A Guide to Chesapeake Bay

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North America's largest estuary, the Chesapeake commands more than 4,500 miles of shoreline, mostly in Maryland and Virginia. It's a vast water realm into which flow 19 major rivers and hundreds of smaller creeks and streams. You could spend a lifetime exploring all the bay has to offer-let me introduce you here to the highlights. I'll take you to two remote Chesapeake islands-Tangier and Smith-where the same families, descendants of early colonial-era settlers, have been farming and fishing for more than three centuries. Among themselves, they speak an Old English-type dialect that we outsiders have trouble understanding. We'll gaze at flocks of Canada geese numbering in the thousands at a national wildlife refuge, study the hard and isolated life of Chesapeake watermen in a pair of evocative museums. Here and there, you'll have an opportunity for a cooling dip at a sandy state-park beach. And though, even at their source, the Chesapeake's famed fresh crabs and oysters can be expensive, I'll show you where you can get the best deal. And every day you're by the bay, you'll be treated-at no extra charge-to magnificent waterscapes. Just off the main roads, little seems to have changed down through the decades.

Getting started

I've organized this guide as three varied getaways in Maryland and Virginia. All can be enjoyed on a two- or three-day trip. Put together a vacation that features just one or two or more. Got a week? Plan an 800-mile circle drive along both shores of the bay and do it all. If you're flying into Chesapeake Country, the most convenient major airport is Baltimore-Washington International, well served by Southwest Airlines. You will need a car. Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com) often offers the lowest summer rentals out of BWI. I recently found a one-week rate of $136 for an economy-size car with unlimited mileage. For the same week, Dollar (800/800-4000, dollar.com) was next lowest at $150, followed by Alamo (800/327-9633, alamo.com) at $160.

The Chesapeake beckons travelers year-round. Weather-wise, spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons for many bay sports: Sailing, bicycling, hiking, and fishing. Sultry summer is the most expensive time to go-and, unfortunately, you're apt to get tangled in the crowds bound for the Atlantic beaches. Winter is best for bird-watching, when migrating geese, ducks, and swans arrive from the north. And it's definitely the least-expensive season, although snow is an occasional threat. Midweek tends to be cheaper in any season. As an example of winter savings, I made a special trip around the bay in February to find good budget lodging. In historic Yorktown, Virginia, where George Washington's troops trapped the British Army and won the Revolutionary War, my Chesapeake-view motel, the Duke of York (757/898-3232), charged just $60 a night. Since I was there as a sightseer keen on walking the well-preserved bayside battlefield, a nippy sea breeze didn't bother me a bit. In summer, when Yorktown's small beach tempts, the rate doubles. Budget tip: On the Chesapeake, you'll want to sample seafood. But slim catches due to overfishing have jacked up prices. To really save money on meals, take advantage of the region's huge chicken-raising industry. Poultry is plentiful here. Full platters of "Maryland fried chicken" go for under $6. Better yet, keep your eyes out for community-sponsored oyster roasts and chicken barbecues-popular local events. Room rates are for two people in summer, except where noted. State parks described below charge a per-car fee of $1-$3.

Once around the Bay

Some of you will want to see all of the Chesapeake, and I recommend you do. A week's loop around the bay-approximately 800 miles-is full of rewards for folks who enjoy exploring America's natural treasures by car. I've plotted a scenic route that will take you over soaring bridges and down quiet waterside lanes.

Day 1: Begin in Annapolis, Maryland (45 minutes from Baltimore). Once a thriving colonial port, it's the home of the U.S. Naval Academy and one of the nation's major sailing and powerboat centers. Stroll bustling City Dock to see oceangoing yachts, catch a sailboat race, or grab a carry-out crab-cake sandwich at the Market House. Stay just outside Annapolis at the Super 8 (800/800-8000, $60 weekdays/$75 weekends). Or stay at an alternative lodging, the 69-room Days Inn (800/329-7466), charging $75 per room weekdays/$109 weekends. Dine on barbecue at popular Red Hot & Blue; half slab of ribs $10.99.

Day 2: Just east of Annapolis, stop for a swim or hike at Sandy Point State Park and then cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge ($2.50 toll) to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Keep to bayside roads as you head south to visit the historic villages of St. Michaels, Tilghman, and Oxford. Catch the Tred Avon River car ferry from Bellevue to Oxford ($5.50) for a cheap ride on the bay. Stay in Easton at the 103-room Atlantic Budget Inn (410/822-2200, $69 weekdays/$89 weekends). Dine where the locals do at H & G Restaurant; fried oyster platter $8.25. An alternative in Cambridge, 16 miles south, is the 96-room Cambridge Inn (410/221-0800, $60 weekdays/$89 weekends). Dine down the street at Kay's Country Kitchen.

Day 3: Travel more backcountry roads; they're great for bicycling, too. In Cambridge, try your luck at the Fishing Pier. To the south, stop at the 26,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (410/228-2677) to learn about the Chesapeake's role as a winter habitat for massive flocks of waterfowl. Walk or drive the marsh-edge wildlife trail (car entry fee $3) and you might see as many as 20,000 Canada geese. Hundreds took flight as my car, one of very few on a February morning, inched along. Take the bridge-hopping road to Hooper Island for water views and lunch at Old Salty's, a fisherman's hangout. Stay in Crisfield at the Pines Motel (410/968-0900, $60 weekdays/$70 weekends) or the Somers Cove Motel (410/968-1901, $60 weekdays/$75 weekends). Dine on the bay at the Captain's Galley or down the street at the Dockside.

Day 4: In summer, catch the Captain Tyler to Smith Island for the day (410/425-2771), $20. Take a look at Crisfield's crab-picking plants, where crabmeat is removed from shells. Spend another night in town.

Day 5: Continue south into Virginia's Eastern Shore, pausing briefly for a look at the attractive towns of Accomac, Onancock, and Cape Charles. Swim and fish at Kiptopeke State Park. Stay and dine outside Cape Charles at the 73-room Best Western Sunset Beach Resort (800/899-4786, $89 weekdays/$99 weekends). A better deal: $64 weekdays/$76 weekends September 3-December 31; $59 weekdays/$64 weekends January 1-March 31. Another lodging option, north of Cape Charles, is the 41-room Anchor Motel in Nassawadox (757/442-6363, $60-$65).

Day 6: Cross the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel ($10 toll), which spans the mouth of the bay, and follow I-64 and U.S. 17 to Yorktown. Study the Chesapeake's role in the Battle of Yorktown at the Yorktown Battlefield ($4), visit the Watermen's Museum on the Yorktown waterfront, and continue north via U.S. 17 and State Routes 3 and 200 to Reedville for the night.(See "Islands Out of Time," below, for Reedville-area motels and restaurants.) Don't miss the Reedville Fishermen's Museum, $2.

Day 7: Catch the tour boat to Tangier Island for the day (see below for lodging and dining on Tangier Island). Or spend another night in Reedville.

Day 8: Return to Annapolis to close the loop via U.S. 360, State Route 3, and U.S. 301, stopping for a picnic on the Potomac River at Virginia's Westmoreland State Park. For a shorter Chesapeake vacation, consider the following overnight excursions: Islands Out of Time: A Bay Cruise from Reedville, Virginia, To Tangier and Smith Islands For three centuries, the families on tiny Tangier Island (Virginia) and Smith Island (Maryland) have lived by fishing the Chesapeake. In summer, they set out wire traps, called "pots," for crabs. In winter, they seek a harvest of oysters. Year-round, they battle the weather-from wind-whipped blizzards to the occasional fall hurricane. But what most interests visitors, who are welcome, is how much the islanders still do without in our age of indulgence. No hospital, no movie theater, no pubs or bars. Most get around more by boat than by car, which they leave parked on the mainland 12 miles away. From late spring into fall, tour boats from four ports carry crab-hungry sightseers to the islands, and a daily mail boat provides transportation for the residents year-round. Last year, I visited both islands on a two-day getaway out of the port of Reedville, Virginia, about four hours south of Baltimore. I like little Reedville because its historic wealth from the fishing industry is evidenced in a Main Street lined with well-kept Victorian mansions. And the Reedville departures often provide a chance to watch the town's commercial fishing fleet in action.

Details: To get to know the watermen and their families-and to hear their lilting accents-stay on the islands at one of several modest bed-and-breakfast inns. On Tangier, the eight-room Chesapeake House (757/891-2331) provides lodging (shared bath), dinner, and breakfast for $40 per person. On Smith Island, the rate is $75 for two for lodging and breakfast at the four-room (shared bath) Ewell Tide Inn (888/699-2141). I stayed on the slightly cheaper mainland, taking boat trips on successive days to each of the islands (departures at 10 a.m., return 3:45 p.m.). Best bets for lodging are the 20-room Bay Motel in Reedville (804/453-5171, $59-$65) and the 29-room Whispering Pines Motel in White Stone, Virginia, about 20 miles south (804/435-1101, $59-$69). Round-trip fare to either island is $20 for adults. For Tangier, board the Chesapeake Breeze (804/453-2628); for Smith, the Captain Evans (804/453-3430).

For More information

National Park Service/Chesapeake Bay Program Office (800/968-7229, baygateways.net). Provides information on 90 sites offering unique Chesapeake experiences-sponsors the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Also contact: Virginia Tourism Corporation (800/934-9184, virginia.org); Maryland Office of Tourism Development (800/634-7386, mdisfun.org).

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