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The Abiding Charms of Virginia's Eastern Shore

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.


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