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Spotlight: Virginia Shoreline

Run with the horses on a superb Virginia Beach

Stretching south from the Maryland border and separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore of Virginia exudes a wild, seafaring character that invites you to dig your toes in the sand and feel the ocean breeze on your face.

Getting there is easy: The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel whisks you from Hampton Roads on the mainland out to the 70-mile-long peninsula, where coastal adventures await visitors.

A great place to start is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a hot spot for horse lovers and curious onlookers, many of whom travel to the refuge in midsummer to see the wild, miniature ponies swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. The 90-year-old tradition, in which wild horses are rounded up before being herded into the water, has its roots in “pony penning.” Today, foals are auctioned off each year to help control the size of the herd and raise funds for local volunteer firefighters.

Chincoteague isn’t just about ponies, though. With more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh and maritime forest, the refuge is home to waterfowl of all kinds, as well as plants that are uniquely adapted to the environment. Visitors are permitted to fish and hunt, and wildlife photography and observation are also encouraged. Young guests can participate in ranger-guided programs at the visitor center to learn about archery, lighthouses, birds and animal tracks.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Follow the Light

The Assateague Lighthouse is open weekends for tours (with expanded hours during July and August), and it can be accessed by a walking-biking trail that leads from Chincoteague. The original lighthouse was built in 1833 and replaced by a larger one in 1867. The beacon’s lights can be seen 19 miles out to sea, as it remains an active navigational aid. Though its first light was a candle lantern, today’s lighthouse is outfitted with twin rotating electric lights that flash in tandem.

Enjoy a day in a Victorian-era town. Parksley sits on the north end of the peninsula and boasts a train station that harks back to the days when passenger trains made 14 stops per day here. Tour the Eastern Shore Railway Museum and its preserved lounge car, sleeper car and caboose, and browse railroad memorabilia. Quench your thirst at nearby Bloxom Vineyard and Winery, where several varieties of grapes are cultivated on a 35-acre Victorian farm.

Explore the outdoors at sea level in Wallops Island, home to the Marine Science Consortium. The field station’s programs teach guests about marine life and the Wallops Island ecosystem through interactive programs for children and adults. Wallops is also home to NASA’s primary facility for suborbital research programs. The Wallops Flight Facility visitor center hosts free public education programs as well as weekly activities, and it is an ideal viewing site when rockets are launched.

During your visit, try some surf fishing off the shores of Wreck and Bone Island Natural Area Preserve near the town of Oyster. This piece of the barrier island chain is paralleled by shell mounds and consists mainly of beaches, sand dunes and salt marsh habitats. Nesting birds have the island to themselves during the last two weeks of April to ensure safe breeding.

Take a canoe or kayak out on the water for a slow-paced tour along the Virginia Seaside Water Trail. Essentially 100 miles of day-use paddling routes, the trail’s 37 water courses stretch between the Virginia National Wildlife Refuge at Cape Charles and Chincoteague Island. North and South Raccoon Island are the recommended routes for beginner paddlers.

The whole family will appreciate a day at Kiptopeke State Park on the Chesapeake Bay. More than 5 miles of hiking and bicycle trails lead into upland hardwood forest, where deer and foxes make their homes. Bayside beaches invite visitors to cool off in calm waters; the southern beach is open to crabbing and surf fishing as well. Head out from the waterfront to a large fishing pier, or take a boat out to the concrete ships that form a breakwater, where many species make a home.

See what life in a coastal town is like on a trip to Cape Charles. Located on the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles delights guests with its resort feel and small-town charm. Cape Charles was built to serve the Pennsylvania Railroad; the town was mapped out in 1884 and trains began running that same year.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Diesel Power

Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center resides in a former power plant with the diesel engine and generator still intact. Museum staff demonstrates the equipment upon request, along with a 4-foot-long locomotive model that runs in place. The museum also houses artifacts from the formation of the Chesapeake Bay crater, models of sailing ships and archival photographs from the town’s development projects.

Though the trains have long gone, traffic continues to come to Cape Charles in waves of tourists seeking oceanside relaxation and fun. Cape Charles boasts the only public beach on Virginia’s Eastern Shore that is free to use. The beach’s southern end is adjacent to a public pier for saltwater fishing and watching boats sail through the Chesapeake Bay.

Central Park, located in the heart of the downtown historic district, is the site of year-round events and festivities. On quiet days, it’s an ideal spot for strolling around the walking path or people-watching from the benches scattered around the park.

Enjoy a guided horseback ride through a 150-acre waterfront farm along wooded trails, or hit the links at Bay Creek Resort, marking the first time golf greats Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus designed courses for the same club.

On the Chesapeake Bay shoreline, the Oyster Fram Seafood Eatery at Kings Creek serves up fresh seafood. Diners can enjoy stunning views of Chesapeake Bay during their visit, and when darkness falls, a candlit dinner with someone special should be on your menu.

In nearby Cheriton, Ballard Fish and Oyster Company has been producing shellfish since 1895 and opens its Cherrystone Aqua-Farms for tours. At Chatham Vineyards, 10 miles north on land founded in 1640, America’s only authentic Kayak Winery Tour welcomes even inexperienced paddlers.

If you’re visiting in October, head over to the narrow Delmarva Peninsula for the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. Each year, thousands of songbirds, hawks, butterflies and dragonflies follow this thin strip of land on a migration path. While there, visitors can explore historic towns and seaside villages.

Birders are encouraged to bring their binoculars and birding log books. During a recent festival, an incredible 162 species were observed. While visiting, take a boat trip to learn about the marshes, islands and bays that make up the Virginia Coastal Reserve, one of the last coastal wilderness areas on the Eastern Seaboard.

For More Information

Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism
Virginia Tourism Corporation