Rural Maryland's tranquil retreats

Main Street in Sykesville, Md. The Carroll County town's business district is on the National Register of Historic Places.

CARROLL COUNTY, Md. - Millions of tiny white flowers along the trail promise a bountiful crop of wild raspberries in the weeks to come. A strong scent of pine overwhelms the sweet smell of honeysuckle. Diamond T, a big gelding, flicks his head toward the right, sensing before I do the presence of a deer that suddenly leaps through the woods. The golden retriever that has taken the lead on this trail ride chases a fox into the underbrush.

Thousands of acres of public land, a watershed for a major reservoir, adjoin the 68-acre Lara B. Manor Ranch. Along the trail, it feels remote, like virgin territory untouched by man. Yet it is only 20 miles from Baltimore and a little more than two hours from Philadelphia. It is just one of the tranquil retreats we found last weekend in this picturesque slice of Maryland.

The county ranks among the top in the country in terms of preserving farmland, and the results are seen along roads with rolling hills planted with wheat and hay, with orchards and stands selling fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers, and big red barns next to modest white farmhouses.

Occasionally the landscape is interrupted by a giant housing development and malls with big, brand-name stores. Most of the county, though, retains its rural roots. Its beautiful views can be enjoyed by car or on one of the 10 biking routes set up in loops that range from seven to 33 miles each.

Our trip to the county began at the southernmost town, Sykesville. Crossing a small bridge that was once the scene of a fierce Civil War battle, we come into a town that could be the set for a Civil War movie. Downtown is small, just a few blocks, but it has two restaurants, gift shops and antiques stores, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I head into Alexandra's Attic and find several necklaces and two pairs of earrings that my daughter, 15, approves. Then I fall in love with a big, gaudy, fake-diamond-encrusted bracelet in the shape of a jaguar with green eyes, and matching earrings. It's marked half off, and for $42 I must have it and wear it immediately. My daughter vows that she won't be seen with me in public.

She changes her mind when it's time for lunch at Baldwin's Station. The restaurant with upscale Continental fare was built in 1883 as a train station and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the Queen Anne style, with stained-glass windows and 20-foot ceilings, the restaurant sits along the Patapsco River and train tracks that were once torn up by Confederate soldiers under the direction of J.E.B. Stuart.

It turns out that during the war, the town was divided - the proverbial brother against brother.

Although we had planned to rent a boat at Piney Run Park after lunch, thunderclouds dissuade us, and instead we take a drive past the historic homes on Springfield Avenue, then continue past pastures and fields to the outskirts of Westminster, another historic town. Before arriving, though, we stop at Hoffman's, where $1.75 buys you a huge cone filled with homemade ice cream.

By now it's pouring, and we head directly to our overnight destination, Antrim 1844.

The "country hotel" is widely considered one of the most elegant lodgings in the state and is a member of the Select Registry and Historic Hotels of America. Recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the hotel also boasts a restaurant that has won Wine Spectator magazine's Best of Award of Excellence.

Our room is on the third floor of the mansion, which was once part of a plantation. The room has an aura of gentility and romance, but to me, the big bed with soft white coverlet looks as though it was made especially for a nap on a rainy afternoon.

By the time I awake in the late afternoon, the sun is shining on a gorgeous garden, where a wedding party - including two darling flower girls in frilly dresses - is posing for pictures. I head to a swimming pool surrounded by high hedges and find I am sitting poolside with two couples, both of whom married here some years earlier. A more perfect spot would be hard to find. In fact, as I'm strolling back to the mansion, I see another young couple passing by.

"This is the place," says the young woman. "I want it here." I'm pretty sure she's talking about their wedding.

Later that day, as I head to Maggie's in Westminster, I see couples arriving at the hotel for dinner. For a half-hour before they are seated in the dining room, they are served hors d'oeuvres and wine in the mansion parlors. Very romantic and elegant. Dinner includes an intermission; come only with someone you can either gaze into the eyes of or comfortably talk with for an extended period.

We do a quickie dinner that's just so-so, followed by dessert at Baugher's, a combination restaurant-garden shop-farm where you can get homemade pies and cakes and shop for plants and fruit. We stop at another Baugher's location on the way home the next day to pick strawberries. Through the summer and into the fall, you can pick and buy cherries, plums, nectarines, peaches and pumpkins.

Arriving at the ranch for our trail ride, we find Lara Forster and Sydonia Rehm waiting to guide us. They saddle up three beautiful horses and a fat pony, and for a moment I fear I'll get the fat pony, Gibbs. Actually, that will be Sydonia's mount; there are more than a dozen other horses to choose from, but she's aiming to get Gibbs slimmed down.

I get Diamond T, and my daughter climbs on Chubby, a quarter horse that isn't chubby anymore. Lara intends to lead on Flash, but Flash decides he doesn't want to go. Rather than taking him on the trail, Lara decides to teach him a lesson by riding him in the paddock, and Gibbs, despite his excess weight, seems eager to get going.

A relaxing walk is interspersed with trots and an occasional gallop. We learn during the walk that Sydonia boards her own horse at the ranch. She's from Colorado, came to the University of Maryland for a degree in engineering, and decided to stay.

When a Colorado horsewoman finds a spot back East that feels even more like home than home, you know you've found a good spot.

Touring Carroll County, Maryland