Virginia's Eastern Shore: Cape Charles

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Cape Charles Renewal

Situated on the Chesapeake Bay side of Virginia's Eastern Shore, on the peninsula that extends from Delaware and Maryland down into Virginia, Cape Charles provides a harbor for visitors who want a bit of history in a quiet contemporary setting. The town of Cape Charles arose as a railroad terminus in the late 1800s, the brainchild of two Pennsylvania tycoons. Because building a railroad bridge from the Delmarva Peninsula to the mainland was beyond engineering capabilities of the time, a barge and steamer link was the only feasible option. The freight and passengers would move between the railroad line and water transportation. The spot that was chosen as the link – the southern terminus of the railroad with a harbor and connecting channel – became the town of Cape Charles.

The new town thrived, an early “planned community.” It had a newspaper, three movie theaters, a school, and numerous houses of worship. Its paved streets, electricity, telephones, and central water and sewage system gave it a more cosmopolitan air than its Eastern Shore neighbors, while its link to the mainland helped the entire region to prosper.

With the decline of the railroad industry after World War II and the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964, the town began to decline. With the careful attention of locals and concerned “come-here’s,” however, the pretty little town has new life in the 21st century, while providing new life to residents and visitors alike. Today, Cape Charles offers lodging, dining, and recreation in a quaint, historic setting. The main business section on Mason Street is two blocks from a Bay beach, pier, and harbor, in the middle of the Cape Charles Historic District.

You'll Love Our Nature

BayCreek2Among the best parts of Virginia’s Eastern Shore are the parts most unchanged by shifting economic tides: the beauty of the peninsula’s nature. As the local tourism industry boasts, “You’ll love our nature!”

One natural way to enjoy the whole of Virginia’s Eastern Shore is by bike, with flat land, many quiet roads, and expansive views of marshes, creeks, and birds. Rt. 600/Seaside Road provides 50 miles of biking along the Atlantic Ocean.  The Chesapeake Bay isn’t as easy to see by bike, since roads typically dead end at the water rather than meandering alongside it. (see the Delmarva Drive web site for more information on biking the Delmarva Peninsula), and the Atlantic Ocean. In the Cape Charles area, four miles of trails are maintained at Kiptopeke State Park. Virginia’s Senator John Warner is said to be a regular biker on the Shore’s roads. The annual Between the Waters Bike Tour in October provides an opportunity to ride marked trails, with traffic control and SAG stops while benefiting Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore.

The most obvious way to enjoy the nature of the Shore is on the water. Since I didn’t have my own kayak with me on this trip, SouthEast Expeditions was my guide. The ecotour and outdoor recreation company is owned by Dave Burden, who not only knows his sport but who has deep knowledge of and passion for the area’s ecosystem. He isn’t originally from the area, but became attached while visiting and knew that the peninsula was a natural home for his interests. Dave’s tours combine recreation with environmental learning, as the paddlers wish.

SouthEast Expeditions also runs a tour out of Onancock, farther up the peninsula, nestled further inland than Cape Charles, up Onancock Creek. Like the Cape Charles location, the operators know more than just how to paddle a boat. Bill and Mary Burnham work as kayak guides in the Florida Keys as well as the Eastern Shore. They combine travel writing, outdoor writing, and guiding. They have published eight books on outdoor exploration and written numerous travel articles.

My SouthEast Expeditions tour group went on the wine paddle. Talk about great combos – kayaking, education, and a wine tasting! The Paddle Your Glass Off Kayak Winery Tour is a favorite of SouthEast guests. Each couple who signs up gets a free bottle of wine as part of the package. If you'd like to buy more wine after sampling, the winery will cheerfully transport your purchases back to the kayak launch while you paddle your way back. Dave says he's never had problems with groups "drinking and driving," although he does recall one group whose return journey took much longer than the trip over. They couldn't seem to chat and paddle at the same time, he explains, but stopped whenever they wanted to talk.

On the first part of our tour, we paddled to a clam bed where Dave Burden taught us about harvesting clams – we later enjoyed the clams freshly roasted, seasoned only by the slightly briny Chesapeake Bay water. I never knew how good fresh clams could be! Dave Burden had learned firsthand about clamming as a clammer, during his early years of operating SouthEast Expeditions – as most entrepreneurs can relate, a new business is often supported by owners who hold second jobs! We paddled up the creek, with a eco-lesson from Dave, who let us enjoy the scenery as we learned.

Paddle and Taste

Our paddle took us from Kings Creek to Church Creek to nearby Chatham Vineyards, owned by the Wehner family, another of the area’s come-here’s who has helped to bring new life into the area without spoiling its beauty. Our group was picked up creekside by a Model T "taxi" and taken to the wine tasting.

Owner Jon Wehner began planting the vineyards in 1999 and constructed the winery in 2005. He learned grape growing and winemaking from his parents, who operated Great Falls Vineyard in Great Falls, VA for thirty years. The property is on the historic Chatham Farm, which has been a working farm for four centuries. Still standing on the property is the Federal-period brick house, built in 1818.

Chatham vineyards contain 32,000 Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot vines. The winery produces Church Creek wines, including a Cabernet Franc, a late harvest dessert wine, a steel Chardonnay and an oak Chardonnary, a Rose, and a Merlot. They also have their vintner’s blend, a Bordeaux-style made from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, barrel-aged in French oak and created from the vintner's choice of select barrels. (Follow them on Twitter @chathamvineyard.)  

Bay CreekA new addition to the area is Bay Creek Resort & Club, a 1,729-acre golf resort community with a marina on the Chesapeake Bay. It has two signature golf courses from Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as well as walking trails, shops, and restaurants.


Bay Creek AquaThe dining at Bay Creek’s Aqua restaurant matches creative contemporary dishes with a rich modern setting. The peach and tomato salad was a surprising combination that worked amazingly well. My salmon over  Mediterranean pasta was an imaginative composite of tastes, adding artichokes, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese, and asparagus to the fish and pasta. The Bailey’s crème brulee for dessert makes the original crème brulee seem bland. To balance the experience fully, Aqua offers an impressive selection of beers and wines and liquors.

CapeCharlesCoffeeShopAt the Cape Charles Coffee House, you can start your day with a breakfast worthy of any big-town restaurant. The food is satisfying to the taste buds and the appetite, and the setting is a sample of the down-home history of the area. The building on Mason Avenue in Cape Charles, Virginia was first a bank, then a men's haberdashery. It was built a century ago, in the 1910s, during the area's boom years, when travel and commerce made its way down the Eastern Shore through the town. Much of the building retains its original materials. It sports classic tin ceilings, a gorgeous wood floor, and art deco chandeliers. The walls display local artwork, further tying the business into the history of the community and giving visitors ever-changing choices of notable souvenirs.

If you really want to build your energy for the day's travels, begin with their signature Cafe Cape Charles, a double shot of fresh brewed espresso, hazelnut flavor, rich caramel, chocolate, and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream.

Cape Charles Coffee Shop

Breakfast options at the coffee house include both the healthy - like the yogurt parfait pictured here - and the hearty - like the phenomenal French toast. All of the creations I saw, at my table and those around, were presented with artistic flair to match the culinary quality.

Like many of the newer Eastern Shore establishments, the Cape Charles Coffee House is owned and operated by "come here's," those one-time visitors who fell in love with the area and left the rat race of the big city to settle down in a more relaxed place. Marshal and Roberta Romeo and their son came from New York. They rejuvenated the building, opened the restaurant, and are still active operators. You can see Roberta in the photo above, her chef's garb demonstrating her part in the food planning and preparation, and her posture showing her warm, friendly, hands-on approach to making customers feel welcome.

Besides memorable breakfasts, Cape Charles Coffee House also serves sandwiches, salads, soups, and desserts. They will pack a picnic lunch for day trips to the nearby beaches or parks.

CapeCharlesBlue4Numerous bed and breakfasts are available in Cape Charles. A fabulous new option is Blue, a six-room boutique hotel with spacious, luxurious contemporary rooms, each a unique work of art. Blue is a designer masterpiece. All of the wood in the hotel is re-worked from the wood of the original building, including floors, furniture, and cabinets. Mosaics are scattered in the rooms were created by artist Sara Baldwin of New Ravenna Mosaics and Stone

CapeCharlesBlue6Virginia's Eastern Shore is a friendly gathering of natives and newcomers. It’s not surprising that come-here’s come here to visit and come back to live. As Roberta Romeo of Cape Charles Coffee House explains, the town is “almost Mayberry.” It’s a “collection of wonderful and exciting people who stop and say, ‘How are you?’ and they care about the answer.”


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