With its leafless landscape and almost eerie yellow and pink light, the Eastern Shore in winter is wonderfully different from its warm-weather self. This time of year, it is stripped down to its essence — quiet and spare. Summer, with its crowds and ocean-bound traffic, seems very far away.
And that's how a lot of us who live there like it. Not that the Shore is inhospitable in winter — far from it. It's the time of year we celebrate eagles, oysters and muskrats. And, thanks to winter getaway packages, praise be as well to dining and lodging on the cheap. An oceanfront room in Ocean City for $60? I'll take it.
For summer enthusiasts in particular, Shore winters can be a revelation. Here are 10 things to put on your to-do list:
1. The Elliott Island drive. The 19-mile journey from Vienna to Elliott Island, one of the Shore's finest drives, zigs and zags through pine stands and farmland before finally unveiling its prize: wild wetlands humming with marsh grass and waterfowl. There's a tremendous sense of isolation, reinforced right now by a somber-hued landscape interrupted only by occasional orange-tipped snow markers. At the public dock on Elliott Island overlooking Fishing Bay, the rigging of workboats screams in the winter wind. Their names are nothing if not poetic: Plan B, Why Worry III, Flat Broke and Never Enough. It's quintessential Eastern Shore.
2. Oyster buffets. The Harrison House on Tilghman Island (410-886-2121), is pure bliss when it comes to oysters. Through March, on Fridays starting at 5 p.m., oysters are served eight different ways: in a stew, raw, steamed, fried, frittered, in a pot pie, a la Rockefeller with spinach, and a la Chesapeake with crab imperial. Oysters on the half shell come out of the Choptank River on Friday afternoons. Best to get to the newly renovated Harrison's just before sunset to take advantage of the river view. Other options: Also on Fridays, Chesapeake Landing near St. Michaels (410-745-9600) has a buffet with oysters done five ways, and Harris Crabhouse and Seafood Restaurant in Grasonville (410-827-9500) offers its version — seven ways — plus London broil. On Wednesdays, the Bay Wolf in Rock Hall (410-639-2000) has an all-you-can-eat oyster menu, served tableside.
3. Adkins Arboretum. If you're interested in native plants of winter interest, there is no better place to experience them than Adkins, the 400-acre native garden and preserve near Ridgely. In addition to guided walks on the first Saturday of each month, the robust winter program includes "Soup 'n Walks," where guests track the changing landscape from winter to spring, followed by lunch. The next one will be Saturday, Feb. 18, at 11 a.m. Registration is required. Another big bonus: The arboretum's annual juried art show, "Discovering the Native Landscapes of Maryland's Eastern Shore," will be on view through March 30. Adkins is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 410-634-2847 or go to adkinsarboretum.org.
4. Muskrat love. The marsh-loving muskrat is part of Dorchester County's heritage, and every year in February, local residents celebrate a unique Maryland festival most folks have never heard of: the National Outdoor Show. The 67th annual show, Feb. 24-25 in Golden Hill, will feature a beauty pageant and corn shelling, oyster shucking, pole skinning and trap setting contests. Then, of course, there is the piece de resistance: the men's and women's muskrat skinning contests for the world championship. There's also lots of food, including muskrat. For information, visit nationaloutdoorshow.org.
5. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. A major feeding and resting ground for migratory waterfowl in winter, the island refuge near Rock Hall is a favorite of birders this time of year. Male ducks are at their most colorful, and species include the black duck, lesser scaup, canvasback, northern pintail, American wigeon and bufflehead. Many of them can be found feeding around tundra swans, which tend to congregate in the waters at the entrance of the refuge. Also keep an eye out for American bald eagles, great horned owls and woodcocks, all in a breeding and/or nesting mode. The refuge is accessible from 7:30 a.m. to sunset. Through March, the visitor's center has limited hours, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Call 410-639-7056 or go to easternneck.fws.gov.
6. Deserted beaches. The signs in Ocean City say it all: "Season Closed," "Gone South," "We Are Not Open" and "Reopen In April." There is little traffic on Coastal Highway in winter and plenty of places to park. Walking on the beach recently at 48th Street, it was just my husband and me, the gulls and our dogs. That's another great thing about the off-season. Dogs are allowed on the beach from Oct. 1 to April 30. It's also a terrific time to sample some of Ocean City's popular restaurants — without the crowds. Our favorite, The Shark on the Harbor, (410-213-0924; ocshark.com), specializes in locally caught seafood and local, organic produce, meats and cheeses. We slipped in for a bite without a reservation and were seated immediately. In season, the wait would have been up to two hours.
7. Eagle Festival. The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is known for its large breeding population of American bald eagles, and no wonder. Winter eagle surveys typically count between 140 and 180 of the majestic birds. On Saturday, March 10, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the refuge will host its annual Eagle Festival with guided "eagle prowls" to spot eagles in the wild. For a look at one nest, check the eagle cam at friendsofblackwater.org. The event, near Cambridge, will be held rain or shine. For details, call 410-228-2677.
8. Winter wines. The Chesapeake Wine Trail, well traveled in summer months, slows down to a comfortable crawl in winter, so there's plenty of time to spend with the winemaker. It's also a good way to structure a road trip to places like St. Michaels (St. Michaels Winery,) Vienna (Layton's Chance Vineyard and Winery,) Eden (Bordeleau Vineyards,) Whaleyville (Costa Ventosa Winery) and Chestertown (Cassinelli). Layton's, in particular, offers a lot of activities — happy hour, ladies' night and book talks, among them. For more information, visit http://www.marylandwine.com.
9. Town parties. One thing the Eastern Shore excels at is celebrating its communities — each and every month. In Chestertown, where I live, First Friday, starting at 5 p.m., is an instant party attended by just about everyone you know. This time of year especially, when many tend to hibernate, it provides an opportunity to eat, drink, shop and reconnect. It's also a good way for the visitor to take the measure of a town. Other soirees include the Second Friday Art Stroll in Berlin (berlinchamber.org); Second Saturdays in downtown Cambridge (tourdorchester.org); and a First Friday gallery walk in Easton (eastonmd.org).
10. Fly away home. You can't live on the Shore and not have some connection to the migratory Canada geese. Their arrival in the fall marks the start of a new season. But few note their departure. In late February and March, you'll see major movements of geese taking advantage of tail winds to return to their breeding grounds in Canada. I have a friend who has observed in previous years what he thinks is close to 80 percent of geese in our county depart in early mornings over a two- to three-day period in March. "A thing of wonder," he calls it. This year, I'll be watching.