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St. Michaels is awash in charm

St. Michaels -- St. Michaels is the type of charming little town where traffic lights don't exist, bicycles seem as plentiful as cars, and there are no malls or restaurant chains to mar breathtaking views of the water.

Yet this historic jewel just off the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore is far from cutesy. In fact, what sets St. Michaels apart from similarly quaint resort spots is its Americana feel infused with a decidedly cosmopolitan aura.

Or as one news release described it, "Norman Rockwell meets Ralph Lauren."

Indeed, this is a place where the local ice cream parlor serves "retro" root-beer floats, and where the moneyed elite arrive by yacht or helicopter.

Still, there's an easy ambience about St. Michaels, especially along its main thoroughfare, Talbot Street, lined with shops, gourmet restaurants, B&Bs, art and antiques venues.

But amid the upscale charm, and lovely Colonial and Victorian homes with half-million-dollar price tags, is a sense of authenticity, born of this community's rich history and proud, hard-working culture.

You will still see watermen harvesting blue crabs at the mouth of scenic St. Michaels Harbor. Regular folks going to work, teen-agers hanging out and kids frolicking outside.

With roots dating to the 1600s, St. Michaels was once a trading post for tobacco farmers and trappers. Its name later derived from the Episcopal parish established here in 1677.

During the War of 1812, St. Michaels became "the town that fooled the British." So the story goes, clever residents hoisted lanterns in treetops and on ship masts, tricking the Brits into overshooting their cannons. Only one house was hit, and it still stands today.

Through the 1800s and early 1900s, the economy centered on the Chesapeake Bay -- shipbuilding, oyster and seafood processing and packing industries. In the past three decades, however, the focus has shifted to tourism.

It is not uncommon to spot tourists riding in horse-drawn carriages. Or aboard water taxis, chartered catamarans and other vessels taking guided tours down the Miles River.

The bustling Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum draws some 95,000 visitors each year; while others take in summer events such as free concerts in the park and boat and art shows.

St. Michaels attracts Fortune 500 and other companies for annual conferences.

"Oh man, it's great," said Michael A. Rashid, a Philadelphia health-care CEO spending the weekend at the Inn at Perry Cabin for a management retreat.

Rashid said it was his second consecutive visit to St. Michaels and the newly renovated inn, an early 19th-century mansion on 25 acres with sweeping views of sea and sky.

"It's small, quiet, private, and the water is just beautiful," he said. "We're already looking forward to returning next year."

Where to shop

Flamingo Flats Inc. (100 Talbot St., 410-745-2053): The name is only part of the story. Owner Robert Deppe, a Bronx, N.Y., transplant, has proudly stocked this eye-catching shop with eclectic flamingo trinkets and at least 1,500 varieties of hot sauces, marinades, salsas and spices.

Broken Rudder Sportswear (103 Talbot St., 410-745-9170): Need a crab doormat, or maybe a nautical switch plate? Philadelphia native Helen Rosenberger opened 13 years ago, selling fine embroidered sportswear, hats, children's clothing and nifty gifts.

Chesapeake Bay Outfitters (100 N. Talbot St., 410-745-3107): For beach bums who want to look casually chic. Colorful preppy and resort wear.

Captain's Wheel Ltd. (110 N. Talbot St., 410-745-6763): Wanda Packard has filled her cozy shop with crafts from some 75 American and Canadian artisans who have created gorgeous jewelry, pottery, copper ornaments, sea glass and linens from India.

Coco News (104 Railroad Ave., 410-745-0800): Check out more than a dozen national newspapers, as well as magazines, books, movies, compact discs, greeting cards and coffee.

Flying Fred's Gifts for Pets (202 N. Talbot St., 410- 745-9601): You gotta love a store whose sign depicts a flying dog in a red cape. This unique pet boutique carries everything from fluffy beds to doggie ice cream cones.

Where to eat

Justine's Ice Cream Parlour (101 Talbot St., 410-745-5416): Yummy ice cream, sundaes and shakes in flavors such as minted coffee and creamsicle may have been why Chocolatier Magazine named it "one of the 10 great ice cream establishments in the country."

Madison's West End (106 Talbot St., 410-745-0299): Local artwork, live music and breezy decor. Conch fritters and barbecue shrimp are what owner and Talbot County native Kenny Knopp calls "American gourmet with a Caribbean touch."

Town Dock Restaurant (125 Mulberry St., 410-745-5577): The food is very good, and the water views (love the outdoor seating) even better. Acclaimed chef Michael Rork (of Harbor Court Hotel fame) creates regional specialties from crab cakes to Caesar salad with fried oysters hand-breaded with Panko breadcrumbs.

Big Al's Seafood Market (302 N. Talbot St., 410-745-3151): The lone seafood market in St. Michaels specializes in steamed crabs, but you can also pick up groceries, bait and tackle, and ice and spirits.

Sherwood Landing (inside The Inn at Perry Cabin, 308 Watkins Lane, 410-745-2200): Four-star cuisine and service that is simply divine, as well as a dazzling waterfront view. Don't miss Executive Chef Mark Salter's signature crab spring roll, or the rhubarb and strawberry crisp with mascarpone ice cream.

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (Mill Street, 410-745-2916): The story of the Chesapeake Bay's culture and heritage is beautifully told here. The grounds include the 1879 Hooper Strait lighthouse -- one of three surviving lighthouses on the bay. The museum store (410-745-2098) is packed with maritime memorabilia, stationery, cookbooks and more.

Patriot Cruises Inc. (Berthed at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum; 410-745-3100): The 65-foot Patriot cruises the Miles River, providing narrated history and glimpses of everything from seaside mansions to nesting osprey and sea birds.

Information

Maryland Office of Tourism and Development, 410-767-3400, www.mdwelcome.org or Talbot County Office of Tourism, 410-770-8000, www.talbot county.md.

Getting there

Drive time is approximately 90 minutes from Baltimore. Take Interstate 695 to Interstate 97 South. Take U.S. 50 East across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and remain on U.S. 50 at the Route 50/301 split. Continue approximately 30 miles to Easton, (Easton Airport is on the right). Go a half-mile beyond the airport, bear right onto Route 322. Go 2 miles. At traffic light, turn right onto Route 33 (Talbot Street) to St. Michaels.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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