Now is the time. Early fall is when the pleasures peak in Talbot and Dorchester counties. That's when these Eastern Shore towns stop being detours along the way to the shore and turn into full-fledged destinations.
There are practical advantages to visiting St. Michaels, Easton and Cambridge after Labor Day. Hotel rates plunge, beach traffic is a nonissue and the kids are, as they say, back in school. There are even a few reasons to put off an Eastern Shore trip as late into fall as you can. Migrating wildfowl begin to arrive here in late October. and by mid-November, they're usually making a spectacle out of themselves.
Located just a few miles from downtown Cambridge, the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is one of Maryland's great natural resources. Home to one-third of state's wetlands, the "Everglades of the North" in fall is a prime gathering spot for ducks, geese and tundra swans from northwestern Canada.
You'll lose nothing by waiting until fall for an Eastern Shore getaway. Boating is still a pleasure, and unlike beach towns, there's very little in the way of seasonal shutdown.
Resort hotels like the Inn at Perry Cabin, the Oxford Inn and, more recently, the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, have made Dorchester and Talbot counties into destinations for serious dining. What's relatively new to the Eastern Shore dining scene are the moderately priced contemporary restaurants in Easton, Cambridge and St. Michaels that are as popular with the home crowd as they are with visitors.
There are also those hard-to-find locals-only joints where watermen still gather. Even those are sprucing up. You'll find one of the best craft beer selections east of the Bay Bridge right on Route 50 in Cambridge. You've probably driven by it a hundred times.
Here are several days' worth of Choptank-centric eating and drinking.
Mason's serves lunch and dinner, but it has firmly established itself as the lunch spot in town. Ask anyone you see in Easton how to find Mason's and they'll tell you: "Just look for the yellow building." Actually, Mason's is two buildings.
Not long after opening the original Mason's in a Victorian mansion on Harrison Street, Mary Mason added homemade chocolates to her gift store's inventory. Then came a full-scale lunch operation, which became an Easton favorite. And by 2000, Mason and her son, Matthew, renovated the original building and annexed the one next door. Now, Mason's is a full-scale chocolatier, caterer and restaurant.
Mason's reminded me of Baltimore's bygone Washington Place Grill, where people had time to linger over salad tuna nicoise, quiche and iced tea. And Mason's has something extra: a dining porch that wraps around two sides of the building and an adjacent dining courtyard. When the weather turns rough, Easton residents head inside for one of Mason's six handsomely appointed dining rooms. The only downside to that — their dogs can't come along.
Mason's lunch menu includes 20 hot and cold sandwiches, salads, homemade soups and daily specials. Fresh and generously portioned shrimp salad is served on a buttery croissant. (Remember croissants?) The terrific quiche is not the dainty bite of yesteryear but a sumptuous deep-dish meal, served with a salad of mixed greens, marinated mushrooms and balsamic vinaigrette. For really big appetites, there might be a steak frites, served with either green beans or fries with maitre d'hotel butter.
22 S. Harrison St., Easton, 410-822-3204, masonsgourmet.com
Brasserie Brightwell is from Brian Fox and Brendan Keegan, the original team behind 208 Talbot and its offshoot, 208 Burger in nearby St. Michaels.
When it opened in late 2010 in the Easton Market Square, Brasserie Brightwell carried a more fully loaded French bistro menu than the one it has now. Though you'll still find things like beef-brisket onion soup, escargots and open-faced sandwiches called tartines, you'll see all-American things like Delmonico steak, Duroc pork chops and Maine lobster rolls.
Fashioned out of a converted garage, Brightwell has the good looks of a classic French brasserie, including the essential zinc bar. You could sit there with an inexpensive glass of the good house red, a craft beer or, if you're feeling reckless, an expertly poured absinthe.
At the table, it's worth getting anything from the wood-fire grill, which turns out delicious steak, whole fish, oysters and a must-have: grilled clams served with fennel-Parmesan cream.
206 N. Washington St., Easton, 410-819-3838, brasseriebrightwell.com
Ava's Pizzeria and Wine Bar
The dining scene in the pretty waterfront town of St. Michaels was long associated with the four-star cuisine at the Inn at Perry Cabin. Then came ambitious restaurants like 208 Talbot, recently reopened under new ownership, and more recently, the trio of restaurants that compose the 400 Block Restaurant Group. These include Akai Sushi & Cafe, Theo's Steaks and the group's flagship, Ava's Pizzeria & Wine Bar.
Ava's was opened in a restored picking house by St. Michaels restaurant veteran Chris Agharabi in 2008. Sophisticated enough to appeal to a high-end traveler but laid-back enough for local residents, Ava's has established itself as a town favorite, racking up prizes and Zagat rankings.
The menu, too, has broad appeal. One end is wine-bar fare like pan-seared New Bedford scallops, panko-encrusted wasabi oysters and steak frite. On the other are meatball subs, burgers and the house specialty, wood-fired pizzas. The basic pizza is a splendid version of the classic margherita with milled tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and whole basil leaves. Toppings include homemade meatballs, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers and arugula. Though don't pass up the pepperoni, which gets slightly charred in the intense heat of the wood-fire oven..
The beautiful back patio, appointed with working fireplaces, remains a favorite St. Michaels' gathering spot well into the fall.
409 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels, avaspizzeria.com
The High Spot Gastropub
Opened only last summer, this 90-seat Cambridge charmer is a partnership between Jamie and Brett Summers and chef Patrick Fanning. The regular menu includes crab cakes, banger and mash, shrimp and grits, and build-your-own burgers, while specials might be things like jerk pork salad, Cajun ham and split pea soup, and oysters Rockefeller. The High Spot has an unpretentious atmosphere; some folks dress up for it, but others come as they are.
Open for lunch and dinner daily and for breakfast Friday through Sunday, the High Spot has become a favorite with visitors and a lively group of regulars too, who are happy to provide conversation and dining tips at the bar. The bar is an ideal spot for catching up on the local gossip while sampling house specialties like deviled eggs with ground chorizo and green chiles, chicken confit nachos and the fabulous local crab dip, made with cheddar, mascarpone and crab meat from the world-famous J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. just about two blocks away.
305 High St., Cambridge, 410-228-7420, thehighspotgastropub.com
The Todd family opened their original crab factory in nearby Crocheron back in 1947. Some 40 years later, the Todds built the Ocean Odyssey on Sunburst Highway.
Although Ocean Odyssey is now a full-service restaurant, there are still reminders of the days when the Todd family operated it as a counter-service sandwich shop — and even earlier times, when it was a wholesale seafood market and a crab-picking house. Ocean Odyssey has moved its cuisine forward, but the old regulars still come here for their weekly crab cakes and feel right at home.
The Todds still produce their own brand of crab meat, too, which they put into the restaurant's jumbo and backfin crab cakes, crab soups and crab tots, yummy potato pancakes with scallions and the house's special sauce. The menu offers old favorites like fried clam strips, stewed tomatoes and pickled beets. A chef's special might be curry-seared fresh fish with Thai fried rice, Cajun fried calamari and, bone-in-pork chops over a local sweet potato and sage mash. Fresh fish is in constant supply.
Led by Travis Todd, Ocean Odyssey has developed an admirably ambitious craft beer program that includes a rotating lineup of visiting beers on taps, as well as a steady schedule of inventive beer dinners.
316 Sunburst Highway (U.S. 50), Cambridge, 410-228-8633, toddseafood.com
If you go
Easton, St. Michaels and Cambridge are all less than a two-hour drive from Baltimore.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 2145 Key Wallace Drive, Cambridge, 410-228-2677. Time magazine called it "nature on the throne of her glory." Established in 1933 as a sanctuary for migrating waterfowl along the "Atlantic Flyway," the refuge is over 25,000 acres, including freshwater impoundments, brackish tidal wetlands, open fields, and mixed evergreen and deciduous forests. Camping is not allowed at the refuge, and although there are five short trails for hiking, the best way to see the refuge in one day is the Wildlife Drive, which is open from dawn to dusk all year. Daily permits for private vehicles for $3.
Choptank River Lighthouse, 1 High St., Cambridge, 410-228-7977, choptankriverlighthouse.org. Designed to honor Dorchester County's maritime heritage, the Chesapeake Bay's newest lighthouse is a replica of one that once guided mariners along the Choptank River. The Choptank River Lighthouse is located on Cambridge's Long Wharf Park, about 12 miles away from the original, which was near the mouth of the Tred Avon River. Opened this month, the Choptank River Lighthouse is expected to draw as many as 20,000 visitors annually. It will also serve as the dockmaster's office for the adjoining Cambridge Marina, as well as a mini-museum.
Good Beer and Autumn Wine festivals. With Cambridge, St. Michaels or Easton as your base, two popular fall festivals are easily accessible. First up is the Good Beer Festival (Oct.13-14, goodbeerfestival.com) featuring 75 American craft beers, live music, a chili cook-off and a home-brew competition. The next weekend, the annual Autumn Wine Festival (Oct. 20-21, autumnwinefestival.org) gives connoisseurs and first-time samplers a beautiful backdrop for exploring Maryland wine. Both festivals are at the 207-acre Pemberton Historical Park (5561 Plantation Lane, Salisbury), whose meadows in the fall are lined with trees of vibrant orange, red and yellow.
Talbot County Office of Tourism, 11 S. Harrison St., Easton, 410-770-8000, tourtalbot.org
Dorchester County Tourism, 2 Rose Hill Place, Cambridge, 410-228-1000,tourdorchester.org