A recreation-inspired crossing of the 20-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is a deed best accompanied by sunrise or sunset. For this springtime family outing, I’ve opted for the former, hoping to kickstart the day with a hard right-cross of scenery and awe. As we pass through the toll plaza at Chick’s Beach, Virginia Beach, I exclaim to the kids—son, Kayden, 12; daughter, Zoe, 7— “The stage is set, Apollo announces himself!”
But it’s 6 a.m., and they are in no mood for bon mots about the dawning. In fact, everyone, including my fiancé, is back asleep. This will not do. Four miles later, the point of Cape Henry Lighthouse is vanishing behind us. I make a hard, quick swerve and shriek: “Holy Hades, look at that!”
They jolt awake in a terror of confusion. “What’s … What!?!?” gibbers my fiancé, Anabel, her hands shoving at the air like a crossing guard signaling, STOP.
I mutter something about a gull on a kamikaze mission, but she cuts me off. “Kids,” she cries, gesturing toward the East. The timing is perfect: The ascendant blood red sun spills its first rays across a windswept Atlantic—an onrush of coruscation erupts like a trillion fiery prisms.
“Be-you-ti-ful,” murmurs Zoe, her voice thick with sleep.“It looks like fairies dancing on the sea.”
We pull into the tiny bayside town of Cape Charles around 7 a.m. Cruising the main drag leading to historic Mason Avenue, we pass decaying buildings and an old powerplant repurposed into a museum. Out back, there is a shiny red caboose and baggage car that, presumably, dates to the town’s founding by the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad in 1884.
As the line’s southern terminus, back then, “four trains arrived from New York each day,” writes Cape Charles Historical Society president Marion Naar. Dredging the nearby inlet, the company built a harbor. Regal steamers ran to and from Norfolk, connecting the Tidewater area to the northeast. Beach-fronting Cape Charles became a stopover for travelers and tourists.
Of course, when plans for the CBBT were announced in the late 1950s, all that changed. Though the American Society of Civil Engineers named the project “One of Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World,” for Cape Charles, the connector marked the end of a booming era.
Lucky for me, downtown revitalization efforts have borne considerable fruit. After a foray along the beach—during which time a savage craving for waffles, coffee and juice inspires threats of 3 v. 1 mutiny—I locate the Cape Charles Coffee House amid one of Virginia’s more fascinating collections of late-Victorian architecture.
Inside, we take a table by a big plate glass window and step-up display case loaded with antiques. Housed in the thoughtfully renovated, wood-rich quarters of a former upscale bank (c. 1910), the long, slender café brims with old-world warmth and charm. The aroma of fresh baked muffins, scones, bagels, pastries and Italian espresso is intoxicating.
Toward regaining kiddie favor, I order an array of Belgian waffles, French toast, bacon and sausage. We adults ascribe to coffees and what owner and master baker, Roberta Romeo, recommends as her house specialty: Sfogliatella—a layered, shell-shaped Italian pastry featuring delectable flakes and a filling of candied orange and lemon-spiked ricotta. (Which, I will soon find to be authentically and outlandishly delicious.)
The troop is impressed. We take to exploring the digs, climbing a grand staircase to an elegant second-floor mezzanine. Encased floor-to-ceiling beams punctuated by 1930s-era brass fixtures frame in paintings by local artists. Beneath a white wood-paneled ceiling hung with antique chandeliers, a group of well-dressed elderly women sit at a large corner table playing bridge over coffee. We fall silent. It’s like we’ve wandered into a tableau à la Norman Rockwell.
“Well, that’s definitely something you don’t see every day,” whispers Kayden.
By 10:30 a.m. we’ve checked into Chincoteague’s Refuge Inn and nabbed four beach cruisers from the onsite rental service. Donning daypacks and binoculars, we pedal over the bridge and wide salt marshes bordering the Assateague Channel. The cool morning air is pungent with saltwater and decaying swamp muck.
“Pee-you, did somebody lay a stinker?” croaks Zoe, nose clamped between two fingers.
“That is the smell of nature, and it is glorious,” I say. Pedaling along, I nod at the herd of plover and sandpipers combing the shoreline. “Are you two registering all this?”
“Yep,” says Kayden, collar raised over his nose. “Definitely smells like poop.”
Soon we are cruising through the high pine forests of the 14,000-plus-acre Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge. Within a quarter-mile, we hang a left into the Wildlife Loop Trail parking area and veer onto the single-track Marsh Trail. Following the paved bike path and boardwalk, we breeze through marsh ponds and maritime woodlands en route to the interior of Assateague Island.
Along the way, we spot snowy and great egrets stalking the swamps for food. Great blue and iridescent green herons perch on tree limbs like secret ornaments. Larks, swallows, warblers, vireos, red-winged blackbirds and more flitter through the undergrowth and fill the woods with birdsong.
Crossing the presently traffic-less Wildlife Drive—the paved, two-lane loop is closed to motorized vehicles until 3 p.m. (score!)—we zip through corridors of high chord grass and tangled scrub brush, passing over swampy creeks via wooden bridges as we island hop our way to one of the park’s most isolated overlooks. A half-mile later, we arrive. The elevated platform provides up-close and panoramic views of CNWR’s largest tract of wetland habitat, aka, “moist soil management units.” Ditching the bikes, we hear the chirpsome, squawking din of what Zoe declares must be “a bazillion birdies!” With electric enthusiasm, she snatches Anabel’s hand and bum-rushes the stairs. Surprisingly, Kayden is close behind.
Like a gong, I am struck by a giddy redemption. For weeks I have talked up this very experience, and, without fail, been shushed. For example, one night over spaghetti dinner, I was saying, “Believe it or not, Assateague is one of the five most important stopping points for migrating birds east of the Rockies—”
“But don’t, like, wild ponies live there or something?” Kayden interjected.
“Po-nies!?!?” exclaimed Zoe, suddenly interested.
I studied one then the other. “Yes, around 150 of them. But we are talking about more important things.”
“Such as?” Kayden snarked.
“Birds. So, get this: Because Assateague is a barrier island situated on the Atlantic Flyway—”
“But what’s that, like, mean?”
“Yeah Daddy, what’s it, like, mean?”
“Stop copying me!”
“You stop copying me.”
I daggered a warning finger. Took a breath. And tried again. “It means that, each spring and fall, butt-loads of different types of birds fly thousands of miles at the same time and gather together in a few very special patches of lake-like bodies of water to feed on newly hatched bugs and fish along the coastline.” They seemed unimpressed. “I promise, it’s one of the coolest spectacles you’ll ever lay eyes on.”
Kayden yawned. “Neat,” he’d said, with a disinterest so acute you’d think I’d proposed a quilting festival. Meanwhile, Anabel was whispering something in Zoe’s ear. Giggling, the latter proclaimed: “We wanna’ hear more about the ponies!”
But here, live and in person, things are very different. “Oh my gosh, Daddy, you have to see this,” squeals Zoe. Sprinting in place, she pumps her fists up and down, then jabs a pointer finger toward the wetlands.
There, tens of thousands of birds—and, as my U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service guidebook informs me, upward of 298 different species—congregate on or around the shallow water. The diversity of shape, size and color is overwhelming. There are ducks, geese and swans; loons and grebes; shearwaters and storm-petrels; gannet, pelicans and cormorants; bitterns, herons and ibises; hawks and falcons; rails and cranes; plovers and sandpipers; gulls, terns and auks; and countless others.
Just then, a v-shaped skein of snow geese arrow through the sky, descending upon the crowded marsh. With a ruckus of flapping and honking, they touch down, scaring up a flock of plover. In a marvel of synchronicity, a hundred small birds take to the air at once.
Overhead, Kayden has spotted a trio of circling bald eagles. “Look, look,” he hisses, watching open-mouthed as one dive bombs the impoundment. At the last moment, the huge bird pulls up. Flinging open its wings, it plucks a footlong fish from the glass-like surface with its fierce yellow talons. The drama occurs not 50 feet from where we’re standing.
“Did you see that?” he cries, eyeballs big as saucers. “It was right there.”
Nightfall finds us nestled into a booth at Bill’s PRIME, one of Chincoteague’s two fine-dining-oriented establishments. Soft 1930s jazz wafts through the dimly lit interior. The walls are decorated with arty black and white photos of the Atlantic surf, vanished local landmarks and shells. Backed by a wine bar overhung with a wave of gorgeously sculpted metallic fish, the room is centered around the tentacular squiggles of a blown glass chandelier. With white tablecloths and formally dressed waitstaff, it has the feel of a hip but family-friendly speakeasy.
After a day of biking, birding and beachcombing, the children are quiet—exhausted might be the word. They order the typical kid stuff, whereas, being in one of the nation’s most historic fishing villages, Anabel and I take advantage of the raw bar. We get a dozen of the island’s historically acclaimed oysters (Chincoteague Salts); ditto for its Littleneck Clams.
From there, the most interesting thing on the menu is the cioppino. Originally developed in San Francisco by Italian immigrants in the 1880s, here, the fisherman’s stew is made with a tomatoey, basil, thyme and garlic -rich red wine broth, and served with toasted baguette. Though accentuated by additions like lobster, shrimp and scallops, the medley proves a delicious way to enjoy the local bounty of blue crabs, mussels, clams and fresh-caught fish.
Interestingly, though the day’s adventures yielded a handful of wild pony sightings, around the dinner table, talk steers persistently toward the birds.
Eat & Drink
Dacha Tea House, Cape Charles—A classic road-trip gem. Located in what looks to be a small nondescript house, this quaint ethnic eatery is all about sampling strange and delightful flavors. A family-run staff walks you through a tasting menu of traditional samovar-brewed teas, soups, zakuska (seasonally changing hot and cold hors d’oeuvres) and desserts. Try it all—everything is fantastic! DachaTeaHouse.com
The Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant, Onancock—Housed in an inspired renovation of a 1907 building in an adorable waterfront downtown, this nine-room boutique hotel offers the best seasonal farm-to-table eating on the Eastern Shore. The dining room and bar area doubles as a gallery, featuring the work of local artists and loads of interesting handmade furniture. While the menu changes daily, we recommend a special centered around local seafood or waterfowl. TheCharlotteHotel.com
AJ’s On the Creek, Chincoteague—Expect a classic but low key fine-dining atmosphere with lovely views of a creek flowing through grassy bayside saltmarshes. Start with local oysters from the raw bar. From there, proceed to the upscale shellfish bouillabaisse with fresh shrimp, mussels, scallops, blue crab, clams and oysters, stewed in a patent Provencal broth. Plates from $21. AJSOTC.com
Black Narrows Brewing Company, Chincoteague—The first craft brewery to be founded on the Virginia side of the Eastern Shore, BNBC opened in a fabulously renovated old oyster shucking house on Dec. 31, 2017. Try locally inspired oddities like the Heirloom Corn Lager or the Tart Oyster Wheat. The latter has a briny, lemony flavor unique among brews and will leave you dreaming of shipwrecks and pirates. BlackNarrowsBrewing.com
Stay & Play
Dig for Clams on Cherrystone Creek, Cape Charles—Put in on a bayside beach at Cherrystone Point and kayak to a family-owned aquaculture farm where you’ll learn to dig wild littleneck clams like a local. Wade into knee-deep water and scour the bottom for bivalves while your guide reveals the fascinating history and methods of the peninsula’s clamming industry. Walk away with bragging rights and a dozen clams each. $55 per person. SoutheastExpeditions.com/Clamming
Tour Chatham Vineyards by Kayak, Machipongo—Start in the tiny bayside watermen’s village of Bayford on the banks of the Nassawadox Creek and float south to the vineyards’ dock at Church Creek. Along the way, you’ll explore islands and grassy salt marshes, catching glimpses of marine and avian wildlife. Once onshore,expect a brief hike across one of the Eastern Shore’s oldest and most view-worthy plantations. Concludes in a seven-wine tasting. $89 per paddler, including tasting. SoutheastExpeditions.com/Winery
Captain Dan’s Tours, Chincoteague—A tour with third generation Chincoteague native Captain Dan Smith yields both a marvelous wildlife adventure and an entertaining behind-the-scenes history lesson. Navigate bayside channels, inlets and coves to nab views of dolphins, birds and wild Assateague ponies. Meanwhile, enjoy tales of pony rescues, shipwrecks, oyster farming, poaching, weathering hurricanes and more. From $35 per person. CaptainDansTours.com
Photos courtesy of the Eastern Shore Tourism Commission