North East, Maryland
This Roadtripping adventure takes us to North East, Maryland, a town of such seeming obscurity that my GPS refused to recognize it. So, I plugged in Elkton as the destination, then figured it out from there.
As a youngster, I occasionally went sailing out of a “yacht club” near North East, on a tiny non-yacht called The Toy. I hadn’t been back in 25 years, so I had an emotional investment in the trip; I wanted the place to be as simple and charming as in my memory, which also includes the memories of departed friends.
Parking was easy and free near the Main Street business district. As I crossed a footbridge into town, a man on the stream bank below waved as if we were neighbors and called out, “The shad are running.” It seemed important to him, so I ambled down for a look. Sure enough, he pointed out rippling patterns in the shallows where the fish, which spend their winters in the open water, were swimming, spawning, or both. Soon, he said, osprey would be dive-bombing the stream for shad and shad roe. Though we talked for just a moment, it was a pleasant reintroduction to this friendly community, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Downtown North East is not beautiful or upscale, but this is an historic fishing village, the first permanent settlement in Cecil County, established in the 17th century and incorporated in 1850. The cemetery at Saint Mary Anne’s Episcopal Church is one of the oldest in the state, with graves of even earlier inhabitants—the Susquehannock Indians—dating back to the 1600s. To know what really matters around here, visit the town’s Upper Bay Museum, which hosts the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders School and is dedicated to “preserving the life of the waterman.”
Reserve at least a couple of hours for Main Street, with its many small quirky shops, restaurants, and galleries. I lost at least an hour poking around in the 5 & 10 Antique Market, the largest antique store in the county, inside the former Hotel Cecil. North East Chocolates is an interesting hybrid, offering not only divine sweets—chocolate truffles, chocolate-covered pretzels, even Wilbur buds—but a menu of New Age services like dream analysis, kundalini reiki, and tarot card reading.
At Turkey Point Wines, you can sample locally made merlots, muscats, cabernets, and chardonnays—the vineyard is nearby, on Turkey Point Road. Two “sister shops”—the Silver Buckle and Silver and Sassy—feature handbags, jewelry, apparel, “cottage chic” home furnishings, and heaps and heaps of silver jewelry. In the market for souvenirs? Kathy’s Corner has it all: T-shirts, sweatshirts, and many Maryland-themed items, including the inevitable groaners (signs that say, “I got crabs in North East, Maryland”).
After making the circuit along Main, I popped into Woody’s Crab House for a bite. It was an overcast, pre-spring Sunday afternoon, but the place was already busy, with a wait of at least 40 minutes. So, I sat at the bar, a dark and friendly hole in the wall filled with chatty patrons.
Bartenders Kevin and Nicole were the Sam and Diane of the place. At Nicole’s suggestion, instead of my go-to white wine or bloody Mary, I tried a Spring Water, made with vodka, muddled fresh fruit, a splash of seltzer and a splash of Sprite. Very refreshing. For lunch, I ordered tuna avocado toast: flaked wild-caught tuna and smashed avocado on crunchy marble rye, topped with cucumber, tomatoes, fresh lime juice, and spices. Grilled sweet corn with bell peppers made a delicious side dish. Dessert came later: an apple-cider doughnut panini at the Rise ‘N Grind Café, with a cup of café mocha.
Then it was off to the main local attraction (and another repository of sweet memories), Elk Neck State Forest and Park, about 12 miles out of town. Follow the road until it goes from paved to unpaved, and you’ll be at a trail head that leads to the Turkey Point Lighthouse.
Parking is super-limited—only about two dozen spots—but I was lucky to pull in just as someone else pulled out. Then it was an uphill trudge through forests and clearings and past the Raptor Viewing Field to the beacon. I was fascinated to learn that for 20 years, this squat brick lighthouse, built in 1833, was illuminated by 11 wicks and reflectors, for a light that was visible to mariners as far as 13 miles out. In 1855, a Fresnel lens was installed, and in 1943, electric light was added to the lens, for 680 candlepower. In 1948, the last lighthouse keeper retired, and the lighthouse was decommissioned in 2000. You don’t want to miss this view: a 100-foot bluff that overlooks the Elk River, the Chesapeake Bay, and the opposite shore. It’s breathtaking.
Heading back to town, I hung a left on Hance’s Point Road, where the yacht club used to operate, and what do you know? There it was, beautiful and quiet, unoccupied but filled with friendly ghosts.
The verdict: I had to haul through busy interstate traffic to go back to North East, and next time will find a better, off-the-beaten-track route. But happily, the two-square-mile town is much the same as it was when I was a girl, and as it may have been for 100 years or more. Like the fictional town of Willoughby (10 points if you know the reference), North East moves at a slower pace, without the propulsive forward momentum of life as most of us know it. So set your GPS for Elkton. You can figure it out from there. ■