Where the Eastern Shore begins

Kent Island might not look like much from Route 50, but beyond the highway there are treasures waiting to be discovered



How's this for a perfect Eastern Shore retreat? Spectacular views of the Chesapeake Bay. Hiking and biking trails that wind through marshes, wildflower meadows, woodlands and tidal ponds. Fantastic waterfront dining. Best yet, it's only minutes from the Bay Bridge.

For most of us Marylanders, Kent Island has never been a destination but a strip of asphalt leading to the beach and The Real Eastern Shore. We have cursed it in traffic jams, derided it for what seems like sometimes senseless development and dismissed it as nothing more than a repository for roadside shlock.

But there's more to Kent Island than the view from Route 50. Listen to Maureen Bannon, an artist and recent transplant who considers Kent Island her muse: "I've been here three years and I feel I've barely touched the spaces of the island I need to explore. I find paintings everywhere -- herons bathing in the creek, a boat in a back yard, light flickering through the trees. I just fell in love with Kent Island. What a gift."

Despite its small size, the island -- just 4.2 miles wide and 15 miles long -- offers up large helpings of wonderful shore habitat that can be explored on foot or by boat, car or bike.

Just opened last fall: the Cross Island Trail, a six-mile paved trail that wanders through canopied woods and nudges up against creeks and marshes and a wildflower meadow that will burst into color in June and July. The blacktop surface -- and a network of neat wooden bridges -- is superb for bicycling. (It's also pet-friendly as long as your dog is leashed.)

For months, like a lot of motorists, I watched construction of the trail, which parallels Route 50 in places. Now, I have the trail to thank for getting me out of my car and into spaces I wouldn't have otherwise known -- a quiet woods planted in Osage orange, Eastern red cedar and dogwood, a blind overlooking yellow marshland, a tiny family cemetery plot (just three graves with worn marble markers) all but hidden by brush.

The Cross Island Trail is part of the American Discovery Trail that, when completed, will stretch from San Francisco to Cape Henlopen, Del. "There are only a few holes left," according to Wes Johnson, director of parks and recreation for Queen Anne's County. "We're filling this one."

Indeed, over the next few weeks, county crews will finish a new three-quarter-mile spur that edges up to more marshland. Ultimately, the Cross Island Trail will extend another 20 miles, most of it through farmland, to the town of Queen Anne. From there, Caroline County officials will complete the last link to the Delaware line.

One of the greatest things about Kent Island's newest trail is that it adjoins the Terrapin Nature Area, a 279-acre nature park that has its own trail system, some of it covered in oyster chaff. I have driven over the western span of the Bay Bridge hundreds of times, never dreaming that one day I'd be standing at the water's edge in a park just north of it. That day came last fall. Whitecaps whipped the bay waters, and the wind, rushing out of the northwest, blocked the sound of bridge traffic. That crisp afternoon the place had its own voice.

Historic Stevensville

The best spot to launch a Kent Island visit is the 4-year-old Chesapeake Exploration Center at Kent Narrows. There are handouts on everything from boat and kayak rentals to local produce stands to a self-guided tour of historic structures. And, in July, the visitor's center will inaugurate its first-ever exhibition, Our Chesapeake Legacy.

The 1,600-square-foot exhibit will examine the natural and cultural history of the region. Among the artifacts: copies of engineering drawings of the Bay Bridge's first span, which opened in 1952; video of the first car driving across it; and Native American trading beads dating to the 1600s.

It was Virginia colonist William Claiborne who settled Kent Island in 1631, making it the first English settlement on Maryland soil. Unfortunately, the remains of his fort and trading post were lost long ago to shoreline erosion. All that's left is a stone marker, 8.5 miles south along Route 8, that identifies the general location of the settlement.

There's still history on Kent Island, and Stevensville is the place to find it.

Charming, quaint, kicky -- tiny Stevensville is all those things. Dating back to 1850, it was something of a boom town by the early 1900s when the railroad came through. By 1909, the town had two schools, four doctors, a blacksmith and a sawmill. The end of rail service in 1948 halted Stevensville's growth, and now this close-knit community is home to antiques shops, art galleries and artists' studios, many of them in interesting recycled buildings.

Not to be missed: the Stevensville Bank Building, which houses Pippi's Place, an antiques shop; the old post office; the gambrel-roofed Cray House; and Christ Church, a Gothic structure dating to 1880. (For tours of the village's historic buildings, contact the Kent Island Heritage Society, 410-643-5969.)

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