By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun
2:17 PM EDT, August 11, 2011
How do we love thee, oh small towns of Maryland? Let us count the ways.
When earlier this year, a Budget Travel magazine poll named Lewisburg, W.Va., as "America's Coolest Small Town," it got us thinking: aren't Maryland's small towns worth bragging about, too?
Apparently Baltimore Sun readers think so. In an online poll, we asked you to name some of the top small towns in the state, and a slew of candidates emerged.
Yet one town stood out among the pack: historic Rock Hall, a scenic fishing village on the Eastern Shore.
Readers also shared other small town gems in our backyard — standouts for their compact size, unhurried pace and unique attractions. We noted your favorites, and added a few of our own recommendations, coming up with a list that's short and sweet but by no means complete.
Rock Hall, Kent County
This charming bayside town with 300 years of history conjures New England, but is just a few hours drive from Baltimore. It's an easy summer afternoon in the picturesque fishing village of Rock Hall, located on Maryland's upper Eastern Shore.
Not surprisingly, in this town nestled on the Chesapeake Bay, the maritime culture is flourishing. With marinas and slips at seemingly every turn, a swirl of sailboats, powerboats and yachts dot the shimmering waters.
Not far away, along tidy Main Street, shops, eateries and small museums bustle with tourists and locals. Families pop into Durding's Store, an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with a vintage wooden phone booth.
Nearby is The Mainstay, a performing arts center in a century old building. Audiences can hear jazz one night, bluegrass and gospel, the next.
Meanwhile, at the Harbor Shack restaurant on Bayside Avenue, its wide doors are flung open — the better to allow salt-tinged air to waft in from the nearby waterfront. Inside, colorful license plates hang on the walls and fishermen even have their own "bragging" board.
This local flavor is all part of the sweet, simple life of Rock Hall. The waterfront community in Kent County has less than 1,500 residents — mostly a mix of retirees, young families and others who call this town home.
"I grew up here and it was once a very active waterman's community," says newly-elected Mayor Bob Willis, a native whose family owns a marina and other local businesses. "We try to cherish and preserve that history as best we can. It's a beautiful town, a friendly place, with many recreational activities."
Indeed, there are ample ways to wile away a summer's day here. One can take a lazy swim at Rock Hall Beach, along the aptly named Beach Road. Or peruse the Rock hall or Waterman's museums for history and local lore.
And like many bay towns in Maryland, seafood is a staple here. At Waterman's Crab House Restaurant steamed crabs are a big draw. On weekends, live bands jam out on the deck.
Rock Hall also hosts festivals and special events year-round, be it fireman's suppers or the "Party on the Bay."
The laid back atmosphere sold Laurie Walters on Rock Hall several years ago.
"You can't find a more wonderful place," says Walters, who began visiting regularly after her son and daughter-in-law relocated here back in 2008.
Today, the family owns Rock Hall Rickshaw, a new pedi-cab service they launched this spring. The company's blue and orange rickshaws have quickly become a familiar sight around Rock Hall.
"Big cities like New York have rickshaws, of course, but we thought it would be great here because many people arrive via boat," says Walters. "They may need to pick up groceries or get to the restaurants."
Whether one sails into town, hops aboard a rickshaw or cycles down Main Street, there's plenty to see and do.
"Rock Hall may be [one of] the smallest, but we have everything from nice people to many events to entertain our residents and our many guests," says former Mayor Rosalie Kuechler. "We welcome everyone with open arms. Come visit us."
Population: About 1,400 full-time residents
Main attraction: Maritime culture. Check out the Waterman's Museum at Haven Harbour Marina, 20880 Rock Hall Ave., 410-778-6697.
Small-town surprise: Rickshaw rides.
Eat here: Waterman's Crab House Restaurant has some of the best sunset views on the bay – and you can come by boat and dock while you dine. 21058 Sharp St. 410-639-2261, watermanscrabhouse.com. For breakfast, including coffee and pastries, try Java Rock, 21309 Sharp St., 410-639-9909.
Stay here: Inn at Huntingfield Creek is a B&B on a lovely farm estate on the waterfront. Rates start at $179 per night. 4928 Eastern Neck Road, 410-639-7779, huntingfield.com.
Don't miss: Soda fountain treats at Durding's Store at the corner of Main and Sharp streets, 410-778-7957, sailingemporium.com/durdings.
Info: Call 410-639-7611 or go to rockhallmd.com or kentcounty.com
St. Michaels, Talbot County
Fictional Mayberry meets The Hamptons in this picturesque 17th Century village, situated along the Miles River on the Eastern Shore.
Population: About 1,193
Main attraction: The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum overlooks the harbor. Its 18-acre grounds include a working boatyard and a historic lighthouse. 213 N. Talbot St., 410-745-2916, http://www.cbmm.org.
Small-town surprise: Carriage rides along Talbot Street, the town's main thoroughfare lined with shops, art and antiques, lodging.
Eat here: Akai, from the Japanese word for red, serves up sushi and is one of the town's new restaurants. The chefs make everything in house, using the freshest ingredients possible. 402 South Talbot St., 410-745-8099, akaistmichaels.com.
Stay here: The Inn at Perry Cabin. You'll see yachts and bikes alike at this elegant 19th century manor. Chic accommodations, a posh spa and gourmet restaurant, plus stunning sunsets over the water. 308 Watkins Lane, 866-278-9601, perrycabin.com.
Don't miss: Take a scenic bike ride along the 26-mile Oxford/St. Michaels trail or enjoy a scenic cruise aboard the Patriot, a 65-foot steamboat replica in operation since the 1960s.
Info: Call 410-770-8000 or go to tourtalbot.org
Oakland, Garrett County
This designated National Main Street community is just a short drive from Deep Creek Lake. Its downtown offers artwork, books, toys and more.
Population: About 2,019
Main attraction: Englanders Antiques & Grill is a former pharmacy turned mall for heirloom lovers. Discover jewelry, furniture, china and other finds from nearly 100 area vendors. After shopping, stop by the original ice cream soda fountain parlor for one of their signature old-fashioned milkshakes. 205 E. Alder St., 301-533-0000.
Small-town surprise: The Mountain Fresh Pavilion hosts a farmers market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but it pumps music on Friday nights with free concerts at the Little Yough Summer Music Festival. Town Park Lane and E. Oak St. off 2nd Street, 301-334-6960, mountainfresh.org or littleyough.com.
Eat here: The Cornish Manor Restaurant & Lounge has been under new ownership since May, and is now helmed by businesswoman Cindy Wolf. (No relation to the Baltimore celebrity chef of the same name). Try the steaks and fresh Maryland seafood, all served from a stately Victorian home, complete with a screened outdoor porch. 830 Memorial Drive, 301-334-6499.
Stay here: Oak & Apple Bed & Breakfast. Guests at this restored Victorian in the Historic District praise its cozy environs and delicious breakfast fare. Rates start at around $100 per night. 208 N. Second St., 301-334-9265, oakandappleinn.com.
Don't miss: Herrington Manor State Park covers 365 acres in the Garrett State Forest and includes a 53-acre lake for swimming, boating and canoeing. http://www.dnr.md.gov/publiclands/western/herrington.asp
Info: Go to visitdeepcreek.com
Thurmont, Frederick County
Known as the gateway to Maryland's Catoctin Mountain, this town boasts scenic vistas, historic sites, and abundant recreational offerings.
Population: About 6,000
Main attraction: When Franklin Delano Roosevelt discovered the area's natural beauty, the president declared it "shangri-la." Whether picking fruit at a local orchard, or hiking at Catoctin Mountain Park, nature's a big draw here. http://www.nps.gov/cato/index.htm
Small-town surprise: Driving tours of the town's covered bridges — just three of eight known sites remain in Maryland. Still functional, they're also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. http://www.fredericktourism.org/what-to-see/tours/historic-covered-bridges-driving-tour
Eat here: Cozy's roots date to the 1920s, and this German-influenced restaurant is known for country dishes and freshly-baked desserts. The location of nearby Camp David, the presidential retreat, has long drawn news media, dignitaries and celebs. After dining, view presidential photos and memorabilia at the onsite museum. 103 Frederick Road, 301-271-7373, cozyvillage.com.
Stay here: Ole Mink Farm Recreation Resort. Once an actual mink farm, these accommodations are high atop Catoctin Mountain. The luxury log cabins feature cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, garden tubs, screened porches, and swings. 12806 Mink Farm Road, 301-271-7012, oleminkfarm.com
Don't miss: Cunningham Falls State Park offers a 78-foot waterfall that is the largest cascading waterfall in the state. dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/cunningham.asp
Info: Call 800-999-3613 or go to fredericktourism.org
Leonardtown, St. Mary's County
Nestled on Breton Bay in Southern Maryland, this small town is quaint yet modern with shops, eateries and galleries in a walkable setting.
Population: About 2,930
Main attraction: A beautiful new waterfront park and a 2½ -mile water trail where paddlers can canoe and kayak.
Small-town surprise: The new Port of Leonardtown Winery is home of the Southern Maryland Winegrowers Cooperative. Besides a tasting room for sampling vino, enjoy tours and demonstrations during the crushing cycle. 23190 Newtowne Neck Road, 301-690-2192, portofleonardtownwinery.com
Eat here: Cafe des Artistes. The chef/owner of this classic French bistro trained at some of the top culinary institutes in France. The menu highlights local ingredients and wines. 41655 Fenwick St., 301-997-0500, cafedesartistes.ws
Stay here: Marble bathrooms and soaking tubs are among the amenities at the Executive Inn and Suites, a new upscale hotel in the downtown business district. 41655 Park Ave., 301-475-3000, http://www.execinnparkave.com.
Don't miss: The Religious Freedom Byway, part of the National Scenic Byways Program, traces the Potomac River in southern Maryland and features some of the nation's oldest churches, including the Francis Xavier Church, the state's oldest Roman Catholic Church in continuous use.
Info: visitstmarysmd.com or leonardtown.somd.com
Maryland's Coolest Small Towns
There's nothing official about this list, but here are some more of our favorite small towns (population 10,000 or less):
Berlin (Worcester County)
Centreville (Queen Anne's)
La Plata (Charles)
North Beach/Chesapeake Beach (Calvert)
North East (Cecil)
Ocean City (Worcester)
Pocomoke City (Worcester)
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