ONANCOCK, Va. — It's getting on toward sunset, and a lone fishing boat leaves the wharf at Onancock Creek, heading toward the horizon.
Well, not really the horizon — just the open waters of Chesapeake Bay 4 miles out, but the solitary silhouette of the boat against a red-orange sky makes it seem as if it really could be sailing toward the horizon. Allowing my imagination to take flight, I stand and watch until the boat disappears.
Have you ever found yourself in a place, by chance or design, that takes you back to another place? One that defines a time in your life when fireflies lit up the summer sky, a cooling pie sat on a rack in someone's open kitchen window, tantalizing you with its aroma, and you knew you could squeeze in 15 more minutes of play time before your mother called you in for dinner?
Onancock turned out to be such a place for me. Nestled between two forks of its namesake creek, it evokes perpetual summer and lingering innocence. The 19th-century homes, with their cozy wraparound porches and decorative trim; quiet tree-lined streets; a miniscule park where a shaded gazebo welcomes those in search of a stolen kiss, and a population of just 1,500 make Onancock seem a throwback to a gentler, less complicated time.
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Yet, just as I began to think I had discovered a town frozen in the 1950s (heck, there's even the Roseland, a classic '50s movie palace on the main street), I stumbled across Red Queen Gallery, with its trendy offerings, just across from North Street Market, where a balsamic vinaigrette tasting was in progress, and around the corner from upscale Garden Art, where Lulu, a friendly Portuguese water dog, greets shoppers. At Mallard's down on the wharf, Johnny Mo, the singing chef, was gearing up to feed and entertain his guests. By the time I checked into The Charlotte, an intimate boutique hotel filled with original art painted by the owner, I had decided that Onancock was a town that would have no trouble satisfying both the Cleavers and the Simpsons.
If Onancock is the yin of Virginia's Eastern Chesapeake Bay Region, Chincoteague is the yang. There's nothing quiet about this bustling island resort, especially in summer, when its population doubles. All the usual accoutrements of a beach destination are here: miniature golf, water parks, go-carts, T-shirt emporiums, motor courts and marinas.
But Chincoteague offers something most generic beach resorts don't: a companion island, Assateague, so untamed it's as if its 14,000 uninhabited acres of beach, maritime forest, and salt and freshwater marsh belong to another time. Beautiful and forbidding, Assateague's wildness is best described by a quote on a plaque at Barrier Island Museum: "Man will always be a visitor on Virginia's barrier islands. Nature won't let him stay."
Man might be only a visitor, but while here, he can explore two national treasures. On one side of the island is Assateague National Seashore, home to one of the Eastern Seaboard's most pristine beaches and punctuated by a 177-year-old red and white-striped lighthouse that at 142 feet high can be seen 19 miles out to sea.
On the other side is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat of unparalleled diversity. Guided tours of the refuge will allow you to see (with luck) wildlife such as the shy red fox, the graceful bottlenose dolphin, the loggerhead sea turtle and the endangered piping plover.
But the animals that visitors are most keen to see are the famous Chincoteague ponies, which roam at will across the marshes. Legend says the ponies descend from survivors of the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon in 1750, although a less romantic version has them descended from domesticated farm stock that were moved from the mainland to avoid fencing requirements and taxation.
It doesn't matter which version is true. All that matters is that the ponies have the run of Assateague Island, at least until the last weekend in July, when the annual pony swim takes place. To the delight of thousands of visitors who come from far and wide to watch, members of the local fire department, known as "saltwater cowboys," round up many of the ponies for the swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. After the swim, the horses are auctioned off in a fund-raiser for the department, which cares for them.
An encounter with the ponies will have you clamoring to read (or reread) Marguerite Henry's heart-warming book Misty of Chincoteague. If you really want to channel the spirit of Misty and her foal, Stormy, book a room at Miss Molly's Inn on Chincoteague's Main Street. Henry was staying at the 1884 Victorian inn when she began writing her famous children's book.
Having nothing to do with ponies, but well worth a stop, is Woody's Beach BBQ, a Chincoteague icon. Grab an outside table under the pines and chow down on enormous platters of ribs, chicken or link sausage with all the trimmings. Woody's has obviously found its niche with the beach crowd: 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of beef are barbecued weekly, and 200 pounds of cabbage is cut up every day for its signature slaw.
Chincoteague and Onancock are just two of the attractions along the shores of Virginia's Eastern Chesapeake Bay peninsula, a slender column of land that thrusts itself between the bay and the Atlantic Ocean with the force of an exclamation point.
The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and Virginia's stretch extends from Chincoteague, near the Maryland state line, to Cape Charles, 60 miles south. The bay's combination of fresh, salt and brackish water results in a unique ecosystem, where the smell of brine perfumes the air, colorful watermen tend to their clam and oyster beds, and nets sag with the weight of the area's famous blue crabs.
There is much for the visitor to see and experience. Getting here is part of the fun, when it means crossing the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge- Tunnel, which links southeastern Virginia with the Delmarva Peninsula, so named because Delaware, Maryland and Virginia occupy parts of it. Opened in 1964, the bridge is considered a marvel of engineering. Adding to the wow factor is the Chesapeake Grill. Built directly on the Bridge- Tunnel, the grill has wall-to-wall windows that offer spectacular views of the bay, and the menu lists a bounty of seafood dishes.
Kayaking and wine tasting are two activities I usually don't do in tandem. However, Southeast Expeditions, which offers kayak tours throughout the Eastern Shore, arranged just such an adventure for me. After a couple of hours of leisurely paddling through the calm waters of Church Creek, famous for its clam beds, I ended up at Chatham Vineyards, where I was rewarded with an even more leisurely tasting of the winery's excellent chardonnays and merlots.
I could think of no better tribute than to raise a glass to the unique slice of America that is Virginia's Eastern Chesapeake Bay.