The Forgotten Gem of Virginia

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.DSC_0285

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.

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Hole 4 on the Palmer Course is one of many holes that provide beautiful views of the Chesapeake Bay.

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.

Old Crows' Nest sits on Hole 2 on the Palmer course while being a couple hundred feet from a private beach. For renting information visit rentalsincapecharles.com.
Old Crow’s Nest sits on Hole 2 on the Palmer course while being a couple hundred feet from a private beach. For renting information visit rentalsincapecharles.com.

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.

Visit capecharlesbythebay.com for more information on everything Cape Charles!
Visit capecharlesbythebay.com for more information on everything Cape Charles!

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.DSC_0279

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.

The entrance to the town's public beach on a late May afternoon.
The entrance to the town’s public beach on a late May afternoon.
This new sculpture was placed at the entrance of the town's new pier, where people can fish in the Chesapeake without the need of a fishing license.
Symbolizing the diversity of the town’s interests, this new sculpture was placed at the entrance of the town’s new pier, where people can fish in the Chesapeake without the need of a fishing license.
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16 thoughts on “The Forgotten Gem of Virginia

  1. Just don’t try to live there and expect to make a living unless you already have a nice bank account. If you are Asperger and grew up in California you won’t be accepted by the locals for the most part! It is a very difficult place to live and work full time.

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    1. I live nearby and own my own house and work full time in the medical field near the hospital. Been on the Shore 14 yrs and I love it! I did not come here with a big bank account and I don’t have a lot of money…. Just enough to live and be happy! It’s not difficult to live on the Shore… You make your own happiness anywhere you call home!

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    2. Mary ~ I live here and work across the bay at ODU in Norfolk. I telework three days a week, but my husband crosses the bay daily to teach in Virginia Beach. It’s a quality-of-life decision we made 15 years ago and have never regretted.

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    3. Mary…..REALLY.??? Yes, it’s true that job availability is about the same as in any small rural town….but acceptance??? Come on!!!….I came here as a “Come here” 19 years ago….I don’t know where you were looking, but I have found “born here”‘s to be nothing but accepting…and I can say, from personal experience, I know of at least one Asberger person who loves it here….so, c’mon back and try again….you’ll be happy that you did….

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    4. Mary, that’s a shame you feel you encountered that while living there for the length of time you did. I know for sure you loved working with children as I’ll not forget your puppet classes when I was a child, or your work with Kristen while in Girl Scouts. I believe your mindset is based on your problems with the public school system in Northampton County but rest assured I never heard anything negative about your contribution to others. Take care. Zach

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  2. Wonderful place to live! We moved down here from DC and were thrilled to trade the beltway traffic for sand and salt air! And in this modern age – you can call almost anywhere home and make a living – it’s called telecommuting! Locals have been kind and welcoming!

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  3. As a native of Cape Charles, I appreciate your comments. The street names are famous Virginians for the east/west streets, and fruits for the north/south streets. The only exceptions are Bay avenue and Harbor Avenue as they were in an addition later in history of Cape Charles.

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    1. It cracks me up that the author says that the streets are named “seemingly randomly” when Cape Charles is one of the few places I’ve been that actually has an identifiable theme to their street names.

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  4. I have traveled all over the world, visited all 50 states extensively -and territories-, and have called both the east and west coasts home. I can say with absolute assurance after settling here some years ago that there is no place like Cape Charles, anywhere. It’s beauty is captivating and its allure, mysterious. I am never leaving.
    …oh, and did someone forget to mention the quality of locally grown food and the abundance of seafood that comes out of the harbor fleet?

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    1. Libby ~ I agree entirely. It is a place to come back to from the rest of the world. Tonight I had one of the best meals of my lifetime — local blue crab, steamed with onion, new potatoes, and fresh corn, all locally sourced. To love the shore, though, one does have to GET it.

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  5. Cape Charles is a dream come true for many who settle here. Just ask the new florist in town, who found incredible support coming from so many different sources to help her establish her new enterprise. Yes, come here with an idea, a bit of a work ethic, and be willing to join the community and you will find fertile ground to plant your new business. I know because I came here 25 years ago and can say that. like a fine wine, it gets better with age!

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  6. The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a great place to live, and Cape Charles is truly a “gem”. I am a native of the Shore, moved away in ’68, moved back in 2009 and loving every minute of it. There isn’t another place like it and it has the best food you can eat. Love the people.

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  7. I am a true native of Cape Charles myself. I left 15 years ago to make a life for myself. I do not get to visit often but when I do, it places a smile on my face. My family are there and that makes it home for me. Live there again? No. Never. To live in a small town where natives of the shore struggle to live. Property value and rent is way above the average income for most there. It’s sad but true. I guess it’s a price one pays when lovely lawns is discovered by others.

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