Discover a coast where you can watch wild ponies run, eat world-class BBQ, and dig your own clams.
The trip starts near the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, which points directly toward Virginia Beach. The Chesapeake Bay laps the land's west-side marshes, while the Atlantic rushes its east-side beaches. Up and down this skinny strip, small villages are anchored by mom-and-pop marinas, and the landscape features a patchwork of marsh grasses. The people here swear by the stretch of the shore.
Cape Charles Coffee House (757/331-1880) joins a string of galleries, shops, restaurants, and cafés on Mason Avenue, the central hub of the town of Cape Charles. Roberta Romeo and her husband, Marshall, grew up outside Manhattan and lived in Sonoma for 26 years. Then they visited the Eastern Shore and moved their lives here. Now they refuse to leave.
Next door, designer and builder Patrick Hand has transformed an old five-and-dime into Blue (757/377-4222), a six-suite, loft-style boutique inn with minimalist decor and 110-year-old pine floors. A few blocks away you'll find artist Meredith Restein's gorgeous necklaces made from real orchids at Breezes Day Spa (757/331-3108). Watson's Hardware (757/331-4444) has been selling beach essentials amid the usual hardware staples since 1910, and hosts an unofficial happy hour for regulars each afternoon.
Hawaiian shirts on a clothesline flutter in the wind at the parking lot entrance of Woody's Beach BBQ on Chincoteague Island. The tees have been a signal of the place's laid-back atmosphere since the restaurant opened in 2007. Owners Gail and Larry Parsons slow-smoke their racks of ribs with three different kinds of wood. Grab a seat at a picnic table and top the meaty slabs with either a sweet, Memphis-style sauce or a tangy, Carolina-style version.
The most famous inhabitants of this part of the Eastern Shore remain the Chincoteague ponies, two herds of wild horses that graze among the dune grasses of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Accessing the protected ponies on foot proves to be nearly impossible, so I board a pontoon boat captained by Dan Davis (757/894-0103), a native and waterman turned tour guide. He navigates us to a point off the beach, and we idle there, watching these shaggy animals feed and frolic.
The perfect place on the Eastern Shore for a glass of wine and a few bites of cheese is the back porch of The Inn at Onancock (757/789-7711). You'll share interesting conversation with owners Kris and Lisa LaMontagne, who left fast-paced jobs in Washington, D.C., to find peace in this little village connected to the bay by Onancock Creek. Their elegant bed-and-breakfast puts emphasis on breakfast, thanks to Lisa's dozen years as a professional chef.
After the nightly Wine-Down cocktail hour at the inn, stroll to dinner at the Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant (757/787-7400) for local seafood and vegetables with hints of French and Italian influence. Then head back to dreams of tomorrow morning’s gourmet pastries.
Capt. Mark Crockett sails twice daily from Tangier Island to Onacock on the Joyce Marie II, a ferry he built from a lobster-boat hull (757/891-2505). He grew up a crab fisherman on Tangier, but now his main business is ferrying folks to and from the place his family has called home for generations.
As you walk around Tangier, you'll likely meet the island's mayor, James "Ooker" Eskridge. He's also a commercial waterman
just like his father and grandfather. It's the thick of soft-shell crab season, so he wakes up at 2:30 every morning and heads
to his shanty to prepare crabs for shipment.
Ooker's roots run deep. Many families, like his, trace their ancestries to the original settlers, who landed ashore from England three centuries ago. Hence, the accent: Talk to any local and you'll hear that Cornish-tinged dialect.
Left: Tangier Island mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge
Its ribbed rows of docks connected to crab shanties, houses covered in faded paint, and abundant bicycles and golf carts all play into the raw, simple beauty of Tangier. The reality is that it can be a fairly isolated place, right out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. When the water freezes, ferry service stops, and private planes are the only way on and off. But for the island's residents, it's splendid isolation.