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The Abiding Charms of Virginia's Eastern Shore

Parksley looks and feels much like the model town envisioned by its founder, Henry Bennett. Not everything ended up the way Bennett would have liked: one of the clauses he wrote into the town charter stated that lots where alcohol was sold would be confiscated from their owners, but that provision clearly had been forgotten by the time a state-run liquor store opened in town—on Bennett Street.

accomac
If your interest in colonial history is enhanced by actors in period costume, tours through replica buildings, and crowds of other tourists, go to Williamsburg. But if you're the type that simply enjoys the architecture of Colonial-style houses and doesn't mind a few Victorian whippersnappers here and there, you might as well save yourself a hefty admission fee and visit Accomac instead.

Despite Parksley's fearsome campaign in the late 1800's to snag the courthouse, this residential hamlet has held on as the seat of Accomack County—the ultimate k was somehow lost in the town's spelling—for 300 years. Different layers of history are still visible. The green in front of the courthouse has a Revolutionary War cannon in one corner; on the opposite side, among the tiny, cottagelike law offices, sits a brick, Victorian-era clerk's office. It holds court records dating back to 1663—the second-oldest in the nation (those in Eastville, down Route 13, are 31 years older).

The small building across the green from the clerk's office is the old DEBTORS PRISON (Accomac Rd.; 757/787-2402). One room is furnished as the jailer's house it originally was; the other shows the rope beds and iron window bars that held prisoners in the early 1800's. These days, ironically, you have to call ahead so someone can come and let you into the prison.

Accomac has always been small (the 1990 census counted 466 residents), but, thanks to the profusion of lawyers who have lived here, its houses seem to belong to a much grander town. Wander the triangle bordered by Front Street, Back Street, and Drummondtown Road to see some of the best of those built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A handful are constructed in a style unique to the Shore, in which owners expanded by building entirely new houses next door and connecting them to the originals. Unlike Williamsburg's, these houses are all authentic. Also unlike Williamsburg's, they are all private.

Don't miss the Greek Revival ST. JAMES'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH (Drummondtown Rd.; 757/787-4892), decorated inside with a trompe l'oeil mural that covers the ceiling and four walls. Stop in at MARY SCOTT ANTIQUES (23329 Back St.; 757/787-2882), on what is surely one of the most attractive blocks on the Shore, to browse 100-year-old oil paintings, porcelain crocks, and a pair of Revolutionary War brass stirrups.

onancock
It's not clear if the town fathers, who founded this port (pronounced "nan-cock") at the head of Onancock Creek in 1680, had in mind its potential as a weekend destination for stressed-out urbanites. It fills the bill perfectly, letting in the outside world enough to keep visitors comfortable. Just don't expect to see a Banana Republic opening anytime soon.

A metropolis by Eastern Shore standards—its population is a few families over 1,400—Onancock's wide streets and evenly spaced white houses feel sleepy to an outsider. Thankfully, the town is active enough to support good restaurants: ARMANDO'S (10 North St.; 757/787-8044; dinner for two $50), a busy Italian with huge portions and many wines, and MARKET STREET INN (47 Market St.; 757/787-7626; dinner for two $25), a diner popular with locals. A new addition is the EASTERN SHORE STEAMBOAT COMPANY (2 Market St.; 757/787-3100; dinner for two $45), on the wharf at the Hopkins & Bro. Store. The second-floor dining room has a view of the creek wending its way toward the bay, and the store below rents bikes and kayaks. That's only one part of this year's miniboom: THE PERK (57 Market St.; 757/787-2750), formerly of Accomac, now caffeinates Onancock, and offers live music at night.

Every good weekend destination needs a core of comfortable B&B's. The 76 MARKET STREET BED & BREAKFAST (76 Market St.; 888/751-7600 or 757/787-7600; doubles $75-$85) and the COLONIAL MANOR INN (84 Market St.; 757/787-3521; doubles $75-$85) are Victorian houses standing watch over back yards shaded by gigantic oaks. At the more folksy SPINNING WHEEL (31 North St.; 757/787-7311; doubles $75-$95), each room is graced by—go on, guess—a spinning wheel.

No sleeping at KERR PLACE (69 Market St.; 757/787-8012)—pronounced like car—a brick Federal-style mansion with exhibits on local history. If you're lucky, you might hear a concert featuring the 1800 pianoforte. To buy antiques rather than just gaze at them, try EVERGREEN ANTIQUES & GALLERY (9 North St.; 757/787-1905), run by the same D.C. refugees who own the Spinning Wheel, and DEADRISE (5 North St.; 757/787-2077).

tangier island
With its highest point seven feet above sea level, Tangier Island is basically a big sandbar in the Chesapeake Bay. It's a tight-knit community: of the 750 people who live here, most carry surnames of early settlers—Crockett, Parks, and Pruitt.

Passengers disembarking from the ferries are met by tricked-out golf carts (the island's staple vehicle) offering $3 tours, but you'll see more if you head out on foot. You might, for example, come upon Wally Pruitt mowing his lawn. His years spent on the mainland have done little to dent his Tangier accent, supposedly descended from Elizabethan English. Pruitt and his wife run SHIRLEY'S BAY VIEW INN (W. Ridge Rd.; 757/891-2396; doubles from $70, no credit cards), one of three places to spend the night. Sometimes the only guest is a writer holed up in one of the four cottages for an entire week.

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