Because a young acquaintance of ours was getting married there, my wife and I recently ventured to a place of which I had never heard: the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Technically a peninsula, but looking more like a barrier island, this is a thin strip of land nearly sixty miles long out in the Atlantic Ocean along the coast of Virginia, forming Chesapeake Bay on its western side. It resembles the better-known Outer Banks of North Carolina, but because it lacks the latter's expansive beaches, it has not developed the awesome touristic figures of the Outer Banks.
Until now, that is. Virginia's Eastern Shore is rapidly gaining in tourism, and the hotels, seaside restaurants featuring crab and oysters, the quaint small shops and stores, the sports and entertainment facilities, are heavily growing in number. But the predominant look of the "island" is nevertheless rural, agricultural, and also based on fishing, and the endless small farms lend it an undeveloped look, once you get away from its central and sole highway, a south-to-north road known as "13".
Among its biggest towns (actually, an island-city) is Chincoteague, located at the northern end, and famous for two potent attractions: a huge nature preserve of wild horses (small in stature and better resembing ponies) on the adjoining island of Assateague, and a NASA launch site for rocket-propelled space ships on Wallops Island, just off Chincoteague (a visitors' center provides fascinating instruction). All this is enjoyed by the visitor in a setting of seafood restaurants, and fishing boats that continue to ship prodigious quantities of Chesapeake Bay oysters and crabs to fans of that food up north. At the start of the Civil War in 1860, when all of Virginia was enthusiastically joining the Confederacy, the people of Chincoteague voted overwhelmingly to stay with the Union, possibly because they feared losing the income from oysters shipped to Philadelphia and New York.
That event, and the commemoration of it in numerous statues and memorials, is a constant reminder to the visitor of a unique and powerful chapter in American history. You encounter it in all the small villages scattered up and down the Eastern Shore, whose main streets are largely one-story and two-story buildings of historical vintage, very much the America of past centuries.
And all of this is brought to you through contacts with residents who spend most of their lives on this island-peninsula, and display the finest forms of southern hospitality; they are gentle and courteous in their dealings with visitors, and grateful for the touristic income that such vacationers bring.
Although the Eastern Shore is attached to the state of Maryland, and can be reached by simple road from that state, most visitors appear to get here from the southern end, via a 20-mile long bridge across Chesapeake Bay, built for the first time in the 1960s. And many people get here, as we did, by first flying into Norfolk, renting a car, and then driving to the start of the bridge. Crossing it is part of the adventure of visiting the Eastern Shore.
To all but residents of Virginia and Maryland, the Eastern Shore is largely unknown--but growing fast. With the fondest memories of staying there, in a uniquely-American atmosphere surrounded by history, I will certainly be returning.