Cruising down Maryland Route 260 heading toward Chesapeake Beach and North Beach—two adjacent Calvert County towns commonly referred to as the Twin Beaches—you’ll notice a series of signs touting corn, watermelon, firewood and … fossils?
It turns out there’s a lot of history to be found along the eastern edge of this peninsula sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River—even more than you’ll find at the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum, where visitors can learn all about Chesapeake Beach’s heyday as a resort destination for turn-of-the-century Washingtonians. For about 35 years, the Washington and Chesapeake Railway Co. brought hordes of day-trippers eager to swap the swampy heat of D.C. for bay breezes, boardwalk promenades, bandstand acts, carousel rides, casinos and even performing bears.
But about 17 million years before anyone pulled their first slot-machine arm or roared toward the water on the Great Derby Roller Coaster that once hovered over the bay, this area was submerged under a warm, shallow sea swimming with various shark species. These Miocene-era fish lost innumerable teeth that still wash up on beaches today. They’re easy to spot with the naked eye—if you make it to the shores before the serious enthusiasts arrive.
Wandering along the gentle surf under a hot summer sun will inevitably inspire a dip, and there are several beaches where you can kick off your flip-flops and wade in. If you’ve spent the morning looking for fossils, you’re likely already at or very near Bay Front Park—sometimes still referred to by its old name, Brownie’s Beach. In addition, the coastlines of Breezy Point Beach and North Beach offer amenities such as rental chairs and umbrellas, plus offshore netting that minimizes pesky jellyfish.
The trick here is to manage your expectations. These beaches aren’t the vast stretches of dunes, ocean waves and boardwalk mayhem you’ll find at Rehoboth or Virginia Beach. Instead, they are small, unpretentious strips with subdued surf and calm surfaces that are especially great for kids. Most of the beaches charge admission and also rent kayaks, inner tubes, paddleboards or bicycles. If getting sandy for a few hours of fun seems like too much trouble, a water park on the main drag of Chesapeake Beach features a lazy river, snack bar, slides and a few pool options.
Though the adjacent towns are often lumped together, each spot does pack its own distinct vibe. Pull into the main North Beach parking lot, and you’re immediately drawn toward the boardwalk with its ice cream shop, antique stores and a market that sells fresh-caught seafood and local produce. If you can make it a three-day weekend, do not miss the incredible Friday night farmers market that snakes through several blocks with vendors selling produce, baked goods, meats and beers, plus a few food trucks like Pinoy Kitchens, which turns out Filipino dishes such as a fantastic lumpia, similar to a spring roll.
Here, you’re apt to find a diverse crowd, including parents wrangling face-painted children and family dogs; locals walking around with cold brews and chatting with neighbors; and car enthusiasts admiring the gleaming line of vintage cars with hoods up—Chevy Bel Airs, Mercury Comets and kit cars that look every bit as sexy as a row of Rockettes. It feels as American as apple pie (and yes, you can buy that, too).
Return the next day to check out the Bayside History Museum, where you’ll learn about those shark teeth, what local life was like in the early 1900s and more. Then head over to Neptune’s Seafood Pub, simply called “The ’Tune” by some, for beers, mussels and crab dip.
A mile or so south, you’ll find the area’s best hotel option, Chesapeake Beach Resort & Spa, which features newly renovated guest rooms and balconies overlooking bay sunsets. Even the most harried traveler can squeeze in a 20-minute massage ($55), though the spa offers a whole range of facials, longer massages, wraps and nail care treatments. The spa’s makeup and hair styling services are surely popular with the many brides who get married here.
Fishing and crabbing are local pastimes, and the hotel will not only facilitate several ways to make that happen but will also cook up your bounty when you return. The brunch buffet in the resort’s Rod ’N’ Reel Restaurant is always buzzing with locals, but we preferred breakfast on the deck at another town favorite, Traders Seafood Steak & Ale. A beach visit isn’t complete without a trip to Abner’s Crab House for steamed crabs served on waterside tables covered with brown paper.
One easy-to-overlook attraction that sits to the side of the Chesapeake Beach Resort & Spa’s parking lot is the Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum, a trove of interesting lore about the throngs of merrymakers who arrived by train more than a century ago. Get one of the curators in the old depot talking, and you might be rewarded with a cool story about the safe in the back room or the luggage stacked high in another storage area, or a tour of an antique railcar.
Nature-lovers will want to then head to the nearby Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail, which, according to former mayor Bruce Wahl, was inspired by the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail in Northern Virginia. Bald eagles, marshland and, of course, plenty of water are visible from this boardwalk-style byway that offers yet another way to unplug, unwind and do exactly what you came here to do—take it easy.