It was almost DC: Havre de Grace, MD

First published in Chesapeake Life Magazine

The final, tie-breaking ballot belonged to the Speaker of the House. Yea – Havre de Grace. Nay – Washington, D.C.

The “Nays” prevailed and in 1789, Havre de Grace conceded the title of “nation’s capital” to Washington, D.C. Considering the mayhem inextricably associated with being the nation’s capital city, it’s easy to see why the people of Havre de Grace consider themselves on the winning end of that fateful decision. Spared the frustrations of Beltway gridlock and Capitol Hill politicians, Havre de Grace has maintained a quiet existence centered on the charm of its historic district and antique shops with inventories plentiful enough to fill the Smithsonian.

Up until 1782, Havre de Grace was known simply as “Susquehanna Flats.” En route to meet General Washington in Yorktown, General LaFayette passed through the town and remarked upon its resemblance to Le Havre in his native France. The townspeople promptly (and no doubt willingly) renamed the town Havre de Grace. Although the translation is “Harbor of Mercy,” its pronunciation is strictly American – “have-urh dee grace.” The “French twist” visitors insist on wrapping around the town’s name is an unending source of entertainment to locals.

Havre de Grace has earned a reputation as one of the Chesapeake’s fastest growing antiques centers. “Antique Row,” an area that encompasses four streets (Union Avenue, Washington, St. John, and Franklin Streets), is dotted with more than a dozen antiques and specialty shops.

“People find that the quality of antiques in Havre de Grace is excellent,” says Diane Molnher, a confirmed antiques store addict who works with Discover Harford County Tourism, Inc. “The stores target people looking for the best, upper-end merchandise.”

Bank of Memories on St. John Street, housed in a brick bank building dating from 1883, is an antique store specializing in high-quality estate jewelry, most of it Victorian Art Deco. Carefully time a visit to Stephens & Stephens, also on St. John Street, to hear a myriad of chimes ring in a new hour. Clock styles include wall, floor, marine, and coocoo by brand names like Seth Thomas, Black Forest, and New Haven. Havre de Grace Antiques Center on Union Avenue and Franklin Street Antiques on Franklin Street are both known for their inventories of old Maryland silver, crystal, and china. Look for collectable cut and colored glass there, too.

Havre de Grace, self-described as “The Decoy Capital of the World,” is home to one of the best collections of this American folk art housed in the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum on Giles Street. The museum opened a decade ago as a tribute to R. Madison Mitchell, considered the master carver of the Northern Chesapeake, The museum quickly expanded to display works of Mitchell’s contemporaries including Charlie Bryan and Captain Harry Jobes.

For a first-hand look at carving, visit the Jobe’s family workshop on 822 Otsego Street – look for the house with the oversized statue of a black Lab on the porch roof – or stop by the museum on weekends for live carving demonstrations. Take home your own custom made Canada Goose, Pintail, or Canvasback from Havre de Grace’s annual Duck Fair, held on September 11 and 12, Saturday 9 am-5pm and Sunday 10am-4pm).

Adjacent to the museum is the seven-acre Tydings Memorial Park off Commerce Street. The park overlooks the public marina and faces the channel to Tydings Island. The town’s outdoor gathering spot, it’s complete with playground and bandstand used for summer concerts. Crowds come early for the seafood festival in August and the Children’s Art Festival on September 11 from 10 am – 3pm.

You won’t find T-short shops or French fry vendors along Havre de Grace’s boardwalk. There are plenty of benches for relaxation and reflection along the promenade that borders the low marshes and reeds of the shoreline. It the park and the decoy museum to the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum on Giles Street.

Along with photos and memorabilia of the upper Chesapeake, the maritime museum collects unusual nautical artifacts, like a locally built propeller made in 1895 for a 135-foot tugboat. The Chesapeake Wooden Boat Building School is scheduled to open at the museum this fall. Dedicated to the preservation of wooden boat building skills, the school’s activities will include a week-long, teenagers-only boat building class, model and to-scale boat building classes, and wood and canvas canoe restoration workshops.

The town’s nautical prize is the skipjack Martha Lewis, one of the Bay’s estimated 20 remaining skipjacks. On weekends from May through October, she casts off for a 90-minute cruise every two hours. The Thursday evening sunset cruises are justifiably popular. The Martha Lewis docks at Lighthouse Pier by the Concord Point Lighthouse, the oldest continually operated lighthouse in Maryland. For more than 170 years, it has marked the spot where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse is open on weekends and is a good spot for a picnic.

High tea – the most British of customs – is observed at the Heritage Tea Room on St. John Street. Proprietress Peggy Brewer offers 20 varieties of hot teas served with scones, clotted cream, and shortbread in a traditional tea room setting of chintz, lace, and flowers. Tea begins at 3:30pm, and reservations are necessary.

A similar kind of elegance is found at the Havre de Grace Ritz on North Washington Street. In a sunny room covered with watercolors by local artist David Wells, customers relax at covered wrought iron tables to the sound of mellow blues and jazz while nibbling on fresh fruit tarts or a triple layer chocolate mousse cake.

“I wanted to return to the days when service and quality mattered,” explains owner Stephanie Anderson. “I like it when people come here and feel pampered.”

Pampering of a different sort is found at Par Excellence Day Spa on Congress Avenue. “Pamperees” are treated to facials, body massages, aromatherapy, and all sorts of other wonderfully indulgent things in a Victorian roses-and-lace setting bathed in soft music.

Several Victorian mansions along broad, tree-shaded Union Avenue have become B&Bs. The Spencer-Silver Mansion on South Union Street, built in 1896, has four guest rooms, all furnished with walnut and mahogany Victorian antiques. The mansion is one of the three largest scale historic houses in the historic district and the city’s only “High Victorian” stone mansion.

The Carriage House might be the most romantic hideout in Havre de Grace, with a whirlpool bath, spiral staircase, and working fireplace. The Vandiver Inn on South Union Avenue offers another chance to step back into the days of formal parlors. This recently restored, large Queen Anne ‘cottage’ was originally the home of one of the town’s more prosperous families. There are seven rooms, all with private baths. Two suits are available, each with a fireplace and private balcony. In addition to being a full-service B&B, the Vandiver Inn also serves gourmet-quality dinners for groups of 10 or more.

Currier House Bed & Breakfast on South Market Street is in the heart of the oldest residential area. Guests can spend their afternoon rocking on the wrap-around porch. The decor reflects the town’s heyday in the 1920s, when it drew waterfowl hunters to the Bay and gamblers to wager at the local thoroughbred track. During the winter, the usual breakfast fare is augmented by the “waterman’s breakfast” of sautéed oysters and stewed tomatoes.

For a literal overview of the area, pilot Steve Rogers of Flight Tours gives 15-20 minute tours in his pontoon-equipped ultralight aircraft, docked near the Tidewater Grille Restaurant. Steve also gives instruction for those who want to own their own ultralight.

Boat rentals are available at Penn’s Beach Marina at the foot of Lewis Street. A 15-foot fiberglass motorboat with capacity for four people costs $60\day or $45\half-day. Boaters under 27 must show a Boater Safety Card. Rentals must stay between the I-95 bridge along the Susquehanna to the mouth of the river at the Chesapeake. The folks at Penn’s Beach will be happy to point out the best fishing holes and anchoring spots within the restricted area. They’ll also suggest local places for carry-out, boat-appropriate lunches. Topping their list are Deli-Mart, Fortunato Brothers, and Joyce’s Juicy Burgers.

Sailboats from 22’ to 38’ are available at BaySail on Bourbon Street. Certified sailors can rent bare-boat charters, while those less experienced can request a skipper to tend the helm. BaySail also gives sailing lessons. Manager Kim Richards says the northern bay is an ideal place to learn how to sail. “It’s quieter. There’s not a lot of powerboat traffic, and the waters tend to be calmer.

” Another way to enjoy a day on the water is by kayak. Starrk Moon Kayaks on Warren Street has full- and half-day rentals of single person and two-man kayaks, instruction, and suggestions of where to go, as well as guided tours. Rates are $25 for half-day and $45 for full-day.

Those who are confirmed landlubbers can rent standard pedal bikes from Starrk Moon. Bikes are also available at Jody’s Jalopies on Otsego Street. These four-wheel, two- and four-seat bikes look like primitive automobiles with bucket seats. They reportedly drive like a car, with much more stability and the ability to carry passengers and cargo.

While the jalopies advertise that they have space to carry golf clubs, the area’s two premier golf courses require conventional golf carts.

Bulle (pronounced “Bully”) Rock, designed by Pete Dye, opened in March 1998 to universal accolades. Golf Digest named it the Best New Upscale Golf Course, while Golf magazine included it on its list of “Top Ten You Can Play In 1998.” Greens fees are $138. Lunch and dinner are served at the clubhouse from 11 am-9pm Tuesdays through Saturdays. The course and restaurant are closed on Mondays.

Competing in the design category is Beechtree Golf Club in nearby Aberdeen. Opened in June 1998, the course was designed by Tom Doak, recognized by Golf Digest as one of the field’s top young golf architects. He barely modified the land’s natural contours, letting the rolling hills, mature woodlands and streams dictate the course. The course is open seven days a week, and greens fees are $155. Meals are served at the English manor-ish clubhouse overlooking the course.

Back in Havre de Grace, the aroma of designer coffee draws customers into Java by the Bay. Once inside this cozy, country-accented shop, customers can choose from more than 20 varieties of coffees and an assortment of bagels and muffins. The lunch menu includes spinach pie and quiches. Sidewalk seating is available, and patrons watch the street scene while sipping a “Milky Way” (espresso with steamed milk, chocolate, and caramel topped with whipped cream).

The locals’ favorite restaurant may well be The Bayou on Pulaski Highway. Although not a waterfront location, the Bayou offers a large menu of mostly traditional seafood dishes prepared with care and served by a genuinely friendly staff.

Waterside dining means The Tidewater Grille on Franklin Street. Pasta shares the menu with crab cakes that patrons can enjoy outside with an unobstructed view of the Susquehanna.

All the tables at MacGregor’s Restaurant and Tavern have water views. It’s a casual place with a casual menu. Tables are on an outside deck overlooking the water. The Sunday brunch has a good reputation. Diners work on omelettes and Bloody Marys while watching sailboats catching the morning breezes.

All the restaurants compete to produce the best crab cake. Locals and visitors alike continually sample the nominations. Happily, this is one voting process that never ends and – like the vote that dubbed Washington as our country’s capital – the rewards are just as appealing.