To truly appreciate the historic grandeur of Annapolis, you must approach from the sea. The octagonal, snow-white-and-slate dome of the State House dominates harbor and town even more dramatically than the United States Capitol presides over Washington's Mall.
As you approach from Chesapeake Bay into the inner harbor, the wind quiets, the waves are stilled. If you hold your eyes above the rows of plush yachts bobbing in their slips and focus only on a townscape of steeples, 17th- and 18th-century architecture, and super-tall poplars, you can imagine yourself a maritime arrival into Colonial Annapolis -- the nation's capital before the first president.
Marching bands practicing the theme from ``Rocky'' on the well-manicured grounds of the United States Naval Academy may intrude upon your reveries, however. And there was no seven-mile Bay Bridge cutting the horizon when Gen. George Washington would have liked to retreat from the British to Maryland's rural Eastern Shore.
But there is, atop the high-rising capitol dome, a thinly balustraded crow's-nest where no less than Thomas Jefferson sat to gossip in his diary. And when you debark onto City Dock in the historic center of town to tour this model of preserved colonialdom, you realize this town is to the nation what Kunte Kinte was to Alex Haley's ``Roots.'' (The Continental Congress met here, Washington resigned from the Continental Army, and the Treaty of Paris was signed to end the American Revolution -- to name but three examples.)
History aside, I was told that modern-day Annapolis is to Baltimore and Washington what Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are to Boston: a gentrifying escape community -- replete with its own combination of expensive pleasure boats, encroaching condomania, and, in the right seasons, hordes of tourists.
After a day of pacing the historic district, Naval Academy, and waterfront and sailing the harbor -- and interviewing some loyal, longtime locals -- I'll say that is partly true but far from complete.
``There is no denying that Annapolis is gentrifying,'' says Eric Smith, a 13-year resident and 'emigr'e from Long Island, who is a cartoonist and columnist for the Capital, the local newspaper.
``I don't give a darn if the people who make money in Washington and Baltimore want to come here buying up boats, condos, and houses,'' he says. ``We're nobody's suburb. We're a real live town of 32,000, with our own concerns and own life completely apart from the Yuppie invasion.''
Over a plate of crab meat salad from the dockside veranda at Harbour House restaurant, he touts Annapolis's uniqueness. It comes, he says, from three things: water (called the ``yachting capital of the East Coast,'' because of its high number of boat shows, races, and regattas); history (home of patriots and primary port of entry to the colonies in Colonial days); and government (Annapolis is seat of county, city, and state governments).
Annapolis does seem to resist comparison with other urban ``escapes'' -- especially with those seaside communities that turn into ghost towns the day after tourist season. And besides a feisty poitical community that resists efforts to move the state capital to Baltimore, there is a large arts community -- ballet, chorale, opera company, and symphony. ``Only a town that really cares about its local culture could support all this,'' Mr. Smith says.
It was this same local concern that led to the designation of the downtown area as a registered National Historic Landmark in 1966. With what Smith calls one of the tightest legal documents ever written, houses are preserved and hotels and modern development excluded. Initiated by the group Historic Annapolis Inc., a public referendum was eventually passed by a 2-to-1 margin.
Walking tours by locals dressed in Colonial garb are rich in architectural detail as well as history. Annapolitans took a prominent part in the politics that led to the American Revolution. Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were closely associated with the town. After developing as a port and colonial capital in the 18th century and provincial market town in the 19th, the town has developed as a governmental center and tourist attraction. (In 1976, half of its employed population worked for the federal, state, county, and city governments.)
If you want to forgo the $4 tour charge, you can obtain street maps at the information kiosk on City Dock. Otherwise, Colonial and early residences are marked with a sign bearing the Liberty Tree. (The tree itself -- a giant tulip poplar said to be more than 400 years old -- is just across from the State House. The name derives from its use as a gathering place for patriots during the Revolution.)
For another $3.50, I toured the five-part Georgian-style house and garden of William Paca -- a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Maryland -- as well as the Hammond-Harwood House ($2.50). Both include articulate explanations of highly detailed architecture and antique furnishings.
I strolled lovely galleries and antiques and brass shops before an evening windjammer cruise (the Mystic Clipper) into the harbor. For $50 (for two only), we motored out into the bay (no wind) and back for steak or stuffed flounder, salad, rolls, and dessert tarts. No concessions are made to comfort; guests sit wherever they can -- on chains, ropes, or deck.
Overall, there is something satisfying about a town that is fully digestible in one day, but that could easily keep a newcomer engaged for a long weekend.