Where the Eastern Shore begins

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How's this for a perfect Eastern Shore retreat? Spectacular views of the Chesapeake Bay. Hiking and biking trails that wind through marshes, wildflower meadows, woodlands and tidal ponds. Fantastic waterfront dining. Best yet, it's only minutes from the Bay Bridge.

For most of us Marylanders, Kent Island has never been a destination but a strip of asphalt leading to the beach and The Real Eastern Shore. We have cursed it in traffic jams, derided it for what seems like sometimes senseless development and dismissed it as nothing more than a repository for roadside shlock.

But there's more to Kent Island than the view from Route 50. Listen to Maureen Bannon, an artist and recent transplant who considers Kent Island her muse: "I've been here three years and I feel I've barely touched the spaces of the island I need to explore. I find paintings everywhere -- herons bathing in the creek, a boat in a back yard, light flickering through the trees. I just fell in love with Kent Island. What a gift."

Despite its small size, the island -- just 4.2 miles wide and 15 miles long -- offers up large helpings of wonderful shore habitat that can be explored on foot or by boat, car or bike.

Just opened last fall: the Cross Island Trail, a six-mile paved trail that wanders through canopied woods and nudges up against creeks and marshes and a wildflower meadow that will burst into color in June and July. The blacktop surface -- and a network of neat wooden bridges -- is superb for bicycling. (It's also pet-friendly as long as your dog is leashed.)

For months, like a lot of motorists, I watched construction of the trail, which parallels Route 50 in places. Now, I have the trail to thank for getting me out of my car and into spaces I wouldn't have otherwise known -- a quiet woods planted in Osage orange, Eastern red cedar and dogwood, a blind overlooking yellow marshland, a tiny family cemetery plot (just three graves with worn marble markers) all but hidden by brush.

The Cross Island Trail is part of the American Discovery Trail that, when completed, will stretch from San Francisco to Cape Henlopen, Del. "There are only a few holes left," according to Wes Johnson, director of parks and recreation for Queen Anne's County. "We're filling this one."

Indeed, over the next few weeks, county crews will finish a new three-quarter-mile spur that edges up to more marshland. Ultimately, the Cross Island Trail will extend another 20 miles, most of it through farmland, to the town of Queen Anne. From there, Caroline County officials will complete the last link to the Delaware line.

One of the greatest things about Kent Island's newest trail is that it adjoins the Terrapin Nature Area, a 279-acre nature park that has its own trail system, some of it covered in oyster chaff. I have driven over the western span of the Bay Bridge hundreds of times, never dreaming that one day I'd be standing at the water's edge in a park just north of it. That day came last fall. Whitecaps whipped the bay waters, and the wind, rushing out of the northwest, blocked the sound of bridge traffic. That crisp afternoon the place had its own voice.

Historic Stevensville

The best spot to launch a Kent Island visit is the 4-year-old Chesapeake Exploration Center at Kent Narrows. There are handouts on everything from boat and kayak rentals to local produce stands to a self-guided tour of historic structures. And, in July, the visitor's center will inaugurate its first-ever exhibition, Our Chesapeake Legacy.

The 1,600-square-foot exhibit will examine the natural and cultural history of the region. Among the artifacts: copies of engineering drawings of the Bay Bridge's first span, which opened in 1952; video of the first car driving across it; and Native American trading beads dating to the 1600s.

It was Virginia colonist William Claiborne who settled Kent Island in 1631, making it the first English settlement on Maryland soil. Unfortunately, the remains of his fort and trading post were lost long ago to shoreline erosion. All that's left is a stone marker, 8.5 miles south along Route 8, that identifies the general location of the settlement.

There's still history on Kent Island, and Stevensville is the place to find it.

Charming, quaint, kicky -- tiny Stevensville is all those things. Dating back to 1850, it was something of a boom town by the early 1900s when the railroad came through. By 1909, the town had two schools, four doctors, a blacksmith and a sawmill. The end of rail service in 1948 halted Stevensville's growth, and now this close-knit community is home to antiques shops, art galleries and artists' studios, many of them in interesting recycled buildings.

Not to be missed: the Stevensville Bank Building, which houses Pippi's Place, an antiques shop; the old post office; the gambrel-roofed Cray House; and Christ Church, a Gothic structure dating to 1880. (For tours of the village's historic buildings, contact the Kent Island Heritage Society, 410-643-5969.)

Kent Island is made up of an eclectic mix of watermen, artists, corporate executives and suburbanites. Some residents, drawn from the Western Shore by the island's easygoing lifestyle, consider it an outpost of Annapolis. To others, it's the frontier of the Eastern Shore. Now and then, you still hear old-timers in other parts of Queen Anne's County talk about "down on the island" as if Kent Island were some sort of racy playground.

I suppose it's as racy as you want it to be. On recent visits, I've gravitated toward quiet spaces. One rainy afternoon, the Matapeake fishing pier, with its commanding view of the Bay Bridge, was filled with people putting out lines for perch, croakers and rockfish. Ferry service once ran from there, and the county has just finished renovating the old ferry terminal for public use.

Hidden treasures

To really understand Kent Island -- past and present -- it's instructive to explore the nooks and crannies of the place. Old Kent Island, for instance, can be found at Love Point, a popular holiday retreat in the 1920s and 1930s that's given way to mostly modest-looking older homes with spectacular views of the bay.

Truly amazing -- and not apparent from main roads -- is how many neighborhoods on the island back up to the bay, creeks and marshes. Housing prices cracked the million-dollar-mark a few years ago, and you can see the money at work in one-of-a-kind houses in upscale developments like Southwind at the southern tip of Cox Neck Road, Goose Point off Batt's Neck Road and Cove Creek, a waterfront golf course community at the end of Route 8.

What's got a lot of Kent Islanders in a huff are the hundreds of cookie-cutter homes that are scheduled for development over the next few years. County officials say there's no turning back the clock but that doesn't appease folks like Maureen Bannon.

"What's going to happen to the air, the serenity? I'm saddened by it," she says. "How do we keep it the jewel that it is?"

Wes Johnson, the county parks director, is doing his part. His crews are conducting the engineering for an eight-mile hiking/biking trail that will connect Mowbray Park on Route 8 south of Stevensville to the Romancoke pier, a popular spot for fishing and crabbing. The county-owned Blue Heron Golf Course, also on Route 8, will open its second nine holes in July. And Johnson is hoping to bring water taxi service to the Kent Narrows next year that would provide service to local attractions.

Also in the works: Mariner's Marketplace, a daily "boat show" that would occupy the long-vacant outlet center at Kent Narrows.

Chestertown consultant Michael Thielke is developing the concept, which would include vendors who would service virtually every need a boat owner might have -- from financing and insurance to detailing and cleaning to catering and provisioning.

"Everybody recognizes this place has been vacant for more than eight years," Thielke says. "A lot of people have had great ideas, but one of the things it needs to be in order to work is a destination."

As for tourists, Thielke plans to sign up a vendor that would rent bikes, in-line skates and kayaks. He also wants to establish a bus service that would shuttle between stops at the Kent Narrows.

The Narrows, as locals call it, is as pivotal a thoroughfare as Route 50. The channel, separating Kent Island from the Eastern Shore mainland, provides a convenient link between the Chester River to the north and Eastern Bay to the south. At one time, as many as a dozen seafood packing houses existed there. Today, there are two.

Still, it's a wonderful spot to check out the dozens of shallow work boats used now by generations of watermen who tie up at the Narrows after unloading their oysters, clams and crabs. It's also home to a cluster of waterfront restaurants and bars, including Annie's Paramount Steak and Seafood House and Fisherman's Inn, both popular with locals.

(Other good dining can be found at Hemingway's at the Bay Bridge Marina; the historic Kent Manor Inn off Route 8; and, in Stevensville, the Matapeake Restaurant, Deli & Café, named after a small tribe of American Indians that were the island's first inhabitants.)

There are a number of boat rental places at the Narrows -- for fishing, crabbing or just cruising. My favorite boat is the Nellie Byrde, a 56-foot skipjack built in 1911. During two-hour tours up the Chester River, Capt. Michael Hayden, a fourth-generation waterman, demonstrates oyster dredging and talks about life on the bay. Tours, priced at $30 per person, leave from the Chesapeake Exploration Center at Kent Narrows, May through October. Reservations are required. Call Hayden at 240-299-4540.

(At the very least, check out the Anna McGarvey, housed next to the parking lot of the exploration center. The 1981 replica of a skipjack, Maryland's state boat, serves as a reminder of the historic fishing vessels that were a fixture on the bay in the early 1900s.)

Natural beauty shines

It will be wonderful if water taxi service does come to the Narrows because one of the drop-off points would be Horsehead Wetlands Center, set on a 500-acre peninsula just across Prospect Bay from Kent Island.

I was there recently for the first time -- and as with the Terrapin Nature Area -- I couldn't believe the instantaneous access it gives to the local habitat: saltmeadow hay, marsh hibiscus, phragmites and assorted bay grasses. Best yet, blinds and observation towers offer an undisturbed view of the wetlands and its inhabitants.

Hundreds of waterfowl, including a pair of captive trumpeter swans, populate the five ponds on the grounds, which also serve as a safe haven to injured owls, hawks and one bald eagle. There are four miles of walking trails through marshes and woodlands, and canoes are available to explore the new Marshy Creek Canoe Trail.

The center, operated by the Wildfowl Trust of North America, is open daily. (Coming up: a spring birding workshop with ornithologist Bill Stott, May 28-29. Call 410-827-6694 for reservations.)

For years when I drove across Kent Island, it was to get somewhere else. Nowadays, I find myself looking for reasons to stop. Every visit, it seems, yields a new discovery. Who knew, for example, that the Citgo service station on Route 8 was a gourmet carry-out? We're talking duck mousse truffle, seaweed salad and venison terrine along with to-die-for desserts and fantastic sandwiches. Not to mention the chilled Pouilly Fuisse.

On May 18 -- rain date, May 19 -- historic Stevensville will sponsor Kent Island Days to commemorate its founding. There will be activities, displays and craft demonstrations to illustrate the island's heritage. The Kent Island Federation of Art will hold its annual outdoor art fair at the same time. I've marked it on my calendar.

Getting there: From Baltimore, follow Interstate 97 south to Route 50 east toward Annapolis and the Bay Bridge. Cross the bridge onto Kent Island. The trip is about 40 miles.

Chesapeake Exploration Center at Kent Narrows, 425 Piney Narrows Road, Chester, MD 21619

410-604-2100

www.qac.org

  • Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
  • The visitor's center has maps, brochures, displays and restrooms. Lookout towers offer views of the Chester River and the Eastern Bay. Often seen in the 20-foot canal next to the center: mute swans, green herons and great blue herons. The Web site offers links to dining, lodging and attractions in Queen Anne's County.Attractions:
  • Cross Island Trail. Open dawn to dusk. There are several locations for off-street parking. From west to east, parking is available at the Terrapin Nature Area, Old Love Point Park, Castle Marina Road, Kent Narrows Boat Launching Ramp, the Chesapeake Exploration Center and the public lots beneath the Kent Narrows Route 50/301 bridge. For more information, call the county parks and recreation department, 410-758-0835
  • Terrapin Nature Area. Open dawn to dusk. Log Canoe Circle, Stevensville.
  • Horsehead Wetlands Center, 600 Discovery Lane, Grasonville, MD 21638; 410-827-6694; www.wildfowltrust.org. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $5 adults, $4 seniors, $2 childrenLodging:Kent Manor Inn, 500 Kent Manor Drive, Stevensville, MD 21666800-820-4511www.kentmanor.com
  • Historic inn located on 226 acres next to Thompson Creek has 24 rooms decorated with Victorian furnishings; tennis, fishing, crabbing, fine dining. Rates from $130.Comfort Inn, at Kent Narrows, 3101 Main St., Grasonville, MD 21638800-828-3361
  • Microwaves and refrigerators in all rooms. Some full-size kitchenettes. Indoor pool. Complimentary breakfast; rates start at $106.Holiday Inn Express-Kent Island, 1020 Kent Narrows Road, Grasonville, MD 21638888-877-4454www.holidayinnkentisland.com
  • Outdoor pool, complimentary breakfast, cable TV with movie channel, and some rooms with Jacuzzi. Rates start at about $110.Coming events:
  • Ends May 5: Bay Bridge Boat Show at the Bay Bridge Marina, Stevensville, 410-268-8828
  • May 18: Kent Island Days and outdoor art fair, Stevensville, 410-643-5969
  • June 2: Queen Anne's County Watermans' Heritage Festival, Grasonville, 410-643-8530
  • Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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