Time Out for Romance at St. Michaels on the Chesapeake
So, you and your loved one went to DC and sped down the Smithsonian strip to visit as many museums as possible, stood in lines, toured the capitol, stood in more lines and maybe took in some shows. Frazzled? Only one and half-hours and ˝ a tank away is a little coastal town that is a lovely sanctuary from city life.
Located twelve miles west of US-50 on Hwy-33, St Michael’s is one of the prettiest ports and the oldest. Founded in the 1600s, it burgeoned into a major shipbuilding port in colonial times. It is one of eleven small towns on the Eastern Shore known as the Chesapeake Bay area, but has made a big name for itself in many ways.
First, little St. Michael’s outsmarted the British in 1813 when the locals raised lanterns to the tops of the ship’s masts and treetops, leading the British to believe the town was located high in the mountains. The British fired their cannons high above the town and believing it was destroyed, they left.
After the American Revolution, tiny St. Michaels languish until the 1960’s when it was reborn into a gentrified tourist escape featuring art galleries, boutiques and B& Bs.
Much later, the island was discovered by some distinguished names, like James Mitchner, who lived there while writing his novel, Chesapeake; the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, before he escaped to freedom, was a slave in St. Michaels; and more recently, Vice-President Dick Cheny enjoys a home here. Overall, it’s a quiet little boating town that is the “Martha’s Vineyard” of the South.
The shops sit in a row along Talbot Street with their flags snapping in the wind. Sauntering in and out of boutiques with clever names like, Wanda the Wish and 3 Krazy Ladies, I wandered into Flying Fred’s doggy shop where I found a catnip cigar that guaranteed my cat would get stoned.
Fred’s dad Andy, owns the Five Gables Inn and Spa in the center of town. Our suite at Five Gables featured a Jacuzzi tub and powerful multi-shower heads that nearly blew me out of the shower. Surrendering to a spine-melting hot stone massage at their Aveda Concept Spa, I relaxed in the steam and sauna rooms, then plunged in the pool: Nirvana.
The main attraction of the town is the marina where crab is king as it tumbles off the boats into restaurants such as The Crab Claw that serves fresh crab tucked into every dish. The Steak and Crab is another waterfront restaurant where the blonde server insisted that I try everything crabby. I preferred a steak, but I had no choice. She hung over my shoulder until I tasted a blue soft-shelled crab fried, a crab/cheese stuffed mushroom, fried shrimp, and one other crab delicacy. I didn’t think “mom” would allow me to leave the table until I ate everything. Attempting to leave surreptitiously while she processed the check, she suddenly appeared, “Wasn’t that good? Aren’t you glad you tried crab? Everyone who says they don’t like it, I make them try it and they love it!” Who appointed her Crab Queen? I still prefer steak.
Escaping our dining experience, we stepped out to the dock and hailed a water taxi. The water taxi also served as our tour boat, and we cruised around the bay as Captain Roy pointed out the sights and local history; it’s a pretty good deal for the money. For a more formal tour, we could have cruised the bay on the Spirit.
Near the harbor is the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum that has several exhibits that trace the history of boatbuilding including the world’s largest collection of traditional bay boats and a Native American dugout canoe. At Play on the Bay cloisters nine exhibit buildings with a focus on the transition of the harbor from a work place to a recreational destination. There are many old photos depicting life in the 19th century. Somber looking young men and women dressed in cumbersome garments lingering around the boat yard led to photos of pretty girls laughing on motorboats driven by young handsome men, parties and fun.
One of the highlights is the Hooper Strait “screwpile” Lighthouse on Navy Point built on special iron pilings tipped with a screw that could be turned into the muddy bottom for a depth of 10 feet or more. Screwpile lighthouses turned out to be very vulnerable to ice floes that accumulated around the base and broke supporting pilings. When we first approached it, I thought it was the top of a building that had been decapitated, like the top of a muffin. Special programs, events and workshops continue year round. A barn-like structure held the skeleton of a boat-building project in which the public can participate.
We could have chartered a sailboat, harvested some oysters on a skipjack, or fished for rockfish and flounder. But we simply enjoyed hanging out on the dock; licked ice cream cones at Justine’s and had some peach pie from Sugar Buns. The pace was slow and soothing. And this is what is special about St. Michaels.
After exploring the harbor, we checked in to The Inn at Wade’s Point, located five miles from town. A long gravel road brought us to the inn at the edge of the bay and into a different world of tranquility and peace. It was a place to do nothing. Swaying in a hammock, we were mesmerized by chirping songbirds. After a while, we moved to the tall Adirondack chairs, and watched hypnotically as sailboats silently glided by. It felt like a place to recover our energy -- surrounded by an expanse of lawn and trees, a sparkling waterfront, soft cool breezes and, except for the birds’ songs, pure silence. This was romance and relaxation. We stayed out there until dark, following the blinking light of the fireflies dancing among the trees, then retired to our sweet country room.
For information about St. Michaels: http://www.stmichaelsmd.org/
Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida in 2004. The mother of two grown children, she attributes her success as a traveler to her daughter. Starting at twelve years old, Lindsey and Mom tripped into adventures around the world accumulating miles and memories, relying solely upon each other. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines from her home in the DC area.