Go to unwind on Virginia’s Eastern Shore
With two national wildlife refuges, a national seashore, one state park and three state wildlife management areas, Virginia’s Eastern Shore is “nature untamed,” wrote local author Kirk Mariner.
The state’s Eastern Shore stretches 70 miles from Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. It is flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on the east (“seaside”) and the Chesapeake Bay (“bayside”) on the west.
Fully experiencing the Eastern Shore requires branching off Route 13, which bisects the region, and exploring the small towns, vegetable stands, bustling wharfs, quiet coves and friendly mom-and-pop stores.
Tucked away are inviting hamlets with names like Wachapreague, Pungoteague, Onancock, Machipongo, Oyster, Nassawadox and Horsey.
This landscape of vast saltmarshes, mudflats, beaches, inlets, creeks, hummocks and maritime shrub thickets and forests is a birding mecca. It’s also home to the wild ponies of Chincoteague Island.
To native Americans, “Chincoteague” meant “beautiful and across the water.” Reaching Chincoteague Island requires driving across a five-mile causeway, flanked by watery marshes alive with foraging egrets and swirling, laughing gulls.
Misty the wild pony is likely the Eastern Shore’s most renowned notable, made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book, Misty of Chincoteague. Misty’s hoofs are imprinted in the sidewalk fronting the 1945 Island Theatre, where the movie had one of two world premieres (the other was in Hollywood).
Every July, the town of 3,000 explodes with the 16-day volunteer firemen’s carnival, which ends in the annual pony swim and auction to keep the herd at a sustainable 150.
Chincoteague (insiders pronounce it “Shink-a-tig,” and others call the small-town beach the “anti-Ocean City”) is easy to stroll and has plenty of fishing and wildlife outings for hire.
If you’d rather spend the day at the ocean, pick up a fresh catch at a local market or restaurant, many of which specialize in seafood. The 48th annual Chincoteague Oyster Festival will celebrate the peninsula’s piscine bounty on October 9. At this typically sold-out event, guests can snarf up oysters raw, steamed, fried and frittered, accompanied by hush puppies and clam fritters.
Throughout the year, watch rockets rise from the Wallops Flight Facility, a NASA rocket launch station just outside Chincoteague. Antares rockets lift off Wallops Island, carrying cargo to the International Space Station. At its visitors’ center, exhibits on scientific balloon research, the solar system and space flight attract space buffs of all ages.
Middle Peninsula: cool towns
In the 1600s Capt. John Smith called the area of Onancock “the Gem of the Eastern Shore.” Today, Onancock, pop. 1,200, has been dubbed the sixth-coolest U.S. small town by Budget Travel.
The town is full of stately, 19th-century homes, dockside eateries, artsy shops and galleries. The Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society is housed in Ker Place, a federal period, Georgian-style house, restored to its 1806 glory.
The tiny town of Wachapreague, population 230, is a mix of sea and science. Fishing and recreational boats chug out of the town marina along lush marshes. The pedestrian-friendly town has a general store, tackle shop and places to rent kayaks, bicycles and golf carts.
The Island Restaurant is Wachapreague’s signature place to eat, and its specialty is Oysters Parramore, named for one of the nearby barrier islands.
Locals here expound on the gastronomic merits of Chincoteague oysters. The local waters, fed by ocean tides, give “their” oysters a briny, saltier flavor than others. Sweet potato biscuits pair perfectly with the oysters.
Also in Wachapreague is the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Laboratory, a world-class research and teaching seawater lab for coastal ecology, aquaculture and marine science.
Every year scientists invite the public inside to learn about, for example, benthic invertebrates under high-powered microscopes or microplastic ocean pollution. Marine Life Day is scheduled for Sept. 18, 2021.
Lower Peninsula: Cape Charles
On the Delmarva peninsula’s southern tip, anyone with a driver’s license can scoot around Cape Charles in a golf cart and explore its boutiques, coffee shops, inns, art galleries, a distillery, cidery, brewery and bed-and-breakfasts in century-old buildings. Given its “urbanity,” Cape Charles “may be on the Eastern Shore, but it is not quite of it,” wrote Mariner in his book, Off 13.
In the Cape Charles Museum, located in a former power plant, visitors learn that in the Eocene epoch, a meteor smashed into the Atlantic Ocean at 37 miles per second and in effect created the Chesapeake Bay.
On the fishing pier, pros and amateurs can fish or crab without a license. The town’s Festive Fridays and old-fashioned holiday celebrations start the day after Thanksgiving.
For a full experience of the Eastern Shore, a boat trip to the barrier islands is a must. Shells in shades of brown, gray and bleached white decorate the sand. Spartina grasses sway as terns dive and laughing gulls squawk overhead.
“Most of the islands are pretty much as they were when the first blue-eyed British dandy stepped out of his dinghy and sank up to his waist in marsh mud,” wrote Chris Badger in Virginia Wildlife magazine.
Longer than they are wide, the 23 uninhabited wind-blown sand strips are constantly reshaped by the winds (some are closed to the public). Most are prime, undisturbed habitat for shorebirds, sand diggers, fiddler crabs and other wildlife, owned and protected by the state and the Nature Conservancy.
These islands are some of the most pristine, uninhabited habitat in the United States and have been designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. To get there, rent a kayak, charter a boat or take a boat taxi from Wachapreague.
For a closer look at the islands’ human history, tour the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, which showcases fishing, farming and the impact of hurricanes. The center is housed in a historic almshouse with an intentionally crooked chimney.
For more information about the barrier islands of the Virginia Coast Reserve, see nature.org. For events, lodging, food and directions, visit Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission, VisitESVA.com.