On a recent fall day, gardeners at Franz Burda's home were putting in 20,000 tulip bulbs. Once they've bloomed next spring, each bulb will be dug up and donated to charity.
The German publisher's three full-time staff members clip and groom the impeccable gardens and emerald-green lawns, as well as tend the raised swimming pool on the $5.1 million estate.
For formal dinners, Burda's starched damask cloths are ironed on the tables -- after they are sprinkled with Pellegrino, some say -- before the guests jet in.
Palm Beach? The Hamptons?
Try 10 minutes off Route 50 on the Eastern Shore.
Unbeknown to the idle passer-by, dozens of storied estates of the wealthy, the eccentric and the socially rarefied dot the Eastern Shore's sluggish creeks and yawning rivers, particularly along the 588 miles of waterfront in Talbot County.
It is an exclusive, aristocratic world that moves to its own rhythms. Fall is "the season," when everyone who's anyone arrives and social calendars bulge with appointments. Next weekend is the season's zenith: the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, a fund-raiser for environmental conservation.
For the touring public, the three-day festival showcases the Chesapeake Bay, its conservation advocates and its artists, the duck carvers and watercolor painters. For the upper crust, though, the festival provides an opportunity to throw seated dinners and galas to showcase their tidewater estates to friends.
"People think it is the depths of the country -- and of course it is -- but this is a very sophisticated place," says Mary Donnell Singer Tilghman, whose ancestors, the Lloyds, have owned Wye House, a Maryland plantation outside of Easton, since the 17th century.
If the Chesapeake Bay region is "the Land of Pleasant Living," as the famous '50s marketing slogan called it, this aristocratic niche might be called "the Land of Perfect Living."
All along the Miles and Tred Avon rivers and Leeds Creek you'll find these estates -- an $11.7 million Queen Anne's County retreat, a 1922 Castilian-style fortress inset with hundreds of azure blue and yellow tiles, a 1790 mansion, a villa whose wine cellar holds a $4 million inventory.
Former Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady (he served under Ronald Reagan) and IRS chief Charles Rossotti have places near Easton. So does Mario Boiardi, of the Chef Boyardee spaghetti fortune, whose enormous home is across the Wye River in Queen Anne's County. Burda, the second generation of his family to publish German magazines, has several waterfront homes there, along with a private golf course.
And there's Ravens Stadium builder A. James Clark, who just donated $10 million to Johns Hopkins University, where he's a trustee; Maryland Democratic Party rainmaker Nathan Landow; the world's second-largest franchiser of hotels, Stewart W. Bainum Jr.; Chevy Chase Bank Chairman and real estate investor B. Francis Saul; and Harry Meyerhoff, owner of Spectacular Bid, the horse that won two legs of the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby and the Belmont) in 1979.
New York hedge-fund commodities broker Paul Tudor Jones II built a large Dorchester County hunting lodge -- only to be hit with a $2 million settlement and fine for federal wetlands violations. Washington power attorney Aubrey Daniel drops in for weekends at his new Leeds Creek villa, the one with the gardens he's having built to resemble those of the Chianti region of Tuscany. Many afternoons, John Eisenhower, son of the former president, has a bowl of black bean soup at Cafe 25, a small Easton restaurant.
Why are these people drawn here? More than a few like the value for the money: Real estate is cheaper here than in the Hamptons or in Palm Beach, and Talbot County has lower property-tax rates. Many say it's the serenity and privacy.
"To the outsider, the traveler, there's an invisibility to the manors and estates of Talbot County," says Robert J. Brugger, history and regional Maryland book editor for the Johns Hopkins University Press. "It is a quiet and mysterious place. The people there like it just that way."
Second in per capita income
It is hard to say just how many millionaires live here -- many reside for just part of the year -- but Talbot County's year-round population, 32,930, has some telling statistics:
The county trails only Montgomery in per capita income ($40,466 to $32,883) -- a curiously high ranking, given that so many Talbot residents are watermen, small farmers and Black & Decker factory workers.
Perhaps more to the point, the county leads the state in residents who derive a high rate of their income (41 percent) from stocks, bonds and other investments.
Talbot has been home to notables of name and quiet wealth ever since the Lloyd family (their origins are in Wales, home of the namesake Wye River) established themselves at Wye in the 17th century.
It was here that Frederick Douglass lived and recorded his recollections as a 7-year-old slave.