Virginia – known for its ham, history and Hokies. Home of the first colony of the New World and the biggest naval base in the US, Virginia is not one of the easily forgotten states. But within these diverse East Coast borders sits a quaint little area, once a destination for trade and commerce, now a secret escape for those who remember its existence.
The Eastern Shore lies just north of the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 23-mile albatross spanning the opening of the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic, is the southern gate to the little strip of land two counties full of small beach towns.
Among these is Cape Charles, the biggest and most southern. Home to 1,009 Americans, this harbor town was put on the
map when the Pennsylvania Railroad finally brought train tracks to a more accessible, more southern end, allowing cargo and passenger travel to reach the other side of the Virginian Chesapeake Bay easier.
But as we all know, the train business eventually died, or at least went into a serious state of comatose. Now, Cape Charles’ big business is a cement company and a golf course designed by two golfing legends – Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Now, the citizens of this all-but-forgotten little beach town try to make it summer to summer, leaning on tourism to stay on the map.
But Cape Charles still seems to be a town driven by at 60 mph on Route 13. Or flown over by Navy sailors practicing their helicopter maneuvers from the opposite side of the bay.
Basically forgotten for travelers who don’t venture down the Eastern Shore side roads that lead to bay-birthed beaches.
Why people gravitate towards the million-member Virginia Beach side or the even larger Hampton Roads area for their Virginian beach vacations as opposed to the quieter side of the coast is a mystery. Maybe its the appealing nightlife or the promise of multiple fast food chains to choose from. Maybe its the overcrowded beaches or the one-side six lanes of backed up traffic.
Cape Charles may not have those things, but you’re guaranteed a peaceful, arts-filled experience if you choose to remember this small town.
Planned out on square blocks (My favorite kind of city planning. It just makes so much sense!) the seemingly randomly named streets like Fig Street and Tazewell Avenue are lined with cute, colorful cottages, a beach novelist’s dream setting.
The town’s downtown is literally steps from the bay’s beach. With shallow water and weak currents, the beaches of Cape Charles are perfect for families and those wanting to relax. There is sure to be plenty of room to make camp on the beach for a day without the worry of someone making theirs six feet away. You’re nearest sandy neighbor may be even 60 feet away if you choose to rent a house in the nearby Bay Creek community, where the beaches are quieter and the night sky has more stars.
Now, let’s talk about shopping because Cape Charles is virtually heaven for those who love one-of-a-kind boutiques and artsy stores. The town’s main street – Mason Avenue – is home to storefronts full of clothing, pottery, paintings, jewelry and, of course, souvenirs.
One of my favorites is a little shop called Boardwalk. The place have been juggled between owners in recent years, but it still has its beach town boutique charm. Offering almost everything you can think of with a beachy charm, Boardwalk embodies what a store at the beach should be.
Another favorite sits at the center of the street and the center of local social life. Watson’s Hardware Store may not appeal to the average tourist, but for a frequent visitor and lover of musty-smelling workshops as I am, this old-time store has my heart. It has literally everything you could ever need, but you might have to sweep some dust off the packaging before you buy it. Town citizens enjoy rocking the day away with the store’s owner on the outside rocking chairs during the summer or having a few beers with friends on the couches near the fireplace during the winter.
Amid the many boutiques lies an equally charming coffee shop called Cape Charles Coffee House – where visitors become locals.
And I can’t forget about Rayfield’s Pharmacy, complete with an old time soda shoppe. Go here (and the seasonally open Chuckletown Productions) for a prime selection of Cape Charles souvenirs among the standard drug store items.
One last notable mention is one of the newer members of Mason Avenue – Brown Dog Ice Cream. Making a name for themselves with their handcrafted ice cream, Brown Dog’s flavor selections vary day-to-day. A few fruit-flavored delights with some classics, like chocolate and coffee flavors, usually make it on the daily menu. Regardless of your choice, you’re sure to leave satisfied and refreshed.
So, if you want a beach vacation without the hassle of pesky tourists and overcrowded everything, consider Cape Charles, and don’t let this little historic harbor town fall forgotten.