The quiet side of the Bay Eastern Shore: St. Michaels can be a great place to start any number of daytrips to charming and historic sites along the Chesapeake.

September 27, 1998|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The front lawn of St. Michaels' Two Swan Inn offers one of the finest harbor views on the East Coast. Guests spend entire vacations perched in fan chairs, ogling a panoply of yachtdom cruising by on the Miles River, literally at arm's distance. But, after the obvious enticements wear thin, St. Michaels is a great place to leave.

Getting out of town reveals the less varnished Chesapeake, rich in history, natural spectacle and singular experiences. Using St. Michaels as a hub for exploring the Eastern Shore puts you just down the road from an abundance of singular destinations.

Begin by traveling south to Royal Oak and its collection of eclectic shops selling everything from distressed furniture to suits of armor. After browsing, follow the signs to Bellevue and the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. Oxford, one of the most popular Eastern Shore daytrips, combines a classic ferry ride with an historic Tidewater port and quaint antiques and craft shops.

Leave your car on the Bellevue side and board as a foot passenger on the country's oldest, privately owned, free-running ferry. Crossing the Tred Avon River as a pedestrian on the ferry is the preferred entrance to Oxford. The harbor-full of sailboats and period architecture make the approach to Oxford a defining image of the Eastern Shore. One of the oldest Maryland towns, Oxford began in the 1660s. Before Baltimore, Washington or Richmond were of any consequence, Oxford was a major seaport, serving the surrounding tobacco plantations.

The town's fortunes fell after the Revolutionary War. The splendid homes along Morris Street display the later wealth from the menhaden that fed Oxford's fisheries, canneries, boatyards and railroad in the 1880s. Vestiges of the last boom, venerable skipjacks and flighty log canoes, still race on the Tred Avon.

Oxford is a walker's town. It offers a warren of quiet streets to wander, each lined with well-kept homes, some dating back to the town's Colonial past. Going on foot accommodates the town's scale and enables visitors to notice the wealth of rich detail. Oxford has few shops and amenities, but a walk along the Strand, a riverfront promenade, presents the full catalog of Chesapeake building styles and architectural adventures.

Just up from the ferry landing, the Robert Morris Inn serves benchmark crab cakes: big, plump, backfin jobs, perfectly baked and served in an ambience rooted in the 18th century.

Back on the Bellevue side, the eponymously named Bellevue Store can shock shoppers jaded by production-line antiques, carved crab napkin rings and T-shirt emporiums. Instead, it provides a constantly changing melange of quality craft items, Eastern Shore photography, fine papers and whimsical, eccentric gifts. Even without the ferry ride, Bellevue is worth visiting.

Going south

Another journey away from St. Michaels offers a quantum change from the harbor's cozy confines. Travel south to the Chesapeake's exposed sweep at Blackwalnut Point, on Tilghman Island's southern end. Along the way, detour back to the era of the Bayline steamers by visiting Claiborne. Its old ferry pier, renovated and maintained by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, shelters a quiet basin, perfect for launching a boat, fishing the shallows or watching a family of ospreys teach their young to fly. The town has changed little since the ferry days. Standing on the pier, one's imagination easily hears the spectral whistles of ghost liners approaching the slip.

From Claiborne, continue south across Knapp Narrows and through Tilghman. Beyond Fairbank, just before the road ends, the open Chesapeake sweeps into view. Distance gives perspective; the Bay's 15-mile "fetch" stretches clear to the Calvert Cliffs, rising above the Earth's curve on the distant Western Shore. This is the Big Bay.

Southwest, out in the mouth of the Choptank River, a tilted lighthouse stands as the final marker for Sharps Island, once a large island with numerous farms of several hundred acres each. The island lasted well into this century; now it is just a shoal at the edge of the central Bay.

The same erosion that eliminated Sharps Island also attacks Blackwalnut's shoreline, forcing a retreat of more than 2,000 feet in the last 100 years. In the 1960s, Maryland hydrographers documented losses of more than 20 feet in a single weekend storm. Heavy stone riprap and bulkheading, the most recent attempts to counter the erosive energy, defend against the Bay's wind-driven surf.

The armored roadway also benefits anglers and serves as protection and a viewing site for the wetlands near the point's southernmost tip. Migrating butterflies rest here on their annual journeys.

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