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The Abiding Charms of Virginia's Eastern Shore

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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