Dock, dine, fish, paddle, repeat
CBM’s Cruising Editor Jody Argo Schroath, expert on all things waterfront, takes a fresh look at Kent Narrows for CBM Bay Weekly’s latest installment of Weekends on the Water.
Everybody knows that Kent Narrows is where the Chesapeake Bay goes to party. Its shoreline, less than a mile from top to bottom, is a virtual dock-and-dine Valhalla. From Red Eye’s Dock Bar on the Chester River side to The Jetty on the Eastern Bay side, Kent Narrows Strait echoes with the sounds of live music and clink of mango mojito glasses. Boats cruise the Narrows to see and be seen like some kind of 1960s drive-in diner.
Yet, as delightful as all that is, there’s more. Amidst the crab dip and fried pickles there is serious cuisine to be had. And there are crabs and oysters everywhere, fresh from local waters—for this is also the domain of the watermen who work out of the Narrows, harvesting the bounty as they have for generations. There are great places to put in a kayak or paddleboard to explore the local streams, or you can climb on a bicycle to follow the Cross Island Trail. So read on. Then pick out one of the Narrows’ marinas for a slip, circle a few restaurants and dock bars, and load up the gear and the kids for a weekend at Kent Island.
What You Can Expect
Kent Narrows Strait, as the Coast Guard calls it, is the swift-moving water cut that makes an island out of Kent Island by separating it from the rest of Queen Anne’s County. It includes the towns of Stevensville, Chester and Grasonville. More importantly, it connects the Chester River to the north with Eastern Bay to the south. When the English colonists first settled in the area, displacing the Matapeake Indians, the Narrows was quite shallow and bordered by marshland. It was known as the “Wading Place”—people, horses, and goods simply waded across.
In the early 1800s, a dirt causeway was built to keep people and goods dry. This ended any hope of boat navigation until 50 years later when it was removed. Now, the Wading Place is spanned by two bridges: the 75-foot-high U.S. 50/301 bridge and the 18-foot-high Kent Narrows Bascule Bridge. With navigation came seafood packing houses, which once lined the shores now occupied by dock bars and restaurants.
On the eastern side of the Narrows, you’ll find two marinas that accommodate transients as well as nine dock bars and restaurants, most with dockage of their own. The western side, on the other hand, is comparatively quiet, with one good-sized marina, a new boatel, and a watermen’s boat basin. At the top of the western side, you’ll find Ferry Point Nature Park, with trails and a welcome center. At the bottom of the eastern side, you’ll find historic Wells Cove, home of most of the Narrows’ head boats.
From the Western Shore, take U.S. 50/301 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and across Kent Island to exits 41 or 42. Either one will do, but 41 will give you easier access to the west side of Kent Narrows and 42 the east. You can always just cross the Watermen’s Bridge on Rte. 18 if you end up on the wrong side. Use Piney Narrows Road off 18 to get to the Chesapeake Heritage & Visitor’s Center and Ferry Point Park as well as the Cross Island Trail.
Before you head to the Eastern Shore, pay attention to traffic on the Bay Bridge. Between late May and September traffic can back up anywhere from a mile to 10+ in either direction and no one wants to be sitting in traffic when you could be enjoying a drink at a tiki bar or floating in the water. The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) provides real-time alerts via live traffic cams, Twitter updates, the 1-877-BAYSPAN hotline and on their website (baybridge.maryland.gov). Go during off-peak hours before 8am (6am on Saturdays) and after 8pm (10pm on Sundays). Stay alert to lane closures and two-way operations, which can be affected by both traffic, accidents and weather conditions. And load up your EZ Pass!
If you are bringing your boat, you’ll find a convenient place to launch at Kent Narrows Boat Ramp just northwest of the bridges. You can launch your paddle craft at several nearby locations, which we’ll get to a little farther on. If you decide to paddle through the Narrows—which we don’t encourage—remember to allow for the current, about one-and-a-half knots at max flood and ebb, and stronger through the bridges—and the busy boat traffic.
Where To Stay
If you are visiting Kent Narrows by cruising boat and are looking for a marina, you have a very nice selection. Here’s the way they are divided, with pros and cons thrown in for good measure.
North of the bridges, you have two good choices, both with fuel docks. Piney Narrows Yacht Haven occupies a basin cut into the west side. The advantage to this one is that it’s pretty quiet, since all of the restaurants and dock bars are on the east side, and most of them south of the bridge. In addition, it is right next door to the visitor center and the entrance to Ferry Point Park, with its trails, woods, and marshes. To reach the restaurants and dock bars, you can either dinghy across or use the Cross Island Trail on foot or with a bicycle.
Safe Harbor Narrows Point (formerly Mears) lies on the east side. It has plenty of slips and plenty to keep you occupied. In addition to its own basin, it has the well-known Red Eyes Dock Bar, as well as Annie’s Paramount Steak & Seafood House. And it’s next door to the famous Harris Crab House. That’s enough to keep you busy for a good while. The drawback is that if you want to explore Ferry Point Park, you’ll have to walk, bicycle, or dinghy over—which is not a big drawback at all, really.
On the south side of the Narrows, you have even more choices. Watermen’s Boat Basin is on the west side of the Narrows, and they have a few slips available to non-watermen.
On the east side of the Narrows, Wells Cove Marina has some transient slips, and is convenient to the Jetty Dock Bar as well as Bridges Restaurant and Fisherman’s Inn and Crab Deck.
Just a few steps farther, you’ll find The Narrows Restaurant and Big Owl Tiki Bar. Wells Cove has a depth of about five feet inside and can accommodate boats up to about 46 feet. Wells Cove is also home to most of the Narrows head boats, so if that’s in your plans you’ll be in the right place.
Beyond Wells Cove and Oyster Cove developments, you’ll find our final marina, Lippincott Marine, one of the oldest marine facilities in the Narrows area. One of the major advantages of Lippincott, particularly for larger and deeper-draft boats, is that its entrance channel avoids the Narrows South Channel altogether. And it can take boats up to 72 feet.
If you’d like to tote your boat in and stay in the comfort of a hotel, Kent Narrows has three hotel choices. Northeast of the bridge, you’ll find Holiday Inn Express Annapolis East-Kent Island, which has an outdoor pool and deck overlooking the wetlands. Southeast of the bridge, you’ll find Best Western Kent Narrows Inn and the more upscale, waterfront Hilton Garden Inn Kent Island. Coming spring 2022 is a new Hyatt Place hotel, located on the waterfront next to the Fisherman’s restaurants and seafood sales buildings.
What to Do
Visit the dock bars and restaurants, of course
This is what Kent Narrows is famous for, so why ignore it? Red Eye’s, Big Owl, The Jetty—the names are practically legendary. Come by boat. Come by car. Enjoy the ambiance or vibe or whatever adjective suits your particular generation. Soak up the view. You’ll also find plenty of music to suit your taste.
We’ll get back to restaurants in a few minutes, but we’ll just say here that they are many, varied and delicious. Annie’s, Harris, The Narrows, Bridges, and Fisherman’s. Casual or elegant casual, trendy casual or historic casual—you’ll find that all of those options are here.
Go fishing or sightseeing by boat
Fish from your own boat, charter a captain, or show up at Wells Cove Marina to board a head boat. Arrive on your boat or launch from Kent Narrows Landing’s boat ramp. Charters and cruises are available from Fisherman’s Crab Deck. You can also arrange with Spittin’ Feathers Outfitters at Harris Crab House for a crabbing cruise. Whichever way you choose, you’re going to be only minutes away from world-class fishing grounds. Alternatively, get up early and watch the watermen leave from Watermen’s Boat Basin, southwest of the bridges.
Take a hike
With all this docking and dining, you are going to want some exercise. Here are a couple of ways to prepare for that next tower of crab.
The Watermen’s Way Heritage Trail begins on the northwest side of the Narrows at the Chesapeake Heritage & Visitors Center in Chester, where you can also pick up a copy of the trail map. Note that interior spaces at the visitor center are closed due to the pandemic.
The trail takes you to eight sites in the area, including Ferry Point Nature Park and the Cross Island Trail, both of which are excursions of their own. Next is the Watermen’s Memorial Drawbridge, aka Kent Narrows Bascule Bridge, and the Maryland Watermen’s Monument. We’re on the southeast side now so head to the Fisherman’s Inn to be awed by Betty Schulz’s collection of 400 oyster plates, a sight you may not have even known you ever wanted to see. (Believe us, you do.)
We’ll let you find the rest of the tour for yourselves. Visit the Kent Narrows Development Foundation’s excellent website for all things Kent Narrows at kentnarrowsmd.com.
We’ve mentioned this a couple of times earlier, but a stroll through Ferry Point Nature Park’s trails and wetland waterfront will do you a world of good. You can start at the Visitor Center, which is next to Piney Narrows Marina. This is the perfect place to launch your kayaks, too. More on that below.
This next outing has enough exercise involved to earn both a crab tower and a side of fried pickles. The Kent Island Cross Island Trail can be done on foot or by bicycle. Park under the west side of the bascule bridge and pick it up there, or just walk across the bridge and begin. The 12.5-mile trail ends at Terrapin Park on the Bay, but you can hop on and off at any number of access points along the way.
Take a paddle
We don’t recommend that you launch your paddle craft directly onto Kent Narrows; the strong current and heavy boat traffic make it a tricky and dangerous proposition. There are plenty of alternatives, however.
South of Kent Narrows: If you came by car, follow Rt. 18 west to the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC), where you can launch your kayak or SUP into the quiet waters of Prospect Bay. Then follow the Cabin Creek Water Trail along the edge of Prospect Bay to Cabin Creek. The whole route will give you about 3.5 miles of paddling. You can rent a kayak at the center as well (read more about CBEC in Creature Feature). You’ll find another launch point at Cabin Creek Landing.
To explore the Eastern Bay west of the Narrows, launch at Goodhands Creek Landing. From there, a loop around Hog Island will give you a 2.5-mile paddle.
North of the Narrows: Launch from Jackson Creek Landing east of the Narrows and make the loop of the creek, or if you are feeling ambitious, paddle across the Narrows North Channel (carefully, of course) and head for Ferry Point Nature Park, another launch spot. From Ferry Point you will find a good paddle to the west by looping Piney Creek. This is best in light winds, however, since the wind has a long fetch down the north-south leg of the Chester River.
Where to Eat
All of the tiki bars and crab decks serve up food and entertainment with their cocktails, with everything from steamer buckets to full-on crab feasts. Some of them, like The Jetty Dock Bar and Restaurant, also serve a full menu of lunch and dinner. From north to south: Red Eye’s, Big Owl, and The Jetty.
Now for a few words on some of the restaurants, which, like the dock bars, are all found on the east side of the Narrows.
Lunch and dinner
Kent Island is home to a number of Eastern Shore classics: restaurants that have been there for decades and each have their own loyal following.
The granddaddy of Kent Narrows dining establishments is Fisherman’s Inn Restaurant, and now also Fisherman’s Crab Deck, located south of the bridge. Fisherman’s has been serving local seafood and all the trimmings since 1930. And their popularity has not let up for a minute. We came through the Narrows on a recent June weekday, and as usual the line to get a table at both the restaurant and next-door Crab Deck stretched into the parking lot. (Here’s a tip: You can get in line online.)
We’ve already mentioned one of the two extra-cool things about Fisherman’s in our discussion of the Watermen’s Heritage Trail: the 400-strong oyster plate collection amassed by Betty Schultz, daughter of the restaurant’s founders. The second extra-cool thing is the restaurant’s suspended railway, with 280 feet of track and two tunnels that allow the “G” scale trains to pass through both dining rooms. The locomotives and rolling stock were put together by Sonny Schulz and operate all day, every day. Cool, right? Let’s eat.
To start we are often tempted by the Shellfish Steampot, which consists of littleneck clams, mussels, and shrimp in a white wine-garlic broth with plenty of herbs. But what we most often actually order are the crab balls, because, well, we just can’t resist good crab balls, and these come with a very nice remoulade sauce. And then, though we know this is heresy to purists, we go for fried Bay oysters and whatever sides we can pretend are the healthiest. And we tell ourselves we will wake up in the morning and do the entire Cross Island Trail on foot.
Harris Crab House and Seafood Restaurant, north of the bridge, was the natural progression from W.H. Harris Seafood, which during the 1940s was one of about a dozen oyster-shucking operations on Kent Narrows. Five generations later, Harris Crab House remains in the same family, as does the processing plant—the last one still operating year-round. What to eat? Take it as a given that 90 percent of the time, we opt for crabcakes or steamed crabs. If we manage to skip the crab, we go for the Pail of Cherrystones, a whopping three dozen steamed Chesapeake middleneck clams. Then we finish with a simple filet of broiled local rockfish, in season. Oh yes, we finish with either a slice of Smith Island cake or one of Dessert First’s remarkable, er, desserts. (Dessert First, by the way, is onsite in the pavilion.) But mostly we go for crabs. Or oysters!
The Narrows Restaurant has been around since the 1980s, but it feels modern and new. And it certainly serves all the Bay classics, but often with a twist. Take the appetizer mini crabcakes, for example, which are served with a whole-grain Dijon mustard sauce that pretty much puts them in a separate category of goodness. Or their fried oyster Caesar salad—classic, but different. For lunch, though, we love the fried green tomato sandwich, which is spread with a garlic aioli. We’ll leave the dinner choice to you, but we have to recommend the Mousse in a Bag dessert. Intrigued? It’s chocolate mousse nestled inside a semi-chocolate bag sort of thing, with raspberry sauce to lend the whole thing tang. This one is worth two Cross Island trips.
When Bridges Restaurant opened a few years ago, word spread quickly that “You really must go!” So, of course, we did. And then we told a few more people. Aside from the delightful and inventive menu, we liked that we could cruise over from Annapolis, take a slip, plug into the power poles for air conditioning, and then relax, returning to the boat for a peaceful night’s sleep. (All for a mere $25.) Like everywhere else, though, docking for a few hours to dine is free. When the weather is 90 degrees’ worth of hot, we open our meal with the watermelon salad, served with balsamic vinaigrette and loaded with feta and mint. And have you ever had a crab pesto pizza? It makes a great lunch! For dinner, Bridges does a particularly fine shrimp and grits, though if softshell crabs are available, we look no further. Well, okay, maybe the scallops and risotto…
But what if you want oyster stew or cream of crab soup to start and maybe meatloaf or pot roast for dinner? Or a rib-eye or Porterhouse steak, seared just right, say medium rare? Then you’ll want to go to Annie’s Paramount Steak & Seafood House at Safe Harbor Narrows Point Marina. You’ll also find wings, sandwiches of every kind, and of course, crab—crab balls, crab egg rolls, crab dip, and crabcakes, to name just a few.⚓️
The Other Side of the Island
If you are looking to venture outside the Narrows, there is much more to do on the rest of Kent Island.
As soon as you cross the Bay Bridge, you arrive in Stevensville. Take an afternoon to wade in the Bay at Terrapin Nature Park. This 276-acre park features a 3.25-mile oyster chaff walking trail that offers wildlife viewing, plus a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. The trail also connects to the Cross Island Trail system.
For arts and crafts lovers, a visit to Historic Stevensville should be on your list as well. This year’s ArtoberFest is Oct. 2 and features vendors, craft brews and spirits and live music in the arts and entertainment district. Spend the night at Maria’s Love Point Bed & Breakfast, The Inn at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club or the Kent Island Resort.
For dining you can choose from the popular Hemingway’s Restaurant, the upscale chic Knoxie’s Table or tavern style fare at Rams Head Shore House. CBM Bay Weekly staff thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Kentmorr Restaurant, south of the main strip. Bring your swimsuit and your beach vibe to enjoy the Bayfront tiki bar and sandy swimming beach.
Wherever you choose to dine, finish off with a trip to Tasty Toucan in Stevensville for ice cream made from local cows or an artisan ice pop.
If you seek a more up-close experience with nature, follow the life of magnificent monarchs as Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage staff teach you about the migrating habits of these long-distance fliers; plus learn to tag them at a workshop. Sept. 25, 10am, Barnstable Hill Farm, Chester, free, rsvp: 410-822-5100.