It's easy to think of the Eastern Shore of Virginia as one place, but that's too easy.
After all, it's a good 70 miles from the tip of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Maryland state line, and the trip up U.S. Route 13 will take you through all sorts of small towns, each of which has its own personality.
If you're planning a day trip, you can do some research online at esvatourism.org, which has plenty of information about what to do, where to eat and places to shop.
But truthfully, it's more fun to just take Interstate 64 East to the Northampton Boulevard exit, follow the signs to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and head to the Eastern Shore with nothing but a day full of time to spend.
The pleasure of a trip to the Eastern Shore begins before you even arrive there – because to get to Virginia's Eastern Shore you must drive across the breathtaking Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which was hailed as one of the "Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World" shortly after it opened in 1964.
The bridge-tunnel, a 23-mile crossing, connects Virginia Beach to the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. There is a toll to cross — $15 during peak hours (Friday through Sunday from May 15-Sept. 15) and $13 the rest of the year. That toll may sound steep to first-timers, but the experience is worth it. The view crossing the bay is lovely (and if you're making a longer trip up the coast, this route can save you hours by avoiding metro traffic).
There is a substantial discount ($3 peak hours, $5 off-peak) if your return trip across the bridge is within 24 hours – but only if you use your E-ZPass transponder. (If you haven't driving the bridge-tunnel in a while, the EZ-Pass requirement is new, having been implemented at the start of this year.)
When you pay that toll to enter the bridge headed north , you will receive a coupon good for discounts at Virginia Originals & The Chesapeake Grill. That's the gift shop and restaurant located at the entrance to the first tunnel along the bridge's path, and it's worth a stop if you're hungry.
As you exit the bridge you will hit a welcome center for the Eastern Shore. Unless you want your day trip to be completely off-the-cuff, you definitely want to stop here. It has brochures and other literature for hundreds of destinations, restaurants and businesses, as well as a helpful staff to answer questions during the day. Also, if you are looking to stretch your legs, the welcome center's parking lot abuts an entrance to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, which offers a variety of hiking trails, overlooks and nature walks.
I visited on a nice day and covered about 2 miles on the refuge's paths, including a trek through the butterfly trail and a scramble up the steps (65 of them, I counted) to the top of a scenic overlook. The trails are quite peaceful and showcase all different types of trees and foliage.
Driving the shore
You could have a very fine day trip just meandering aimlessly, pulling off Route 13 whenever something catches your eye, or to hit certain shops or restaurants that you found at the welcome center.
But it's also a good idea to have a destination or two around which to build your itinerary. A serious favorite is the historic lighthouse at Assateague, which will take you all the way up the shore until just before the Maryland state line. The 142-foot lighthouse dates back to 1867. It was recently renovated and given a fresh coat of paint, so it looks great.
The structure is open for tours ($5 adults, $3 kids) every day from June through September, but only Fridays through Sundays in April, May, October and November. It is closed over the winter. And be forewarned: It closes early, at 3 p.m., so if you want to make the long, steep climb to the light tower, get their on time. The tours are worth the cost. It's very interesting to learn the details of the light's history and to get that wonderful view from up top.
The lighthouse is located within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, so you will have to pay a few bucks (depending on time of day) enter the refuge before you get to the lighthouse. The refuge is another great hiking spot along the shore, and it is a magical moment when you are walking along a wooded path and you get your first glimpse of the red-and-white lighthouse through the trees.
To get to Assateague, you will pass through Chincoteague, which sits at the northern tip of the "barrier islands" located between the Eastern Shore proper and the Atlantic Ocean. Chincoteague, famous for its ponies, has the look and feel of a family-friendly tourist resort – much more so than the most of the other quaint, quiet villages in the region. Make sure to stop by the Museum of Chincoteague, which is home to the stuffed remains of Misty and Stormy, the island's two most famous equines.
Between Route 13 and Chincoteague Island, by the way, you will drive right past NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility, which has launched many a rocket and which just last month launched a spacecraft that took almost two tons of supplies to the International Space Station. The facility has a free visitor center that will be fascinating to anyone with an interest in space exploration.
If you have an interest in regional history, make sure to check out the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, just off of Route 13. It's a sublime little museum dedicated to the oral history of the barrier islands. This is not a flashy, high-tech museum, but its lovingly preserved artifacts and first-hand narratives form a time capsule that will truly immerse you in the background of this distinctive region.
The Barrier Islands Center was one of the highlights of my trip. It's a small museum, but the second floor is filled with treasures – everyday items that represent the lives of ordinary residents of the barrier islands. I was especially moved by a collection of vintage musical instruments – a cello, a violin and a harp – positioned around a piece of music titled "A Little Strip of Land." Looking at those instruments, I imagined friends and families gathered together at the end of a day and making improvised music together.
Each room on the second floor contains accounts of oral history, with residents describing what it was like to survive a big storm or to work the bay as a waterman a century ago. If you visit, make sure to check out the museum's famous twisted chimney, and ask to see the small preserved buildings out back that date to the structure's original use as an alms house farm.
The downtown districts
One of the distinct joys of any day trip to the Eastern Shore is getting out of your vehicle and walking around the downtown districts of the various towns along the way. Each locality has one, whether it's the bustling tourist district of Chincoteague or the picturesque corner shops at Willis Wharf. All of them are perfect for strolling on a temperate day.
If you stop by Eastville, you can check out the courthouse that dates back to 1731. The historic complex, which also includes a clerk's office and prison, has distinctive architecture and original furniture. The current courthouse, which is within walking distance, contains public records that date to 1632.
At Cape Charles, I chose to spend some time at the beach on the Chesapeake Bay, which has clean white sand and a public fishing pier. When I visited on a Friday morning, there were fewer than two dozen people on the expansive beach, and it was the perfect setting to sit and relax.
From the beach, it was a short walk up to Mason Avenue, home to Cape Charles' charming downtown. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, but your first stop should be the Brown Dog Ice Cream Parlor, which makes homemade ice cream in small batches (the menu of flavors will change from one day to the next, and sometimes from one hour to the next). My blackberry-peach ice cream was delicious, and somehow it tasted better because of the wooden spoons the shop provides.
Eating on the Eastern Shore, whether it's a quick snack or a sit-down dinner, is an adventure. You won't find a lot of fast food restaurants here, and with all due respect to those fine chains, you wouldn't want to eat generic burgers on this day trip anyway – not when there are so many unique independent eateries from which to choose.
Some are fancy, such as Aqua at the King's Creek Marina at Cape Charles. By contrast, Little Italy in Nassawadox doesn't look like much from the outside, but the fare is especially good. Needless to say, there are plenty of places to get fresh seafood dishes, including the Great Machipongo Clam Shack.
I had lunch at Woody's in Chincoteague. The restaurant is located in a battered old trailer, but don't let that scare you off. It is surrounded by picnic tables and small play areas for kids, and while I waited for my spring salad, I took advantage of one of the hammocks made available to customers. (The salad, with lots of berries mixed in with the greens and the grilled chicken, was substantial and very tasty. I got excited when the cashier mentioned a homemade orange-vinaigrette dressing, but my hopes were dashed in the next instant when she said, "No, wait, we ran out of that one.")
Themed day trips
The Eastern Shore has enough distinctive characteristics that it would be easy for many Peninsula residents to arrange a "themed" day trip based on their own specific hobbies or passions.
If you are into antiques, for example, you could build your day trip around a visit to the Blue Crow Antique Mall in Keller, which is billed as the second-largest antique mall in the state. Along the way to Keller, you could make side trips to Cape Charles Station in Cape Charles and several antique shops in Exmore. Continue north a few miles past the mall in Keller, and you could stop by Onancock and visit Timothy Smith & Sons and Market Street Antiques. Similar shops can be found in almost every town along Route 13.
Or maybe you like to collect the works of local artists and crafters. There are dozens of galleries and shops showcasing original works. The region is famous for its woodworks, especially hand-crafted duck decoys. But a day on the Eastern Shore can also produce a treasure trove of paintings, pottery, blown glass and other works.
The Eastern Shore does not have as many wineries as Central Virginia, but it has enough that an oenophile could make a full day visiting the vineyards at Bloxom, Chatham in Machipongo, and Holly Grove in Franktown. If you want to do a winery day trip, note that Bloxom and Holly Grove are only open to the public on Saturdays.
Chatham is open daily from April to December; from January through March, it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Chatham is a mid-sized operation with a very reasonable $3 tasting fee. I didn't partake, but enjoyed visiting the tasting room and gift shop.
The Chatham Winery is located on the water and is accessible by a special kayak tour ($89 per person covers 90 minutes on the water, 90 minutes at the winery and a complementary bottle of wine).
When I made my day trip, I left home around 9 a.m. and returned around 7:15 p.m. Making several stops along the way, it took me a little more than four hours to reach Chincoteague and Assateague. Driving home, making no extended stops, took about two hours.
In truth, the drive itself is a big part of the fun. Route 13 and its small side roads are scenic and peaceful, a nice break from city traffic and generic interstate. Put on some good music – I spent the day listening to an advance copy of Bruce Hornsby's new two-CD live solo recording – and remind yourself how enjoyable it can be to just drive.
One last piece of advice: Take your day trip at a leisurely pace, and you will be able to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel once in the daytime and again in the evening's twilight.
Mike Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479.
Want to go?
The Eastern Shore welcome center is located just off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and can be reached by phone at 757-331-1660. The tourism commission is at 25-A Market Street in Onancock, and can be reached at 757-787-8268. Information on the region can be found online at esvatourism.org.
Assateague Lighthouse. Located within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Chincoteague Island along Route 175. Hours are 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Open daily from June through September, and open Fridays through Sundays in April, May, October and November. Closed December-March. Adults $5, children $3. Phone: 757-336-3696.
Eastville Courthouse complex. Courthouse Road and Willow Oak Road, Eastville. The Courthouse Green, which includes the historic courthouse and debtors prison, is open to the public free of charge from April-November. Info: 757-678-0440. To peruse the historic court records, visit the active courthouse, which is nearby (at 5229 The Homes). Info: 757-678-046
Barrier Islands Center. Just off Route 13 at Machipongo. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. Phone: 757-678-5550.
Eastern Shore Railway Museum. 18468 Dunne Avenue, Parksley. Open April through November. Hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1-4 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. Phone: 757-665-7245.
Bloxom Winery. 26130 Mason Road (Route 681), Bloxom. Open Saturdays only, from noon-7 p.m. Phone: 757-665-5670.
Chatham Vineyards. 9232 Chatham Road, Machipongo. Open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April through December. From January-March, open Thursday through Monday. Phone: 757-678-5588.
Holly Grove Vineyards. 6404 Holly Bluff Drive, Franktown. Open Saturdays only. Phone: 757-442-2844.
Kayak Winery tour. $89 per person includes a 90-minute round trip kayak ride, a 90-minute tour of Chatham Vineyards and a complementary bottle of wine. Tours generally leave around 1 p.m. Call at least a day in advance for reservations. Phone: 757-331-2680.
Parks and outdoor sites
Kiptopeke State Park. 3540 Kiptopeke Drive, Kiptopeke. Open daily from dawn until 10 p.m. Fishing pier open 24 hours a day. Parking is $3 per day weekdays, $4 on weekends. Phone: 800-933-7275.
Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. 32205 Seaside Road, Kiptopeke. Trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is free. Phone: 757-331-3425.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. 8231 Beach Road, Chincoteague. Open daily 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Visitor center 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Daily pass: $8. Phone: 757-336-6122.
About the series
Summer Day Trips takes a look at five places to make a quick getaway for the day before the season ends. All within driving distance of the Peninsula, join us each Sunday in August for Summer Day Trips.
TODAY: The Eastern Shore
Coming soon: Petersburg and Edenton, N.C.
Go to dailypress.com/features for photos and to read about our first day trips to The Northern Neck and Carytown/Richmond.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun