For some people, finding Cape Charles must feel a bit like serendipity, more a discovery than a destination. The ride typically takes them up Route 13, over and through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Eastern Shore, past the wildlife refuge and kitschy Sunset Beach Resort, and into a world that feels almost like a secret place.
They turn left onto County Road 184 and take their foot off the gas and coast past the water tower (painted to look like a lighthouse) and the restored rail car (a paean to the place’s past) and into a picturesque town of slightly more than 1,000 souls, where children pedal bicycles past historic homes and locals tool around in golf carts.
“A lot of people come across the bridge and discover us by accident,” says Andrew Follmer, president of the Cape Charles Business Association and owner of the gift shops The Boardwalkand Like a Sailor. Follmer often directs tourists to At Altitude, a gallery on Mason Avenue that features Eastern Shore aerial photography.
He does this to support a local business, yes, but also so people can see with their own two eyes what made him fall in love with the area.
It’s hard to deny the genius of his plan, because Cape Charles is a land of coves and creeks, and smooth, still water – perfect for kite surfing or paddle boarding or kayaking through the uninhabited barrier islands. There are shops and restaurants and tomatoes growing right up against the beach. There is music and food, and at times crowds.
But despite the abundance of opportunities, everything moves a tad slower here. It is in many ways, as Mayor George Proto likes to say, the “Mayberry of the Chesapeake.”
Of course, you can’t tell the story of Cape Charles without first noting the role the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel played in its destruction and rebirth. Before the bridge’s construction, the town bustled with trains and traffic and sailors on furlough.
But after it opened in 1964, people zoomed up 13, rarely making that meandering turn to Cape Charles. Businesses closed, bricks crumbled, dust gathered. Then in the 1990s outsiders started snapping up the Sears kit homes and American Foursquares, fixing and flipping, bringing with them fresh money and new ideas.
Virginia Beach real estate developer Richard “Dickie” Foster joined in, buying up a chunk of land and mapping out Bay Creek, the first gated community in the country with not one but two signature golf courses, one by Jack Nicklaus and another by Arnold Palmer.
He invested in a marina surrounded by Caribbean-colored condos. There were controversies and lawsuits and the properties changed hands a time or two, but still new residents came, infusing energy into the town. They joined committees and councils, opened businesses and put down roots.
Twelve years ago Follmer drove down from D.C. to visit friends, and within five hours he had purchased a home.
“You have a town with wonderful people that’s surrounded by beautiful land,” he says. “What’s not to love?”
Cape Charles is sleepy, yes, and welcoming, but its population swells to more than 5,000 on big weekends like the 4th of July. The tourists come by car and boat, to dock and dance and maybe play a few rounds.
They eat at Brown Dog Ice Cream (rated in the top 10 nationally by TripAdvisor) with its exotic ice cream flavors like goat cheese with beets and pistachio, or peaches and sweet corn, made from produce picked a mile or so down the shore.
They find their way to the historic district, centered on Mason Avenue, and check out Rayfield’s Pharmacy, where you can sit at the counter and share a milk shake or an egg salad sandwich.
They head up the street to the Cape Charles Coffee House, where broad stairs take you to the mezzanine of the restored department store with its pressed-tin ceiling and what some call the tastiest coffee between New York and Miami.
There’s no hurry, here. You can rent a golf cart if you want, but the main drag is an easy walk. And on warm weekends, plenty do, traveling up to The Gull Hummock, a gourmet market with snacks and cheeses, and wine tastings.
There is Watson’s Hardware store, run by brothers who inherited it from their dad, where you can buy bicycles and bird feeders, peanuts and pecans.
Tired of the land? Rent a kite board or a stand-up paddleboard at SouthEast Expeditions. The company runs kayak tours up the creek to Chatham Vineyards for wine tastings, often paired with local oysters. You can also catch a ride with Cape Charles Boat Tour for a visit to the ever-changing and uninhabited barrier islands, where you can dig your own clams or pick your own oysters.
Those feeling a tad less adventurous wander to the working harbor, where watermen sell oysters and crabs straight off their boats. Then take them back to their rental house or bed and breakfast and settle out on the porch to watch the evening fade.
Or better yet, they take them back to their boat, safe in a slip at Oyster Farm Marina, and lie on the deck, listening to mast lines like wind chimes as they stare at the stars.
This is a place where life-longers and come-latelies work together, creating the kind of community where older people want to retire and younger people want to build a life.
The locals often gather on Friday nights for music at Vintage 209 or at the Lemon Tree Gallery, where once a month they break into flatfoot dancing. They are a relaxed bunch, happy to see you enjoying a bowl of she crab soup at Kelly’s Gingernut Pub, in a refurbished bank, or grabbing a pizza or sandwiches to go at Hook-U-Up Gourmet.
There’s upscale eating at The Oyster Farm Seafood Eatery, with its waterfront view of the Bay, and downscale fresh-off-the-boat seafood at The Shanty, where you can grab the mic for karaoke as you ogle million-dollar yachts docked for repair. There’s even a Russian teahouse named Dacha, where if you time it right you can hear Bruce Gittinger blow ballads on his trumpet while Jone Gittinger, dressed as Catherine the Great, tells stories about her life.
It doesn’t much matter what you do. The point is to settle in, slow down, savor. The breeze is fresh off the Bay, the pines sough in the wind, the people smile and ask what they can get you.
This is Cape Charles. Welcome.