Virginia’s cape may not have the widespread name recognition of Cod, May or Hatteras, but the tide is turning for Cape Charles.
The Eastern Shore town, situated about 10 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, spent a few decades in quiet decline after the bridge made the town’s ferry service obsolete and stole most of its traffic in the 1960s. Today, however, that same bridge is bringing visitors from across the bay as well as from up north.
In the summer high season, this sleepy town of 1,000 residents can see its numbers quadruple or more as visitors pack into historic homes that have become vacation rentals, taking to the streets in rented golf carts — the preferred mode of transportation.
Numerous businesses have sprung up to serve the needs of the growing tourist population. Last summer, Gov. Ralph Northam went on a ribbon-cutting blitz, welcoming a hotel, cidery, and a dozen other newcomers to town. In true Cape Charles fashion, the festivities included a golf cart parade.
Business is booming in Cape Charles, with most of the growth contained within the town’s compact historic district, about a mile from end to end. At such an intimate scale, you can’t miss the contrast between old and new, with Watson’s Hardware Store and the soda fountain at Rayfield’s Pharmacy coexisting amicably with a yoga studio, Gull Hummock Gourmet Market and the Local sushi restaurant. That’s part of what makes Cape Charles so special.
Where the town meets the Bay, Cape Charles’ public beach is the jewel in its crown, with warm tide pools and barely there waves that make it ideal for young children, paddleboarders and layabouts on inflatable flamingo floats. Fishermen gather on the free town pier to try to catch dinner, while others chase blue crabs in the shallow surf. Parking at the beach is free and usually plentiful.
When you’ve had enough sand and sun, Mason Avenue has a small handful of art galleries and the historic Palace Theatre, which plays host to concerts and events such as the Experimental Film Virginia festival held earlier this summer.
The retail strip is dotted with shops like Cape Charles Candy Company and Voiajer, a fair-trade gift shop. Table and Tonic carries carefully curated stationery and cocktail accouterments, while Like a Sailor is the place to pick up puzzles and cheeky souvenirs. Peach Street Books, housed in a renovated 1930s-era filling station, may be one of the most charming bookstores you’ve laid eyes on. It has new and used books, plus a nice patio for reading your new finds with a bagel and iced coffee. For fun beyond shopping, there are championship golf courses, nature reserves, and boat tours within a few minutes’ drive.
Many visitors choose to rent homes in the Cape Charles Historic District, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Boasting one of the largest concentrations of turn of-the-century and late Victorian buildings in the region, the town owes the preservation of its historic character to that same post-ferry era dry spell that halted development decades ago. Even now, with most of its homes restored to their original glory by investors and lovers of old houses, its residential streets feel frozen in time.
The hottest Airbnb in town just might be the Doublemint Duplex, a home whose extensive renovation was very publicly chronicled by Young House Love bloggers John and Sherry Petersik. With their own beach house two doors down, the famous fixer-uppers have become enthusiastic cheerleaders for Cape Charles, drawing superfans to the block for a peek at their properties.
Another option, the Northampton Hotel, reopened last summer. Built as a private home in 1909 and converted to a hotel in the 1930s, the sprawling waterside spot underwent a three-year renovation that yielded five “retro-chic” guest rooms, a chef-driven restaurant and a gift shop.
Numerous inns and bed-and-breakfasts offer a traditional lodging experience, while the Hotel Cape Charles is a more modern option for visitors who don’t want to rent an entire home for their stay.
For a french-toast-and-mimosas kind of morning, head to Cape Charles Coffee House. Housed in a gorgeous former bank built in 1910, the cafe has pressed tin ceilings and art deco chandeliers inside; outside, there are a few tables on the sidewalk. For quick stops, two of the town’s recent additions — the Bakery on Mason and Coastal Baking Co. — also offer buttery housemade pastries, artisan breads and coffee to go.
Later in the day, visit local hangout the Shanty, one of the town’s few waterfront eateries. With a rustic-industrial aesthetic and wide windows overlooking the harbor, it’s a favorite for locally sourced seafood dishes like soft-shell crab BLTs and fried oyster po boys. If there’s a wait, you’ll find an additional bar and cornhole setup on the sand behind the restaurant overlooking the water. In the evenings, local musicians can be found playing to a laid-back crowd sipping tropical-inspired cocktails on the deck.
On the opposite side of the harbor, Hook at Harvey is one of the newest additions to the local dining scene, though it’s actually a reincarnation of a popular bistro.
The 1906-era mercantile building was transported by barge from the seaside village of Oyster in 2015, and now overlooks the Cape Charles Yacht Center. Chef Tim Brown regularly updates the menu with plenty of boat-fresh seafood and inspired small plates like shirred duck egg topped with duck confit, caramelized ramps and fresh figs.
Kelly’s Gingernut Pub is another turn-of-the-century bank converted into a restaurant, this one with an Irish theme. Start in the bar area with a few rounds of darts and Guinness, then sit down for some bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie or drunken mussels in one of the pub’s cozy wood-paneled booths. You can even dine in the original bank vault if you want the full Kelly’s experience.
End the day with something sweet at Brown Dog Ice Cream, a place so beloved that sweet-seekers start lining up before it opens.
Ranked as one of the best ice cream shops in the country by TripAdvisor, it has a daily-changing menu of flavors featuring ingredients sourced from local farmers and purveyors. For a frozen alternative, look for the rickety yellow shack on Peach Street. The Peach Beach Shave Ice Shack uses Hawaiian-style techniques to make tropical flavors of shaved ice. Both spots are seasonal and close in the colder months.
In the past year, Cape Charles has stepped up its drinking game with three new booze-centered attractions: Cape Charles Distillery, Cape Charles Brewing Co., and Buskey Cider on the Bay, the Eastern Shore outpost of Richmond’s Buskey Cider.
The last is an easy walk from the beach on the main drag, Mason Avenue, with a sprawling patio filled with picnic tables and a cozy tasting room ideal for escaping errant storms that blow off the bay. Seasonal flavors like watermelon rosemary and piña colada are tailor-made for sipping with sandy feet.
A block up the street, the distillery is a speakeasy-style space run by Bill Duncan, who learned the art of making moonshine from his grandfather. Stop by for a tasting flight of the distillery’s small-batch spirits, including whiskeys, gin and a vodka made from Chesapeake Bay oyster shells. For something lighter, choose from the creative cocktail menu.
You’ll have to head a bit out of the historic district to hit up Cape Charles Brewing Co. It features Eastern Shore-inspired beers like Smith Island Stout and Cobb Island IPA, plus a refreshing shandy made with lemonade and strawberries and a subtly sweet Honeysuckle Wheat. It has a food menu, too, with wings, pretzels, burgers and other fare ideal for pairing with a pint or two.
Wherever your Cape Charles wanderings take you during the day, there’s really only one place to wrap them up: on, in or alongside the water. Whether you head back to the beach, grab a table at a waterside restaurant or hop in a kayak to paddle out into the gentle waves, most nights you’ll be rewarded with a stellar sunset over the Chesapeake Bay.