Part Two of our Chesapeake Bay Cruise! Following the first half where we moved north along the western side of the Bay, the second half was a return south along the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. After the larger and more touristy Yorktown, Solomons, and Annapolis, this side of the Chesapeake. Quieter but still with their own contributions to state and US history, steeped in the culture of the Watermen who for generations made their living from the crab and oyster industry, we frequently had a feeling of stepping back in time 50-100 years.
St. Michaels, MD
First stop was St Michaels, MD. It was still geared toward tourism for its economy, but kept the small town feel. The marina had bikes we could use, so once again we left our foldable ones in the hold and used the beach cruisers to explore. Our spot in the marina looked right out over town, but going over land meant we had to ride about a mile to get 100 yards from where the boat was located. Town had some great shopping, but lack of space on the boat kept us firmly in the ‘just looking’ category. We did take Roxy in the dinghy across the way one evening for a free concert in the park. St Michael’s is a popular weekend destination, but we were happy to be there during the week to avoid the crowds.
We spent half a day at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where they had the Hooper Strait Lighthouse – yet another of the screw-pile lighthouses that once were found all along the Chesapeake Bay. These all look very similar, and were essentially little cottages mounted on giant screws that were drilled into the bottom of the Bay. The legs held well, but storms wrought havoc on the wooden structures above water. Some might be a mile or so offshore, making for a long lonely winter for the lightkeepers and their families. There’s only one that is still in its original place – Thomas Point near Annapolis – while three others (of many) survive only because local historical societies and museums have moved them to land. They are now icons of the Chesapeake Bay.
Our next stop was Cambridge, MD. We took a ‘shortcut’ through Knapps Narrows, which reminded us a lot of the ICW. In contrast to St. Michaels, this was a town that looked like it was working hard to recover from tougher times that probably started before COVID – but also looked like they are making progress. The marina was right next to the historic district, and we enjoyed walking along admiring all the homes and buildings. The downtown had some good restaurants, and the dockmaster had trained as a chef in his previous life so gave us some good inside info on the restaurant scene.
We dragged our bikes out to explore beyond the immediate downtown. Cambridge has a whole bunch of large scale murals reflecting the local history and industry, and we mapped out a bike route to see them all. The most impressive (and famous) was one of Harriet Tubman, located right downtown on the side of the Harriet Tubman Museum. The artistry was amazing, looking like she is reaching out from the wall inviting you to take her hand and join her. She escaped from a plantation very near Cambridge, and she returned several times to lead her family and others to Philly and freedom via the Underground Railroad. We watched the movie Harriet one night while we were there, having not yet seen it, and being there gave it so much more context. The same artist did many of the other murals we saw, and the ‘canvases’ of several were quite creative.
If anyone wants to add some oddity and unique sites in your travels, check out Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com It’s a website that has lists of all kinds of historical, quirky, and downright goofy things to see. In Cambridge we found two curiosities. One was Annie Oakley’s house, which really just looked like any old house so we weren’t very impressed. The other was a smokestack from FDRs presidential yacht that actually housed a hidden elevator to get him and his wheelchair up and down the levels on the boat. It’s now a monument to him in Cambridge.
From Cambridge we backtracked a bit north on the Choptank River to Oxford, MD. This was a relaxing, almost all residential. The homes were smaller and not really historic, but they were all very well kept and the gardens were all lovely but not so ‘manicured’ that it felt sterile. From what we understand, most residents are either retired or this is a second seasonal escape for DC residents. Just walking and biking through the neighborhoods was an event in itself. There were so many houses and gardens that were photogenic, but I feel like taking pictures of other people’s houses is kind of creepy, and posting them on social media even creepier. So you’ll just have to trust me on how nice they were. The downtown consisted of a very small convenience store, a coffee house only open on weekends, a mystery bookstore, and a shop that sold local artist’s wares. That was it. There were three restaurants with varying schedules. Extra special was a visit from my friend Catherine (and former boss when I worked at Walter Reed) who drove down from DC one evening and we enjoyed dinner and the sunset. The marina had a really nice pool, so we got in. the habit of a late afternoon swim to cool off.
Highlight for Roxy was all the bunnies! Holy Moly they were all over the place, and would let Roxy get very close before running, as if they had never encountered a dog before. The locals said there used to be some fox that kept the population down, but they hadn’t been around in awhile and so the bunnies seemed to be enjoying protected status.
Last stop on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was Crisfield. This was definitely a working town and not the least bit of a resort – the downtown area was more on the industrial side. In its heyday it was the premier crab and oyster capital for the Chesapeake Bay. Though the watermens fleet was reduced to a fraction of what it once was, it is still the principle economy here. Of course, for us this meant we had to bob and weave to avoid all the crab pots throughout the area. The small museum by the marina was terrific, and we learned all about the crab and oyster industry over the years. They had recently done a great job rebuildng their main wharf downtown. The marina was HUGE, and the transient docks (where we stayed) were also recently rebuilt and some of the nicest we’ve seen. (And another nice pool). One local boat owner noticed the name of our boat and the submarine in the logo and came over to chat. John was a former Navy Operations Specialist, and he loved talking Navy and all things boating with Dave. He had gotten out after about 10 years for family reasons and become a local farmer. He gave us lots of good gouge on the local area as well in the three times he came by the boat, and we also ran into him at the marina watering hole and had a drink with he and his wife.
The super nice marina manager took us on an hour-long local tour by van – just because he could! We heard about the local characters and lore, including favorite son J. Millard Tawes who went on to be Governor of Maryland. Did a grocery run on the marina tricycles they had available – not a fan. Not only did it feel really unstable when turning because you couldn’t lean into it, but it was quite slow and an uncomfortable ride. I’ll stick with our folding bikes or beach cruisers with pedal brakes from now on.
We crossed the border back into Virginia shortly after leaving Crisfield for Onancock, my favorite town on this cruise — even if I can’t ever remember how to pronounce it. On the Quaint Scale, it was right up there with Oxford. It was a beautiful mile up a channel to get to the town dock. We were surprised to be the only boat there the first night, but it was a Monday. It was a very short walk past old churches and homes with big front porches to the really cool downtown area, with a lot of art galleries and restaurants. They had even converted the old school into artist studios. There was a hand dyed yarn store there, and the owner, another Karen, showed me how to weave on a loom and let me have a try at it. There was also the famous Corner Bakery (which was NOT on a corner, but apparently used to be) with their fresh donuts. We actually had heard about the donuts here from a couple different people when we were in Crisfield, and of course donuts are at the top of Dave’s favorites list, so we indulged a couple times while we were there. Nothing like a fresh-baked donut with your morning coffee. Personally, I’m always in search of a good cinnamon roll, and the Corner Bakery didn’t disappoint in this department either – even had raisins in theirs!
The crepe myrtles were everywhere and in full glory here, which just added to the charm of the place. There also were an awful lot of churches, considering how small the town was.
We actually ended up staying over an additional day in Onancock because of weather, but we couldn’t think of a better place to hang out. The second day we were here, another boat pulled in that we recognized from our time in Ft. Pierce, FL when we first bought the boat! Had breakfast with Debbie and Brent at Janet’s in town, where all the locals go.
Cape Charles, VA
Our last stop was Cape Charles, VA at the southernmost tip of the Eastern Shore. Connected to Virginia Beach/Norfolk by the 23 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, it’s a big tourist/summer resort town due to its proximity to the larger Hampton Roads area. The beaches were packed, most houses seemed to be vacation rentals, and everyone was zipping around in their golf carts trying to run us over on our dog walks! They did have some really good ice cream though. The downtown was heavy on the beach town kitschy side, which isn’t really our thing. We only had one night there because of a couple weather delays earlier, but that was fine with us.
The weirdest thing we saw on the whole trip, though, was in Cape Charles. This guy goes by in his small Zodiac dinghy that looks like it’s got a glider attached to it and sounded like an air boat engine. He putters on out of the marina to more open water, then guns it and becomes airborn! He swooped around the inlet and the beach for a couple hours before returning at sunset. We wondered what you could call the chimera, and finally settled on it being a Plinghy (Plane + Dinghy = Plinghy. Get it??? I crack myself up…)
The next day we returned across the Bay to Norfolk. It was an absolutely perfect day to be on the water. Had several dolphin sightings. The shipping channel was busy, and we had to hold back to let a couple freighters and a Navy warship pass on front of us – don’t like to pick an argument with those guys.
We are at our home for the next month in Little Creek, right across from the Navy base. We’ve got a list of projects to get done. We decided we like the combination of a few weeks cruising alternating with a few weeks staying in one place. But we’re already thinking about our next nautical jaunt. Maybe Albemarle Sound loop if the hurricanes and tropical storms stay down south. Or maybe up the Rappahannock or Potomac Rivers if they don’t. Half the fun is in the pondering, the other half in the doing. I just need to make sure I keep Dave busy enough he doesn’t want to build a Plinghy.