Coastal Diversions

On The Road To Ocean City, There Are Many Delightful Detours

July 12, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Popular mapping programs project that the trip from the Baltimore area to Ocean City should take about three hours, but with a little effort and planning you can easily meander there in nine.

While for many the trip to Maryland's ocean resort is a race along U.S. 50 to squeeze in every last hour on the sand, less-hurried travelers can find a multitude of fascinating, scenic and sometimes downright delicious distractions on the Eastern Shore.

By getting a start in the morning, you can reach the beach before the sun goes down and still take in such attractions as bargain shopping at Prime Outlets, an old-time grist mill at Wye Mills, wildlife encounters at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a down-home lunch at a small-town roadhouse, a gem of a folk art museum in Salisbury and a farmers' market and some power shopping in Berlin.

You probably can't do it all in one trip to the ocean, but you can squeeze in all these diversions - and others of your choice - going both ways.

My wife Cindy and I recently set out to explore the Shore on our way down to dinner with my college-student son.

We had all day. The weather didn't suggest we'd get much beach time in even if we did hurry. So we took it slow and visited a few places we had always bypassed on previous trips. We set a few rules: Avoid already familiar places (St. Michael's) and don't stray too outrageously from U.S. 50.

Our first thought was to grab breakfast on Kent Island. But our search for a non-chain restaurant with a view on the south side of U.S. 50/301 was thwarted. (We later learned the good local diners were north of the highway.) But we found a good morning feed in what was at first an unlikely place: the small restaurant at the back of the Chesapeake Gourmet retail shop at the Prime Outlets mall in Queenstown, where U.S. 50 and U.S. 301 split. It wasn't elegant dining, but there was a tasty red pepper and chicken quiche, an excellent vegetable soup and a more-than-respectable Key lime cheesecake to provide the fuel for a little shopping.

Outlet malls are by their nature hit-or-miss, and we encountered a little of both. I didn't see anything at L.L.Bean that prompted me to reach for my wallet, but Cindy scored several bargains at Chico's. We're not power shoppers, so we left quickly, but those who are will find their choice of about 60 retailers, ranging from Yankee Candle to a new Gucci store.

The Prime Outlets, right off U.S. 50, doesn't really count as a meander off the main route, but we quickly made up for that with a turn off the main highway onto southbound Maryland Route 662.

Two-lane Route 662 is a road that weaves back and forth alongside U.S. 50 though farmland, towns and a few encroaching subdivisions. Its slow-pace traffic provides a welcome relief after the frenzy of U.S. 50 - a road more notable for utility than charm.

Oldest working grain mill

The first village the wayward beachgoer encounters on Route 662 is Wye Mills, home to Maryland's most acclaimed tree stump - that of the national champion Wye Oak, which tumbled in June 2002 after a more than 450-year career in the shade industry and a 60-year stint as Maryland's state tree.

Before we reached the site of the stump, still a state park, we stopped at the Wye Grist Mill and Museum, the oldest working grain mill in Maryland, founded in 1682. We received an instructive demonstration of the milling process from docent Rhonda Carter, from whom we learned such things as that the buckwheat plants outside the mill are not relatives of wheat. The museum attractions include hands-on exhibits that should hold children's interest for a few minutes, and visitors can leave with a package of ground-on-site cornmeal that Cindy later turned into some delicious hoecakes. (The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday during the summer and early fall. Donation of $2 requested.)

Just south of the mill is the big stump, with some picnic facilities, and just south of that the Old Wye Church, dating to 1721. The Anglican outpost is the site of one of the state's more photogenic church graveyards - the final resting place of many a Paca, Tilghman and Davidson.

From Wye Mills, we made our way to the historic town of Oxford. It can be reached in a meandering way by taking Route 33 as if headed to St. Michael's but turning south toward the tiny hamlet of Bellevue, where a public ferry takes passengers and cars across the Tred Avon River to Oxford. The town itself is a gem, with magnificent waterfront estates, but we were struck by the profusion of for-sale signs on historic houses. Maybe quaint isn't all it's cracked up to be. It was also sad to discover that the Robert Morris Inn, once one of Maryland's finest restaurants, no longer serves lunch or dinner. That leaves the grave of George Washington's aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman as perhaps the liveliest spot in town.

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