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WHY GO: St Mary’s County MD, a “can’t get there from here” section of Southern Maryland, is bound on three sides by water – the Potomac River, Patuxent River, and the Chesapeake Bay. Deeply historic, St Mary’s County 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.
The population boomed in the 1940’s after the Patuxent Naval Air Station (where Navy Test Pilots, some future astronauts, strutted the “Right Stuff”) opened up. It still draws high-tech brainiacs to this quiet section of MD.
You can spend an art-filled day in Leonardtown taking a silver-jewelry or weaving/knitting class, find unearthed “New World” towns, go crabbing, fishing, kayaking, and more in St. Mary’s County, on the quiet Western side of the Chesapeake Bay.
Things to Do in St Mary’s County MD
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. He became a waterman, and made a good living until the bay started having problems.
Ten years ago, the State of Maryland, the Watermen’s Association, and several Conservation groups, formed a coalition to address the water’s dwindling natural resources.
This coalition came to the conclusion that, in order to stay relevant (not to mention working), fishermen should transition to offering fishing charters and Watermen Heritage Tours. Langley didn’t need to be convinced. He believed wholeheartedly in the power of tourism. So, he found a traditional Coast-Guard inspected wooden bay boat, and started taking out large groups.
Langley’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 talked about the Chesapeake environment and conservation efforts, and about crabs and oysters, of course. And then he invited me aboard his boat, the Lisa S, and out we went to pull some crab pots.
Sallys vs. Jimmys
Although watermen can use “Trout Lines” in creeks and rivers, they can only set out crab pots in the Bay. Hauling those crab cages up is more difficult than it seems – at least to this novice.
I learned 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.)
And I was lucky. We brought up a “sponge crab” – a fertile female with an orange sponge-like sack that contains 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 care for it. Although it was put up for auction 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 St Mary’s City
One of the most important archeological digs in the United States, the 800 acre Historic St. Mary’s City should be a pilgrimage site for every Catholic American.
In 1634, as Catholics were being slaughtered in England, 140 faithful arrived to these shores. The immigrants first stayed with the welcoming Native American tribe – the Yaocomico People – until they built a town and the first Catholic Church in Colonial America.
St. Mary’s City grew for sixty years, and then it seemingly vanished into the cornfields. It 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. The town sat at the center, with the Church at a distance on one side and the Statehouse on the other: a truly 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. That explained the town’s disappearance.
You’ll be surprised to find Elizabethan- style buildings here – indicating that first buildings in the new world were modeled on 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 spots where homes and buildings once stood.
Garret Van Swearingen’s Tavern
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.
Recreation of Original Jesuit Chapel
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 that “hooligans threw stones through the windows.” Historians researched Jesuit Churches in Europe at the time to get a better idea of how this one might have appeared. Based on all of this information, they 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 to a less conspicuous place. The St. Mary’s Sheriff was the last to leave. He locked the front door in 1695.
Amazingly, when the Church reopened in 2009, the current St. Mary’s County Sheriff unlocked the “same” door. (St. Mary’s County is home to the oldest operating Sheriff’s Office in the USA. Its twitter handle, @firstsheriff, reflects that).
In 1990, archeologists unearthed three 17th century lead coffins – holding the remains of Philip Calvert, the son of the first and brother of the second Lord Baltimore; Calvert’s first wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert, and their 6-month-old baby. They will soon be returned to the recreated Church and placed in a glass-covered tomb.
The Maryland Dove
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 the 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.
TOUR: Sotterley Plantation
“They think it’s a White People’s plantation, but our roots are here, too. And for once, the slaves are included in the story.” The oldest tobacco plantation in the USA, Sotterley tells the complete 300-year history of working the land here from 1710 on, including 160 years of slavery and the tenant farmers who followed. Set right on the Patuxent River, the original farm encompassed 2,000 acres. The Sotterley Organization now administers the original structures on the current 94 acres.
Middle Passage Port Marker Project
The first owner of the plantation, James Bowles, was an agent of Royal African Co. – a British slave trading enterprise. In fact, slave ships tied up to a wharf right on this land.
Hence, Sotterley is listed in the Middle Passage Port Marker Project – an organization that provides a means for individuals and communities to formally honor and remember the millions of Africans who both survived and died during the transatlantic voyage known as the Middle Passage.
The Bowles built the Manor House in 1703. Extensions, added later on, showcase some of the magnificent work of skilled slaves. A distinct Chinese Chippendale staircase would not look out of place in a contemporary home. So, too, the blood-red walls, favored by Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, Sotterley’s last owner.
Honest Discussions of Slavery
Docents talk honestly about the horrors of slavery. Unlike Plantations farther south, Sotterley does not romanticize the life of humans who were enslaved here. The 1830 slave quarters, down the hill, remains as it was when its inhabitants literally slaved away, under harsh conditions.
John Hanson Briscoe is a descendant of a slave owner. Agnes Kane Callum – a PhD Genealogist – was the descendent of an enslaved person owned by the Hanson family. Bricoe and Callum served on Board of Directors together – a hopeful sign of cooperation and dialog.
When the museum is not open, the public is invited to to walk on six miles of bucolic trails. Self-paced audio tours in the Visitor’s Center where you can also sign up for a tour of the Plantation House, $10 adults, $6 kids. Open May-Oct. Wed-Sat 10-4, Sun 12-4.
On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely flew a newly built Curtiss “Pusher” from Hampton Roads VA. Ely’s flying machine sparked interest from the US Navy. A model of the airplane stands near the entrance to this great museum, which showcases the timeline of Naval Aviation from the 18th century on.
“Fly” at B1 Bomber
Though it’s cool to see many prototypes and experimental flying ships, some that made it, some that didn’t. It’s even cooler to sit in the cockpit of a vintage F-14 Trainer, once used as a simulator. For an extra fee ($10 per half hour), you can choose from a dozen or so types of military aircraft, and “fly” and land them without fear of hurting yourself. I “flew” an F-14 and B1 Bomber, and let’s just say, I’m glad they were merely simulations.
Weird Experimental Aircraft
Inside and out, witness the best and weirdest experimental aircraft through time. The nearby Pax River Naval Air Test Center was established to train aviators who could then appropriately Test and Evaluate the latest aircraft.
A Sikorsky UH-3A Sea King, used by the US Marines and Navy for cargo transport, rescue and anti-sub warfare sits next to a Lockheed Martin X-35 Joint Strike Fighter (X stands for “experimental) designed to replace several other planes.
Outside, see fighter jets with names you’d recognize: Hornet, Phantom, Tomcat, along with a stealth Boeing X-32B Demonstrator from 2000-2002. The strangest looking craft of all, in my opinion, is the Grumman E-2B Hawkeye “Eye in the Sky.” A conventional prop plane capped with a flying saucer-like disc, it was used as an airborne early warning system in the ‘60’s.
Don’t miss the great gift shop. Doting grandparents can purchase a NASA Flight suit for their grand-babies. Open Tues-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, $9 adults, $4 kids, $10 per half hour block for “sim flying.”
Collaboration is in the air in this artsy town – from the “retail incubator” community of Shepherds Old Field (SOF Market) to the women’s fiber collective, New View Fiber Works, to the fantastic artist collective, North End Gallery. Read on for more information:
Helmed by the vivacious and engaging Gerrie Lheureux, the enclosed SOF is a “retail incubator” in a “town within a town.” Twenty vendors peddle their unique wares inside the former Old Leonardtown Hardware Store. Lheureux renovated the space to look like a main street, complete with a concrete floor formed in the shape of bricks.
A “community Brew House” (the stylish Brudergarten) features an outdoor patio and upstairs room dedicated to vets, police, firefighters, nurses. All First Responders.
Within SOF, there’s also a Farmer’s Market, Fitness Center, and everything from CBD Oil products to jewelry, ceramics, signs, prepared foods, Lori Schendel’s quilts, biodegradable garden markers, crab-shaped sugar cookies, antiques and more. There’s even a Pet Photography Studio. This wonderful assemblage is worth checking out.
MAKE/SHOP: Patina + Stone Studio
Come in to ogle exceptional silver jewelry by Cynthia Rosenblatt. And, if so inclined, arrange a guided project “Jewelry Party” for two to six people. After 1 ½ to 2 hours, you’ve made a piece of silver jewelry to take home ($40-$60 per person depending on the piece). Walk into this tiny shop, and there’s Cynthia working at her desk.
MAKE/SHOP: New View Fiber Works
Misti Dayton notes that though she “owns” this shop, it’s really a 20 women-strong cooperative, made up of local artisans and farmers. New View supports a large community of yarn spinners. And, in fact, it represents (as dealer) a specific brand of spinning wheel. Though not a “yarn shop” (you’ll find mostly finished textiles, lace, and supplies), you can take knitting, crochet, felting, weaving, tatting, and, yes, spinning classes here.
SHOP: North End Gallery
For 33 years (22 in this location), 25-30 artisans have been exhibiting and selling juried, high-end and unique pieces of jewelry, sculpture, ceramics, furniture, paintings, photography, and more at great prices. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best craft galleries of its kind in the region for uncommon, extraordinary, and wonderful objects d’art.
Discover lots of talent with great back-stories. Jim Doussard, a graphic designer at an architectural firm, makes whimsical clocks – aka “Curious Chronometers” from the likes of old movie projectors and other machine parts.
Diana Manchak creates sculptural ceramic bowls and jars with a “surprise” (e.g., lobster top with “pats of butter” inside). And 82 year old Mickey Kunkle still turns out funky beaded light plastic jewelry “for women who love to be seen.”
SHOP: Bourbon & Bows
Fantastic on-trend clothing for women, and a fun shopping experience. B&B hatched in the SOF Market, and is now fully fledged in town.
WALK: Leonardtown Wharf
For a few moments of serenity on the Potomac River, head to Leonardtown Wharf and esplanade – a short walk from downtown.
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). Begin just out of town near Leonardtown Winery and end up at 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 choose 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. It encompasses the still-operating St. Francis Xavier’s Church – the second Church on the site (first built in 1662, this one in 1731). Kayak, ride horses, and hike on hundreds of acres, most of it leased farmland.
Begin at the Visitor’s Center. 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, helped 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
Find beautiful beaches, great kayaking, and, according to some, the most haunted lighthouse in the USA. The lighthouse, built in 1830, was part of a Civil War prison complex that housed 52,000 Confederate soldiers. Over 4,000 died due to disease-bearing mosquitoes, extreme heat, and lack of food.
TASTE/WINE: Generations Vineyard
Don’t be put off by this little tasting shack on Amy Van Cleaf’s 250-acre Wheatleys Content Farm. (150 acres leased to a soy farmer, 2 ½ acres of grape vines). It is adorable and welcoming. Van Cleaf began to release wine in 2018 (from vines planted in 2012): the first, Wheatley’s Content – a combination of Chambourcin and Petit Verdot grapes.
Most varietals are dry. However, the slightly sweet Berkman’s Blend is a “front porch, relax and enjoy, sipping wine.” Picnicking, kids and pets are allowed on Fridays (5-9) and Saturdays (12-5) when there’s live music and the occasional food truck.
TASTE: Port of Leonardtown Winery
This winery is as local as it gets. A collective of 15 growers and one winemaker, Port of Leonardtown turns out Chardonnays, Merlots, the sweet table Breton Bay Breeze. Plus, 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: Charlotte Hall Farmers Market Northern St.
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 year round, every Wed & Sat.
Restaurants in St Mary’s County MD
The Front Porch went 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 Sterling family’s playful nature. Some family members return to talk about life within these walls. The popular salads and burgers are good and fresh, with meat and produce from “down the street” and from the Amish Produce Auction.
EAT/DRINK: Social (Coffee and Cocktail Bar), Leonardtown, St Mary’s County MD
Government contractor, Lisa Kotyk wanted to own/run a coffee shop. So she and her partner, Sean Coogan bought a former speakeasy, “Behind the Bookcase” and turned it into a coffee shop in the front and bar in the back. The best of both worlds.
Opened in 2018, Social has become quite the downtown Leonardtown sensation. Find artisanal craft cocktails like “30 is the New 20” – an “adult cream soda, and “Honey, I Do” with Blackwater Distilling Honey Vodka, Fresh Mint, and Lemon on the rocks. You can also purchase bottles of spirits from Blackwater Distilling and other local spirit-makers for the same price you’d pay at the Farmer’s Market.
EAT: The Slice House, Leonardtown
Wood-fired “NY Pizza” by the slice – and a great bar. What’s not to like. Plus – you can score a can or six-pack of your favorite craft beer on tap. The Slice House has its own instant canning machine.
EAT: Courtney’s Restaurant, Ridge
This way, way, way, out of the way Southern St. Mary’s County “slow food” Mom and Pop spot is right on the waterfront. With its own fishing boat. So, you know your fish is fresh caught that day. Far from any industry or development, this restaurant is as low key as it gets.
EAT: Enzo’s Artisan Bread and Bakery, St. Mary’s City
Line up with visitors and archeologists, on the campus of Historic St. Mary’s City, for fresh hearth-baked bread and goodies from the 1600’s made in a modern kitchen.
COFFEE: St. Inie’s Coffee
This local roaster/coffee shop/used bookstore is the passion project of mother of 4, Catherine Grube, who created this super popular community hub in 2017. A comfy blast from the past meeting place on an otherwise commercial strip, St. Inie’s excels in Cold Brew coffee. A must-go coffee house in St. Mary’s County: whether you drink it inie. Or take it outie.
EAT: PAX River Ale House, Lexington Park
A popular spot for people who work on Base, PAX River Alehouse has good brews on tap, of course. But it’s also got gooey bites like Bavarian Pretzel Sticks ($9.5). And Onion Ale Soup made with onions stewed in ale and sherry, topped with toasted croutons and gruyere cheese ($6.50)
EAT: Ruddy Duck Seafood and Alehouse, St. George’s Island
This second Ruddy Duck outpost, next door to the Island Inn and Suites, 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 by this nondescript side of the road convenience store. Unless you 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.
Where to Stay in St Mary’s County MD
STAY: Swanendele Inn, Ridge
On a promontory at the Southern tip of St. Marys County MD, where the Potomac River meets Chesapeake Bay, the Swanendele Inn is the perfect hideaway for stressed out intellectuals, nature lovers, and really anyone seeking a slow-paced few days away from the grind. Opened in June 2019, it’s one of the most elegant and interesting spots to stay in Maryland. A Maven Favorite, you can read our complete write on its own page here.
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. While checking in to this 28-room boutique inn, you must 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 new 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.