Historic Southern Town, Northern Style in Maryland

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Little has changed here for decades: no parking problems, just glide down the main street.

Little has changed here for decades: no parking problems, just glide down the main street.

Mid-coast or in D.C., but need a New England fix? The tiny village of St. Michaels, Maryland, with its winding streets lined with Saltboxes and Capes, its blocks of quaint shops, pubs, and restaurants, and its thriving shipbuilding yard, is the perfect destination.

Just like much of New England, this is quintessential old Americana. The land in and around St. Michaels was settled in the mid- 1600s through a series of land grants and, 100 years later, was divided into 58 lots on just 20 acres. The little community on the water grew and thrived as land was cleared and trees went to build ships, attracting shipbuilders from New England. St. Michaels grew up to look a lot like the coastal towns where those shipbuilders themselves had grown up.

At the Crab Claw Restaurant, locals can eat crabs and imbibe beer while looking over the waterway.

At the Crab Claw Restaurant, locals can eat crabs and imbibe beer while looking over the waterway.

The ambiance of the town and its environs has changed little over the centuries. There are still fewer than 1,500 year-round citizens. With a picture-postcard site on the Miles River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary where sailing and crabbing are the highlights of a stay, the town retains the slow pace of a crab, even though it is just a little over an hour from Washington, D.C. At the height of the warm-weather season, the town fills with thousands of visitors who come for the high-end antiques, gift and home-decor “shoppes,” and galleries housed in 18th- and 19th-century structures. Still, even with a swollen population, you’ll feel no sense of crowding or riverfront bustle.

What you won’t find is a traffic light or fast-food franchise. Bicycles trump SUVs. The marinas, with sailboats at every slip, are a main attraction: If we can’t have one, we can fantasize. There’s an excellent Maritime Museum on the water.

For lovers of historic architecture, this is nirvana. With few exceptions, all buildings are historic or in period style. In the historic end of town, ardent preservationists enforce stringent building codes that allow no footprints of historic properties to be altered. Even practicality dictates that the town maintain its architectural profile. There is an ongoing fishing and boating industry, but tourism is the golden calf, given the town’s get-away-from-it-all atmosphere.

Wickersham House was painstakingly moved, sometimes brick by brick, from another town by its owner to this site backing up to the Miles River.

Wickersham House was painstakingly moved, sometimes brick by brick, from another town by its owner to this site backing up to the Miles River.

Long, idyllic days (some call them romantic) may be spent strolling or biking down the streets, feasting on Colonial architecture, Federal architecture, and Victorian architecture, dining on mid- to upscale foodie fare, and spending quiet nights in quaint inns and hotels. The ultimate lodging is the four-star Inn at Perry Cabin; the resort was built as a residence for a 19th-century ship’s captain.

The town offers no honky-tonk entertainment; there is no boardwalk or public beach. The local nod to dining debauchery, and one of St. Michaels major draws, is the harvesting of plentiful Maryland blue crabs, for many a raison d’être unto itself. Despite the community’s other attractions and preservation efforts, the lovely town is for some a mere backdrop for the consumption of the ugly little crustacean.

Area Contacts

The Crab Claw Restaurant: (410) 745-9366, thecrabclaw.com
The Inn at Perry Cabin: (866) 278-9601, perrycabin.com
St. Michaels: (800) 808.7622, stmichaelsmd.org
Talbot County Office of Tourism: (410) 770-8000, tourtalbot.org

Stop By

Old Wood & Co., Harbeson, DE: (302) 684-3600, oldwoodco.com
Furniture from reclaimed and recycled wood: primitive, antiqued, custom; also diverse flooring options from remilled old timbers. Retail store.
Deep Landing Workshop, Chestertown, MD: (877) 778-4042, deeplandingworkshop.com
Family-run: custom early historical lighting to the trade only. Showroom in D.C.
Frank B. Rhodes, Chestertown, MD: (410) 778-3993, frankbrhodes.com
Reproductions of notable American furniture as well as original designs and custom work. Repair, refinishing, and upholstering, too. Visit the showroom.
Michael M. Coldren Co., North East, MD: (410) 287-2082, coldrencompany.com
Fine historical hardware, along with consultation, restoration, antique hardware, and custom work. By appointment.