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Down by the Bay

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.


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