Soak up a bit of Chesapeake culture

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Soak up a bit of Chesapeake culture
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By Jordan Wright (File photo)

In an area where watermen, their history and culture have customarily been the prime subject of literary interest, it was “Chesapeake” author James Michener who noted the architecture of Cambridge’s High Street. He referred to its splendors as “one of the most beautiful streets in America.”

It’s no wonder then that High Street is where we began our adventure.

Start in the center of the Maryland town with a visit to the Richardson Maritime Museum where a wealth of artifacts and expertly crafted replicas of historic ships are on display. Ruark Boatworks, which affords a fascinating look at modern-day boat restoration and the building of traditional wooden bay craft, is right around the corner.

Follow the cobblestoned High Street toward the Choptank River and along the way there are plenty of stately 18th and 19th century homes to admire. A few are meticulously restored while others await a fresh coat of paint and perhaps new shutters to be brought back to their past splendor.

A stone’s throw from the river, you will find 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 and boasted a private porch overlooking a lily pond.

The elegant home is furnished in the style of the period. Wicker chairs provide the perfect place for reading or watching passing traffic from an expansive front porch. Jim and Marianne Benson and their adorable pooch Max (rescued by the couple while Jim Benson was stationed in Cuba with the Foreign Service), are the gracious innkeepers. They will gladly share their stories and describe the history of the former sea captain’s home.

A five-minute stroll towards the waterfront will take you to picturesque boat docks and the replica Choptank Lighthouse, a six-sided screw-pile lighthouse that contains a small museum focused on the region’s nautical history.

On my way back to town, I dropped in on Joe Clayton, great-great grandson of Captain Johnnie, founder of the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company where crabbers have been bringing their harvests for picking and cleaning for five generations. To arrange a tour of the plant, visit www.jmclayton.com.

Behind the old single-story brick building you will find local artist Michael Rosato’s hyper-realistic mural. Painted on the side of an old caboose, it depicts life along the river.

After 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 in which it is located dates back to 1692.

Cambridge recently experienced an exciting culinary renaissance, a rebirth that brought in both chef-helmed dining and casual fare. Try The High Spot Gastropub on High Street where executive chef Patrick Fanning lures guests in with his elegant twist on classic American dishes using locally caught fish and farm-sourced ingredients. A few of his head-over-heels creations are zinfandel braised beef cheeks and blue crab hash, conch chowder with a splash of Gosling’s Rum, and oyster pot pie.

Continuing on High Street we pass scores of restored historic buildings, one of which houses the Dorchester Center for the Arts. The 17,000-square-foot space is home to state-of-the-art classrooms, galleries, an artisans’ gift shop and a large performing arts stage.

A few days before my arrival, Elliott’s Baking Co. 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 Gallic pastries and hearty artisanal breads. Many local restaurants feature Powley’s breads and rolls.

Look around to find trendy boutiques and specialty stores like Squoze, a small 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 are poured by a sommelier while you nosh on delicious cheeses, spreads and charcuterie. They are one of many spots in town to catch live music at night.

Stop in Reale Revival, known by locals as RAR, where industrial chic dominates the quirky, cool decor. The brewery, bar and lounge was launched by Dorchester County natives Chris Brohawn and J. T. Merryweather, who quit their day jobs to make beer — every armchair beer drinker’s fantasy.

Luckily for them, their palates matched their enthusiasm. They have been producing exceptional artisanal beers from the very start. On a hot day, the Mine Layer Saison, an unfiltered summer beer in the Belgian farmhouse style, pairs well with sushi and fish tacos from their extensive small bites menu.

What’s the must-have meal on the Eastern Shore? A mess of steamed blue crabs drowned 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 Sunburst Highway. You’ll also find bison burgers, fish tacos and a large selection of beers on tap.

The next day, a brilliant summer sun broke through the morning’s haze. 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 cameras, and native wildflower gardens. This spectacular gem lies 12 miles south of Cambridge off of 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 isles known collectively as Hoopers Island, where I visited Barren Island Oysters, a hatchery owned and operated by famed nature photographer Tim Devine. Grown in a pristine cove that offers a desirable salinity, the sustainably raised plump, buttery-tasting triploid oysters are preferred by many area chefs. One of their well-known clients is the BlackSalt restaurant in D.C.

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 1700s, 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. They feature barely held together, lightly broiled mounds of creamy white, jumbo lump crabmeat. Rockfish, scallops and other locally caught seafood are the other big draws. But, before toddling back to civilization, complete the journey with a slice of their famous towering coconut, lemon meringue or chocolate pies.

For more information visit 
www.tourdorchester.org.

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