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Investing in a plane ticket to a far-flung place isn’t always affordable when it comes to planning a summer vacation, and today’s TSA lines alone are enough to send sightseers scrambling for an alternative. Thankfully, our area is within a reasonable driving distance of many interesting destinations.

For nature lovers who yearn to escape the hustle and bustle, Southern Maryland is a perfect place to get away, relax and explore new territory.

For a few unique experiences located just a bit off the beaten path, the following destinations and activities will get you started on a long weekend.

Hunting for shark teeth at Flag Ponds Nature Park

Just 10 miles south of Prince Frederick is a nature preserve located along the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County. Once a fishing station, Flag Ponds offers a little something for everyone who enjoys wide open spaces and communing with nature.

Visitors should be prepared to pay a $6 fee for parking and walk a half-mile from the parking lot to the beach (hint: travel light). Once there, an abundance of activities awaits, from swimming, to hiking on the trails, to birdwatching, picnicking, and fishing.

Kids, in particular, enjoy hunting the many fossil shark teeth that regularly wash up on shore. The onsite visitor’s center features a large shark tooth collection for reference and employees are willing to answer any questions one may have about the area.

Visiting an art garden in the woods

Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center, located in the picturesque Solomon’s Maryland, features rotating exhibits in the gallery located onsite. Now through August 28, visitors will see various artists’ interpretation of the insect world in “SWARM, Invasion of the Insects,” that will captivate both young and old alike.  Outside, 30 acres of meadows, fields and forest comprise Annmarie’s Sculpture Garden that is situated along St. John’s Creek. An easy, shaded stroll takes visitors on a journey through an outdoor “gallery” filled with sculptures, with about 30 on loan from the Smithsonian.

Younger visitors are welcome at the center and educational materials are provided to enhance their experience, including a scavenger hunt designed to lead them on a road to discovery. “Fairies in the Garden,” is also a current favorite among the younger set and includes dozens of gnome homes and fairy gardens featured amidst the flora and fauna.

For hours, admission prices, directions and more, visit www.annmariegarden.org/.

Kayaking through the Ghost Fleet at Mallow’s Bay

Another unique outdoor experience awaits in Charles County at Mallows Bay Park located in Nanjemoy, Maryland, where visitors can view the largest ship graveyard in the Western Hemisphere.

The story began when Woodrow Wilson approved one of the largest and most expensive shipbuilding programs in history. Consistently behind schedule, the order was nowhere near completion when World War I ended, so the program continued unabated, even as wood construction became obsolete.

The government eventually sold the outmoded fleet at a deep discount to a salvage company that towed approximately 170 ships to the bay. Those ships were subsequently abandoned when the company went bankrupt.

Today the rotting remains are home to various forms of wildlife and are a novelty for those visiting the area. A soft launch on the Bay ensures an easy experience for beginners and seasoned kayakers alike. Guides from Atlantic Kayak regularly lead groups on trips so they can paddle among the historic wreckage. Shutterbugs will be rewarded with a plethora of photo opportunities, from the huge osprey nests constructed on the ships to the many bald eagles that soar over the bay.

Freelance writer Reed Hellman recently took the opportunity to kayak across the bay that he first visited in the 1970s as part of his job as field technician for the then-named Maryland Department of Chesapeake Bay Affairs. “Our job was to survey the creek up towards its head and the end of tidal influence,” said Hellman, who goes on to explain that he witnessed a slightly different sight than what exists today. “I remember the shoreline being overwhelmed with jetsam and all manner of debris that I later assume had washed in from the hulls. It wasn’t until we motored out amid those hulls that we realized that we had stumbled onto something unique and incredibly eerie.” Hellman said he found it interesting to return decades later. “When I first visited, many of the hulls were still intact above the waterline. We did a good job of getting into the heart of the fleet this time,” he said.

For nature lovers, these are but a few of the many interesting and unique experiences that await in Southern Maryland and many of the destinations are pet friendly as well, so fill up the tank, grab the sunscreen and hit the road. You’ll be glad you did.

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