St. Mary’s Rise—and Spectacular Fall
Reborn as an archaeological site, the city and its environs are the perfect place to view the autumn leaves.
As the kayak lands on a white sandy beach with barely a whish of noise, the great egret lifts its spearlike yellow bill in alarm. It runs on toothpick legs, then gracefully lifts on white wings that span 4 feet and flies to a nearby stand of trees, perching on an oak ablaze with fall colors of orange and gold.
In this corner of St. Mary’s County, diving pelicans and egrets fishing along the beaches lend an almost tropical feel. But deciduous trees belie that impression, especially when the leaves change in this southern Maryland locale, just a two-hour drive from Bethesda.
Most people considering a fall driving trip think mountains. They join the hordes jamming winding roads, shifting into low gear, competing for parking spots at an overlook to take in the views.
St. Mary’s County is the road less traveled. Woodlands and broad, flat fields rimmed with trees line the banks of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac, Patuxent, Wicomico and St. Mary’s rivers. No matter where you are in the county, you are never far from a water view.
You’ll likely share a country road not with creeping lines of cars, but with a horse-drawn wagon driven by Amish or Mennonite farmers. Take a short detour off Route 5 on the way to St. Mary’s City and you’ll find Amish families selling produce, baked goods, handmade furniture, even chicken, should you be in the market for dinner freshly killed.
St. Mary’s City was once Maryland’s capital, a thriving metropolis by Colonial standards. After Annapolis became the capital in 1694, the city faded into oblivion. Today, however, it has been reborn with an archaeological site, a living history museum and the highly regarded St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Much of the area surrounding St. Mary’s City has remained blissfully rural. Leonardtown, the county seat and its largest town, has slightly more than 2,000 residents. Within the county you’ll find a fall county fair Sept. 23 to 26, elaborate corn mazes, pumpkin patches, a quilt auction and small-town seasonal festivals that celebrate wine, apples, boats and oysters.
You’ll also find pockets of sophistication, including fine food and two of perhaps the best lodgings in the mid-Atlantic. My favorite, Woodlawn, a 15-minute drive from St. Mary’s City, sits on a 180-acre waterfront estate. Since the owners live off-property, you can rent a suite or cottage and feel as if you own the place. On my last visit to the Brome-Howard Inn in the historic city, I spent a luxurious afternoon in a wicker chair on a sunny back porch, alternately reading and staring idly at the broad waters of the St. Mary’s River.
With a little planning, you can take in a concert or play, or hear an evening lecture at St. Mary’s College. If history has appeal, you’ll find one of the best Colonial sites in North America—the city was named a National Historic Landmark in 1969.
Don’t expect, however, to see a city. Instead, visitors will find the partially reconstructed remains of one of the first English settlements in the New World. St. Mary’s City was settled in 1634, not long after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth Rock. A reproduction similar to one of the two ships St. Mary’s settlers sailed floats along the banks of the St. Mary’s River and is open for public tours.