The sleepy village of Whitehaven, best seen by bike(Justin Steele)
The entrance to Maryland's Eastern Shore is hard to miss. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a four-and-a-half-mile marvel that spans the bay's northern end, connects the state's eastern half to Annapolis and points west. There's a portion of the bridge that dips so low that my friend Kathie and I seriously think for a split second that we're about to become one with the bay.
Five miles east of the bridge isHolly's Restaurant, a wood-paneled, family-run diner that's been serving locals and passersby for 52 years. I spy scrapple on the menu, and Kathie flashes a daring smile. The brown blob--a mush of cornmeal and pork scraps--arrives so sizzling hot it shakes on the plate. I look up at our waitress, dismayed. "Honey," she jokes, "your whole-wheat toast is about the healthiest thing you're going to get in this place."
Refueled with grease and caffeine, we hit the road, keeping an eye out for any intriguing stops. A few miles along, we veer right onto a local street and discoverOld Wye Mill, billed as the state's oldest working mill. No other visitors are around, so we get a private tour of the one-room, 325-year-old gristmill and hear the brief history of the town that used to thrive around it. Now it's just a few houses and the stump of what was supposedly Maryland's oldest tree; lightning took it down a few years ago.
Snaking south on various scenic byways, we learn that while the area's crabs are world famous, the Eastern Shore is really for the birds. Perdue trucks barrel by, hauling feed to chicken farms. All sorts of birds are constantly darting across and along the narrow roadway.
Then there'sThe Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. In an unexpected modernist building, the peculiar museum is devoted to hunters' decoys. "I like that the carvers call themselves wildlife counterfeiters," Kathie says. One exhibit re-creates the wood shop of Lem and Steve Ward, local brothers (and the museum's namesakes) who pioneered the craft as an art form in the 1930s. Another room is devoted to decoys as art. The $28,000 price tag of one hulking, abstract piece leaves me blinking. I snag a stuffed toy bird--Tufted Titmouse, the tag reads--from the gift shop. We dub him Teddy and perch him on the dashboard.
Lisa, an old friend living nearby who will meet us for dinner later, tipped us off to theSalisbury Zoo. The sanctuary was created in the 1950s when folks began dropping off birds, deer, and other animals in the surrounding park. We stroll past monkeys, ocelots, and a pack of llamas soaking in a pond. A group of flamingos stand so still we think they're fake at first. Kids tromp around and squeal at a capybara, the world's largest rodent, which whistles and barks in return. Two river otters, Hurricane Katrina refugees, splash about in a pool. "Look, it's otter men!" says a young girl. "Get it? Ottoman?" Kathie and I exchange impressed looks.
During its 197-year life, theWhitehaven Hotel, our B&B for the night, has housed a general store, a post office, a saloon, and a private residence. The wraparound porch looks out onto the Wicomico River and a small three-car ferry. Innkeeper Cindy Curran shows us to our cozy ground-floor room and points out the sealed door along one wall, explaining that it was used during the hotel's speakeasy days. We borrow bikes and take a quick trip around town, which consists of 30 or so houses surrounded by marshy fields.
The bird theme continues atThe Red Roostrestaurant. The airy all-you-can-eat joint is a renovated chicken coop deep in the woods, decorated with tin roosters on the walls and crab-bushel-basket chandeliers. Rolls of paper towels and plastic garbage cans bookend communal tables covered in brown paper. "I almost had my wedding rehearsal dinner here," says Lisa with a laugh. "But they were closed because it wasn't crab hunting season." Stuffed on onion rings and snow crabs, Kathie and I return to Whitehaven and lie on the hotel's small dock, drinking wine and stargazing.
A steady drizzle greets us in the morning. As we cross the Wicomico on theWhitehaven Car Ferry, the chatty ferryman points out an osprey nest on the riverbank.
We drive straight to Crisfield, at Maryland's southern tip, for the pedestrian ferry to Smith Island. After buying Smith Island Cruises tickets at the office inside the Paddlewheel Motel, we board theTwister, a high-speed boat manned by Captain Alan Tyler. He looks like a Love Boat extra: deep tan, spotless white shirt, short shorts, and Top-Siders. (We learn later that the locals take a cheaper postal ferry from the municipal dock; $20 round-trip tickets are sold on the boat.)
A thunderstorm creates havoc during the 45-minute ride. After landing, we rush into the closest building, the Bayside Inn Restaurant, which is owned by the same Tyler family that produced the boat captain. Watching the downpour from the screened porch, we eat Captain Tyler crab cake sandwiches. I can't resist the Smith Island cake, made of 10 or so thin layers of plain yellow cake with icing sandwiched between them. I pick coconut; Kathie goes for chocolate. A woman nearby with her own slice reads my mind and says, "Just heavenly."
Made up of several clustered isles and named for colonial landowner Henry Smith, the island is four-and-a-half square miles total. It's the bay's only populated island (other than those accessible by bridge); at last count, the census was 364. Most locals get around the island by bike or golf cart, though there are a few cars--several of which don't bother with license plates.
A break in the rain leaves us about an hour to explore the main town, Ewell. We hoof it along the narrow gravel roads, through swarms of nipping flies and past a few dilapidated homes. A family of ducks wades in a small rainwater pond in someone's front yard. In the Smith Island Center, we watch a 20-minute video outlining island history. After hearing that the area's distinctive accent, an Elizabethan-tinged twang, is the result of its isolation, I realize that back on the ferry, when Captain Tyler was telling us to look off the boat's "sad," he was really saying "side."
Returning to the mainland, we reach the town of Princess Anne just before dinner. The Eastern Shore is dotted with quaint B&Bs, but none matchThe Alexander House Booklovers' Bed & Breakfastfor originality. Elizabeth Alexander, a former journalist and teacher, chose the works and time periods of Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Langston Hughes, respectively, as the decorating theme for three bedrooms. Our room, the Hughes, is done with deco-style furniture, a tan-and-black color scheme, and Harlem Renaissance photos. The Hughes poem in an old typewriter is a nice touch. The Mark Twain Reading Room hosts a library with cushy seats. Elizabeth serves a homemade breakfast, as well as afternoon tea, in the cheery Caf? Colette.
Because of its adorable Victorian homes, tiny blocks, and brick sidewalks, Princess Anne is sometimes called the Williamsburg of the Eastern Shore. The main architectural attraction is theTeackle Mansion, a pink-brick Federal-style behemoth appropriately situated on Mansion Street. "I wonder what the street was called before the mansion came," I say to Kathie.
We called ahead to set up an appointment (it's not the kind of place where you can just show up). A volunteer shows us antique furniture and tells us about the ongoing renovation. In every room we visit, the guide points out where the kooky owner, Littleton Dennis Teackle, added fake windows and doorways to ensure that the house appeared to be perfectly symmetrical.
With a picnic lunch from the grocery store, we drive to our next destination:Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a marshy preserve covering more than 27,000 acres. Getting there takes us on another car ferry and miles of back roads, past soggy countryside and the occasional fisherman. The town names on our map of scenic byways often turn out to be nothing more than four-way stops connecting wilderness to wilderness.
At the beginning of the refuge's three-and-a-half-mile nature drive, visitors drop $3 in a posted box. A map I snag at the gate tells us to look for deer, squirrels, and birds--bald eagles if we're lucky. The rainy weather, however, seems to have driven the wildlife into hiding. Nevertheless, there's plenty of beautiful marshland and forest. We picnic outside the visitors center, and head inside to watch a live camera feed of an eagle's nest and check out dioramas of area animals.
A brochure we pick up at the wildlife refuge directs us next to Cambridge, a waterfront town about 12 miles to the north. We park on Race Street, the main drag, to explore the antique and curio shops.
Back on 50 North, we drive toThe Oxford Inn, a yellow-clapboard 1890s general-store-turned-B&B. When we arrive, the staff is busy preparing for dinner in Pope's Tavern, the fine-dining restaurant downstairs, so we go ahead and check ourselves in.
Predinner, we have a glass of wine at the inn's restaurant. Co-owner Dan Zimbelman mans the bar and chats with guests about the best way to pour and serve wine while his wife, Lisa, seats diners. "We're definitely winos," jokes Dan. "My wife always says wine is her water."
AtThe Masthead at Pier Street, a three-minute walk away, I get a salad and Kathie goes for crab cakes, which arrive plump and golden brown. Our table, on a large covered porch, overlooks the Tred Avon River. We drink beer and watch yet another downpour before making a wet dash back to the inn.
Our final day is a washout--literally. At 7 A.M., Lisa knocks on our door with the news: The parking lot, and much of town, is flooded. Our rental car is parked in a foot and a half of standing water. Dan backs the car onto higher ground, and we spend an hour bailing out the interior. Surreally, a kid kayaks down the road, past two other guests who've waded to their van to retrieve some luggage.
With the seats soaking wet, we drive our soggy bottoms back to Baltimore, bypassing our planned itinerary--which included Tilghman Island and St. Michaels, home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and also The Inn at Perry Cabin, which was featured memorably in the movieWedding Crashers.
As I get out of the car at the rental lot, there's still a bit of the Chesapeake sloshing around on the floorboard. While I hoped Mother Nature would play a big role during our trip, this is a tad much. We became one with the bay after all.
Finding Your Way
While U.S. 50 is the main route in Maryland's Eastern Shore, the area's natural beauty and historic charm are best experienced by sidetracking on the three scenic byways that crisscross the region. Expect to drive past chicken coops, small creeks and inlets, tons of fishermen, and acres upon acres of verdant marshland and forest. These roads are often narrow and windy, so take it slowly or at some point you're bound to miss the turnoffs--indicated by signs with the state flag (part of it is yellow-and-black checkerboard) and the state flower (the black-eyed Susan). Maps showing all 19 of Maryland's scenic byways can be downloaded from the State Highway Administration at sha.state.md.us.