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Gary Younge
Chesapeake bait

At the Crab Crawl restaurant in St Michaels, Maryland, your meal comes with a hammer and a promise: 'If it doesn't kick then we don't cook.' On the table, there is a paper cloth and place mats that outline the anatomy of your dinner and the order in which it must be dismembered.

Then comes the carnage. The crushing, ripping, crunching and gouging that is the destiny of so much seafood cuisine. For the connoissuers, there is a meal in there somewhere. But for the novice, there is only a mixture of shells and claws, a fistful of seasoned sea salt to smear on your tongue and a larger appetite than when you started.

It is not until you are left staring at the heap of carcasses being scooped into a bin and wondering what is for dessert that you understand why St Michaels markets itself as the town that fooled the British. On the face of it, this is a badge of honour that half the globe could claim at one time or another, before, during or even after they rid themselves of colonial rule. But St Michaels regards its trickery as particularly ingenious.

During the 1812 skirmishes with the British... when the US defended its maritime rights as a neutral country - the town, located on the Chesapeake Bay, was a vital centre of shipbuilding, blockade runners and naval barges. On August 10, 1813, the British planned to bomb St Michaels, but the locals had been warned and put lanterns on ship's masts and in treetops so that the Brits overshot the town completely.

Only one house, near St Mary's Square, was hit, and that is now known as Cannonball House. The cannonball in question came through the roof, rolled across the attic and bumped its way down the staircase, killing no one but scaring the owner, Mrs Merchant, half to death. Boy did those Brits know how to terrorise a nation.

Within easy driving distance of both Washington DC and Baltimore, St Michaels lies on that awkward piece of America's north-eastern peninsula which has seemed poised to snap off the country and float away into the Atlantic - an untidy topographical afterthought that owes its link to the rest of the continent via a couple of sturdy bridges and some tenacious slithers of earth. This is the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, home to dainty creeks, more than 250 species of birds and at least three endangered species: the bald eagle, the Delmarva fox squirrel and the peregrine falcon.

The close local community in St Michaels helps maintain a real island feel to the area. It is not just the woolly jumpers and red and rugged features of some of the inhabitants that do it. Like in most small, relatively-isolated economies, people make a living using all their talents. So the restaurateur hangs her pictures for sale in her dining room and the man who runs the B&B displays the ornamental swans he has made next to the breakfast table where everyone can see them. You may only be a few hours from Capitol Hill, but here the conversation is as likely to turn on the damage a deer can do to your car as the latest political developments.

Once home to the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, St Michaels is a town you can walk around in an hour and a half. On the shore, there is Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. By the late 18th century, St Michaels had become a key player in the shipbuilding industry and by the turn of the 19th century had earned its fame for building the Baltimore Clipper. For those intrigued by 19th-century shipbuilding techniques, this is a day-trip to remember; for those who are not, it is a fairly interesting half-hour's browse. The main street offers a few bars and restaurants as well as some uninspiring gift shops selling standard tourist fare.

Most interesting is the Buttermilk Cafe, where the sublimely dotty Louise and Douglas Taylor will leave you speechless and immobile with a plate of baby back ribs. The couple, who migrated from upstate New York, have been embraced as the town's eccentrics.

They make good but quirky conversation and the service, while as polite as you can expect anywhere in St Michaels, can be just a little unorthodox - Louise seems to make the prices up as she goes along (whatever she makes up, it is still incredibly cheap). When we went in, we sat for a few minutes before venturing into the kitchen and finally into the backroom where the two of them were watching television, not realising anyone had arrived.

The energetic can canoe their way through the area's tributaries or cycle to the more workaday town of Tilghman Island. In late October, you need only cross 'the busiest drawbridge in the world' - there is no attribute of the area that is too small or too odd, it seems, to be claimed as a significant landmark - for Tilghman Island day. This is a day dedicated to the local fisherman, and while you would not go there for the weather - the drizzle in Chesapeake in late October is a pretty much like that in Cheltenham in late October - there is plenty going on in the way of boat races, boat rides, live bands and stalls selling just about every kind of seafood.

After a few strolls down the main thoroughfare, St Michaels can begin to feel like the set of Groundhog Day. This is when a visit for the slothful would begin to wane. For any more than three days, St Michaels would rapidly become the town that bored and bankrupted the British - accommodation in the area is quite pricey. But weather permitting, it is a weekend treat - especially for the sadistic seafood enthusiast who can crunch crabs with glee while watching the waves roll by.

• No Place Like Home, A Black Britain's Journey Through The American South, by Gary Younge, is published by Picador at £16.

The practicals

To get to St Michaels, fly to either Washington or Baltimore. British Airways (0345 222111) currently has a world offer to Washington from London, at £235 plus tax until October 31, dropping to pounds 183 from November 1 until December 14. Fares to Balimore are more expensive, at £330 until the end of September. For fly-drives, try United Vacations (0181-313 0999), which offers free connecting flights within the UK. A week-long fly-drive to Washington for two adults with a basic car costs £407 per person in October.

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