As most people who know me are aware, I grew up as a Navy Brat. This had any number of ramifications on my childhood. not the least of which is fueling, from an early age, my need to move about the world and appreciate the vastly different tones and textures to be found here. I make friends fairly easily, something I attribute to the Raman nature of a Navy family's existence. Another aspect of the community are the spots we -- Navy families -- all had in common. At one time Long Beach, my hometown, was a featured name but no more. Other Navy towns included Pearl Harbor; Newport, Rhode Island; Washington, DC; and Annapolis, MD, home of the Naval Academy.
Annapolis would seem to be blessed with a multitude of natural and manmade wonders. Just an hour from both Washington and Baltimore, it is ideal as a day trip for residents of those two cities. It's within easy reach of Baltimore/Washington Airport (BWI), and the nearest Metro station from Washington is New Carrolton -- also a hub for the rail lines to Philadelphia and New York.
It's a town my wife and I get to with infrequent regularity (?) given that my parents and older sister;s family live there. And it's no surprise. Annapolis is the right combination of small and big, with a deep history as well as a modern present. It sits in one of the most picturesque spots on the Chesapeake Bay, yet is conveniently located between major metropolitan areas and the more rural Eastern Shore of Maryland -- giving residents an amazing range of activities and access rarely enjoyed in many areas of the country.
|The Shops Along Main Street|
This last Christmas we ventured to the Eastern Seaboard and spent a portion of the trip in town, spending an afternoon wandering around the downtown historic district. I was happy to note that a decades long trend towards more corporate style boutiques and a loss of uniquely Annapolitan sensibilities -- particularly along Main Street, the fundamental shopping avenue in Old Town -- has reversed itself, with a return to more locally-oriented mom and pop shops. This is a tremendously welcome trend, particularly in the more historic parts of the country. If all shopping streets have the same stores, what could possibly distinguish one main street from another? It's a function of the so-called Wal-Martization (marca registrada) of America, so it's particularly rewarding to see the re-emergence of the little boutiques along Main.
We get off the main highway -- Route 50 -- on Rowe Boulevard and head south, passing, among other things, the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where the Academy's Midshipmen play in the NCAA. We've seen a number of games there over the years, though nobody was playing during this particular trip. Though I'm an alum of USC, I have to admit even the vaunted 'SC Marching Band cannot match some of the halftime events I've seen at Navy. Few other schools can feature F-14s and skydivers as side-shows to their school band, but Navy can (and has). But, as usual, I digress…
So, heading into Annapolis from Route 50 we take Rowe. Rowe heads straight for about a mile, terminating at College, at which point we turn right and find our way to the rotary around the original St Anne's Parish church. With the exception of West Street. he roads leading away from the circle are one-way, either into or out of the circle. We travel 3/4s of the way around and turn right on Duke of Gloucester Street. There is a large but well-hidden parking structure conveniently located a half block from Main. Turning left on Conduit and then a sharp right down Gorman (which looks like an alley), the structure looms like a fugitive from some other urban landscape -- kudos to Annapolis for keeping it well hidden but convenient. The rates are quite reasonable, and it's infinitely easier to find a space here than it is cruising up and down the streets of the city looking for a space.
Once parked we hit Main Street at the corner of Main and Conduit. This is roughly halfway between the wharf at the lower end of the street and St Anne's at the high end. Shops, restaurants and other stores line the street on both sides, so we head down towards the wharf for the first half of the trip. It's still early enough and late enough in the year for a cool breeze to blow up from the waterfront. The southern side of the street is in shadow, adding to the chill. It's refreshing in a way, but we immediately find ourselves ducking into The Leader, a cute little boutique right at the corner. It's full of Annapolis trinkets, but also some much nicer items such as throw rugs, umbrellas, clothing and other interesting items. The shop owner immediately engages us in conversation, belying the stereotype of the reserved easterner -- until we find out he's a transplant from the San Diego area. We shop and talk and eventually walk back out with a few trinkets in our bags and having spent a good time hearing about local events and suggestions. Talking to locals to get their take on "must sees" is a terrific idea on any trip, and most of the shopkeepers in Annapolis are eager to talk and share their knowledge.
|Inside the Marketplace. Plenty of Selections|
We head down to the wharf and go into the Marketplace, a long, low building directly opposite the bay. It's essentially a local-product food court with some absolutely wonderful treats. Most people grab something to eat and head over to the little dockside park across the street to sit and people watch (or boat watch if something interesting is going on). If you stand in the park facing the water and make a slow turn to your left, you'll see a long row of shops and restaurants on the far side of dock street. This row continues across the street and creates a framing of the area with the marketplace and park in the middle. You'll find some wonderful and historic places to eat, some of which go back to the 1800s as part of the original town. Some, such as the bright red Middleton Tavern were established in Colonial days, as far back as the late 1700s. The fish dishes, of course, are fresh and well-prepared in almost all the eateries in this part of town -- but be aware that you're paying tourist rates. Most certainly worth it, but don't assume that local and fresh translate to "low-cost".
|Picnic along the wharf|
(From previous experience, our favorite places to eat right on the square are Middleton's; The Dock Street Bar and Grill; and The Federal House. They're all modern and fun, but at the same time try to maintain certain traditions and menu items which date back to their origins -- it might be difficult to picture Thomas Jefferson sidling up to the bar and ordering a Corona, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.)
|The selection at Kilwin's|
After a breeze through the marketplace (having just eaten lunch before coming downtown we're not ready for eating just yet, so we head back up the slightly warmer sunny side of Main Street. The smell of fudge catches our senses. There are three delightfully decadent sweet shops along Main, and each has their own specialities to help you put back that weight you've lost as you walk around town. Uncle Bob's is a fudge specialty store, and Kilwin's is the resident chocolatier. Both have wonderful and brutally tempting treats -- maybe a good reason for not eating at the Marketplace? -- but we control our instincts and limit ourselves to hot chocolate at Kilwin's. We pause at a little table as we sip our drinks (including the almost mandatory hot chocolate tongue burning on the first sip). It's a perfect place to sit and people watch. Patrons, locals and pets all rush back and forth, and it's a fun location from which to watch the going's on. The fact that the chocolate is terrific and strong makes it an appropriate way to enjoy the slightly chilly street. We enjoy the view, sitting and talking, and my wife petting the frequent dog as it and the owner go by. My wife is a magnet for all things canine, so she is in heaven petting and greeting them as they pass. It's a good spot to stop, and highly recommended for both the treat and the rest. If you're more in the mood for something a bit more bakery, there is the wonderful Nostalgia Cupcake store just up the street.
Properly sated we continue on up the hill, noting, sadly, that the old Welsh Shop has closed its doors at some point in the last two years. The shop had been a regular stop for us, and back home we have the "Love Spoon" collection to show for it. Sadly time marches on and evidently the recession was too much for such a niche store to survive. Main Street has lost many such shops over the years, which is why I noted above that it's good to see a few returning to the fold and restoring much of what made the district so special. There is still the occasional corporate store -- a wireless company, a chain boutique, etc -- but they're the exception not the rule.
At the high end of Main is another historic site, the Maryland Inn. Dating from the late 1700s this is a beautiful old hotel, directly across the circle from St Anne's Parish. It's a beautiful hotel, though the rooms -- reflecting the period in which it was built -- are smallish by modern standards, the still are reported to be comfortable and nice. The hotel boasts an excellent restaurant, the Treaty of Paris (so-named for the historic treaty, signed in Paris, granting American independence from England. The treaty was first ratified by the Maryland Assembly, just a short block from the hotel). The hotel periodically tries to host a jazz club, but check ahead to see if the club is operating.
It's getting late, but we continue our walk around the circle and down a block to the Maryland State House, the capital building for the state. It's a beautiful, imposing structure which conveys a sense of another time and era in America. There are a coupled of benches and sitting areas to, again, just sit and watch the world go by. We're too busy for that ourselves, since our intended destination here is across the circle from the capital building. The Annapolis Pottery Shop is right there, and it's a frequent destination. The shop works with a variety of artisans, featuring beautiful works for anyone who collects pottery. The owners are friendly, knowledgeable and -- like the rest of the shopkeepers we've encountered -- always willing to talk and be friendly with non-locals. We spend some time picking out souvenirs for the trip. We end up purchasing a lot more than expected and have to ship it back to California. But it's worth it, and the cashier makes quick work of the information gathering and charges and we're off. It's growing late and we have to make it back to the family for dinner.
We've barely scratched the surface, but downtown Annapolis is a relaxing and beautiful place to visit. It constantly changes but -- oddly -- retains the same feel and sense of history. That's an unusual combination, and little of the experience feels artificial -- as if a town council has decided that the place doesn't look historic enough, so everybody needs to paint their awnings green. Annapolis accomplishes the history with a sense of ease, and yet a modernist feel permeates the town. It's a wonderful combination, and certainly merits a visit if you're in the area.
A few links I found interesting: