Admit it. What you remember about your trip to Italy isn't the Sistine Chapel, but rather that marvelous spezzatino di vitello you had at the little trattoria near your hotel. You're the kind of traveler who arrives in a city and scouts out the local restaurants before the local sights. Cruises? They're just an excuse to eat lavishly six times a day. But you don't have to sign up for a gourmet's tour of France to make a marvelous meal the real destination of your travels. We have plenty of places within a few hours' drive of Baltimore that let you combine sightseeing or vacationing with good eats, if not haute cuisine. (And sometimes you'll get haute cuisine as well.) Here is a sampling of them.
PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY
In the good-eats category, surely Pennsylvania Dutch country comes to mind first. Located a little more than an hour north of Baltimore, Lancaster County is a fascinating region to visit to learn about the Amish way of life. No "historical re-creation" this, but a chance to see a living community that practices a vanishing lifestyle. You can visit working farms (one of the attractions is a celery farm!) or tour an Amish village, ride in an Amish family's horse-driven carriage to see the countryside or visit museums and historic sites. Start at the Information Center at 501 Greenfield Road in Lancaster (800) 735-2629, Ext. 2322 to watch the film "There Is a Season," which will introduce you to the area.
Mary Rankin of the Visitors Bureau suggests that the best way to experience the food of the Pennsylvania Dutch is to start at a farmer's market. Lancaster's Central Market is the oldest publicly owned, continuously operated farmer's market in the nation. Located on the square in downtown Lancaster, it's open year-round Tuesdays and Fridays from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Here you can get locally grown produce and the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch foods -- chowchow, shoofly pie, cheeses, scrapple and bologna, funnel cake, homemade breads and much more.
Authentic Pennsylvania Dutch cooking can be found at family-style restaurants with names like Good n' Plenty, Bird-in-Hand, Plain & Fancy, Harvest View or Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant. The food is plain, hearty and bountiful. Be sure to sample the traditional seven "sweet and sours" (vegetable dishes with a vinegar and sugar dressing), pot pies, pork and sauerkraut, red beet eggs, baked dried corn, potato rolls and, of course, shoofly pie with its molasses bottom and crumb crust.
Directions: Take Interstate 83 north to Route 30 east. Continue until you see Lancaster County exits.
If your idea of a vacation is to be near the water and eat seafood, I don't need to tell you to head for Ocean City or just about anywhere along the Eastern Shore. To pick any one town or restaurant to recommend has to be a somewhat arbitrary decision; but Crisfield in Somerset County bills itself as "The Seafood Capital of the World," and who are we to argue?
Crisfield has Maryland's largest marina, Somers Cove. Bay cruises to places like Tangier and Smith islands originate here, along with walking and driving tours of historic homes, landmarks and scenic areas. You can visit the Janes Island State Park, with its isolated shorelines and undeveloped beaches. Summer will bring Soft Shells and Jazz (June 20), the Tangier Sound Country Music Festival (June 27), the Annual Crab and Clam Bake (July 15), Watermen's Folklife Festival (July 18) and much more. For more information on any of these activities or events, call Somerset County Tourism at (800) 521-9189.
The Somers Cove Marina is administered by the state Department of Natural Resources' Boating Administration. Its public affairs officer, John Lanzone, has conducted a survey of ,, Crisfield's restaurants, from Side Street, where you can eat crabs on the deck, to Watermen's Inn, which specializes in "regional American cuisine" like cream of crab soup and crab a la Watermen. You can get a copy of the survey by calling Mr. Lanzone at the marina, (410) 968-0925.
Crisfield's best-known restaurant is the Captain's Galley on West Main Street and the waterfront. It calls itself "the home of the world's best crab cake." Granted it's not the only Maryland restaurant to boast of having a world-famous crab cake; but it does have clippings from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Southern Living and People magazine to back up its claim. The crab cakes, made of 100 percent back fin, cost $14.95, but you can get a "taste" of them for $2.75 extra when you order another dinner. And, of course, every other sort of Maryland seafood is available at the Captain's Galley, from Eastern Shore-style oyster fritters to soft shell crabs.
Directions: Take Route 50 across the Bay Bridge to Salisbury. Pick up Route 13 south to Route 413 south into Crisfield.