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America - Chesapeake Circle

Still waters

Dea Birkett and family head off the tourist route to discover the charming and gentle side of America, cracking crabs and shucking oysters in Chesapeake Bay

Saturday July 24, 2004 - The Guardian

Wharf and peace ... a typical waterman's workboat. Photo: Corbis
Wharf and peace ... a typical waterman's workboat. Photo: Corbis

Captain Barry pulled up the crabs. There were half a dozen of them, their blue claws snapping at us. We pulled some more pots, and there were half a dozen more. He explained to the kids that crabs in this part of the world are blue, not pink. But in all other ways it was just like a page from one of their story books. As the sun went down and we came into toward the island, Captain Barry showed us how to reach over the side of his shallow-bottomed boat and pick oysters off the harbour wall, then swallow them raw.

Chincoteague - an island reached by a bridge which raises when a tall ship has to pass - is a working port. Small fishing or pleasure boats like Captain Barry's, commercial trawlers and clamming craft line the waterfront, only interrupted by seafood shacks. Yet while Maine and its famed lobster is on every tourist map, Chesapeake and its seafood is still undiscovered. You're only tempted to travel through this watery area when someone who's already been there tells you to go. Like me.

Some journeys just aren't of the linear A to B kind, and the Chesapeake Circle is one of them. Chincoteague was the mid-point on our travels, halfway down the eastern shore of the Chesapeake peninsula, and we were about to turn back towards our starting point. We were making a large loop around the bay which divides the states of Maryland and Virginia in two, half of each on each side of the water. Starting at Washington DC, we'd travelled north through Baltimore then dipped south again to Maryland's historic capital Annapolis, taking the short bridge over the northernmost part of Chesapeake Bay on to the peninsula, south right down to the tip, then crossing back over and heading north to DC again.

I almost decided to give up on this circular journey at the map-stretched-out-on-sitting-room-floor stage (with the three-year-old twins driving a toy car along highway 95). A fly-drive with three kids, including a less than malleable 11-year-old, didn't promise a relaxing holiday. We'd be staying in five hotels in 10 days, from the luxury Loews L'Enfant Plaza in Washington to the simple Knapps Narrow Marina Inn on Tilghman Island. I imagined the whole trip would be squeezing bags of dirty kids' clothes into the boot (or trunk, as they say over there; a boot is a wheelclamp), and we'd spend most of our time not crabbing or oystering but, as the Americans call it, de-carring.

But Chesapeake isn't in America's fast lane. The only interstate we took was the last leg into DC. Our route wound through small places of character and ragged charm; there are no surfing beaches, but small towns framed by working water bobbing with small boats. These settlements (the best way I can describe their planked, thrown-up-yesterday feel) weren't peopled by bronzed beach bums, but ruddy-faced fisherman in chequered shirts swigging bottles of Bud and downing piles of fried oyster sandwiches at the bar.

Chesapeake also isn't super-sized; once we'd left Baltimore (see panel), we didn't see another skyscraper until, 10 days later, Washington DC came into sight. The landscape of the national parks is endless stretches of salt water marshes rather than canyons or petrified forests. Even traditional roadside diners were few and far between. The nearest we came to classic stateside food was Chick and Ruth's Delly, an Annapolis institution, with Reuben sandwiches (corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye), hamburgers and milk shakes.

But leave Annapolis, and it's low key America, where the pace is a lot slower and everything slightly more palatable - from the toned-down patriotism to the delicious food. Once you cross to the eastern Atlantic shore of Chesapeake Bay, it's perfect family fare. They serve meals where you're actually supposed to get messy. On a wooden deck built on stilts over the sea, a paper cloth is thrown over the table, and every diner is handed a wooden mallet and a plastic apron. Blue crabs are served by the dozen in plastic buckets, and getting shards of shell all over you as you smash them is part of the process. For the three-year-old twins, being given a wooden hammer as an eating implement was about as fun as a meal could get. I don't think I saw a knife and fork for over a week.

Even the few fancy items on the menu - Maryland crabcakes and crab dip (mashed crab and cheese) with crackers - are all finger food. And the wild oysters slid from their shells.

For over a century, oysters have been a major industry in the area. Even today, the men speak "oyster talk" - "slick ca'am" for no wind; "jag" for a big stock of oysters; and, of course, "shuck" for taking an oyster from its shell. Although they make a living from the sea, they don't call to be called fishermen, but watermen. Their motor-less sailing boats are called skipjacks, and are allowed to fish for oysters freely. No one wants to use an engine, as there are restrictions on the number of days a powered boat can fish.

Chincoteague, itself an island, is joined by a short bridge to Assateague, another long narrow island and a marshland refuge for otters, herons, cranes and raccoons. We hired bikes with "chariots" - lightweight trailers for the kids to sit in which hooked on the back - and went along well-marked trails in search of the herds of wild ponies which feed on the salt marsh grass. For over 200 years, on the first slack tide on the last Wednesday of July, the annual Pony Penning is held, when the ponies swim the kilometre across the inlet between the two islands and trot up Main Street. The following morning the foals are auctioned to finance the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company; fire services are not provided by the state.

Chincoteague ponies are very sought after, and fetch high prices. But for those of us who don't have access to a stable, a new scheme has been started where you can buy a Chincoteague pony lifelong freedom, never to be auctioned again, and give them a name. I imagine Liberty has proved very popular.

Chincoteague could be described as sleepy. But it had been even quieter on Tilghman Island. When we checked into the white board Knapp's Narrows Marina Inn, we were asked if we arrived by road or by sea; most of the guests are sailors. Tilghman has a couple of restaurants (where you can eat yet more crab), a post office, a tiny grocery store (selling bait, lighter fuel, six-packs of Bud and very little else), and a petrol pump attended by a man with greasy hands sitting listlessly, chewing gum, with a polystyrene cup of coffee growing cold at his feet, as if placed there by central casting. Tilghman is Maryland's answer to the Last Picture Show; the only sound is the ting-ting of the halyards hitting the masts of the boats or a hooter announcing that the drawbridge, which joins the island to the mainland, is about to be raised.

From Tilghman to Chincoteague Islands we'd passed through our most major town, St Michaels, which had one long street and a couple of dozen shops. We ate at The Crab Claw - according to the twins, you can never have too much seafood or too many mallets to attack it with. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum on the edge of town had boats on dry land which the kids could climb in, a lighthouse to climb up, fishing nets to climb over, and, inevitably, a history of oystering. Every small town you pass through is more likely to have its own oyster museum than a McDonald's.

We drove south from Chincoteague to the tip of the peninsula, crossing the 17 mile Chesapeake Bay bridge-tunnel, which ducks and dives under the water twice, to allow for shipping lanes, like a mild rollercoaster ride. We were completing the circle, making our way north through Colonial Williamsburg back towards Washington DC. Five hotels in 10 days didn't seem so bad, the trunk was big enough for even all our dirty washing, and we'd seen America as we hadn't seen it before - gentle, charming, watery. Wild horses could definitely drag us back. Especially Chincoteague's.

Getting there: British Airways (0870 8509850, flies from Heathrow to Washington or Baltimore from £307.50 return. America As You LIke It (020-8742 8299, offers a 10-night Chesapeake Circle fly/drive from £995 per adult and £320 per child including BA flights, rental car, taxes and room-only accommodation. Getting around: Holiday Autos (0870 4000010, has10 days' fully-inclusive family-sized car rental in DC from £234. Further information: Free Capital Region Guide on 01234 764553, Country code: 001. Flight time: Heathrow-Washington DC: 8hrs. Time difference: GMT -5hrs. £1 = 1.80 dollars.

Family-friendly cities

Washington DC
I lost my 11 year old. She'd changed her name and nationality, and assumed another identity. Formerly Storme from London, she now called herself Janet and came from Sweetwater, Tennessee. She'd chosen this alias on entering The Spy Museum, just a few blocks off DC's Mall, and been given two minutes to memorise it. For the rest of our visit - sorry, 'mission' - she'd only answer to 'Janet'. During the 'mission' she had to spot people in disguise and foil attempts at sabotage on computer screens dotted throughout the building. Meanwhile, her mum (still known as mum) admired 007 memorabilia displayed on plinths in glass cases.

Compared with this, the Smithsonians, although free, were disappointing. The National Air and Space Museum seemed just a little bit out of date: early Apollo landings were a long time ago. The dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History may have been more genuine bones than those in Baltimore, but they were just stuck up there on their pretend mounds of brown earth as if exhausted by having to be on show all day. There was little to do but look. Janet - now Storme again - noted that the museum guards had a pistol tucked in their belt, as if she were going to abscond with a stegosaurus toe.

Feeling less than welcome, she preferred wandering outside, down to the new World War Two Memorial and admiring the fountains. DC may be memorial-bound, but it has plenty of outside space for children to conquer.

Move beyond the Mall, and the city becomes more human. We dawdled over a brunch of blueberry pancakes at Eastern Market, where hippies still hang out. Culturally and gastronomically sated, we headed back to the hotel. Mission accomplished.

Baltimore is not beautiful; it's a busy, industrial port leered over by the mighty neon sign of Domino Sugars, the second largest in the world after Coca Cola's in Tokyo. But the waterfront is buzzing with museums, shops, restaurants and an almighty aquarium. The recently renovated Maryland Science Center is worth a weekend in itself. Storme dug for dinosaur bones and trod in the footsteps of a tyrannosaurus rex. There's even a bed of nails to lie on and a truth-o-meter to test your pre-teen's tales. Not to be outdone by the culinary delights of Chesapeake Bay, the Center gives out free cicada recipes, as, like DC, the city has suffered an invasion of these insects. Storme declared sautéd cicadas with crushed garlic and basil the most delicious.

If you want to witness the revival of American patriotism, then visit Fort McHenry, only a sea taxi away, where the Star Spangled Banner was composed in 1814. You can witness one of the largest American flags in the world unfurl to the backdrop of an 'inspirational film'. We were the only people who didn't stand with our hands laid on our heart.

What the parks of the Mall do for DC, the water does for Baltimore. It's there to play on. You can take a sea taxi almost anywhere, including Fell's Point, an old trading port to the east of the city now all spruced up and dotted with galleries and cafes. Sitting outside by the water, watching the boats go by, I asked Storme where she'd prefer to spend the weekend. Despite the Spy Museum, she was clear: 'Baltimore does it better.'

For more thoughts on America see,8922,1236636,00.html

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