— Winyan Soo Hoo
One of the closer spots to Washington, and also one of the more expensive, this wine and horse destination sits among endless miles of rolling green hills and farms near the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s also home to the buzzed-about Middleburg Film Festival in October.
At Greenhill, cream-colored Charolais cows roam the farm grounds at a distance. Wine tastings are offered daily in a new tasting room outfitted with rustic wood and iron furnishings, and grass-fed beef is available in the adjacent farm store. 23595 Winery Lane, 540-687-6907, greenhillvineyards.com.
Quattro Goomba’s, in nearby Aldie, Va., is also worth a stop. Cool down with one of the wine slushies or home brews on tap while noshing on homemade pizza in the dining hall or expansive patio. You might also catch local musicians providing entertainment. 22860 Monroe-Madison Memorial Hwy., goombabrewery.com.
Opened in 1728, the Red Fox Inn & Tavern is a historic landmark in a handsome setting, featuring oak tables and stone fireplaces. Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were known to frequent the inn on vacation. George Washington stopped by the inn around 1748 when he was a surveyor (before he was president). It was known as “Chinn’s Ordinary” back then. (Try the braised beef short ribs, crab cakes or fried chicken. 2 E. Washington St., 540-687-6301, redfox.com.
For a quicker meal, head down the street to HammerDown BBQ truck, housed in front of the Mount Defiance Cidery & Distillery. Order a savory brisket or pulled pork sandwich with sides of smoked mac-and-cheese and tart coleslaw while sipping on pours of cider. 207 W. Washington St., hammerdownbbq.com, mtdefiance.com.
Robin Perine of Mount Defiance Cidery & Distillery walks her dog at the luxury Salamander resort, which has stables for riding activities, every morning. “It’s beautiful there,” she says. “It’s a must-do for horse lovers.” Visitors can also frequent the hotel bar, restaurant and spa. Perine also recommends the homey Upper Crust Bakery in the town’s center. “Go inside and you’ll feel like you’re transported back to 1957.” Salamander Resort and Spa, 500 N. Pendleton St., 844-303-2723, salamanderresort.com. Upper Crust Bakery, 4 N. Pendleton St., 540-687-5666.
— Winyan Soo Hoo
A marker at the Fredericksburg visitors center refers to the area as “the vortex of the Civil War” because of the approximately 100,000 casualties on nearby battlefields. The site of the 1862 clash is a major draw, but the town, founded in 1728, has more to offer in terms of history and culture. (Bonus: You can take the train for the day instead of driving.)
First, pick an era of history. Civil War buffs can start at the battlefield’s visitors center, where James Earl Jones narrates an introduction to the conflict, before touring the infamous Sunken Road and the sobering national cemetery, where fewer than 3,000 of the 15,000 buried there are identified. Those interested in the Colonial period should visit the home of Mary Washington, George’s mother, and 18th-century properties, including Kenmore, the home of George’s sister. Nearby, President James Monroe’s law office is preserved as a small but thorough museum. Civil War sites: 1013 Lafayette Blvd., 540-693-3200, nps.gov/frsp; Mary Washington House and related sites: 1300 Charles St., 540-373-5630, washingtonheritagemuseums.org.
Fast-forward to present-day: Caroline Street is packed with small shops and boutiques, where you’ll find fashionable clothing, used books and Virginia ham. Lose track of time in the sprawling R&R Antiques, where 60 dealers sell everything from Civil War artifacts to Star Wars toys. 1001 Caroline St., 540-371-0685.
Whisky Magazine has named A. Smith Bowman the “World’s Best Whiskey” two years running, and free daily tours of the distillery, just south of downtown, finish with a tasting. 1 Bowman Dr., 540-373-4555, asmithbowman.com.
The most buzzworthy spot in town is Foode (pronounced food-ee), where former “Top Chef” contestant Joy Crump offers a Southern-flavored farm-to-table menu — think chicken and waffles, seasonal salads and berry cobblers — in a historic bank building. 900 Princess Anne St., 540-479-1370, foodeonline.com.
Fredericksburg has become fertile ground for breweries in recent years. The two best are Spencer Devon, which makes seasonal fresh-hop beers and an award-winning Belgian blonde, and Strangeways, a Richmond transplant, where the funky taproom offers dozens of beers on draft. Spencer Devon, 106 George St., 540-479-8381, spencerdevonbrewing.com; Strangeways, 350 Lansdowne Rd., 540-371-1776. strangewaysbrewing.com.
For something less trendy, get a malt or a milkshake (two straws, please) at the old-fashioned, chrome-plated soda fountain in at the front of Goolrick’s Pharmacy, or try the “world famous” chili dogs — two for $6.75 — at the divey Recreation Center, a pool hall with live country and rock music. Goolrick’s Pharmacy, 901 Caroline St., 540-373-3411, goolrickspharmacy.com; the Recreation Center, 213 William St., 540-371-6498.
You might overlook the stumpy stone outside the Olde Towne Butcher at the corner of William and Charles streets, but John Hennessy, chief historian for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, notes that it’s “a vivid reminder of a painful time in our history.” This was a slave auction block, where men and women were sold in front of what was then Planter’s Hotel, until 1862. “It is one of the very few that survive in its original location in an urban setting,” Hennessy says. “For those who see it and understand what it was, it’s a powerful symbol of the nation we once were, and a cautionary tale.”
— Fritz Hahn