Small towns, big love

From Rock Hall to Oakland, Maryland has many tiny destinations that are worth the trip

August 11, 2011|By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

How do we love thee, oh small towns of Maryland? Let us count the ways.

When earlier this year, a Budget Travel magazine poll named Lewisburg, W.Va., as "America's Coolest Small Town," it got us thinking: aren't Maryland's small towns worth bragging about, too?

Apparently Baltimore Sun readers think so. In an online poll, we asked you to name some of the top small towns in the state, and a slew of candidates emerged.

Yet one town stood out among the pack: historic Rock Hall, a scenic fishing village on the Eastern Shore.

Readers also shared other small town gems in our backyard — standouts for their compact size, unhurried pace and unique attractions. We noted your favorites, and added a few of our own recommendations, coming up with a list that's short and sweet but by no means complete.

Rock Hall, Kent County

This charming bayside town with 300 years of history conjures New England, but is just a few hours drive from Baltimore. It's an easy summer afternoon in the picturesque fishing village of Rock Hall, located on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore.

Not surprisingly, in this town nestled on the Chesapeake Bay, the maritime culture is flourishing. With marinas and slips at seemingly every turn, a swirl of sailboats, powerboats and yachts dot the shimmering waters.

Not far away, along tidy Main Street, shops, eateries and small museums bustle with tourists and locals. Families pop into Durding's Store, an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with a vintage wooden phone booth.

Nearby is The Mainstay, a performing arts center in a century old building. Audiences can hear jazz one night, bluegrass and gospel, the next.

Meanwhile, at the Harbor Shack restaurant on Bayside Avenue, its wide doors are flung open — the better to allow salt-tinged air to waft in from the nearby waterfront. Inside, colorful license plates hang on the walls and fishermen even have their own "bragging" board.

This local flavor is all part of the sweet, simple life of Rock Hall. The waterfront community in Kent County has less than 1,500 residents — mostly a mix of retirees, young families and others who call this town home.

"I grew up here and it was once a very active waterman's community," says newly-elected Mayor Bob Willis, a native whose family owns a marina and other local businesses. "We try to cherish and preserve that history as best we can. It's a beautiful town, a friendly place, with many recreational activities."

Indeed, there are ample ways to wile away a summer's day here. One can take a lazy swim at Rock Hall Beach, along the aptly named Beach Road. Or peruse the Rock hall or Waterman's museums for history and local lore.

And like many bay towns in Maryland, seafood is a staple here. At Waterman's Crab House Restaurant steamed crabs are a big draw. On weekends, live bands jam out on the deck.

Rock Hall also hosts festivals and special events year-round, be it fireman's suppers or the "Party on the Bay."

The laid back atmosphere sold Laurie Walters on Rock Hall several years ago.

"You can't find a more wonderful place," says Walters, who began visiting regularly after her son and daughter-in-law relocated here back in 2008.

Today, the family owns Rock Hall Rickshaw, a new pedi-cab service they launched this spring. The company's blue and orange rickshaws have quickly become a familiar sight around Rock Hall.

"Big cities like New York have rickshaws, of course, but we thought it would be great here because many people arrive via boat," says Walters. "They may need to pick up groceries or get to the restaurants."

Whether one sails into town, hops aboard a rickshaw or cycles down Main Street, there's plenty to see and do.

"Rock Hall may be [one of] the smallest, but we have everything from nice people to many events to entertain our residents and our many guests," says former Mayor Rosalie Kuechler. "We welcome everyone with open arms. Come visit us."

Population: About 1,400 full-time residents

Main attraction: Maritime culture. Check out the Waterman's Museum at Haven Harbour Marina, 20880 Rock Hall Ave., 410-778-6697.

Small-town surprise: Rickshaw rides.

Eat here: Waterman's Crab House Restaurant has some of the best sunset views on the bay – and you can come by boat and dock while you dine. 21058 Sharp St. 410-639-2261, watermanscrabhouse.com. For breakfast, including coffee and pastries, try Java Rock, 21309 Sharp St., 410-639-9909.

Stay here: Inn at Huntingfield Creek is a B&B on a lovely farm estate on the waterfront. Rates start at $179 per night. 4928 Eastern Neck Road, 410-639-7779, huntingfield.com.

Don't miss: Soda fountain treats at Durding's Store at the corner of Main and Sharp streets, 410-778-7957, sailingemporium.com/durdings.

Info: Call 410-639-7611 or go to rockhallmd.com or kentcounty.com

St. Michaels, Talbot County

Fictional Mayberry meets The Hamptons in this picturesque 17th Century village, situated along the Miles River on the Eastern Shore.

Population: About 1,193

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