Department Article
Life moves at a slower pace in St. Michaels, Maryland

by Beth Luberecki

During the War of 1812, St. Michaels, Maryland, gained fame as “the town that fooled the British.” Aware of a planned attack in August of 1813, the town’s residents hung lanterns from ship masts and tree branches, effectively tricking the British and causing them to overshoot the town.

But today, St. Michaels isn’t hiding. Instead, it’s putting out the welcome mat for visitors, who find a laid-back Eastern Shore town with both a rich history and modern-day amenities.

Situated on the Miles River, the town of St. Michaels dates from the mid-1600s, and from the beginning its waterfront locale, with its proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, played a big role in its development. Many early landowners were tobacco farmers, and the trees cleared for that endeavor were used to build ships. Though the tobacco industry declined after the American Revolution, shipbuilding, fishing, and seafood processing and packing were big business in these parts for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Founded in 1965 and located on St. Michaels’s Navy Point, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum preserves the region’s nautical history in more than thirty-five buildings on eighteen acres. Exhibits focus on everything from oystering to waterfowling and feature the nation’s most complete collection of Chesapeake Bay artifacts, visual arts, and indigenous watercraft. It’s a hands-on kind of place where visitors can learn how to tong for oysters or watch a shipwright restore a skipjack or wooden skiff at the museum’s working boatyard. Its circa-1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse serves as something of a local landmark and offers sweeping views of the town’s picturesque harbor.

Those interested in getting out on the water themselves have plenty of options in St. Michaels. A number of tour operators, like Patriot Cruises and the skipjack H.M. Krentz, ply the waters of St. Michaels Harbor and the Miles River, providing glimpses of historic homes, ospreys and other wildlife, and working watermen harvesting clams, oysters, or crabs. Charter operations let folks cast their own line or try their hand at catching crabs.

“There’s something about going out on the water that’s very relaxing,” says Kathy Stovall, who grew up in St. Michaels and whose family has owned Higgins & Spencer, a well-known home furnishings store in town, since after World War II. “You don’t need to do yoga; you just need to go out on the water.”

Of course, not all of the action’s on the water, and the town’s compact size makes it easy to discover its dry-land appeal by foot. “It’s a great place to come and just unwind,” says Bonnie Booth, co-owner of St. Michaels’s Five Gables Inn and Spa. “We tell people they can park their cars and walk anywhere they want to go.”

The town’s main drag, Talbot Street, is lined with shops and restaurants catering to tourists and locals alike and trading in everything from T-shirts to antiques. Merchandise often reflects the town’s ties to the water, whether in the form of crab-emblazoned flip-flops or framed prints of Eastern Shore landscapes.

Seafood, especially local crabs, tends to take center stage on most menus here. For fine dining, try 208 Talbot, known for its use of fresh seasonal ingredients like soft-shell crabs in the summer and locally grown apples in the fall. Bistro St. Michaels boasts a Gallic flair and a menu that features both regionally inspired fare and French/Mediterranean cuisine.

More casual options include the Town Dock Restaurant and the Crab Claw Restaurant, both of which offer water views and outdoor dining. At the latter, it’s common to see diners excitedly attacking piles of crabs spread out on the paper-covered tables, using wooden mallets to uncover the tasty treat within.

“If you want to crack crabs and drink beer, the Crab Claw is a great place to go, but they have other items on the menu that are good too,” says Booth. “We’re really fortunate that we have the caliber of chefs in town that we do. You can eat some really simple but great food.”

Historic homes, some dating from the late 1700s, can be found throughout the downtown. Some are now occupied by shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts like the Five Gables Inn and the Old Brick Inn, while others remain private residences. One of these residences is the Cannonball House, the only home actually hit by a cannonball during the British attack on the town in 1813. It sits near St. Mary’s Square, site of a number of other historic dwellings as well as the St. Michaels Museum.

All of its village charm and postcard-worthy vistas make it easy to see why St. Michaels has attracted second-home owners and vacationers like Barry Goldwater, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and William Rehnquist and why it has served as the location for several movie shoots. The First Kiss, one of Gary Cooper’s early movies, was filmed in these parts during the 1920s and co-starred Fay Wray of King Kong fame. Fans of the 2005 film Wedding Crashers will recognize the town’s elegant Inn at Perry Cabin; scenes for the comedy were shot here and at other locations around the area.

But though it’s made several appearances on the big screen, St. Michaels retains its small-town feel. “We are still a place where you don’t always feel like you have to lock your doors, where you feel safe walking around at night,” says Stovall. “I also think we have a little bit of a slower-paced lifestyle. People who live here still want to hearken back to a time when people knew their neighbors, and people come here because they like that kind of thing.”

“There’s something about not only the topography but just way the whole town is built,” says Pat Howell, owner of St. Michaels Candy and Gifts. “As people drive into town, it almost gives them a hug and welcomes them. I love when I drive down the street here in St. Michaels looking at couples, regardless of age, holding hands and sort of getting back to being together and having a romantic moment. Being in St. Michaels, I think, gives them a sense of peace and safety, and there’s nothing pressuring them for the moment. And we get to experience that every day.”

Beth Luberecki is a Venice, Florida–based freelance writer and an editor for Times of the Islands and RSW Living.