A Beach Of Your Own
We owe our discovery of the beach at Snow Hill to the flowers.
Someone had told us about Dixon Family Farm, an old corn and bean farm in St. Mary’s County that now grows lavender and runs a pick-your-own-flowers operation. That sounded right up our alley, especially when we looked online and saw that the farm appeared to be right on the banks of the Patuxent, Maryland’s quintessential scenic river.
It was also surprising, though.
According to Google Maps, Dixon Family Farm was on Sandgates Road, a U-shaped road that runs north from busy Three Notch Road straight down to the Patuxent, then reverses course, returning to Three Notch just a few miles south from where it started. But we had driven up and down Three Notch dozens of times and I didn’t remember seeing any turn-off for a road named Sandgates, let alone two.
That was especially puzzling. Since we’re always on the lookout for a new beach or a place to launch our paddleboards, I thought we had explored every road that might get us a little closer to the river.
Not surprisingly, though, Google was right. And although the turn off wasn’t obvious, once we found it, Sandgates turned out to be another one of those sweet country roads that make Sunday driving in Maryland so pleasant.
The first surprise is when you finally reach the river. There, almost side by side on the banks of the Patuxent, are not one, but two crab houses — the Sandgates Inn and Seabreeze Restaurant & Tiki Bar. Even though I’ve developed an alergy to crabs, the memory of all the crab cakes I’ve eaten at waterfront restaurants like these two (I’m talking about you, Cantler’s) always leaves me a little nostalgic. If we hadn’t already eaten, we would certainly have dropped in for the oysters at least.
Dixon Family Farm was just a hop, skip and a jump down the road. We were expecting a typical four-square farm house with a row of dormers on the roof. Instead, up on bluff overlooking the river sits the former Fenwick Manor, a 17th Century plantation house that the Dixon’s have renovated into a bed and breakfast. The B&B is called Susannah’s Watch in honor Susannah Marie Darnall Lowe, who lived in the house in the late 1600s.
There was some construction work going on the day we visited, but a subsequent glance at the website suggests it’s a good place to stage an extended visit to St. Mary’s County.
The farm itself is up the hill behind the house. You’ll probably find Jeff and Claudine Miller, the current owners, under a big tent beside the barn. (Claudine is a Dixon on her mother’s side.) If you prefer, they’ll hand you some shears to cut your flowers and a pitcher to hold them in and send you on your way. But they’re happy to chat with you and tell you about the farm and the B&B. It’s worth taking the time to listen; the Millers aren’t your typical farmers.
Most people are there for the flowers, though.
Row after row of long beds are spread out on a wide terrace above the manor house. Most of the rows are planted with a diverse mix, so there are dozens of different kinds of flowers to choose from. And the slopes both above and below the cut-flower operation are planted in several varieties of lavender, which are also available in season. In addition, the Millers sell body and bath products made with the distilled oils of lavender, honey and beeswax, all produced on the farm.
Or, you can just take in the river view. It’s all worth the trip.
But the biggest surprise was just a little farther up Sandgates Road. Shortly south of Dixon Family Farm, road signs toward Snow Hill Park caught our attention.
Veering left, we found ourselves crunching along a gravel road. After a few minutes, we came to a gatehouse. Ahead, we could see more farmland and what looked like a large old farmhouse on the riverside. Beyond that, there were picnic tables and a few people having a barbeque. Off to the left, there was a marshy creek and a kayak launch. It was looking like we hit paydirt.
Still eager to get closer to the river, we asked the gatekeeper to tell us the story of this place.
Turns out, when the old Snow Hill farm went up for sale a couple of years ago, St. Mary’s County and the Navy partnered up to buy the place and turn it into a park. It’s still a little unclear why the Navy was involved (something about air space and noise on the flight path for Patuxent Naval Air Station a few miles downstream,) but St. Mary’s is crawling with lovely riverside parks, so that part of the story made sense.
There was supposed to be a small fee for entry on the weekend, but since it was late in the afternoon and we were only there to look around for a bit, the gatekeeper let us in. It was only when we pulled into the gravel lot beside the farmhouse that we realized the beach was there.
And what a beach it is. It’s a wide, sandy beach nestled into a cove that faces out onto the broad and placid Patuxent. The beach backs up to farmland and it’s clear that someone occasionally brings a tractor down to groom the sand. This small beach would look at home at a Caribbean resort.
Upstream, the beach is a little wilder, forming a sandbar across the mouth of the marshy creek. We stood for a moment on the now deserted beach and watched a couple of kayakers pick their way through the shallow marsh and out into the clear, deep waters of the Patuxent.
There’s nothing as picturesque as a secret beach.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.