One freezing winter Sunday three years ago my wife and I packed the kids in the SUV and drove half an hour north from our home in Virginia to Gathland State Park on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland.
Few visitors associate Maryland with mountains – let alone the iconic Appalachian Trail. This is a state of wind-swept Atlantic coast beaches, Chesapeake Bay crab shacks, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the gritty industrial port city of Baltimore, yet, here we were, nowhere near ocean, creek or port, hiking a remote forest trail, tumbling views of lush farmland below and mountains beyond.
Named for Queen Mary, wife of Charles I, Maryland usually gets overlooked for the urban and political attractions of nearby Washington DC, and the Founding and Civil War history of Virginia, but it has its own storied history to brag about, not to mention a geographic diversity that only North Carolina on the East Coast can compare. Not for nothing is the state known as America in Miniature.
Let’s start the way the early English settlers did: on the rugged Atlantic Coast in the east. Assateague Island National Seashore is a barrier island park fronted by undulating sand dunes, and home to scores of wild horses – said to be descendants of animals that survived Spanish shipwrecks off this coast back in the time of Columbus. You can camp on the beach or in the woods just back from the water and wake to see the horses padding through the shallow water like beachgoers.
Ocean City north of here is a resort town of the old school – wooded boardwalk, theme park, high-rise beachfront hotels – popular with college kids at Spring Break.
For more discrete Maryland, head inland to the Chesapeake Bay, a marshy salt-water mass, famous for its fishing, oyster and crabbing industries. Indeed, the crab is Maryland’s state dish and on any given weekend in spring and summer rustic shacks on Kent Island and other settlements on the shore draw in boat loads of visitors for mounds of onion-boiled Blues and Soft Shells, always dusted with Old Bay – the spicy condiment that is the state’s most celebrated export. To learn about the local fishing communities join a Watermen Heritage Tour; the one out of Deal Island in the south bay involving a cruise on a century-old skipjack.
The Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake is a weekend playground to Washington DC power players, notably the gorgeous 17th-century villages of Oxford and St Michael’s, their narrow streets lined with handsome deep porch colonial homes, green lawns running down to private docks on the water, where the really well-off usually have a yacht parked. I’d take this over the Hamptons any day. The Inn at Perry Cabin in St Michael’s, with its spa, gardens, sailing academy and links golf course, is the place to stay.
The Western Shore of the Chesapeake is accessed via the heart-stopping 4.3-mile dual-span Chesapeake Bay Bridge which deposits you in state capital Annapolis at the mouth of the Severn River. Annapolis served as the US capital from 1783-1784 – George Washington signed the Paris Treaty ending the Revolutionary War here – while the US Naval Academy, officer school for sailors, sprawls along the southern banks of the Severn, its museums and military monuments open for tours.
Baltimore, Maryland’s biggest city, is 30 miles north, at the mouth of the Patapsco River. The second-largest sea port in the Mid Atlantic, it was once the pulsing heart of the Industrial Revolution. That’s changed over the years and, for good or ill, the city is now often associated with the gritty cult crime series The Wire. Don’t let that put you off. I love Baltimore, especially the Aquarium (the state’s most popular attraction) on the Inner Harbor, and catching the ferry from here to the restaurant-rich Fell’s Point neighbourhood. Standing sentinel in the bay is the stone-built Fort McHenry. In 1814, during the Battle of Baltimore – part of the War of 1812 – Maryland native and amateur poet Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment of the fort from a British ship. He woke at dawn to see the US flag still flying from its ramparts and wrote a poem about it. Thus a national anthem was born: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Another Maryland battle is just as pivotal to the country’s union, perhaps more so: Antietam, near Sharpsburg, 80 miles west of Baltimore. The bloodiest single-day battle in US history, it took place on September 17, 1862, with 22,717 men killed and many thousands more wounded. The Union stopped Robert E Lee’s Confederate march on Washington, however, and turned the tide of the war. Five days later Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were declared free, and America was forever changed.
It gets more rural and mountainous west of here. Wisp, on Deep Creek Lake, is a year-round resort: come for kayaking and zip-lining in summer, downhill skiing in winter. You are truly in the Appalachian’s now, a world away from the waves and watermen of the coast.
I still like that section of the Appalachian Trail at Gathland Park, not far from my Virginia home, where it’s not unheard of to run into a black bear and her cubs. Obscurely, the park is home to a Civil War Correspondent’s museum and a memorial War Correspondent’s arch. If you want really obscure though, make your way to the village of Burkittsville in the piedmont below. A pretty one-horse colonial town, it seems normal enough. Then you notice the out-of-town geeks and hipsters, couples with cameras and notebooks taking shots of buildings and signs. They’re movie buffs here to record the village and surrounding woodland that was the setting and location for the cult 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project. They may have discovered one corner of Maryland – the rest remains scandalously overlooked.