Top Image © George Hurlburt
If you’re looking for a destination that offers a slow, relaxing pace of waterfront living, history around every corner, and endless, forested greenspace inviting you to adventure and recreation, St. Mary’s, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay will pique both your spirit and your tastebuds.
This Southern Maryland peninsula, renowned for its connection to American history, bourbon, and most notably, oysters, offers food-focused visitors a rare opportunity to slow down and soak up the sunshine while savoring the bounty of the Bay that has nourished and sustained this area for generations.
While Maryland is known for blue crabs, the unique geography of St. Mary’s takes it to a whole different level, offering an abundant array of seasonal seafoods, from rockfish to softshell clams, with just as many family recipes for preparing each. With all due respect to these wonders of the waterways, the undisputed champion in this corner of the Chesapeake Bay is the oyster.
The English settlers who founded Maryland in 1634 were astonished by the breadth and size of the oyster population. Thanks to generations of heritage watermen, Maryland is still home to one of the richest oyster beds in the world today. While there are no more “plate-sized” oysters as in colonial days, the celebration of this beneficial bivalve is alive and well in St. Mary’s.
“What makes Chesapeake Bay oysters the best oysters on the East Coast? It’s the magical combination of a few things: the varied salinity of our beautifully brackish waters, the mild climate and protected estuary that produces the best diet for the oysters, and the respectful care from our watermen who have harvested our bay for generations,” explained Visit St. Mary’s Maryland Executive Director Barbara Sopato. “Today our local oyster culture is a balance of wild oyster farming and a sophisticated aquaculture industry producing the best farm-grown oysters.
This means you can enjoy fresh oysters here year-round. Of course, true oyster lovers know the best wild oysters are harvested in the ‘R’ months: September through early April.”
St. Mary’s Celebrates Oysters!
Chesapeake Bay oysters offer good reasons to celebrate. In St. Mary’s, the wild oyster season starts with the Blessing of the Fleet in late September. This celebration combines a time-honored tradition of blessing and thanking the waters for their bounty and grace with a fall festival full of local flavor.
The slurping season really picks up in Southern Maryland with the U.S. Oyster Festival in October. Oyster lovers come from all over the country to tickle their taste buds and witness the penultimate world shucking contest. Now in its 57th year, this fast-paced competition brings the very best U.S. shuckers out to compete for the title of US Oyster Shucking Champion and the opportunity to represent the United States on the international stage at the world championship.
The stands come alive for each heat in this last-person-standing competition. After each round, loyal spectators gather along the fence while the contestants distribute the recently shucked treats to waiting fans. Seasoned attendees know not to fill up at the fence and to save room for the bevy of bivalves that still await them. The annual cook-off contest brings both professional and home cooks together to show off their own recipes featuring the star of this show, and the audience gets to share in the spoils with free tastes of the entries.
Vendors offer oysters scalded, grilled, broiled, fried, as shooters, in po’boys, in tacos, and just about every way imaginable, amid a backdrop of music, local vendors, artisans, activities for kids, and that special St. Mary’s sunshine coupled with the mild fall temperatures that make this the celebration of the season in Southern Maryland. And just like the empty shells, which are returned to the water to grow more oysters, all the proceeds go back into the community, thanks to Lexington Park Rotary Club volunteers who plan and manage the festival.
A Peaceful Peninsula Awaits You
Oysters are just one of the many things that make this area special. The geography of this peninsula is uniquely enchanting, with gorgeous sunsets and sunrises, both over water, and starry night skies with no urban influence. The landscape is forested with trees and small family farms, making St. Mary’s an ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life—you really can’t help but relax and feel your stress melt away as you move south, or, as the locals say, as you head down county.
Down county, or South County, is where you’ll find two of St. Mary’s most desirable rural accommodations, Swanendele Inn and The Quarters at Pier 450. Featuring wraparound porches and waterfront views from every window, Swanendele Inn is an elegant, family-owned country inn on St. Jerome Creek, just off the Chesapeake Bay. The inn is tastefully furnished with artwork and antiques collected from all over the world. Each room is named and themed after an important local landmark or historical character, showcasing this area’s pride and deep roots in the story of America.
The Quarters at Pier 450, previously a local fishing camp, is now a uniquely curated, eclectic motel adjacent to a pier, a beach, and a world-class restaurant, with the perfect view of the most stunning sunsets in Southern Maryland. There’s only one thing as awe-inspiring as the sunsets at Pier 450—the food! Under the tasteful watch of Chef Carlos Gomez-Starnes, Pier 450 serves up the very best versions of the classics, from crab balls and hush puppies to filet mignon with shrimp, alongside creative cocktails, a finely curated wine list, and transcendent specialties like Shells on the Pier, its Southern Maryland version of paella.
And when it comes to the oysters, locals say it’s the super-secret sauce that makes these beauties best-in-class. Pier 450 has reached legendary status thanks in part to their seasonal Chef’s Tastings that take your palate on a culinary journey around the globe, from Nashville to Portugal and everywhere in between. These curated dinners offer the perfect excuse for a long weekend away, and visitors are encouraged to plan early as they fill up quickly.
There’s More to These Waters Than Seafood
There are so many ways to experience the beautiful waters that surround St. Mary’s. Take a Heritage Waterman Tour with Fish the Bay Charters to try your hand at the traditional ways of harvesting the bounty of the Bay, including dropping and collecting crab pots and tonging for oysters in the wild oyster beds. Best of all, you can arrange to enjoy the spoils of your harvest when you return to shore!
For a more relaxed water excursion, embark on a sunset cruise from Historic Leonardtown, where local spots offer fresh oysters prepared in unique ways. The Front Porch takes oysters to a whole new level, serving them up on both platters and pizzas. Locals flock to Brudergarten to enjoy Oysters Rockefeller under the trees at this popular local beer garden. Beyond these scrumptious food finds, Leonardtown earns its designation as Southern Maryland’s only arts and entertainment district, offering shops, galleries, and eateries in a lovely walkable quaint town nestled along the shores of Breton Bay.
Bivalves and Bourbon: A Historical Pairing
Thanks to the smoky, charred flavor profiles they share, grilled oysters and bourbon are a match made in heaven, and in St. Mary’s, where some believe bourbon was first born. Many of today’s best-known bourbon names like Basil Hayden and Willett started distilling on farms in Southern Maryland before migrating to present day Kentucky. For raw oysters, many prefer a higher proof bourbon and its sweetness to balance the brininess of the oyster. For a taste of local bourbon and perhaps the best history lesson on the subject, make your way to Tobacco Barn Distillery, just outside Leonardtown, for a tasting or tour.
A true ground-to-glass distillery, Tobacco Barn Distillery grows all the corn used in its bourbon and whiskies right on the farm, and the grains not grown on site are sourced from other local farmers and suppliers. As part of its commitment to protect the environment, the farm and distillery use a combination of solar, geothermal, and heat recovery systems, and the electricity generated by the farm’s solar panels offsets some of the power the distillery consumes. These efforts reduce the process heat requirements and allow them to reuse 100 percent of their cooling water.
After the corn, rye, and wheat are used in the distilling process, they are used by other local farmers as a feed source for livestock. Combining the tried-and-true methods of the earliest Maryland distillers with these extraordinary efforts to be environmentally responsible result in whiskeys and bourbons that are pleasing to both the discerning palate and Mother Nature; definitely something to toast about!
From our country’s earliest beginnings to bivalves and bourbon, St. Mary’s offers an extraordinary destination for food, adventure, celebration, and relaxation.
Start planning your getaway to Maryland’s Original Destination at VisitStMarysMD.com
US Oyster Festival 2023
October 21-22, 2023
St. Mary’s, Maryland
Enjoy two full days of food and fun featuring oysters, craft beer, music, local artisans, a cook off and the US Oyster Shucking Championship!