ST. MICHAELS, Maryland
by Kristen Davis
photography by Keith Lanpher
The Inn at Perry Cabin sprawls along the mouth of the Miles River, a stately colonial set amid gnarled old trees at the edge of the Town that Fooled the British two centuries ago.
Just how this Eastern Shore enclave outsmarted the Redcoats is not immediately obvious. The St. Michaels welcome sign that claims this distinction offers no detail. By the time
I have reached the far end of downtown’s Talbot Street, the Inn at Perry Cabin comes into view and takes hold of my attention entirely.
The painted white inn looks as if it took root with the trees that tower over the property, and perhaps it did: The original columned manor house went up in 1816. More than 150 years later, a St. Michaels family turned Perry Cabin into a six-room hotel and restaurant; a decade ago, the inn’s most recent owner, Orient-Express Hotels, undertook a $17 million renovation that created the 78-room hotel, four-diamond restaurant and full-service spa rambling before me.
Just a three-hour drive from Hampton Roads, this onetime shipping and shipbuilding community now attracts visitors with its charm – downtown streets lined with gift shops and antique stores, seafood-flavored restaurants and historic homes.
The Inn at Perry Cabin sits on a grassy riverbank off Route 33.
A bricked, tree-lined drive leads visitors to the resort’s main entrance. Once you arrive, you won’t have to leave until the getaway ends – and chances are you won’t want to. The inn has two restaurants and a pub; the spa; and a library with shelves of old books and oversized furniture overlooking the river. Daily, there are activities like bocce ball and croquet; Sherwood’s Landing, the main restaurant, offers cooking demonstrations; and there’s afternoon tea in the Morning Room.
Nearly every hallway and corner offers a pair of chairs to sink into; nearly every shelf is filled with some special antique – Depression glass fills one built-in glass cabinet on a stair landing; a console table holds a giant model of the Amerigo Vespucci, a full-rigged, three-masted Italian ship built in 1930. Light pours in from endless windows, and the five working fireplaces make cold weather forgettable.
I spend my first evening here unwinding with a pile of magazines on the balcony off my room, intermittently reading and raising my eyes to take in still water and graceful sailboats. I’ll soon be meeting my best friend, Jessica, here on this brisk autumn weekend for our fourth annual girls’ getaway – and what turns out to be the best yet.
We order room service Saturday morning, something simple since we plan to indulge later: coffee and orange juice, pastries and fruit served on china with sea-green edges. The juice is fresh-squeezed, the pastries flaky, the fruit ample. We watch boats slip by while we eat, watch the sun rise high over the Miles River, a postcard-perfect view that is hard to take our eyes off of. But we want to explore the grounds and gardens, which are pretty even when many trees are bare. There’s a centuries-old holly tree that serves as St. Michaels’ official Christmas tree, magnolias, boxwood and towering pines. For now the vegetable garden lies dormant, but when spring arrives, rosemary, basil, eggplant, green peppers, tomatoes and more will flourish – and find their way onto the plates of restaurant guests.
We begin our walk on the inn’s vast front lawn, where a stand of weeping willows spills tangles of branches from giant crowns and a few uninterested bees flitter around the apiary. We cross over Linden Tree Lane, where there’s a croquet lawn, a bocce ball court and a greenhouse; from here, a tree-lined path winds along the riverbank. All is silent except for gravel crunching under our feet and a cheerful hello called out by an inn employee who wants to know how we are enjoying our stay so far. Guests lounge in Adirondack chairs that overlook the water, and one couple, still in pajamas, eat breakfast at a table just outside their room.
We could spend the rest of the day here, take kayaks out on the river or grab bicycles from the inn’s fleet or sink into the big furniture in the library with an old book. But we wander downtown instead, just an easy stroll from the inn, where the shops with their artful storefronts sell everything from antiques, toys and Christmas decor to furniture, art and knickknacks. Calico Toys & Games fills two floors on Talbot Street and every corner and cranny is crammed full of kid stuff. A Wish Called Wanda specializes in unique gifts and crafts by local artists. Old furniture, stained glass and decoys fill White Swan Antiques. At Silver Linings, a jewelry store, I find a blue crab pendant made from gemstones.
Downtown St. Michaels offers at least half a dozen places to eat, and we ultimately settle on Big Pickle Food Bar for its quirky name and reasonably priced, wide-ranging menu: Fried pickles and fried chicken, crab soup and crab cakes, corned beef and pit beef. For lunch I get the crab cake sandwich, which comes with German-style potato salad. Jessica gets the pit beef sandwich, and it is piled so high that she needs a fork to eat it.
By the time we leave, it is midafternoon, and we head to the centrally located Maritime Museum to catch a cruise on the passenger boat Patriot, which has plied these waters for nearly 45 years. Passengers get a narrated history lesson on the hourlong ride, and there’s a bar on the climate-controlled lower level. Soon after the Patriot departs, the narration begins, and we learn that the Algonquin Indians were this area’s first residents, long before there was even a Chesapeake Bay. They had all but vanished at the start of the American Revolution, when their successors made their living on the water – shipping, fishing, boatbuilding. The town might have disappeared altogether the night of August 10, 1813, had the townsfolk not fooled the attacking British by hanging their lanterns high in the treetops outside town. Only one building was struck when the British flung cannonballs from their ships – and no one died. The British had aimed for the light, and overshot the town.
This town is full of stories – of pirates and oystermen and the Underground Railroad, and out on the Chesapeake Bay estuary, where sailboats perch on the horizon like seabirds, they are easy to envision. Before we head back, the Patriot captain gives riders turns steering the boat. Jessica and I both give it a try. But it reminds me of when my mom would ask me to take the wheel of the car while she tended to something else, and I am petrified. The good-natured captain never takes his eyes off the water, though, and helps me steer safely around a sailboat.
An hour before dinner at Sherwood’s Landing, we get a drink at Purser’s Pub, just down the hallway from the four-diamond restaurant. The bar serves cocktails, wine, beer and signature coffee drinks from midafternoon to midnight. A wide, wood-burning fireplace puts off just the right amount of heat at the back of the cozy pub and there are lots of oyster tin from Quinby, Virginia; and a yellow and black can from Pocomoke Sound Oyster Company that once held one pound of “fresh oysters.”
According to the inn, oyster companies were responding with a marketing campaign to bad press that followed the death in 1902 of a man in Atlantic City from tainted oysters. The massive campaign, aimed to convince wary consumers that oysters were plenty safe, included selling them in hermetically sealed cans kept on ice. Mermaids, maidens, schooners and sloops decorated the tins. The places to sit: a pair of facing leather loveseats, tables for two, deep wingback chairs, all arranged on dark hardwood floors. There’s also a big-screen TV closer to the bar, but we choose ambiance near the hearth. Two couples are celebrating wedding anniversaries. One group of guests is in town for a women’s conference.
We enjoy our drinks – white wine and red – in two of the comfy chairs with a table between us. Prints of ships hang on white-paneled walls, and built-in shelves flank the fireplace. The shelves hold one of the Inn at Perry Cabin’s most special collections: antique oyster tins in a rainbow of colors. There’s the Montauk Saltwater Oyster tin painted in pretty red letters; a blue and white Quinby Brand campaign lasted for decades.
A second celebrated collection – oyster plates – is on display at Sherwood’s Landing, where we settle for dinner after leaving Purser’s Pub. The plates came into fashion when oysters reigned king in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the inn, and the delicacy was at its best “in their most natural form” – on the halfshell. But melting ice made a mess. Oyster plates remedied that and other issues. The porcelain plates set inside a curio at Sherwood’s Landing have gilded edges, dainty flower patterns and pretty scrollwork. Some are more elaborate than others; one is painted in soft shades of pink and trimmed in gold.
Soon after we are seated, we are offered a bread basket with the standard rolls and croissants – and seven-layer herb and cheddar muffins baked by Gustina Harmon. Miss Gussie, as she is affectionately called, has made these muffins here for the past 20 years. She is also responsible for the perfectly baked chocolate chip cookies we will find in our room later tonight, for the cornbread that comes with the oyster stew and for the baked goods served at tea time each afternoon in the Morning Room – tea breads, scones, cookies and pastries. The muffins are fluffy on the inside and packed full of flavor, thanks to Miss Gussie’s painstaking layering. When the bread basket comes around again, I will myself to say no thank you.
Sherwood’s Landing partners with local farms and watermen, and the menu indicates exactly where many of the selections came from: Jameson Farms rack of lamb, Brandt Farm beef tenderloin, and a beet and goat cheese salad featuring Everrona Farm goat cheese and arugula from the resort’s garden. If you can’t decide – and I almost can’t – there’s a chef tasting menu that lets you get a little bit of a lot.
I at last settle on farm-raised chicken and crepes with fried kale, and cheddar and bacon crepes in a mushroom maple broth. Jessica starts with oyster stew and the beet and goat cheese salad, and finishes up with sauteed sea scallops. Afterward, we choose a dessert called essences of strawberry shortcake: strawberry sorbet with vanilla sponge cake and Chantilly cream.
We’ll have to save Miss Gussie’s cookies for later.
Sunday is a day of leisure. We rise just early enough to amble over to Linden Spa, where you can take a yoga class, hop on an elliptical or meet with a certified personal trainer who will develop a fitness plan tailored for you. Or you can just get pampered. This is what we are here for.
Linden Spa offers more than a dozen facial and body treatments with names like Five Flower Solace, Body Dessert and Back to Vibrancy. We want massages. Within minutes of our arrival, we’re handed slippers and robes and sent to the relaxation room that overlooks a garden. We help ourselves to cucumber water, nuts and granola, and berries, then settle into reclining chairs until a pair of massage therapists retrieve us.
An hour later, the lingering tightness in my shoul-ders has vanished. There is time for one final meal here before checkout: a late breakfast on the patio. The canine-friendly Inn at Perry Cabin is hosting a dog show on the grounds later today, and people wander along the gleaming river with their pets. Deciding on a selection this morning is as challenging as dinner the night before. For me, it’s a toss-up between the bananas Foster waffle with bourbon maple caramel, bananas and pecans, and the French toast with Grand Marnier chantilly. I order the latter. Jessica gets the Perry Cabin benedict with jumbo lump crab, hollandaise, Virginia ham and grilled asparagus. It is, as with everything else here, delectable.
We sit in the sun as long as we can, watching the water and the time, steeling ourselves for a return to reality – made a little easier with Miss Gussie’s cookies.