The minute the sun comes out and warms those Chesapeake breezes, the boats come out, too. Sailboats and powerboats flock to a handful of Maryland towns that sit by the water's edge. But you don't need a boat to visit these charming towns. Almost all of them are less than 90 minutes from the Bay Bridge by car.
1. Rock Hall (www.rockhallmd.com)
Baltimore's boaters like Rock Hall because it's a quick trip straight across the Bay to this sleepy little fishing village. When you do come by boat, the Rock Hall Trolley will take you into town weekends in warm weather -- and every day during the summer season. Rock Hall hasn't been "prettified" the way St. Michaels has. Watermen still stack their crab pots by the water's edge and tie up their work boats near the yachts. Still, it has its charms. Good seafood in casual waterfront eateries, three museums that recall the good old days, two of Maryland's best B&Bs, and a small town friendliness that's getting scarcer these days.
2. St. Michaels (www.stmichaelsmd.org)
There are many reasons this small town on the Miles River keeps drawing the crowds: a great harbor, seafood any way you like it, almost too many gift shops and the well-regarded Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. It's worth a stop at the museum just to visit the picturesque Hooper Strait Lighthouse. Come on a summer weekend for the log canoe races. "Log canoes" are sailboats that look like they have way too much sail for their size -- but can they fly! Several tour boats will take out visitors who arrived without boat out on the bay by sail or motor. And to really get away from it all, drive 15 miles down a country road to Tilghman Island for an afternoon of bike riding, kayaking or just taking in the scenery. A couple of well-appointed inns here offer alternative lodging if St. Michaels is out of rooms.
3. Oxford (www.oxfordmd.net)
Oxford doesn't have crowds or the wide choice of restaurants, shops, and museums you'll find in St. Michaels. What it has is history and serenity. The town, with a population of 1,000, is one of Maryland's oldest. In the 1700s, this was Maryland's main port of entry. Today the tiny beach and the waterfront park are pleasant places for a picnic or an excuse to do nothing at all. Plenty of visitors come by boat: either their own or the Oxford-Bellevue ferry. The privately-owned ferryboat that holds only a few cars crosses the Tred Avon River to tiny Bellevue where you can head back to the hustle and bustle of the everyday along winding rural roads.
4. Annapolis (www.visitannapolis.org)
Maryland's capital city gets its party vibe going around Memorial Day and doesn't quit until in October after the two boat shows leave town. The town drips with colonial heritage -- and some 1,500 colonial-era buildings. It's also home to the Naval Academy and the city dock overlooks the Chesapeake Bay. Learn to sail or take a ride on a schooner, tour narrow 18th century streets from a 21st century Segway, or visit the Naval Academy and watch the midshipmen on parade. Want to feel the bay breeze while you enjoy a drink or dinner? No problem; there are plenty of waterside tables.
5. Solomons (www.ecalvert.com/content/tourism/index.asp)
Solomons is about two hours from the Bay Bridge -- but it's 90 minutes from either Annapolis or Washington, D.C., close enough for a quick getaway. Nearly surrounded by rivers and creeks and within view of the Chesapeake Bay, it's a boater's dream destination with marinas, restaurants, and bars. It's also the home of the Calvert Marine Museum and the Annmarie Gardens. There are fishing charters or rental boats if you didn't bring your own. Solomons is only a half hour from St. Mary's City, the state's first capital. It offers a glimpse of life in 1634 with the State House, a tobacco plantation and other buildings rebuilt among the cornfields along the St. Mary's River.
6. Baltimore (www.baltimore.org)
Baltimore has a waterfront that's deservedly world-famous. Park your car and from the Inner Harbor you can walk to the science center or an aquarium with creatures from the Australian outback and Amazon rain forest. Catch an Oriole game or wander through museums that feature everything from comic books to sports to art to African-American history. Catch the water taxi to Fells Point, Little Italy, or the new Harbor East. It's also a great way to get to the Ft. McHenry, home of the Star Spangled Banner. Want a tour? You can get one by boat, by "duck," or by foot.