Eight-year-old Leslie Ross holds an iced tea in one hand and her father’s wrist in the other. Her curly black hair wafts in the warm Chesapeake breeze as the mid-morning sun glints off the Maryland State House dome rising above the brick streets of Annapolis, Md.
The child looks at her father, who holds a travel brochure. “Dad,” she says, “what does Chesapeake mean?”
A quarter of a nautical mile away (about 1,500 feet), dozens of people stand at City Dock, an inlet between two piers in the middle of Annapolis’ restaurant and shopping district. They gawk at a 49-foot sailboat, named Obsession, that’s barely moving through the narrow strip of water. The locals call City Dock “Ego Alley,” because some boat captains enter the inlet simply to turn people’s heads, then turn around and sail back toward the Chesapeake Bay.
For boat owners, Annapolis, the self-proclaimed Sailing Capital of the World, is a see-and-be-seen sanctuary. But I’m just a part-time captain (with my 2-year-old son, Gibson) of a purple vessel we wind up in the bathtub. I’d rather see and do.
I turn from the Obsession, hopping aboard Jiffy Taxi, an inexpensive water taxi that will afford me the chance to explore one of the city’s veiled jewels: the picturesque inlet called Spa Creek.
A few other passengers step on while I draw slow, long whiffs of sea-salt air, and we head south. In a few minutes, I remember the Maine, looking left and spotting the former battleship’s fore mast, which stands at the U.S. Naval Academy in honor of drowned midshipmen. I feel reverent watching dozens of “middies” run in a pack, saluting the site as they pass.
We turn west, toward Spa Creek and the diminutive drawbridge separating downtown Annapolis from the Eastport maritime district. A sudden wind gust forces my eyes closed, and I hear a cacophony of whip clang whip — huge white sheets billow around us, and from somewhere, metal hits mast. I open my eyes and see Liquid Asset, the closest of the docked sailboats to the right.
We pass under the drawbridge. I didn’t bring a camera, but the Spa Creek scene is a hundred snapshots of summer fun: There’s a golden retriever fetching a tennis ball in the water; a man with his arm around a boy, teaching him how to cast; a woman basking in the sun on the deck of her boat. From our own boat, a passenger points to the water and says, “A crab — there’s one! Another!”
Watermen still prowl the Chesapeake Bay in flat-bottom skipjacks to catch Maryland blue crabs and drudge for “arshters” (oysters). Pavlov’s
dog drooled when it heard a dinner bell; my mouth waters when I think of smashed claws and dorsal fins. Call it classical conditioning from my former Annapolis summers. In this town, crabs are a necessity, not a delicacy. So when the water taxi returns to City Dock, I stroll down to Buddy’s Crabs & Ribs on Main Street.
I join some old cohorts (I guess “see and be seen” is somewhat true) at a large table that’ll soon be wrapped in brown paper. Each of us is given a wooden mallet, small cups of melted butter for dunking and Old Bay for seasoning. When the steamed lovelies arrive, I reach into the pile and hold one up, as a zealous baseball fan treats a caught foul ball. I break off the claws and use my mallet to crack one, revealing the meat, then dunk the treasure into butter and eat directly from the claw. My friends do the same.
We turn our crabs over, exposing their underbellies. Winces all around! There’s no need for the disgusting yellowish “mustard,” or lungs, and we scrape it away. I break my cleaned crab down the middle and, finally, I arrive at my crustaceous utopia: the meat peeking out of its membranes. Delicious!
At this point, I’m thinking two things: One, I love the Chesapeake, and two, I love beer. As any scientist worth his salt will explain, combining crabs and beer is really, really tasty. The next two hours are filled with good-natured joking and finger-licking goodness.
I say goodbye to my buddies and decide to walk off the meal by heading up Main Street, stopping into a few quaint shops. (See “If You Go,” p. 28.) When Sir Francis Nicholson laid out the city in the 1700s, he wanted to capture the Baroque styles made popular in London and Paris, so he formed the streets as spokes shooting out from two hilltop circles. Many first-time tourists find themselves trapped in a seemingly endless maze. I understand their frustration: I feel the same way after window-shopping for too long.
So I decide to drive 10 minutes to Quiet Waters Park, nestled between the South River and Harness Creek just south of downtown. The South River enters the Chesapeake Bay a mile east of here, near the Bay’s narrowest point (four miles across) and still about 150 miles from where the Bay dumps into the Atlantic Ocean in southern Virginia. After walking along two of its six miles of paved trails, I feel the urge to get back on the water, so I stop at the park’s equipment-rental facility to check out a blue pedal boat.
I lean back and meander, surrounded by hardwood forests and sprawling fields, enjoying the early-evening sun. I’ve never seen Quiet Waters Park mentioned on a brochure about Annapolis, and here, on my $15/hour version of Obsession in my former hometown, I’m glad that’s true.
I place my left hand in the cool water, lean my head back and close my eyes. “What does Chesapeake mean?” little Leslie Ross asked her father. He didn’t know the answer (it’s derived from the Algonquin Indians and means “great shellfish bay”) but today, his response seems perfect.
“Heaven,” he replied.
Sitting across the street from the historic Maryland State House, The Annapolis Pottery (40 State Circle, Annapolis; 410-268-6153 or www.annapolispottery.com
), is a can’t-miss site near the top of Main Street. Even if you don’t like crafts, it’s interesting to watch artists in this working studio create pieces ranging from bird feeders to serving bowls. In addition to pottery created on-premises, the shop represents award-winning artists nationwide.
Check out Castlebay Irish Pub (193-A Main St., Annapolis; 410-626-0165 or www.castlebayirishpub.com
), a traditional Irish pub with rich Honduran mahogany, terrific live music and tasty fare.
Stay at The Annapolis Inn (144 Prince George St.; 410-295-5200), an elegant but comfortable 18th-century Georgian townhouse in the historic district.
Great Lakes Travel Options
Walk a Mile in Art’s Shoes
If you’re willing to make the trek to Chicago, you’ll have to travel just a mile more. Held July 13 through 15, the 16th Annual Chicago Tribune Magnificent Mile Art Festival is a juried show of original, top-caliber artwork. Enjoy live musical performances and meet the artists while wandering through the extensive — and free — art show. The show runs 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call (954) 472-3755.
It’s time to polish the armor and saddle up your finest stallion. From July 7 to Aug. 12, the Great Lakes Medieval Faire is open to peasants and nobility alike. Every weekend is themed, from Arabian Knights to Pirate Invasion, and there’s an abundance of entertainment. Located in Rock Creek, an hour northeast of Cleveland, the park is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Get there early (9:45 a.m.) to see the opening ceremonies at the front gate. A day pass is $17.95 and kids are only $5.95. Weekend and season passes are also available. Find out more at www.medievalfaire.com,
or call 1-888-MEDIEVAL.