Stars to sea: Losing yourself on Virginia’s Eastern Shore

Martha Steger

The famous pony swim brings new foals and their mothers to Chincoteague for the annual July auction.

Virginia’s Eastern Shore is full of contradictions. I’ve never been geographically lost here because I grew up on one of the peninsula’s produce farms, but by driving a few miles east or west, I’d run into a tangle of lanes and woodlands opening onto either the Atlantic Ocean or the Chesapeake Bay. I would then back up to find the turn I missed, often having an engaging conversation with a local resident in the process.

The famous pony swim brings new foals and their mothers to Chincoteague for the annual July auction.
The famous pony swim brings new foals and their mothers to Chincoteague for the annual July auction.

It’s delightfully easy, on the other hand, to get lost in time and space on this, the East Coast’s longest stretch of undeveloped coastline. Another dichotomy is the area’s heritage and its culinary appeals. English mariners anchored in this part of the bay prior to Jamestown’s settlement in 1607 and I’ve read a sampling of the nation’s oldest continuous court records in Eastville’s courthouse. Yet, I’ve also seen 21st-century aquaculture and viticulture technology employed at aqua farms and wineries along the shore’s culinary trail.

Insider Tip: October is Wine and Brine Month, combining local wines and oysters at events throughout the area.

Now that summer crowds are gone, fall is the perfect time to explore — by car or by bike — the shore’s seaside and bayside roads, as well as Assateague Island’s nature trails. The wild Chincoteague ponies abound in small herds on the island and are in relaxed mode for photographers, with another year’s Pony Penning event behind them.

From NASA’s New Horizons to nautical history

With the New Horizons spacecraft hovering in the news for much of the past summer, Wallops Island Flight Facility Visitor Center — located on Route 175 heading onto Chincoteague Island — is a great place to explore. For an astronaut’s-eye view of the planets and moons in our solar system, see the Science on a Sphere Theatre with its stunning visuals produced from scientific data. Look online to find out which special events, such as the Sept. 28 total lunar eclipse, are happening before visiting one of the world’s oldest launch sites.

Online planning also ensures visitors don’t miss island events appealing to landlubbers in the family — though the ocean remains an appeal during Virginia’s Indian summer. The Decoy Carvers’ & Artists’ Association Decoy Show over Labor Day weekend (Sept. 5–6), as well as the island’s Second Saturday Art Stroll on Sept. 12, always draw visitors to Chincoteague. The upcoming Eastern Shore Birding & Wildlife Festival, Oct. 8–11 — with the annual Oyster Festival on Oct. 10 — appeals to the naturalist, paddler, hiker/biker, and artist (also the seafood-lover). The birding festival is a massive shore-wide event that provides access to locations not usually open to the public, as well as activities on public lands.

Tucked as it is close to sea level, the Eastern Shore’s flat terrain makes it ideal for bicycling novices, as well as for those who want to race through 100 miles a day. On Oct. 24, the 23rd annual Between the Waters Bike Tour will be held. ( History becomes more intimate in pastoral field-and-forest settings that haven’t changed much for at least 500 years. Four centuries’ architectural trends can be noted as bicyclists take bayside and seaside roads winding from the county seats of Accomac and Eastville.

With its active arts, wine, bed-and-breakfasts, and boutique scene, Cape Charles — at the southern tip of the Eastern Shore — encompasses a hub of activity not seen since its frenetically busy ferry and railroad days in the first half of the last century. Eat fresh, raw oysters to your heart’s content by the water’s edge or in a nearby Irish pub, then pick up evening entertainment here or watch the sun sink slowly into the bay at the Sunset Beach Inn’s beachside cafe, not far from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel entrance. If you’re not traveling across the amazing bridge-tunnel right away, stay the night at Sunset Beach Inn & RV Park or a nearby B&B. Departure the following day leaves time for revisiting nearby Kiptopeke State Park, with its own campsites and amenities, as well as the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.

I say “revisiting” because an old saying goes that once the sand gets in your shoes, you’ll be returning. I might add that once you taste the salt air and seafood — and see the stars in a pristine environment without a crowd of city lights — you’ll be lost in reverie, without any thought of contradictions.


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