All wet

This view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor is taken from the HarborView tower. In the foreground is Federal Hill. The downtown skyline frames the Inner Harbor on the north side. At lower left is the American Visionary Art Museum. In the sky at right is the HiFlyer Balloon at Port Discovery.
This view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor is taken from the HarborView tower. In the foreground is Federal Hill. The downtown skyline frames the Inner Harbor on the north side. At lower left is the American Visionary Art Museum. In the sky at right is the HiFlyer Balloon at Port Discovery. (Amy Davis, Sun Staff)
It's a tradition that likely dates back to the first Colonial settlers on Maryland shores: Summer means families and the The Chesapeake Bay.

Even among those who don't live along its distant coves and quiet towns, the bay becomes a magnet, as city dwellers and faraway suburbanites flock there when the weather is warm, the fish are biting and the crabs are heavy.

Although the bay's ecology has been troubled by a sharp decline in the oyster population as well as a drop in netted crabs, it remains the undisputed focal point of geographical and recreational Maryland living.

Families with a history here emphasize this to anyone willing to hear about it. Even my family -- which lived in a working-class neighborhood far from the bay, even far from The Inner Harbor -- continued this tradition. As a teenager, I spent many of my summers at a Severn River shore home owned by my best friend's grandparents. There, we would loll away the days fishing, running a boat and setting up trotlines to catch crabs. Or, if we were feeling really lazy, we'd swim and sun-bathe on the pier. For dinner, we would use nets on long poles to pick off crabs as they chewed on barnacles that lined the pier's pilings -- a cycle of feeding that has defined the Chesapeake Bay and humanity's relationship to it and its tributaries for centuries.

Likewise, my summer migrations reflected a common generations-old pattern. My father, also a city boy once, headed "down the shore" (for the nearby Magothy River) many a summer. My brother-in-law, a Baltimore native, spent summers with relatives in Crisfield, a fishing town on the state's lower Eastern Shore.

Practically bisecting the state, the bay and its tributaries add up to more than the lifeblood of working watermen and the port of Baltimore, the destination for many of the huge cargo and container ships that pass through it.

The bay is Maryland's spiritual core, the place that lends the state its natural uniqueness, much of its fun, and its main chance to escape the bustle and sprawl of the metropolises to its west.

The bay's 4,600 miles of shoreline offer waterfowl-filled wildlife preserves, Bayside crab houses, a robust yachting culture, and residences owned by everyone from corporate executives to watermen and their families. The largest estuary in North America, the bay provides homes to 2,700 species of plants and animals, and almost as many types of people. The rich find upscale towns such as Easton and the shores of remote rivers such as the Tred Avon to their liking, while machinists and steelworkers dip their boats in the busier waters behind their homes in Bowleys Quarters and Pasadena.

Fun-lovers join the party on the yachts of friends and on "head boats," crafts captained by seasoned fishermen who help folks catch bluefish, croakers, rockfish (the local name for striped bass) and sea trout. Thanks to a decent state park system (most notable are the parks at Janes Island and Sandy Point), anyone can enjoy the bay. Its egalitarianism is its major virtue.

Above and beyond the water-sports possibilities (water-skiing, canoeing, hunting for waterfowl), the bay region also supports a large number of bed-and-breakfasts and inns, and oddities such as the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge, home to the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Past the bay and its Eastern Shore, the state's last outpost is Ocean City, population 8,500. In the summer, however, the resort becomes the second largest city in Maryland, with 300,000 people or more cramming in to its three-block width on some weekends. Summertime visitors here find few surprises -- there's the beach, the boardwalk and a predictable surge of people.

Across a small inlet to the south lies a novelty or two, however. Assateague Island features out-of-the-way tranquility, clamming, camping and a herd of approximately 50 wild horses.

Back across the bay, to its western shore, creatures millions of years old are rediscovered daily at Calvert Cliffs State Park. Fossils from 15 million-year-old sea-dwellers are sometimes found in the bay or in the 1,460-acre park's cliff walls (removing them is prohibited).

A half-hour or so drive north gets you to Annapolis, the center of the state's yachting life, as well as its lively politics.

Although the state's water culture suffuses just about everything, there are some land-locked activities Marylanders regularly take part in. One of them isn't jousting, the official state sport. With the exception of an annual Renaissance Festival that holds forth north of Annapolis from late summer to early fall, one isn't likely to encounter armor-clad men on horseback.

Instead, Marylanders of means can be found wearing helmets, holding sticks with a webbed pocket at the end, tossing a small rubber ball toward a goal. It's called lacrosse, a Native American game that involves a lot of ice hockey-style checking and entails a huge amount of regional excitement. The state's colleges and universities, most notably Johns Hopkins, Loyola and the University of Maryland, dominate both men's and women's national rankings.

While professional sports franchises -- the Orioles, Ravens, Redskins, the Baltimore Blast soccer team, the Baltimore Bayhawks lacrosse squad, and numerous minor-league baseball teams -- and college sports have earned devoted followers, so has duckpin bowling. Approximately 30 alleys offer bowlers three small balls and three chances per frame to knock down 10 small pins. The duckpins game, invented around 1900 at a downtown Baltimore sports club owned by Oriole legends John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, is much more challenging than rolling traditional ten pins. Your average will adjust accordingly, but so will everyone else's.

The state's bike trails -- through flat, sometimes picturesque Eastern Shore counties, or over former rail lines outside Baltimore -- are increasing in popularity as the streets in and around Baltimore and Washington have become more congested and less bicycle-friendly.

Maryland winters can get cold. Residents frequently treat snowstorms or even the possibility of them as the end of the world, and will hole up for days after ransacking the aisles of their local grocery stores. The few and the brave venture out to the mountains of Western Maryland, where several ski slopes beckon.

During the warm weather months, the state's west is a camping and hiking mecca. Deep Creek Lake provides a little bit of what the bay does -- fishing, boating, water-skiing -- with a bit less of the summer heat and humidity and an incredible mountain view.

As the state's largest city, Baltimore offers a depth of culture and nightlife. The Baltimore Museum of Art displays a wide range classic works -- Antioch mosaics, an impressive selection of Matisse paintings, the world's second-largest collection of Andy Warhol paintings-- but other museums, such as the naive, outsider-art dominated American Visionary Arts Museum, say more about Baltimore and its quirks.

The city also crows about its world-class symphony orchestra and the large selection of liquid leisure certain neighborhood watering holes provide in places like Canton, Fells Point, Hampden and South Baltimore.

A popular draw at the Inner Harbor for tourists and locals alike is the National Aquarium, where visitors can take in dolphin shows and get an up-close look at sharks and seals -- proving that no matter how far away you get from the bay, you'll likely end up near water, anyway.