At first glance, the White Swan Tavern, a beautifully restored bed and breakfast in Chestertown, doesn't stand out among the 18th- and 19th-century buildings on High Street. Set back from the row of store fronts and shielded by columns that support the shed overhang, it seems almost retiring. But step inside the capacious front hall with its huge, tattered American flag (carried by suffragettes in 1919), and you are surrounded by perfectly proportioned spaces filled with antiques and imbued with an ambience that reaches back over two centuries to our nation's beginnings.
In the course of 270 years, the White Swan has been a tannery, a tavern, an inn, a private home and shops. When I first saw it 25 years ago, it was the local newsstand. Its dim interior smelled faintly of newsprint, tobacco, history and old wood. Now, the tavern still smells faintly of old wood, but the history that permeates the place is more apparent, reinforced by beaded paneling, polished board floors and wainscoted fireplaces.
Restoration of the White Swan began in 1978 with an archaeological dig that unearthed a wealth of artifacts including bits of stemware and crockery chargers (big plates) decorated with the primitive swan that is now the tavern's logo. A glass case in the tap room displays a selection of these shards, a reminder of the building's accumulated heritage. In 1981, after three painstaking years of excavation and restoration, the White Swan Tavern reopened as a bed and breakfast in the historic heart of Chestertown.
Although the general look and feel of the White Swan's public rooms is late 1700s, the six guest rooms each reflect the period of the various owners for whom they are named. My favorite is the tavern's oldest room, the John Lovegrove Kitchen. Brick floored, with exposed ceiling beams and a vast fireplace, the room whisks guests back to the 1730s, when Lovegrove, Chestertown's shoemaker, lived in this room with his family and operated a tannery in what is now the garden. The White Swan's most "modern" accommodation is the T. W. Eliason Victorian Suite on the second floor, where a tufted sofa, cabbage-rose carpeting and king-size bed with huge headboard call to mind the overwrought decor of the late 1800s, though the room itself takes a less-is-more approach to the period. Others have beautiful four-poster canopied beds and, in some cases, pictures of the room's namesake.
In keeping with the peace of the White Swan, the rooms have neither telephone nor television, though the King Joseph common room has a television for the cathode-ray-tube addicted. Bathrooms are modern. A stay there is truly an escape to a less hectic time, borne out in the quiet welcome given by the manager, Mary Maisel, and innkeeper, Wayne McGuire. After Continental breakfast in the very Williamsburgy Isaac Cannell Room, guests can curl up with a book or sally forth into the rest of the town, which is filled with history.
Chestertown Tea Party
Named a Port of Entry in 1695, Chestertown enjoyed a thriving waterborne trade -- evident in the elegant homes of wealthy merchants that line High and Water streets. Not surprisingly, Chestertown's Colonial elite were instrumental in advancing the cause of American liberty (or fomenting rebellion depending upon which side of the Atlantic you hail from). George Washington made regular trips here during the buildup to the Revolution to converse with leaders such as Col. Joseph Nicholson, who owned the White Swan and was a member of one of the Committees of Correspondence, a bunch of epistolary rabble-rousers. During his visits, Washington sometimes visited the Hynson-Ringgold House, another 18th-century treasure on Water Street with an amazing antler-shaped dual staircase.
Each Memorial Day weekend, Chestertown celebrates its Revolutionary roots with the Chestertown Tea Party, a gigantic block party with pipe bands, bluegrass, great food, dancers and crafts. The centerpiece of the celebration is a Colonial-garbed re-enactment of Chestertown's original "tea party" in 1774 when indignant town fathers stormed down to the river and pitched boxes of taxed tea off the brigantine Geddes. (Boston did it first, but our guys didn't try to shift blame by dressing up as Native Americans.) The re-enactment, spiced with bits of current political commentary, takes place in front of the White Swan amid the throng of visitors who are encouraged to join in as roused rabble. Then everyone troops down to the river where re-enactors row out and chuck boxes of "tea" off whatever authentic-looking vessel is available. In 2001, tea party re-enactors will be heaving it off Sultana, the reproduction of a 1767 schooner now under construction in Chestertown. In fact, the Sultana Shipyard on Cannon Street, where shipwrights, apprentices, students and volunteers are building the 50-ton sailing vessel, plank by honey-colored plank, is one must-see in town. Besides the sheer beauty of the project, which enhances Chestertown's historic flavor, the people there are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
A place to walk, stop, shop
Chestertown's historic section is walking scale, so virtually everyone walks and stops to chat along the way. The shops in town are one of a kind -- from Chester River Knitting Co. which sells alpaca teddy bears, designer alpaca sweaters, cloud-soft pashm shawls and sweaters made from locally grown natural wool, to the richly colored Oriental rugs at Fergusons to Twigs and Teacups with its eclectic mix of gifts, friendly staff and enormous ginger-colored cat, Hobbes. Antiques and housewares shops, the gallery-quality jewelry at Kearns Collection, the Compleat Bookseller, which testifies to the intellectual interests of the locals -- buttressed by Washington College and the College of Lifelong Learning -- and Massoni Gallery, which exhibits nationally known as well as regional artists, all offer interesting and productive shopping. For a midmorning pick-me-up, stop in at Play It Again Sam for a cappuccino or an Alaskan, a luscious coffee slushy.
There are several good choices for lunch, but my favorite is the Feast of Reason on High Street, a local gathering place, which serves superb soups, salads and sandwiches on slabs of whole-grain bread slathered with things such as Gorgonzola-herb mayo. For dinner, try the Imperial Hotel or the Blue Heron Cafe for gourmet meals, or the Wharf, overlooking the Chester River, for something a little homier.
During the various house tours (Candlelight, Garden and Christmas), visitors can wander through the historic houses, occasionally including the Hynson-Ringgold of antler-staircase fame. The rest of the time, they must be content to admire the Georgian and Federal period buildings and gardens from the brick sidewalks. There are occasional organ recitals on the magnificent pipe organ at Emmanuel Episcopal church in the center of town, jazz in the park on summer weekends, and live music on weekends at Andy's, a cafe on High Street.
The White Swan is available for small weddings, receptions and conferences. Afternoon tea is served to guests and casual visitors alike in the air-conditioned public rooms or on the stone patio in the garden.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: From the Baltimore area, take U.S. Route 50 east across the bay. Near Queenstown, take U.S. Route 301 north about six miles to its junction with state Route 213 north, which will lead you 20 miles into Chestertown. The White Swan Tavern B&B; is located at 231 High St.
Room rates: $110 to $185 a night includes Continental breakfast; credit cards not accepted.
Information: 410-778-2300; fax 410-778-4543; online at www.chestertown.com/ whiteswan/.
Nearby: Contact the Kent County Tourism office (100 North Cross St., Chestertown) at 410-778-0416 or online at www.kentcounty.com.