WHY GO: This “can’t get there from here” section of Southern Maryland, Saint Mary’s County, is so identified with creatures from the Chesapeake Bay, it holds the annual National Oyster-Shucking Contest, from which the winner goes on to Galway Ireland for the World Oyster Opening Championship. Bounded on three sides by water – the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay – St. Mary’s drew early European settlers, most notably, a group of Catholics escaping persecution and execution in Protestant England.
This river and bay area of Maryland was also strategic during the War of 1812, when new Americans thwarted a British attempt to make it all the way up the Potomac to burn down the country’s Capital. In the 1940’s, the population boomed after the Patuxent Naval Air Station (where Navy Test Pilots, some future astronauts, strutted the “Right Stuff”) was established, and it still draws high-tech brainiacs to this quiet section of MD. Find unearthed “New World” towns, crabbing experiences, great fishing, awesome kayaking and more on the quiet Western side of the Chesapeake Bay.
Things to Do in St. Mary’s County
TOUR: Watermen’s Heritage Tour – Fish the Bay Charters on the Lisa S. Captain Phil Langley’s ancestors “worked the tobacco fields and the water” way before the Naval Base arrived, back when the area was pure farmland. Seeing the potential in tourism, Langley transitioned to Charter Boat Captain, taking would-be fishermen out on the Chesapeake.
Five years ago, the State of Maryland, the Watermen’s Association, and Conservation groups formed a coalition to address the water’s dwindling natural resources – impelling watermen to get involved in tourism by offering Watermen Heritage Tours. Believing that tourism was a budding local industry, Phil found a Coast-Guard inspected traditional wooden bay boat he could use for this purpose, allowing him to take larger groups out at a time.
Phil’s tour begins after you’ve gotten lost a few times on dirt roads lined with cornfields, and a final few hundred yards on a rutted lawn drive. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you get to a delightful sand-floored covered pavilion set with tables, a fire pit, a grill for cooking the “catch of the day” (for fishing charters), and other geegaws. Langley talks about the Chesapeake environment and conservation efforts, about crabs and oysters, and then invites you to step aboard his Crab Boat, the Lisa S.
Though watermen can use “Trout Lines” in creeks and rivers, crab pots are only allowed to be set in the Bay, so out we go to pull some pots. You’ll learn the difference between young females (Sooks), mature females (Sallys) and males (Jimmys). Females have a “Capitol Building” design on their underside, while the males “apron” looks like the Washington Monument. If you’re lucky, there will be a “sponge crab” in the pot – a female with an exterior sponge-like underbelly that can contain up to 8 million eggs.
There’s plenty of opportunities to help pull up pots, though they are surprisingly heavy when heaved aboard. If the weather cooperates, you’ll head out to Point No Point Lighthouse, built in 1903 a few miles from the Potomac River in the Chesapeake on no point of land (hence the name). It’s in a romantically distressed state, without a resident keeper to take care of it, and though it was put up for auction eight years ago, the US Navy argued that it could not rest in private hands as its situated within target range. Contact Phil Langley to arrange a tour, roughly $30 per person.
TOUR: Historic Saint Mary’s City. One of the most important archeological digs in the United States, the 800 acre Historic Saint Mary’s City should be a pilgrimage site for every Catholic American. As Catholics were being slaughtered in England, 140 faithful arrived here in 1634, and stayed with the welcoming local tribe – the Yaocomico People – until the town and the first Catholic Church in Colonial America was built.
St. Mary’s City grew for sixty years, then vanished into the cornfields and was lost for 200 years. By 1776, only plowed furrows marked the landscape. Now, archeologists are unearthing evidence of original structures, allowing historians to recreate buildings with complete accuracy.
St. Mary’s City was modeled on an Italian Baroque spoke and wheel design, with the town in the center, the Church on one extreme side and Statehouse on the other: the visceral separation of Church and State. During this time, brick was expensive, so most structures, with the exception of foundations and cellars, were made of wood – explaining the town’s disappearance.
You’ll be surprised to find Elizabethan- style buildings here – indicating that first buildings in the new world reflected those back in England, and not the “Colonial-style” that evolved later. But what most people see first here are the “Ghost Frames” that outline the places where homes and buildings once stood.
Part of the joy in exploring Historic St. Mary’s City is in the details about life here in the 1600’s, and comparing it to life today. Like most entrepreneurs, Garret Van Swearingen opened up a private high-end tavern and inn at a time when “Ordinary” establishments were required by law to provide just the ordinary basics. Swearingen’s place is but one of the fully reconstructed buildings on site – with his original cobblestone floor and brick cellar.
Aspiring archeologists from all over the country work summers here for college-credit during the site’s ten-week Archeological Field School. They are currently digging around the ruins of the 1636 home of Leonard Calvert – son of George Calvert who established Maryland. The last mention of this house was in 1685, so this particular find is thrilling to historians who hope to discover other clues of Calvert’s life buried in the earth.
Perhaps the most dramatic recreation on its original foundation is of the large brick Jesuit Chapel, built in 1667. There were only two historic references to this place – one that called it a “Great Brick Chapel” and another that noted “hooligans threw stones through the windows.” Historians researched Jesuit Churches in Europe at the time to get a better picture of how this one might have appeared, and based on all of this information, rebuilt the Church on its original Maryland site. It was the first place in Colonial America where Catholics could pray without fear of execution.
In later 1600’s, the practice of Catholicism in this region was banned (except in the privacy of one’s own home). So, the Jesuits took this church apart brick by brick and moved it a less conspicuous place. The St. Mary’s Sheriff locked the front door in 1695. And when reopened in 2009, the current St. Mary’s Sheriff unlocked the “same” door. (St. Mary’s is home to the oldest operating Sheriff’s Office in the USA, and its twitter handle, @firstsheriff, reflects that)
In 1990, three 17th century lead coffins were unearthed here – believed to be members of the original Calvert Family. They will soon be returned to the recreated Church and placed in a glass-covered tomb. (They are now on display in Baltimore).
Don’t leave Historic St. Mary’s City before heading down to the river to the replica of the Maryland Dove. This type of ship was the “delivery truck” of the 1600’s. Compared to the 40-ton Mayflower, which shuttled 102 passengers and supplies to the New World, the four ton two mast square rigged Dove would have had a crew of seven – no passengers.
The story of the Dove and its companion 400-ton ship, The Ark, (140 passengers, 40 crew), is a tale wonderfully told by costumed docents, like the lively Joe Greeley, Interpretive Supervisor for Waterfront. On November 22, 1633, the Ark and Dove set off from England, facing a treacherous storm two days later. The crew of the Ark believed that they witnessed the Dove going down, but chose to continue on to the New World. A mere three months later – on February 24, both ships arrived and sailed together up the Potomac. A month later (in March 1634), they landed first on St. Clements’s Island, which was deemed too small, and then on this site. The 1978 recreation of the Dove gives visitors a good idea of the close quarters and harsh environment seafarers would have endured. $10, adults, $6 kids, open most of the year Tues-Sat 10-5, summer Wed-Sun 10-5.
VISIT: St. John’s Museum. Managed by Historic St. Mary’s City, but located about a mile away on the St. Mary College Campus, this museum, built on the footprint of the 1638 home of landed gentry, evokes the 17th century (though not historically accurate on the exterior). Inside this refreshing climate controlled museum, you’ll find the complete archeological remains of a stone-lined cellar, a partial room with original hearth, and mounds of dirt left to illustrate what an archeological site looks like if left alone. The museum does an excellent and compelling job conveying day-to-day life in St. Mary’s – including sordid tales of murder, abuse, and a tight-fisted land-owner forced by the English Court to pay his maid. Plan at least an hour here if you love Historical Fiction, because, at least in 1600’s Maryland, truth was stranger than fiction. Open Tues-Sat 10-4, summer Sundays 12-4, free.
VISIT: Leonardtown. In the dead center of St. Mary’s County, Leonardtown was deemed “A most Convenient Place” for county officials to meet. The town still wears this slogan proudly, and has become Southern Maryland’s only “Arts District” and a hotbed of great restaurants.
KAYAK: PAC Paddle Sports, Leonardtown. Paddle with Dave Lane, owner of Patuxent Adventure Center, or one of his guides, on a meandering woodland river float – McIntosh Run – into the stock-still waters of Breton Bay (2.4 miles). You’ll begin just out of town near Leonardtown Winery and end up at the new Leonardtown Wharf – a stunning waterfront park. Or, opt for the “Illuminated SUP Tour” – bringing you out to the calm bay at night with LED lights illuminating the base of the boards, or the Wed. Night Paddle and Wine ($50) – ending at the Leonardtown Winery. Great, innovative ways to get on the water for sure. Open Wed – Sun 9-6 in season.
VISIT: New Towne Neck State Park. Maryland’s newest State Park, New Towne Neck was the site of the second Jesuit Mission and encompasses the still-operating St. Francis Xavier’s Church – the second Church on the site (first built in 1662, this one in 1731). On hundreds of acres, most leased farmland, you can kayak from here, ride horses and hike.
VISIT: Piney Point Lighthouse, Museum, and Historic Park. Begin at the Visitor’s Center which has a small gallery and exhibits, to learn about the U-1105 “Black Panther,” the first “stealth” German WWII submarine that ended up – though a confluence of events – in the waters a mile off Piney Point. Then mosey over to the larger Museum building to be immersed in the life of ubiquitous Chesapeake watermen. Finally, stroll out to the white saltshaker Lighthouse – framed by the industrial towers and pipes of the LNG pipeline directly behind it.
Built in 1836 on the Potomac, the lighthouse was here when Civil War gunboat patrols, organized by the Union Government, intercepted (or failed to intercept) Confederate blockade-runners. Apparently, locals were southern sympathizers who, in the dark of night, would help rebels cross through the blockades.
On your way to the Piney Point lighthouse, note the modest beach homes and their respective fanciful private gazebos built across the street right on the beach.
VISIT: Point Lookout State Park. You’ll find beautiful beaches, great kayaking and the most haunted lighthouse in the USA according to many. The lighthouse, built in 1830, was part of a Civil War prison complex housing 52,000 Confederate soldiers, 4,000 of whom died due to disease-bearing mosquitoes, heat and lack of food.
TASTE: Slack Winery at Woodlawn Farm. Formerly a B&B, Woodlawn Farm has become an extremely popular wedding and event venue, with period rooms in its historic house reserved for these groups. However, you can visit this exquisite creek-set place for wine tastings at the on-site Slack Winery. In an adorable little “Wine Cottage”, sample wines made by Tucker Grube O’Brien (6 for $10). Ebb Tide Blanc – a blend of Chardonnay and Chardonnel, to the slightly effervescent Red Drum Red, an Italian style combo of Sangiovese and Barbera grapes, the “jammy” Bordeaux blend Black Drum Red, and my favorite, the oakey, old world Sangiovese. The wines are fine, but just being there is magnificent. Wed-Sun 12-6.
TASTE: Port of Leonardtown Winery. This winery is as local as it gets, utilizing “no juice from other countries” in its wines. A collective of 15 growers and one winemaker, Port of Leonardtown turns out Chardonnays, Merlots, the sweet table Breton Bay Breeze, and the best-selling Vidalacato ($14.99), a Moscato-type wine described as a “fruit cocktail in a glass.” Slightly effervescent and refreshing, it’s the vineland version of 7-Up.
DO: North St. Mary’s Farmers Market, Charlotte Hall. Northern St. Mary’s County is home to a large Amish community. For the best in Amish produce and products, stop at this Farmer’s Market in the parking lot of the Charlotte Hall Public Library. The vegetables are photo-perfect, but the abundance of well-tended flowers will amaze. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the body. Open Mid April-Oct , Mon-Sat. 8-6, check website for other times of year.
VISIT: Other Worthy Attractions. For a small county, St. Mary’s is packed with history. So, if you come for more than a couple of days, plan to do the following; Patuxent River Naval Air Museum – the only museum dedicated to naval aviation research, development and testing (opening a larger, more interactive building in Fall 2015). Sottterley Plantation – an 18th Century Tidewater plantation on 90 acres.
Where To Eat in St. Mary’s County MD
EAT: Café des Artistes, Leonardtown. French-born chef, Loic Jaffres puts a “Maryland spin on classic French dishes.” Of course, you’ll find Foie Gras ($15.95), Escargot au vin Blanc ($9.95), and Pate Maison ($9.95) on the menu, but also Crab and Corn Crème Brulee ($10.95) and Chicken ‘n Crab ($23.95) in this pretty, white-linen tablecloth, candlelit restaurant. Jaffres worked the kitchens in the most prominent restaurants in Washington DC before he and his wife, Karleen, found this boarded up, inexpensive space in the late 1990’s. Early on, Jaffres had trouble finding local purveyors, so he started his own co-op with local farmer and still sources his honey, rabbits, eggs, chickens and more from those very same farmers.
EAT: Front Porch, Leonardtown. Set inside the stately Sterling House, the Front Porch had gone through three iterations before this one found success. Built in the 1850’s and purchased in 1911 by Lynwood and Ruth Sterling (who raised their 17 children here), the home was repurposed as a restaurant, but retains its period charm. Old photos, artifacts and shadowboxes throughout bedrooms that now serve as intimate dining rooms illustrate the lively Sterling family – some who are still around and return to talk about life within these walls. Food, like popular salads and burgers, is good and fresh, with meat and produce from “down the street” and the Amish Produce Auction.
EAT: Ruddy Duck Seafood and Alehouse, St. George’s Island. Right next door to the Island Inn and Suites, this second Ruddy Duck outpost is all about the water views on both sides. Try “Duckballs” over mashed potatoes ($8), Fish Tacos ($14.50), Brewmaster ($11) – a large bratwurst poached in Ruddy Duck IPA on a baguette, or a crab dish, like the popular “Steak and Cake” ($42) a Ribeye and Jumbo Lump Crab Cake. Order a frosty, the likes of Peach Nouveau and Apricot Wheat, brewed at the other Ruddy Duck Brewhouse in Solomons MD. The place is jumpin’ every night of the week. For a quiet corner of the Southern Shore, this is a happening place.
EAT/PICNIC: St. Inigoes General Store. You’d just pass this nondescript side of the road convenience store if you didn’t know better. The boxed lunches are better than most – fresh, gourmet, and perfect for a picnic table or boat cruise. But even cooler, St. Inigoes General Store has one of the largest collection of unique and rare sodas to be found anywhere. Come in for a tasting: butterscotch, glow-in-the-dark and others will blow your mind, even if modest owner, Tim Blasko, thinks its no big deal.
EAT: Locals Love – BTB Coffee Bar & Speakeasy in Leonardtown, where you can get a coffee in the morning and obtain a code on Facebook to get into the 40’s-décor Speakeasy by night, the “tiki bar” like Fitzie’s Restaurant, Morris Point Restaurant literally in the creek on “stilts,” St. James Deli & Spirits, Olde Town Pub – a local dive, The Rex in a former theater in Leonardtown for Small Plates, Ye Olde Towne Café for breakfast, Captain Leonard’s Seafood for unpretentious Chesapeake grub, and Blue Wind Gourmet for fresh and local cuisine.
Where to Stay in St. Mary’s County
STAY: Island Inn and Suites, St. George’s Island. Cross the causeway (where a sign states: “British Landing Prevented”) onto this arrow thin entrance to St. Mary’s County’s least commercially developed island, St. George’s. Check in to this 28-room boutique inn and you’ll be forced to answer one question: “do want sunrise or sunset views?” Wedged between the Potomac River and St. George’s Creek, you can’t really go wrong with either one. Rooms have just been updated with wave-patterned carpeting and delightful bright hued bedding. And, the incredible thing? A standard room – which includes those stunning water views, starts at just $75 offseason and “goes up to” $99 in season. Astoundingly, you can score a large two-bedroom suite with kitchen (the size of a NYC apartment) for just $230 per night at the height of the season. Even better, the hotel lets guests use bicycles and kayaks for free (or, in season, for $5 for two hours). An unheard of deal. Lovely updated rooms from $75 per night include free use of bikes and kayaks.