Small-town Treasures: Down-home Cooking, Bike Tours, Mountain Hikes And Porches With Rocking Chairs Await Along The Road To Western Maryland



The Sun - Baltimore, Md.
Author: Susan Thornton Hobby
Date: Sep 24, 2006
Start Page: 1.R
Section: Travel

HERE'S TEMPTATION NO. 1 in the little towns west of Frederick: the porch rocker.

Wind your way along Route 34 toward West Virginia, through Boonsboro, Keedysville, Sharpsburg. All the narrow front porches have rocking chairs.

In Sharpsburg, the inn's front porch surveys the town's evening life -- damp-haired teenagers walking by under kayaks, the new French bulldog puppy next door, the elderly man with red electrical tape on his glasses holding a mountainous ice cream cone. People watch, rock and ruminate in the quiet.

But the problem is TEMPTATION NO. 2: the food. The area is dotted with "family restaurants" with down-home food -- the deliciously sloppy Red Byrd Special (a Keedysville restaurant's take on the Big Mac), homemade coleslaw and peach pie. Plus the aforementioned ice cream. Eat like that, and you'll look like the nearby hulk of South Mountain.

So here's a way to have your temptation and eat the pie, too. Get off your duff and earn your food -- bike the trail along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, hike in nearby Greenbrier State Park, explore the caves, cycle the Antietam National Battlefield, all within 12 miles. Then feel justified in your residence on the porch and your indulgence in the ice cream.

You don't want to start on empty, so a quick stop for food is in order. It takes about 75 minutes to travel along Interstate 70 from Baltimore to Jeannie B's Family Restaurant in Myersville, but it feels as if you've taken the Wayback Machine 50 years.

The sign in the window says "Closed," but ignore it, they just forgot to turn it over to "Open" today. The hostess, Virginia, opens doors for folks with walkers ("I got this one, sweetie," she reassures), and also grills their sandwiches and mounds the chips and pickles on their plates. She calls kids "doll babies." She flirts with old men.

Virtually everyone in the restaurant knows each other and is busy visiting table to table, making fishing dates or discussing the rain on the Angus pastures. The food is good -- specials such as smoked sausage or rib-eye steak -- and the tea is sweet. And if you want to skip the chatter and get right to the great outdoors, pick up the eight-piece fried chicken to go ($8.99).

Then head north on Route 17 and west on alternate U.S. 40 to Greenbrier State Park, Western Maryland's answer to Ocean City.

With more than 1,000 yards of beachfront and a glassy lake circled by a lazy hiker's footpath, the park is good for a post- lunch wade or stroll. But there are also eight miles of more- strenuous hiking trails, some of which lead straight up the mountain to the Appalachian Trail, which is about 2,175 miles long. Even the roast beef platter and coconut custard pie at lunch can't justify that kind of slog today, but 3 million to 4 million people a year hike some portion of the trail.

A visit to Greenbrier State Park is a peek into another world. Weekend picnickers flock by the thousands to grill, play soccer and fish. Rainbow-striped hammocks from El Salvador and Guatemala swing from the trees; fathers and toddlers nap in them in the afternoons. Cupped by mountains, the lake is small enough to circumnavigate in the paddleboats and rowboats for rent at the boathouse ($10 an hour, open weekends). And the park's visitor center is archetypal: a large- mouth bass gapes from a bubbling aquarium, stuffed bear cubs pose on tree branches, and luna moths and stag beetles slowly crumble on their pins under glass.

Biking and hiking

From the park, take Boonsboro Mountain Road over the mountain to Boonsboro (nothing like truth in advertising). Follow Route 34 to the Jacob Rohrbach Inn in Sharpsburg, where, since you've done all that hiking and boating, you've earned one of the inn's homemade peanut butter cookies with a chocolate kiss on top.

The innkeepers, Paul and Joanne Breitenbach, rent four antique- filled rooms in the big house, or a newly renovated summer kitchen in the back garden. The summer kitchen's thick walls and preserved cooking fireplace hark back to the room's original use, but the new plank flooring, rain shower head and French doors leading to the porch bring it up to the 21st century quite comfortably. The porch looks over the back gardens, with dahlias and tomatoes and bush roses. There's a hammock, too, but resist, at least for now.

Because it's time to cycle for your supper.

Down a country lane about a mile-and-a-half from the inn is Snyders Landing. Park here, unload the bikes and cross a little bridge to reach the C&O Canal, which floated cargo boats pulled by mules from Washington's Georgetown to Cumberland from 1850 to 1924.

Turn left, so the sun glints on the greenish water to your right, and you'll pass several caves, including Killiansburg Cave, where residents are said to have hid during the Civil War. Some caves are no wider than an adult's body and dark enough to make an explorer think quickly about what lives there. One opening is the size of a mall storefront and offers a bird's-eye view of the canal, but it's a goat-scramble up the slippery shale. There are camping sites along the way, with portable toilets, so if an inn seems too plush, spread out a sleeping bag with the hundreds who camp along the canal all year. Thirteen miles down the towpath is Harpers Ferry, W.Va., if you're feeling ambitious.

The 184-mile towpath is covered in small stone gravel and feels as if it goes downhill both ways. But the constant crunching of bike wheels on gravel reminds us that it's time for dinner.

A block-and-a-half from the Jacob Rohrbach Inn is Captain Bender's Tavern, with two pool tables (75 cents a game), a pressed tin ceiling and a door to the bathrooms signed by the Greaseman, a disc jockey known to those of a particular age and rock proclivity. Avoid the pizzas (probably frozen), but the salmon salad with a lime- pistachio dressing goes down well. The tavern's more gentrified cousin next door, Antietam Cafe and Wine Bar, offers higher-end fare. But remember, in this town, dinner is only a prelude to dessert.

In the evenings, families and couples perch on benches and steps around the main intersection, spruced up with a brick sidewalk and clock. But the reason everyone's gathered is evident in their hands - - Nutters Ice Cream, where "small" cones are $1.55. The scoops are the size of a fist. The ice cream isn't made on site, but it's rich and comes in flavors such as black raspberry, caramel turtle cheesecake and party cake. If just ice cream isn't enough, try a peach pound cake sundae.

Now hit the rocking chairs.

The inn crowd

The Jacob Rohrbach Inn, named after a rich local farmer who was murdered at the inn in 1864, is said to be haunted, though innkeeper Joanne Breitenbach has never heard the child's giggling or boots stomping as other residents claim. Breakfast, served in the dining room with a view of the kitchen, is apple-walnut muffins, bacon, fruit and waffles. The cat, Dusty, who gets around just fine with one gimpy leg, hangs out on the covered porch, where guests can drink coffee and read the newspaper.

Just up the road is Antietam National Battlefield. Stop at the visitors center first to see the relics: bullets, amputation saws, uniforms, bayonets, drums. The center's movie uses black-and-white pictures of the fight's aftermath and re-enactors to tell the story of the pivotal Civil War battle, in which more than 23,000 soldiers were reported killed, wounded or missing.

Biking through the battlefield is eerie since fields are still planted with corn, as they were during the Civil War, and the husks whisper in the breeze. But biking enables stops at the many plaques along the roads that tell of the battle's key sites. And climb the nine flights of cool stone stairs to the top of the observation tower to survey the rolling hills and storied sunken road of the preserved battlefield.

Heading back along Route 34, stop at the Red Byrd Restaurant for lunch (and a choice of 10 kinds of pie), before turning into Crystal Grottoes Caverns in Boonsboro. Discovered in 1920 when proprietor Jerry Downs' grandfather was among those helping to mine limestone to build Route 34, the caves sparkle with calcium carbonate stalactites, stalagmites, columns and ribbons that look like sides of bacon, bathing beauties, or wedding cakes.

Speaking of cake, in case you're feeling peckish after tramping underground for a half-hour, don't worry: There are two ice cream shops in Boonsboro. And a few porch rockers.

If You Go

GETTING THERE

From Baltimore, take Interstate 70 west to Frederick. Take Exit 42 south toward Middletown. Follow signs to alternate U.S. 40 - Old National Pike. Turn right onto Alt. 40 and follow about five miles to Route 34.

LODGING

Historic Jacob Rohrbach Inn -- 138 W. Main St., Sharpsburg; 301-432-5079 or toll-free 877- 839-4242. Room rates are $125-175 based on double occupancy. The four guest rooms in the 1804 Sharpsburg house have separate entrances and private bathrooms. The summer kitchen has a back porch and sleep sofa.

DINING

Red Byrd Restaurant -- 19409 Shepherdstown Pike, Keedysville; 301- 432-6872. Burgers, all-you-can-eat spaghetti, grilled cheese, pork chops and 10 kinds of pie.

Captain Bender's Tavern -- 111 E. Main St., Sharpsburg; 301-432- 5813. Named after a real Capt. Bender, who piloted a boat on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, this tavern serves up salads, sandwiches, drinks and 75-cent pool games. Go to captainbenders.com.

ATTRACTIONS

Antietam National Battlefield -- 5831 Dunker Church Road, Sharpsburg; 301-432-5124. Entrance fee is $4 per person and $6 per family. You can take a driving tour of the battlefield, but biking is more fun. Open daily 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Labor Day through Memorial Day. Closed holidays.

Greenbrier State Park -- Boonsboro; 301-791-4767. Park offers a lake for swimming, fishing and boating as well as plenty of places for spreading a picnic or hammock. Park also offers campsites via reservation by calling 888-432-CAMP. There is a small entry fee for the park. It ranges between $3-$5, depending on when you visit.

Credit: [Special to the Sun ] Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.


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