On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, you notice the sound of wind whistling through sea grass and the loudest noise is of birds taking flight. The lands barely seem touched by mankind for thousands of years and peacefulness is a way of life. Where else on this enormous continent do you have a chance to see wild horses or travel out to pristine beaches, coated with sand and adorned with wildlife without seeing another human in sight. Where a love of nature is an asset and the craving of tranquility is fulfilled, serenity now has a location. Take it out of fifth gear and idle yourself to a slower pace on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
I started off my journey to the Eastern Shore of Virginia by arriving on Chincoteague Island with the late afternoon sky growing cloudy above. I checked into the Best Western in Chincoteague, immediately greeted with a smile – not to mention two delicious, warm cookies. My room was a perfect blend of a seaside hotel and tasteful retreat. A private balcony sat on one side complete with chairs to relax in the afternoons breeze. All the amenities I needed were at my fingertips, a Keurig for coffee, a flat screen TV, pool and breakfast in the morning.
Can’t drag me away
After tossing my bags in my room and washing of the sweat of a 7 hour car ride from the streets of New York, I jumped in the car and headed into the Assateague National Park. Paying the $8 entrance fee at the gate, I got a few tips on the best places to find some wild ponies that the island is known for. At the southern end, the Assateague Island National Seashore stretches north towards Maryland as far as I could see. Inside the park, there are trails that lead to wild horses viewing areas. There I found a whole herd of magnificent wild horses, grazing upon the marshy ground.
Rising at an early hour, I left my car and walked across the road to rent a bike and take a morning spin through the park again. The Bike Depot located right outside the entrance to the national park on Chincoteague Island caters to groups, families or the solo biker. There’s no shortage of trails to explore nor chances to see the natural delights the park has to offer. The wildlife seemed to becoming to life in the morning light as birds took flight from the trees, starting their day with a hunt for breakfast. In August the sun warms the earth early, so getting in an 8AM bike ride through the trees and marshes before it got too hot was a perfect way to start the day.
A view from above!
I headed to the town of Painter for a birds-eye view of the peninsular and a chance to ride the air! Bill from Virginia Hang Gliding welcomed me in the parking lot beside the hangar with a smile. He then introduced me to all of the amazing staff. I knew from the start I was in capable hands and ready to attach myself to a giant kite to soar through the air. My hang gliding partner Don exerted confidence in a way that you couldn’t imagine anything possibly going wrong. These guys are the epitome of professionalism.
To see the Eastern Shore from the ground is breathtaking to steal a cliché. To see them from above is a whole other level of consciousness. Mind-blowing is a much more apt term.
The thought that I was going to be towed by an airplane into the skies left me a little more apprehensive, couldn’t we just jump off a cliff? Makes sense right?! Well, the knowledge of the crew quelled any unease I had.
I was strapped into a harness and attached to the frame of the hang glider. In front of us and attached by a wire was the tow plane. It’s a mini airplane with a top speed of 45 MPH designed for exactly this purpose. Bill was at the helm and took off across the field quickly pulling us into the summer sky. We circled higher and higher towards the sun, the distance of our vision growing with our altitude. At a certain height we let loose from the plane. Just another bird in the sky, floating on invisible thermals while taking in the entire width of the peninsula from above. The barrier islands stood out from the surrounding blue of the Atlantic in the distance, the lush green foliage of the Eastern Shore swayed beneath us.
Rarely have I felt so alive and free.
We circled around and around slowly descending as Don taught me how to steer and eventually made a smooth landing back into the field we started from. I took to the skies, flew like a bird and even got a video to prove it, thanks to Virginia Hang Gliding! With multiple hang gliders and ability to stagger take offs, these guys can take groups and fly all day!
The the gentle Virginia waves
After seeing the lay of the land from above it was time to take to the waves and observe from the sea! From the marina in Wachapreague I hopped on Capt. Rick Kellams boat for a Eco Tour to the barrier islands. Broadwater Bay Ecotours is his outfit and a more fitting guide would not be found. As we motor out into the water salt marshes captivate my attention as birds take flight from within. Ocean spray splashes against my face as Rick uses his expert knowledge to navigate the channels.
Rick taught me more about the barrier islands in 90 minutes than I could have absorbed in a whole set of books. His enthusiasm and passion for the place he calls home is contagious. Imparting his view of conservation for the natural habitats and beauty of the place in an educated way made me understand the necessity of preserving this area exactly how it is, bugs and all! From the human history of the islands to the ecological make up and the geological movement over time, there doesn’t seem to be much that he doesn’t know. Brown pelicans took flight from the beaches and Rick showed me the oyster banks where you are allowed to take a bushel a day for your own consumption. Tales of pirates, an island once inhabited by the infamous Edward Teach and known for a while by his name. He showed me where the hunting excursions and lodges of the wealthy from another century used to be and the remnants of that generation barely visible on the shore.
Stories that keep me riveted on the edge of his boat in fascination.
His expert seamanship from a life lived on the water shows as he guides his boat, all the while keeping a running commentary with the delivery of a seasoned storyteller. He passionately advocates that you should come and visit this extraordinary part of Virginia, take an education, photos and memories but leave only footprints in the sand to be washed away by the rising tide.
Nightfall and noshing
After a day of exploration I was famished and a few steps from The Wachapreague Inn where I was staying, is the Island House restaurant. When they say it’s the only joint in town, well it’s certainly true for this area.That means they have to do it right to attract people to come to this sleepy hamlet – and they certainly do. I met up with some locals for dinner and we were joined by Dan Bilicki, son of local art gallery owner Bob. Much of the seafood is local and the steak I had was delicious.
With lively conversation, friendly faces stopping by our table to say hello and a whole education on the Eastern Shore from the people who know the best, it was easy to while away hours munching on tantalizing dishes in front of us. To round it off I tried a local specialty for desert, Becca’s Smith Island Cake. Layers upon layers of sweetened goodness is the best way to end any meal.
After we strolled down to the Current Reflections art gallery and I browsed the astonishingly captivating paintings on display. Art runs in Dan’s family because his work and Bob’s wife’s artwork was prominently displayed upon the walls. The painters provide the skill but the Eastern Shore give unending inspiration.
As exhaustion from a packed day of thrilling activities took it’s toll, I wandered back to my room at The Wachapreague Inn. The hotel is located mere feet from the harbor and the Island house restaurant. The is a perfect place to lay your head for the night. My room was equipped with a fridge, TV and big comfortable bed. The staff was amazing, sharing their knowledge of the area and making sure everything was satisfactory. After a day of excitement, a fabulous dinner and a view of some of the local artist talent it was easy to lay my head to rest and sleep the night away in this cozy village retreat.