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Pop quiz: What's the sailing capital of the East Coast? Annapolis, of course.
Professional skippers routinely stop at this famous port town on their way up and down the Atlantic shore. Wannabes flock here too, to learn the ropes at sailing schools. And just about everyone comes to see the real pros in action -- at the U.S. Naval Academy.
But here's something not commonly known about Annapolis: It was once the nation's capital. The homes of Declaration of Independence signers, among other historic landmarks, are all within walking distance of the bustling City Dock.
Beyond boats and history, no vacation to Annapolis is complete without a feast of Maryland crab, fresh from Chesapeake Bay. And if your kids would rather be in the water than on it, the port is just a stone's throw from the beach.
Tucked in a sheltered harbor on the Severn River, Annapolis is a great place to introduce youngsters to boating. At Amphibious Horizons in Quiet Waters Park, you can rent sea-kayaks, canoes, or paddleboats to explore Harness Creek and the South River. There are kayaking classes and all-day excursions for kids. Everyone's favorite: the three-hour, guided, group sunset trip.
For rides in bigger boats, check out Annapolis Bay Charters. They'll arrange any kind of excursion, from a six-hour family fishing trip in Chesapeake Bay with a captain, to a two-day "bareboat" (no captain or crew) rental of a 30-foot sailboat (for experienced sailors only). Looking for a more laid-back trip? Sign on for their Sunday cruise, which starts with brunch at the Chart House restaurant, followed by a two-hour sail on the 68-foot schooner Liberte.
Another easy way to get a taste of sea-spray is an afternoon or evening sail on the 74-foot Schooner Woodwind. The two-hour trip leaves regularly from Pusser's Landing, next to the City Dock. Kids squeal with delight sailing under the huge Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and romantics love the sunset cruises (featuring cash bar and live entertainment).
If you're really serious about passing your nautical passion on to the next generation, enroll the whole family in a sailing course. The Annapolis Sailing School offers two-day weekend courses for adults, with concurrent, separate "Kidship" sailing training for youngsters 5-15. These courses are popular, so book at least two weeks in advance.
Sailors of all stripes will want to see the U.S. Naval Academy. This National Historic Landmark gets about one million visitors each year. Plan on about two hours to see the sights here.
You can catch a short film about the academy at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, or sign up for a guided tour. Don't miss the USNA Museum, with a vast collection of ship models, naval memorabilia, and the Freedom 7 space capsule.
Another popular stop is the Naval Academy Chapel. This huge, non-denominational cathedral features Tiffany windows, a separate pew dedicated to POWs and MIAs, and the crypt of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, with its own 24-hour honor guard.
A truly impressive sight is the noon formation of 4,000 uniformed midshipmen outside Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the U.S. Weather permitting, a Navy band plays patriotic tunes as the cadets march in to lunch.
Despite its history as a busy commercial center, Annapolis is very compact. Nothing is very far from the historic City Dock, the town's hub since the late 1600s. Pick up a free map at the Visitors Center on West Street and explore the old, narrow, brick streets on foot. (You can park at the reasonably priced garage next door.)
For real history buffs, the Historic Annapolis Foundation Museum Store on Main Street near the Dock has some great self-guided walking tours. Pick up an audio headset and let Walter Cronkite guide you through a 90-minute, 18-stop city tour of history-makers' homes. Several signers of the Declaration of Independence lived in this gracious city, and Annapolis rewarded them by faithfully preserving their heritage. Kid alert: The tour may be boring for younger family members.
If the kids need some running around, drive 10 minutes out of town to Sandy Point State Park. This well-equipped beach on calm Chesapeake Bay is ideal for smaller children. And the Bay Bridge's giant span adds to the scenery. You'll find swimming areas, fishing jetties, picnic and changing space, boat ramps, and small boat rentals.
For more high-octane fun, strap your rugrats into one of several roller coasters at the Six Flags America amusement park in Largo, just 15 minutes west of Annapolis. Bring your swimsuits here, too, because admission includes entrance to the adjacent Paradise Island Water Park.
Type of trip: Outdoor (boating) adventure, scenic, historic, beach
Best for ages: 5 and up
Ideal trip length: Day trip to weekend
Distance: Baltimore (30 miles), Washington, DC (32 miles), Philadelphia (125 miles)
Best time to go: Spring through fall, but be prepared for big weekend crowds in summer.
Weather: 75/53 degrees in May, 83/62 in June, 88/67 in July, 86/65 in August
Squirm factor: Some. Break up the history with boating or a half-day at the beach.
Annapolis Visitors Center 26 West St. Phone: 410-280-0445
Amphibious Horizons, Inc 600 Quiet Waters Park Rd. Phone: 888-ILUVSUN Available: Guided sunset trips
Annapolis Bay Charters, Inc. 7310 Edgewood Rd. Phone: 800-292-1119 Available: Six-hour fishing trip; two-day "bareboat" (no crew) rental of 30-foot sailboat; Sunday brunch cruise.
Schooner Woodwind Annapolis Marriott, City Dock Phone: 410-263-7837 Information: Two-hour cruises
Annapolis Sailing School 601 Sixth St. Phone: 410-267-7205 Available: Two-day adult beginners' course
United States Naval Academy Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center, Inside Gate 1 at King George St. Phone: 410-263-6933
Historic Annapolis Museum Store 77 Main St. Phone: 410-268-5576 Available: Audio tour
Sandy Point State Park 1100 College Pkwy (off Route 50 East) Phone: 410-974-2149
Six Flags America Route 214, Largo, MD Phone: 301-249-1500Contact:
Historic Annapolis Foundation Phone: 800-603-4020
Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau Phone: 410-280-0445
Buddy's 100 Main St. Phone: 410-626-1100 You can't get more family-friendly than this restaurant overlooking the dock. Adults go for the fresh Maryland crab, fried chicken, and ribs.
Aroma d'Italia 8 Dock St. Phone: 410-263-1300 Stop in here for a scoop or two of fresh, homemade gelato. Once you start tasting flavors like the classic Tiramisu or Bounty (a combination of white chocolate, coconut, and chocolate chips) you'll be glad you walked off some calories.
Local food: Chesapeake Bay crab is the local delicacy, steamed and served with butter, or made into spicy crabcakes. It doesn't travel well, so treat yourself to a crab feast while you're here. Locals skip the dockside tourist restaurants and head to the waterfront Cantler's Riverside Inn. It's 10 minutes by car, or, if you have your own boat, a 15-minute cruise from the City Dock to Whitehall Bay. 458 Forest Beach Rd., 410-757-1311.
Best souvenir: Eight-inch "Bosun Boat" sailboat models with multicolored sails at the Historic Annapolis Foundation Museum Store.
Annual event: U.S. Sailboat Show, City Dock October Phone: 410-268-8828 This is the big annual event in Annapolis, with boat buffs coming from all over the globe to see the latest in seafaring technology, as well as races and sailing workshops.
Traffic alert: Coming from Washington, DC on spring or summer weekends, be prepared for big backups from Chesapeake Bay Bridge traffic on Route 50. Start out early.
Do your kids think milk comes from a refrigerator? Here's a fun chance to show them the real source. Twenty minutes northwest of Annapolis, the country's largest organic dairy farmer has created a brand-new, one-of-a-kind, family learning center at the 875-acre U.S. Navy dairy farm.
In the Organic Discovery Barn, interactive exhibits and tours explain organic farming and recycling. Kids can see cows being milked, and there's a barn full of friendly farm animals housed here for 4-H projects. The Navy billy-goat mascots live at Horizon, too, adding star-power to the farmyard.
Wrap up the visit with a stop at the Organic Marketplace, where you'll find environment-friendly products, from organic foods and gardening supplies to clothing and stuffed animals made from organic and recycled materials. Horizon Organic Dairy 100 Dairy Lane, Gambrills, MD Phone: 410-923-7600
Reviewed April 2004.