For family vacations, visit Maryland's Eastern Shore

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If you're longing for a vacation by the water - but not one dedicated to baking on a beach - Maryland's Eastern Shore could be just the ticket.

With enchanting inlets, salt marshes, a shoreline overlooking the majestic Chesapeake Bay, a stunning wildlife refuge, antique shops, crab restaurants galore and occasional Dick Cheney sightings (he has a weekend house in quaint St. Michaels), there's more than enough for a family vacation.

And if you venture to drive the back roads, you'll undoubtedly see signs for fairs or church dinners - great places to meet the locals and enjoy some good home cooking.

WHEN TO GO

Maryland's Talbot County is the logical place to stay if you've never visited the Eastern Shore - it's about 60 miles southeast of Baltimore and a four-hour-or-so drive from New York, depending on the traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, U.S. 50. On Fridays, it's best to cross the bridge earlier in the day: You'll escape evening weekend crowds and you'll have daytime views of the water at its glittering best. Or, alternately, you can drive directly to Talbot County, taking U.S. 13 south from the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and Route 301 to U.S. 50. It's a good idea to stay near historic St. Michaels village or Easton, the county seat.

A view of the harbor in St Michael's, Maryland. Photo Credit: Josh Gibson / The Inn at Perry Cabin

Summer on the Eastern Shore is lovely and fall can be magnificent. As the nights chill, tourists stay away more and pumpkins and other fall crops from local farms begin to appear on roadside stands.

Make sure to look for the occasional ferry ride. One allows you to drive your car on board to shorten your drive from one village to another. Another takes you to Smith Island - a throwback to a simpler time - about 13 miles offshore. After all, it's all about the water.

THINGS TO DO

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Drive or bike the back roads from St. Michaels (taking time to explore the side roads to the bay) to Bellevue's pier. Board the ferry ($14 round-trip, oxfordbellevueferry.com) - it takes nine vehicles at a time and crosses the Tred Avon River to Oxford in about 10 minutes. This is believed to be the oldest privately operated ferry in the country. There are crossings about every 20 minutes, so don't worry if you miss it. When you arrive in Oxford, head for the pier, where you can find a place for lunch or dinner.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge ($3 per car, friendsofblackwater.org) began as a waterfowl refuge and resting place for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. You can see hundreds of birds arriving and leaving the refuge, which is fed by the Blackwater River and the Little Blackwater River. The refuge has about 27,000 acres that include marshes and dry land and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has been home to many species including the American bald eagle.

Smith Island (smithisland.us), in Tangier Sound, is about a two-hour drive from St. Michaels. Ferries (visit smithisland.com) make the 13-mile trip from the Crisfield dock. Check the Web site for departures and prices. Many of the people who live on Smith Island are descended from British colonists and have an accent that differs from what you'll hear in the rest of Maryland. There are few stores or touristy features - the idea is to observe a quiet, isolated way of life. The Smith Island Visitor Center in Ewell traces the island's history. There are only a few places to eat, so you might want to bring lunch.

If you have kids who love the beach, Ocean City (ococean.com) is a good place for a day trip. It's on the Atlantic, a bit more than 100 miles from the Bay Bridge. There are ocean beaches, amusement parks and lots of tourists (plus lots of condos, motels and high-rises).

WHERE TO EAT

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Crab, crab and more crab - that's the chief dining attraction on the Eastern Shore. Most restaurants serve other kinds of fish and meat, too, and in places such as St. Michaels and Easton there are restaurants that serve varied menus.

Harris Crabhouse Kent Narrows Way, North Grasonville, 410-827-9500, harriscrabhouse.com

If you cross the Bay Bridge, Harris Crab House is a great Eastern Shore spot to start your vacation or to get one last crab cake or a cup of crab bisque as you head back to work. There are non-fish items, too, and indoor and outdoor seating. The menu includes crab cakes, flounder, corn on the cob, king crab legs, hamburgers and Maryland vegetable crab soup.

Captain's Galley 1021 W. Main St., Crisfield, 866-576-6412, captainsgalleyonline.com

Overlooking the town dock, Captain's Galley isn't particularly fancy and is fine for children. The restaurant has a large dining room with wide windows that open to the dock. The restaurant is known for its crab cakes and crab bisque, which is delivered with a small cruet of sherry to add punch, if you like. Crisfield is about a two-hour drive from St. Michaels. So plan some other activities, such as a ferry ride to Smith Island.

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Bistro St. Michaels 403 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels, 410-745-9111, bistrostmichaels.com

This is a re-creation of a Paris bistro in a 100-year-old Victorian house. If you're looking for something other than fish, it offers a mixed menu including chicken, pork and beef.

The Inn at Easton 28 S. Harrison St., Easton, 410-822-4910, theinnateaston.com

This old Federal mansion in the town's historic district serves elegant meals and offers fish alternatives such as duck risotto, sauteed gnocchi with mushrooms, roasted rack of lamb and sweetbreads. It also has guest rooms.

The Crab Claw Route 33 West/Navy Point, St. Michaels, 410-745-2900, thecrabclaw.com

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On the water, it's a great place for lunch or dinner. There's indoor and outdoor seating plus chicken and beef for those who don't want fish.

WHERE TO STAY

The Eastern Shore offers many types of lodging - inns, charming old hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts. Many accommodations overlook the water with spectacular Chesapeake views.

Luxury

The Inn at Perry Cabin 308 Watkins Lane, St. Michaels, 866-278-9601, perrycabin.com

Rates: $330-$770

The Inn bills itself as a manor house resort and spa. Essentially, it's a small, luxury hotel with 81 rooms centered around a historic 1820s inn with modern additions. It has a pool and overlooks the water and marshes.

Moderate

Wade's Point Inn on the Bay Wades Point Road, St. Michaels, 888-923-3466, wadespoint.com

Rates: $152-$260 (summer)

A few miles from the center of St. Michaels, this hotel sits on more than 120 acres right on Chesapeake Bay. There is swimming in the bay and Adirondack chairs dot the broad, lush expanses of lawn. A gracious main house, circa 1819, has several period-style rooms for guests. There are two other guest buildings - one of them a modern building somewhat like an upscale motel but cleverly disguised to fit its surroundings. Breakfast is served in a large, sun-filled dining room overlooking the bay. Part of the property is used for organic farming; children will enjoy seeing the animals.

Budget

Days Inn 7018 Ocean Gateway, Easton, 410-822-4600, daysinn.com

Rates: From $84

It might not be quaint but it offers large rooms at an affordable price and has a pool. It's on U.S. 50 (yes, it's on a highway, but it's also near farm country and the location is pretty quiet) and there are child-friendly restaurants along the road. The motel is well-situated for day trips heading north or south.

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