In an area where watermen and their history have customarily been the prime subject of writerly interest, it was “Chesapeake” author James Michener who noted the architecture of Cambridge’s High Street, referring to its splendors as “one of the most beautiful streets in America”, which is precisely where we begin our exploration.
Start in the center of town at the Richardson Maritime Museum where a wealth of artifacts and expertly crafted replicas of historic ships are on display. Around the corner is the Ruark Boatworks, which affords a fascinating look at modern-day boat restoration and the building of traditional wooden bay craft.
Follow the cobblestone High Street toward the Choptank River and along the way admire stately 18th and 19th century homes, some meticulously restored, others awaiting a fresh coat of paint and some new shutters to be brought back to their original splendor.
A stone’s throw from the river is the Cambridge House Bed and Breakfast. Built in 1847 in the Queen Anne style of architecture, the manor boasts six large guest rooms with private baths. Mine was on the second floor with a private porch overlooking a lily pond. The elegant home is furnished in the style of the period. Wicker chairs provide the perfect respite for reading or watching passersby from an expansive front porch. Jim and Marianne Benson and their adorable pooch Max (rescued by the couple while Jim was stationed in Cuba with the Foreign Service), are the gracious innkeepers. They will gladly share their stories (Max is available to play fetch) and describe the history of the former sea captain’s home.
A five-minute stroll towards the river will take you to the picturesque boat docks and self-guided tour of the replica Choptank Lighthouse, a six-sided screwpile lighthouse that contains a small museum focused on the nautical history of the area.
Turning back towards town I dropped in on Joe Clayton, great-great grandson of Captain Johnnie, founder of the JM Clayton Seafood Company where watermen have been bringing their crabs for picking and cleaning for five generations. Arrange a tour of the plant here. Behind the old single-story brick building is local artist Michael Rosato’s hyper-realistic mural. Painted on the side of an old caboose it depicts life along the river.
Continuing along High Street stop in at Christ Episcopal Church and Cemetery, the burial place of four Maryland governors. Though the church was built in 1883, the lovely parish dates back to 1692.
Cambridge has recently undergone an exciting restaurant renaissance offering both chef-helmed dining as well as casual fare. Try The High Spot Gastropub on Muir Street where Executive Chef Patrick Fanning lures guests with his elegant twist on classic American dishes using locally caught fish and farm-sourced ingredients. Head-over-heels creations are Zinfandel Braised Beef Cheeks & Blue Crab Hash, Conch Chowder with a splash of Gosling’s Rum, and Oyster Pot Pie.
A few days before my arrival Elliott’s Baking Company opened in one of these beautifully restored turn of the century buildings. Owner and longtime resident, Bernie Elliott, hired French Culinary School grad, Aaron Powley, whose repertoire includes traditionally made brioche, croissants, sumptuous French pastries and hearty artisanal breads. Many of the local restaurants feature Powley’s breads and rolls.
Look around to find trendy boutiques and specialty stores like Squoze, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grab-and-go spot for freshly made green juices, smoothies, sandwiches and wraps and a well curated selection of health foods. Another can’t-miss is A Few of My Favorite Things, a gourmet gift and wine bar. Here samples of their wines are poured by a sommelier while you nosh on delicious cheeses, spreads and charcuterie. They are one of many spots in town to hear live music at night.
Stop in Reale Revival, known by locals as RAR, where industrial chic dominates the quirky cool décor. The brewery, bar and lounge was started by Dorchester County natives, Chris Brohawn and J. T. Merryweather, who decided to quit their day jobs to make beer – every armchair beer drinker’s fantasy. Luckily for them their palates matched their enthusiasm and they have been producing exceptional artisanal beers. On a hot day the Mine Layer Saison, an unfiltered summer beer in the Belgian Farm style pairs well with sushi and fish tacos from their extensive small bites menu.
What’s the must-have meal on the Eastern Shore? Why a mess of steamed blue crabs dredged in Old Bay seasoning and served with local corn on the cob, of course! Try the Ocean Odyssey, a family-friendly spot with an outdoor deck on the Ocean Highway. You’ll also find bison burgers, fish tacos and a large selection of beers on tap. For a touch of French bistro cuisine, you’ll need reservations for the new Bistro Poplar.
The next day a brilliant summer sun broke through the morning’s haze and after a hearty breakfast at the inn, I headed off for Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a breathtaking 25,000 acre waterfowl sanctuary with a new visitor’s center, wildlife exhibits featuring Osprey and Bald Eagle cam monitors, and native wildflower gardens. This spectacular gem lies 12 miles south of Cambridge along Bucktown Road. Drivable roads and boardwalks wind through much of the forests and tidal wetlands affording miles of flat trails for hikers, cyclists and birders.
A few miles southwest lies the windswept chain of islands known collectively as Hoopers Island, where I visited Barren Island Oysters, an oyster aquaculture farm owned and operated by internationally famed nature photographer Tim Devine. Grown in a pristine cove and transferred to cages in the bay off Barren Island, the conditions offer a desirable salinity, producing the sustainably raised plump, buttery-tasting triploid oysters that are preferred by many area chefs. A well-known client in DC is BlackSalt restaurant.
Farther down the road is Fishing Creek, a small community dotted with crab houses alongside a warren of wooden docks harboring boats for watermen and sport fishing. Founded in the 1700’s, it’s where Phillip’s Seafood began operations 100 years ago.
Have lunch at Old Salty’s, a seafood restaurant in operation for 31 years in a historic schoolhouse with sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay. The crab cakes here are luscious and destination-worthy – barely held together, lightly broiled mounds of creamy white, jumbo lump crabmeat. Rockfish, scallops and other locally caught seafood are another big draw. But before toddling back to civilization complete the journey with a slice of their towering coconut, lemon meringue or chocolate pies.
Mark your Fall calendar for these upcoming Cambridge events:
September 20th and 21st – The IRONMAN Maryland Triathlon is expected to draw 100’s of racers and their families and will dovetail with the town’s 38th Annual Outdoor “Summer Sendoff” street fair of “Blues, Brews and Barbecue”.
Photo credit to Jordan Wright
October 10th to 12th – The Cambridge City Art Fair and Outdoor Street Festival at Guild Hall hosts where local and national dealers and gallerists feature current, as well as antique 18th and 19th century, paintings to view and buy. Here’s more information.