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Chesapeake Bay: A maritime triumvirate

Courtesy Calvert County Department of Economic Development

A rich history and the beauty of the Chesapeake Bay make the counties of southern Maryland an attractive destination for groups traveling throughout the region.

A trio of counties — Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s — combine historic sites, lighthouses, waterfront attractions and bayside charm to create a destination that stands out from the rest of the state.

“The three counties work a lot together as a region,” said Carolyn Laray, tourism manager at the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development. “We’re a peninsula surrounded by the Potomac on one side, the Patuxent [River] on the other and the Chesapeake Bay. We share the bay experience, but we all have different characteristics that make us unique.”

St. Mary’s County
Attractions around St. Mary’s county offer visitors a look at the earliest parts of the state’s history.
“We’re the oldest county in the state,” Laray said. “This is where Maryland was founded 375 years ago, and it’s the site of Maryland’s first colony and first capitol.”

Courtesy St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development

Laray recommends that groups begin their visit at Historic St. Mary’s City, an outdoor living-history site. The village looks much like it did in 1634 with a number of reconstructed buildings from the Colonial period and a replica of the first ship that brought colonists to the county. Historic re-enactors stationed around the town interact with visitors for a first-person experience.

The county is also known for its four historic lighthouses, two of which are open for groups to visit. The Piney Point Lighthouse was the first built on the Potomac River and has a new museum building that showcases historic Chesapeake Bay vessels.

“At one point it was known as the lighthouse of presidents, because presidents back to James Monroe would come down from D.C. and spend some time there,” Laray said.

Blackstone Lighthouse on St. Clements Island marks the place where the colonists first landed before sailing on to the mainland of St. Mary’s. The lighthouse was built around 1850, and groups can reach it by water taxi.

Another popular spot for groups to visit is the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. The museum is at a naval test and evaluation center where early jet fighters and astronauts were trained and features naval aviation artifacts and a fighter jet simulator.

Charles County
At one point, the town of Port Tobacco in Charles County was the second-largest seaport in Maryland. Today, the town and surrounding area offer a blend of historic charm and modern attractions.

Courtesy Charles County Economic Development and Tourism

“Port Tobacco has a wonderful history,” said Donna Dudley, chief of tourism for the Charles County Economic Development and Tourism Department. “There’s a chapter for virtually every segment of American history. It has a connection to the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and it’s still a thriving community, not a set-aside historic district.”

Some of the area’s history is on display at the Gen. William Smallwood House Museum. Another historic home, the Samuel A. Mudd House, belonged to the physician who set the leg of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

This spring, the county is opening road access to Mallow’s Bay, a secluded spot on the Potomac where old ships have been intentionally and unintentionally sunk since World War I. Today the shipwrecks have become their own ecosystems, and visitors can see the shadows of the ships and the flora and fauna that now live in them.

For a night of modern fun, groups can take an outing to see a minor league baseball game at Regency Furniture Stadium.

“It’s home to the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs,” Dudley said. “Groups can come in and get special deals, like eating at a crab feast or watching the game from a club room.”

Calvert County
Calvert County and the historic small town of Solomons give visitors a taste of waterfront life, where the Patuxent River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Courtesy Courtesy Calvert County Department of Economic Development

The Calvert Marine Museum has a collection of artifacts related to the history of maritime life in the area. The museum staff are also stewards of two lighthouses — one on site and one about five miles away — that are open for groups to tour. In addition, the museum offers excursions on a historic boat, the William B. Tennison.

“It’s a bug-eyed boat and the oldest bug-eyed boat that is Coast Guard certified,” said Joyce Baki, tourism specialist at the Calvert County Department of Economic Development. “It was built in the 1800s as a sailboat for oyster dredging. Today, groups can take a tour of Solomons on the boat.”
Jefferson Patterson Park preserves another aspect of the county’s history. A large naval battle during the War of 1812 took place in the waters just off the park, and many archaeological items from that period have been found there. The park is also home to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Center, where groups can see experts restoring historic artifacts from around the country.

Arts and outdoors lovers will enjoy a visit to Annmarie Gardens, a sculpture park and arts center. Walking paths weave through the wooded gardens, taking visitors to displays of sculpture by artists from around the country. The on-site arts center has work by local and national artists, as well as some hands-on opportunities for groups.

“They offer classes for groups, so you can learn different art forms,” Baki said. “They have some really nice textile courses that I took recently.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.