Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore is Bustling with Activity
Big things are happening in the tiny, bay-fronting town of Cape Charles. Downtown, 14 new businesses have opened in the past two years alone. The historical district has undergone an astounding transformation.
There are gourmet restaurants, a craft brewery, cidery and distillery, ice cream parlors, boutique shops, art galleries, an old-fashioned chocolatier and candy store, two boutique hotels, luxury loft apartments and more. Formerly crumbling Victorian homes have been restored by the dozens. Additional buildings are under construction.
“The growth has been incredible,” says Robie Marsh, executive director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “Revitalization in Cape Charles has dramatically increased visits.” To keep up, more than 150 hotel rooms have been added since 2015. The effects have been felt shore-wide. “We’ve seen the average number of days visitors spend on the Shore almost double,” says Marsh.
The trend has made the Eastern Shore Virginia’s fastest growing tourist region for three of the past four years. Visitor spending has increased by 22 percent since 2011 and totaled $274 million in 2017. More than 500 tourism-related jobs have been created—boosting area payrolls by about 30 percent.
What’s more, travelers are coming from far and wide. A recent independent market study revealed that last year visitors to Cape Charles hailed from 201 zip codes and 25 states. They accounted for one of every three dollars spent in town.
“We’re experiencing a kind of paradigm shift,” says Marsh. “And Cape Charles is leading the way. On top of an amazing destination, they’ve become a gateway for exploring.”
Cape Charles Brewing Company
Hook-U-Up Gourmet exterior
Hook-U-Up Gourmet dish
Northampton Hotel interior
Oyster Farm Restaurant
Oyster Farm exterior
How did all this begin? According to Marsh, cheap housing and a national trend toward ecotourism.
“The Shore used to be very rural, very isolated,” says Eastern Shore Tourism Commission Spokesperson Sarah Head. Until the early 2000s, that’s how it was marketed. “Beyond Chincoteague, most areas were wary of visitors,” she says. “A few sought to attract hunters, fishers and birders, but that was about it.”
Why would a coastal destination ignore tourism? Unlike, say, Ocean City, Md., the Shore features more wild beaches than developed ones. More than 75 miles of ocean shoreline and a string of uninhabited barrier islands are protected by state and federal agencies. On the Chesapeake Bay, there are five natural area preserves in addition to Kiptopeke State Park. Together, the holdings total more than 133,000 acres.
With resort-style developers stymied, residents did little by way of promotion. But in the 2000s came a generational shift. Cheap housing in Cape Charles attracted outsiders. Some were entrepreneurs. Seeing the area’s potential, they began to attend civic meetings.
“Suddenly there was all this outside perspective and excitement,” says Head. “They argued for a tourist economy that paired our natural resources with the kind of cultural offerings that would appeal to a more sophisticated class of visitors.”
The viewpoint gained traction. By 2010, a Tourism Commission had been established to rebrand the Shore. Hoping to capitalize on national trends toward ecotourism, it launched a website focused on storytelling and highlighting new businesses.
“The site helped shift the narrative,” says Head. “It showed folks this was a place where you could sip great wine at a beautiful vineyard, stay in a lovely boutique hotel, learn about history, enjoy fresh oysters and farm-to-table meals—and all within proximity to some of the most pristine beaches and wildlife viewing opportunities in the U.S.”
The campaign worked. The website was soon generating more than 270 million hits a year. The stream of visitors bolstered confidence. Additional businesses were established.
“Every business that went in added a piece to the puzzle and sort of suggested what might come next,” says Cape Charles Town Manager Larry DiRe. A brewery gave rise to a distillery. A pizzeria to an ice cream parlor. “The result is we have a very strong, very organic, very interconnected business community.”
DiRe points to Cape Charles’ culinary scene as a case in point. In many ways, the story begins with Chef Tim Brown.
Moving to the town in 2002, Brown opened the region’s first true fine dining restaurant, Mariah’s at Tower Hill. There, he focused on pairing fresh seafood with produce from local farms. Though the restaurant gained a following, it needed tourists to succeed. Pressured by the recession and a lack of organizational support, it closed in 2009.
“I’ll never forget, we asked the [Chamber of Commerce] about putting a sign on U.S. 13, and they said it would trash up the highway,” says Brown.
But the formation of the tourism commission brought a shift in thinking. In 2012, Hotel Cape Charles was installed in a 101-year-old building downtown. A visiting Washington Post reporter soon wrote of the upscale boutique: “There is no downside to this wonderful hotel. … Words cannot fully describe how good this place is.”
Yet, its clientele clamored for a restaurant of similar distinction.
“There were a couple of solid surf-n-turf spots, and that was it,” says Hotel Cape Charles Manager Jawn Dolph. “Many of our visitors had urbanite tastes. They were vacationing and wanted to eat somewhere special, but we had nowhere to send them.”
In response, Brown opened the Hook-U-Up Gourmet. Following the advice of Portsmouth-based culinary icon Sydney Meers, he created an intimate, 29-seat eatery less than a block from the hotel. Featuring a tiny bar, open kitchen and bohemian chic décor, the eatery has the feel of something you’d find in a cultural hotspot like Austin, Texas.
And the menu is even better. Changing weekly with the seasons, it presents local produce, aquaculture and seafood in a context that is James Beard Foundation good. A winter menu favorite was the seared duck breast with stuffed quail and house-made wild game sausage, served over whipped Hayman sweet potato and grilled fennel and topped with a fried duck egg and honey bourbon gastrique.
The restaurant has been wildly successful. From April to November, it’s packed almost every night. Dolph says his customers are delighted. DiRe calls its arrival a watershed moment.
“Tim’s success fostered connections in the farming community and showed [culinary entrepreneurs] what was possible,” says DiRe. “He gave people confidence to try new things and push the envelope.”
Collaborations ensued with Perennial Roots Farm, a producer of Certified Naturally Grown vegetables and livestock. Educational campaigns led to the establishment of the Cape Charles Farmers Market in 2016. The Oyster Farm at Kings Creek restaurant and resort opened that same year. It was followed by a fantastically authentic, traditional Russian teahouse and eatery, Dacha Tea, as well as a gourmet pizzeria, Deadrise Pies. The Cape Charles Brewing Company came in 2017—and has since added a restaurant to bolster the 15 brews it keeps on tap. Both the Cape Charles Distillery and Buskey Cider on the Bay were launched in early 2018.
The activity attracted tremendous media attention and brought more visitors. In addition to countless bed and breakfasts, a second boutique hotel, the Northampton Hotel, opened in 2018.
“The transformation has been near total,” says DiRe. “And yet, through it all, we’ve retained the small-town charm that made us so special in the first place. That character has and will remain our guiding light.”
Start planning your next getaway at CapeCharlesByTheBay.com.
More to Explore On the Shore
Just over an hour north on US-13 you’ll reach the serene and picturesque Chincoteague Island. Although known for their famous pony swim in July, there’s much to explore and enjoy in Chincoteague all year round.
A staple on the Shore since 1960, Bill’s features the freshest local seafood, hand cut steaks and chops, pasta dishes and legendary desserts. Join them for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Located at the southern end of Assateague Island, the refuge includes more than 14,000 acres of beach, maritime forest, saltmarsh and freshwater marsh and is home to migratory birds, plants and other animals. It’s one of the most visited refuges in the country, receiving approximately 1.5 million visitors each year.
In this secluded, waterfront haven guests can bask in breathtaking sunsets from private balconies. Amenities include a breakfast café, full service gym, indoor and outdoor pool and a hot tub room.
Opening for the season May 25, Maui Jack’s offers waterslides, a lazy river, tiki cabanas and more, all in a fun and welcoming environment the whole family will enjoy.
Chincoteague’s locally owned, year-round bookshop features two floors of new, used and collectible books, including great reads about the Island and the Eastern Shore. Guests can also browse a collection of jewelry, art, gifts, journals and cards made by local artists.
For those who enjoy camping or glamping, Tom’s Cove Park offers fishing piers, a boat ramp and marina, clubhouse and large swimming pool. A large, on-site country store sells gifts, T-shirts, fishing and camping supplies, as well as groceries.