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Despite the traffic, it was love at first sight.
When I first set eyes on Annapolis in May 1997, I was only here long enough for a quick drive through town in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But I saw enough to want to return.
I finally made it back earlier this month and stayed two nights, long enough to confirm what I had suspected. Annapolis was well worth the wait.
With narrow brick streets and handsome brick buildings, plus a small harbor bustling with boats, the heart of Annapolis has an authentic charm theme parks could never duplicate.
This former U.S. capital claims more surviving Colonial-era buildings than any other place in America. Rather than nondescript office buildings dominating the landscape, domes and church steeples are the most prominent landmarks on the Annapolis skyline.
Maryland's capital is surprisingly small, with a population of only about 35,000. Yet it draws as many as 3 million visitors every year.
This city on Chesapeake Bay is a wonderful destination for a vacation getaway.
You can come here with a sightseeing agenda that will keep you busy taking walking or bus tours, visiting historic buildings, enjoying a harbor cruise and exploring the U.S. Naval Academy. Or you can just hang out, leisurely browsing through the many shops and sampling the many restaurants.
Annapolis is on a gentle hill, with Maryland's wooden domed State House at the highest point. Men and women in Colonial garb lead tours through the State House, down the streets of the city and across the immaculate grounds of the Naval Academy.
The center of Annapolis is compact and easily walkable. All attractions in the historic district are within a mile. You can park your car when you arrive and not need it again until you leave a few days later. Restaurants across the harbor can be reached by water taxi.
Annapolis is a vibrant place in warm weather, with visitors dining outdoors, strolling the streets and admiring expensive pleasure boats coming and going in the appropriately named Ego Alley down at City Dock. The largest vessel I saw in Ego Alley bore these words on its stern: "Bobbin,' Allentown, Pa."
The historic district is filled with thriving restaurants and shops, from clothing boutiques to hardware stores. Many are at the harbor and along Main Street, others on less crowded side streets, including State Circle and Maryland Avenue.
About the only way Annapolis could be improved would be by banning cars from many streets. With cars parked on both sides, some streets seem too narrow for a moving car to slip through.
I couldn't come to this self-proclaimed "sailing capital of the United States" without sailing. A high point of my visit was a relaxing two-hour Chesapeake Bay cruise aboard the schooner Woodwind II.
Another highlight was a "Three Centuries" walking tour through the city, even though the two-hour tour lasted nearly three hours. My guide, "Squire" Frederick Taylor, carried his walking stick with great authority and loved showing off his stockinged calves to female guides also dressed in Colonial garb. "I don't pad," Taylor boasted to the women. "They are all my own. They are not falsies."
Taylor brought the 18th century back to life in a highly entertaining manner. Just one of the many things those on his tour learned is that Maryland native John Hanson, not George Washington, was the first president of the United States. Hanson was elected president of the Congress of Confederation in 1781. Taylor said even George Washington congratulated Hanson on achieving such high office.
African-American sites in Annapolis include a life-size sculpture of "Roots" author Alex Haley reading to three children on City Dock, despite his glasses being broken. In 1767, Haley's African ancestor Kunta Kinte arrived here in chains.
Next to the State House is a sculpture of Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native who was the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Inside the State House is a plaque honoring Matthew Alexander Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole in 1909.
In addition to the Naval Academy, Annapolis is the home of St. John's College, which has 400 students, half of them male and half female. Those students study "the great books" but don't get grades or take exams, said Taylor, and croquet is the only competitive sport.
SHOPPING AND DINING
Chains in town include Ben & Jerry's, The Gap, Banana Republic, Starbucks and Discovery Channel Store. But there are many more one-of-a-kind upscale shops. I enjoyed Annapolis Pottery, where some pottery is made right in the shop. The many others include gift shops such as League of Maryland Craftsmen, Christmas Spirit, Creative Impressions Art Outlet, Pewter Chalice and Annapolis Treasure Company.
About 30 restaurants are in the historic district and many more nearby. They include seafood restaurants, steakhouses, Irish pubs and places serving international cuisines. Many offer outdoor tables and several have waterfront dining, including Pusser's Landing, Phillips and Carrol's Creek.
I enjoyed excellent crabcakes while watching the sun set over the harbor from the Chart House, a seafood restaurant that looks like a two-story boathouse with windows.
Most sandwiches are named for politicians at Chick and Ruth's Delly. One named for President Bill Clinton was on the menu, but I saw none for George W. Bush. I had the "Chick & Ruth," a delicious kosher-style corned beef sandwich, with cole slaw and Russian dressing on rye. The place also serves thick old-fashioned milk shakes, the kind many children never have tasted, at 21st-century prices: $4.15 for a jumbo shake.
For another lunch, I enjoyed a Cuban pork sandwich, an unusual offering in a place named McGarvey's Oyster Bar & Saloon.
ON THE WATER
The 74-foot-long Woodwind II can carry up to 48 passengers, but less than a dozen were aboard for my Wednesday afternoon cruise. Passengers learned something about sailing and navigation and even got to take turns steering.
We left the harbor and carefully passed through floating markers of submerged crab traps before sailing south of Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Annapolis almost disappeared, except for the gold top of the academy chapel's dome shimmering like a beacon through the haze.
Visitors can charter boats for sailing or fishing or attend sailing schools in Annapolis. Sailboats race for beer in the harbor on Wednesday evenings in warm weather.
A 40-minute harbor cruise aboard the Harbor Queen is a good way to learn about Annapolis and to see much of the Naval Academy from the water. The academy probably has a larger fleet of small ships than some countries.
You can take guided tours of the Naval Academy's 338-acre campus, called the Yard, or walk around on your own. Among the highlights are Bancroft Hall, one of the world's largest dormitories, the Naval Academy Museum and the domed chapel. Beneath the chapel is the marble crypt of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones.
Jones died in 1792 in Paris, at age 45. He was buried in an unmarked grave in that city for more than 100 years.
After the Revolution, the American Navy disbanded and Jones briefly served as an admiral in the Russian navy, leading one tour guide in the crypt to remark: "Technically, we have a Russian admiral buried here in the U.S. Naval Academy."
Another guide said: "We don't know if he really said: 'I have not yet begun to fight.' But he did say this: 'I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way.'"
Also in the Yard is the mast of the battleship Maine, whose sinking in Havana harbor started the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Your first stop at the academy should be the Armel-Leftwich Visitors Center, which houses the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, America's first manned spacecraft. It was piloted by Alan Shepard, an academy graduate. The only president to graduate from the academy was Jimmy Carter.
Exhibits in the visitors center explain more than 74 percent of the midshipmen who attend the academy complete the four-year program and become officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.
If you are fortunate enough to spend a few minutes chatting with these outstanding young men and women while visiting the academy, you will feel confident that the future of our country is in good hands.
IF YOU GO
Your visit to Annapolis may get off to a bad start if you are not prepared to deal with possible traffic congestion and don't know where to park.
"You could drive for hours without finding a place to park," warned Anedra Wiseman of the city's visitors bureau.
Approaching the city, tune your radio to 1620 AM for information about parking and possible detours for events.
When you arrive, you might want to follow signs to the Visitors Center at 26 West St. and make it your first stop.
One parking garage is next to the visitors center. Another is just off Main Street. Both charge $8 a day on weekdays, $4 a day on weekends. They are open 24 hours but do fill at times.
Another option is to park at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for $4 all day and pay 75 cents for a shuttle into town. The return trip is free. To reach the stadium, turn right off Rowe Boulevard onto Farragut Road, then left into the stadium lot.
If staying overnight, get advice about parking from your hotel or bed & breakfast before leaving home. Hotels have their own parking lots. B&Bs that are members of the Annapolis Bed & Breakfast Association offer off-street parking or discounted parking at the garages.
On-street parking is very limited and you must move your car after two hours. Do not park at red curbs. Parking regulations are strictly enforced.
WHEN TO GO
Annapolis is busiest from April through October. Weekends always are much busier than weekdays.
The busiest weekends of the year are during the U.S. Naval Academy's annual commencement, which will be next Friday, the Oct. 4-8 United States Sailboat Show and the Oct. 11-14 United States Powerboat Show. On those weekends, the town is jammed and lodgings are booked. Some people must stay as far away as Baltimore.
Visitors come to Annapolis every month except January and February, said Tricia Herban of 55 East Bed & Breakfast, and August is busier than June or July.
A sign on Randall Street between Market House and the dock reminds motorists that state law requires them to yield for pedestrians and, surprisingly, they do.
Public rest rooms are near the visitors information booth on the dock as well as in the visitors center along West Street.
Three hotels are in the heart of the city: Annapolis Marriott Waterfront Hotel at the harbor, Loews Annapolis Hotel and Historic Inns of Annapolis, three inns operated as one 124-room hotel.
About two dozen B&Bs are in the historic district. Many have two-night minimum stays on weekends. Most do not take children younger than 12, said Herban.
I stayed at the upscale 55 East Bed & Breakfast in the middle of the historic district and was glad I did. Everything -- the visitors center, the harbor, the naval academy, the State House, the shops and restaurants -- was just a few blocks away. One house museum was right around the corner.
More hotels and B&Bs are located elsewhere in Annapolis. At least some offer complimentary shuttle service to and from the historic district. And lower rates.
Annapolis also has a couple of places offering boat & breakfast stays on the water.
For a 2001 Annapolis visitors guide and events calendar, call Annapolis and Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau at 410-280-0445. Or check www.visit-annapolis.org.
You also can get a spring and summer calendar of more events by calling Historic Annapolis Foundation at 410-267-7619 or checking www.annapolis.org.