Looking for an Eastern Shore fix this fall but can't decide between the beach or the bay? The Beach to Bay Indian Trail gives you a little bit of both -- and a lot in between.
The 131-mile route links Smith Island to Ocean City and Assateague through country roads, hiking paths and waterways. The trail, looping through Princess Anne, Crisfield, Pocomoke City, Snow Hill and Berlin, includes stops at mansions, museums, one-room schoolhouses and a remarkable 19th-century "living" village.
The pathway, which celebrates its 10th anniversary next month as Maryland's first National Recreation Trail, is a gem not only because of its historic attractions but also because of its wondrous natural setting. (Who knew one of the nation's northernmost bald cypress forests, so eerie and otherworldly, was tucked down on the Lower Shore?)
Perhaps best about the trail are the locals you meet while you're on it. Folks like Wanda Milbourne and Peggy Atkins, line-dancing fans, bridge partners and, on Mondays, the perky guides of a Crisfield walking tour.
Or ninth-grader Chelsea Lane Tyler, a Smith Island waitress who commutes to school on the mainland with about 20 other kids on a cruise boat named the Chelsea Lane Tyler. (Yes, it's named after her; the captain is Chelsea's grandfather.)
Or 76-year-old Norma Miles, the passionate director, as was her mother before her, of the historic Costen House in Pocomoke City. "I told her one day, 'Don't die and leave me with that Costen House, Mother.' "
Then there's Kathy Fisher, half the brain trust behind the trail system that winds through Somerset and Worcester counties. Fisher, executive director of Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum near Snow Hill, says the trail -- marked with distinctive brown state highway signs -- initially was created to keep tourists from getting lost in the rural reaches of the two counties. It was also a way to tie far-flung attractions into a nice, tidy package.
"A marketing strategy, yes," confesses Fisher. The trail's historic linchpin: A path as it was used centuries ago by tribes of the Algonquin nation, including the Assateagues, Pocomokes, Manokins and Acquinticas, who migrated seasonally between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.
There are lots of ways to experience the trail -- by car, boat and on foot. If you're staying at the beach, it's easy enough to pick off a few of the sites as day trips. Or consider taking a longer look, as my husband and I did in late July during a three-day getaway; I wish we had had a week.
A suggestion: If you're going to explore the trail on a longer-term basis, Pocomoke City is a good place to plant yourself. It's centrally located -- nothing on the trail is more than a 40-minute drive. And it's got plenty in the way of lodging -- brand-name motels, a couple of them pet-friendly; at least one B&B; and Pocomoke River State Forest and Park, which offers some year-round campsites along with rustic "mini cabins."
Also, be warned that a few of the attractions are seasonal, and even those museums that are open all year have odd hours. It's best to check listings in advance.
So get your trail map (details below) and select your launching point. And don't worry about doing the trail in any particular order; we didn't. Here are the highlights:
Crisfield may not grab you visually, but this watermen's community has a history and a heart that make it a must-see. For an insider look, take the escorted walking tour that departs from the J. Millard Tawes Historical Museum. Gray-haired gal pals Milbourne and Atkins, our guides, were entertaining and informative and really delivered the goods.
(This is vintage Milbourne commenting on the museum's elaborate embroidered ship portraits sewn by 19th-century Royal Navy sailors: "Imagine men having the patience to do something like that.")
Best yet, the hourlong tour includes a walk through a seafood processing plant, where we saw workers cleaning, sizing and wrapping soft-shell crabs for fresh and frozen delivery. Their destination that day: Los Angeles and Sparks, Nev. All of this from a little town where the crab pickers, as they have for generations, sing hymns while they work.
If you visit on a Wednesday, our guides reminded us, be sure to swing by Main and Ninth, also known as Charlie Adams Corner. The 70-year-old Adams, a Cris-field fixture, has been selling the local weekly, The Crisfield Times, from that corner since 1939. The Crisfield Trolley, running Monday through Saturday, does a loop of the town as well as Janes Island State Park, where the state, through October, rents canoes and kayaks to explore the tidal salt marsh, one of the waterways on the Beach to Bay Trail. The trolley, which costs just 50 cents, departs from the Tawes Museum at 1 p.m. for a heritage tour that includes the workshop of noted decoy carvers Lem and Steve Ward.
For good eats: the Captain's Galley and the Watermen's Inn on Main Street. An interesting way to buy a six-pack: The Slip In, a beer and soda drive-through.
Most visitors to Smith Island experience this rustic marshy island 12 miles west of Crisfield as a day trip by ferry, the way we did.
Again, what's in front of you may look worn and weary: more vacant houses than one might expect, a rotting dock or two, and banged-up cars, including one battered blue Buick Regal called "Thelma & Louise." Even the legendary village cats look tired. But listen to the laughter of the watermen loading their catch and get a glimpse of the camaraderie of the hardy folks who live there, and a different picture emerges.
With just a few hours to spend on Maryland's only remaining inhabited offshore island, make the visitor's center in Ewell your first stop. Not to be missed: the 20-minute video, Land and Water, People and Time. In the film, one woman says: "Visitors coming in for a day or two just don't understand how we live." The video goes a long way toward bridging that divide.
Most of today's 300 Smith Islanders are direct descendants of the British colonists who first settled there in the early 1700s. In fact, because of the island's remoteness, residents' Elizabethan/Cornish accent continues in many cases to be preserved. That's not to say the Information Age has bypassed Smith Island. I've had a nice Internet correspondence with one local woman since I returned home -- she's hooked up to America Online.
There are three villages on the island, Rhodes Point, Tylerton and Ewell. Ewell is the largest and most visited because of its ferry landing, and is best explored by golf cart, which can be rented at the ferry landing for $10 per hour. Also walk along the docks to watch the watermen at work.
What you won't find on the island: fast-food joints, sidewalks, beaches, bars or boutiques.
Furnace Town, an early 19th-century village in the Pocomoke River State Forest, is a real find: Twenty-five acres of lush woods, including the Paul Leifer Nature Trail with boardwalks over the Nassawango cypress swamp. There are also 13 structures -- a weaver's, woodworker's, church, blacksmith and print shop, among them. And there's the iron furnace, Maryland's only bog-ore furnace.
(Allow time to explore the trail and Nassawango Creek, one of the state's most pristine waterways. Some of the bald cypress trees in the area are more than four feet in diameter and hundreds of years old.)
Furnace Town, a company town built by the Maryland Iron Co., was home to 300 people from 1828 to 1850 when the Nassawango iron furnace was in its heyday. Today, the furnace is listed as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering landmark. During our visit one Sunday morning, we were the only people there, so it wasn't difficult to imagine ourselves transported back in time.
Denise Smullen, the settlement's gardener, was tending her kitchen garden, a collection of plants authentic to the period -- sesame, hyacinth beans, tobacco, cotton, peanuts, Scotch broom, veronica, Job's-tears and Johnny-jump-up.
Dressed in a Colonial frock and mop cap, Smullen looked like the real deal, except, as she acknowledged, for her Nike bike shorts. The garden, too, is historically accurate except for the frost-free water hydrant, hose and sprinkler.
"I'm not hauling water from the creek," says Smullen.
It's folks like Smullen that make a place like this work. After 10 years, she remains passionate about her plants and what they reveal about lives led long ago. "When I first started, I thought it was going to be like Halloween. I'd get to dress up and play in the dirt. But this is like keeping history alive," she says.
As she tells visitors: "This was your CVS. This was your Safeway. This was your Sam's Club." A tip: If you're camping in the area, plan your trip to see Smullen late in the afternoon. That way, you're likely to walk away with a sack of her freshly picked produce.
Furnace Town, five miles northwest of Snow Hill, also plays host to lots of events and workshops -- garden planning, painting, archaeological digs, even guided nighttime nature walks.
Pocomoke City is a riverfront town that bills itself as "the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore." Based on our introduction, it's certainly in the running.
No community could ask for a better ambassador than Norma Miles, who heads the Victorian Italianate-styled Costen House. Her enthusiasm for her hometown and her passion for the home of Pocomoke City's first mayor, Isaac Costen, are infectious. "I know I get a little excited," says Miles, whose mother, former state delegate Myrtle Ashburn Polk, saved the historic house from demolition in the mid-1970s.
The house, built shortly after the Civil War, exhibits furnishings from 1870 to 1900. There's also a bit of Miles memorabilia in it: a pink and white crocheted doll blanket that one of Costen's daughters made for Miles when she was 5.
This is a community that is undergoing some revival. There's the art deco Mar-Va Theater and the lovingly restored Sturgis One Room School Museum, which served African-American students until the Worcester County school board closed it in 1937. Now, there's a move to develop the banks of the Pocomoke River along the town waterfront. In many respects, the river is Pocomoke City, which grew up around shipbuilding. Today, this tidal river, which originates in the cypress swamp, is a recreational destination known for its dark waters and great paddling.
Worth checking out: Poco-moke River State Forest and Park, with its 18,000 acres of jungle-like prehistoric swamps and forests. In particular, the Shad Landing area, open year round, is a terrific spot to explore both water and hiking trails.
As Jim Heller, a park manager, puts it: "It's like Florida, minus the moss and alligators."
Snow Hill and beyond
Talk about instant curb appeal. The fine historic houses in the town centers of Snow Hill, Princess Anne and Berlin represent over two centuries of Maryland's rich architectural heritage.
Self-guided walking tours in each community offer just about every style imaginable -- Georgian Revival, Colonial Revival, Victorian, Federal, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Second Empire, even something called Cottage Gothic.
Not to be missed: Princess Anne's Teackle Mansion, built between 1802 and 1819, a fine example of neoclassical architecture that, remarkably, was cut up into apartments in the 1930s and 1940s. Fortunately, the mansion was saved in the 1950s by local residents who founded Olde Princess Anne Days Historic House Tour, which takes place every year during the second weekend in October.
Berlin has the lovely Calvin B. Taylor House, embellished with a myriad of architectural details, from the portico's engaged fluted columns and butterfly modillions to the hand-restored graining on the interior doors. Berlin is also home to a vibrant retail district with antiques and specialty shops.
As for Snow Hill, it's got the Pocomoke. A fun way to experience the river and enjoy the fall foliage: the Miss Rai -- a cruise boat that lets you bring aboard your own food, beverages, even your dogs. Just walk up to the town dock and ask for Captain Carmine.
Ah, the beach. This was a place I didn't want to be when I was there in late July. Ocean City was crowded and Assateague was experiencing its worst mosquito season in 30 years. Just about everyone I saw was either swatting or spraying. We even saw one family wearing full-body mosquito netting.
That's why I prefer the beach in the fall. The water's still warm, the fishing's great, there are only a few bugs and fewer people. The state park at Assateague closes for the season at the end of October, but the federal park is open year round. Be sure and stop at the Barrier Island Visitor Center, open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It has exhibits and nature films, and this is where you can get information about ranger-led programs like night hikes and surf fishing demonstrations. It's also the starting point of a one-hour audio driving tour.
Officially, the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, located on the south end of the boardwalk, is on the Beach to Bay trail. But it's the nature and water trails on Assateague, known for its fabled ponies, that really tell the story of the ocean.
There are three half-mile nature trails -- Life of the Dunes, Life of the Forest and Life of the Marsh -- which reveal the major life communities of the island, one of a loose chain of barrier beaches hugging the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod to Florida. For a great look at life in the salt marsh, I'm told, follow the two Little Egging Island water trails in Assateague's back bays along an irregular coastline of marsh grasses. You can launch your own canoe or kayak or rent one at Rainy Day Canoe Rentals. I know it's on my to-do list for my trip this fall.