Tour of the Eastern Shore during a pandemic; October 8 – 14, 2020

The Maryland / Delaware / Virginia Eastern Shore is also called the Delmarva Peninsula. I wanted to tour some of it by bicycle with my friend Lyman. Back in 1974-78 I went to college on the Eastern Shore: Washington College in Chestertown MD. Chestertown is a quaint eighteenth century town on the northern part of the Eastern Shore. On this current trip we ended up skipping Chestertown. I advocate that many of the best travel experiences are when you and your travel companion discover new people and places; going back to somewhere you have gone before I find often to be a letdown. This trip focused on places neither of us had ever visited, especially the towns of Easton MD, Cambridge MD, Berlin MD, Lewes DE, and the beach towns of Rehoboth Beach DE and Ocean City MD.

This is during a pandemic! Should we even be out here doing this? I do not want to get sick, certainly, but I also want to be a good citizen. I do not want to get anyone else sick. Lyman is slightly less paranoid than me about covid behavior but both of us tried to be as careful as possible. Both of us were not in favor of indoor dining, for example. What to do about the virus during the car ride from the airport? We decided not to mask in the car but we did leave the windows mostly open. We would have separate hotel rooms on this trip and try to stay six feet apart.

I picked up Lyman at BWI airport about noon. He had taken an early morning nonstop on Southwest Airlines from Austin TX. I had driven up five hours from Chapel Hill NC. We drove together in the Prius a little over an hour further; across the Bay Bridge to a prearranged motel in Easton MD. Instead of the pandemic, during the car ride we talked about food. “You should eat coconut oil” he advised. Hmmm.

Here is the bike trip we did over six day.s. To make the map more precise I separated it into two parts

Here is the second half of our tour.

Just off the highway on the edge of Easton MD in early afternoon I parked the car at the Quality Inn. We decided to take an afternoon bike ride, first through Easton then out to two towns I had heard were picturesque before returning to the motel. As you can see from the maps above, the western (left) side on the Eastern Shore peninsula is lined with “rivers” which are actually estuaries of brackish water. In the 1700’s ocean going vessels could tie up directly at towns like Easton, St. Michaels, and Oxford. We headed out by bicycle through downtown Easton MD (population 16,000) Downtown Easton looks like what I imagine an English country town would look like.

We bicycled ten miles to the small town of Oxford MD, the departing spot of a fifteen minute ferry ride to Bellevue MD. We were never far from the water.

Oxford MD

The Oxford – Bellevue Ferry claims to be the oldest privately owned ferry service in America, from 1683! It crosses a piece of the estuary Tred Avon River.

photo from Wikipedia

The boat ride takes just a few minutes. Lyman and I and our bicycles were the only passengers. After getting off the ferry the scene was delightful for bicycling; completely empty country roads on a flat landscape. It would be eight miles to St. Michaels MD.

St Michaels MD is a lovely town but completely touristed and cutesified; somewhere to tie up one’s yacht, directly across the Chesapeake Bay from Washington and Baltimore. Because we did not want to bicycle on the highway in the dark we had to hurry and only had time to briefly loop around St. Michaels.

It was late in the afternoon when we left to bicycle the eleven miles back to Easton MD. We arrived back in downtown Easton just as it was getting dark. We decided we would have a beer. We had no interest in hanging in any enclosed space like a bar. Outside one place was an empty outdoor table and we walked (masked) inside to get a beer. Several guys at the bar were not practicing social distancing. We got our beers and walked outside.

Lyman and I enjoyed sitting outside on the sideswalk, looking at this old-seeming town and watching cars go by.

I take a lot of random street photos. One of those guys in the bar was giving me a hard time for taking his picture. I walked back inside for just a second, in order to respond. It was all in good fun. I talked to them not more than thirty seconds. I had a mask on; they did not. I felt totally guilty afterwards for talking to unknown unmasked people in an indoor setting, even if for just a minute.

photo by Lyman Labry

Ultimately we had to bicycle (in the dark) back to the motel on the highway, a distance of about a mile.

Eating on the road during a bicycle tour during a pandemic is problematic. We did not want to gather indoors but we wanted good food in a restful setting (I take dinner and its setting very seriously!) This first night we had the advantage of a car. We used that car to drive two miles to an African-American owned barbecue place. We got takeout. Maryland is not as dogmatic as North Carolina about barbecue; there were a variety of cooked meats. (North Carolina barbecue is strictly only pork!) We both ordered variations of beef brisket and took the dinners back to the motel. We ate outdoors at chairs that sat out front, probably put there for smokers. The space was actually was quite nice and the barbecue was delicious.

The next morning we cycled about one mile back into Easton and to an independent coffee place. They had outdoor tables. The weather was perfect, it was going to be a nice day.

The Eastern Shore is mostly rural and agricultural. It is the home of Perdue Farms, the chicken factory farming conglomerate. This first full day of cycling was the longest of the trip, sixty something miles all the way across the peninsula.

We passed through the small town of Federalsburg. My college friend Dave was from this town, I wonder if he still lives here. This turn-of-the-twentieth-century bank in Federalsburg has a fascinating modernist addition. A clash of styles. Lyman and I are both eccentric enough that we both noticed this immediately. We stopped and photographed it from all angles.

photo by Lyman Labry

We biked out of Federalsburg towards the countryside and the Delaware state line.

About six miles later we crossed the Delaware state line. The sign at the border had the state motto “The First State.”

Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution in the 1700’s. Riding a bicycle gave me time to think about this. The current political situation more fully explains the importance of the motto, even though it has likely been Delaware’s motto for many years. OF COURSE Delaware rushed to ratify the Constitution. Delaware was awarded TWO senators, the same as the much larger Virginia and New York. Delaware now the same number of senators as the much larger California and Texas. Furthermore, Delaware then was a slave state and they were allowed to count slaves who could obviously not vote, although only as three-fifths of a person. The government of Delaware got a helluva deal! We are still trying to live this deal down more than two hundred years later. Delaware’s current population is 982,000, about half of the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill CSA.

Twenty something miles further we stopped for lunch in the larger town of Georgetown DE (population 6,500.) We looked for a place to get lunch and still feel safe. Because of the pandemic the options in downtown Georgetown were not great, several restaurants were closed. The town has done its part to help downtown restaurants by setting up outdoor seating areas but they looked unused. Low and behold we found a taco truck! Actually a Mexican (or Central American?) food truck specializing in pupusas. We realized pretty quickly that there is a large Spanish speaking population in Georgetown. Waiting in line with us at the taco truck were two guys in FM radio promotional outfits. As they bought tacos they tried to sell the taco truck guy on the virtues of radio advertising. We took the tacos and pupusas back a few blocks to the town’s public tables. Afterward Lyman took his usual twenty minute nap while I plotted our next move.

We had made our day’s destination the town of Lewes DE, fifteen miles further. The highway to Lewes was full of traffic but had really wide shoulders. Maryland and Delaware highways have consistently MUCH wider shoulders than Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Lewes DE is almost on the coast but fronts the Delaware Bay, just a few miles from the open ocean. Here is a big shout out to the Beacon Motel in Lewes DE. It is walking distance to downtown, has balconies for each room overlooking the marsh, low prices, and clean rooms with colorful bedspreads.

Lewes DE is touristy but I find it still really compelling. I wish I had taken more pictures of the downtown. This one is from the internet.

Later we walked back to downtown and found an Italian place, the kind that serves wood fired pizzas that serve 1 – 2. With the pizza they sold us a bottle of wine and a slice of carrot cake. We took it all back to Lyman’s room and sat outdoors six feet apart on his balcony looking at the night. It was very pleasant.

The next morning we bicycled downtown to get coffee and breakfast at Notting Hill Coffee Roasters, sitting outside on the sidewalk. They make their own baked goods.

We then started our day’s ride. It began by riding through Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park. We then rode south along the beach, first Rehoboth Beach DE, then down to Ocean City MD, about forty miles to the south.

The paved bike trail through the state park was calming. It reminded me of First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach where I had grown up.

North Shores DE, just north of Rehoboth Beach DE

We cycled (slowly!) south along the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk.

My brother the writer Alex Marshall has complained that America no longer builds great public works, writing that our bridges do not look as impressive as those being built in other countries. The Charles W. Cullen bridge on Highway One along the beach in Delaware is majestic as it crosses the tiny Indian River Inlet. I guess it needs to be high enough for boats to fit underneath.

A few miles past the bridge was Matt’s Fish Camp, a concrete block structure along an otherwise residential stretch of highway on the north side of Bethany Beach DE. It was after 1:00 PM so we were certainly ready for lunch. Matt’s had several inviting empty outdoor tables surrounded by a fence in the back. We ordered beers and twenty something dollar entrees. I am suspicious of beach town restaurants but this place really shone.

Lyman got a fancy salmon dish.

I got what the menu called “fish camp stew”, I would call it Delaware bouillabaisse. The clams had a wonderful flavor and there was a great mix of seafood. 4 – 1/2 stars out of five.

What a lunch, what a lunch. We (of course!) had dessert and coffee.

It was still eight or ten miles south to the Maryland state line and thirty miles to Ocean City MD, a place I had heard about but never visited. The pleasure of the day’s ride pretty much went downhill from here. After crossing into Maryland the highway along the beach got wider and wider and the buildings taller and taller. In most places there was no other place to ride a bicycle other than the highway.

We also had had no warning that this October weekend had been designated “Endless Summer Crusin,” a yearly event where visitors blast around in 1950’s and 60’s cars with loud engines. Crowds (mostly unmasked) lined the main highway to watch. It was a terrible bicycle ride but certainly interesting.

Eventually by bicycle we had almost reached the end of the barrier island, the southern part of Ocean City. We needed a place to stay. The land/road side of Ocean City had been a really unpleasant place both to look at and to ride bicycles. The boardwalk covers the southernmost part of town and is somewhat nicer.

We found this hotel Harrison Hall which fronted the beach and the boardwalk. They said they had their last two rooms available. We were so glad to get out of traffic.

Sometimes this blog seems like my coming-of-age-novel. In the late 1960’s when I was in elementary and middle school growing up in Virginia Beach I used to hang with my friend Chip at his family’s oceanfront hotel. That hotel was very much like Harrison Hall in Ocean City. The Virginia Beach hotel was sold and subsequently torn down in the 1970’s, replaced by a motel. I have more recently noticed that the replacement motel was torn down in about 2010 and replaced with an even larger hotel. But Harrison Hall in Ocean City MD in 2020 is still here. Built in 1951 and surrounded by high rises I am not sure why Harrison Hall continues. Virginia Beach had dozens and dozens of these places and they are all gone, replaced by high rises. Harrison Hall in Ocean City MD is NOT fixed up in some kind of fancy historic preservation way. I find the stains on the carpet somehow charming and there was nothing sleazy about the place.

Much later we walked outside to look for somewhere to eat during a pandemic. We wanted a dinner we could bring back and eat outside on the open air porch.

We had had a big lunch but we still needed some kind of dinner. Beach towns are not known for great food. There is a pandemic. We had gotten really lucky at lunch a few hours earlier. The pizza takeout joints near our hotel looked so unclean as to look unsafe, the kind of place that might make you sick. There was a clean bright CVS right around the corner. What kind of healthy light dinner can you buy at a CVS? After browsing the CVS I came up with the idea of sardines on a bun. (Lyman also got something at the CVS but I cannot remember what!) Eaten outside on the porch facing the boardwalk and the ocean it was actually pretty good.

The next morning we knew we needed more fuel for the bicycle ride so we went large for breakfast at the outdoor terrace of a neighboring hotel.

Lyman was all-in.

I got their “breakfast veggie bowl with eggs and potatoes.” I had never had brussel sprouts for breakfast before. I rate the dish as only semi-successful but it least it was filling. The brussel sprouts were not cooked enough.

Lyman and I had a bigger problem which was weather. The remains of Hurricane Delta was approaching from the gulf and we knew there would be rain for the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. We got started early after breakfast and hoped to bicycle the ten or twelve miles inland to Berlin MD before the rain started. We theoretically could keep bicycling in the rain but why would we want to do that? We first cycled south on the Ocean City boardwalk before turning west.

Berlin MD is the ying to Ocean City’s yang.

The tiny inland town Berlin MD (population 4,500) has become a cutesy antique shop and bed-and-breakast destination.

About noon we booked rooms at Atlantic Hotel which appears to mostly function for its high end restaurant on the ground floor. We figured we would just have to wait out the weather.

I had been in touch with my sister Betsy who lives two or three hours north in Princeton NJ. She wanted to drive down and visit; why not? She arrived around five in the afternoon and we sat outside on the porch. She ended up getting her own room and spending the night also.

The three of us had a delightful dinner on that same porch; fancy food at a fancy restaurant. I got scallops. It was still raining the next morning and the three of us just hung around; extending the checkout time. Betsy and I did walk around Berlin a little in the rain. About 1:30 PM Betsy got in her car and drove back to Princeton and Lyman and I set out for Salisbury MD by bicycle, twenty-five miles to the west. The rain looked like it was stopping. The rain (of course) only stopped for about ten minutes. Lyman and I rode in pretty much continuous rain all the way to Salisbury.

Salisbury MD (population 31,000) is traditionally the largest city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It looks like a working class town with a struggling downtown. We stayed at the one downtown chain hotel, a La Quinta. The La Quinta was a dump. My hot water did not work and the place smelled. I say this as a person who is not picky about hotel rooms. On the other hand, every person we talked to in Salisbury was unusually friendly and helpful.

We ate that night at Evolution Craft Brewing, walking distance to our hotel. The drizzly rain continued and their outdoor seating was not covered. The restaurant/brewery was largely empty, a former warehouse with high ceilings and large distances between tables. For the only time on this trip, we ate inside. (I felt guilty about it!). After dinner Lyman and I cheered on the New Orleans Saints. Lyman is part of a group of Austin TX Saints fans that watch every game together. (Lyman is originally from New Orleans.) Tootie and I lived in New Orleans 1981-88 and remain Saints fans as well.

The next morning we cycled through downtown Salisbury.

Add Salisbury to the list of cities whose tallest downtown building was built in the roaring 1920’s.

Within a block is the Olde Towne Deli Cafe and Coffeehouse, run by this guy who was there by himself. He makes excellent fresh made breakfast sandwiches and takes Polaroid photos of his customers. We are proud to now be on his wall. We ate our breakfast outside on the sidewalk.

We biked through the northern part of Salisbury.

Just like the day before, our weather reports indicated that the rain was stopping, In downtown Salisbury at the coffee shop it was not raining. Once out of town OF COURSE it started raining.

It was not a hard rain and we soldiered on. In the middle of nowhere we stopped to look at the map on our phones and this horse wandered over to say hello.

If the horse was looking for food we had none to give, so we bicycled on. We briefly crossed into the far southwestern corner of Delaware before returning to rural Maryland. There was almost no traffic yet the roads still had wide shoulders.

We passed this chicken farm. You could definitely smell it.

We later stopped to rest at a drawbridge over Marshyhope Creek. The concrete structure of the bridge gave us somewhere to sit down. Like much of what we saw this day, there was no one around, not even car traffic. The silence was palpable. It does not appear that this bridge has been opened in years.

We cycled into the very small town of East New Market MD. There was only one store in town.

Lyman said “Let’s go inside, the sign sign says Deli.” I said “Lyman that’s ridiculous, that is not a real deli.”

I was so wrong. We split a turkey sub. I often go to the chain Subway when out of town. This sandwich was like Subway but better in every possible way. Better meat, better bread, better cheese, better relishes. Crunchy lettuce. We ate outside at the town park. Like everything this day, there was no one around.

Lyman did his traditional afternoon nap. I read The New Yorker on my Kindle.

Our day’s destination was Cambridge MD (population 12,000). Cambridge is an old town, a former port that now is a yacht and pleasure boating destination. In my freshman dorm at Washington College in 1974 a good friend was Jay, from Cambridge MD. When we gave out nicknames to those on the hall, his was a derogatory word used to make fun of the Southern working class. He spoke with a pronounced Southern accent and had wide sideburns. Jay did not come back for sophomore year, I am not sure why. He had seemed happy and doing well in college.

Lyman and I biked into Cambridge.

Earlier in the day I had stopped at an empty stretch of highway in the drizzle and had telephoned one of the three bed-and-breakfasts shown in Cambridge MD on Google maps. I cut to the chase and asked if there was any way they could give us two rooms for two hundred dollars total. A woman with an English accent took a long pause. “I would be losing a hundred dollars from my regular price of one hundred fifty.” Pause. “But I suppose so. What time would you be arriving?” The bed and breakfast was this house. Only after arriving did we find out the price included a fancy custom cooked breakfast.

When we arrived at about three or four in the afternoon, we met the owner, a trim British woman likely in her seventies. She asked “would you like coffee?” Me, I just wanted to get into the room, close the door, take a shower, and do some reading. But Lyman of course said “coffee would be great.” She made a quite fancy coffee setup and the three of us sat down on her fancy porch for thirty minutes. She wanted to hear all about us. And she did.

She had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place “nice.” The bed was indeed very comfortable and the towels fluffy. There were lots of extraneous decorations. Cute stuff. These two mice that were greeting me on the bed as I entered the room. Hmmm.

Much later on Lyman and I bicycled in the dark the mile or two back downtown. We found Ava’s Pizzeria and Wine Bar with empty outdoor picnic tables. It was all delicious and relaxing, no one else ate outside. We first had a portion each of tomato bisque. We followed that with their pizza of the day, a pizza that did not include tomato sauce.

Our hostess had asked what time we wanted breakfast. I froze and looked to Lyman for an answer. “8:30 AM” Lyman answered. Why didn’t I say something? I really would have rather eaten earlier. But I failed to speak up!

She prepared us an enormous feast, including poached eggs with cream sauce, all served indoors in her small dining room. She is a good cook although everything was heavy and rich. Halfway through the meal she came and sat down perpendicular to us, about three feet from each of us. She was maskless and she wanted to talk politics. It would have been easy for me to ask her to put on a mask but I froze. I still regret that because it put us all at unnecessary risk. I should have had more social courage.

She said she was a British citizen from the tony west side of London and was once married to an American naval officer from Virginia. She has children living in other parts of America. As a Brit she could not vote but in the upcoming election wanted to know what WE thought. Fox News had been playing in her living room the afternoon before. Many of her ideas seemed baked by Fox News. She politely listened when we told her what we thought and overall it was an interesting discussion. An unusual idea of hers was that one should strictly judge women political candidates by their appearance. (“I guess that makes me old fashioned” she said.) The only women politicians she judged unattractive were all Democrats and mostly nonwhite. I remembered that in England the upper classes had never traditionally been advocates for the American idea of universal equality! We both bit our tongues.

We got our stuff together and packed our bicycles to leave from her front porch.

Lyman had a flight leaving BWI airport that afternoon and we still had about twenty miles to bicycle back to my car parked in Easton MD.

We bicycled back through Cambridge, then the long causeway across the estuary Choptank River.

Across the bridge we first cycled on the main highway US-50 but eventually found parallel smaller roads.

A few miles before Easton is the tiny settlement of Trappe MD. We stopped for an almond milk latte at independently owned The Coffee Trappe.

We bicycled back to my Prius in the motel parking lot on the northern edge of Easton MD. My car was still there. I had to wait while Lyman took his Bike Friday apart and put it in the travel case. We loaded up and drove just over an hour to BWI airport where I dropped Lyman off. I drove five and a half hours home and was able to have a late dinner back in Chapel Hill NC. This is a photo taken when we were leaving Cambridge MD that morning.

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