Coastal tourism in the mid-Atlantic states typically revolves around a handful of well-known beach towns along the Atlantic Ocean, but only Virginia and Maryland can claim coastline to an entirely different body of water: the Chesapeake Bay.
Like the best things in life, the Chesapeake Bay is both salty and fresh. It is brackish, a word that lends itself to more than just quantified salinity. The Bay is not as easily defined as a rolling ocean, or a quiet river. It is both and neither. Simple in appearance, yet difficult to describe. Compared to the more popular destinations along the ocean, the towns along the Chesapeake Bay offer an entirely different, less crowded, and more nuanced approach to the region.
A seemingly endless series of creeks, inlets, rivers and smaller bays lead to and from The Chesapeake Bay. Along these waterways are docks, jetties, beaches, marinas, towns and a lot of laid back people. While Virginia and Maryland are lucky to share the bay, lets start with Virginia.
1. Cape Charles
Cape Charles’ low-key yet amicable beach is open to the public with no entry or parking fees. Here, the relatively calm water remains shallow, allowing for plenty of lazy meandering without having to exert any energy to stay afloat.
Mason Avenue is the main street in town. It is stacked with a diverse mix of shops, galleries and restaurants, as well as the Palace Theatre, an active art deco theatre built in the 1940s. Lodging options in town vary from modern lofts at Hotel Cape Charles, to a gracious bed and breakfast at Donna and Greg’s Fig Street Inn. Food options are plentiful in Cape Charles. The established and comfortable Kelly’s Gingernut Pub (who just celebrated their 10th year in business) and the lively dockside Shanty are two great options. Also, check out the new kids on the block, a food truck named Jum Jum.
Lastly, watching the sunset across the Chesapeake Bay is incomplete without an ice cream cone from Brown Dog.
Head north about 40 miles on Rte. 13 (allowing time for fish tacos at El Maguey in Exmore), and you’ll find the inviting creek-side Onancock. Although it isn’t a “beach town” like Cape Charles, Onancock is still all about living your best life near the Chesapeake Bay. This is a small but active place.
The focal point in town has always been the Onancock Wharf. Keep it casual, and enjoy dinner while watching the boats during sunset at Mallards located in the historic Hopkins and Brothers Store building. Mallards also hosts live dockside music in the summer.
There is plenty to do further into town as well. Grab a seat at the bar and order a soft shell crab sandwich and a beer at The Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant. In fact, book a room there ahead of time, or consider the Spinning Wheel Bed and Breakfast just up North St. The nearby Roseland Theatre maintains a schedule of both blockbuster and international films, or you can check out some live theatre at the North Street Playhouse.
3. Tangier Island
Pick up doughnuts at the Corner Bakery and catch the 10 a.m. ferry from Onancock to Tangier Island. Go ahead and turn off your phone, you won’t find signal here. This small island has a big history involving, among other things, the Pocomoke Indians, terrible storms and epidemics, and escaped slaves who sought freedom with the occupying British Army during the War of 1812. The residents of Tangier Island primarily earn a living on the water, and speak in a hard to pinpoint dialect (Elizabethan Drawl?), which the island’s isolation has helped preserve for hundreds of years.
Rent a golf cart and explore the entire island in just a few hours. Even better, for $5 a local resident will take you on a “buggy” tour. There are a few B&Bs to stay in, a few restaurants to eat in and historic buildings to admire and learn in, but the real joy here is in meeting the locals and taking a minute to appreciate that this island is still a few feet above sea-level in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
4. (Some of the) Northern Neck
You’re already on an island in the middle of the bay; get weird and keep going West. Take the ferry from Tangier to Reedville. As you arrive, the smell from the menhaden processing plant may be a bit overwhelming, but once you get past it, you’ll find a town filled with beautiful former homes of wealthy ship captains and easy access to the Virginia’s Northern Neck.
An entirely worthwhile stop between Reedville and your mandatory lunch at the Northern Neck Burger Co. in Kilmarnock is the Hughlett Point Nature Preserve, where undeveloped beaches, wetlands and dunes are open to the public. Take it easy though, this is the home of the Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle, which depends on an undisturbed beach habitat.
A few miles south of Kilmarnock, Irvington and White Stone are two small towns with a good mix of things to do, see and eat. These two towns are all about the water, though, so after dinner at The Sandpiper or Willaby’s in White Stone, consider staying at the Tide’s Inn, which is perched on a cove in Irvington.
Plan the rest of your journey over bourbon and ginger in the comfort of a ridiculously perfect find like Waveland in Deltaville. Lodging options are limited in town, but Airbnb is your friend here.
Situated right on the Chesapeake Bay, and bounded by the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers, Deltaville is where you go when you are done going. In town, there are cute shops, family-friendly restaurants and even a good hardware store (in case remember that you need a new hammer mid-trip). If you’re interested in learning about the former “Boat Building Capital of The Chesapeake,” the Deltaville Maritime Museum will deliver. At the end of the day, though, the right move would be to fire up your Airbnb’s grill and watch a few boats make their way to the Deltaville Marina on Jackson Creek.
David Shultz somehow spent many years convinced he was better at writing songs than travel articles, and, now, as the father of triplets, has little time for either.