Congress on the Chesapeake

Bay-Area Members Offer Their Favorite Home-Style Attractions

Posted March 16, 2007 at 2:44pm

In easy driving distance of Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake Bay stretches roughly 200 miles from Southeastern Virginia to northern Maryland. It’s a land of lighthouses and crab shacks, of searingly beautiful landscapes and lazy afternoons on the water, and don’t forget all that colonial charm and history.

With so much to see and do in the region, deciding where to go can be a challenge. But you’re in luck. Roll Call has surveyed Members who represent parts of the bay area on the best eats, adventures and other attractions.

Here is a view of the bay through their eyes.

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest
Maryland’s 1st district
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) speaks of his district, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in almost poetic terms.

“You can get lost in nature’s design,” he says of a region “still blanketed with forests, still carpeted with farms and dotted with fishing villages.”

And the place that draws him back again and again is Turner’s Creek, an arm of the Sassafras River, which, in turn, flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Gilchrest lives near the creek and tries to go hiking or canoeing there with his faithful canines, Puppy and Patchie, at least once a week. Visitors, he says, should arrive early and “watch the sun come up and hear [it] glitter on the water.”

Partake in this beauty at the 147-acre Turner’s Creek Park with its waterfront bluff and open fields. At the Kent County Museum, which periodically hosts tractor pulls, you can peruse an 18th-century graveyard and house and a nearby pre-Civil War granary. The park borders the 1,000-acre Sassafras River Natural Resource Management Area with its beaches, tidal ponds, eclectic wildlife and forests. (And if you don’t have a canoe, Gilchrest recommends renting one from Chester River Kayak Adventures in Rock Hall.)

When it’s time for lunch, take Turner’s Creek Road into tiny Kennedyville, for a pit stop at the Sportsman’s Inn and General Store, says Gilchrest, who once brought Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) along to dine there. The locals still call the restaurant there Vonnie’s (though that’s no longer the official name), he says, and for Gilchrest no other place best sums up authentic “local Eastern Shore atmosphere.” Its menu includes catfish (Gilchrest’s favorite), roast beef and corn on the cob. And in the inn’s sporting goods store “you can get any gun or fishing pole or cold weather gear or rubber boots or ammunition” that you might want, Gilchrest says.

This should serve you well for an afternoon at Kennedyville’s 2,000-acre Hopkins Game Farm, which at various times of the year offers everything from pheasant to dear hunting. And it’s a popular year-round draw for sporting clays.

Critic H.L. Mencken once dubbed the Chesapeake Bay an “immense protein factory,” and much-loved fruits of the sea — such as oysters and crab — certainly get their share of attention throughout Gilchrest’s district. For bay state politicos, Crisfield’s annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in July is a must, particularly if you like dust in your fish, Gilchrest says. On Labor Day weekend, Gilchrest can be found at the town’s National Hard Crab Derby. “Every year I enter,” he says, but a Gilchrest crab has yet to win. “I think it’s fixed.” And nearly “every little town” has some kind of oyster festival, says Gilchrest, who often judges oyster stew contests. (For the record, he prefers his nice and simple — “just milk, the oysters, a little pepper and crackers.”)

But Gilchrest’s district also is a must if you want to sample some, ahem, more unusual protein offerings. In places like Rock Hall, you won’t find it in the stores, he says, but you can buy fresh eel that swim into the “nooks and crannies” off of the Chesapeake Bay and are caught by fishermen there for export to France. “Find a waterman. Ask him where you can hook up to buy eels,” says Gilchrest, who adds that a bucket of eels can be had for $20 or less, depending on the bartering.

For an “interesting evening,” several counties in his district are home to wild game dinners — often held at fire houses, Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, churches and Moose lodges — where the chow includes everything from raccoon to muskrat and even the occasional nutria. (Gilchrest, the proud owner of a stuffed nutria, which he keeps in his district office, says he’s been known to lend it out to some of these events so people can get a good idea of what they are eating.) February is a key month for such dinners, so many — such as Dorchester County’s annual National Outdoor Show, where muskrat and turtle pie were among the selections dished up this year, or the highly diverse feast held at Cambridge’s Moose Lodge, which included raccoon, muskrat, squirrel and bear — already have happened. But delicacies such as muskrat and fried wild turkey still can be sampled at the VFW in Cambridge, which will host its $15 wild game dinner on March 24.

Gilchrest, known for his low-key, everyman demeanor, doesn’t spend a lot of time in some of the more upper-scale resort towns, such as St. Michaels, known for the politicos from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Vice President Cheney who have vacation homes there. But for a quaint colonial experience, Chestertown is high on his list. There, he often stops in at The Black-Eyed Susan on Washington Avenue — owned by two of his former high school students. At night he favors the High Street pub, Andy’s, which has live music and where his daughter-in-law sometimes sings. During Memorial Day weekend, the town closes its downtown to traffic for the annual Chestertown Tea Party (May 25-27), a street festival and re-enactment of Chestertown’s own version of the better-known Boston Tea Party. According to local lore, the British closure of Boston Harbor incited a revolt in Chestertown in 1774. A model of a British ship now stands in the Chester River and “they throw the tea off … and also some of the British sailors,” Gilchrest chuckles.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger
Maryland’s 2nd district
In the eastern end of Baltimore County, in the blue-collar suburbs of Dundalk and Essex, a hard-core “culture of boating, crabbing and fishing” in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is still going strong, says its Representative, Dutch Ruppersberger (D).

This is backfin lump crab country, so no visit would be complete without sampling the local specialty. For a quick nibble on the go, try Salty Dog’s Crab House on North Point Boulevard in Dundalk, where you can score top-notch take-out, Ruppersberger says. But if you’ve got a whole evening to while away, the “best traditional crab experience” is Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn on Eastern Boulevard in Essex, he says. A typical night out there fueled by good conversation and “crabs and beers” easily can last three to four hours.

But it’s the people that, for Ruppersberger, are the greatest attraction. They “are very patriotic and homegrown,” he says, noting the multi-day festivities that surround Dundalk’s Fourth of July celebration. “There’s a huge, four- to five-mile parade,” says Ruppersberger, who always participates. “It’s a hoot.”

With “marinas everywhere” it isn’t hard to rent a boat for a day of fishing, says Ruppersberger, a former lifeguard who likes to go out on the bay “north of Baltimore.”

Those who prefer their feet firmly planted on the ground might enjoy taking in the wooden ducks at the Decoy Museum — home to some 1,200 decoys and other decorative carvings — located in quaint Havre de Grace on the bay. And don’t miss the bull and oyster roast March 25 at Pasadena’s Kurtz’s Beach, with all proceeds going to scholarships for local high schoolers.

But for Ruppersberger’s fellow Democrats, nothing beats the old-school, smoke-filled Battle Grove Democratic Club on St. Augustine Lane in Dundalk at election time, he says. Its members are “avid Democrats, who work hard for the party and are very, very loyal to Dundalk.”

Rep. John Sarbanes
Maryland’s 3rd district
Annapolis, home to the U.S. Naval Academy and situated on the Severn River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, is known for its marvelous crabs, says its Representative, John Sarbanes. But when the Democratic lawmaker is in town “being Greek American” he tends to favor joints such as Kyma, a tapas restaurant on West Street where octopus and squid often are on his order. “I spent a year in Greece and became quite the aficionado of octopus,” he says.

Sarbanes also recommends the annual tug of war between Annapolis and the Annapolis ward of Eastport, which in the late 1990s staged a mock revolution. The event, put on by the nonprofit Maritime Republic of Eastport to raise money for local charities, is notable for the 1,700-foot rope used in the contest and the hundreds of tuggers it attracts. Typically held across the harbor, this year organizers say construction in downtown Annapolis likely will move the event, held the first weekend in November, to dry land in Eastport. Prowess in the tug, however, hardly foreshadows political success. Last year, Sarbanes’ Republican opponent, John White, challenged him to a tug. A team of Sarbanes’ supporters (the future Representative had a family wedding and couldn’t attend) lost to the White crew. Even so, Sarbanes handily walloped White in the general election by more than 30 points.

Before leaving the Annapolis area, Sarbanes says a must-see is the cottage-style Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse — “the only screwpile lighthouse still in its original location,” he says. Public tours of the lighthouse will begin for the first time this June and will leave from the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Heading north toward Baltimore, you’ll want to take in a concert “on the lawn” at the Frank Gehry-designed Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia, Sarbanes says. One of his fondest memories was an evening spent there listening to Dolly Parton in 1988. Sarbanes, who was clerking for a federal judge at the time, is a huge fan of the buxomly, blonde country western star. “It occurred to me I ought to persuade the governor’s office to present her with honorary citizenship,” he recalls. “They thought that was a fabulous idea and I volunteered to deliver it.”

If it’s summertime in Baltimore, Sarbanes favors Canton and Fells Point, two neighborhoods in Charm City not far from the Inner Harbor. For overnight trips, Sarbanes says The Admiral Fell Inn on South Broadway is “a mainstay” in the heart of historic Fells Point. While in Fells Point, he might nosh on the mussels at Bertha’s Bar and Restaurant, also on South Broadway, or for a more elegant evening, make reservations at Thames Street’s Kali’s Court Restaurant, known for its “very good” Greek-style seafood, Sarbanes says. For attractions, he advises taking a water taxi from the Inner Harbor out to Fort McHenry — which aside from its historical importance as the place that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812, is an excellent spot for a picnic, he says. “I go there with my family all the time. Put a blanket down and watch the sun go down.” (Sarbanes is the principal House sponsor of legislation that would designate the Star-Spangled Banner Trail, which stretches through Maryland, Virginia and the District, as a National Historic Trail marking key War of 1812 events, such as the American defense of Fort McHenry and the British burning of the Capitol.)

And after the sun has set? Well, this is Baltimore, after all. “If people have not been to Camden Yards then they have to go whether they like baseball or not,” Sarbanes says.

Rep. Steny Hoyer
Maryland’s 5th district
Ask House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D) about the quirkiest feature of his bay-area district and his initial response might surprise you.

“Some people would say me, I guess,” he quips, quickly adding, “I don’t think that qualifies.”

But there’s little doubt that his preferred haunt is the water. “I’m a sailor, I love to sail,” he says. That said, he recommends the Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa in Calvert County for holiday-goers. At the resort’s Rod ‘N’ Reel marina you can dock your boat and stock up on everything you’ll need for a day on the water at the tackle shop. For those without their own boat, there also are chartered fishing excursions. And Hoyer likes to tuck into “the good roast beef” and seafood at the waterfront Rod ‘N’ Reel restaurant.

Other palate-watering excursions, he says, include a trip to Broomes Island to experience the crab-centric Stoney’s Seafood House or a sojourn to any of the “wonderful restaurants” at Solomons Island, a fishing village that’s home to a plethora of boating and the Calvert Marine Museum. But Hoyer’s top pick for crabs isn’t far from his own front door. Captain Leonards on Three Notch Road in Mechanicsville — a quick five-minute drive from his house on the Patuxent River — gets the No. 1 ranking in his book.

“In between eating,” Hoyer advises a visit to Point Lookout State Park — once a massive POW camp for Confederate soldiers — situated on the southernmost tip of Maryland’s western shore, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Given its brutal history, plenty of paranormal occurrences have been reported there over the years. And the lighthouse (no longer in use) is said to be haunted — it once even attracted the attention of a parapsychologist and a team of paranormal psychologists investigating reports of voices and other ghosts.

To step back in time, the historic St. Mary’s City, the location of the first settlement in Maryland in 1634, is another good choice, Hoyer says. The living museum and archeological site may not be “nearly as fancy or developed as Williamsburg,” but it’s “fast becoming a real window” into life for the first Maryland settlers, Hoyer says. The settlement, located on the banks of the St. Mary’s River and close to the bay, is in the process of a major expansion, including building a reconstruction of “the first Catholic church in the [British] colonies,” Hoyer says.

Then there’s the National Colonial Farm in Accokeek in Prince George’s County — an outdoor history museum that aims to show the quotidian activities of ordinary settlers along the Chesapeake. It features an 18th-century tobacco barn, house and a kitchen garden. The farm also cultivates a variety of colonial crops and on weekends puts on demonstrations of spinning, dyeing and candlemaking.

Finally, the Cedar Point Golf Course overlooking the point “where the Patuxent and the Chesapeake come together” in Southern Maryland is another Hoyer favorite. It once was ranked one of the top 10 naval air station golf courses in the world, but if you aren’t active duty or retired military personnel, a Defense Department employee or naval contractor assigned to the base (or one of their dependents), you’ll need to make friends with someone who is before you take to these links.

Rep. Jo Ann Davis
Virginia’s 1st district
In the mood to gaze at a 16-foot-tall concrete statue of William Howard Taft? Well, then, Presidents Park near Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., should be on your itinerary.

The admission-only park, which Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R) calls the most eccentric feature in her Eastern Virginia district, opened in 2004 and features giant busts of all 42 presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush. (Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president.)

After completing the quarter-mile stroll through the nation’s collected commanders in chief, you’ll be in a patriotic state of mind, so you’ll want to visit some of the other “unique historical experiences” that Davis recommends, including Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, Robert E. Lee’s birthplace at Stratford Hall and the Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields in Fredericksburg, Yorktown and Williamsburg.

For a taste of life in a quiet Northern Neck fishing village, head to Reedville, home to a major Omega Protein Corp. plant, which processes the plentiful menhaden in the region. You can feast on rockfish, crab cakes and shad roe at Tommy’s restaurant and relax on its veranda overlooking Cockrell’s Creek. And for an overnight visit, Davis likes The Gables, a Victorian-style bed and breakfast located just five doors down from the restaurant. Built by a prosperous sea captain, the four-story house was constructed using parts from the captain’s three-masted schooner and features additional rooms in a coach house and cottage behind the main house.

But the district’s best-kept secret? Canoeing the 40-mile Dragon Run, which cuts through the Middle Peninsula of Virginia before emptying into the headwater of the Piankatank River. It’s “one of the most pristine bodies of water in Virginia,” she says.

Rep. Thelma Drake
Virginia’s 2nd district
Rep. Thelma Drake’s (R) No. 1 Chesapeake destination is the place she calls home, an East Ocean View cottage, which overlooks the bay in Norfolk.

“My favorite vacation is to tell everyone I’m leaving and stay home,” laughs Drake, who admits a day at the beach requires little more than stepping out her front door and crossing dunes.

But for those not lucky enough to call the Chesapeake Bay-area home, not to fear. Her district is bursting with an array of must-sees, ranging from the quaint, car-free Tangier Island, where many of the tiny island’s inhabitants still sport Elizabethan-style accents, to the military wonders on display at Fort Monroe.

To begin your journey, start near the Northern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore at Chincoteague Island, Drake says. Every July an annual “pony penning” is held during which wild ponies are swum over from Assateague Island, then auctioned off to benefit the local volunteer fire department.

“‘Misty of Chincoteague’ was my favorite book as a kid. It’s amazing to me that I now represent that,” Drake says.

From there, you can drive down Route 13 stopping off now and then to take in the “sleepy little towns” tucked just off the highway, such as Onancock (from Memorial Day to Labor Day you can catch a once-daily ferry to and from Tangier Island from here), Wachapreague and Cape Charles, where a pleasant afternoon for Drake includes a stop at the Cape Charles Coffee Co. on Mason Avenue for a cup of their in-house brew and a slice of cheesecake. (And if it’s the first Wednesday in October you won’t want to miss Cape Charles’ massive Harvest Festival near Kiptopeke State Park. There, you can nosh on seafood to your heart’s content.)

Back on the mainland, after crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Drake advises a stop at First Landing State Park, where the English settlers from the Virginia Company first alighted on April 26, 1607 — “and prayed for this land for three days,” she says — before establishing the colony at Jamestown. (You can buy tickets to see the landing re-enacted there on April 26 as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of Jamestown’s founding.) If you want to linger amid the park’s lagoons and cypress trees, fully equipped two-bedroom cabins and ample camping facilities are available. In adjacent Fort Story, there’s also a pair of lighthouses. The old Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in the late 18th century at the entryway to the bay, is located near where Cpt. Christopher Newport first placed a cross marking the historic landing (a 1935 stone cross now marks the site). There’s also the new Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in 1881. For eats, Drake recommends several Virginia Beach restaurants, including Hot Tuna on Shore Drive, where she digs into their title dish. In Norfolk, don’t forget to sample “some of the best crab cakes you’ll ever eat” at the Surf Rider at Taylor’s Landing Marina, she says.

Heading on to Hampton, the celebration of all things Chesapeake known as Bay Days, held each September (the first weekend after Labor Day), is a popular draw, Drake says. But for an afternoon of building sand castles, head to Buckroe Beach, an 8-acre bay-side stretch perfect for picnics or to take in the outdoor family movies shown each Tuesday from mid-June through August beginning at dusk.

Of course, this is military country — and no trip to Drake’s district would be complete without a stop at Fort Monroe, a moated stone fort on the tip of the Virginia peninsula in Hampton. Still home to an active Army base, it is scheduled to close in 2011 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process. And the grand Chamberlin Hotel that stands nearby is shuttered now and in the process of being converted to senior apartments. Still, the fort is practically bursting with history. Abraham Lincoln stayed here during the Civil War and Confederate President Jefferson Davis spent two years here as a prisoner after the North’s victory. Today, you can take in concerts put on by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Band every Thursday evening during the summer in the gazebo overlooking the water. Aside from the usual patriotic music, the concerts — which get started around 7 p.m. — also include jazz and the occasional rock offering. And don’t be surprised if you see a submarine come in while you’re enjoying the music, Drake says.

And the most unusual feature of Fort Monroe? “Up around the top part” of the fort’s stone wall “it’s a pet cemetery,” she laughs, with “little headstones” for the dead cats and dogs (and even a couple of hamsters) that once belonged to military personnel in years past.

Rep. Bobby Scott
Virginia’s 3rd district
Come to Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D) Southeastern Virginia district just off the bay “to have a great vacation for the family without drinking or gambling,” he says.

So where should all these families head to?

Why the museums, of course.

Among his favorites is The Children’s Museum of Portsmouth and the Virginia War Museum in Newport News. For sports junkies, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in downtown Portsmouth is another good choice, he says.

Meanwhile, naval history buffs would do well to take a trip to the storied shipyards at Norfolk or Newport News. Among the interesting historical sites is the waterway where the famous Civil War naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack took place in March 1862. Scott says it’s viewable from his mother’s Hampton Roads home.

And when it’s time for a bite to eat, Scott has a yen for The Crabshack Seafood Restaurant, with its panoramic views of the James River. Located in Newport News and known as an excellent perch for watching sunsets, the establishment is just down the river from Scott’s own condo.