Scenic route to Shore

Ocean-bound motorists avoiding the Bay Bridge find a picturesque alternative

August 27, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,

UNICORN - "You did what?" asked an unbelieving Heather Knott, 21, one of the last people we met on our attempt to reach the Eastern Shore without going over the Bay Bridge. The circuitous trip took us north from Baltimore on Interstate 95, over to U.S. 40 and south down Route 213, through cornfields, quaint towns and one off-track betting site.

"Ooh, that's pretty horrible. That's pretty crazy," said Knott, who works at the newly opened Unicorn Cafe. "Why don't you just go across the Bay Bridge?"

Well, because the state told us not to, that's why.

With corrosion forcing the state to close a lane on the Bay Bridge and, at peak times, send traffic in two directions on the westbound span, officials are urging motorists headed to the Shore this weekend to consider a more northerly route - as in, practically to Pennsylvania. And Delaware. Yesterday, a Baltimore Sun reporter and photographer gave it a shot.

After an hour on the road, we reached North East, in Cecil County, where a restaurant/off-track betting parlor, tucked among the Food Lions and Burger Kings, was enough to lure us from the road. The North East Racing and Sports Club boasts 70 televisions simulcasting races in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and around the country.

James McDowell, 64, sat at the bar, nursing a glass of water. He had gotten a "hot tip" on a race yesterday morning, but it didn't pan out, and he was down to $30 in his pocket after coming in with $40. He watched the No. 3 horse win at Delaware Park and said, "Now if I had bet on that horse, he wouldn't have won."

We had a cup of spicy crab soup, a burger topped with crab dip and then put a $2 bet on Stormy Tori, a 25:1 shot at Philadelphia Park. He came in close to last. Time to go.

Rounding the bend at the top of the bay, we set our sights on Chesapeake City, a picturesque town on the shore of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

Trying to follow a sign to the C&D Museum, my chauffeur (er, make that photographer Glenn Fawcett) drove us into a cornfield. Reverse, turn around - no harm done.

Chesapeake City is out of a picture book: Towering trees shade its main street, where American flags flutter over the brick sidewalks.

The town has 800 people, five restaurants, three B&Bs and one "ice cream shoppe" that gets its product from a dairy farm in Rising Sun.

It's the sort of place where signs tell you that the "strictly enforced" time limit for waterfront parking is 24 hours.

"I think people would be pleasantly surprised to see this little town," said Joanne Healey, owner of Canal Town Kids, a toy store and souvenir shop. A 15-year resident, she said Chesapeake City is the perfect day trip: Eat, shop, walk along the waterfront. Then get out of town.

"We have people who spend the whole weekend here - two nights - and I feel sorry for them," Healey said. "You can do Chesapeake City in a day."

With all the traffic coming this way, maybe more people will.

A few doors down is Horizon Photography Workshops, where people come from all over for weekend-long photography seminars. Steve Gottlieb started the business four years ago, after spending 10 years as a lawyer and 20 years as a freelance photographer in Washington and New York. He was looking for a place to open shop.

"When I drove into this town, I went whht - this is it," said Gottlieb, 61. "It's quaint, it's easy to get to, and it's one turn off 95."

By this point we had been on - and off - the road for about three hours, and we began to sense that getting to the Shore via this northeast passage wasn't the most efficient way to travel. But then again, who knew what daily misfortune might have shut down the Bay Bridge and kept travelers idling in the concrete hell that is U.S. 50?

We'll take an ice cream shoppe over that any day.

Onward, then, to U.S. 301 and the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Unicorn, the heart of which seems to be the six-week-old Unicorn Cafe (formerly a pizza place, a market, a liquor store, etc.). Owners Kristen Rose and Edward Pierce buy from Eastern Shore farmers, watermen and food producers to prepare traditional meals like beer-boiled shrimp and chicken and dumplings.

"A lot of places say they're family-style, but they use frozen food," Rose said. "They don't have good home cooking - like you'd have at grandmother's house."

She'd love to have more people from the Western Shore (that would be Baltimore) stop by. Good advice, but at this rate, we wonder if we'll ever get to the beach.

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