Georgetowners Love Living in St. Michaels

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Many Georgetowners consider St. Michaels their favorite out-of-town hangout. In fact, for a growing number of D.C. residents, the town on Maryland’s picturesque Eastern Shore — about two hours’ drive from Georgetown on a good traffic day — has become a full-time or part-time home.

The transplants include famous congressional and presidential-administration families such as the Boggses, Cheneys and Rumsfelds. Some notable Georgetown-connected couples are attorney David Dunn and Ambassador Amy Bondurant, broadcast journalist Paul Berry and real estate agent Amy Berry (a St. Michaels native), Ambassador Ed Gabriel and Kathleen “Buffy” Linehan, Langley Shook and former D.C. Board of Education President Karen Shook, philanthropists Fred and Lesley Israel and international businessman Carl Widell and architect Pamela Heyne Widell.  

 The Georgetowner recently traveled to St. Michaels to find out what was the secret of this town — which calls itself “The Town That Fooled the British” — in attracting some of D.C.’s best. The earlier trick, during the War of 1812, had townspeople hanging lanterns on trees to make the Royal Navy’s cannonballs fly over the houses.

The historic waterside town is almost too lovely to be true. Along the main street and a few side blocks are shingle-sided shops with paneled windows and window seats, offering stylish and cute fashions for the yachting set. There are cafés and bakeries, ice cream shops and restaurants — some with famous seafood chefs — even a winery and a brewery. But St. Michaels is also a living town, with grocery store, drug store, library and police station, the latter in a Victorian house next to a café, the Blue Crab.

Small and large, historic and new, Federal- and Victorian-style houses sit on lush green lawns with white picket fences and roses. Often they abut a shallow waterway, inlet, harbor or creek, sometimes with a long wharf to reach deeper water. Waterfowl and wildlife — geese, ducks, deer, fox, blue herons, wild turkeys, bald eagles and osprey — roam, fly and can be seen almost any time in some of the area sanctuaries.

In the water, tied to docks, lifted up in dry docks, everywhere there are boats: motorboats, sailboats, rowboats, kayaks and canoes, recreational and commercial. “In St. Michaels, no one cares what kind of car you own,” Pamela Widell said. “It’s a beautiful boat that they admire.” 

A look to the west from the house of David Dunn and Amy Bondurant outside St. Michaels, Maryland. Photo by Robert Devaney.

St. Michaels is also home to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, a community organization established in 1965 that is well supported by locals as donors, docents and volunteers. Children and teenagers are often on the grounds helping to restore Maryland’s historic crab boats and the unique sailing log canoes developed for the lucrative oyster trade that was the foundation of the town’s prosperity. 

High schoolers have overnights in the famous Hooper Strait Light, a screwpile lighthouse on stilts, moved to the museum grounds in 1965. On their sleepovers, the teens from St Michaels’ sole high school and middle school man the light and learn about the role of lighthouses throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

“There is so much to do here if you want to,” Lesley Israel said. In 1983, she and her husband bought their 150-acre waterfront Snug Harbor Farm, a working farm with farmers’ homes on the property. For years, the main house (with water views from every multi-windowed room), the four-bedroom guest house, the wharf with various recreational boats, the tennis court and the swimming pool were the sites of long weekends and vacations for their family — eventually including grandchildren — and friends. The Israels would travel between St. Michaels and their Chevy Chase home and Washington-based global business activities. 

Gradually, the Chesapeake home became their full-time abode. While Lesley Israel continues to participate in the International Foundation for Electoral Systems — especially in Africa and former Soviet republics — she also became increasingly active with local organizations and projects, including the Maritime Museum and countywide education and food projects. Fred Israel, who has served on the boards of Georgetown University, Georgetown Prep and NASA, is on the board of the Maritime Museum.

Pamela and Carl Widell came to St. Michaels in 2002, shortly after adopting their two daughters: Svetlana, 7, and Katya, 9. “We wanted them to grow up in a small local community where they would know people from all walks of life,” said Pamela. “Also, the shore is so calming, especially nice for kids transitioning to a new culture.” 

Her firm, Heyne Design, focuses on residential projects on the Eastern Shore as well as in Georgetown. Many of her Georgetown kitchens are featured in her book, “In Julia’s Kitchen, Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child.” She is the only architect to interview Julia Child. 

Carl Widell is an international consultant involved with energy projects in West Africa. “He is usually in his office above my studio at 4:30 a.m., keeping in touch with his Ghanaian partner in the port of Tema, Ghana,” she said. Carl has served on the Talbot County School Board and was chair of the Talbot County Democratic Party.

 David Dunn and Amy Bondurant purchased their idyllic waterfront home, with a stunning view of sunsets, almost serendipitously in the 1970s. Dunn asked his law partner Tommy Boggs if the house next door might be rented for an extended family weekend. It wasn’t for rent, but the owner insisted he wanted to sell it to David and Amy, who were still struggling young professionals in Washington with little money to spare. “He said we could pay for it whenever we could afford it,” Dunn recounted. It took him a year to take the owner up on his offer, and years after that to finalize it, but they have never regretted it. 

WiFi, a good TV hookup and reliable mobile phone service can be problems on the Eastern Shore. Dunn, who has negotiated with sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, presidents of African countries and members of Congress, counts his negotiation with the local cable company as one of his coups. Bondurant, a former congressional staffer — for Sen. Al Gore, among others — could work from there. 

During the Clinton administration, Bondurant was appointed ambassador to the OECD in Paris. The Boggses, including journalists Cokie (née Boggs) and Steve Roberts, have been neighbors and close friends, “especially when they found out we had WiFi,” said Dunn with a laugh.

Standing next to her pool overlooking the water, watching a gaggle of geese settle on the edge of their property, Bondurant smiled. “I’ve seen deer swim across the waterway right here past our dock. Honestly, I think this is the most peaceful place on earth.”

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