Exploring Kent Island

Vastly overlooked by most Marylanders and nestled in to the Chesapeake Bay as a connection between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, Kent Island is not simply an open land only valued for a passerby view of the water.  Deep amongst the marinas and open farmlands are selections of historical sites, quaint town life,  Maryland’s premier distillery, as well as a vineyard with stalks stretching for miles.

A stop by the local visitor’s center was necessary to begin my adventure of the island, as I was told I could find all pertinent information for exploration at this point.  While most of the pamphlets presented to me were related to Queen Anne’s County as a whole, not focused specifically on Kent Island, the two elderly ladies at the main desk gave me a welcome to the area exactly as expected.  I found myself in a cheesy film, where a tourist hits a small town and finds just what I was seeing in front of me.  Beyond the innards of this center, which includes a two-room museum discussing the farm life, specific crops, and the history of Kent Island, were multiple rooms displaying agricultural awards and artifacts.

Where I was first struck with amazement, however, was up two rusty spiral staircases outside the entrance, a climb that led up to a wooden lookout to the water.  I could see a few restaurants as well as some boats rustling by in the stream connecting out to the bay.  More importantly, though, there was a calm in the area.  Unimpaired serenity.  Throw your worries away and just chill out.  Complete harmony.  I hadn’t seen anything considerable, and yet, here I was.  Unruffled scenery.  Restful surroundings.  Sign me up.

Across the grass, I found an older gentleman by a run-down pier.  He had two worn out fishing lines released into the water with the sticks banked across two wooden poles.  Sitting back on the one bench in sight, he gave me a slight head nod, signaling that I may take a seat beside him.  Though he had few words, his demeanor was fitting.  He sat motionless for minutes at a time, picking up his radio on occasion to listen for weather updates.  The rods never rustled.  He made it clear that “the fish aren’t biting today.”  I could tell.  Yet here he was, hushed by the wayside.  Genuinely at peace with his hobby, not needing the fancy materials and tools, but content with the simplicity of this breezy lifestyle.  I don’t know what this man did during the week, as this was a Saturday, but it didn’t matter.  His character, still nameless, left an undisturbed mark on me in just the beginning of a multi-day odyssey.

View from Harris SteakhouseLunch was next, as noon had already struck, and I had plans to meet my mother’s parents, residents of the nearby Annapolis community, with my parents at a highly recommended spot on the water down the southern stretch of the Kent Island coast.  The residential street leading to the establishment saw small family homes, each with small prop planes set to the side, where a suburban home would usually host a garage.  My father chuckled, telling me of his dream to one day own a home where it was the norm to keep a plane out next to his Mercedes (another vehicle he dreams of buying eventually).  I found myself at the Kentmorr Restaurant, a conventional establishment open to families and casual eaters alike.  With corny blue tablecloths covered in outlines of fish, there were flies all about the room.  The environment was pleasant, not much of a crowd for a prime lunchtime.  A faint sound of music in the background was heard, but wasn’t quite strong enough to disturb our group.  The colorful-shirt wearing staff attended to us on the back patio with open windows, as we sat by the dock that doubled as a parking lot for the restaurant.  This was a new idea to me: boat parking for a meal. Just like one drives his or her car down to Outback Steakhouse for a Bloomin’ Onion, Kent Island residents have the option of taking their boat to divulge in plates of shrimp.  I imagine this is the lifestyle on every bit of American coastline.  Otherwise, there wasn’t much to impress, other than the opportunity to spend time with family.  There was, however, a beach out back with an active tiki bar, the type of attraction not found anywhere without shoreline.  Even more key, the restaurant kept Old Bay on each table in salt and pepper holders, like a pizza place serving Parmesan cheese.  Early on in the day, I had already found my favorite example of subtle Maryland pride.

Deep amongst the marinas and open farmlands are selections of historical sites, quaint town life, Maryland’s premier distillery, as well as a vineyard with stalks stretching for miles.

The winery, named Cascia Vineyards, is located down a single street east of the historic district, consequently found down a pebble path that led us toward the water.  I reminisced of old fall drives through a pumpkin patch, but instead of corn husks lining the way, here there were lines of grape vines: sixty-eight rows of vines, each one thousand feet long, to be exact.  Parking in front of the modernized barn that hosted the winery, there was a sight behind me of a vast land full of an organized crop, with a single lawn mower paving the way between the lines.

After accidentally approaching the family’s home next door, only to be steered in the right direction by a courteous gentleman on the grounds staff, I entered through two large brown doors.  They creaked ever so slightly as we heard subtle voices around the corner of the brief entrance.  To the right, I found a pleasant room with a quaint bar set to one side.  Behind the bar stood a man and a woman, who I soon found out to be the owner and his wife, Mark and Kim Cascia. They were behind a basic oak slab with a traditional presentation of multiple bottles across a line, as I introduced myself and made slight conversation with a man seated to my left and a couple to the right.  With only six seats to the bar, though many more behind us on large wooden tables, I was offered a wine tasting at the modest cost of ten dollars.  The tasting room, recently opened last June, was simply decorated as if to represent a dining room in a countryside house, with a patio looking out onto the water and other homes across the bay.

A quick tour through the facility gave me a substantial boost in knowledge on the process of making wine.  Mark is the brains and brawn behind “the project,” as he calls it, while his wife simply is a wine enthusiast.  She claimed that “this place is his mistress” while he noted that “it’s fun as far as hobbies go.”  Despite multiple award-winning products, the Cascia Vineyards only sells out of their own shop, not even in local stores or restaurants.  That isn’t to say the opportunities aren’t there.  “Each time we make a batch that people come through and enjoy, it sells out almost instantly,” Kim remarked.  A fan of softer red wines himself, Mark bought the property in 1998 and began planting that first year.  Kim noted, however, that, “we have bought grapes from California and a few states south of us in the past to make specific bottles, as we did not have the proper grapes on our land.”  All of the wines produced by the Cascia Vineyards today come from their own grapes, as they have been since Cascia was licensed as a winery in 2005, while the entire fermenting and bottling process is completed between two rooms on the right wing of the barn house.

The breathable lands around Kent Island make for a homey atmosphere throughout Stevensville, where the arts and cultural aspects of the region are strongly represented.  Historic Stevensville, recently coined an official Arts and Entertainment District in Maryland, hosts a variety of art galleries, dance studios, and specialty craft shops.

A quick roll through the township area of Stevensville proved to be brief, as I reached the far side of town less than a mile down the main road.  After two rows of century old homes and a sect of small businesses, the downtown area was passed.

Turning back around, I parked in a public spot across from a small grassy area.  In front of me were fenced in geese and sheep, as owned by a local family.  Across the street, I found a fair set up.  With a selection of vendors scattered through the space, I found myself right in the middle, side by side with a massive tree, branches spanning the entire grounds.  A table was set up with stacks of fliers and information packets with a large map on an easel behind it, showing the borders on the area officially qualified in a newfound arts district.  Debbie Birch approached me, a representative of the Queen Anne’s County Visitor’s Bureau.

Debbie pointed me to a few different pieces of information available.  We spoke for quite a while, as she explained the benefits of this new district’s presence, including state and local tax breaks for qualified artists and increased awareness of what historic Stevensville truly has to offer.  The goal of the program presently is to bring interest to the town, as the Kent Island Federation of Arts is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013.  The Art in the Park event, of which I was currently in attendance, worked with vendors to feed money back into cultural programs as the community wants to bring business and a stronger economy to the area.

Historic Stevensville“We have industry to go along with these cultural aspects.  Kent Island is number one or two in the state in terms of land reservations.  There is a lot to offer here without an anchor attraction,” Debbie told me.  Looking about, I approached a table covered in wooden toy creations followed by a setup of blown glass pieces.  There was music playing, a faint hint of jazz, tents set up with paintings, drawings, and artistic prints, and even a booth that handcrafted intricate pens and toothpick holders.  Each station brought a new outlook on art.  The individual creators were passionate about their work, and it was evident in the crisp devotion to attention in their presentation techniques.

A swift turn past the park brought me to a small town life, filled with a few shops and a strip of old homes.  It was a quaint little place.  Only one or two city blocks in space.  A lot of flowers and potted plants lined the sidewalks.  I came upon a collection of fountains around a constructed pond.  The surroundings were nothing but tranquil.

And just a single restaurant.  Rustico, an upscale Italian dining venue that prides itself on being “a little taste of southern Italy in downtown Stevensville.”  There was a set of three gentlemen in business getups in the outdoor seating area splitting a bottle of wine, and the inside was as expected, a set of Italian style decorated rooms.  I was invited in to dine, but already had plans elsewhere for later that evening.

Other than the initial commercial center on the right hand side of Route 50 that you initially pass as the end of the Bay Bridge nears, Kent Island has an industrial scene that came as an unexpected finding to me after some exploratory driving and digging through one Google search after another.  The Chesapeake Bay Business Park, developed and patrolled by the KRM Corporation, houses a selection of local businesses and manufacturing properties.  Smaller offices like Spunkwear, Busy Bodies, and Vapotherm find their homes in Stevensville, but two distinct names highlight the center.  Found on the northern tier of the island just west of the historic parts are Paul Reed Smith Guitars and Blackwater Distilling.

While neither is open to the public for viewing, a few phone calls and e-mails landed me in the front pockets of two incorporated enterprises.  PRS Guitars, as it is generally known, was almost impossible to find.  Maybe that was for a reason, but I never asked.  After plugging their site’s specific address into the GPS, I roamed up to a large brown building toward the front of the complex with the large “380” numerals above the entrance.  Approaching the doors on this warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, I didn’t know what to expect.  In turn, I found all of the doors to be locked, and the only dignifying symbol in sight was a blown glass art piece of a guitar hanging inside of one window.  No banners, no welcoming signs.  Nothing.  Perhaps the company wants to stay quiet, but I still made an attempt to reach further.  Founded in 1985 by musician Paul Reed Smith, the company manufactures over 1,000 instruments per month, specializing in high-end electric guitars and amplifiers.  The company’s most notable endorser is Latin rocker Carlos Santana, yet here they were, situated amongst the seagulls and stingrays on Kent Island.

A roundabout way through the business park found me at another plain colored warehouse, this one with no signage as well.  But from my research, I knew I had happened upon Blackwater Distilling.  Opened by brothers Chris and Jon Coole, the company’s first major creation, coined Sloop Betty Vodka, came in 2011, as they used locally grown ingredients to develop a handcrafted wheat vodka, advertised with a scantily clad female in a short red dress.  The company’s name comes from the local Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, while the term Sloop Berry is coined from a historic ship in the Chesapeake Bay, paying homage to their local roots.

My tour of the compound had only just begun, as I happened upon a slight entrance to Terrapin Park at the back end of the commercial loop.  Slightly hidden by tree branches, the park gave me access to 4,000 feet of shoreline and 73 acres of wetlands, a fully encompassing realm of nature that could only be fully experienced over a lengthier bit of time.  By foot, I set off onto a wide dirt path, covered with dark mulch and a natural mix of stones and leaves.  With a few bikers and runners every passing by every few minutes, the park provided me with a calm getaway.Terrapin Park beach on Chesapeake Bay  Though branched out from the hustle of any nearby civilization, there was a unique set of sounds to the hike.  The scene was full of big noises, not necessarily loud, but evident and strongly encapsulating.  Pacing myself over the gravel trails alone put the idea of pebbles and crushed rock in mind, while the passerby birds were audibly present with their strong notes and songs.

An observation point only half a mile in provided an elevated view of a vast prairie, giving people a sign with pictures and descriptions of possible wildlife for which they should be on the lookout.  Further down the way, I was set on a median between two sides of a flowing marsh, surrounded by large wheat stalks that stayed sedentary on an otherwise windless afternoon.  Marching around a stash of pinecones down the road, there was a sight of multi-colored trees adorned with leaves in a mix of the primary colors.  This all led up to an unfixed gritty walkway.  Over a partially grassy hill, now after hiking roughly a mile purposely to find this point, I found myself standing on a beach.  The sandy coast stood only about 20 feet wide with just a few feet near the top to keep your feet dry away from the meager wavy current.  A look to the right and you can see downtown Baltimore City faintly in the distance, only able to make out the outline of a few buildings that appear as specs in the atmosphere.  Out to the left was the Bay Bridge, and in front of me was the murky waters commonly seen in the Chesapeake Bay, the result of bad environmental control over decades in the state of Maryland.

Making my way back to the main road, I drove a few miles east and eventually arrived at the jammed parking lot of Harris Crab House.  With my parents along for the experience, the hostess gladly showed us the way to the upper deck seating, of which we were hesitant to accept, as there was a steep flight of stairs leading up.

It was worth the thirty seconds of cardio work.  For 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday, every stool and chair in the house was taken.  The view out on the water as we watched the sun fade away was beyond magnificent.  We are by no means upscale diners and live quite the modest lifestyles, so it was quite the treat to experience a seafood dinner on the water.  Those affairs are generally reserved for waterside homeowners and those that travel by boat recreationally, a different class altogether. Additional view from Harris SteakhouseThe restaurant was not in the upper echelon by any means, and the prices were reasonable, so there was nothing beyond fancy about the place itself.  The simple idea of eating by the water was refreshing.  The sun was lowering in the distance with clouds hovering slightly above, while we watched as boats docked to come in for dinner while seagulls perched on every available surface in hopes of finding their own dinner.  Our server, a middle-aged lady who identified herself as Ellen by writing her name across the brown paper covering our table, simply smiled as we appreciated the surroundings.  It was the ordinary view for her, though, as she noted, “I see it when I work the night shifts every week. I’m used to it.”

There was an effervescent aroma of crabmeat being picked away while large groups filled long tabletops showered with the expected wooden hammers and metal buckets.  Here we were, though, in the front corner of the upstairs outdoor deck area with a heap of king crab legs in front of us just waiting to be clawed apart.  The geese on the water made their usual croaking noises, and we finished off the meal by splitting a nutty buddy ice cream creation.  Dipped in chocolate and delivered from the dessert shop next door, the frozen treat was roughly ten inches high in my estimation, yet advertised as a homemade favorite for one.  Ellen was a salesperson when it came to the product, as she nonchalantly pushed us to add one to our bill, telling us, “I have regular customers who come from all over and bring a cooler with them and take these home to their kids, I guess.”  Whether or not it is truly a “famous” final course, the confection surpassed expectations of a simple ice cream cone.  It was time to get back to digging through the land, so to speak.

A ride over the Bay Bridge is almost necessary for Marylanders wishing to reach Ocean City and more on the Eastern Shore.  Next time you’re headed that way, take a moment to pull off Route-50 and experience the liveliness and nature-filled life on Kent Island.  Bring your bike for a ride up and down the cross-island trail.  Take in the sights.  Listen about for the calm breeze amongst a dock full of hopeful fisherman.  At least grab a crab cake.  Marylanders should never need an excuse to eat a crab cake.

By: Avi Miller

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