Off-Season Delights

No backups at the Bay Bridge. No crowds on the boardwalk. In winter, the Eastern Shore is all about slowing down and enjoying the region's natural charms.

Maryland

Cover Story

January 12, 2003|By ELLEN UZELAC | ELLEN UZELAC,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sailing, crabbing, going downy ocean -- summer on Maryland's Eastern Shore. But what about this? Snow geese and tundra swans, deserted beaches, empty highways.

It's ironic that life here is "off-season" right now because so much of winter's bounty is a turn-on -- pure, unobscured views that only a winter landscape can deliver; a natural palette that is different from summer's, but just as rewarding.

And there's the quiet that comes when the tourists are gone, not to mention the off-season hotel and restaurant rates.

Shore winters are cold but uncomplicated and can be accessed as daytrips or extended visits, depending on your destination and your desire. No, they don't always produce the motion that's part of summer's fun, but they have a distinct rhythm and texture of their own.

"Sometimes, summer is too much for me -- it's too green, too many primary colors. But finding a little bit of color in winter's landscape is like finding a little bit of hope," observes Marcy Dunn Ramsey, a Queen Anne's County painter and children's book illustrator. "I love winter because the bones of the landscape really show through. And you see a lot more color than you'd expect, especially on damp days when there's no sunlight -- red twigs in a hedgerow, the golds of marsh grass. I find it exhilarating, exuberating."

So do I. Over the last few weeks, I've traveled all over the Eastern Shore -- some places familiar, some not. Definitely, the land looks different under winter's gaze, and undisturbed.

The only company I had on Assateague were the famed wild ponies and my two dogs. Driving to Elliott Island along an extraordinary marshscape in Dorchester County, I encountered just two other cars in an hour, and came to fully understand why this region has been dubbed "Maryland's Everglades."

And how's this for "The Land of Pleasant Living?": an easy-to-execute U-turn on Coastal Highway in Ocean City. Try that in the summer, hon.

In winter, the abundance of birds makes up for the absence of people. This is big birding country, and the folks who are serious about it say winter bird life is more interesting than summer's. The scissor-tailed flycatcher shows up most winters in the coastal refuges. The harlequin duck, which breeds in Iceland, visits the Ocean City inlet. Easier to spot: the common loon and the red-throated loon.

"If you're a birder, this is wonderful stuff," notes Wayne Bell, an avid birder and director of the Center for the Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown. "One of the big things in winter is that water is king because of all your wonderful water birds. If you're birding on the Shore in winter, never miss the water."

Among the choice spots to look: the marshes of Dorchester County, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge and Horsehead Wetlands Center in Grasonville. In my own back yard, in Kent County, there's Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, just past Rock Hall. The elegant, white tundra swans arrived there in early November on a stiff, northwest wind and they'll remain through mid-March.

It's funny how spring is always credited with ushering in a season of renewal and rediscovery because you can find that in winter, too.

"Every morning is different," says novelist Barbara Lockhart, who's lived on a Dorchester County farm for 30 years. "With frost, the Queen Anne's Lace curls up into what looks like little birds' nests. You're so aware of the shapes of all this wonderful vegetation. Everything has its season, and winter has its own beauty."

Here's a sampling of places to see and things to do this winter east of the Bay Bridge:

Uncrowded beaches

Each region of the Eastern Shore has its own personality, and the Lower Shore is defined by its ocean beaches, pine forests and country roads. Much of the area is rural, but there are spaces here, especially in winter, that feel especially remote.

The cold months have always been my favorite at the beach because, without all of the tourists, you can really breathe. Only in winter are you permitted to walk your dogs on the Ocean City beach and bicycle at any hour along the three-mile boardwalk.

(If you wish to board your dogs, consider the 14-month-old Dogtel Hotel, whose VIP suites just off Route 50 include a private room with wall-to-wall carpet, a bed and TV. And, yes, winter rates do apply.)

Talk about rates, Ocean City's got them. This time of year, it's easy to find lodging for under $30, and many of the restaurants offer half-price entree specials, some with complimentary wine or appetizers.

"In the winter, Ocean City can't be beat. There are almost too many things to choose from," according to Christopher Tagle, food critic for the news weekly Oceana. "Summers, bring your pocketbook."

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