Time Out for Romance at St. Michaels on the Chesapeake
By Karen Hamlin, Travel Contributor
So, you and your loved ones went to DC and sped down the Smithsonian strip to visit as many museums as possible, stood in lines, toured the capitol, waited on more lines and, maybe, took in some shows. You were frazzled, right? Only one and a half-hours and half 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 and 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.
St. Michaels on the Chesapeake
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, thinking it was destroyed, they left.
After the American Revolution, tiny St. Michaels languished 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 Michener, 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 Cheney 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 into 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 lovely 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 depart 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, 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 tracing the history of boat building, including the world's largest collection of traditional bay boats and a Native American dugout canoe. 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, and somber looking young men and women dressed in cumbersome garments lingering around the boat yard led to other photos of pretty girls laughing on motorboats driven by young handsome men - back then ... parties and fun.
Hooper Strait "screwpile" Lighthouse on Navy Point
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 and 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 into 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, to do less than nothing. Swaying in a hammock, we were mesmerized by chirping songbirds. After awhile 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.