Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Friday, May 20, 2011

Virginia’s Eastern Shore

With Chesapeake Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, three states— Delaware, Maryland and Virginia--share the Delmarva Peninsula.  Barely nine miles across, Virginia’s Eastern Shore occupies the narrowest, southern most portion of the peninsula.

The area is easily accessible using major highways including I-95, Amtrak service to nearby Newport News and daily commuter flights to Norfolk, Virginia. To fully explore the peninsula, a car is a necessity. All major national rental car companies have outlets on the mainland.

Insider’s Tip: check out Virginia’s Eastern Shore web site for an overview of the peninsula, including lists of seasonal events, park lands, recreational opportunities, accommodations and places to eat.

Taking the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel-Bridge to reach the peninsula, you do so not because you expect to see great theater, visit world-class museums, walk busy streets and spend an afternoon in crowded cafes people watching.

You drive across seventeen miles of open water because you want to relax in a place where you can read the novel you haven’t been able to finish for months. 

With cooling off-shore breezes, the Eastern Shore offers relief from the sticky heat of summer. Victorian B&Bs fill the small towns of the peninsula. With their wrap-around porches, they are a perfect place to enjoy a glass of ice tea in the late afternoon.

For those who have a hunger for shellfish that isn’t satisfied by a meager half dozen raw oysters at an upscale restaurant in the city, there are many affordable places to eat your fill of oysters as well as crabs, shrimp and freshly caught fish. 

The bay and the barrier islands are easily accessed by boat so visitors can go fishing and explore the salt water marshes. 


With a robust history of private and governmental environmental conservancy, the coastal waters, wetlands, and woodlands of the area have enjoyed careful preservation so much so, according to the state, the Eastern Shore has the "largest stretch of natural or undeveloped coast line left on the entire Eastern Seaboard." 

If you are a bird watcher, you can sit in a carefully constructed blind, binoculars in hand, waiting for the arrival of a flock of canvasback ducks. Or, conversely, if you are a hunter, the blind you occupy offers different pleasures.


Well-maintained bike paths take you deep into the woods or to secluded beaches. Guided boat rides and kayaking allow for the exploration of inland waterways and barrier islands.

Travel a short distance inland and the landscape is dominated by vast stretches of farmland.

At the end of the nineteenth-century, William H. Scott had a vision of Virginia’s Eastern Shore as the bread-basket for the urban centers of the East Coast. Clearing the land, he created huge “truck farms” which thrived on the rich soil.  Railroad cars full of produce traveled out of Cape Charles on barges to processing plants on the mainland. This was early industrial farming and although that idea has taken on negative connotations, at the time the farms of the Eastern Shore provided a welcome source of fresh produce for an expanding population in the great urban centers in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston and New York.

Insider’s Tip: While farmland covers the flatlands of the peninsula, there are only a few farm stands and virtually no farmers markets.

NATURE PRESERVES
The peninsula is home to several well-maintained nature preserves. 


Near the entrance to the Bridge-Tunnel, the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is on the southern tip of the peninsula. Open all year long with no entrance fees, the refuge has many resources for the nature lover, including photography blinds placed along the hiking trails so visitors can watch migrating songbirds, butterflies and raptors. The visitors’ center has a wealth of information about the area’s history and natural bounty.

Another preserve worth exploring, just below the Delaware border, is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. With miles of bicycle and hiking trails, salt marshes, woodlands and unspoiled beaches, the refuge is a delight all year round.

Riding a bicycle is a good way to get a feeling for the refuge. Bicycles are easily rented in Chincoteague from vendors like the Bike Depot next door to the comfortably funky Refuge Inn.

Hikers and bicyclists can choose woodland trails or ones leading to wide, expansive beaches. Sharing the trails are deer, wild ponies and dozens of bird species.

Cape Charles
Before the seventeen mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was completed in 1964, the ferry terminal in Cape Charles was the busy access point to the peninsula.

After the Bridge-Tunnel opened, the economy of the town declined rapidly. Only since the development of the residential villages, small craft marina and golf courses at Bay Creek Resort & Club has the sleepy town begun to recover. Now the classic Victorian houses that were the hallmark of the town are slowly being renovated.

Spending a few days or a long weekend in Cape Charles is a great way to relax.  Lovely B&B’s like the Cape Charles House Bed and Breakfast tucked away on quiet suburban streets or one and two bedroom rental units at the Bay Creek Marina are available for vacationers.


While the B&Bs look to the past, the suites in the Bay Creek Marina are efficient and modern with full kitchens so families can cook for themselves. If you don't want to cook, Aquaa casual restaurant-bar is just across the parking lot. 

Aqua has a great location on Chesapeake Bay. A friendly wait staff serves produce from nearby farms and seafood from local waters. Daily specials can include rich she crab soup, shrimp and scallop pot pie, clams on the half shell from an aquafarm down the block and garlic sauteed asparagus from a farmer on the other side of the Marina. The restaurant is a good place to relax, have a drink and enjoy a leisurely meal.

As the day ends, everyone turns their attention to the setting sun. When we visited, a server raised the window shades as the sun began to set, because “it’s not right to miss that.”

Insider’s tip: if you are hungry for crab cakes but arrive when crabs aren’t in season, try the clam cakes or fritters. They are delicious.

In ten short years, the Bay Creek development has created not only a full-service marina but also two world-class golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Even if you don’t golf, the landscaping is worth the visit. With fifty thousand roses and hydrangeas planted alongside paths and around ponds adding color to the native pine trees and holly bushes, the Club feels more like a luxurious park than a golf course.

Downtown redevelopment on Mason Street, the main drag, has attracted new businesses, including the modern, loft spaces of Blue, a boutique hotel. Down the block, Kelly’s Gingernut Pub transformed a decrepit two story bank into a cozy, high ceilinged bar-restaurant.

Kelly’s stays open even during the off-season when getting locals out of their storm-battered homes takes bringing in weekly musical acts to add to the hospitality of the restaurant. During the high season from May to September, there are plenty of customers eager to sample the upscale pub menu and enjoy the large selection of draft beers at the long bar.

The food gets mixed reviews, although locals know the weekly duck special is reliable as are the soft shell crab sliders with fried onion rings and mango-jicama slaw, fried pickles, steamed shrimp, meat loaf sandwiches, raw clams, the oyster sampler including oysters Rockefeller and ice cold oysters on the half shell from the bay side of the peninsula, house smoked brisket sandwiches and—a big favorite--the maple crème brûlée.

For a cup of coffee, sandwich or pastry, stop at the Cape Charles Coffee Shop, another two-story renovation that was first a bank in 1910 and later a clothing store. With the town beach a few blocks away, ordering lunch and beverages to go is an easy way to organize a beach picnic.

Besides the easily accessed town beaches, to really experience the Eastern Shore, you have to get out on the water. The state of Virginia has excellent informational brochures and online sites about the waterways and marshlands as well as details about kayaking and canoeing.

Kayaking, as my wife and I discovered on a recent trip, is a great way to explore the area. We put on flip flops, t-shirts and shorts and followed Bill Burnham of SouthEast Expeditions into the salty water of Cherrystone Creek in Oyster, a small town on the seaside of the peninsula not far from Cape Charles.

Having a guide adds to the adventure, especially if, like my wife and I, you are a novice kayaker. Burnham was there to reassure us about boating safety. When asked what we should do if the kayak tipped over, he answered with a smile, “Stand up. The water’s only a foot and a half deep.”

As we climbed into our kayaks, he told us the Lusk family has farmed oysters and clams in the creek for more than a hundred years.  We paddled away from shore, passing workers who were cleaning algae off wire cages used for oysters cultivation. Our objective was to explore the portion of the creek where his friend, Bo Lusk, had his clam beds.


With Burnham as our guide, we learned about the life of the salt marshes, oyster rocks, and clam beds that are so important to the area’s aquafarming.


He told us how many clams were growing in Bo's part of Cherrystone Creek (each clam bed measuring 14’ by 50’ has up to 40,000 clams and Bo had a dozen or more beds), how long it takes for a clam to go from seedling to market (18 months for little necks and 24 months for top necks) and what predators are a problem (blue crabs and seagulls but the most deadly for the clams were the swarms of sting rays that arrive in the spring, sometimes in groups of thirty, flapping their wings over the clam beds to scatter the mud so they can feed on the clams).

As part of the kayaking tour, we also did a little clamming.

Armed with short handled claws and mesh bags, we paddled over to a clam bed and climbed out of the kayaks. With Bo’s permission and Burnham’s direction, we stuck our hands deep into the soft mud. Using the claw, we dredged the bottom, pulling up hard-shelled bivalves by the handful. 

For someone used to buying clams from a supermarket, gathering them right out of the water was an amazing experience. Burnham pulled out his knife and deftly opened half a dozen clams so we could enjoy their briny sweetness, even as we stood calf-deep in the creek. How cool was that. 

Kayaking on the Eastern Shore is possible eight months out of the year. As Burnham explained, “We paddle April through November here on the Shore. There’s a saying that, ‘spring comes late, but fall lingers on the Eastern Shore’. Both air and water are still warm well into October.”

That temperate climate is something to keep in mind. Locals told us that as great as it is to visit in the summer, the shoulder seasons are a good time to visit, especially in the fall when the water is still warm, the crowds of tourists return home and the bugs are gone. An added benefit of a fall visit, according to Carol Evans of the Cape Charles House is that "October is crazy with migrating birds and butterflies."

HEADING NORTH ON ROUTE 13
The main north-south highway on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is Route 13, known also as the Charles M. Lankford, Jr. Highway or the Lankford Highway. The divided highway is rarely crowded, but because there are frequent crossings, due caution is advised, especially after nightfall.

The highway passes through long stretches of farmland with points of interest along the way.

If you’re in pursuit of souvenirs, peanuts, ham, salt cured bacon or fireworks, definitely stop at Margaret’s Gifts in Eastville. Finely chopped and fried until crisp, the bacon adds a delicious natural smoky flavor to eggs, stews and pasta sauce.

A dozen miles north of Cape Charles on the east side of the highway and easy to miss but definitely worth a stop is Carol Sabo’s tiny Machipongo Trading Company.

Jam-packed with made-in Virginia products, including salsas from Gunther’s Gourmet Groceries, bags of Virginia Peanuts Roasted-n-Shell, dried seasonings from Blue Crab Bay Co., Grave’s Mountain Bread & Butter Pickles, Pungo Creek Mills’ locally grown and milled cornmeal, Shore Girls Bath Co. lovely handmade soaps, and wines from two wineries a few miles away, Holly Grove Vineyards and Chatham Vineyards,  the colorful store is also a take-out restaurant. 

Sisters Natalie and Sarah Grace make-to-order hot Panini, sandwiches, salads, smoothies and coffee beverages. Using farm fresh ingredients adds crisp flavor to their wraps. The pulled pork sandwich had just the right amount of sauce on the perfectly tender meat. The excellent coffee is brewed from local Eastern Shore Coastal Roasting Company’s beans.

Four miles farther north, on the opposite side of the highway is The Great Machipongo Clam Shack, a seafood market and restaurant.

The Clam Shack serves sandwiches with fried fish, mixed seafood patties, clam fritters and crab cakes as well as plates of steamed shrimp, clams and—when they are in season—crabs. Sides are homemade Cole slaw and hush puppies.

The fried seafood is moist, with a good crust. If you want something less caloric, try a plate of freshly cleaned, sweet tasting crab meat, served with lemon slices, melted butter, cocktail sauce and saltines. Either way, you'll have a delicious meal.

A retail area off the dining room has freezers filled with seafood of all kinds, most of it local. Besides frozen ready-to-eat clams on the half-shell, shucked oysters, shrimp, fish fillets with a variety of seasonings from chili lime to sundried tomatoes and pine nuts, lots of crab cakes, the market also sells mesh bags of live clams, both little necks and the larger top necks. Seafood is available for purchase both in the store and online.

With a small stage area set up in the front corner of the restaurant, every Saturday is no-charge, music night. Jean Mariner, the co-owner with her husband Roger, explains, “We try to pull in everything local: seafood, musicians, everything.”


Halfway between Cape Charles and Onancock, the Barrier Island Center is a must-stop, especially for families with its informative exhibits about the geology and history of the barrier islands on the seaside of the peninsula.  Events at the center include arts and crafts for children, historical lectures, nature walks and presentations about nearby Eyre Hall, built in 1669 with formal gardens and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

WINERIES
Virginia is now the fifth largest wine producing state after California (the clear leader), New York, Washington, and Oregon. The Eastern Shore has a handful of award wining wineries. Wine trail maps detail the abundance of wineries open to visitors. A copy of the Virginia Winery Guide can be requested on line.

In Virginia always allow yourself enough time to stop at the local wineries. 

Less than thirty minutes north of Cape Charles, on the bay side of the peninsula, Holly Grove Vineyards and Chatham Vineyards have tasting rooms and are less than five miles apart, only a few minutes drive from Route 13.  Both have informal, outdoor seating with a view of their neatly tended vineyards. Visitors can bring picnic lunches and enjoy wine from the winery.

With award wining wines, Holly Grove and Chatham are making believers out of oenophiles who were previously convinced that only the West Coast and New York state could produce good vintages. 


Winemaker Jonathan Bess at Holly Grove proudly drapes his medals over the bottles on display in his cozy wine tasting room. If he has the chance, he'll put out plates of cheese, olives and crackers so you can snack while you're tasting his crisp, French oak fermented 2008 Chardonnay, the 2010 Coastal Trio blending Chardonnay, Viognier and Petit Manseng grapes or his award winning 2008 Petit Verdot.


If you're planning to feast on raw oysters during the trip, pick up a bottle of Chatham Vineyards' steel-fermented, 2009 Church Creek Chardonnay. With its light acidity it's a good companion for the briny bivalves. 

When you visit Chatham Vineyards, if winemaker Mills Wehner has time, he will take you on a tour of the vineyard and show you the house on the farm that was built in 1818 by Major Scarborough Pits. His dad may give you a ride in his Model-T pick up truck and tell you how the family has been growing wheat and other crops since 1979. 


When Mills gives a tour of the vineyard, he talks passionately about the meter-spacing of his vines and how he uses the native ground cover ("vetch") to pull water out of the soil to put stress on the young vines. Walking past the neatly tended rows, he points out each root stock and varietal like a proud father introducing a guest to his children. This is family farming, up close and personal.

Like Holly Grove and Chatham Vineyards, Bloxom Winery, farther north on the peninsula, is a family run business. During May – December, home made pizzas from the wood fired oven accompany the weekend tastings.

Onancock
The charming village of Onancock is a jumping off spot to explore Chesapeake Bay. A ferry from the small harbor takes visitors on a four-mile journey to picturesque Tangier Island in the middle of the BayCharter boats for fishing and sightseeing are available, as are kayak rentals and guided tours with SouthEast Expeditions. 

Access to most of the barrier islands on the seaside is restricted, but some, like Cedar Island, across the peninsula from Onancock, are open to visitors. As Lisa LaMontagne, who owns the Inn at Onancock with her husband Kris, explained, “Locals don’t go to public beaches. We get onto the water and spend the day on Cedar Island having a picnic and collecting shells.”

Accommodations in town are in bed and breakfast inns, one of which is the LaMontagne’s Inn at Onancock, an elegantly restored Victorian that avoids the mustiness often associated with B&B’s. Each room is individualized with quality decorations accumulated during their travels around the world. 

As with most B&B’s, breakfast is included along with an afternoon wine tasting and snack. Luckily Lisa is a good cook, so the food is restaurant quality. On the morning we visited, our breakfast included crab strata, orange sections with lemongrass, apple crumb tartlet, coffee, tea, and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Fortified with a good breakfast, taking a leisurely stroll is the perfect way to explore the town’s art galleries and small shops.

Onancock’s small wharf has a launch ramp for small water craft.  If you want to get out on the water and explore the shoreline, kayaks can be rented by the hour, day or week.

Open for lunch and dinner, Mallards at the Wharf has a prize location overlooking Onancock Creek. At sunset with a drink in hand, locals look forward to a pleasant evening of good food and music. From his closet sized kitchen, chef Johnny Mo serves up well-prepared dishes like mussels with jalapeno garlic broth, crab soup with a spicy tomato broth and crusted salmon with saffron rice. When he can take a break, chef Mo comes into the cozy dining room with his guitar and sings ballads to entertain his guests.


MAPPSVILLE


If you are hungry for fried seafood, Metompkin Seafood is the place for you. The seafood market and restaurant doesn't have seating inside, but there are picnic tables in front of the store. 


Ellen Hudgins will take your order and J.C., her husband, will cook it up. All the seafood is fresh and, as Ellen explained, "today everything is local except the catfish and shrimp. They're from the Carolinas." Fries, Cole slaw and hush puppies complete the plate. Everything served at Metompkin Seafood is made to order, except the packaged condiments.


CHINCOTEAGUE ISLAND
On the seaside of the peninsula, Chincoteague is the largest town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Just below the Delaware state line, Chincoteague is a popular vacation destination, especially in the summer.

Insider’s Tip: pronouncing Chincoteague takes some practice.

Cooled by ocean breezes, the narrow island has lots of honky-tonk fun things to do. Drive on Maddox Road, the main commercial street, to pick and choose how you want to spend the day.

Rival miniature golf courses compete across the street from one another. Rent bicycles, motorbikes, and colorful pedal cars. Pick up a t-shirt or a seaside gift made from shells and driftwood.

To learn about the area, visit the Museum of Chincoteague Island (formerly called the Oyster and Maritime Museum) and the Refuge Waterfowl Museum.

There is something for just about everyone on the island. 


Rent a surfboard and head to the beach. Go for a pony ride or jet skiing. Search out local art, including shops selling carved decoys. Johnny Hill in his garage-workshop at Island Decoys explained that decoys aren’t cheap. Depending on the amount of detail, they can cost $200 and upwards of $600. Pointing out a pair of decoys by Bob Melvin, Hill added, “He’s been dead for years,” which means the prices for his work have gone up.

Stop for lunch at one of the many casual restaurants in town.  There’s lots of seafood to enjoy, although much of it is fried and not necessarily local.  


At Little Bay Seafood Market, the fresh shellfish and seafood are decidedly local. In fact, in the market there is no price list on the wall. Prices depend on what the fishermen caught that day and how much of it there was. The mountain of oyster shells on the far side of the parking lot gives away that the warehouse building is the shucking house.


Finding a place to stay in Chincoteague is easy if you book early enough during the high season. There are a great many motels, B&Bs, inns and hotels. Check on line for pricing and availability. There are also rentals units in apartments and homes with kitchens. 


Besides saving money, with a kitchen you can cook and take advantage of the great abundance of local seafood. Go clamming and have clams for dinner. With seafood this fresh, all you have to do is cook the clams in a hot chefs pan with a little olive oil, chopped garlic, Italian parsley, a few red pepper flakes, a pat of sweet butter and a quarter cup of water. Put on a high flame, cover, wait ten minutes and add cooked pasta. Have dinner and a glass of wine outside and watch the sun go down. 

If you don't want to cook and the weather is good, spend time at Woody’s Beach BBQ, north of the Maddox Road roundabout. Using food trailers for kitchens and picnic tables with umbrellas to create an outdoor dining room, Woody’s sets up camp during the summer.

At Island Creamery relax on the wooden deck and sample their homemade ice creams in a waffle cone or cup. The ice cream is deliciously fresh tasting and full of natural flavor. 

Insider’s Tip: While you are enjoying your ice cream at Island Creamery, you’ll be treated to the attentions of the resident duck who calmly waits to pick up any tasty morsels that fall to the deck. In fact, ducks and geese rule the island. They cross streets without regard to traffic and settle in parking lots, honking noisily as customers walk to their cars.

Locals enjoy Bill’s, an old-school, seafood and steak restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with a full bar. Down the block, the Chincoteague Inn Restaurant on the wharf facing the water has a horseshoe bar usually filled with locals arriving long before sundown. The food is ok, the view exceptional and the crowd mostly fun as the sun sets and the nighttime craziness begins. 

Getting out on the water is easy for fishermen, hunters or nature enthusiasts. Companies like Island Cruises offer guided tours, circumnavigating the island, pointing out interesting facts about the local flora and fauna including why the ends of piers are littered with broken clam and oyster shells. Why? Because sea gulls pick the bivalves off rocks, fly high in the air and drop them on the wooden piers to smash open the shells for a fast-food snack.

Experienced sailors know that sailing around the island is dangerous because of the shallow water. Shoals extend up to 100 yards off shore with water depths of two feet or less even at high tide.

The shallow shoreline allows for one of the island’s most famous summer events: the Pony Penning and Auction held every year the last week of July. The wild horses who make their home in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island are rounded up and herded across the narrow inlet to a pen on Chincoteague Island. Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands come to watch the Volunteer Fire Company's cowboys round up the small horses. Because the Refuge can only support a herd of 150 horses, the extra number are auctioned off.

Before crossing over the causeway to Chincoteague, you’ll pass Wallops Island, home to MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) where NASA and commercial rockets are launched. Go on line for launch dates and join locals who put on their pajamas and have a clambake on the beach as they watch the massive rockets slowly rise off the launch pad before streaking across the Atlantic.

Even when rockets aren’t lifting off into space, you can get a feel for the adventure of space travel by stopping at the NASA Visitor Center with it’s 3D theater and informational displays. For students aged 11-15, week long residency camps are held at the Virginia Space Flight Academy, where budding astronauts and space scientists learn about rocketry and robotics while their parents relax in Chincoteague.

During an extended stay on Virgina's Eastern Shore, a visitor can indulge in the quiet of one of the small towns like Cape Charles and Onancock, spend hours investigating the natural beauty of woods and beaches or embrace the summer carnival atmosphere of Chincoteague Island. The choice is yours.

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