On the Water
Once you’re out on the shore’s winding fingers, which inch out into the water as if to bring watermen one step closer to their crabs and oysters, the winding roads make driving the long way around. Thankfully, many local captains are happy to help you get around by water rather than bothering with land. The nation’s oldest privately operated ferry, in service since 1783, runs daily between St. Michaels and Oxford, home to two other crab institutions.
A restaurant called Schooners has stolen some hearts from Crab Claw for its steamed crabs, but its main attraction is soft-shell crab, served — like most things on the shore — simply stacked on a roll with tomato and mayonnaise. On the opposite end of presentation, chef Mark Salter’s award-winning crab cakes at Salter’s Tavern and Tap Room in Oxford’s 18th-century Robert Morris Inn have been ranked among the best crabcakes on the shore.
When you’re this far out on the water, the only sensible place to go is farther out, and two tours offer different takes on the shore. For a modern view of historic sites, groups can explore four unusual isolated lighthouses from the 1800s off the coast. From Tilghman Island, fifth-generation waterman Captain Wade Murphy takes groups out on the 1886 Rebecca T. Ruark, one of the oldest working skipjacks, for a sunset cruise and oyster-shucking lesson. The special boat style is used for dredging oysters in the shallow Chesapeake Bay.
Dorchester on Down
Back on the main peninsula, the smart brick downtown of Dorchester county seat Cambridge beckons with its historic center and long shoreline park. Cambridge has many famous native daughters, including Annie Oakley and Harriet Tubman, who is honored by a museum and the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument and State Park.
Groups can follow the historic High Street, with its cobblestone stretches and Queen Anne- and Federal-style homes, to the Long Wharf, where the 63-foot-long living-history museum and working skipjack Nathan of Dorchester is available for weekend visits and cruises on the Choptank River.
While many towns on the shore feature only small inns, which are historic, storied and worth a stay if group size permits, Cambridge offers the first opportunity for groups to spread out at a larger property at the 400-room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, far enough out of town that you’ll be awakened by birds and waves instead of cars and delivery trucks.
South of Cambridge, civilization drifts away entirely at the 27,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors see wild birds such as pileated woodpeckers and bald eagles, which are so prevalent that groups have a good chance of spotting one from the reserve’s main seven-mile loop, Wildlife Drive. For a deeper dive into the reserve, the 2.7-mile Key Wallace hiking trail and demonstration forest showcases one of the refuge’s oldest stands of trees, and three paddling trails of varying levels of difficulty can put your group face-to-face with a blue heron.
South to Salisbury
Continuing southeast to Salisbury, the largest city on the shore, groups can create their own personal piece of Eastern Shore wildlife memorabilia. The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art offers duck decoy carving lessons taught by master woodworkers. After the class, visitors can check out the gallery exhibit, which explores the relationships between nature and culture, or purchase professionally carved decoys in the museum’s extensive shop. Tours of the 2,500-piece collection and picnic lunches on the waterfront grounds are also available.
Back in Cambridge stands an 1890 company that bills itself as the world’s oldest crab packinghouse: J.M. Clayton. And that is exactly what it is. There’s no tour, barely a storefront to speak of and only one parking lot for both customers and shipping trucks bound for New York and Montreal.
But like so many things on the shore, that unencumbered, unsung exterior hides an experience you’ll never forget: in this case, a souvenir. Whether you want whole crabs, preshelled fresh meat or pasteurized meat, they’ll take your order at the clerk’s window and pack it fresh in the back. This unusual stop and send-off lets guests take home the unadulterated form of the shore’s water obsession in its purest form.