Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, is tiny, picturesque and diverse. Within its seven square miles are centuries of history and architecture, public art, culinary options, pampering, sophistication, down-home friendliness, patriotism, quirkiness, gardens, and accommodations ranging from quaint to cookie-cutter.
“This is the town,” say the locals, “that Williamsburg, Va., had to be rebuilt to resemble.”
Because of the abundance of historic buildings, they call it a museum without walls.
A map of Annapolis reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle. The United States Naval Academy, St. Johns College, the State House and Governor’s mansion, and the numerous marinas are puzzle pieces. The Spa, Back, and College creeks and Severn River connect the pieces as the waterways head out to the Chesapeake Bay.
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The town is compact. The streets and sidewalks, some brick-paved, are narrow. Most of the buildings are only two or three stories tall. Flowers and plants adorn doorways and balconies. It’s also a town that, despite nearly six million visitors a year, has plenty of secrets and little pleasures.
All visitors should see the Naval Academy at least once. I aim for a little before noon so I can join the crowd watching the noon formation created by some of the 4,000 midshipmen gathering before they’re dismissed for lunch. It’s a guaranteed chest-swelling moment. Then, it’s off to the crypt of John Paul Jones, and, my favorite, the museum in Preble Hall with its collection of miniature boats.
With 130 or so weddings held at the chapel each year, I check the schedule or look for wedding guests exiting the chapel. If the timing is right, I stop and admire the precision of the ceremonial sword arch raised in salute to the newlyweds. Civilians can attend religious services held at the chapel for those of Catholic, Christian Science, Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant, and LDS faiths.
The Academy’s 18-hole, par-71 golf course is usually restricted to retired or active Naval or Academy personnel, but my civilian golfing friends know the secret to enjoying this private course is to request a “playing lesson” from the pro. The request should be made a couple of weeks ahead . People with a Navy connection can simply book a tee time for access to the course. The scenic seventh hole, over a fountain water hazard, is the course’s signature hole.
Walk, bike or motor across the Naval Academy Bridge over the Severn River for two often-missed sights. The first stop is the World War II memorial, which was dedicated in 1998. An amphitheater surrounds a ring of four dozen 9-foot-tall gray granite pillars, representing the 48 states of the union at the time of the war. Two 14-foot granite globes show the locations of key battles. Twenty stainless steel panels describe the war and Maryland’s part in it.
There’s a spot on the river by the memorial known as the Ritchie overlook that offers a one-of-a-kind view of the Naval Academy and Annapolis.
Tucked under the bridge is Jonas Green Park, which usually is relatively quiet, although it can be busy on a summer day. You can fish the Severn River for rockfish (striped bass), catfish, yellow perch, hardhead, and, of course, crabs. Fishing is from the truncated piers formed when the old bridge was destroyed and when you fish there, you don’t need a license.
You can also picnic, launch a canoe or kayak or just watch the sailboats and motorboats plying the river. Swimming is prohibited. When I just want to soak in some nature and do a little people-watching, I go to this little park, named for a noted Annapolis public figure from the mid-1700s.
Browsing the local shops and boutiques along Main Street and Maryland Avenue is a treasure hunt. It’s easy to pick up a custom-designed silk tie or a unique hand-crafted souvenir. At the Seasons Olive Oil & Vinegar Taproom, you can taste extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar from a huge selection before you buy. Leather designer Koren Ray’s flagship store, featuring her Hobo Bags, is here; she’s a local. The town’s clothing and gift selections tend to be on the nautical and dressy-casual side — “clothing inspired by the Annapolis way of life,” says Larry Vincent of Laurance Clothing.
It’s hard to choose between ice cream shops. If I’m on Main Street, I stop at Annapolis Ice Cream Co. The decision between apple pie, peanut butter Oreo, and raspberry chocolate chip is tough. If I’m two short blocks away, at the City Dock, then I’ll stop at Storm Bros., where my favorite is the mint chocolate chip.
Patriotism is on the menu every morning at Chick & Ruth’s Delly on Main Street, where the Pledge of Allegiance is recited at 9:30 a.m. on weekends and 8:30 a.m. on weekdays. During the legislative season, from early January through early April, it’s a home-away-from-home for a lot of the politicians and lobbyists, so seating can be squeezy. Ted and Beth Levitt are second-generation operators of the eatery, which opened in 1965.
When it’s pub fare I crave, I head to the Eastport neighborhood for a stop at Davis’ Pub. As much as I think I ought to vary my order, I’m addicted to the crab pretzel; a large soft pretzel drowned by a crab mixture and heated just a little. The combination of salty, chewy, and creamy is worth its own trip.
As can be expected in the self-proclaimed “America’s Sailing Capital,” boat races are held regularly, summer and winter. I can watch the races from a bridge or the Naval Academy seawall, or I can volunteer to crew. The winter races are within the harbor, without spinnakers. I learned to sail just down the Bay from here and lessons are available for children, women only, or men and women. In other words, I can enjoy the views or join the crews.
The Chesapeake Bay and its open waters are just minutes from the Annapolis waterways and the Severn River. Once on the Bay, you can join the watermen in sailboats and motorboats while you explore the 200 miles of towns, beaches, and tributaries. Fishing is ideal, with 350 types of fish providing interesting challenges and menu options, or just catch and release. In the fresh-water parts of the bay, you can find trout, brown bullhead, largemouth bass, and channel catfish. If you want to stay closer to shore, prime estuary fish are the striped bass , silver perch and flounder.
With wind-filled sails, old buildings, postcard-perfect cloud-filled skies, and flowers festooning almost every corner, it’s understandable that everywhere I turn seems to be a permanent image from a watercolor or pastel memory book.
Judy Colbert is a Maryland-based writer and photographer and the author of "Chesapeake Bay Crabs" cookbook and several travel guides.