During the 1950s, most visitors to the town of North East in Cecil County would stop at Herb's Tackle Shop to buy bait before driving to a favorite spot on the Elk or North East rivers to catch rockfish.

While Herb's is still a hallmark of this town of 2,733 residents, North East has outgrown its old reputation as a river community with good fishing supplies.

Today, North East is a boating, camping, hiking, antiquing and dining destination. License plates from Washington, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware are now an integral part of the mile-long lineup of cars crawling into town on Friday nights.

More importantly, said resident and Saffron Creek craft store owner Lisa King, "North East is no longer mistaken for a direction. People know it's a town."

Pete Wood, who opened Woody's Crab House four years ago, is so busy on weekends that he now gives diners a pager extending for a mile so they can shop along Main Street while they wait for tables. Some people like to come into Woody's just to grab a handful of free peanuts, pick up a copy of Ira Black's Nor'Easter boating magazine and take a peek at the woodcarving of the voluptuous mermaid that hangs prominently at one end of the bar.

A new attraction in town is the 5 & 10 Antique Market, loosely modeled after the Strasburg Antiques Market in eastern Lancaster County, Pa. Owner J. David McDaniels, who sells an assortment of candy that includes chocolate, jawbreakers and Swedish fish at the front of the store, is in the process of restoring the building to its original appearance when it was the Cecil Hotel during the 1920s.

Residents of North East are not surprised by the town's growing popularity.

"It was only a matter of time before this gem became public," said Mimi Czep, a resident of Greater North East since 1969.

"The property here is sought after because it's surrounded by rivers and a state park," Czep said. "On top of that, we have two golf courses, a handful of waterfront conference centers, five marinas and several boutiques and antique stores."

About 500,000 tourists visit nearby Elk Neck State Park each year, according to Sandy Turner, director of tourism for Cecil County. The park is about 10 miles south of North East.

Settled before 1700 and incorporated in 1850, North East was named by Capt. John Smith after his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. Situated at the northern end of the Elk Neck peninsula, North East originally was known for its iron forge, brick works, fishing, mills and basket weaving.

Leisure is the main industry now, but for decades, hunting waterfowl and fishing were the economic mainstays.

Midway between Baltimore and Philadelphia and about 1 1/2 hours from Washington, Greater North East is home to 11,865 people, according to the 2000 Census. The population has grown 21.5 percent since 1990, said Tony DiGiacomo of Cecil County's Office of Planning and Zoning.

Top employers in the area include ATK Elkton, Terumo Medical, W.L. Gore and Triumph Industrial Park, according to Joanne Richart-Young of the Cecil County Office of Economic Development. IKEA International A/S recently opened a distribution center in nearby Perryville and expects to employ about 150 people there.

Many residents travel to jobs in Wilmington, Del., and a smaller number commute to Baltimore, business leaders said.

North East Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Goldbach said the area is attracting new residents because of the affordability and rural atmosphere that have disappeared from the neighboring counties of Harford in Maryland and New Castle in Delaware.

Michael Dickinson bought 200 acres on the Elk Neck peninsula four years ago.

"Since I'm a horse trainer, I needed a place that's close to I-95 and halfway between D.C. and New York, where all the tracks are," Dickinson said. "Besides having a wonderful view of the bay, buying property in North East is a great investment because you get plenty of bang for the buck."

According to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., a listing service used by real estate agents and brokers, the average listing price for homes sold in Greater North East during the past 12 months was $195,335. The average sales price was $184,707.