Sara Gray

Take your pick: the Jersey Shore's exuberance, Chesapeake Bay's bucolic charms, Baltimore's revitalized harbor, and don't forget Delaware.

Setting:

Two great estuaries dominate the Mid-Atlantic: Delaware Bay,between New Jersey and Delaware, and the Chesapeake Bay, which hasprofoundly shaped the histories of Maryland and Virginia.

Baltimore's harbor made it the Chesapeake's great city.Annapolis settled for being both the capital of Maryland and anunofficial capital of sailing. Otherwise, most of the Chesapeakeremains rural.

The cities collectively known as Hampton Roads guard the mouthof the Chesapeake―literally. The world's largest navy base ishere. Hampton Roads also offers wonderful beaches (Virginia Beach,Hampton), history (Olde Towne Portsmouth), financial and high-techcenters (Norfolk and Hampton, respectively), and terrific museums(everywhere).

Despite the stereotypes, some north Jersey cities, such asHoboken, provide a livable, more affordable urban alternative toNew York within an easy commute. The Jersey Shore contains classicbeach towns in all flavors, from refined (Ocean Grove, Spring Lake,the Victorian enclave of Cape May) to family-oriented (Long BeachIsland, Ocean City) to glitzy (Atlantic City) to funky and fun (theneon-accented '50s and '60s architecture of theWildwoods―Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest).

Delaware, sometimes overlooked because of its small size, boastswonderful beach towns, colonial history (New Castle, Lewes), andwildlife preserves. The nature theme continues along Maryland'scoast (Assateague Island National Seashore) and Virginia's EasternShore, where The Nature Conservancy controls most of theundeveloped Atlantic barrier islands.

Attractions:

The Mid-Atlantic offers the world's best crab cakes―almostall crab, very little cake.

Delaware has no sales tax. Government-related economicopportunities stem from D.C.

Great beaches edge New Jersey, Delaware, and parts of Maryland(Ocean City), and from Virginia Beach south to North Carolina. Muchunspoiled land remains protected from development.

Drawbacks:

Hurricanes can stray this far north during theJune-through-November season. Winter weather can be icy. A fewJersey Shore towns have seen more prosperity, and much of theEastern Shore has always lagged economically. It's not easy to getto many towns along the Chesapeake Bay or the coasts of Marylandand Virginia. Most Atlantic beach areas are highly developed andtouristy (particularly in summer). Resort areas have seasonaleconomies that slow dramatically in colder months.

Housing Options:

Cape May, New Jersey, retains one of the best stocks ofVictorian houses anywhere (many now B&B inns). Annapolis alsooffers a variety of housing from as early as the 18th century.

In New Jersey, urban brownstones line the streets in Hoboken andother cities across the Hudson from Manhattan. Some grandVictorians stand in Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Spring Lake, andother Jersey Shore towns that a century ago were popular summerrespites. Along much of the rest of the Jersey Shore, you find lotsof fairly modest, well-tended houses in family-filledneighborhoods.

The only oceanfront areas where high-rises predominate areAtlantic City; Ocean City, Maryland; and Virginia Beach. InBaltimore, row houses overlook the water from surroundingneighborhoods. Lofts and other rehabilitation projects arespreading through Fells Point, Canton, and other areas along thenorth side of the harbor.

What It Costs:

On Virginia's rural Eastern Shore, the influx ofbed-and-breakfasts means that an old farmhouse on the bay starts at$250,000. In Cape May, some Victorian B&Bs sell at $1 millionand are then converted into private homes. Hampton Roads waterfrontresidences range from $300,000 to $1 million. In Rehoboth Beach,Delaware, even a fixer-upper on the bay goes for $290,000. Bargain:In Atlantic City, a tiny one-bedroom bayfront condo costs$59,000.

Your Next-doorNeighbors:

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the most successfulgrass-roots environmental organizations, has more than 115,000members. Military families cluster all around the region, at theHampton Roads area of Virginia (Navy), the Aberdeen Proving Groundat Aberdeen, Maryland (Army), and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware(Air Force). U.S. Navy cadets mix with avid sailors andpowerboaters of the civilian variety in Annapolis.

Chesapeake Bay watermen pull a living from the bay. So dofishermen and fishing guides. Farmers and small-town businesspeoplelive alongside refugees from cities.

Lawyers, lobbyists, and government workers commute toWashington. Many professionals live in northern New Jersey but workin New York City.

How You'd Spend Your Free Time:

You'd visit the beach along the Jersey Shore, in the southernhalf of Delaware, in Ocean City, Maryland, and in Virginia Beach(which is also a major surfing spot). You'd sail, powerboat, fish,or go crabbing for tasty blue crabs.

The Mid-Atlantic's stretches of wetlands shelter an immensenumber and variety of birds, particularly during spring and fallmigrations. As a bonus, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel across themouth of the bay gives birders a rare chance to see deep-oceanspecies without having to take a boat.

Hampton Roads contains an unparalleled collection of maritimemuseums, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore offers not onlyfascinating exhibits but also a terrific sense of theater.

Inns beckon at Cape May and Ocean Grove in New Jersey, Eastonand St. Michaels in Maryland, and in lots of little towns scatteredbeside the Chesapeake.

Maryland's Eastern Shore is a great place for nautical antiques.While you're at it, explore such charming towns as Bay Head,Seaside Park, Barnegat Light, and Tuckerton (decoy carvers andother heritage-oriented attractions at Tuckerton Seaport) in NewJersey.

See New Castle, Lewes, and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. Marylandoffers a wealth of destinations that include Chestertown, Easton,St. Michaels, Cambridge, Crisfield, and most other Eastern Shorewaterfront communities, plus St. Marys City, Solomons, and quaintlittle places on the western shore of the bay. Check out ColonialBeach, Reedville, Irvington, Deltaville, Cape Charles, and otherChesapeake Bay hamlets in Virginia.

Shows, casinos, and glittering attractions characterize AtlanticCity. The Wildwoods feature three amusement piers and widebeaches.

Lighthouses, some climbable, line the Jersey Shore. Thecenturies-old lifestyle of bay watermen still thrives on SmithIsland and Tangier Island, both reachable by ferry.

Such historic sites as the birthplaces of George Washington andRobert E. Lee seem to appear every mile in thebarely-touched-by-time Northern Neck of 9irginia (between thePotomac and Rappahannock rivers).

Vessels traverse the Intracoastal Waterway and make localcruises out of such harbors as Baltimore, Annapolis, andNorfolk.

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