Havre de Grace: Working town, lots of charm

Port: Historic 'Harbor of Grace' offers much more than its decoy festival.

Short Hop

April 18, 1999|By Les Picker | Les Picker,Special to the Sun

Walking the tree-lined streets of historic Havre de Grace is like stepping back in time. Leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind, skip the mad rush of suburban shopping malls, and spend an enjoyable weekend in this quaint town, tucked into the easternmost corner of Harford County.

Ideally located at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, Havre de Grace played a prominent role during the Revolutionary War. During the First Congress in 1789, Havre de Grace missed by only one vote being named the capital of the fledgling United States. Called "Harbor of Grace" for its scenic beauty, it was considered indefensible from the all-powerful British Navy. That proved prophetic, when the British later bombarded Havre de Grace during the War of 1812, destroying much of the town.

Today, the town is known for its quiet streets, 30-plus antiques shops, decoy shops, historic homes and the Promenade, an environmentally friendly boardwalk skirting the southern end of town and linking the historic Concord Point Lighthouse with the bustling Tydings Memorial Park. Its most renowned event, the Decoy, Wildlife Art and Sportsmen's Festival, spans the first full weekend of May (7-9).

Unlike gentrified Annapolis, Havre de Grace is still a working town, replete with marinas, crabbers and an active stone quarry that ships its wares by barges and tugboats to places as far away as Virginia.

There are so many ways to enjoy Havre de Grace, you might want to plan to spend an entire weekend. Since Havre de Grace is a walking (or bicycling) town, arrive early and park in the municipal lot on the waterfront behind MacGregor's Restaurant and adjacent to the Tidewater Grill, Havre de Grace's most distinctive restaurants. Walk west to St. John Street and take in horologist John Stephens' magical shop, Stephens and Stephens. Horologist? In plain English, Stephens is a watch- and clockmaker, and his small, friendly waterfront shop is a tribute to his profession and a wonder to behold, especially when the chimes of some unusual grandfather clocks ring in the hour.

Walking south and west, en route to Havre de Grace's main drag, Washington Street, you will pass the first of the nearly three dozen antiques shops the town has to offer. Stop, if you must, but be warned. Havre de Grace's antique shops are less pricey than many other areas in the state, so you will be sorely tempted here.

Havre de Grace's Washington Street is what Main Street America was perhaps 50 years ago, lined with Bradford pear trees, but today serving up an eclectic mix of stores catering to both residents and tourists. In how many towns today can you still stroll the aisles of a National 5 & 10, where a child's dollar can still stretch a ways? One block south of the 5 & 10, take your time and browse Joseph's Department Store, a town fixture for generations. Its linoleum tiled floors and down-home sales staff will instantly whisk you back a generation or two.

Here are suggestions for a variety of activities, plus some of my favorite places to eat and visit. But, the fun of Havre de Grace is in exploring and finding your own favorites.

Outdoor activities

In and around Havre de Grace are myriad activities for a family, ranging from mild to strenuous.

* The most accessible for the entire family is a leisurely stroll along the Promenade. Park in the public area at Tydings Memorial Park at the town's southern edge, at the east end of Union Avenue. Bring binoculars and walk along the wide boardwalk, stopping at the many convenient benches to admire the view. I've found the best time to be near dusk, when you may be lucky enough to see a wading great blue heron or other aquatic birds. The Promenade winds along the shore and culminates in a marshy area, perfect for birding, at the foot of the Concord Point Lighthouse.

* At the opposite end of town, at Warren and North Union streets is the Starrk-Moon Kayak Shop, where you can rent kayaks, canoes and bicycles. Spend a pleasant few hours paddling the many coves around Havre de Grace. If you're a fishing enthusiast, nothing beats the flats, where the Susquehanna River meets the bay, for freshwater and striped bass.

* Hikers and bikers would do well to visit Susquehanna State Park (410-557-7994), on Route 155 a few miles outside town. There you can stroll or bicycle along river paths, view historic sites, fish and birdwatch. Bald eagles have staged an incredible comeback in this area, and draw nature enthusiasts all year long.

* Golfers have a choice of some of Maryland's finest courses, one of which -- Pete-Dye-designed Bulle Rock (410-939-8887) -- is rated one of the top golf courses in the nation. One of the many pleasures of teeing off well north of Baltimore is less crowded tee times. Try the newly opened Beechtree Golf Club (410-297-9700), Wetlands Golf Club (410-273-7488), Chantilly Manor (410-658-4343) or Ruggles (410-278-4794), an old-style, forgiving course on Aberdeen Proving Ground.

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