Summer’s just starting to simmer here on the east coast, which can only mean one thing: It’s beach time! But, who wants to deal with overcrowded beaches, tacky souvenir shops and horrible beach traffic? For those looking for a low-key summer destination with loads of local flavor, Virginia’s Eastern Shore is your ultimate beach getaway!
Locally-harvested oysters, European-style wines, charming small towns and some of the East Coast’s most pristine waterfront scenery is what’s on the itinerary for this getaway. And located just about 3.5 hours from D.C., it’s a region that’s far enough away that you’ll feel like you’ve ventured into a whole different world, yet close enough to easily visit over a long weekend.
Get ready to escape, rejuvenate and indulge in this lesser-known Virginia beach destination. Here are my picks for where to eat, drink, stay in Virginia’s Eastern Shore… and what to do while you’re there!
Beach-time in Cape Charles!
It goes without saying that any trip to Virginia’s Eastern shore should include some serious beach time! Snag a spot on the expansive bayside beach in Cape Charles and soak in the rays with a good book and a double scoop of Brown Dog ice cream. But be sure to stick around, because the real treat unfolds at sunset… talk about a picture-perfect view, especially if you snag a spectacular sunset shot with the popular Cape Charles LOVEworks sculpture.
Small-town strolling (and window shopping!) in Onancock
There’s no shortage of charming small towns dotting this picturesque region, but Onancock is one of the best hubs around for artist’s studios, antique shops and restaurants. Spend some time strolling down Market Street, stopping into favorites like Market Street Antiques, the Red Queen Gallery, the Charlotte Hotel and Restaurant and North Street Gourmet along the way. Visiting on a Saturday? Then you’re in for an extra treat — the weekly Onancock Market is open Saturdays May through October. And if you’re looking for even more local flavor, hop on the 10 am ferry from Onancock to Tangier Island and spend a few hours exploring a locale so special it was named one of Nat Geo Travel’s 20 best trips in 2016.
Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge
The Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern gateway to Virginia’s Eastern Shore—soon after crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel from near Norfolk. The refuge is a key stop on bird and monarch butterfly migrations and is home to a visitor’s center as well as foot trails to observation platforms for guests to watch the natural scene around them.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t able to make it to this well-regarded wildlife refuge during my visit to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I tried, but there was so much to do, so little time. However, I have heard GREAT things and feel confident recommending it to anyone looking for some natural exploration and wildlife spotting during their visit to the region.
Hook-U-Up Gourmet – Cape Charles
With a menu that changes weekly, Hook-U-Up Gourmet is a laid-back neighborhood bistro dishing up high-end cuisine in the heart of downtown Cape Charles. Seasonal, local and fresh is the name of the game in chef Timothy Brown’s kitchen. Diners are rewarded with creative dishes like smoked local oysters on the half shell filled with spinach mousseline and manchego cream or salad with roasted pear, pomegranate and goat cheese “croutons.” Dinner’s served Tuesday thru Saturday—and reservations are strongly recommended, especially on weekends.
Seaside Grill – Willis Wharf
If you’re looking to lunch like a local, you’ll love a visit to the Seaside Grill. This laid-back eatery is filled with character and features reasonably priced dishes that are endemic to the regional cuisine. (Think: Fried oysters, sweet potato biscuits, crab cakes, homemade potato chips, etc.) And the ambiance is half the fun – the restaurant is located inside the former building of the general store (circa the 1800s) and overlooks the water (or, during low tide, the coastal flats). Tip: Don’t skip a slice of classic multi-layered Smith Island Cake to end the meal on a sweet note!
Island House Restaurant & Marina – Wachapreague
“Are ya from here, or ya come here?” Be prepared to hear this question from locals during your visit because this is one region that takes pride in generations of local living, all the while warmly welcoming out-of-towners to their little slice of oceanside bliss. At Island House Restaurant & Marina, the “from heres” and the “come heres” mix and mingle over traditional Eastern Shore delicacies and some seriously scenic seaside dining. Don’t miss the clam fritters, a recipe generously shared by local octogenarian Shirley Griffin (served only at lunch) or any dish featuring local Sewansecott oysters, harvested just around the bend by the family-owned H.M. Terry Co. (A must try—we’re on the Virginia Oyster Trail, after all!)
Cape Charles Coffee House
Start your day on a caffeinated note at the buzz-worthy Cape Charles Coffee House, the hub of all morning activity in downtown Cape Charles. Here, nothing goes better with one of their freshly brewed coffees or handcrafted lattes than a freshly baked sfogliatella pastry, a flaky Italian treat filled with ricotta and orange. If the 1910 restored bank’s ornate interior doesn’t charm you (like tin-tiled ceilings, art deco chandeliers, gold-framed mirrors), the cozy neighborhood vibe surely will.
Kick back and enjoy a leisurely afternoon of wine-tasting at the Eastern Shore’s only winery, the picturesque Chatham Vineyards. Here, a mineral-rich soil, maritime climate and a talented husband-wife team has led to an array of wines that have a personality completely unique to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The standout, in my opinion, is the Church Creek Steel-Fermented Chardonnay, though red-wine lovers will surely appreciate their merlot and cab franc varieties as well. And don’t take my word for it… the wines are held in such high regard that you can find Chatham’s vintages on the menus at top DMV restaurants including the Dabney and Woodberry Kitchen.
The Shanty (Cape Charles)
If you’re looking for some late night ruckus and some fun tiki-inspired cocktails, the Shanty in Cape Charles is the place to go. Snag a spot on the deck at this waterfront restaurant and just kick back and enjoy the scene. Beer aficionados will love sampling the craft beers on tap (many of which are local) while others will be happy to go down the list of their creative cocktails – ranging from classic margaritas and orange crushes to house specialties like the Chesapeake Lemonade (with Blue Ridge vodka, coconut water, simple syrup and fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice) and the Shan-Tea (with blackberry whiskey, iced tea, lemon juice and simple syrup.) Cheers!
Hotel Cape Charles
Consider the Hotel Cape Charles the ultimate basecamp for your Eastern Shore getaway! This surprisingly hip and modern respite in the heart of downtown Cape Charles will delight. With bright wall colors, wooden accents and lots of natural light, the hotel emits a very European vibe. Rooms are super spacious and comfortable… the perfect place to return to after a long day of exploration. And – BONUS! – all guests can enjoy complimentary wi-fi and a light-fare breakfast.
LOOKING FOR MORE EASTERN SHORE FUN? Head a little further north for a night or weekend in Chincoteague, Virginia. My top Chincoteague things to do will be posted soon!
**DISCLAIMER: Many of my meals, accommodations and activities for this trip were provided by the Virginia Tourism Corporation. As always, all recommendations and opinions are completely my own.**