For all you folks out there still wondering where to haul the fam this summer or where to get away for a long weekend without breaking the bank (or the car), let me share a little gem we’ve discovered right down at the bottom of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Cape Charles, VA.
About 7 years ago our extended family went in on a vacation property in this 1900’s railroad town turned quaint beach vacation spot and we’ve grown to love it. As have all the folks who come visit (two of whom were so smitten, they bought a house there too). Our place is rentable and works great for 8-10. But wherever you choose to lay your head (plenty of rentals and a few inns), the main point here is to give you a tip on a fun, but off-the-beaten-path and affordable, place. So here goes.
You might really dig Cape Charles if: you’re a family with younger kids, you’re a couple looking for a relaxing and scenic beach getaway, you’re just as happy with paddle as propellor, you warm to vacation traits like low key, low(er) cost, less traveled, easy-paced.
You might look elsewhere if: you crave high octane water sports, want a steady diet of boogie board rattling waves, want lots of choices for going out/shopping, prefer a mature tourism machine that can cater to your every wish.
Top 5 things we love:
#1 – Crazy beautiful natural setting – Down there where the Bay spills into the Atlantic, the Eastern Shore is pretty darn narrow so you get a taste of several worlds. Cape Charles sits smack on the wide open beauty of the Bay (complete with the rare-for-these-parts western sunset over the water every evening), while just a few miles to your east are the wild marshes and barrier islands of the Atlantic, and a few miles south are the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge and Kiptopeke State Park. So whether you’re plunked in a chair o’er looking the Bay or out boating/fishing amongst the uninhabited Atlantic barrier islands, there’s plenty of wild beauty to take in.
#2 – Kid (and thus parent) friendly beaches – Cape Charles boasts a nice string of public beaches for all to enjoy right in town. I say “all”, but an important note here. This is the Bay so the beaches are ideally suited for families with young kids or folks interested in relaxed swims/paddles. Why? Think world’s largest wading pool… calm waters and very shallow for a long way out. So little ones can splash about for hours right in front of you as you relax in a beach chair. A far cry from the worry-fest that can be the heavy surf of Atlantic beaches. At the same time, high tide supplies enough deep water for older kids and adults to enjoy a good cool swim. Put these beaches and the setting together and you have plenty of idylic little moments with butt in chair, beverage in hand, kids happily in water and beautiful vista on full display.
#3 – People-powered water sports – Just recently, rentable jet skis have started popping up and certainly folks with boats (or charters) find plenty of adventure fishing etc. out in the Bay. But Cape Charles is mostly about low key everything and that applies to water sports at the beaches. Calm and shallow makes for great kayaking, paddleboarding, skim-boarding, etc. Kayaks and boards are easy to rent and you’ll see plenty of folks tooling around along the beach in between sandcastle construction, book reading, etc. For the more adventurous, there are guided (even overnight) kayak tours on both the Bay and Atlantic sides and you see some kiteboarding. But when we have guests more interested in consistent adrenaline than steady repose, they’ll often pop across the bay to Virginia Beach for a day of waves/parasailing/water parks etc.
#4 – Commerce-lite, hurry-free – You’re probably starting to sense a theme here but one of the other things we love is how uncluttered the place is. Yes, there are a couple of great eating spots, a terrific coffee joint, a yummy gourmet shop, a few funky retail stores, an old-school hardware store that’s a must visit and even a few higher end retail shops over at Bay Creek Marina adjacent to town. But generally speaking, Cape Charles has resisted (or hasn’t been able to support) lots of commerce. The result is a Mayberry-esque feel and pace, but smack on a big beautiful body of water. Indeed the only things other than the view and dunes on the main beach drag are a town gazebo and a nice long fishing pier.
#5 – Golf carts – Sounds weird, I know. But Cape Charles is one of a few places in the state where you can zoom around on golf carts (which you can rent for a day/week). And given that the town is a standard grid with rental houses scattered across it, a little open air conveyance is quite helpful, in addition to being a ton of fun. Our place for example is 4 blocks off the water. So a common ritual is to load up the cart and zoom down to the beach for an extended visit. Or just hop in spur of the moment and catch sunset, ride to the coffee store, do donuts in the Town Hall parking lot (not really, if only the carts had that much juice), etc. Bikes are also lots of fun. Either way, point’s the same. Great spot to leave the car and hoof, cart or cycle.
Random Top 10 list of activities we like best:
- Breakfast out at Cape Charles Coffee Company or the old school diner counter inside the local pharmacy.
- Long morning or afternoon beach sessions of swimming, paddleboarding, reading, beach walking, etc.
- Ordering pizzas from Venetos down to the beach for a mid-day or evening nosh
- Renting kayaks and paddleboards for the day from Southeast Expeditions for little jaunts from the beach by young and old (I’ve particularly fallen for paddleboarding and the kids are getting into it too)
- Buying (or catching) some fresh seafood and cooking up a big dinner at home, grilled rockfish (or drum) tacos are a recent top performer and of course crabs are fun
- Popping out for dinner and darts at Kelly’s Gingernut Pub, a beautiful restored bank that now serves as the go to spot for dinner or drinks right in town
- Cocktails and kids swim over sunset. Nothing like sunset over the water while the wee ones get a last dip in and you get a few sips in from the comfort of your beach chair.
- Tour of Atlantic barrier islands like Cobb where you may as well be John Smith. Whether you have/rent a boat or line up a kayak tour, this is a great, step back in time outing. No houses, roads, anything. Just a beautiful 30 minute boat ride out to an untouched, wild barrier island beach.
- Daily wine tasting at the Gull and Hummock gourmet shop right in town. Honey, the owner, is a font of wisdom and delights in getting you to taste all sorts of yummies.
- Playground and tennis courts at the town green. Big, wide open garden and field in the middle of town, with some decent tennis courts and a nice playground.
- Bonus item – golf carting to any/all of the above
What about skeeters and jellies? – This is a common question of the Bay but we’ve not found either to be big issues. On the mosquito front… maybe it’s because we hail from Alexandria where they’re like man eating birds 24-7, but the mosquitos down in Cape Charles are more like those of my youth… around in the evening, mostly absent during the day and non-existent on the beach thanks to the breeze. Jellies… much, much less prevalent down here where the Bay mixes with the Atlantic than they are up in Maryland where swimming for large chunks of the season is simply out of the question thanks to the millions of jellies who’ve gotten in the water ahead of you. In our 7 years we’ve had many seasons where they’re not in evidence at all and never so much that kept either us or lots of other folks from swimming/paddling aplenty.
List of area attractions, courtesy of Bay Creek, the fancy golf/marina resort that’s next door to Cape Charles.
Trip advisor take on Cape Charles – reviews on restaurants, B&B’s, attractions, etc.
Recent photojournalist blog snaps – great shots of town
Chatham Vineyards – just because we’ve always wanted to go to this well considered local winery and it reminds me that there are all sorts of fun little excursions like this within easy striking distance of Cape Charles for days when you want a change of pace.