ST. MICHAELS, Md. -- You don't have to be a crab fisherman, or even like crab, to appreciate everything this Victorian resort town on Maryland's eastern shore has to offer.
Blessed with charming shops and restaurants, an interesting Colonial back story and some of the region's prettiest early 19th-century architecture -- St. Mary's Square, where early residents worshipped and sold their goods at an open-air market, dates to the late 1700s -- it's the perfect getaway for those who like a little history with their recreation.
You do, however, have to possess nerves of steel to get there.
Nestled on a narrow neck of land along the Miles River near the historic towns of Easton and Oxford, the drive from Pittsburgh requires a trip across the engineering marvel known as the Chesapeake Memorial Bay Bridge. This heavily traveled 4.3-mile span of concrete (do not, and I repeat, do not plan your visit during Friday's rush-hour traffic) is among the world's longest over-water structures.
But it's the height rather than the length that's so dizzying: All that separates you from a 186-foot dive into the Chesapeake is a waist-high concrete jersey barrier. It takes an iron resolve, not to mention steady hands on the wheel and the ability to focus your eyes straight ahead, to make it across without wetting your pants.
Let's just say by the time I rolled into town on a sunny Thursday, I was more than ready for a mug of Crab Claw Ale at St. Michaels' quintessential waterfront restaurant, The Crab Claw. No good deed goes unpunished, as the saying goes.
Anticipating a long afternoon of sightseeing before checking into my room at the luxurious 1816 Inn at Perry Cabin, I also enjoyed one of the season's most sought-after delicacies: a soft-shell crab sandwich ($15.95). My kids might scream at the sight of legs and claws peeking out from the slices of bread, but to me the crustaceans taste like summer -- sweet and fleeting.
It's pretty common, in fact, for visitors to travel great distances to dine at The Crab Claw; the day I was there, Chuck Kosciuk got up at the crack of dawn to make the 240-mile trek from Lackawanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania with two buddies. The object of their desire: dozens of Maryland blue crab steamed in Old Bay and spread out on paper on a picnic table ($36/dozen).
"And we'll get more when we're done," he said, hammering away with a wooden mallet.
Known for its many nautical and historical attractions, the village of St. Michaels dates from the mid-1600s. But it didn't really become a destination until a century later, after forests were cleared and a small shipbuilding industry sprang up. The heart of town, St. Mary's Square, was laid out by James Braddock in 1778 on what locals called "The Green."
This is the site of a bell cast in 1841. The bell rang every five hours between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. to measure the workday for shipwrights in the nearby harbor. The square also holds the remains of a small cannon said to have been used in the defense of the town during the War of 1812.
That Colonial skirmish is St. Michaels' biggest claim to fame. Forewarned that the British "redcoats" were planning an attack in the predawn darkness on Aug. 10, 1813, residents hoisted lanterns to the masts of ships and in the tops of trees, hoping to trick them into overshooting the town with their cannons. It worked: Only one house on Mulberry Street was struck during the blackout. (After crashing through the chimney, the cannonball rolled down the staircase as the owner, Mrs. Merchant, carried her baby daughter down the stairs.) In 1980, the Federal-style house, dubbed the Cannonball House, was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
"We're the town that fooled the British," said George Seymour, a docent at the St. Michaels Museum at St. Mary's Square.
Staffed by volunteers, the Mill Street building ($3, weekends May-October or by appointment) offers a fascinating view of village life from the 1800s. Among the memorabilia on display in the charming frame main home, built by waterman Jeremiah Sewell in 1865, are period antiques, a framed 1817 sampler, old photos and a biscuit worker machine from 1816, which, according to Mr. Seymour, was considered "newfangled" even during the Civil War.
The adjoining Teetotum building, so named because of its resemblance to a toy top of the same name, offers equally interesting artifacts. Following its former use as a mortuary and a town jail, it holds a mortician's carrying board, an affidavit verifying that a round iron missile did indeed hit the Cannonball House in 1813, and a diorama of the town from the same year.
The partially restored Chaney house next door, built by three free African-American brothers in 1850, will eventually become a library and resource center and contain exhibits on black life in the community, noted museum vice president Chip Britt, who also leads walking tours of the historic waterfront.
I ended up taking the $10 guided tour Mr. Seymour, 82, a retired psychiatric social worker, devised in 2007 to give "proper recognition" to famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in Talbot County and spent some of his youth in St. Michaels.
Among the many stops during the 90-minute walking history lesson were the tiny cemetery behind St. Luke's United Methodist Church on South Talbot Street, where Mr. Douglass' owners, the Thomas Auld family, are buried, and the tiny house on Cherry Street where he spent three of his teenage years "unhappy and rebellious." Determined to defy his slave status, Mr. Douglass fought the slave breakers hired to control his disobedient activities. In 1836, he planned to escape along what is now Route 33 with four fellow slaves but was caught, imprisoned and eventually sent back to Auld. Shipped off to Baltimore, he would end up escaping slavery for good in 1838.
Mr. Douglass would return in 1877 to the Dr. Dodson House on Locust Street to visit a friend, and reconcile with his former owner, "slave and master on equal ground," Mr. Seymour said.
Given more time, I might have mulled that momentous get-together over a glass of Long Splice, a dry white wine crafted right around the corner at St. Michaels Winery in the historic Old Mill complex. A tour of Eastern Shore Brewing, makers of St. Michaels and Knot So Pale ales, also tempted. But the 26 buildings that make up the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum on Navy Point beckoned the loudest.
After St. Michaels outsmarted the British in the War of 1812, shipbuilding slowly gave rise to seafood processing, with Maryland blue crab and oysters the town's primary fare. By the late 1930s, seafood packers were shipping 1 million pounds of crabmeat a year to wholesalers and retailers in Baltimore and Philadelphia, and up to 12,000 gallons of oysters a week.
The exhibits, boats and activities at the 18-acre museum complex explore that history in depth. There's a working boat yard where shipwrights and their students demonstrate traditional boat building and if you're so inclined, you can sign up to be an apprentice for a day. There's also an oyster exhibit, the nation's largest collection of Chesapeake Bay watercraft, and a wharf where you can try your hand at crabbing or tong for oysters with a giant pair of nippers (which I ended up snapping in half. Oops!).
My favorite building was the Hooper Strait Lighthouse. Built in 1879, with bare-bones quarters for a solitary keeper, this multi-story building is one of four surviving Chesapeake Bay "screwpile" lighthouses. From the gated observation deck on top, you can see all of St. Michaels harbor. And talk about picturesque vistas. Boats of all sizes make good use of the town's four marinas.
As befits a town popular with weekenders, St. Michaels' main drag boasts an array of antique stores, quaint boutiques and art galleries. After browsing for collectibles at Oyster House Antiques and trolling for earrings at Silver Linings on South Talbot Street, I resuscitated my tired body with a homemade ice cream cone at Justine's. Refreshed, I headed back to the inn for some quiet lounging at the water's edge.
Had I the energy, I might have borrowed one of the complimentary bikes and gone for a ride or splashed around in the property's large outdoor pool. I also could have splurged on a massage in the adjoining Linden Spa, named for the large trees that line the brick driveway to the hotel. It was enough simply to drink in the hotel's opulent surroundings as the sun slowly set. (The wedding reception in the 2005 movie "Wedding Crashers" was filmed here.)
Dinner a short while later at Sherwood's Landing overlooking the Miles River was equally restorative, if not especially kind to the waistline.Yet who can say no to Chef Mark Salter's signature Maryland crab spring roll? And why would you?
It was odd, flying solo in such a romantic spot. But in St. Michaels, where the nearest traffic light is 11 miles away, relaxation -- be it through history, seafood or the water -- is the name of the game.
Gretchen McKay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419. First Published August 16, 2009 4:00 AM