Two great estuaries dominate the Mid-Atlantic: Delaware Bay, between New Jersey and Delaware, and the Chesapeake Bay, which has profoundly 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 an unofficial capital of sailing. Otherwise, most of the Chesapeake remains rural.
The cities collectively known as Hampton Roads guard the mouth of the Chesapeake―literally. The world's largest navy base is here. Hampton Roads also offers wonderful beaches (Virginia Beach, Hampton), history (Olde Towne Portsmouth), financial and high-tech centers (Norfolk and Hampton, respectively), and terrific museums (everywhere).
Despite the stereotypes, some north Jersey cities, such as Hoboken, provide a livable, more affordable urban alternative to New York within an easy commute. The Jersey Shore contains classic beach towns in all flavors, from refined (Ocean Grove, Spring Lake, the Victorian enclave of Cape May) to family-oriented (Long Beach Island, Ocean City) to glitzy (Atlantic City) to funky and fun (the neon-accented '50s and '60s architecture of the Wildwoods―Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest).
Delaware, sometimes overlooked because of its small size, boasts wonderful beach towns, colonial history (New Castle, Lewes), and wildlife preserves. The nature theme continues along Maryland's coast (Assateague Island National Seashore) and Virginia's Eastern Shore, where The Nature Conservancy controls most of the undeveloped Atlantic barrier islands.
The Mid-Atlantic offers the world's best crab cakes―almost all crab, very little cake.
Delaware has no sales tax. Government-related economic opportunities stem from D.C.
Great beaches edge New Jersey, Delaware, and parts of Maryland (Ocean City), and from Virginia Beach south to North Carolina. Much unspoiled land remains protected from development.
Hurricanes can stray this far north during the June-through-November season. Winter weather can be icy. A few Jersey Shore towns have seen more prosperity, and much of the Eastern Shore has always lagged economically. It's not easy to get to many towns along the Chesapeake Bay or the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. Most Atlantic beach areas are highly developed and touristy (particularly in summer). Resort areas have seasonal economies that slow dramatically in colder months.
Cape May, New Jersey, retains one of the best stocks of Victorian houses anywhere (many now B&B inns). Annapolis also offers a variety of housing from as early as the 18th century.
In New Jersey, urban brownstones line the streets in Hoboken and other cities across the Hudson from Manhattan. Some grand Victorians stand in Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Spring Lake, and other Jersey Shore towns that a century ago were popular summer respites. Along much of the rest of the Jersey Shore, you find lots of fairly modest, well-tended houses in family-filled neighborhoods.
The only oceanfront areas where high-rises predominate are Atlantic City; Ocean City, Maryland; and Virginia Beach. In Baltimore, row houses overlook the water from surrounding neighborhoods. Lofts and other rehabilitation projects are spreading through Fells Point, Canton, and other areas along the north side of the harbor.
What It Costs:
On Virginia's rural Eastern Shore, the influx of bed-and-breakfasts means that an old farmhouse on the bay starts at $250,000. In Cape May, some Victorian B&Bs sell at $1 million and are then converted into private homes. Hampton Roads waterfront residences 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-door Neighbors:
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the most successful grass-roots environmental organizations, has more than 115,000 members. Military families cluster all around the region, at the Hampton Roads area of Virginia (Navy), the Aberdeen Proving Ground at Aberdeen, Maryland (Army), and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware (Air Force). U.S. Navy cadets mix with avid sailors and powerboaters of the civilian variety in Annapolis.
Chesapeake Bay watermen pull a living from the bay. So do fishermen and fishing guides. Farmers and small-town businesspeople live alongside refugees from cities.
Lawyers, lobbyists, and government workers commute to Washington. Many professionals live in northern New Jersey but work in New York City.
How You'd Spend Your Free Time:
You'd visit the beach along the Jersey Shore, in the southern half 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 immense number and variety of birds, particularly during spring and fall migrations. As a bonus, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel across the mouth of the bay gives birders a rare chance to see deep-ocean species without having to take a boat.
Hampton Roads contains an unparalleled collection of maritime museums, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore offers not only fascinating exhibits but also a terrific sense of theater.
Inns beckon at Cape May and Ocean Grove in New Jersey, Easton and St. Michaels in Maryland, and in lots of little towns scattered beside 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 and other heritage-oriented attractions at Tuckerton Seaport) in New Jersey.
See New Castle, Lewes, and Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. Maryland offers a wealth of destinations that include Chestertown, Easton, St. Michaels, Cambridge, Crisfield, and most other Eastern Shore waterfront communities, plus St. Marys City, Solomons, and quaint little places on the western shore of the bay. Check out Colonial Beach, Reedville, Irvington, Deltaville, Cape Charles, and other Chesapeake Bay hamlets in Virginia.
Shows, casinos, and glittering attractions characterize Atlantic City. The Wildwoods feature three amusement piers and wide beaches.
Lighthouses, some climbable, line the Jersey Shore. The centuries-old lifestyle of bay watermen still thrives on Smith Island and Tangier Island, both reachable by ferry.
Such historic sites as the birthplaces of George Washington and Robert E. Lee seem to appear every mile in the barely-touched-by-time Northern Neck of 9irginia (between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers).
Vessels traverse the Intracoastal Waterway and make local cruises out of such harbors as Baltimore, Annapolis, and Norfolk.