25 Hidden Gems in Coastal Virginia



Feel like you’ve seen everything Coastal Virginia has to offer? Chances are there’s a few places you’ve missed. Look a little closer, and you’ll find a whole world of hidden happenings, little-known activities, secret gardens, unexposed stores and under-the-radar eats just waiting to be discovered. We’re not guaranteeing that all items on this list will be completely mysterious to you, but we’ve certainly had a fun time discovering (and in some cases rediscovering) these 25 treasures. And if, by chance, you’re already in the know of some of these gems, advance apologies for blowing up your spot. 

1. $3 Martini Tuesdays at Yuk-Yuk & Joes
Three cheers for $3 Tuesdays!

martini

The moment you walk into Yuk's, the Eastern Shore locals will know you're not from 'round there. But don't let that stop you from perching on a barstool and ordering a $3 martini, offered on Tuesday nights (girlfriends' night). The booze is bottom shelf, the glasses are smaller than average, and the atmosphere is Cheers meets Sanford and Son. Still, there's something so be said for a $3 martini. So set a stack of quarters on the pool table, insert a few more into the jukebox and get to know the locals a little. Note: If you're not much for martinis, come on Thursday for a plate of their much-larger-than-average wings. 15617 Courthouse Rd., Eastville. 757-678-7870. YukYukAndJoes.com

2. Breakfast at The Grill 
Order up!

the grill at great bridge chesapeake the grill at great bridge chesapeake

The “Best Of” awards covering the walls at the 500-square-foot, 22-seater The Grill at Great Bridge more than hint that Ann and Gary Pyle’s restaurant could quadruple in size and still be packed. The Philly cheesesteaks and cheeseburgers are winners for sure, along with Ann’s homemade desserts. However, what draws the locals in is the atmosphere—that, and the breakfast. Gary, once a manager during the '80s at the famous Uncle Louie’s in Norfolk, prepares freshly cut and fried potatoes with onions as Ann, a former Norview High School English teacher, refills coffees quickly and cheerfully. Try those offerings, but eat the bacon first, as the made-to-order eggs and nearly Frisbee-sized pancakes will fill you too quickly otherwise. More advice: Bring cash—and a touch of patience: No plastic is accepted, and The Grill is sometimes standing-room only. 388 S. Battlefield Blvd., Chesapeake, 757-482-5362, TheGrillAtGreatBridge.com

3. Shad Planking. 
Politics. Fish. Whiskey. Wine.

shad planking

In the woods of Wakefield, the Shad Planking has united generations hungry for stump speeches and smoked shad. "Politics is what always fueled this thing," says longtime Wakefield Ruritan Club member Robert Bain. Both Democrats and Republicans gather each spring at the Wakefield Ruritan Club to swap ideas and sway opinions. All the while, hundreds of shad are smoked on wooden planks, following a Native American tradition of making those bony fish more edible. At nearly 70 years old, this annual must-see meeting of the minds inspires great debates from ex-governors, would-be senators and potential presidents. 12205 Brittles Mill Rd., Wakefield. 804-277-2788. ShadPlanking.com

4. The Route 58 Delicatessen's Mile-High Club
Now that's what I call a sandwich

route 58 deli mile high club

Some sandwiches may be foot-longs. But only a rare few stand almost a foot tall like the Mile-High Club, one of the most spectacular sandwiches at the Route 58 Delicatessen in Virginia Beach. Thick enough for two eaters, the All American Club boasts a tower of turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce and tomato while the B.L.T. Club actually packs a pound of bacon on its plate! Topped with a sandwich flag on freshly-baked bread, these culinary creations soared onto the menu when the retro-decorated restaurant landed at its Loehmann’s Plaza location in 2008. "And then they kind of kept growing," says the manager, Megan Haynes. "They receive a lot of oohs and ahhs." The Mile-High Club comes with potato salad, coleslaw or macaroni salad for $15.99. Substitute fries for $2. Add cheese for 99 cents. 4000 Virginia Beach Blvd. #156, Virginia Beach. 757-227-5868. 58Deli.com

5. Jamestown Discovery Boat Tour
Grab your swim trunks and your flippie-floppies

jamestown discovery

Heading out on the Jamestown Discovery Tour, you'll spend up to 90 minutes on the same waters that lured Capt. John Smith and those famous Virginia settlers of 1607. Come spy on bald eagles, deer, osprey and great blue heron while enjoying a brisk breeze on the James River. As many as 28 passengers can board the spacious pontoon boat called the Jamestown Discovery. There, they can see Jamestown from a vastly varying view, looking at marshy inlets and the replicas of the original ships—Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery—at Jamestown Settlement. "It's a whole different perception seeing it from the water," says Capt. Corey Fenton of Williamsburg. "It's the nature on the James River tied in with the history." Narrated cruises for sightseeing, history tours and nature viewing run April to autumn at the James City County Marina. 2054 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg. 757-253-8687. JamestownDiscovery.com

6. Courtland's Treasure Trove
Farming and forestry—without getting your hands dirty

southampton heritage village and agriculture and forestry museum

Come to Courtland to tour a treasure trove of tools and tractors at the Southampton Heritage Village and Agriculture & Forestry Museum, featuring more than 7,500 items. This complex spreads across 15 acres, offering a daytrip destination that's high on history and filled with forestry facts. See a 1920s diesel engine, a country church, an antique gas station, a smokehouse and a one-room schoolhouse. You can also climb a 50-foot tower once used for checking on forest fires. While here, be sure to observe the ongoing restoration of the circa-1800 Rebecca Vaughan House, a relocated structure noted historically for being part of slave Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection of 1831. Gatherings planned for 2016 include Down Home Day on April 9 and Heritage Day on September 10. The museum is open March to November on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. 26135 Heritage Lane, Courtland. 757-375-2523. SouthamptonCounty.org

7. Grandview Nature Preserve
Take a hike

grandview nature preserve hampton

Looking for a secret beach? Check out Grandview Nature Preserve. This tucked-behind-a-neighborhood nugget offers three miles of surf and sand along the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton. Grandview, too, includes the rocky remains of the Back River Lighthouse, destroyed in a storm during 1956. First, though, getting to the water does require following a half-mile-long, rocky trail through tidal wetlands. But it’s a scenic walk. And it’s one that helps build anticipation for this beauty of a beach, with its grand view of wide waters. Overseen by the Hampton Parks & Recreation Department, this preserve is a year-round favorite for bird-watchers. "And it's kind of surreal that you're not near a bunch of businesses, and you're just more isolated," says Chief Ranger Art Mertz. "In the summertime, it's pretty popular. But it's not going to be packed because you do have to hike to get to it." Open sunrise to sunset daily. 757-850-5134. VisitHampton.com

8. Peace Frogs Swim
This is one ribbiting—err, riveting—event

peace frogs bank to bank swim

Catesby Jones is one heck of a swimmer. The founder (and 'top frog,' if you will) of Peace Frogs has logged 3.1 miles across the York River every year for the last 11 years, making us guess that's he's part amphibian. As a result, the Peace Frogs Bank-to-Bank Swim/Fundraiser was created to help needy children in Coastal Virginia. The event takes place annually every Memorial Day Sunday. Anyone is welcome to join as long as they can swim and can bring at least $1,000 in donations to the table. There’s not a lot of hoopla surrounding the event, the currents are tricky, and the conditions can be brutal. But how cool would it be to add “swam across the York River” to your list of bragging rights? PeaceFrogs.com

9. The 10th Inning
A sports fan’s hall of fame

the 10th inning hampton va

If you’re a sports enthusiast and you want to feel like an adult-sized kid in a calorie-free candy store, put a visit to The 10th Inning in Hampton on your bucket list. Owner Don Harrison has more than 62 showcases containing 120,000+ comic books from 1989 and later, card packs and individual baseball cards from 1955 to present, and football, basketball, baseball, hockey and racing memorabilia as far as the eye can see, including both autographed and non-autographed items. You’ll even find Civil War books, collectible cups, beer steins, jerseys, ball caps, pennants, movie posters and a whole lot more. 3324 Mercury Ave., Hampton. 757-827-1667

10. Peninsula SPCA's Petting Zoo
Mommy, can we have a panther?

peninsula spca petting zoo newport news

What could be more delightful than listening to the squeals of children as they get up close and personal with a herd of goats? Or a trio of alpacas? Or a couple of donkeys? The Peninsula SPCA’s Petting Zoo in Newport News has been making that happen since the mid-80s and is the only facility on the Peninsula where you can actually interact with the animals (except for Shadow, the black panther—we can appreciate that one from a safe distance). The facility is open to families, school field trips, reunions, group birthdays or any other reason you can concoct. There is a picnic area available, as well as grills and a freezer for ice cream, and you can bring food or have your event catered. Just have plenty of quarters ready—the goats are more than happy to direct you to the feed machines. Adults and children are just $2. Children under 2 are free. 523 J Clyde Morris Blvd., Newport News. 757-595-1399. PeninsulaSPCA.org

11. Hill House Museum
A picture perfect peek back in time

hill house museum portsmouth

Phantoms of a prominent Portsmouth family linger midst original furnishings and ancient textiles in this four-story, antebellum English basement home. The entire kit and caboodle was left in-place and gifted to the city. From de rigueur faded portraits of Confederate icons to original gas lamp fittings and one of the first Kohler, in-sink automatic dishwashers, the Hill House Museum chronicles 150 years of changing fortunes, shifting tastes and always-gracious Southern living. Currently under loving restoration by the Portsmouth Historical Society, this is definitely not your standard historic ‘landmark’ structure. In addition to tours, special events are scheduled throughout the year, and the small back garden is perfect for intimate, late-spring weddings.  221 North St., Portsmouth. 757-393-0241. TheHillHouseMuseum.org  

12. Johnson & Sons Seafood
There’s something fishy about this place

johnson and sons seafood suffolk va oysters

There’s no hipster website or irritating Twitter feed; just a minimally advertised, family-owned, hardworking waterfront business located down a side road in the Suffolk village of Eclipse. Yes, we said village. Johnson & Sons has been providing the cognoscenti with fresh-off-the-boat seafood since the 1970s. Both wholesale and retail sales are focused primarily on salty Nansemond River oysters and on soft-shell crabs in season. Bushel baskets of blue crabs (live or steamed) are local favorites. Ben Johnson emphasizes that the harvest varies: “We sell what we catch,” and retail sales are “first come, first served.” Orders from the public are accepted the old-fashioned way (by phone) and can be picked up at the docks. If no one answers right away, leave a message—the Johnsons are probably out on the water. They’ll call you right back. Pick up. Eat. Enjoy. 1504 White Dogwood Trail, Village of Eclipse, Suffolk. 757-651-9264

13. Elmwood Cemetery
Take it to the grave

elmwood cemetery norfolk

In Victorian times, death was considered merely a period of rest. Graves were elaborately constructed figures, and cemeteries were not only areas of reflection; they were popular weekend excursions. You might say that spending a weekend in a graveyard isn’t exactly your idea of enchanting, but then again, maybe you haven’t been to Elmwood. In this Victorian Garden Cemetery, you’ll find nationally-known sculptures and a grand collection of Victorian funerary art, from extravagant monuments to magnificent mausoleums. Buried here are hundreds of Civil War soldiers, many of Norfolk’s founding fathers and Virginia Governor Littleton Waller Tazewell. It’s also one of three mass grave sites resulting from Norfolk’s yellow fever epidemics. Next to Elmood is West Point, Norfolk’s first African American cemetery, and just across the street you’ll find Cedar Grove Cemetery, Norfolk’s first municipal cemetery. Learn more about Elmwood during a Final Twilight Tour or a Norfolk Namesakes Tour. 238 E. Princess Anne Rd., Norfolk. 757-441-2653. NorfolkSocietyForCemeteryConservation.org

14. Jessy’s Tienda and Taqueria
Trust us on the tacos

jessy's taqueria

If you can bypass the sugary aroma of Jessy’s Tienda’s baked goods, you'll enter Jessy's Taqueria, an authentic Mexican eatery in Norfolk’s Ocean View neighborhood. No matter the time of day, there’s a line of people waiting … with margaritas in hand. From 5 to 7 p.m. daily, margaritas are $4.50 for 12 ounces and $6 for 24 ounces. Though you’ll want to order one of everything, go with the $2 tacos. Doubly wrapped in corn tortillas, they come with your choice of meat, ranging from the traditional steak to the more adventurous—tongue. Bursting at the seams, the crispy carnitas tacos come piled high with onions, fresh cilantro and with lime wedges, of course. Order chips and salsa, queso and spicy guacamole for the table; slather these on your tacos, too. With speedy service and succulent eats, what’s not to love about Jessy’s? 3201 E. Ocean View Ave., Norfolk. 757-531-0033

15. Crabs with Gumption
Clawing their way to the top

mid-atlantic hermit crab challenge

Adorable palm-sized creatures may come to mind when you think of hermit crabs. But they’re more than just quirky little pets. Around 200 competin’ crustaceans with their eyes on the prize head to the annual Mid-Atlantic Hermit Crab Challenge in Virginia Beach each year. On July 23, 30th Street at the Oceanfront hosts one of the top 10 wackiest festivals in the world, as appropriately named by New York Daily News in 2012. Free for participants and spectators, everyone heads to the beach for the big event, which includes the Crustacean 500 and Miss Curvaceous Crustacean Beauty Pageant. Not only is speed awarded, but trophies are also allotted to Most Athletic Crab and Prettiest Crab Shell, among others. But no need to get crabby; every participant goes home with a medal! 30th Street, Virginia Beach. 757-385-7873. BeachStreetUSA.com

16. Holiday Charm at The Christmas Store
Get that magic back

the christmas store smithfield

At the risk of offending any mall Santas, it’s time to step out of that never-ending line at the big box shops and lay off Amazon Prime for a bit. Instead, channel your inner Norman Rockwell and head to downtown Smithfield this holiday season to pick up one-of-a-kind and limited production gifts for the favorite people on your list. “It’s hard to get the magic of Christmas in an online store,” says Jim Abicht, who has run the store since 1994. “We like to think that we are selling tradition.” And that nostalgic charm continues throughout the year, of course, with new merchandise arriving daily—items for Easter, Halloween, 4th of July, with a coastal/beach theme and more. A current favorite is a line of fun and folksy figurines by Richmond artist Lori Mitchell. 108 Main St., Smithfield. 757-357-7891. ChristmasStoreSmithfield.com

17. Gershwins’ Smoked Whiskeys
Baby, let me light your fire

gershwin's smoked whiskey

Ladies and gents, this is the only time it’s classy to light your liquor on fire. At Norfolk’s Gershwin’s, I’m talking about their smoked whiskeys, or the “Grand Illumination.” For $10, your server brings a cart to your table with Peychaud’s Bitters, wood chips, whiskey and a torch. You choose your whiskey, then your wood chips: Choose from apple, cherry, hickory or mesquite. Bitters are splashed on an orange rind and then set aside. The wood chips sit in a cocktail strainer atop the glass with the whiskey, then the chips are torched for about a minute while your server swirls the glass, allowing the surface area to absorb the smoke. The smoked whiskey is transferred to a new glass, topped with the bittered orange peel and voila! The smokiness lingers, enhancing the earthiness of the bourbon, while the orange peel highlights the liquor’s sweetness. 332 Granby St., Norfolk. 757-226-0814. GershwinsNorfolk.net

18. False Cape Kayak Tours
Row, row, row your boat

false cape state park moonlight kayaking

Bald eagles perch on the branches of towering loblolly pines as paddlers in bobbing kayaks sit in silent awe. Guides lead groups through the magnificent marshes of Virginia Beach’s Back Bay, often pausing to point out wildlife such as a baby otter or abundant osprey. Yes, this is really where we live and just about as natural as it gets. Thankfully, anyone can revel in convenient kayak trips run by False Cape State Park that include moonlight, sunset and early bird options. Tours leave from Little Island Park in Sandbridge and run from April–October. All equipment is provided, no experience is necessary, and just $20 earns you several hours of reminding yourself of the untouched beauty that exists just beyond your home base. 757-426-7128.  DCR.Virginia.Gov

19. Gelato Donut Sandwiches from Amazing Glazed
Donuts. Desserts. Practically synonymous.

amazing glazed gelato donuts chesapeake

Meet the ice cream sandwich of all ice cream sandwiches. Amazing Glazed in Chesapeake is more than just a spot to find your new favorite deliciously cake-y donut. At any other donut shop these days, you pick your flavor and your toppings, but what’s missing from this equation? Gelato, of course. For an extra 75 cents, add a scoop of homemade gelato sandwiched between your selected donut (vanilla, red velvet and sometimes blueberry or chocolate), then embellish it with sprinkles, icing, cookie crumbles—you name it! We went for the vanilla donut with stracciatella gelato and chocolate shavings—crispy on the edges with a rich, chilled center. When donuts are involved, we say it’s absolutely acceptable to have dessert before noon. 321 Johnstown Rd., Chesapeake. 757-410-1388. AmazingGlazed.com

20. Complimentary Organ Concerts at Wren Chapel
Your Saturdays just got a whole lot better

wren chapel concerts

The Sir Christopher Wren Building on the campus of the College of William & Mary is the oldest college building in the United States, and its chapel, where colonial students began and ended their day, is still being used for services, weddings etc. Upon entering the native pine- and walnut-paneled church, you can’t miss a second-level chamber housing an 18th-century organ—one of the four oldest in the country—on loan from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. You might expect something with such historic significance to maintain a look but don’t listen philosophy, but fear not, classic music aficionados. To keep the monumental instrument in tune, 30-minute gratis concerts organized by the musical director of Bruton Parish Church are held at Wren each Saturday at 10 a.m., with additional weekday concerts added in December. Pair a one-of-a-kind recital with an early-morning visit to the Williamsburg Farmers Market, and (standing ovation?) you have a nice little Saturday in the works. William & Mary campus, Richmond and Jamestown Roads, Williamsburg, BrutonParish.org/Music_Performances

21. Virginia’s Eastern Shore Artisan Trail
The doors are open at these artists’ studios

eastern shore artisan trail

A once under-the-radar arts scene in Northampton and Accomack counties is now officially on the map in a major way. But don’t worry; it’s still just as cool (actually, way more). The commonwealth’s largest artisan trail, which includes stops throughout 70 miles of the Eastern Shore peninsula, opened in October to welcome visitors to the studios and galleries (aka doorsteps) of creatives at work. Expect the expected—potters, painters and jewelry makers, oh my!—and the unexpected—the Beep Beep Sheep Creamery & Dairy, By the Bay Alpacas, Chatham Vineyards (all “agri-artisans”) and more. Travelers and locals alike can pick up a brochure at one of the visitors' centers and give themselves more than 115 reasons to explore shore life off the Route 13 pipeline. ArtisansCenterOfVirginia.org/Artisan_Trail_Network/Detail/Eastern_Shore

22. 43st Street Christmas Lights

The whole neighborhood's getting lit

43rd street christmas lights virginia beach

There are plenty of locations to view spectacular Christmas light displays in Coastal Virginia—Norfolk Botanical Garden's Million Bulb Walk, Newport News Park's Celebration in Lights, McDonalds Holiday Lights on the Beach at the Oceanfront. But if you veer just a few blocks from the boardwalk, you'll encounter a homespun holiday light display that could rival most any neighborhood decor. There's dolphins decked out in Santa hats, rows of radiant reindeer and Nativity scenes that'll knock your socks off. They even kick off the initial bulb lighting with their own community grand illumination. Now that's a bright idea. 

23. Eyre Hall
This shore is lovely

eyre hall eastern shore va

Tucked away on the Eastern Shore near Cheriton, this remarkably preserved colonial plantation was recently honored as a National Historic Landmark—but it's easy to miss while zipping along Route 13. Drive far down the dusty, cedar-lined lane to approach the sophisticated gambrel-roofed manor, occupied by descendants of the Eyre family, who've owned land in Northampton County since the 1660s. Don't knock on the door to ask for a private tour, but do slip around back and make your way through the white wooden gate to discover the quintessential secret gardens, which just so happen to be among the oldest in the country (circa 1800). Meander through a trail of towering boxwoods to reach the romantic ruins of an orangery. Sweep past knotted crape myrtles and past the hydrangeas to reach the lush, open land overlooking Cherrystone Creek. 3215 Eyre Hall Dr., Cheriton. 

24. Wine & Cake Hobbies
I like drinking wine and eating cake. Those are my hobbies.

wine and cake hobbies norfolk

Don't be fooled by the outdated signage at this out-of-the-way shop off Tidewater Drive. Inside, this place is an absolute wonderland for cake decorators, home chefs, caterers, cheesemakers, DIY brides and party planners. The store goes on for what seems like a mile, with aisles and walls filled with cake decorating supplies (hello, sprinkles in every color imaginable), party décor for any and every occasion, old fashioned candies, canning jars and tools for the kitchen. Where does the wine come in, you ask? They’ve got loads of supplies for making wine (also beer, liquor and hard cider) at home, including bags of corks, miniature kegs, hops, yeast, malt extracts and how-to books. In case you get all giddy over the cake decorating supplies but then remember that you don’t actually know how to decorate cakes, they’ve got you covered with their on-site classes—as well as sessions on wine or beer making, candy making and children’s baking classes. 6527 Tidewater Dr., Norfolk. 757-857-0245. WineAndCake.com

25. Weyanoke Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary
Twitter’s got nothing on these tweets

weyanoke bird and wildlife sanctuary

West Ghent is known for a lot of things—the gorgeous homes, Smartmouth Brewing Co., Tortilla West and other popular businesses in the up-and-coming Chelsea District—but unbeknownst to some is the approximate 8-acre stretch of wooded land at the end of Armistead Bridge Road. Step inside the gate to discover native trees and wildflowers as well as an ever-changing gathering of feathered friends, both regular and rare. Stroll through an ivy-lined trail and look for flowers and plants cared for by the folks from the Cape Henry Audubon Society or Norfolk Master Gardeners. Veer off the path to enjoy a picnic near the small creek, or rest on a bench and listen to chirping red birds, goldfinches or blue jays singing sweet songs. It’s not until the train whistle blows from the nearby tracks that you’ll be reminded you’re still in Norfolk. Take part in a nature walk held on the third Saturday of each month, starting at 9 a.m. 1501 Armistead Bridge Rd., Norfolk. 757-625-1907. CHASNorfolk.org/WeyanokeSanctuary.html

Add your comment: