The Abiding Charms of Virginia's Eastern Shore

The Abiding Charms of Virginia's Eastern Shore

John Kernick
John Kernick
Less is more on the state's eastern shore

The peninsula holding the Atlantic Ocean from the Chesapeake Bay is mostly Delaware and Maryland territory, but tapering off the end is a 70-mile sliver of Virginia. If your view of Virginia's Eastern Shore extends no farther than the flat farmland and unremarkable roadside stops you can see from the main north­south highway, the Shore won't much care. It is content to remain as it is, an uncomplicated, pastoral place where most towns are marked only by a post office, most 100-year-old Victorian houses aren't considered especially rare, and most people still live by the rhythms of farming or fishing. Take some time to follow the back roads meandering away from the highway, but be warned: you may find yourself hooked on the Shore's bucolic stillness and the splendid isolation from the cities of the mid-Atlantic—only a few hours by car but light-years by state of mind.

An island at the end of a four-mile causeway, Chincoteague is technically not even on the Eastern Shore, which is appropriate because it's certainly not of it. Unapologetically touristy, often tacky, this beach town practically chokes on minivans in summer. There's a reason for its popularity: Chincoteague is one of the best places in the East for a family beach vacation.

What separates it from other similar towns is that the touristy atmosphere doesn't spoil the beach itself. To reach it, you cross a narrow channel of water to CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE (757/336-6122)—actually located, confusingly enough, on the island of Assateague—leaving the town's clutter behind. A long, thin barrier island, Assateague is entirely national or state parkland, so the sand stretches for miles, boardwalk- and condo-free.

The island teems with wildlife both hoofed and winged. It's a favorite spot of East Coast bird-watchers, and in late summer, even a novice armed with a field guide and good binoculars can see peregrine falcons and plenty of shorebirds. Most famous, though, are the wild ponies, which gained enduring fame in 1947 with Marguerite Henry's children's book Misty of Chincoteague. They aren't shy, and it's common to see a grazing herd of ponies being admired from the roadside by a gazing herd of humans.

If wet weather puts beachgoing or pony-watching off, you can visit the OYSTER & MARITIME MUSEUM (7125 Maddox Blvd.; 757/336-6117) to see the educational "I'm an Oyster" display and be reassured that it is indeed okay to eat oysters during months whose names do not contain the letter r. Or admire the satellite-launching rocketry at the WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY of NASA'S GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER (Rte. 175, Wallops Island; 757/824-2298), on the mainland side of the causeway. Most shopping on Chincoteague is of the T-shirts and sunscreen variety, but a handful of stores do carry locally carved decoys.

Thanks to the competition for tourist dollars, there are a number of good restaurants in town. A.J.'S ON THE CREEK (6585 Maddox Blvd.; 757/336-5888; dinner for two $40), of the candlelight and New Age­music school, has uniformly excellent fish and shellfish. Farther off the beaten path is NONNIE'S (3899 Main St.; 757/336-5822; dinner for two $30), where locals go for Italian comfort food. You can take afternoon tea, complete with fresh scones, at the CHANNEL BASS INN (6228 Church St.; 800/221-5620 or 757/336-6148; tea for two $17; doubles from $125, including breakfast and tea). Socializing is enforced by the no-nonsense Scottish hostess.

You can also stay at Channel Bass, whose six big rooms and soundproof walls are good for families. But Misty fanatics will undoubtedly want to lodge at the seven-room MISS MOLLY'S INN (4141 Main St.; 800/221-5620 or 757/336-6686; doubles from $99, including breakfast and tea), where Henry wrote part of the book. Like Miss Molly's, WATSON HOUSE (4240 Main St.; 800/336-6787; doubles from $69, including breakfast) is a B&B housed in a handsome gingerbread Victorian. Though you would not know it from the outside, the even more Victorian-looking house across the street, the INN AT POPLAR CORNER (4248 Main St.; 800/336-6787 or 757/336-1564; doubles from $109, including breakfast), was actually built in 1995. Motels cluster along Main Street and Maddox Boulevard; nicer properties include the ISLAND MOTOR INN (4391 Main St.; 757/336-3141, fax 757/336-1483; doubles from $88) and WATERSIDE MOTOR INN (3761 Main St.; 757/336-3434, fax 757/336-1878; doubles from $95), both on the water.

Driving out of Chincoteague on a Saturday morning, tune your radio to 103.3 FM to catch Swap Shop, the Eastern Shore's radio classifieds. Listening to locals selling floppy-eared bunnies, aluminum stilts, and outboard motors, you can't help but feel, as Chincoteague fades in the distance, that you're entering a more relaxed, more real world.

pony up!
During the annual Pony Penning week (this year, it's July 29-30), the herd that lives on the Virginia end of Assateague is rounded up by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, made to swim across the channel to Chincoteague, and paraded through town (some of the younger ponies are sold at auction). The event is a cruelty-free fund-raiser, population-control measure, and photo op all in one. Be prepared to pay, though: most lodgings impose four- or five-night minimums.

In the 1880's, when trains first linked the Eastern Shore with cities to the north, several towns sprang up out of the farmland. The largest of these was Parksley. It never grew too big, though, and today it's so close to the idealized American town that its quiet streets, enlivened in the pre-supper dusk by bike-riding children, seem as if they could exist only on a Hollywood back lot. Parksley is real, however, and while it's primarily a nice place to live—the only B&B closed last year—it's still worth a visit.

On weekdays, the freight train rumbles by twice a day. To relive a livelier period of rail travel, check out the EASTERN SHORE RAILWAY MUSEUM (18468 Dunne Ave.; 757/665-7245). The segregated waiting rooms of the restored brick station bear witness that the golden age wasn't golden for everybody. Across the street is PARKSLEY DRUG COMPANY (18497 Dunne Ave.; 757/665-5152), where the Tuesday lunch special of chicken pot pie and fried apples costs $3.75.

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.

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.

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.

There's not much to do on Tangier (which is, of course, why writers like it). On the main drag, Kings Road, are the island's two churches, the incongruously large and modern fire department, and the one-room TANGIER MUSEUM, attached to Sandy's Place gift shop (Kings Rd., Main Ridge; 757/891-2367), where for 50 cents you can inspect Indian arrowheads and old-time clamming tools.

A handful of low-key restaurants and snack bars are clustered with the gift shops near the dock; there's also an ice cream parlor run by an island schoolteacher. But the best food is at HILDA CROCKETT'S CHESAPEAKE HOUSE (Main Ridge; 757/891-2331), where less than $12 buys a feast of clam fritters, crab cakes, and other catch from the bay. A family-style institution since 1939, it's the one restaurant on Tangier where reservations are required.

Day cruises to Tangier are available May through October. From Onancock: Captain Eulice, 757/891-2240. From Reedville (Virginia mainland): Chesapeake Breeze, 804/453-2628. From Crisfield, Md.: Steven Thomas, 410/968-2338.

In the early part of the century, when Wachapreague was a premier East Coast destination for gentlemen's hunting and fishing holidays, trainloads of urbanites from cities such as Philadelphia and New York converged on the town's four-story HOTEL WACHAPREAGUE. But the town began to decline with the Great Depression, and its centerpiece burned in 1978. Wachapreague's glory days are gone if not forgotten; one feels that the old hotel's spirit cannot be at peace with the aggressively nondescript motel that now bears its name (1 Main St.; 757/787-2105; doubles from $65). Wachapreague is still the gateway to some of the best beaches and fishing grounds on the East Coast, though you need a boat to reach them.

Never mind today's sleepy atmosphere. The town is full of Victorian houses, many of them vacation homes for out-of-towners, and has a first-rate B&B spread over two buildings, the BURTON HOUSE and HART'S HARBOR HOUSE (9-11 Brooklyn Ave.; 757/787-4560; doubles $95, including breakfast). Both are overseen by Pat Hart, a Wachapreague native and fount of local information, and both have been elegantly restored. But Burton House, with a handsome crape myrtle out front and a five-sided screen porch in back, holds a slight edge in my book. There are also cottages, popular with fishermen, that rent for $50 a night.

Eating in Wachapreague generally means one of two things: provisioning at the eclectic CARPENTER'S GROCERY (9 Main St.; 757/787-4660) before hitting the water in pursuit of dinner (too bad the bottle of Dr. Pierce's Golden Discovery is no longer for sale), or feasting on the view—and grilled tuna—at the ISLAND HOUSE (17 Atlantic Ave.; 757/787-4242; dinner for two $25). As you look out over the marina while sunburned hunters of the great white flounder putter back to shore, you may decide it tastes better when you don't catch it yourself.

tours & excursions

  • The formal boxwood gardens at EYRE HALL (off Rte. 13, near Cheriton; no phone), a 1735 plantation house between Cape Charles and Eastville, are open year-round. But how to get inside to view the antique wallpaper and arched ceilings?By joining the VIRGINIA HISTORIC HOME AND GARDEN TOUR (757/678-7889), on April 25, when Eyre Hall and five other properties on the Shore throw open their doors.
  • The Eastern Shore is one of the richest regions on the East Coast for bird-watching. KIPTOPEKE STATE PARK (757/331-2267), south of Cape Charles, has a hawk observatory and banding station, and holds a popular birding festival in October. You might even see a bald eagle or two.
  • Leave your car behind on a three-day, 50-mile bike tour with EASTERN SHORE ESCAPES (888/827-4673 or 757/442-4157; from $269 per person, double, including meals and lodging). The company also offers kayak and birding tours.
  • Whatever you do, one book is absolutely essential. OFF 13: THE EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA GUIDEBOOK, by native son Kirk Mariner, is exhaustively detailed but breezily written. If you can't find it in local bookshops, your B&B will probably have a copy.

out on the water
Wachapreague's three marinas are all located along the Atlantic Avenue waterfront. There are lots of charter fishing boats—fishermen regularly haul in tuna weighing as much as 100 pounds, and Wachapreague bills itself as the world's Flounder Capital—but I decided to go it alone.

That morning, at breakfast, a young British couple had told of their adventure renting a skiff in Florida. The story involved a broken motor, lots of mud, and even a dog attack. So when the transplanted Long Islander behind the counter of the WACHAPREAGUE SEASIDE MARINA (757/787-4110) waved in the direction of the boats tied up at the dock and asked, "You know how to handle one of these, right?" I was actually able to hold my Y chromosome in check and tell the truth.

Later, I was glad for the limited instruction ($59—for an all-day rental—should buy at least limited instruction), because navigating and piloting a 16-foot, no-frills craft powered by a single outboard motor isn't all that easy, at least the first time. My I-drive-a-stick-shift-so-I-can-handle-this-thing theory proved about as solid as the water the boat floated on, and I narrowly avoided doing damage to an expensive-looking yacht as I steered away from the dock.

Gradually, I got better. Now and then I had to straddle a bigger boat's wake, but the only thing that got upset was my ego. Gunning the motor and forging ahead, I headed out to the channels that thread between the barrier islands. The banks were lined with tall marsh grasses and strutting herons and egrets. By following the numbered channel markers and a smudgy map from the marina, I found my way out to the barrier beaches in about 20 minutes. The first stretch was strewn with pebbles and shells. But the next sandbar was a perfectly pristine spit of sand, tracked only by sandpipers. Other than a couple of boating families hundreds of feet away and the occasional overflight by a lone gull, I had it all to myself. No crowds, no cars, no trash. This is the way to beach.

the mosquito coast
Unfortunately, come spring and summer, birds aren't the only flying wildlife in these parts. Though insecticide-spraying planes and trucks help control the mosquito population in Chincoteague, much of the Shore—and most definitely Assateague—gets no such treatment. This doesn't mean you shouldn't go. But you'll retain more of your blood by following these tips:

  • Head for the beach. During the day there are relatively few mosquitoes. (Moonlight strollers beware: this is not the case at night.)
  • If you decide to take a hike in the woods, you'll be passing through the mosquitoes' favorite habitat. Apply a strong insect repellent everywhere, including on your clothing.
  • Take a wildlife tour in one of ASSATEAGUE ISLAND TOURS' (757/336-6155) screened-in jitneys, or drive the nature trail when it opens to cars at 3 p.m.

Pack a lunch and follow State Road 180 west from the village of Pungoteague. After a few miles you'll wonder if you're going anywhere. The scenery from the road, like most on the Shore, alternates prosaically between trees and farmland, but eventually a country store comes into view. Turn right and keep driving until trim Victorian and "ship's carpenter"-style houses begin to line the road. You've arrived in the village of Harborton, where steamships once docked, but today only small, white fishing boats bob in the water. There are many towns like it up and down the shore, but Harborton is easily one of the prettiest. My first thought on seeing Harborton was that it was begging for someone to open a B&B, but I doubt the town would be the same with even a trickle of regular visitors. (There are no tourist amenities of any sort—that's why you packed a lunch.) Walk down the wharf that stretches out over Pungoteague Creek and pick a spot to picnic.

If you want to stay the night, you'll have to think ahead: the two rooms at the EVERGREEN INN (13230 Muir's Path, Pungoteague; 757/422-3375; doubles from $85, including breakfast, no credit cards), on the next peninsula over, are often booked weeks in advance. When you pull up in front of the inn, you'll be impressed that a Georgian manor built in 1766 can still look this good. The real treat's in back, where a vast lawn unrolls to the water. You can't help but subconsciously plan a wedding here. Getting in touch with the owners can be exasperating (try calling in the evenings), but persistence rarely pays off so handsomely.

cape charles
If there's a success story yet to be written on Virginia's Eastern Shore, it's Cape Charles. After suffering decades of decline when its significance as a railroad terminal and ferry dock suddenly ended in the 1950's, the town is slowly being rediscovered. Newcomers have moved in with money and ideas about the future; that most of them are not from the Shore has caused little resentment. Cape Charles has always been home to atypical communities (the first Jewish and Roman Catholic congregations on the Eastern Shore were assembled here) and a fairly urban mind-set.

On a walk through town, it's hard not to notice some of the tattered edges left by years of economic neglect. But it's even easier to see signs of revival. On Mason Avenue, for instance, two pool halls create pockets of seediness, and a new site across the harbor is home to an eco-industrial park. But those factors hardly overwhelm the street, with its two inviting antiques stores, CAPE CHARLES TRADING (113 Mason Ave.; 757/331-1442) and CHARMAR'S ANTIQUES (211 Mason Ave.; 757/331-1488). If you visit only one such shop on the Eastern Shore, it should be Charmar's, not only for the merchandise within but to beg admission to the owner's private collection next door, meticulously arranged as in a turn-of-the-century general store. Even if you're not an antiques buff, go—you'll be impressed. Also on Mason is a new restaurant, TASTEFULLY YOURS, TOO (307 Mason St.; 757/331-1950; dinner for two $13-$22), which on Saturdays has one seating for a traditional, multicourse Italian meal. The restaurant is owned by two Catholic nuns, and follows on the heels of their successful take-out business.

Aside from the spotty bits of downtown, there is much here that any town would envy: a beautiful beach on the Chesapeake Bay (one of only three public beaches on the Shore) overlooked by an octagonal gazebo and a jetty walkway, a quiet park in the center of town, and residential streets shaded by crape myrtle trees. The handsome houses lining these blocks would seem to be perfect for B&B's, which is why it's not much of a surprise to learn that there are six—the first arrival, the SEA GATE (9 Tazewell Ave.; 757/331-2206, fax 757/331-2206; doubles $75-$85, no credit cards), set up shop in 1988—and that competition can be sharp. BAY AVENUE SUNSET B&B (108 Bay Ave.; 888/422-9283 or 757/331-2424, fax 757/331-4877; doubles $85-$95) has rooms overlooking the beach; the WILSON-LEE HOUSE (403 Tazewell Ave.; 757/331-1954; doubles $85-$120) has rooms decorated after different eras.

Cape Charles isn't yet as magnetic a destination as Onancock or Chincoteague, but it has the potential to achieve the best of both those worlds. A big factor in Cape Charles's favor is the genuine enthusiasm the town's new movers and shakers have for their adopted home. They mention both the former generating plant, now the CAPE CHARLES MUSEUM AND WELCOME CENTER (Randolph Ave.; 757/331-1008), stocked with photographs from Cape Charles's heyday (from the twenties through the forties), and plans for both an enlarged marina and two new golf courses—to be designed in a rare collaboration between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus—as proof that the town is taking wing again.

Visiting B&B's up and down the Shore, I discovered one constant in my interviews with owners. When I asked where they send guests for dinner, the answer almost always included EASTVILLE MANOR (6058 Willow Oak Rd.; 757/678-7378; dinner for two $50). The mansion's flower-filled front lawn is lovely, but it's what happens in the kitchen that counts. Guests rave, inn owners call to thank, and more than a few well-traveled city slickers admit that their dinner here was among the best they've had, anywhere. It's easy to see—and not just taste—why. Chef Bill Scalley, who owns Eastville Manor along with his wife, Melody, and whose résumé includes stints at the Four Seasons and Mayflower hotels in Washington, D.C., puts extra ooh-la-la into presentation, often garnishing with pansies, nasturtiums, and other edible flowers. And because the restaurant survives through the winter on local business, the prices aren't jacked up to bilk tourists. After eating here you may want to live here, and you can, temporarily. Eastville Manor has room for two guests in a one-bedroom suite with a Jacuzzi ($125-$160 per night).

Don't think the Shore has abandoned the proletarian appetite. In nearby Capeville, STING-RAY'S (Rte. 13; 757/331-2505) is one of the best places in the area, and probably in the world, to grab a meaty bowl of chili or the ubiquitous crab-cake sandwich and an industrial-size Pepsi. It's got the right atmosphere—just look for the big red barn next to the Exxon station.

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