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Peak Season on Chesapeake Bay

In summer, MARYLAND'S EASTERN SHORE offers unique pleasures: sailing on an old skipjack, savoring soft-shell crabs, paddling the tidelands, relaxing at Colonial-era inns and biking country byways

June 23, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXFORD, Md. — You see them everywhere on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the weekend sailors. They are unmistakable with their deep tans, their baggy shorts, their frayed polo shirts, their Top-Siders worn without socks. Some may not even own their own boats, much less win regattas, but they are inexorably drawn to the Chesapeake Bay.

It's all about the water here, beginning with the sprawling but shallow bay, 200 miles long and up to 20 miles wide. Forty or so rivers flow into it, yielding more places to mess around in boats and a world of soggy marshes beloved by fishermen, kayakers and birds. Then there's the convoluted shoreline, 8,000 miles of it meandering along Maryland and Virginia, where people who don't want to get wet can gaze hypnotically at the water.

By coincidence, Handel's "Water Music" was playing on the radio recently as I crossed the Bay Bridge on my way from Washington, D.C., to Rock Hall, Md. It's about an hour-and-a-half drive provided you're not traveling east on a Friday afternoon or west on a Sunday afternoon, when traffic can be gruesome. I planned to spend four nights in the bayside hamlets of Rock Hall and Oxford, partly because this part of the Chesapeake shore is close to Washington, partly because these villages are Eastern Shore classics: historic, pastoral and on the water.

Even though the area is a popular getaway spot for weekenders and my trip was spur of the moment, I was able to snag reservations at two appealing inns--a Colonial reproduction in Rock Hall and the genuine article, built in 1700, in Oxford. I planned to spend my days boating, eating as many Chesapeake Bay blue crabs as possible and making a little study of Eastern Shore locals.

For city folk like me, they're interesting, even exotic--the weather-beaten crabbers and oystermen called "watermen," gentlemen-farmers and sharecroppers, boat builders, antiques dealers--all of whom sound like Southerners with mouthfuls of marbles when they talk. (In some ways Maryland, a slave state that fought on the Union side during the Civil War, is more southern than history and geography would suggest.)

Retirees and city people with summer homes have flocked to the east side of the Chesapeake, making true Eastern Shore natives seem like a dying breed. Still, locals--above all the watermen who ply the bay for increasingly scarce crabs and oysters--give these flatlands their color and prized backwater feeling.

In summer, the Chesapeake Bay sailing set arrives, cousins of New York yachties who favor Long Island Sound and Bostonians who have boat slips on Cape Cod. Think of patrician Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in the 1940 movie "The Philadelphia Story," reminiscing about their old yacht. "My, she was yar," Hepburn says.

Lacking boats of their own, tourists get out on the water however they can or simply sample the pleasures of country life. They bike with picnic baskets, crack open steamed crabs in dockside restaurants and stay in graceful bed-and-breakfast inns that smell of boxwood and furniture polish.

One of the country pleasures I enjoyed on the way from Rock Hall to the Inn at Osprey Point, where I had reserved a room for two nights, was being stopped by a policewoman for going 39 mph in a 30-mph zone. "You better slow your butt down," she said, and then gave me a warning, not a ticket. Later, a woman in a Rock Hall marina shop commiserated with me about the incident. "We don't have much to do around here," she said.

That's Rock Hall. The town sits near the mouth of the Chester River, just north of the Eastern Neck Island National Wildlife Refuge. It's sleepier and scruffier than other Eastern Shore havens, such as chic St. Michaels, and it has but one traffic light, a tiny business district, a grocery store, a rusty water tower, modest working-class homes with a surprising array of lawn ornaments, a cafe that opens at 4 a.m. (presumably for fishermen), half a dozen or so marinas and water on three sides.

I explored the marinas, such as Spring Cove, where there's a sailing school, and Haven Harbour, where a sailing shop called the Ditty Bag sells everything from Boat Zoap Plus to fast-dissolving toilet paper. The shop also keeps the key to the minuscule Waterman's Museum next door, where I learned that "peelers" are soft-shell crabs (harvested during molting season, from May till early fall, after they've shed their hard shells and can be eaten whole), and that once-abundant Chesapeake Bay oysters succumbed to parasites around the turn of the last century. Small as it is, the museum beguiles, especially the re-creation of one of the portable shanties used for shelter by watermen in winter. The exhibit had a mannequin waterman sleeping in a bunk and a plate of biscuits on the table.

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