Virginia’s Eastern Shore
Beyond 13 and South of Chincoteague
Wilmington to Onancock: 167 miles, 31/2 hours
Attribute it to the 1961 movie “Misty” and the famed July pony swim, but the northern town of Chincoteague gets all the attention on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and most Chincoteague visitors lose sight of the rest of this distinctive region of Virginia. So my daughter, Katrina, and I set off in late May to explore the environs of the charming small town of Onancock (pop. 1,500), known for its Victorian architecture, restaurants, shops and access to Tangier Island.
The first day, as we made the obligatory stop at Chincoteague, it was sunny—so much so that I got burnt during our afternoon lying on the terrific beach at Assateague Island National Seashore (nps.gov/asis). We ended our day with a two-hour sea-life expedition on the Chincoteague Channel and Bay with the knowledgeable and amusing Capt. Barry, who announced our departure by blaring the soundtrack from “Hook,” knew all the locals, and wasn’t afraid to get messy (captainbarry.net). “Hey, if I’m going to be on the boat all day,” he says, “I’m going to have fun, too.”
Then it was off to Onancock, 50 minutes from Chincoteague on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Eastern Shore. We were greeted by our very friendly host, Linda Nicola, owner of the Colonial Manor Inn Bed & Breakfast (colonialmanorinn.com). Our B&B had all of the essentials—a carousel horse in the enclosed front porch, heirloom decor (each piece with its own story), meticulously chosen furnishings and huge, delicious breakfasts.
On our first day in Onancock we set out with Southeast Expeditions (southeastexpeditions.net) for a kayak winery tour that took us to Chatham Vineyards (chathamvineyards.com). “Paddle Your Glass Off,” says the website, and I certainly did. Between the wind and the current on the broad Church Creek, I probably kayaked double the distance as I zigzagged back and forth unintentionally. “This is one of the worst currents ever,” our guide Margaret said as she tried to soothe my wounded pride.
The wine made the exertion worth it. The family-owned Chatham Vineyards, set on a historic farm, grows its own grapes and bottles wine on-site. After sipping award-winning vintages such as the steel-fermented 2011 Church Creek Chardonnay, featured in Wine Enthusiast as a top 100 Chardonnay in the country, I felt ready for the return paddle, with the three bottles of wine I’d purchased secured in a front compartment of the kayak.
Rain forced us to cancel our much-anticipated day visit to Tangier Island, an old Chesapeake watermen’s island so tiny the entire town goes to the high school prom. Instead, we spent the afternoon browsing the small collection of galleries, antiques stores and shops in Onancock and eating Smith Island cake at Becca’s Cakes and More (beccascakesandmore.com), which was harder to find than we’d expected but definitely worth it. My daughter and I loved the rich slice of coconut cake with cream cheese icing that we shared, despite the fact that I have never liked coconut (except in piña coladas) and Katrina didn’t expect to be a fan of the cream cheese.
On the drive back to Wilmington, we stopped by Chincoteague in a last ditch attempt to see the famous ponies (Nicola had told us over breakfast that if all else failed, we could see Chincoteague ponies corralled at the Refuge Inn, next to McDonald’s on Maddox Boulevard, but that seemed absurdly touristy to us). Alas, the heavy rain prevented our pony-watching boat tour, but we did discover the homemade ice cream at The Island Creamery (islandcreamery.net), which Katrina and I agreed was the best ice cream we’d ever had. Confession: We actually discovered it on our first pass through Chincoteague and had to go back for more. That’s what a vacation is for, though, right?
Home Base: Colonial Manor Inn, Onancock, rated highly by Trip Advisor and “Family Fun” magazine. If you’re not a B&B fan, try Onancock’s boutique Charlotte Hotel (thecharlottehotel.com).
Eat Here: Bizzotto’s (bizzottos.esva.net), Onancock. My daughter declared her dinner “the best lobster I’ve ever had.”
Take Home: Smith Island Cake from Becca’s, U.S. 13 in Tasley, written up in Saveur magazine.
Shopping $$$$: Timothy Smith and Sons (timothysmithandsons.com), Onancock, sells fine American antiques. The piece that caught my eye? A circa 1730-1740 Virginia Eastern Shore raised panel turkey-breast corner cupboard, priced at $38,000.
Shopping $: Market St. Antiques (antiquesmarketstreet.com), Onancock, for salvage, collectibles and antiques. Bought—two 11-inch by 14-inch vintage photos, $10 each.
Kudos: Onancock was named among the top 10 coolest small towns in America in 2009 by Budget Travel magazine.
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