Surprise! This small town at the top of the Bay has everything your Weekend on the Water needs.
Havre de Grace, the quiet little town up at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, has had a colorful past.
Just consider this: The town was effectively named in the 17th century by visiting general, Le Marquis de Lafayette, who was charmed by this early shipping port. After the Revolution, it missed becoming the capital of the United States by one vote. In the 18th century it lost its status as a port of call when a hurricane rearranged the channel to the other side of the Chesapeake, leaving it forgotten and isolated. In the 19th century, it became a center for mass duck harvesting by market hunters and the rich and famous, from presidents to robber barons. In the early 20th century, it was a favorite of gamblers, mob bosses, and refugees from Prohibition. (Did you know that Maryland was the only state that officially ignored Prohibition, the federal ban on alcohol?) And in the 21st, it settled down to become what it is today, a charming, friendly, and well-behaved city full of graceful Victorian homes, curious antiques shops, interesting restaurants and singular museums, a city more popular with retirees than renegades.
Havre de Grace developed along the junction of the Susquehanna River—mother river of the Bay—and the Chesapeake. While that means that you are never more than two or three blocks from the water, it also means that if you want to go from one end of town to the other, you will have a hike of about a mile and a half from the city marina in Millard Tydings Park at the south end of town to the Havre de Grace Marina and the Lock House Museum at the north end. The other best choice, Tidewater Marina, is located approximately mid-way between the two. In any case, it’s a lovely walk, and you can always Uber back.
Most of the shops and restaurants you’ll be visiting are located along north/south-running Washington and St. Johns/Market streets. Parallel streets, Lodge and Strawberry lanes, make equally pleasant walking since they are chock-a-block with lovely homes and shady trees.
If you are arriving by boat
The channel into Havre de Grace is easy to follow but you will find it more than a little circuitous. For that, you can thank the broad, shallow expanse of the fish- and fowl-rich Susquehanna Flats. Boaters with shallow-draft boats who know the waters can find their way across, but the rest of us will need to dutifully follow the channel markers around the shoreline. The Havre de Grace/Susquehanna River Channel leaves the main Chesapeake Channel just after green “5” and red “6”. You can begin cutting over any time after green “3”. There’s plenty of water here at the grand intersection of the Bay with the Elk and Northeast rivers and the Havre de Grace/Susquehanna River Channel. Just make sure you pick out the red-green intersection buoy “A” and treat it as a red, keeping it to starboard as you enter the channel. The next marker, green “1S”, is a mile and a half north-northwest. Don’t worry, though, there is plenty of depth on both sides here, but the channel narrows after “1S” and the water around it shallows. The markers are spaced closer together, though, so it’s easy to follow.
From there, the channel skirts the Flats and shadows Spesutie Island, a restricted area of the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground. As you turn north toward Havre de Grace, you’ll pass through a half-dozen tiny spoil islands to port and to starboard, the historic Fishing Battery Light, which, oddly, is considered part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Three miles beyond these little islands, you’ll find yourself at the south end of Havre de Grace and the channel into the city yacht basin at Tydings Memorial Park. If you are aiming for another of the town’s marinas—in addition to the city marina, we recommend either Tidewater or Havre de Grace marinas—simply continue on the channel another half mile to a mile. We’ll get back to that in the next section.
If you are trailering in
You’ll find Havre de Grace a welcoming place and the nearby waters fascinating to explore. Did we mention fishing? You’ve come to the right place. The Susquehanna Flats and Susquehanna River are world famous fishing grounds.
There are three easy options for trailer boaters. The first—and perhaps best if you want to leave your rig overnight—is Havre de Grace City Yacht Basin. Just be aware that its nicely paved ramp gets very busy with bass fishermen and weekend families. The ramp fee is $10 and it’s fine to leave your vehicle and trailer overnight—just let a marina official know. The city yacht basin ramp gives you easy access to the spoil islands just to the south, the Flats and, if you head north, the Susquehanna River.
About half-a-mile north of the city yacht basin and just north of the Amtrak railroad bridge, you’ll find another Havre de Grace boat ramp at Jean S. Roberts Memorial Park. Here boats with trailers will pay $5 for a smaller, rougher ramp. Roberts Park sits at the mouth of the Susquehanna River.
A third option, especially if you are extending your stay beyond Havre de Grace, is Susquehanna State Park, about five miles upriver. In addition to its boat ramp at Lapidum, the park offers tent and RV camping and 15 miles of trails. There is a $10 boat launch charge.
If you are launching a kayak, canoe or SUP
In addition to enjoying the pleasures of visiting Havre de Grace, you’ll find some nice paddling both to the north and south of town. Launch your vessels at any of the three places we’ve listed above—Havre de Grace City Yacht Basin, Jean S. Roberts Park and Susquehanna State Park—or from the floating dock at Frank J. Hutchins Park on Congress Avenue, just north of Tidewater Marina. All of these have good parking. We’ll talk about a couple of paddle trips later on.
If you are coming by seaplane
What? Yes, really. In addition to everything else it has to offer, Havre de Grace has its own seaplane base, located just south of the Tidewater Grille. The facility, located on the water (of course) at St. Johns Street, has a pilots’ lounge, restrooms, and shops. You’ll find the designated seaplane landing area on the charts at the mouth of the river. Simply land, then taxi into the base loading dock.
Havre de Grace City Yacht Basin
Whether you are going to stay on your boat or not, a slip at the city marina in Tydings Park at the south end of town will put you within reach of nearly all that Havre de Grace has to offer. The only fly in the ointment may be the depth, which is generally about five feet on the approach and at the slips. If you need more, try either of our alternatives.
Line up with the marina channel markers after you pass Susquehanna channel green “17” and make the port turn (coming from the south). Then pass through the breakwater and find your slip. The marina has slip-holder restrooms and showers, fuel, pump-outs, and 30- and 50-amp service.
From the marina, take the promenade to visit the Decoy, Maritime, and Concord Lighthouse museums. Or walk through Tydings Park to Washington Street to visit many of the town’s shops and restaurants. First, enjoy a bite at the Promenade Grille in the park. Or pick up ice cream at Bomboy’s.
If you continue along the Susquehanna channel another half-mile, you’ll come to Tidewater Marina, recognizable by its large mooring field. If you are heading for a slip rather than a mooring ball, turn to port (from the south) before the red and green “SR” nav aid to enter one of its two basins. Call on VHF 16 to get directions. Tidewater Marina has fuel, restrooms, showers, full repair services and a good chandlery. Depths at the slips are about six feet.
Havre de Grace Marina
Havre de Grace Marina at the north end of town has plenty of depth—about 15 feet reported—but sailboats will have to be able to negotiate the Amtrak railway bridge, which has a 52-foot closed clearance, though we have occasionally found as little as 49 feet. Theoretically, it will open on 24-hour notice, but since it carries a lot of trains, including high-speed ones, the opening would have to be pin-pointed to the minute. As a result, it almost never opens. Sailboats will find a better option at Tidewater or the city yacht basin.
Those who can get under the bridge, however, will find floating docks, a bath house, laundry, 30- and 50-amp service and all the usual amenities. There are also rental bicycles, kayaks, and SUPS.
Bed and Breakfast
Havre de Grace has several lovely and charming bed and breakfasts, but we want to start with the Vandiver Inn on South Union Avenue. Even in a town chock full of glorious Victorian homes, the Vandiver Inn stands out as quintessentially of its time. Its gardens, porches and grounds are so stylish, smart and undated that you might feel a bit dizzy. Step inside, however, and you’ll find what owners Susan and John Muldoon call Chesapeake chic.
We also find the Currier House Bed & Breakfast on Market Street utterly irresistible. Built in the 1700s, it has been in the Currier family since 1861. Current owner Jane Currier has a hundred fascinating stories to tell, about the first Currier owners, her great-grandparents, and about her uncle Jim Currier, one of the Chesapeake’s most famous and well-respected decoy carvers.
Susquehanna State Park
If you are towing your boat in (or on top of the car) and have a hankering to pitch a tent or rent a rustic cabin, consider a couple of nights at Susquehanna State Park. From there you can launch your boat or drive into town for the day. You’ll have plenty of activities in the park itself and the kids can run, jump and whoop to their heart’s content. Just be sure to reserve in advance if you are going on a summer weekend.
Take a trip up the Susquehanna.
Whether you’ve come by boat, brought one along or come without one, there are some very pleasant ways you can get out on the water and enjoy its principal tributary, the Susquehanna River. Of course, the Susquehanna was never an easy river to navigate. In 1609, Captain John Smith was turned back by the same rock-strewn shallows that still frustrate boaters.
Early in the 20th century, a series of energy-producing dams—including the mighty Conowingo, 10 miles north of Havre de Grace—put a stop to any through-transportation, but now, if the river is quiet and the Conowingo is not dumping water, kayakers and Jon-boaters with local knowledge can get within 400 yards of the dam, but no closer, it’s not permitted. It is important to be sure of conditions before venturing out and to understand that snags and rocks can play havoc with boats and motors. The area in front of the dam draws photographers and birders from all over the world to watch eagles soar over the rocks and dam, picking off fish downstream. Kayakers and trailer boaters can put in at Susquehanna State Park and kayakers farther upstream at Shuresville Landing at Fisherman’s Park.
A more sensible alternative is for boaters whose mast-height does not exceed 50 feet to make the trip upriver out of Havre de Grace, past Garrett Island as far as Port Deposit. The geography here is unlike anything else on the Chesapeake, with steep bluffs rising high above the water.
Other people’s boats
Didn’t bring a boat or just want to take a break? Here are some options:
If you’d like to try your hand with a kayak or paddleboard, simply rent one at Havre de Grace Marina. Or you can rent a sailboat for a half-day or more, or charter a boat from Baysail Yacht Charter and Sailing School located at Tidewater Marina on Bourbon Street.
For something completely different, try parasailing. Old Town Parasail is located at the city yacht basin on Commerce Street.
Want someone else to do the work? Try a Signature or Sunset Cruise aboard the M/V Summer Breeze, which leaves out of Hutchins Park on Congress Avenue. Or board the paddleboat Black-Eyed Susan, also out of Havre de Grace Marine Center for occasional specialty and Sunday afternoon cruises.
Four fine museums!
Wait, don’t panic, this is going to be fun. Yes, Havre de Grace has four museums. And yes, you should visit them all.
If you only visit one of Havre de Grace museum, we suggest that you make it the Decoy Museum. It doesn’t matter whether you are a keen hunter or quake at the thought, this museum represents a big part of the history of the Chesapeake Bay. And the decoys created by Bay carvers are astonishing.
The museum itself is big, bright, airy and well laid out on two floors. You can get to it from the Promenade, the three-quarter mile walkway that wanders through the marsh and waterfront from Tydings Park in the south to Concord Point Lighthouse and Keeper’s House Museum in the north.
After you leave the Decoy Museum, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump along the Promenade to the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum and another similarly short walk to the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons April to October.
The fourth museum, the Lock Tenders Museum, lies at the north end of town. It is here that the short-lived Susquehanna Canal met the Chesapeake. In addition to the tender’s house, there are the remains of one of the canal locks.
One of the particularly glorious things about Havre de Grace is its shops. We know, that doesn’t sound any more exciting than visiting four museums, but trust us, it is. There are fun antiques shops and galleries, like JoRetro Vintage Market, which specializes in 50s, 60s, and 70s everything, Artists By the Bay, Arts Emporium, and Bayside Arts, to name but a few. Then there are the shops you won’t find anywhere else, like Bahoukas Antiques Mall and Beer MuZeum. But there’s more, like Vincenti Decoys, which sells decoys old and new, of course, but a lot more, and Washington Street Books and Music, which has books and music, but also toys, old movie costumes, and props. Even Havre de Grace’s food shops are one of a kind. Take for example Goll’s old-fashioned German bakery. Or Les Petits Bisous, which features authentic, made-by-the-owner macarons. And have we mentioned Bomboy’s Ice Cream enough times? Well, there’s more. Across the street you’ll find Bomboy’s Candy Shop. You’ll find all of these downtown, mostly on Washington, but also on Pennington, St. Johns and
Simply follow the bright blue French fleurs-de-lys painted on Havre de Grace’s sidewalks to follow the LaFayette Walk, which encompasses many of the town’s historic and architecturally significant buildings. You can pick up the brochure at the visitor center on Pennington Street.
Take the kids to Millard Tydings Park at the south end of town to enjoy the huge playground and room to run. Pick up a sandwich at the Promenade Grill and sit in the shade and enjoy.
If we want more than a cup of coffee, we gravitate to the tiny Vintage Café on Washington Street for a simple but reliably tasty breakfast. Waffles, cheesy potatoes, milk shakes. It’s all good. Opens at 7 a.m. every day but Monday.
On the other hand, if we want to concentrate on getting a great
cup of coffee, we stick with Washington Street and head for Concord Point
Coffee, though we like Java by the Bay too, especially if we’re pairing the coffee with dessert.
Lunch and Dinner
Picking out just a few of Havre de Grace’s many good restaurants to highlight is tough, but here goes:
We have already mentioned the Promenade Grill in Tydings Park, but we’ll say again that it’s a handy spot to pick up a sandwich for an impromptu picnic in the park. Then, as we’ve also mentioned about six times, we head up to Bomboy’s for yummy homemade ice cream.
When we want to sit down to a nice lunch or dinner, we love the view and enjoy the food at Tidewater Grill. If you are in your boat, Tidewater has its own docks for a convenient stop.
We never miss a trip to Backfin Blues Creole de Graw for its unique, Chesapeake twist on French creole cooking. It’s a long name, and a bit of a hike up to Union Street, but well worth the effort. Try the Gumbo Ya-Ya or the Etoufée.
And we know this doesn’t sound like a restaurant, but we have to recommend The Vineyard Wine Bar on Washington Street. Sure, it has great wine, but it also has very good, impeccably fresh, and highly inventive food for lunch or dinner. Where else could you find Wild Boar and Risotto and Potato-Crusted Rockfish with Blood-Orange Supremes? ⚓︎
Points of Interest
|18. Vandiver Inn|
|19. Currier House Bed & Breakfast|
|20. Spencer Silver Mansion|
|21. Le Clé d’Or Guest House|