Otto Mears had big plans for the resort he was building on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The financier envisioned a lavish place with waterfront hotels, casinos and boardwalk rides that rivaled Coney Island and Atlantic City. To ensure that people could reach his Calvert County entertainment mecca, he built a railroad to Washington and constructed a pier to accommodate steamboats from Baltimore.
The first train chugged into Chesapeake Beach on June 9, 1900. That same year, plats were drawn up for a second town just to the north, aptly named North Beach. Soon, swarms of Washingtonians and Baltimoreans descended upon the beaches to trade the cities' sticky heat for breezes on the boardwalk and dips in the cool saltwater.
But the Great Depression slammed the resort business like the hurricanes that destroyed the boardwalks and piers. Cars put more people on the road and fewer in trains; the last passenger train pulled out of Chesapeake Beach in 1935.
Then, in 1952, the Bay Bridge opened the Eastern Shore to drivers. Calvert County's small beaches couldn't compare to Ocean City's broad sands and pounding surf. When Maryland outlawed gambling, the Monte Carlo of the Western Shore evolved into two sleepy hamlets far from the beaten path.
Still, the things that attracted people to beaches remained intact: water, sand and expansive views of the horizon. Those assets, combined with the explosive growth that occurred in the Washington-Annapolis corridor in the past two decades, have turned Chesapeake Beach and North Beach into bedroom communities. The towns are just south of the Anne Arundel-Calvert County line off routes 2 and 4. Between 1990 and 2000, the twin beaches' population went to 5,060 from 3,576. New townhouses and condominiums spike the skyline.
North Beach is best for shopping, while Chesapeake Beach is best for eating. But don't make the trek if you seek incredible retail or culinary opportunities.
Instead, come here to laze away the last month of the summer on pretty, uncrowded spreads of dark gold sands. Fish from two piers. Cruise the bay aboard several charter boats docked in Chesapeake Beach. Bike along the boardwalks. Or plop onto a bench with iced apricot tea from North Beach's tea shop and revel in just being at the beach.
What to see
Parking is free at North Beach (Bay Avenue, 410-257-9618). But out-of-towners pay fees to use the beach and pier ($4 for adults; $3 for seniors and children between 3 and 11 years old.) Using the half-mile-long boardwalk won't cost, however; it offers expansive views of the water and up-close peeks of the homes that abut the boardwalk. One of the most charming is Bay Views Bed and Breakfast (9131 Atlantic Ave., 877-245-2223).
In Chesapeake Beach, Bay Front Park and its pier are free (410-257-2230). So is the town's railway museum (Route 261, 410-257-3892), a tiny collection of sepia-toned prints of the beaches' wild resort days as well as railway paraphernalia housed in the quaint station house.
There's still time to splash down on the eight very cool water slides at Chesapeake Beach's Water Park (4079 Gordon Stinnett Ave., 410-257-1404). The water park has a huge, meandering pool and a snack bar. Beach chairs, tubes and lockers are provided.
Bay Paddlers (4055 Gordon Stinnett Ave., 410-286-3663) teaches kayaking and fly-fishing. They also lead kayak tours.
Charter boats Tom Hooker and Lady Hooker are available for cruises (Chesapeake Beach, 800-233-2080). Ditto for the 38-foot Mary Lou II (3866 Harbor Road, Chesapeake Beach, 800-921-8944/04).
Where to eat
The Rod 'n' Reel has been serving seafood with bay views since 1946 (Route 261, Chesapeake Beach, 800-233-2080). Walk off the large portions on the landscaped piers adjacent to the restaurant. Fat, red tomatoes stuffed with ample amounts of shrimp salad score high marks.
Thursday's Bar & Grill is a straightforward surf and turf place with a large pub, dining room and a small patio in North Beach (9200 Bay Ave., 410-286-8695).
Wesley Stinnett's Restaurant and Bar prides itself on "down-home cookin' at real fair prices since 1936." No frills, just breakfast, lunch and dinner with patty melts, fried chicken and seafood (Route 261, Chesapeake Beach, 410-257-6100
Where to shop
North Beach's shops cluster together along Bay Avenue and Seventh Street. For beach goods - plastic animal floats, balls and the like - Flyin' Fish Etc./Get Guated is steps from the shore (9100 Bay Ave., 410-286-5543). Tropical-themed clothes are reasonably priced.
Good luck getting any child or adult with a sweet tooth past Old Town Candy Co. (9122 Bay Ave., 410-286-7300).