Down by the Bay
Published: March 2009
By Stephen Drucker
Crab cakes and lighthouses, antiques and country inns—the pleasures are pure and downright American on the Chesapeake Bay. Stephen Drucker finds out why Maryland's Eastern Shore is the perfect fall destination
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is a world of water, filled with people who need to be near water. It isn't an island, but it might as well be one. The Chesapeake Bay has a very long reach, its inlets, tributaries, tidal ponds, and marshes seeping deep into this quiet corner of the state. To get anywhere, there's usually a bridge to cross or a ferry to take. Often a road just ends, in a town that smells pleasantly of brine and marine fuel. And when it does, you find a table at a dockside restaurant, watch the morning catch being unloaded, and order something that tastes like the sea itself.
After a few days here you begin to recognize the soul of an island, too. The rest of the world seems very far away. Interest in the news becomes hard to work up. And there's a healthy respect for leaving things the way they are: the old crowd hisses at the new people; those on sailboats snarl at those on yachts; the seventh-generation hunters resent the tree-huggers. Of course, no matter who you are, the billboards never stop promising that it's just a few miles more to "the best crab cakes on the Eastern Shore."
The old crowd really need not worry. More and more of us will certainly be visiting, as new inns, restaurants, and shops--and even a Hyatt resort with golf and a spa--proliferate on the Chesapeake Bay. But this will be their world for a long time to come. Somehow it will all go on adding up to a grand pageant of Americana.
On a blue October evening, I opened the door to the White Swan Tavern in Chestertown. It was like staring into a jar of honey. The White Swan, built in 1733, has six guest rooms true to the 18th century and a faithfully reconstructed tavern where tea is served every afternoon. Feel free to bring your musket. Sleeping in the old kitchen is the novelty here; charming it is, but give me a bedroom. I climbed the stairs to the Peacock Room, its ceiling slanting every which way, and by 8:30 I had crawled into the tester bed and arranged the pillows under its crocheted canopy. There was no radio and no TV, but there was a brass candlestick, so I read myself to sleep by candlelight.
A violent thunderstorm came out of nowhere in the middle of the night, shaking the White Swan to its bones. The room lit up, and I pulled the comforter well past my chin. After a half-hour the storm subsided, and in place of the thunder and the rain, I could hear the cries of geese growing louder and louder, and even at a distance of so many miles, I could picture them, thousands upon thousands of them, on the water somewhere. They were pretty worked up.
"Goose music, we call it," I was told the next morning by a ranger at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where the geese meet. The refuge is a stop along the Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byways route, the official driving tour of the Eastern Shore, which has a knack for taking you to the brink of being totally lost, then magically coming to your rescue. I learned to rely on it. Here on the Upper Shore, it showed me around Chestertown, with its brick streets, its town houses facing the Chester River, and its residents snug in their wing chairs behind wavy old windowpanes. It also led me to the antiques shops of Galena and the workaday port of Rock Hall, where I tasted my first Maryland crab cakes. Crab cakes are the hamburgers of the Eastern Shore, with no resemblance to the precious first course served in restaurants elsewhere. There's nothing subtle about them. They're big and meaty and delicious, often served on gummy white buns, and if you eat enough of them, you begin to notice the scent of Old Bay on your fingertips.
On Wednesday mornings, follow any van and chances are it will lead you to the town of Crumpton and the auctions run by Dixon's Furniture. Dixon's isn't Sotheby's, and nobody at the auctions looks like the Keno brothers. A huge metal barn rises out of a farm field like a UFO, and all around it are vans and SUV's rushing to park on the grass, driven by people with the hungry look of collectors ready to pounce. Starting at 6 a.m., sellers dump cardboard boxes filled with antiques and collectibles onto long tables in the barn. At 9 a.m., an auctioneer on a motorized cart begins visiting each table, selling every last crystal sconce and Lionel caboose while the crowd practically smothers him. The bidding starts at $10 and rarely ends above $100; I never understood a word in between. He could have been selling heifers.
"Don't miss the fields," one of Dixon's crew told me. What fields?The place was so big, I hadn't even noticed there were two football fields of "big-ticket" furniture as well, with their own motorized carts and auctioneers, and prices starting at $10 and $20. Yes, there was plenty of junk, but it was junk with promise. The only thing that distracted me all morning was a plate of creamed chipped beef served at a counter by an Amish woman in a bonnet, in an atmosphere thick with frying bacon.
The town of Wye Mills, not far from Crumpton, is famous for a tree, a church, and a biscuit. I made a quick pass at the Wye Oak, an unimaginably huge and gnarled white oak (when it was felled eight months later by a thunderstorm after 460 years, I felt a wave of guilt about my haste). I paid my respects at the beautiful Wye Church, an exercise in architectural humility whose box pews could throw the fear of God into anybody.
I really devoted myself to the biscuit. "Oh, just go on through the yard and knock on the back door," I was told at the general store. Walking through a stranger's backyard does not come naturally to me, but I did, and somebody started waving from a screen door, and the next thing I knew I was in Orrell's, eating Maryland beaten biscuits, a recipe dating from plantation days. They've been baked here since 1935, in a kitchen that looks like the kitchen most people cannot wait to redo, with linoleum and chipped old white electric stoves. Some of the women in aprons sitting around the porcelain-top table have spent three days a week for the past 30 years shaping dough and pricking it with Orrell's trademark O and cross. Fresh biscuits are a treat today, so visitors like to walk out of Orrell's eating them warm, but originally they were made a day ahead for Sunday dinner, and people liked them hard. And boy, can they get hard.
I kept dipping into the bag all the way to lunch at Mason's in Easton, where a friend of a friend, Chata Smith, was meeting me. Mason's is where the ladies who lunch go, and Chata, who sells and rents houses on the Eastern Shore, has been lunching with them for 25 years. Chata helped me understand why her world is so special, explaining how virtually every body of water in the mid-Atlantic states flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and how five different social worlds and their codes flow here as well, from Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York City. She painted a picture of what was at the end of all those long, romantic, tree-lined driveways, the ones with no house in sight. Those are the "back" entrances to the manor houses on the tributaries of the Chesapeake, where you can still find the names of brides and their wedding dates scratched into the old windowpanes, and where when a new tennis court starts sinking you may discover you've built on an unmarked slave burial ground. The "front" of a house is always its water side, because life on the Eastern Shore revolves around boats, so much so that water depth conveys status as much as house size. "Bringing your boat and not being able to dock would be a terribly embarrassing moment for your host," Chata said. Most people have three or four feet of water; eight feet can add a million dollars to the price of a house. "People lie about water depth," Chata said in a life-or-death tone of voice.
Easton is looking good these days. The older stores with their neon script signs are all hanging in there; people still buy their hunting gear and their Barbours at Albright's. But new shops are opening. Janet K. Fanto has quite an eye for furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries. Maritime Antiques, with two floors of ship portraits, nautical memorabilia, and scientific instruments, is one of only a handful of shops around the country with this specialty. Sprinkled among the antiques are places like Yarn & Co., whose earnest young owner, Gail Seiter, sells locally raised wool. New art galleries are clustered on Goldsborough Street, along with restaurants, including Out of the Fire, with its wood oven in view and a lively counter scene.
Nothing, however, looks better than the Inn at Easton, now two years old. Its owners, a young couple named Andrew and Liz Evans, have brought something really new to the Eastern Shore. They don't make you feel like an Early American, but neither do they pound Buddha Bar CD's into your head. The inn's seven rooms have lots of strong color, a mix of old and new furniture, and expensive details such as pedigreed chrome faucets, feather beds, and zillion-thread-count sheets.
I thought their restaurant was the best on the Eastern Shore. The local standards are all here, but since Andrew was a chef in Australia for six years, and Liz is Australian, the Pacific Rim spin is considerable, though it never seems inappropriate. Rockfish, an Eastern Shore classic, is served "crisp-skinned" with wild rice and spinach with saffron-vanilla sauce. The sticky fig-and-ginger pudding is simply perfect, and not one bite too big.
The jewel-colored dining room is as alive as the menu. Dress up, dress down, everybody's easy. The night I was there, a woman showed up in a gray sweatshirt (her haircut was excellent, but it was still a gray sweatshirt), and no one blinked. When somebody felt chilly on the terrace, Liz appeared with a pashmina; she keeps a stack in different colors for just such moments. Running this place must be an exhausting business, and one only hopes these two don't wear themselves out.
Several hours south of Easton you come to what's called the Lower Shore, where the flavor is much more Southern. I presented myself at the big white door of the Waterloo Country Inn as the sun was setting over the tidal pond beside it. The sky was an intense orange. It looked like a poster for Gone with the Wind.
Waterloo has six guest rooms, spacious and traditional, furnished with oak and cherry and lacy fabrics. At first there were a few too many dusty rose accents for me. But the next morning, over a beautifully presented breakfast, I got to know the proprietor, Theresa Kraemer, who runs the inn with her husband, Erwin. They're Swiss; they were executives in Zrich; they burned out. Now, there was a story I could understand. On a trip to the Chesapeake to visit friends, they saw Waterloo, fell in love with it, and decided to try something new. They've created a marvelous sense of comfort, and on request Theresa cooks a very fine dinner for her guests. After two nights, I'd stopped mewling about the towel color; at a bed-and-breakfast, what really matters is how you feel about your hosts.
Waterloo is near the small town of Princess Anne, at the heart of some beautiful backcountry. You can drive as far north as the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the remote fishing outpost of Hooper Island. Or you can stay as close as the Upper Ferry, which shuttles two cars at a time across the Wicomico River, guided by a cable. It's like having Huck Finn take you for a ride on his raft.
The big attraction is the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, dedicated to "counterfeit fowls," or decoys. In a moment famous in this little world, Lem and Steve Ward, brothers from nearby Crisfield, entered their woodcarvings in the 1948 National Decoy Makers' Contest in Manhattan. The unknown brothers won Best of Show with a sleeping mallard, its head sweetly tucked into its gray body, and the next thing they knew, the du Ponts were their patrons. It didn't go to their heads. Lem and Steve were of the cigarette-hanging-out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth school of manhood; they wore flannel shirts, they hunted, they studied ducks, they carved ducks. Their studio has been re-created at the museum, down to the last brush-filled Maxwell House coffee can, and who doesn't yearn to have their depth of conviction?On his return to Crisfield in 1948, Lem said in an interview, "There is not enough money in the world to make me give up these marshes and go live in a city like that."
I headed down to Crisfield to see where that passion came from. The town was built on the crab and oyster industries. In the 19th century, when Important Men routinely gulped down eight dozen oysters before moving on to saddle of lamb at Delmonico's, Crisfield was a gold rush town. Today it looks a bit like Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, with a fish theme.
"What are you doing here?" the ticket seller at the museum asked, giving me a wink. "You must be doing something. My husband always said, "When you come to Crisfield, it's 'cause you're coming to Crisfield.'"
Mostly I was there to take a peek at the canneries, such as Byrds, where a sign over the front door proclaims, THE LORD'S PRAYER IS SUNG AT 9 A.M. EVERY PICKING DAY. If you ask nicely, you can get yourself invited to see the crabmeat being packed. You make your way on slippery gray-painted floors to a white-enameled room, where women spend all day listening to the radio while their hands work the crabmeat. Nobody has yet figured out a way to get the meat out of a crab and into a can mechanically. Each woman has her own system, but no matter how she does it, it takes about a minute to get the meat out of a single crab, and it's hardly noticeable in the can. That's why crab costs what it costs.
Offshore from Crisfield, Smith Island (population 600) is a little haven of Methodist fishermen that's invariably described in guidebooks as "lost in time." It can't be that lost; it has a Web site. The 12:30 p.m. mail boat takes you there, and when it returns at four, you are expected to be on it. Filling those 31/2 hours isn't easy, but two things make the trip memorable: Smith Island layer cake, more than a dozen layers of fudge held together by the slightest excuse for yellow cake; and the crab-cake sandwich at Ruke's General Store, where I felt like the guest star on Petticoat Junction.
Twenty-four hours later I was wearing a cashmere blazer (GENTLEMEN WEAR JACKETS, PLEASE) and eating honey-and-tarragon-glazed shank of lamb Parmentier and glazed vegetables (the signature dish) at the Inn at Perry Cabin, midway up the Chesapeake in St. Michaels. Created by Sir Bernard Ashley (husband of Laura) in the 1980's, the "inn" is a rather grand house that is legendary among aficionados of luxury resorts. It's popular for anniversaries and birthdays, and probably for affairs.
Until recently even the tissue boxes were dressed like Camilla Parker Bowles, but the inn has been redecorated, in the Ashley spirit but more tailored. After exploring several rooms (all 41 are quite different), I moved into No. 32, under the gables with a wonderful view of the Miles River. Perry Cabin is the closest you will come to a Beverly Hills moment on the Eastern Shore. People play golf and tennis, or take out the boats they arrive on, or sit in the glorious yellow Morning Room and peruse the helicopter ads in the Robb Report. At night everybody heads to the restaurant, and while Johnny Mathis music loosens you up, you make your way through chef Mark Salter's celebrated menu. This is an Event Restaurant, and it serves Event Food, like carpaccio of venison with fig essence and truffle oil. When pineapple upside-down cake arrives for dessert, it arrives with mascarpone sorbet. See how many times you can gasp in an evening.
Easton is a living, breathing town; nearby Oxford, very much worth a visit, has all the dignity of a prosperous old village. St. Michaels is a resort, with streets aimed point-blank at the well-heeled visitor. Bistro St. Michaels and 208 Talbot are the classic restaurants to fight for a table at. Sidney and Jim Trond have a first-rate new specialty-food store, Gourmet by the Bay, where you can start the day with the perfect scone. Every other store in town sells antiques. Susie and Charles Hines at the Silver Chalice may be the most adorable dealers in town, constantly tying up bundles of colorful Depression glass with pretty ribbons. St. Michaels is the place to go hunting for oyster plates, those Gilded Age beauties (or monstrosities, depending on your point of view) from the days when oysters were a form of religion.
In the fall, the Eastern Shore puts on a more than respectable show of leaves, but nobody ever mentions it; they're thinking about oysters. Fall brings the oyster harvest, which every town of any size celebrates with a fire department supper. On Tilghman Island, about 10 miles from St. Michaels, the fun goes on all day long.
I was there bright and early, exhausting myself watching the workboat races, then eating my way from one end of the island to the other. At the firehouse turned dining hall, I collected a pile of steamed cracked crabs, then wedged myself onto a bench at a 30-foot-long table covered with kraft paper. Around me were people of all ages with messy hands and big smiles. In the park across the street, the oyster fritters on white bread didn't get past me. And at the Methodist church, someone was dumping a basket of oysters fresh off a skipjack as I paid my $5. An elderly man shucked a dozen of them right in front of me with his amazing pair of hands. It doesn't take long to eat a dozen oysters, so I did it again.
I couldn't recall ever eating oysters before noon.
The Facts: Chesapeake Bay
WHERE TO STAY
White Swan Tavern 231 High St., Chestertown; 410/778-2300, fax 410/778-4543; www.chestertown.com/whiteswan; doubles from $120. For those who like their Americana pure.
Inn at Easton 28 S. Harrison St., Easton; 410/822-4910; www.theinnateaston.com; doubles from $160. As edgy as the Eastern Shore gets, but charming, too.
Waterloo Country Inn 28822 Mt. Vernon Rd., Princess Anne; 410/651-0883, fax 410/651-5592; www.waterloocountryinn.com; doubles from $125. Comfort, warmth, and good food at the best inn on the Lower Shore.
Inn at Perry Cabin 308 Watkins Lane, St. Michaels; 800/722-2949 or 410/745-2200, fax 410/745-3348; www.perrycabin.com; doubles from $295. The grand hotel of the Shore.
Five Gables Inn & Spa 209 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 877/466-0100 or 410/745-0100, fax 410/745-2903; www.fivegables.com; doubles from $230. Cottagey-cute, maybe too cute, but a good value in St. Michaels. Aveda spa on the premises.
Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa & Marina 100 Heron Blvd., Cambridge; 800/233-1234 or 410/901-1234; www.hyatt.com; doubles from $149. The total resort package, with 400 rooms, golf, a spa, and a marina.
Chata Smith, Tred Avon Properties 218 N. Washington St., Suite 24, Easton; 410/820-4104, fax 410/763-9002; www.tredavonproperties.com.
WHERE TO EAT
Orrell's Maryland Beaten Biscuits, Inc. 14122 Old Wye Mills Rd., Wye Mills; 410/827-6244; www.beatenbiscuits.com. Regular, honey, cheese... control yourself. Beware the erratic hours.
Mason's 22 S. Harrison St., Easton; 410/822-3204; lunch for two $30. A big lunch scene, a quieter dinner scene, and takeout.
Out of the Fire 22 Goldsborough St., Easton; 410/770-4777; dinner for two $65. A wood-burning oven in a contemporary dining room. Try the counter, for fun.
Inn at Easton 28 S. Harrison St., Easton; 410/822-4910; dinner for two $100. An ambitious menu, a friendly atmosphere--don't miss it.
Restaurant Columbia 28 S. Washington St., Easton; 410/770-5172; dinner for two $55. Formal, but not too formal, dining in a lovely town house.
Captain's Galley Restaurant 1021 W. Main St., Crisfield; 410/968-3313; lunch for two $25. These really might be the best crab cakes on the Eastern Shore.
Crooked Intention, Inn at Perry Cabin 308 Watkins Lane, St. Michaels; 800/722-2949 or 410/745-2200; dinner for two $120. Reserve a table, wear a blazer, and get ready for an evening of food worship.
Bistro St. Michaels 403 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-9111; dinner for two $90. French bistro atmosphere--for those who arrive with reservations.
208 Talbot 208 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-3838; dinner for two $100. A St. Michaels classic. Book well ahead.
Gourmet by the Bay 415 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-6260; breakfast for two $10. Come for breakfast, then come back for takeout.
WHERE TO SHOP
Firehouse Antiques Center 102 N. Main St., Galena; 410/648-5639. A sharply edited collection of Americana, high and low. Full of surprises.
Dixon's Furniture, Inc. Rte. 544 at Rte. 290, Crumpton; 410/928-3006. The very beginning of the antiques food chain. Wednesdays only.
Albright's Gun Shop 36 E. Dover St., Easton; 800/474-5502 or 410/820-8811; www.albrightsgunshop.com. Hunting gear, antique decoys, the latest from Barbour.
Janet K. Fanto Antiques & Rare Books 13 N. Harrison St., Easton; 410/763-9030. A one-woman shop with an interesting point of view.
Easton Maritime Antiques, Inc. 27 S. Harrison St., Easton; 410/763-8853. Ships, ships, and more ships, plus everything else nautical.
Yarn & Co. 9 N. Harrison St., Easton; 410/770-9388. Yarns made from local wool are the find here.
B's Stitches 209 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-6146. The happiest needlepoint shop anywhere. Check out the dog patterns.
Silver Chalice Antiques & Collectibles 400 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-9501. Depression glass heaven.
Sentimental Journey 402 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-9556. A good place to start your collection of oyster plates.
Talbot Ship & Rail 211 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels; 410/745-6268; www.talbot-ship-and-rail.com. Boat models for your library.
Crawford's Nautical Books Tilghman Island Rd., Tilghman Island; 410/886-2230; abebooks.com/home/bookbank. New and used books about life on and in the water. Open weekends only.
Americana Antiques 111 S. Morris St., Oxford; 410/226-5677. Early American furniture and paintings of the highest quality.
Gary Young Antiques 128 S. Commerce St., Centreville; 410/758-2132. For those who are serious about English furniture.