Coastal diversions

Coastal diversions
(Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun Photo)
Popular mapping programs project that the trip from the Baltimore area to Ocean City should take about three hours, but with a little effort and planning you can easily meander there in nine.

While for many the trip to Maryland's ocean resort is a race along U.S. 50 to squeeze in every last hour on the sand, less-hurried travelers can find a multitude of fascinating, scenic and sometimes downright delicious distractions on the Eastern Shore.

By getting a start in the morning, you can reach the beach before the sun goes down and still take in such attractions as bargain shopping at Prime Outlets, an old-time grist mill at Wye Mills, wildlife encounters at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a down-home lunch at a small-town roadhouse, a gem of a folk art museum in Salisbury and a farmers' market and some power shopping in Berlin.

You probably can't do it all in one trip to the ocean, but you can squeeze in all these diversions - and others of your choice - going both ways. My wife Cindy and I recently set out to explore the Shore on our way down to dinner with my college-student son.

We had all day. The weather didn't suggest we'd get much beach time in even if we did hurry. So we took it slow and visited a few places we had always bypassed on previous trips. We set a few rules: Avoid already familiar places (St. Michael's) and don't stray too outrageously from U.S. 50.

Our first thought was to grab breakfast on Kent Island. But our search for a non-chain restaurant with a view on the south side of U.S. 50/301 was thwarted. (We later learned the good local diners were north of the highway.) But we found a good morning feed in what was at first an unlikely place: the small restaurant at the back of the Chesapeake Gourmet retail shop at the Prime Outlets mall in Queenstown, where U.S. 50 and U.S. 301 split. It wasn't elegant dining, but there was a tasty red pepper and chicken quiche, an excellent vegetable soup and a more-than-respectable Key lime cheesecake to provide the fuel for a little shopping.

Outlet malls are by their nature hit-or-miss, and we encountered a little of both. I didn't see anything at L.L.Bean that prompted me to reach for my wallet, but Cindy scored several bargains at Chico's. We're not power shoppers, so we left quickly, but those who are will find their choice of about 60 retailers, ranging from Yankee Candle to a new Gucci store.

The Prime Outlets, right off U.S. 50, doesn't really count as a meander off the main route, but we quickly made up for that with a turn off the main highway onto southbound Maryland Route 662.

Two-lane Route 662 is a road that weaves back and forth alongside U.S. 50 though farmland, towns and a few encroaching subdivisions. Its slow-pace traffic provides a welcome relief after the frenzy of U.S. 50 - a road more notable for utility than charm.

Oldest working grain mill

The first village the wayward beachgoer encounters on Route 662 is Wye Mills, home to Maryland's most acclaimed tree stump - that of the national champion Wye Oak, which tumbled in June 2002 after a more than 450-year career in the shade industry and a 60-year stint as Maryland's state tree.

Before we reached the site of the stump, still a state park, we stopped at the Wye Grist Mill and Museum, the oldest working grain mill in Maryland, founded in 1682. We received an instructive demonstration of the milling process from docent Rhonda Carter, from whom we learned such things as that the buckwheat plants outside the mill are not relatives of wheat. The museum attractions include hands-on exhibits that should hold children's interest for a few minutes, and visitors can leave with a package of ground-on-site cornmeal that Cindy later turned into some delicious hoecakes. (The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday during the summer and early fall. Donation of $2 requested.)

Just south of the mill is the big stump, with some picnic facilities, and just south of that the Old Wye Church, dating to 1721. The Anglican outpost is the site of one of the state's more photogenic church graveyards - the final resting place of many a Paca, Tilghman and Davidson.

From Wye Mills, we made our way to the historic town of Oxford. It can be reached in a meandering way by taking Route 33 as if headed to St. Michael's but turning south toward the tiny hamlet of Bellevue, where a public ferry takes passengers and cars across the Tred Avon River to Oxford. The town itself is a gem, with magnificent waterfront estates, but we were struck by the profusion of for-sale signs on historic houses. Maybe quaint isn't all it's cracked up to be. It was also sad to discover that the Robert Morris Inn, once one of Maryland's finest restaurants, no longer serves lunch or dinner. That leaves the grave of George Washington's aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman as perhaps the liveliest spot in town.

From Oxford, we made our way to Cambridge, where we turned south toward the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, whose 27,000 acres include one-third of Maryland's tidal wetlands.

The refuge deserves a trip of its own, and kayakers can spend days exploring its marshes, but a casual visitor can get a sense of what it's all about by visiting the Blackwater visitors center, a 12-mile side trip from U.S. 50. The center's exhibits do an impressive job of explaining the refuge's delicate ecosystem, and the second-floor observation point offers an excellent view of egrets and herons feeding in the marshes. You don't have to be a devotee of stuffed animals to appreciate the quality of the taxidermy that brings to life the various species that inhabit the refuge - including several examples of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.

Wildlife up close

Viewing those specimens paid off a few minutes later when we drove the refuge's wildlife trail (currently shortened for a construction project). Just a few hundred feet from the temporary entrance off Key Wallace Drive, a squirrel that looked like the specimens' sibling darted across the road in front of us (a good reason to drive slowly) and stared at us from a tree branch. We would have had a perfect shot had we remembered our camera.

Beyond the squirrel's lair, the road wound through marshes that provide habitat for the East Coast's largest population of bald eagles north of Florida. Our brief trip was rewarded with an up-close sighting of a pair of the raptors. You can park and get out of your vehicle if you want, but be sure you've applied several pounds of mosquito repellent. Blackwater is a refuge for more than squirrels.

From there, a beachgoer can head directly back to U.S. 50 or choose a more languorous route along the back roads of Dorchester County, where you can drive several miles on good roads without encountering another car. With a gnawing hunger, we made our way to the town of Vienna on the Nanticoke River. Until the early 1990s the site of the last two-lane bottleneck on U.S. 50, Vienna is your classic small town bypassed by the big highway. The town retains its glorious riverfront but otherwise seems to be in genteel decline.

A holdout against entropy is Millie's Road House Bar on Middle Street, where we stopped for a late lunch. Millie's is a simple country grill where a stuffed wild boar's head with straw hat, sunglasses and cigar presides over the tidy bar. The most complicated thing we ordered was a grilled hot dog, but it was prepared to perfection. It's a perfect spot to break up the trip to O.C.

The return trip brought some equally enjoyable stops along the way.

The next morning we made our way to the town of Berlin, just off U.S. 50 and nine miles from Ocean City. Because it was a Friday, we found that in addition to the lively shopping district the farmers' market was in town. Had we been heading in the other direction for a week at a beach rental, we would have loaded up on fresh organic meat and produce. As it was, we contented ourselves with a Calamonden Orange Coconut Loaf made by Linda Doherty of Linda's Backyard, who grows 100 different fruits on a 2-acre tract in nearby Whaleyville.

Beyond the farmers' market, we marveled at what has become of Berlin since we'd last visited. In the early 1990s, the only real attraction was the Atlantic Hotel. It's still there, and as attractive as ever, but it's been joined by an abundance of restaurants and shops. Highlights include Smith Island cakes from Roberta Ward's Pink Box bakery and antique railroad models at Richard Seaton's Toy Town, a good place a husband can wander while his wife is checking out the Vera Bradley bags at Victorian Charm. If you don't see an attractive seat at the Atlantic Hotel's restaurant, you can still score a delicious lunch at the Old Globe Theatre.

Just off U.S. 50 in Salisbury (bypass the bypass) we found the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. Many a time in the past I had bypassed this attraction, figuring nothing could be more boring and parochial than a duck decoy museum. But being in an anti-hurry, we figured: Why not?

Good move. The Ward museum does display duck decoys - lots of them - but it offers a lot more. The exhibits of the history of wildfowl hunting and the craftsmanship of decoy artists made believers of us.

Museum volunteer Lew Pearce proudly informed us that the Ward had been named one of the best 10 folk art museums in the world. "The difference is we specialize in woodcarvings, wood birds," he said. Stop in any Friday, and he'll be happy to tell you the story of the lifelike representations of every species from the Stellin's sea eagle to the buffle head duck.

From Salisbury, instead of heading for home, we made our way to an overnight stay in Easton's historic Tidewater Inn and a superb dinner at Scossa Restaurant & Lounge.

Neither of us complained about missing time at the beach.