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Berlin is a small town with big appeal

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City slickers, be forewarned. One visit to this picturesque and utterly charming town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and even devout urbanites may be tempted to pull up roots, pack their bags and change ZIP codes.

That's no exaggeration. Berlin has in recent years welcomed an influx of new residents -- nicknamed "come heres" in the local parlance.

Indeed, those who discover this locale less than 10 miles from Ocean City and Assateague Island's famous ponies will find a destination that's increasingly gaining national buzz.

Budget Travel magazine recently deemed Berlin "America's Coolest Small Town, 2014" after a nationwide contest in which tens of thousands cast votes online. Of hundreds of towns nominated, the magazine narrowed the list to 15 and let the public vote. The result: 40,000 votes (28 percent) for Berlin.

"We [were] looking for great history, architecture, food, culture and, most importantly, people ‹ the true spirit of community that you can find in a small town," said Elaine Alimonti, the magazine's president and publisher. "We found it all in Berlin. Š We had an absolutely wonderful time visiting."

My introduction to Berlin unfolded in leisurely fashion on a bright, breezy spring afternoon. My first impression was of a pristine setting with a storybook quality.

Out of the past

Berlin's streets are lined with magnolia and sycamore trees, and Federal and Victorian-era homes are accented by manicured lawns.

Downtown Berlin, impossibly quaint and impeccably maintained, is a designated National Register Historic District, where the architectural gems include tidy brick storefronts with vintage facades that house a mix of antiques shops, boutiques and restaurants. Visitors will find art, jewelry, toys, furniture and lighting ‹ not to mention eats that run the gamut from Italian fare to burgers and crab cakes.

My next stop was the Calvin B. Taylor House Museum, a restored early-19th-century house named for a prominent businessman that's overflowing with artifacts and memorabilia that relate Berlin's rich history.

Touring the museum with Susan Taylor, a local historian and the facility's longtime curator, I learned that while this town may be small, its roots run wide and deep.

The area was once inhabited by members of the Assateague and Pocomoke tribes. A major section of town is built on a tract called Burley (also spelled Burleigh), which dates to 1677.

At what's now South Main Street and Tripoli Street, Colonial travelers were known to stop for rest at the Burley Inn. Local lore suggests that a melding of "Burley" and "inn" likely inspired the name of the town.

Berlin was officially incorporated in 1868, three years after the Civil War.

Today, Berliners "don't pronounce the name like the city in Germany. Instead, it's BURL-in ‹ with the accent on the first syllable," Taylor says, smiling.

Having existed for centuries, the town exudes a sense of civic pride and neighborliness among the population, which numbers around 4,500.

"I was lucky enough to be born here, and we've always been a friendly town where everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other," says Mayor William "Gee" Williams III.

"It's still insular, but I think what differentiates our culture from other small towns is that we have a vibrant attitude, we're diverse and we welcome everyone. About the only thing we don't tolerate is intolerance."

Gee is known to give a warm bear hug (he dubs it the "Berlin handshake"). When the town's mailman, James Tingle, delivers parcels, he cheerfully greets shopkeepers by name and vice versa.

Townsfolk, who often zip by on bicycles, frequently stop to chat with one another.

Even the canine crowd is treated with consideration in these parts: Water bowls are placed around town.

Present charms

Whether you're here for a day trip or a weekend getaway, Berlin has ample activity.

The Globe Theater, built circa 1910, has functioned as a garage for carriages, a movie house and, now, a bustling bar and restaurant that doubles as an art gallery and live music venue.

Folks of drinking age can grab a pint at Burley Oak Brewing Co. and watch as founder Bryan Brushmiller and his team brew beer with quirky monikers like "Mob Barley" in huge copper vats.

Warm weather brings the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages down Main Street, where there's also an art stroll every second Friday of the month. It's an ideal time to stop into the funky studio of Jeffrey Auxer, an artist whose blown glass is attracting buyers from across the U.S. and beyond.

Meanwhile, the annual peach festival, bathtub races, a fiddlers' convention and a yearly jazz fest are just part of the fun. Come winter, the town hosts a Victorian-style Christmas, complete with a tree lighting.

Berlin has been featured as the backdrop for not one, but two major motion pictures.

Back in 1998, the town became the filming location for Paramount's "Runaway Bride," starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Over several months, Berlin and outlying areas were transformed into the fictional locale of Hale, Md., the hometown of Roberts' character, Maggie.

Main Street's shops and ambience were used as sets, and residents worked as extras in the film.

In 2001, Berlin was tapped again for cinematic magic when it became the fantastical setting for "Tuck Everlasting" with actors Sissy Spacek, Ben Kingsley, Alexis Bledel and William Hurt. Downtown Berlin morphed into a turn-of-the-century community known as Treegap, with dirt roads, buggies and period costumes.

Years later, fond memories of the movies and the celebrities who came to town remain.

"Everyone just fell in love with Richard Gere. He was so nice," said Angela Reynolds, manager of the Atlantic Hotel, a beautifully restored Victorian-era property owned by a group of local entrepreneurs.

The hotel was used in "Runaway Bride." "We still have guests who want to book [the] room" where he shot scenes, she said.

Town officials hope that Hollywood comes calling again at some point, but in the meantime, Berlin is basking in the spotlight of its latest honor.

Local songwriter Steve Frene composed a little ditty called "Cool Berlin," and the town hosted an outdoor party and parade in April to celebrate its "coolest" designation.

While there was no prize money, there's free publicity and, of course, bragging rights.

Now it's on to the next big idea for this winsome small town. The mayor says Berlin is "enthusiastically embracing" the modern era. "While we honor our past," he said, "we don't live in it."

Visiting Berlin

If you go
Berlin is 166 miles from Baltimore and 8 miles west of Ocean City. It's accessible by two major highways (U.S. 50 and 113). The drive takes 2 1/2 to three hours. Other options include the BayRunner Shuttle, which departs from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport or the Greyhound station in Baltimore, with a drop-off in West Ocean City, about 10 minutes from Berlin. Reservations required. bayrunnershuttle.com.

Where to stay
The Atlantic Hotel. 2 N. Main St. 410-641-3589. atlantichotel.com.
This grande dame, which dates to 1895, has been beautifully restored with chandeliers, hardwood floors, antiques and elegant decor. It has 16 rooms (standard double rooms to deluxe queen and king), one suite and a Gardener's Cottage a short walk away. Relax in the parlor, enjoy lunch in the Drummer's Cafe or watch passersby from the sun porch. Rates are $95 to $315 in spring and $115 to $335 in summer.

Waystead Inn. 15 Harrison Ave. 443-856-4755. waysteadinn.com.
This bed-and-breakfast inside a fully restored Victorian mansion sits on nearly 2 acres a short walk from Main Street. It has five luxe queen bedrooms, antique and modern furnishings and original art. The innkeeper is a classically trained chef. Rates begin at $100-$250 per night (including breakfast), depending on the season.

Where to shop
Toy Town. 115 N. Main St. 410-641-9370.
From collectible trains to vintage Barbie dolls, cars and antique Coca-Cola signs, this colorful, jam-packed store is a treasure-trove for the kid at heart.

J. J. Fish Studio. 14 N. Main St. 410-641-4805. jjfishstudio.com.
Contemporary handcrafts (pottery, glass, wood, quilts, etc.) by American artisans. Check out the crab-inspired greeting cards.

A Little Bit Sheepish. 2 S. Main St. 410-641-1080. alittlebitsheepish.com.
Owner Brenda Trice has stocked an array of gorgeous colors and textures for crocheting and knitting (plus a couch where local ladies enjoy fellowship and create) at what just might be the best yarn shop this side of the Atlantic.

Where to eat
Blacksmith Bar and Restaurant. 104 Pitts St. 410-973-2102.
Chef Toby Gilbert, pictured above, has honed his skills in restaurants from New York City to Puerto Rico. Restaurateur Justine Zegna has lured him to Berlin, where he's preparing inventive fare (Eastern Shore banh mi) in a casually chic space that was once a carriage house.

Rayne's Reef. 10 N. Main St. 410-641-2131. raynesreef.com.
Established in 1901, this family-friendly, old-time soda fountain and grill serves burgers, sundaes, egg creams, malts and milkshakes.

Baked Dessert Cafe & Gallery. 4C Bay St. 410-641-1800. bakeddessertcafe.com
Robin and Nina Tomaselli (a mother-daughter duo) run this bright, cozy spot with a rotating gallery of local art. Besides java, teas and freshly baked, all-natural goodies, treat yourself to the Original Peach Dumpling (Berlin's official dessert), served warm with caramel sauce.

What to do
The Calvin B. Taylor Museum. 208 N. Main St. 410-641-1019. taylorhousemuseum.org.
View such memorabilia as a souvenir program from the 1938 "Race of the Century" at Pimlico between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, who trained on a farm that was nearby. Local heroes whose stories are told here include Charles Albert Tindley, an African-American Methodist minister whose original hymn inspired the anthem "We Shall Overcome." Museum season runs late May through October.

R&B Ranch carriage rides. Corner of Pitts and Main streets. 443-783-1409.
Runs weekends through May 29 and daily Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Cost is $5; kids under 3 ride free.

Farmers' market. Behind the Fire Department, 214 N. Main St.; access via Harrison Avenue.
Runs year round on Fridays starting at 10 a.m.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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