The 70-mile-long Eastern Shore of Virginia is known for its unspoiled beauty, abundant wildlife and laid-back natives. When it comes to development, less is indeed more. There are very few resorts, chain restaurants, souvenir shops or noisy, crowded boardwalks. Simply put, this will be one of the most restful vacations you ever take.
Here are 10 intriguing things to do at this wildly diverse destination:
1. Go back in time on Tangier Island.
You’d never guess that you were just 90 miles from Washington, D.C. Only around 700 people live on this remote, serene marshland in Chesapeake Bay. Their ancestors from Cornwall founded the unique community in the 17th and 18th centuries, which explains their unusual dialect. Turn off your cellphone, cycle rather than drive, admire the pelicans and idly fish from a pier.
2. Go wild for the wild ponies on Chincoteague Island.
There are 14,000 acres for getting in touch with nature in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The dunes, marshes and maritime forests are home to more than 300 species of birds. If the snow geese are migrating, you’re in for a rare treat. Chincoteague is famous for the wild ponies that roam the island and nearby Assateague. There is debate about how and when the animals arrived, but they have adapted well to the seashore environment. The island offers pony-watching tours, shoreline hiking trails, bike rentals and fishing charters. Don’t forget your camera.
3. See charming Cape Charles.
Cape Charles is listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its beautifully preserved, late-Victorian architecture. A picturesque park, an old-fashioned pool hall and a turn-of-the-century general store also reinforce Cape Charles’ small-town character. The Shanty, a popular waterfront restaurant, dishes up the local catch to live music. That’s about as rambunctious as it gets. This is a great place to browse through antique shops, play some golf or sit on the beach and watch the sun set over Chesapeake Bay. There are several quaint, quiet bed-and-breakfasts if you’d rather hole up and write your first novel.
4. Ignore your email on Assateague Island.
Assateague Island is a vacationer’s paradise. The wind and waves have been shaping and reshaping the 37-mile-long coastline for eons. You can walk or bike from Chincoteague on a 4-mile paved path. From there, trails of various lengths thread through the island. There are ranger-guided tours if you’re interested in learning about the island’s ecosystem, which includes an inland pine forest. You should also schedule a tour of the 142-foot Assateague Lighthouse. It was built in 1867. Swimming, surfing, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and horseback riding are all in a day’s play. You may clam, crab or collect empty seashells within limits. Rent an over-sand vehicle for a thrilling day on the dunes.
5. Brush up on Barrier Islands history.
There are 23 uninhabited barrier islands between Assateague Island and Fisherman’s Island. They were occupied through the 1930s until a series of violent storms caused irreparable damage. The Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo was an official poorhouse from 1804 to 1952. The museum on the site now houses 7,500 donated artifacts and sits on the lovely, 18-acre Almshouse Farm. The orientation film and mesmerizing exhibits are well worth your time.
6. Cavort with the kids at Kiptopeke State Park.
The American Indian word means “big water,” and that’s certainly fitting. It’s all about the beach. Families are as crazy about Kiptopeke today as British explorer Capt. John Smith was in 1608. The park is one of the cleanest and most functional for camping in the country, and the mild waves and shallow water during high tide are a blessing if you have small children. Pack your binoculars for bird-watching and your sunscreen for swimming, kayaking and fishing. You can even bring the dog.
7. Use the Wallops Flight Facility as a launching pad.
Before the first American satellite was launched in 1958, scientists studied the atmosphere using balloons, aircraft and suborbital rockets. According to NASA records, more than 16,000 rockets had launched from the Wallops Flight Facility as of 2014. Today, the site is working to expand the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. MARS is a launching pad for International Space Station and interplanetary missions.
8. Have a positive outlook at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
This 20-mile engineering wonder is both a convenience for motorists and a marvel for visitors. The four-lane highway eliminated the need for commuters to drive onto ferries. It provides direct access from the Delmarva Peninsula to southeastern Virginia. Drivers are surrounded by the gorgeous expanse of the bay, and there are scenic outlooks along the way for taking it all in. Truly, it’s all water under the bridge.
9. Feast at a food fest.
Just about every month of the year, there’s a food festival going on somewhere. When you’re gorging on smoked sausage, inhaling corn on the cob, sampling chocolates and arguing intelligently about barbecue sauce, it’s hard to leave the state hungry. Fresh seafood often steals the show. Don’t miss the roasted oysters, steamed clams and fried shrimp po’boys. Eastern Shore cooks are also proud of their rich agricultural traditions, so farm-to-table fare is outrageously good. Some festivals feature local arts and crafts, chef-led cooking demonstrations and outdoor concerts.
10. Sip your way through wine country.
Touring area wineries is not just pleasing to the palate. The country-road winery trails provide a unique perspective of the fall foliage, wildlife and wildflowers. The routes are chosen with hikers, cyclists and horseback riders in mind. Some wineries, such as Chatham Vineyards between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, are even accessible by kayak. Get in shape and schedule the popular “Paddle Your Glass Off” tour.
Untouched, unpolluted, uncrowded getaways are becoming harder and harder to find. If the Eastern Shore of Virginia is not yet on your beach-bucket list, add it right away.
Cover photo is Colonial Beach, Virginia by Brianna Aranda.