Historic Town Offers Much More Than Its Annual Decoy Festival
By Lester Picker
[This article originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun. I updated it for use in 2010.]
Walking the tree-lined streets of historic Havre de Grace, Maryland is like stepping back in time. Leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind, skip the mad rush of suburban shopping malls, and spend an enjoyable weekend in this quaint town, tucked into the northeastern-most corner of Harford County.
Ideally located at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay, Havre de Grace played a prominent role during the Revolutionary War. In fact, during the First Congress in 1789, Havre de Grace missed by only one vote being named the capital of the fledgling United States. Called “Harbor of Grace” for its scenic beauty, it was considered indefensible from the all-powerful British Navy. That proved prophetic, when the British later bombarded Havre de Grace during the war of 1812, destroying much of the town.
Today, Havre de Grace is known for its quiet streets, thirty-plus antique shops, decoy shops, historic homes, and The Promenade, an environmentally friendly boardwalk that skirts the southern end of town and links the historic Concord Point Lighthouse with the bustling Tydings Memorial Park.
The town hosts tourist events throughout the year, including its famed Decoy, Wildlife Art and Sportsmen’s Festival, which spans the first full weekend in May (7-9). But, unlike gentrified Annapolis, Havre de Grace is still a working town, replete with marinas, crabbers and an active stone quarry that ships its wares by barges and tugboats to places as far away as Virginia.
There are so many ways to enjoy Havre de Grace, you might want to plan to spend an entire weekend. Since Havre de Grace is a walking (or bicycling) town, I suggest you arrive early and park in the municipal lot on the waterfront behind MacGregor’s Restaurant and adjacent to the Tidewater Grill, two of Havre de Grace’s most distinctive restaurants. Walk west to a tucked-away shop behind St. John Street and meet horologist John Stephens, proprietor of Stephens and Stephens. Horologist? In plain English, Stephens is a watch and clockmaker, and his small, but friendly waterfront shop is a tribute to his profession.
Walking south and west, en route to Havre de Grace’s main drag, Washington Street, you will pass the first of the nearly three dozen antique shops the town has to offer. Stop, if you must, but be warned. Havre de Grace’s antique shops are less pricey than many other areas in the state, so you will be sorely tempted to de-fatten your wallet.
Havre de Grace’s Washington Street is what Main Street America was perhaps fifty years ago, lined with trees, but today serving up an eclectic mix of stores that cater to the needs of both residents and tourists. Whatever else you do, set aside some time and wander through Joseph’s Department Store, a town fixture for generations. Its linoleum tiled floors and down-home sales staff will instantly whisk you back three generations.
Here are some of my favorite places to eat and visit, along with a smattering of family activities. But, the fun of Havre de Grace is in exploring and finding your own favorites.
Places to Eat:
For fresh ground and brewed coffee, you have two choices: Java By the Bay, next door to Joseph’s Department Store and Jana’s Java, at the intersection of St. John’s Street, Washington Street and Green Street. Sit outdoors, sip your fragrant brew, and watch the crowds walk by.
My absolute favorite place for lunch and fine dining is Laurrapin Grill. Chef Bruce is a master with meats and seafood. The bar features an eclectic selection of beers and wines. The back dining room has a view of the water.
Two Italian restaurants within a few blocks of each other serve the tiny town. La Cucina is great for informal dining, while Chiaparelli’s offers upscale fine dining.
For a fun and informal lunch option, try The Ritz, on St. John Street, across from Lafayette Square.
Oh, I almost forgot. Some of the best chocolates in Maryland are made in Havre de Grace, at Bomboy’s, a family run business on Market Street. Skip lunch, but don’t miss Bomboy’s.
Havre de Grace may not have any hotels or chain motels, but that is one of the many endearing features of this town. Instead, try The Vandiver Inn (410-939-5200) or The Spencer Silver Mansion Bed & Breakfast (410-939-1097), both of them elegant and historic homes. Both offer complimentary breakfasts for guests.
In and around Havre de Grace are myriad activities for a family, ranging from mild to strenuous. The most accessible for the entire family is a leisurely stroll along The Promenade. Park in the public area at Tydings Memorial Park at the town’s southern edge, at the east end of Union Avenue. Bring binoculars and walk along the wide boardwalk, stopping at the many convenient benches to admire the view. I’ve found the best time to be near dusk, when you may be lucky enough to see a wading Great Blue Heron or other aquatic birds. The Promenade winds along the shore and culminates in a marshy area, perfect for birding, at the foot of the Concord Point Lighthouse.
There are two bicycle shops in town. Chesapeake Cycle and Sport is located on the corner of Washington and Congress streets. Biller’s Bikes is located on the corner of Lodge Lane, Franklin and St. John streets. Havre de Grace is bicycle friendly. Spend a pleasant few hours peddling around the many coves and quiet streets of Havre de Grace. If you’re a fishing enthusiast, nothing beats the flats, where the Susquehanna River meets the Bay, for freshwater and striped bass.
Hikers and bikers would also do well to visit Susquehanna State Park (410-557-7994), due west on Route 155, a few miles outside of Havre de Grace. There you can stroll or bicycle along river paths, view historic sites, fish and birdwatch. Bald eagles have staged an incredible comeback in this area, and draw nature enthusiasts all year long, especially in winter, where they congregate just below the Conowingo Dam. A large nature viewing area is open all year.
Golfers have a choice of some of Maryland’s finest courses, one of which – Pete Dye designed Bulle Rock (410-939-8887) - is rated one of the top golf courses in the nation. One of the many pleasures of teeing off well north of Baltimore is less crowded tee times. Try Wetlands Golf Club (410-273-7488) and Ruggles (410-278-4794), an old-style, forgiving course located on the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Havre de Grace is also known for its more than thirty antique shops, clustered here and there along Washington Street, Union Avenue, Market Street and on many of its side streets.
Museums and Historic Sites:
Havre de Grace is steeped in history. The Tourism office on Pennington Street between Union Avenue and Washington Street offers a free booklet that describes a self-guided walking/driving tour of the town, starting at the Concord Point Lighthouse (410-939-9040), built in 1827.
Be sure to visit the Decoy Museum (410-939-3739), just yards from the lighthouse. The Decoy Museum will give you a good feel for the art of decoy carving, as well as an appreciation of the Bay’s wildlife.
Still in town, and again a short walk from the lighthouse, try a pleasant afternoon or evening cruise on the Skipjack Martha Lewis (800-406-0766). The 32-passenger vessel offers ninety-minute environmental cruises for the whole family. It leaves from the foot of Congress Street.
The Steppingstone Farm Museum (410-939-2299) is located in Susquehanna State Park, and offers demonstrations of turn-of-the-century crafts, from weaving to blacksmithing. The Museum also sponsors several festivals which are wholesome family events, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Susquehanna River.
How To Get There:
From Baltimore, take I-95 North to Exit 89. Take Route 155 East toward Havre de Grace and follow the signs to the center of town. Travel time from downtown Baltimore is approximately 45 minutes.
For More Information:
Contact the Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Office at (410) 939-3309 or www.hdg-tourism.com, to order informational booklets, a calendar of events and a museum guide.