|This popular snowbird stopover was just south enough for a would-be cruiser.|
by Ann Levelle; photographs by John Bildahl
Every October, when the weather cools down and the leaves turn orange, the green-eyed monster haunts my hanging locker. I grind my teeth as I watch cruising couples filter through Annapolis on their way south. I am envious as I say good-bye to friends who will be wintering in the Bahamas, thoroughly bummed that I won't be joining the annual autumn migration to warm waters, leisurely days of snorkeling and cockpit napping. Yes, at the ripe old age of 30, my greatest desire is to live the luxurious life of a retired boater.
This year, I decided I wouldn't wallow in my own cruise-deprived misery. Seeing nice weather forecast for the upcoming weekend, I said to my husband John, "Why not at least pretend we're cruising? Let's make the first leg of an imaginary winter south--let's go to Solomons." No arguments there. We packed up that night and shoved off at nine on Saturday morning. The sky was clearing from the west, pushing the last remnants of Friday night's storms out of sight. The smell of the diesel, combined with crisp, fresh fall air was blissful. And although this time around we had no family and friends on the dock to wave good-bye, it felt like a momentous adventure just the same.
We enjoyed a glorious, hours-long broad reach down the Bay from Annapolis, and as we headed west into the Patuxent River, every fiber of my being was aching to continue south to warmer waters. But even a pretend cruise couldn't have gotten us to the next anchorage by dark, so we continued the two miles upriver to Solomons Island. The stiff westerly breeze that had so swiftly carried us down the Bay was now on our nose, making a bumpy finish to our eight-hour journey, but we enjoyed looking at the not-quite palatial homes lining the north shore of the river and dreamed of a quiet night on the hook for our last big cruise of the season.
As we motored into town, taking in the fall yellows and reds dotting the trees on the shore, I couldn't help but remember our first visit to Solomons, five years earlier--nearly to the day, in fact. That time, we really were headed south to the Florida Keys for the winter, and Solomons was one of our first stops along the way. It had been a frigid day coming across the Bay from the Choptank River, with an icy south wind freezing our faces and blowing huge waves up the Bay, battering us all the way. We spent that night wiping condensation off the inside of the cabin and huddling together trying to warm our hands over tiny candles. Oh, yes, I'd gladly do it all over again if it meant I could spend the rest of the winter warm and happy.
Coming up Back Creek, Solomons' main drag, as it were, we saw right away that our anchorage of choice--a nice wide swath of open water near the Calvert Marine Museum--was out of the question. Clearly we hadn't been the only with that spot in mind; the anchorage was packed. So we continued past the anchorage and Calvert Marina (where a large number of trawlers still filled the docks, no doubt left over from Trawler Fest, a few weeks earlier). After passing a few more marinas to port, we found a decent Plan B anchorage just opposite the creek from the Holiday Inn. It was pretty crowded too, but we were sure we could find a spot. While we were trying to figure out where we could drop the hook, we were waved over to Wind-shear, a Wauquiez Centurion 40, whose captain assured us we were welcome to squeeze in between him and the boat next to him. There wasn't a ton of room, but he was happy to share the space. How nice, I thought--a friendly welcome to the neighborhood.
After our anchor was set firmly and we were settled snugly between the Wauquiez and a Beneteau with a hammock seat and an antsy boxer in the cockpit, we set about launching the dinghy from the foredeck. We had it splashed in no time, and hopped in to go check out the 'hood . . . or maybe I should say, le voisinage, since I'd venture that three out of four of the cruising boats anchored in Solomons that weekend were Canadian--and, as I gathered from the conversations I overheard from passing dinghies, French Canadian.
As we toured the anchorage, which was overshadowed by a condominium building with a large now selling sign, we decided to stop to thank the folks on the Wauquiez for their hospitality. We met Johnny, whose last name we never did catch, decked out in a NAPA Auto Parts shirt and shorts. He and his wife had recently retired and were slowly heading down to the Keys. They had left from the Bohemia River nearly two weeks earlier, and were already enjoying the slow cruising life. "We were going to leave [for Deltaville] this morning," he said, "but we decided to stay and take it easy another day."
Solomons has that effect on a lot of people. A tiny town with a population of about 1,500, it's one of the Bay's most popular cruising destinations, coming complete with its very own West Marine, grocery store and coin laundry, all within walking distance of the major marinas and dinghy landings. Plus there's a spectacular maritime museum, marinas galore, plenty of working yards and a ton of restaurants. That's not to mention well protected anchorages, both near the town and off in the "suburbs." And it's all just a few short miles away from open Bay.
It was those well protected anchorages and proximity to the Bay that drew Isaac Solomon to his namesake island in the first place. He recognized the potential of this piece of land and, in the late 1860s, bought tiny Sandy Island, as it was then named. (It was first called Bourne's Island, later Somervell's Island and finally Sandy Island before settling in as Solomons Island.) On his new island, Solomon built an oyster canning factory, complete with a steamboat wharf and a large fleet of oystering vessels, and the town quickly filled in. In 1870, a 550-foot wooden foot-bridge was built, connecting Solomons Island to the mainland. (Yes, it still is an actual island. Just north of the J.C. Lore Oyster House, now a Calvert Marine Museum property, is a small bridge, underneath which water flows from Solomons harbor into the Patuxent. It's tiny, buttechnically, it means Solomons Island still exists.)
Isaac Solomon's reign over the island didn't last long--he lost it to Baltimore creditors in 1875. But other oyster companies that had sprung up were quick to pick up the slack, and the town flourished as both an oystering town and a boatbuilding center. By the 1930s, however, the Depression and declining oyster harvests resulted in some decidedly rough times. Some boatbuilders went out of business, while others held on by turning to private and charter fishing boats.
In 1942, the people of Solomons got a break when jobs opened up at the three new U.S. Navybases in the area: the Naval Mine Warfare Test Station at Point Patience, the Patuxent Naval Air Station across the river and the Naval Amphibious Training Base. The latter encompassed 125 acres on the Dowell peninsula between Back and Mill creeks, now home to the Calvert Marina and several condominium and townhouse developments. During the three years that the Amphibious Training Base was open, nearly 70,000 troops were trained there, learning amphibious assault techniques that were eventually employed on D-Day and on countless Pacific islands. Every August, the marine museum pays tribute to those troops with its "Cradle of Invasion" weekend.
After the war, both the amphibious training base and the Point Patience station closed. But the town was resilient and continued to make its living on the water--though by slightly different means. Local boatbuilders now focused heavily on recreational craft--M.M. Davis & Sons built 500 of its famous Cruis-Along boats in its first year in production. Charter fishing operations also attracted anglers from far and wide, and both powerboat and sailboat racing took hold. It's no wonder that with so many different varieties of boating fun to be had Solomons has become a haven for legions of Bay cruisers.
After leaving our Wauquiez neighbor Johnny, we decided it was time for dinner. When we were cruising fulltime, we never really had cash for going out to dinner, but, since we were just pretending to cruise on this visit, we decided to take advantage of our fulltime salaries and splurge. We had heard good things about the Dry Dock Restaurant at Zahniser's, so that's where we headed. It was dusk, and as we dinghied down Back Creek two Canadian boats from our anchorage passed us, on their way for an overnight passage. We thought about letting them know that they still had their fenders down, but they were pretty far away, so we let it slide.
We landed at Zahniser's dinghy dock and proceeded to the restaurant, which occupies the second story of one of the slate-gray buildings on the sprawling marina. We weren't sure we'd be able to get a table, since the place was hopping and we had no reservations. But we were treated well and within a few minutes were given spots at the bar and drinks. The walls were adorned with burgees and pennants from all over the world, many obviously given to the restaurant by cruisers and visitors from faraway yacht clubs. We enjoyed the quiet nautical atmosphere. Soft lighting and a boat bar--an odd pairing, but we dug it. After a short while we were led to our table on the screened porch with its fantastic view of Zahniser's docks and the creek beyond. Breathtaking. We had a lovely romantic dinner and, on our chilly ride back to the boat, agreed that our own cruising days would've been much more enjoyable if we could have indulged in a little fine dining every now and again. I suppose we should shoot for a restaurant budget the next time we cruise. Since that probably won't happen until we retire, we have a few years to save up the cash.
John and I awoke ready to explore. To the dinghy, Batman! We zoomed across the creek to the dinghy dock next to the Holiday Inn, where one of our neighbors was filling jerry cans with water. We paid our $2 dinghy docking fee and went on our merry way through the hotel parking lot to the ultimate cruiser's Mecca--a shopping center with a grocery store, laundry, sub shop, a Chinese food joint and--the piece de resistance--bingo! (Just kidding. There actually is a bingo place, but I doubt it's a big cruiser hangout.) The shopping center on the next block has a West Marine and a liquor store--completing the cruiser's dream-come-true trifecta.
Walking south down Solomons Island Road, we soon came to the Calvert Marine Museum, where we stopped at the outdoor otter exhibit to watch a pair of the critters at play, then visited the museum's small-craft center, which has an impressive collection of historic Bay boats and old wooden beauties. We hadn't seen these exhibits the last time we were in Solomons because we had spent the day inside the museum, trying to stay warm and dry. I have a feeling the museum has been a warm and dry refuge for quite a few cruisers over the years. The museum has extensive exhibits on Solomons history, local ecology, paleontology, boatbuilding and even outboard engines. It's also home to the restored screwpile Drum Point Lighthouse and the historic bugeye Wm. B. Tennison, which was built as an oyster dredge boat in 1899 and has been working ever since, though now as a tour boat for the museum.
After admiring the old boats, we continued down Solomons Island Road and admired the neighborhood. The few blocks between the museum and "downtown" Solomons Island has a beachy vibe--several blocks worth of Cape Cod and Colonial homes line the street across from a large farm, giving the homes a spectacular view of the river beyond. The farm eventually gives way to the Riverwalk, a boardwalk and public park that lines the river for several blocks. Across from the Riverwalk, the street is lined with churches, restaurants and a handful of beachy gift and resort wear shops, most of which occupy older homes. We hopped across the street to the Riverwalk pavilion, where we joined a small crowd of parents watching their kids race Optis on the Patuxent. The Southern Maryland Sailing Association is housed across the street from the pavilion and is a major player in Bay racing, including youth programs and the annual Screwpile Regatta, which draws hundreds of racers to Solomons each July for three days of big boat racing on the Patuxent.
The Riverwalk ends at Solomons Pier restaurant so we hopped back across the street and headed south again, then turned left at Charles Street and walked until we got to Solomons' infamous Tiki Bar. Each April, this tiny bar, which is hardly more than a roadside stand, draws a crowd of 10,000 people or more to its opening day party. Streets are closed off and general debauchery ensues as pitchers of signature Tiki Bar mai tais and other island-themed drinks flow like water. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the bar was closed for the season, as was everything else in the Tiki Village--the tobacco shop, gift shop and barbecue joint--but we did meander through the village to check out the Moai statues and tiki atmosphere. A little bit of Easter Island on the Patuxent.
Meanwhile, someone apparently had rung the warm weather alarm and the tourists had come a-callin', because by the time we got back to the main drag, things were hopping. Couples and families were strolling along the Riverwalk and a band was playing loudly on an outdoor dining patio. It was hardly noon, but the whole town was jumping. We kept moving and eventually found ourselves back in the quieter residential district, near the hotel and the dinghy. On our way toward the hotel, we spied the Naughty Gull restaurant--nestled practically in the woods between the hotel and Spring Cove Marina--and stopped for lunch. Aside from a table of women having an early lunch, we were the only ones there. We had a great view of Back Creek and, within minutes of ordering, we also had our crabcake sandwiches, which were delectable--possibly the best I'd ever had.
After lunch, full and happy, we headed back to the boat to lounge in the cockpit for a while. The first thing I noticed was the arrival of more Canadian boats. I promise I'm not obsessed about it, but you can see them coming a mile away. And not because of their flags, either. No, it's because of the fenders. For some reason, nearly all of the Canadian boats we saw that weekend had (what seemed to us) an excessive number of fenders hanging from their decks--three, four to a side sometimes--under way, at anchor, all the time. Perhaps it's because they have to lock through a bunch of canals between their home waters and the Bay that they're used to leaving them deployed, but I believe it's really because they just don't trust us crazy Americans not to smash into them. But I'm just sayin'. . . .
After some good lounging time, we decided to explore by dinghy. We grabbed our shower bags as well, figuring we might want to clean up a bit before we retired for the evening, and headed down Back Creek in the dink. The first boat we saw in the next anchorage down the creek was Sheena II, a tiny blue trawler with tons of fenders (from Ottawa . . . 'nough said), nets, oars, plants and other miscellany hanging everywhere outside of the cabin. We recognized her immediately from our own cruise down the ICW five years ago. We had traveled with Sheena II in the same pack of boats for several days, if memory serves. Unfortunately, no one was aboard, so we kept on moving.
We passed marina after marina, separated by big but not ostentatious waterfront homes, many with their own docks and small beaches. With its nice mix of boats and houses, the landscape still has a little fisherman's village feel to it. Soon we slid behind the tiny bulkheaded island at the entrance to the harbor, locally known as Mol's (or Molly's) Leg Island. Built in 1972, the island holds the dredge spoil of a shoal that was part of the original island. Behind the island is what's often called The Narrows--the waterfront side of Solomons' main street. We looped around the island and cut across the opening to the harbor and into Mill Creek. At the south end, we buzzed by the big tugs that assist ships to the nearby Cove Point LNG plant and then found ourselves in a bucolic, tree-lined creek where modest houses with neat lawns line the shore and boats have endless spots to anchor.
We slowed, enjoying the scenery, and before we knew it we were a half-mile up the creek. There we found three boats anchored close to one another, so we stopped to say hello. It turned out that the boats had been traveling together for quite a while. C-Drifters and Moya Mreeya (from Toronto, though without dangling fenders) had been together since New York Harbor, and Cambyration since Atlantic City, N.J. LeeAnn Hobart and Chad Lawie, only 20 and 23 respectively, have been restoring Cambyration, an old wooden beauty, while making their way from Michigan to North Carolina. They were happy to meet up with other boats, they told us, laughing as their little black cat Sushi decided to hop into our dinghy for a ride. "We bring her over [to the other boats] sometimes," Hobart explained. "They're all deprived of the animals they had to leave at home."
The three boats were hoping to make only two more stops on the Bay--Deltaville, Va., and Norfolk--but were in no hurry to leave Solomons. Roman and Olha Karaim on Moya Mreeya were excited to visit the museum the next day. After chatting for a bit, we realized it was getting close to dark, so we said our good-byes and zoomed back down the creek to Zahniser's.
On our first trip to Solomons, I had called the marina and asked what I posed as a "strange question": whether we could come land our dinghy and take showers and throw out some trash. The girl at the office had chuckled, told me it wasn't a strange request at all, and explained that for a small fee we'd be welcome to use the marina's facilities. Old hands now, John and I tied up the dinghy and meandered to the office. When we asked to buy a couple of showers, the teenager behind the desk replied "Just two?" Hmph. I didn't realize we were that dirty. I resisted a sarcastic retort and quietly paid our nine dollars (three for dinghy dockage and six for our showers). But before we could leave to clean up, we ran into Zahniser's dockmaster Jim Sharkey. We got to talking about cruisers in town when he said he figures around eight people come in a day for showers or to dump trash or just use the dinghy dock (though probably more come through and just don't pay.) The large number of cruisers in town each fall does have some impact on the economy, he said. "When the vacationers stop coming in, the snowbirds arrive. Then in spring, it's the opposite."
By the time we got back to the boat it was nearly dark, so we quickly started dinner. As we were starting to cook, we got a good show. A boat coming into the anchorage got too close to the shore and quickly bottomed out. But instead of calmly maneuvering off the bottom, the couple started screaming. Loudly. In French. For about two minutes that's all we could hear. Then, as if nothing had happened, they disappeared into the cabin. Just as we began to wonder if they weren't content with spending the night on the bottom, the French Canadian Armada arrived. Three dinghies, each arriving from a different direction, came alongside the grounded boat and began to push, pull and swing it off the bottom with a halyard. "Vive le Québec libre!"
After the show, we enjoyed our steak dinner and hit the sack early in anticipation of a long, probably windless trip home. We got out of Dodge early in the company of two other cruisers. Yes, I found it depressing that the two boats were headed south, but I also found that our pretend cruise had nearly satisfied my cruising urges. And it had definitely provided a nice end to a good boating season. So who am I to complain? Besides, after I had double-checked to see that we had no fenders hanging from the lifelines, I spied a dinghy headed to shore with all fenders flying--and that kept me giggling all winter long.
CRUISER'S DIGEST: SOLOMONS, MD.Within a day's reach of Annapolis, as well as popular Virginia ports of call Reedville and Deltaville, and less than two miles from the mouth of the Patuxent River, it's no wonder Solomons is such a popular stopover for Bay cruisers. Heading west from Drum Point, it's about a mile and a half to the entrance to the harbor. You can pass on either side of "the Flats," a well marked but large shallow area, by either hugging the shore and staying in the channel between greens "1" and "3" and reds "2" and "2A", or by staying out in the river until you pass flashing red "6", at which point you can turn north and follow the channel into the harbor. Do give the flashing green "3" off the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory some room though. Once in the harbor (the area between Harbor Island Marina on the south, the island, and Solomons Yachting Center on the north side) you'll see the small Mol's Leg Island, which you can pass on either side. If you're looking for a quiet, secluded night on the hook, you can head to the right into Mill Creek. There are no marinas or services on Mill Creek, so if you need to go into town you may want to stay left and head into Back Creek. The creek has lots of marinas and boatyards, and plenty of spots to drop a hook as well. From any marina in the harbor or on the western side of the creek, you'll be within easy walking distance of the West Marine, grocery store, Calvert Marine Museum, almost all of the area's restaurants (save two on the eastern shore of the creek), and the main street shops and Riverwalk pavilion.
Unless otherwise noted, these marinas offer overnight slips, electric, showers, laundry, pool, pump-out and on-site restaurant(s). Calvert Marina (410-326-4251); on eastern side of Back Creek; gas, diesel, marine supplies, boatyard services. Comfort Inn Beacon Marina (410-326-6303); CNG; no pump-out. Harbor Island Marina (410-326-3441; www.harborislandmarina.biz) first marina inside Solomons Harbor; gas, diesel, marine supplies, boatyard services; no laundry or pool. Hospitality Harbor Marina (410-326-1052); adjacent to Holiday Inn Select Solomons; no laundry, pool, pump-out. Solomons Yachting Center (410-326-2401; www.solomonsyachtingcenter.com) on northern side of Solomons Harbor; gas, diesel; no on-site restaurant. Spring Cove Marina (410-326-2161; www.springcovemarina.com) gas, diesel, marine supplies, boatyard services. Washburn's Boatyard (410-326-6701); next to Calvert Marina; major repair yard, propane; no overnight slips (except for services), no electric, showers, pool, pump-out or on-site restaurant. Zahniser's Yachting Center (410-326-2166; www.zahnisers.com); CNG, boatyard services.
Badfish Dock Bar & Grille, Harbor Island Marina (410-326-9524). Captain's Table, Comfort Inn Beacon Marina (410-326-2772). Catamaran's Restaurant, 14470 Solomons Island Road (410-326-8399; www.catamarans-restaurant.com).
CD Cafe, 14350 Solomons Island Road (410-326-3877; www.cdcafe.info). DiGiovanni's Dock of the Bay, 14556 Solomons Island Rd (410-394-6400; www.digiovannisrestaurant.com). Dry Dock Restaurant, Zahniser's Yachting Center (410-326-4817; www.zahnisers.com). Four Winds Cafe, Calvert Marina (410-394-6373; www.fourwindscafe.net). Isaac's, Holiday Inn Select Solomons (410-326-6311; www.isaacsrestaurant.com). Jethro's Barbecue, 13880 Solomons Island Road (410-394-6700; www.jethrosrestaurant.com). Naughty Gull, Spring Cove Marina (410-326-2161; www.springcovemarina.com). Solomons Pier, 14575 Solomons Island Road (410-326-2424). Stoney's Kingfishers Seafood House, 14442 Solomons Island Road (410-394-0236).
PLACES OF INTEREST
Calvert Marine Museum, 14150 Solomons Island Road (410-326-2042; www.calvertmarinemuseum.com). Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and Visitors Center, 1 Williams Street (410-326-4281; www.cbl.umces.edu). The Tiki Bar, 85 Charles Street (410-326-4075; www.tikibarsolomons.com). West Marine, 14030 Trueman Road (410-326-6006; www.westmarine.com).