June 2021: Maryland

Baltimore's Inner Harbor and National Aquarium (foreground), image by Brendan Beale on Unsplash

When one thinks of the east coast of the USA, probably the first states to come to mind are Florida, New York and perhaps Massachusetts. The small state of Maryland, right in the middle of it all, is often quite easily overlooked by US residents and international tourists alike.

That’s really a shame, because although it may be small there’s quite a bit to see. It’s for this reason that Maryland earned the slogan ‘America in Miniature’. Oh, and yours truly was born and raised there (until age 16), so I guess I know what I’m talking about! 😁

Maryland will appeal to:

  • Boating and maritime enthusiasts
  • Seafood lovers
  • Those interested in American Revolutionary and Civil War history
  • City and culture buffs

The Basics

The state of Maryland is the USA’s 9th smallest, with a land area just slightly larger than Belgium. Maryland’s defining feature, which contributes to its unusual shape, is the Chesapeake Bay and its various tributaries. Life in Maryland’s central and eastern regions has always revolved around the water, from the Native American communities (mainly Algonquin) that were there before Europeans arrived right up until today. In this part of the state, maritime culture prevails.

The Chesapeake region and areas to the Bay’s east (called the ‘Eastern Shore’ by locals) are relatively flat, and water is always close by. Along the outer Atlantic coast is the beach resort of Ocean City, and further south lies the protected Assateague Island seashore, with large natural sand dunes and a colony of wild horses.

Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, image by By United States Coast Guard, PA1 Pete Milnes (Public Domain)
Peabody Library in Baltimore, image by Elijah Hail at Unsplash
Wild horses on the beach, Asssateague Island, image by Sara Cottle at Unsplash
Ocean City beach at sunrise, image by Jason Pischke at Unsplash

To the west of the Chesapeake, the landscape gradually rises into rolling hills and eventually the Appalachian Mountains. That’s where the ‘American in Miniature’ moniker comes from – it’s small in size but big in variety!

Maryland was one of the original 13 colonies, so it played a significant role in the American Revolution. After independence, Maryland donated the land which became the young country’s new capital, Washington, DC.

During the Civil War, Maryland was officially on the Union side but was essentially a buffer state between North (Union) and South (Confederacy). Sentiments were split amongst the populace, with the majority siding with the Union but a significant minority supporting the Confederates. Antietam, site of the bloodiest battle of the entire war, is in north central Maryland. Finally, two prominent African American abolitionist leaders, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, were also Marylanders.

The port city of Baltimore (nickname ‘Charm City’) is the state’s largest, and definitely worth a visit to see its Inner Harbor and its charming neighborhoods such as Fell’s Point, Canton, Mt Vernon and Federal Hill. In the Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium is considered one of the world’s best.

The city has a fantastic cultural and arts scene, anchored by the Lyric Performing Arts Center, the Peabody Institute Conservatory, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Walters Art Museum.

The local American football team is the Baltimore Ravens, and if you’re there during baseball season, be sure to check out the famous Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles.

Showing off the lovely Fell's Point neighborhood!
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Annapolis street scene, Maryland State house, image by Martin Falbisoner (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The state capital is Annapolis, a small and very quaint seafaring city on the western shore of the Chesapeake. It’s a really attractive town to wander through and sample the great Maryland seafood. It’s also home to the US Naval Academy, so don’t be surprised when you see “middies”, as the students are called, around town in their dress white uniform.

The Eastern Shore and the western Maryland highlands are both rather sparsely populated, with plenty of interesting and historic small towns and cities such as St. Michael’s, Ellicott City and Cumberland.

And finally, Ocean City is Maryland’s beach resort, complete with boardwalk, amusement parks and lots of hotels lining the small barrier island on which it is located.

Ocean City aerial view, image by Drngogo (CC BY-Sa 4.0)

Sustainability

Despite it being rather densely populated, Maryland has made numerous moves to protect its environment, and particularly the sensitive ecology of the Chesapeake watershed. For example, when I was a child in the 1980’s I distinctly remember a moratorium on the fishing of the bay’s rockfish (also known as striped bass) which lasted several years until stocks rebounded.

Conservation and cleanup efforts are complicated by the fact that a large amount of pollutants enter the bay’s tributaries from other states upstream, and achieving interstate cooperation to reduce the consequences downstream can be challenging. Sadly, a small piece of the Chesapeake was one of the world’s first so-called ‘marine dead zones’ to be identified back in the 1970’s, where oxygen levels are so depleted that essentially no sea life can survive.

Increased awareness of the issues facing the Chesapeake has had some impact, but pollution from pesticides and urban and industrial runoff continue to affect the Bay’s water quality. The dead zones persist and all marine life continues to suffer the consequences. The Bay is by no means beyond recovery, but like so many other natural environments in the world, far greater attention is necessary to allow it to regenerate and regain its health.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge, image by Mary Oakey on Unsplash
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Old brick house in Saint Michael's

Active Travel

I guess I don’t need to say that outdoor activities on and in the water are in abundance! Pretty much, if you can name it, you can probably do it somewhere either on the Chesapeake Bay, on a lake, a river or along the Atlantic coast barrier islands and bays. I should also note that the water along the Atlantic coast gets relatively warm in summer, and the water quality is generally high.

But after all the attention I’ve given to the Bay and coastline, I’d like to spend a little time talking about Maryland’s inland region, and all it has to offer. As you head west and the landscape gradually becomes hillier and less populated, cycling, hiking and mountain biking are great ways to get some fresh air and get your heart pumping at the same time. Cunningham Falls State Park in the Catoctin Mountains is just one example.

Several rivers in the state also have mild to moderate rapids, and numerous outfitters offer kayak rentals, whitewater rafting tours, and independent tubing trips where you can rent a set of inner tubes and float down the river as a group, with a dedicated tube for drinks and snacks if you like! The tubing tours in particular are suitable for families with children as young as six.

Maryland has no natural lakes, but numerous mandmade reservoirs. The largest of these is Deep Creek Lake, where swimming, boating and lakeside water sports are available. The area is also home to the Wisp Resort, Maryland’s only ski area.

Cunningham Falls State Park, image by Jarek Tuszyński (CC BY 4.0)
Catoctin Mountains in Autumn, image by David Mark at Pixabay
Great Falls (Potomac River), image by Katie Bellaschi at Pixabay

Culinary Travel

If you love fresh fish and seafood, you are going to think you’ve died and gone to heaven in Maryland…and I am not exaggerating! Maryland is famous for blue crab, oysters, clams and numerous species of fish, and many different ways of preparing all of them.

The blue crab especially is a distinctly Maryland delicacy, steamed with a spice mixture called Old Bay seasoning, which is generally rather spicy (much of the heat coming from paprika). Blue crabs are also found in other parts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, but the Old Bay method of preparation is particular to Maryland. Of course, blue crab is also served in many other ways than steamed whole, such as crab cakes (one of my favorites!).

Maryland has great seasonal produce, the freshest of which is available at farmer’s markets and roadside stands. The state also has a growing wine industry and a number of highly rated craft breweries. According to the House Method website, the best of these is Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, but they are all worth a try!

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A bushel of blue crabs - watch out, those claws can deliver a nasty pinch!
The Admiral Fell Inn, Fell's Point

My Tips & Picks

Unique Hotel Tip: The Admiral Fell Inn, in the Fell’s Point neighborhood of Baltimore, is not only well-located just a few blocks from the waterfront and numerous restaurants and bars, it’s also a treasure trove of Baltimore history! This upscale hotel has 80 rooms, two restaurants and a tavern spread between 8 connected buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s famous for being one of the country’s most haunted hotels and offers its own ghost/history tour. My husband and I can in fact confirm our own “paranormal encounter” at the Admiral Fell. In the middle of the night during our stay, my husband felt our bed suddenly begin to shake quite strongly, as if there was an earthquake. I was awakened by the shaking but not in time to consciously note it. We checked the next morning and of course there was no earthquake, and we could find no other plausible explanation. Was it a ghost? Perhaps!

Historic Inn Tip: The Robert Morris Inn in Oxford, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, was built in 1710 and is one of the oldest inns in the country. Its namesake was one of the Founding Fathers who stayed there – George Washington was another. The place oozes charm and history, and its restaurant is also highly rated. The co-owner/chef even offers occasional cooking demonstrations!

Restaurant Tip: Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis (located a bit outside of town) is a classic Maryland seafood experience, and they’ve been in business for almost 40 years. Steamed crabs anchor the menu but you can also get a range of other seafood dishes as well as a few items for the “landlubbers”. It has a great waterfront setting along the quiet Mill Creek, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. It isn’t a fine dining establishment, but if you’re looking to get fresh seafood in a laid-back atmosphere, you can’t go wrong here! Try to visit on a weekday, since weekends can be very busy, and know that you may have to wait for a table…no reservations are taken!

Bar Tip: The Horse You Came In On Saloon, known to locals simply as “The Horse”, is located just around the corner from the Admiral Fell Inn. A saloon has continuously operated here since 1775, and it is said to be the last place writer Edgar Allan Poe was seen (in a functioning state, at least) before his mysterious death. Naturally, Poe’s ghost is rumored to haunt the bar. The barstools are saddles, the interior is of brick and dark wood and has all the look of an 18th century saloon. As an interesting contrast, the back section was recently expanded to build a more modern tequila bar. It offers pub food and live music every night.

Tour Tip: Bite of Baltimore offers several foodie tours of different neighborhoods of the city, of course including food sampling (or sometimes a full meal) as well as imparting some of the history of the communities visited. It’s the top-rated food tour company in the city.

Fell's Point panorama, viewed from the roof of the Admiral Fell Inn

Planning Your Visit

Getting there: With its position right on the east coast of the USA, Maryland is very easy to reach by almost any means. Train and road connections to the rest of the east coast are excellent, and if you’re flying in from abroad there are a few options at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Airport, and even more through Dulles Airport in Virginia and Philadelphia Airport in Pennsylvania, both a short drive/train ride away. Additional (domestic only) routes are available at Reagan National Airport.

When to go: Spring and Autumn are great times to visit, as temperatures are generally comfortable for being outdoors. Summer is also good, but it can be hot and humid, and thus uncomfortable to be outside for longer periods. Exceptions to this are the higher elevations of western Maryland and the Atlantic coast (where sea breezes and the beach are always close at hand to cool off). Finally, Christmastime can also be very beautiful, with many towns and cities putting on large light displays. Some also offer evenings of “midnight madness”, when local shops and art galleries stay open late, and craft stands, refreshments and entertainment are often available.

Maryland is a great destination all on its own, but it’s also easily combined with a visit to its neighbors. Washington, DC is an obvious choice, but anywhere in the northeast or mid-Atlantic is also possible. Contact me today to start planning your vacation to “America in Miniature”!

St. Michael's waterfront
The view of Main Street in Sykesville, which happens to be my hometown!