By Jordan Wright (Photo/Jordan Wright)
Oxford may be a scant 87 miles from Old Town, but it’s a long and fascinating journey back in time to a postcard-pretty village that has vouchsafed its history as one of the oldest towns in Maryland.
The trip from the Bay Bridge and then on U.S. Route 301 carries travelers south across acres of flat farmland dotted by roadside stands. Wooden crates stacked high with fresh corn, sun-ripened tomatoes and juicy cantaloupes had to wait for our return as we made our way to the county seat of Easton and a pit stop for lunch at The BBQ Joint.
This cute restaurant — complete with shady sidewalk tables — is renowned for serving some of the region’s best barbecue and definitely merits a detour. It’s where chef and owner Andrew Evans left the world of fine dining to offer up his award-winning smoked meats and unique sauces.
Easton boasts many antique emporiums, art galleries and upscale gift shops along with the Academy Art Museum, where the exhibits feature local as well as world-renowned artists. Aspiring chefs will find Crabi Gras — which boasts hot sauces, spices and pickles from around the country — along Harrison Street. We rehydrated at Hill’s Soda Fountain and Cafe with a glass of JMX, a vitamin-packed elixir of fruits and vegetables, juiced on site, that locals buy by the quart.
Our hunger and pallets satiated, we then headed down the road a few miles to Oxford.
There’s no mistaking the Oxford Inn. The yellow clapboard structure with green shutters and a large porch was built about 1880 and sports an antique British taxi parked out front. The seven-bedroom bed and breakfast, owned by Lisa McDougal and husband Dan Zimbelman, was bustling with preparations for dinner already in high gear.
McDougal is a world-class chef who thrills diners with her imaginative European bistro cuisine in the inn’s Pope’s Tavern, a country chic dining room where she showcases seasonal dishes. Have a cocktail in the bar and meet the locals or sit on the front porch for a view of the canal — you cannot go wrong. We discovered the taxi gives locals a ride home after an evening of over-tippling. Guests need only climb the stairs to a cozy room to call it a day.
The combination of savory aromas wafting upstairs and the morning’s sunlight pouring into our bedroom window erased any thoughts of lolling about in bed. Cue the sound of halyards pinging against a ship’s mast and pennants flapping in the breeze to get the body moving — that and sizzling bacon.
Weekends are when McDougal goes all out with a lavish breakfast of omelets, bacon, sausage, pancakes, frittatas, fresh fruits, and homemade breads and scones. Did I mention she also does the baking? All with an engaging energy that makes you feel like you’ve known her all your life.
With full stomachs, we went out on the town. Exploring the village by foot is the best way to experience the tree-lined streets and historic homes.
For the past five summers, the town has organized a picket-fence project. Twenty-two fence sections are given to local artists to decorate and display before auctioning them off at the end of September. The proceeds of each section go to the artist’s favorite charity. Grab a map from the inn and see how many of these unique fences you can spy. If you see one you like, you can bid online before the big night.
If you came to the Eastern Shore to do some crab picking — and if breakfast didn’t fill you up — there’s no better spot than the Masthead at Pier Street Marina, which has a breathtaking waterside view of the sunset. Get a bucket of Ipswich steamers and spiced crabs and dig in.
Travelers will find the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, in operation since 1683, by the water’s edge. Purported to be the oldest ferry service in the nation, it’s owned by Capt. Tom and Judy Bixler. The 10-minute ride is a shortcut to Tilghman Island, a quaint fishing village accentuated with an old drawbridge.
We took a leisurely lunch under a willow tree on the deck of the Tilghman Island Inn. The peaceful spot comes with sweeping views of Knapps Narrows and lets guests with a little bit of time spot redwing blackbirds and great blue herons that soar across the marshes and perch among wildflowers.
We watched sailboats heading out to the bay as watermen returned with their daily catch over rockfish chowder and fried local oyster sandwiches. With a bit of prodding, proprietor and southern gentleman extraordinaire David McCallum will regale you with stories of his notable guests, like musician Robert Plant — of Led Zeppelin fame — who brought his family for a week earlier this summer.
After lunch, hop a ride on the Rebecca T. Ruark, built in 1886. The skipjack leaves from nearby Dogwood Harbor for a two-hour tour of the water. Or check with the inn to book fishing charters, kayaking or bicycle rentals.
Take the Royal Oak Road back to Oxford, and you’ll pass Oak Creek Sales. The store cum barn holds an eclectic smattering of vintage patio furniture, junk from grandma’s parlor and terrific finds. I snagged a small cast-bronze dog and a brass, jockey-themed wall hanging for keys and caps.
On warm summer nights, dining alfresco is available at the Robert Morris Inn, a bespoke Colonial inn built in 1710 and owned by British master chef Mark Salter and Ian Fleming. Salter’s elegant cuisine delivers a modern approach to classically styled dishes, like summer gazpacho with lump crab or the inn’s original recipe crab cakes served with corn succotash, grilled watermelon and white corn sauce. Save room for a slice of pecan pie or Salter’s version of the iconic multilayered Smith Island cake topped with whipped cream.
After dinner we strolled along the strand gazing at the stars and hearing the osprey’s call. Then we returned to Pope’s Tavern for a nightcap, discussing plans to snag a few pounds of those glorious peaches for a homemade cobbler.