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This salty burg by the Chesapeake Bay -- once derided by Naval Academy midshipmen as "crab town" and reputed to only awaken from its slumber for 90 days a year when the state legislators came to town -- has been booming in recent decades.

Property values on Colonial clapboards downtown and waterfront bungalows in the outlying areas are running high. While this makes the local real estate agents happy -- looking for a little place in town on the water? How does half-a-million and up sound? -- it is easy to see how this latest influx of wealth has changed the town.

Nautical: The water touches almost every aspect of life in Annapolis. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

At the foot of Main Street, where watermen once tied up their leaky workboats, gleaming pleasure craft now glide by for a day of Chablis-sipping on the bay.

While Chick and Ruth's Delly is still encamped on Main Street, serving shakes to politicians and tourists, the Old Campus restaurant -- long a fixture on Maryland Avenue -- is now Galway Bay, an Irish-themed bar and restaurant. It is one of three to open downtown since the late '90s. Also gone is the Main Street Seafood Grill, a great greasy spoon with an avuncular Turkish owner and a Greek menu. It's now reopened as Aqua Terra, a chichi dinner spot with halogen track lighting and continental cuisine.

Annapolis has definitely been rediscovered, but many of the things that have made it a popular bedroom community make it a great trip, too. It combines the history of Maryland's state capital with the maritime atmosphere of "America's sailing capital."

Far from being the monolithic, Bethesda-by-the-bay it resembles at first glance, Annapolis is home to an eclectic mix of residents. There are young professionals seeking a less-hurried life away from the city, Navy retirees drawn back to their school days, lobbyists on the make and the small -- but vibrant -- St. John's College community where liberal arts is the curriculum and liberal thinking is the norm.

Liberal arts lovers: The students at St. John's College study a literature-intense curriculum. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Combine Annapolis' equidistance from both Baltimore and Washington -- a scant 27 miles -- with its Colonial charm and picturesque waterfront setting, and the reason for its popularity among commuters and tourists is evident.

This is not the first time Annapolis has become fashionable. Luckily, evidence of the town's last time in the sun -- in the 1780s -- is still apparent.

A Colonial walk
Reputed to contain more original 18th-century architecture than any other town in America, a walk around Annapolis' narrow, brick-lined streets can feel like a trip back in time. In the late 1700s Annapolis was both an important port along the East Coast and a major political center, even serving as the nation's capital for a short while.

Still standing: When the William Paca House fell into disrepair, community members stepped in to restore it. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

All those years of slumber contributed to the preservation of many of these historic structures. With little impetus to tear down 18th-century wood-frame homes and shops, much of the town was left alone for centuries. A reawakening came in the late 1960s when plans were made to destroy the Colonial mansion today known as the William Paca House, named for its famous resident who signed the Declaration of Independence. The house was saved by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, which is still an important force in the town.

Begin your Colonial walkabout down by the town dock at the bottom of Main Street. This narrow strip of water, which is today known as "Ego Alley" for the gurgling powerboats that parade its length in the summer, was the 18th-century gateway to the town.

When roads between towns were often rutted, muddy paths and waterways were highways, Market Slip would have been filled with boats off-loading wares from around the bay and around the world. Elegant Philadelphia Chippendale chairs for the town's gentry, tobacco grown in Southern Anne Arundel County for sale abroad and bolts of fabric from New England textile mills would have been bought and sold at the squat Market House across from the water.



Sad history: A statue of Alex Haley marks the spot where slaves were off-loaded from ships before they were emancipated. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Unfortunately, slaves from Africa were also bought and sold here. Until President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Maryland was very much a slave state and Annapolis was a main port of entry. This spot is where Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley's ancestor immortalized in the book "Roots," first came ashore in chains in 1767. A small plaque set here in granite and a story wall with text passages from "Roots" memorialize this sad event. Haley is also remembered at this spot with a bronze likeness that depicts him sitting by the water reading to a group of children.

The Market House is still a center of commerce today, and a great spot to grab a sandwich, pizza or some fried chicken and potato wedges from one of the stalls for a picnic down by the water.

For a great cup of joe, wander across the Market House to City Dock Cafe. Despite the nearby java-come-lately Starbucks, which opened in the late '90s, City Dock is still the best place in town to pick up a cup of coffee and get the scoop from the regulars.



Halls of government: The State House served as the nation's capital from Nov. 26, 1783 until Aug. 13, 1784. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Suitably fueled, head for Pinkney Street, a narrow warren of clapboard houses, which crowd up the hill toward the State House. On the right is the Shiplap House, built in approximately 1715. Its strange name comes from the technique used in its siding, a method of construction used primarily for shipbuilding. Now open as a museum and housing the main offices of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, the structure was a tavern in the 1700s. This is where legislators, in town for the General Assembly, would have gotten a bite to eat and maybe even rented a room upstairs.

Pinkney Street was also once the center of African-American Annapolis. As early as 1800, and as recently as the 1970 census, about half of the downtown population was African-American. This street, as well as Fleet, East and Cornhill surrounding it, comprised that community's beating heart. Rising property values in recent decades have forced this community out, but only after some of the former residents were able to sell their homes for a profit.

For more on Annapolis' African-American history visit the Banneker-Douglass Museum on Franklin Street. Named for Maryland-born Benjamin Banneker, who helped survey and build Washington, D.C., and Frederick Douglass who escaped from slavery on the Eastern Shore to become a prominent abolitionist, the museum is housed in the former Mt. Moriah AME Church, built by African-American residents in 1874.

Crowning the hill at the top of East Street is the red brick and whitewashed wood Maryland State House. Completed in 1788 the State House dome is made completely of cypress wood and held together by wooden pegs. Amazingly, there are no nails in it.

Inside is the room where General George Washington resigned his commission as head of the Continental Army after winning the Revolutionary War. Mannequins and displays help visitors interpret the historic event, said to be the first time a victorious revolutionary leader voluntarily stepped down to return to a life of peace. Across the hall, today's crop of lawmakers meets to govern the state, in the building's newer wing.

Back in time: The Hammond-Harwood House is furnished with period furniture. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

At the far end of Maryland Avenue sits the Hammond-Harwood House, thought by many to be Annapolis' architectural masterpiece. It was built in 1774 for Mathias Hammond and a walk inside reveals how the other half lived way back when. Furnished with period antiques, including portraits by Maryland's Charles Wilson Peale, it's not hard to imagine the ornate affairs that must have been held here during the 18th century's annual social season.

Down leafy Prince George Street sits the William Paca House and Garden, a five-part Georgian mansion built between 1763 and 1765 as the town home for a wealthy planter and statesman. This is the structure that sparked the revitalization revolution in Annapolis. Once a Colonial beauty, the building had fallen on hard times by the 1960s when the owners planned to tear it down. Annapolitans of means caught wind of the plan and lobbied to save the structure, which is now restored and open to the public.

The Paca House's real gem is its grounds. Catch a glimpse of the 18th century pleasure garden behind the house by peering over the wall on King George Street. Its two acres include a fish-shaped pond with a Japanese-style bridge and five terraces planted with well-researched plants indicative of the Colonial period. There is also a small wilderness section here that makes it easy to forget you are still in the middle of town. Equally hard to believe is that this garden was a parking lot before it was restored and opened to the public in 1973.

A cold one: Middleton Tavern is one of many cozy Annapolis watering holes. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

Finish your jaunt where you began, down by the water on Randall Street. Across the way is Middleton Tavern, established in 1750 and still a good place to grab a beer and a crab cake. Or, for a special treat, sample some gelato, Italian pastries or gourmet pizza at Aromi d'Italia. It's down at the end of the City Dock.

Shopping opportunities beyond Maryland Avenue can be found in the shops of local merchants on Main Street. Celtic Treasures specializes in imported Irish and English clothing, books and snacks, while Chesapeake Trading Company carries high-end men's and women's clothing and accessories and a good selection of books on the bay area.

More opportunities to buy lie on the edge of town at the Westfield Shoppingtown. Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor and an 11-screen movie theater with stadium seating all reside here at the far end of West Street.

A tale of two schools

In the Navy: Midshipmen live and dine in Bancroft Hall on the Naval Academy's campus. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

One is leafy green, liberal, artsy and bookish, the other battleship gray, rigidly scientific and by the book. Annapolis' two schools, St. John's College and the U.S. Naval Academy, could not be more different.

Founded in 1845, the U.S.N.A. is the training ground for young naval officers and the reason, on spring and fall weekends, you will see so many white uniforms around town -- a la Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman." President Jimmy Carter, Sen. John McCain and H. Ross Perot all attended the Naval Academy.

The Academy campus -- or "The Yard" as the midshipmen call it -- stretches over 238-acres just north of downtown, where the Severn River meets Spa Creek. The visitors' center is located on King George Street, just inside Gate 1. This is the place to go for a guided walking tour. But bring a photo ID, since Sept. 11 the academy has tightened security.

Bancroft Hall is home to the entire 4,000-person brigade of midshipmen and is said to be the largest single dormitory in the world. Another highlight is the Navy Chapel where John Paul Jones, the father of the U.S. Navy, occupies his final resting place beneath its copper dome.

On 36 acres near the State House stretches the Academy's polar opposite, St. John's.

Here, approximately 450 students study a unique, all-required curriculum of "great books." Beginning freshman year with Plato, four years later "Johnnies" have made it to Einstein's theory of relativity. In between, they have studied all the seminal works of Western Civilization.

Founded in 1696 as King William's School, St. John's is the nation's third oldest institution of higher learning after Harvard and William & Mary. It is also the alma mater of Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star Spangled Banner."

As fits its bookish image, St. John's only fields intramural sports teams, but the school does compete in one intercollegiate athletic endeavor every year. This hotly contested rivalry pits the bookworms against their cross-town rivals at the academy and assigns bragging rights for the year. While this isn't the athletic highlight of the year for the Naval Academy -- that would be the Army-Navy football game -- this match is taken seriously on both sides of King George Street, which divides the campuses.

In April, the two schools meet as they have every spring since 1982, in the leafy shade of St. John's quad. Middies in crisp whites will do battle with Johnnies in mocking straw hats and cream-colored bucks. This is the annual croquet match between the schools, which draws hundreds of spectators and usually ends in victory for St. John's. Maybe the pen really is mightier than the sword.

Local eats

An Annapolis tradition: Not only does the Ram's Head make its own beer, it also has live entertainment. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

A day of walking can build up quite an appetite. For a good dinner avoid the bars and restaurants down by the dock (many of which seem to offer the same hamburger/crab cake with french fries fare) and head for West Street just a short walk around Church Circle.

The block between the circle and Cathedral Street showcases some of Annapolis' best and friendliest watering holes. This is where the locals go out for a bite.

This is where you'll find the aptly named 49 West, a European style cafe and wine bar. The stars here are the desserts, displayed in a drool-proof glass counter beside the espresso machine. The cafe often hosts live jazz and folk in its back room.

Next up is the Ram's Head Tavern. Housed behind what were once several storefronts, it combines a cozy, low-ceilinged bar, a bright brewpub, and an outdoor beer garden. This is the home of the Fordham Brewing Company, the Ram's Head's house brew, and the best place in town to catch a live show.

To crack some crabs by the water, venture outside of town to Cantler's Riverside Inn, recently named by "USA Today" as one of the world's 10 great places for a waterfront drink. Though tough to find, across the Severn River and nearly hidden on the shore of a narrow creek, Cantler's is the best crab house around. Its informal picnic tables -- covered with newspapers and the remnants of crab feasts -- are packed throughout the season. Beside the dock are the sloughing tanks where crabs about to loose their shells reside. It's a great place for kids to watch what might become their dinner.

Stay the night: Annapolis offers many accomodation options, including the Marriott Waterfront. (Photo by Jessica M. Garrett, Special to SunSpot)

To get out on the water rather than just look at it, book passage on the Schooner Woodwind. This 74-foot sailing vessel, built to look like the yachts of the 1920s, sails from the Marriott downtown three to four times a day in season. Its two-hour tour takes customers gliding down Spa Creek beside the City Dock and out into the Chesapeake Bay. If the winds are right, it may even make it beneath the Bay Bridge and back. Help raise and trim the sails as the crew serves beer, wine, sodas and snacks. Or take a turn at the wheel from the Woodwind's Captain, Ken Kaye, who, after 25 years of teaching in the Connecticut public school system, followed his dream to Annapolis, built this boat and started running tours of the area from its deck.

As the sun sinks behind a skyline largely unchanged for centuries and the wind whips through your hair, the years seem to melt away. Revealed is the port town of Colonial seamen, of waterman piloting their skipjacks home with bellies full of oysters and of the lucky ones who live or keep boats here.

While the town has changed through the centuries, from boom to bust and boom again, the water continues to lap at its shores. Born from the water, Annapolis today is as much made up of the bay, its creeks and river as it was in the 1700s. New Annapolis' residents move in and Academy grads ship out, legislators come and go all to the tide's ebb and flow. But, like the tide, most who leave vow to come back again to revisit the charming town.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun

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