The deep harbor of Onancock has welcomed ships and settlers for centuries. Travelers have taken refuge from storms here, and birds, fish, bivalves, and crustaceans abound. So, too, do artists and creative types. 

Although this visit to Onancock—one of my favorite, less-discovered destinations—is my third, I’ve only just learned that its name is derived from the Algonquin Indian word for “foggy place.” And while fog sometimes lingers over the creek in the morning, before the morning burns it off, my Onancock experiences have always been sunny and invigorating. 

“Our number one question for visitors is: ‘So, how did you find the Eastern Shore of Virginia?’” says Janis King, a painter and sculptor. Onancock stands near the midpoint of the Virginia stretch of the Delmarva peninsula, about four miles up Onancock Creek from the Chesapeake Bay. 

King is one of 18 artists with studios or shops at the restored Historic Onancock School in town. “We try not to laugh when people don’t pronounce Onancock correctly.” For the record, it’s oh-NAN-cock. Saying OH-nancock is a dead giveaway that you’re new in town.     

A grassroots group saved the former school from a condo developer’s demolition plans. Now a lively community hub, it offers studio space for artists and offices for lease. Tenants include a shepherdess who sells yarn, grown and dyed locally, a massage therapist, and a master wood carver who also attended the school as a child. As I wander through studios, I admire light-infused paintings of clouds and water, scenes I will recognize later as I explore this Eastern Shore destination. 

“Between our water and our sunsets, there’s always something to paint,” says King, as I admire her vibrant rendering of Smith Beach, which is further down the Chesapeake shoreline. “The color of the water of the Bay is amazing because it constantly gives you a new way to paint it, depending on how the sun is shining through the clouds.” She’s right. Nearly every time you look, the sunlight is changing the water and sky.   

In Mark Belknap’s studio, I admire an iron oyster shucking knife, designed to fit “just about everyone’s hand,” he tells me. For this elegant piece, Belknap, a blacksmith, borrowed a pre-Civil War design. He’s married to the shepherdess, Karyn Belknap, who spins, dyes, knits, felts, and weaves wool from her Ten Good Sheep yarns and natural fibers studio space. Mark is also an award-winning carver of both decorative and functional decoys. When he was young, Mark found an old, hand carved wooden decoy in the marsh and decided that he preferred to hunt with these versions rather than the plastic decoys his family had been using. 

While I’m here, I hope to immerse myself, figuratively and literally, in the local waters—there’s the creek and the Bay, and the Atlantic isn’t far, either—from every angle I can. I’m also realizing how fruitfully these waters inspire the local arts and culinary scene.

The View from a Bike

For an overview of historic homes and the local shoreline, I grab a bike from Burnham Guides, which also rents paddle boards and kayaks. They’re located creek-side in the 1906 steamboat office and former dock. The steamboat once ferried passengers and produce to Baltimore, but now the dock is used mainly by recreational boaters, fishermen, and a barge that brings in some supplies.

I pedal up Market Street—the town’s main drag—and over a bridge crossing an Onancock Creek branch and into a lovely neighborhood. While the Indians native to the area previously plied and harvested these waters, the British mapped the town square in 1680. Since then, Onancock’s fortunes have risen and cooled and risen again. As I glide along, I pass historic houses built in the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Craftsman, and Colonial Revival styles. On King Street, I keep my eyes out for the Fitzgerald House which features the traditional colonnade-and-kitchen design that connects a big-house to a little-house in historic Eastern Shore homes.    

While the town offers inns and guesthouses, you won’t find a resort or chain hotel here. Onancock’s residents have taken steps to avoid the building boomlets they’ve seen happen elsewhere on the peninsula. “Because we’re not at either end of the shore, we’re still quite isolated,” says painter Laura McGowan, who also has a studio in the former Onancock School. The area hasn’t been “overrun with tourists and Airbnbs, so it still maintains its small-town authenticity,” she says.

In fact, the town has put a limit on the number of rooms for rent, says my host, Matt Spuck, proprietor of The Inn at Onancock, who doubles as the town’s manager and loves its community vibe. “We want to know our neighbors. When we walk the dogs, we want to know the dogs.” To boost tourism, he concedes, the town could use more family-friendly lodgings. Most of the current options cater to couples. At the inn’s evening “wine down” served on the porch, my fellow guests and I enjoy beverages and munchies—and a visit from Dante, an affable German shepherd and the inn’s official greeter. 

Still, Onancock offers plenty of entertainment. “There are seven good restaurants,” says Matt’s wife and co-proprietor, Kim Moore, who adds that the movie theater features “almost first-run options.” Among the slew of annual parades, Santa arrives by boat before Christmas, accompanied by elves paddling kayaks. An outdoor performance pavilion is scheduled for construction at the Historic Onancock School. And there’s always the water, which lured painter McGowan, her sailor husband, Jim, and so many others to this lovely hamlet.

For history lovers, any jaunt to Onancock requires a sidespin into sites that mark the many waves of inhabitants. My visit to the 1799 Federal Period Georgian-style Ker Place carries me back to both the lives and riches of Onancock’s early settlers. Born in 1775, Agnes Ker, for instance, is thought to have had 40 sets of china. 

The tour provides mere glimpses into the lives of the 40 slaves, some of whom served the family on that very china, but a rare, authentic copy of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the U.S. in 1865 hangs on a wall in the Green Room. Protected behind archival, UV-resistant glass, the fragile document is exhibited periodically throughout the year. The “war room” at Ker Place is decorated with period pieces and replicas and features artifacts from both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Ker Place is also the headquarters of Shore History, founded as the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, a nonprofit that celebrates and preserves local culture and history. 

Not far up Market Street, I stop into the Samuel D. Outlaw Memorial Museum, “the rarest, most intact blacksmith shop in the Commonwealth,” according to my guide, Gerald Boyd. From 1927 to 1991, Outlaw, an African American blacksmith and wheelwright, shared his skills with the community. “Nothing moved in this town without him,” Boyd points out. Outlaw also forged the clam and oyster rakes and other essential tools that kept local industry thriving.

“He was always very gracious and welcoming,” says former Governor Ralph Northam, who grew up in Onancock and remembers visiting Outlaw’s blacksmith shop as a child. “When something needed to be repaired, that was the place to go, to Mr. Outlaw’s shop.” Northam was one of many who contributed recollections for a documentary film on the museum.  

The View from a Boat

An hour before the sun descends, I hop aboard Chris Guvernator’s 24 ft Wellcraft powerboat, On Assignment, for a sunset ecotour of the creek and its mouth. In port, Guvernator, who runs Holly Cove Charters, shares how local fishermen call out their catch for restaurants and markets for bids. He points out the “hurricane hole” in the creek’s north branch, where wooden boats used to tie together for safety during storms and the newer waterside trend to install living shorelines, rather than riprap, or heavy stones, to protect from erosion. Heading westward, we spy crab pots, a kingfisher, egrets, and green herons. An eagle takes off from a channel marker. 

“The longer you poke around, the more you discover,” says Guvernator. About seven years ago, Guvernator and his wife, Channing, moved here from Norfolk with their kids and also run an Airbnb rental outside of town (see sidebar). “The county people are a little slower to warm up, but the town embraced us.”

As we reach the bay, he points out Watts Island, which used to be larger, in the distance. Tangier Island, about a 30-minute ferry ride from the town, is beyond our vision. Our conversation turns to the rising waters, which threaten Tangier’s existence and whose salinity has turned some nearby maritime forests into skeletal “ghost forests.” Guvernator wonders what will happen to everything from the shore birds to beetles, all essential to the ecosystem here. “It makes me sad,” he says. Me too. Farms are also having to pull back from the rising water.

He points out Bailey’s Beach, a longtime local attraction which, despite the rising waters, still shows exposed sand at low tide. “People come out here with their dogs and lawn chairs,” he adds. Hoping for that elusive green flash I once saw in a sunset over Lake Michigan, we squint at the sun as it disappears, but no luck tonight.

The View from a Plate

After Guvernator deposits me onshore, I rush to Maurice, a local fusion restaurant which, I’ve been promised repeatedly, will be a true treat. “Don’t miss the blueberry Dijon dipping sauce,” Kim Moore, my innkeeper advised. Blueberry and Dijon—together? It’s a divine companion to my soft shell crab bites. I also order owner Sean Thomas’s “gateway sushi”—so called, he says, because it hooks the locals, who tend to prefer their seafood cooked. For the sushi-reluctant, Thomas and Maurice’s Thai chef, Viwat “Golf” Kitchol, oblige—about 70 percent of their sushi isn’t raw. I tuck into a perfect California roll, no crab-sticks here, this one is made with real Virginia crab, and it’s accompanied by a flavorful heirloom tomato and beet salad. 

“We’re a fusion restaurant, which means you can do whatever you want,” Thomas tells me. “We take local ingredients and make it cool and different from what they’ve ever had.” Think croque monsieur egg rolls, Eastern Shore paella, Thai pulled pork. As I savor yet another light bite of Maurice’s mascarpone blueberry cake, it dawns on me that people in this creative small town play an awful lot of roles here—innkeeper and town manager, Airbnb host plus tour boat operator. 

Case in point: the next day at Mallards, the only restaurant with a waterfront view, I meet “Johnny Mo,” aka the musical chef, who often plays and sings tableside to provide a multisensory experience. His crab cakes are considered the best around, and you don’t want to miss his crab-stuffed avocado or the tender pulled pork over exceptional sweet potato biscuits topped with sriracha barbecue sauce.

The View from a Kayak

After a filling quiche and muffin at the Inn, I pop into some local shops and galleries (see sidebar) and then head to Foggy Place coffee for a caffeine infusion and a further dose of local art. From weather-resistant “porch paintings” to coastal-inspired jewelry to essential oils infused with locally grown ingredients, the café offers another spot for visitors to connect with local artisans and authors.

“A lot of artists don’t have the time or energy to sit there all day, so we can handle those open hours for them,” says Sheila Sheppard, one of Foggy Place’s co-owners. Another owner, Raul Vera, infuses their breakfast sandwich offerings with accents from his Mexican heritage, while a third owner and the café’s official barista, Cecily Stearns, concocts their seasonal specialties.

A delicious latte in hand, I drive further down the Chesapeake shore and meet my kayaking guide, Neil Punsal of Southeast Expeditions, for their three-hour “Paddle Your Glass Off” tour to the shores of Chatham Vineyards, the only vineyard on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Our 45-minute paddle up Church Creek is a decent workout as we pass around a few smaller islands and identify shorebirds, mainly gulls and herons, before pulling out our kayaks on the banks of Chatham Farm, which traces its agricultural roots back four centuries. 

The high-density vineyard has 21 acres of French-cloned vines, grown using dry farming—no irrigation or organic fertilizers. Jon Wehner, Chatham’s owner and chief winemaker, describes his on-site winemaking method as “traditional” and uses equipment mainly imported from Europe.

While tasting these estate vintages, I’m pleasantly surprised by Chatham’s steel-fermented chardonnay, which tastes drier and more mineral-rich than most. The menu explains that ancient shell deposits and a band of clay is responsible for the soil’s high mineral content. The mineral taste is also traced to a meteor that hit this peninsula 35 million years ago, which displaced “the soil and fragment[ed] the shell and mineralogy.” This is one chardonnay that I’ll order again. If I’m inclined to stay, the winery includes a vacation rental in a circa 1915 farm house. Everyone around here multitasks.

The tasting room offers cheese platters, too. When we’re done, my guide and I wander to the back of the winery where Wehner is “pressing off” this year’s rosé, a blend of their four red varietals, with his assistant, Esker Cruz. They offer me a sample of the red liquid streaming into a metal bin. At this point, it tastes overly sweet, but with a dose of yeast, some fermenting, and aging, I know it will come closer to their earlier vintage rosé, which I also sampled. Time to start looking for their label.

Punsal and I step back into our kayaks, and I feel that pleasantly warm wine buzz as we glide out to further explore lovely views of these sheltered waters and shores. I—like many others—just can’t get enough of them.

ON THE WATER

Burnham Guides: Offering ecotours of Onancock Creek and the barrier islands by kayak. Plus paddleboard, bike, and kayak rentals. With satellites in Costa Rica and the Florida Keys. BurnhamGuides.com  

Holly Cove Charters: Captain Chris Guvernator offers sunset cruises and narrated ecotours around Onancock’s waters. HollyCoveCharters.com 

Onancock Sailing Adventures: Enjoy a relaxing sail and experience the beauty and history of Virginia’s Eastern Shore aboard the cat boat Gratitude with USCG Captain Tom Bunino. OnancockSailingAdventures.com

Seaside Ecotours: Based out of nearby Wachapreague on the ocean side of the peninsula and offering barrier island birding and photography trips, nature and sunset cruises, and island boat trips for picnics. With Captain Meriwether Payne, a certified ecotour guide, aboard her Carolina skiff. Facebook: Seaside Ecotours

Southeast Expeditions: Schedule a Paddle Your Glass Off tour to Chatham Vineyards. Or rent kayaks, paddleboards, or bikes, all of which can be delivered anywhere on the Eastern Shore. SoutheastExpeditions.com

Tangier Island Ferry: From May-October, take the one-hour ferry ride for a day-trip to this sparsely populated island in the Chesapeake Bay. With 67 percent of its landmass gone due to sea level rise, it’s predicted that the island’s 727 inhabitants may need to abandon it by 2050. TangierFerry.com

SHOP

Danny Doughty Gallery: This visionary folk artist’s story is as compelling as his work, with paintings that stretch the boundaries of realism in his mastery of color, texture, and pattern. DannyDoughty.com 

Dawn’s: A unique shop for women and home, featuring brands like Neon Buddha, Cut Loose, and Flax. ShopDawn.store

Fable Made: From candles to jewelry, artwork, homewares, handbags, and more. ShopFableMade.com

North Street Market: The area’s premier store for wine, cheese, gourmet foods, picnic fixings, and Gordon Campbell’s spectacular photos of the Eastern Shore. NorthStreetMkt.com

Red Queen Gallery: Representing more than 100 artists with sculpture, pottery, jewelry, textiles, mosaics, and more. Facebook: Red Queen Gallery

STAY

The Apartment and Studio at Holly Cove: These spacious and comfortable waterfront rentals, owned by the Guvernators and three miles from Onancock, boast mini kitchens, kayaks, screened porches, and relaxing creek views. Available for bookings on Airbnb.

The Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant: In the heart of Onancock, this charming boutique hotel features eight simple and sophisticated guest rooms and a full-service bar. TheCharlotte.com 

The Inn at Onancock: Thanks to innkeepers Kim and Matt, this five bedroom B&B epitomizes Eastern Shore hospitality and offers lots of access to area resources. InnAtOnancock.com

Maurice: In addition to a fusion restaurant, Maruice doubles as an inn, with four ensuite bedrooms available for bookings on Airbnb. 

1890 Spinning Wheel Bed & Breakfast: This charming and accommodating five-bedroom, family owned B&B serves home-cooked breakfast and offers a plethora of amenities. 1890SpinningWheel.com

EAT: 

Bizzotto’s Gallery Caffe: The oldest family run restaurant in town, Bizzotto’s gets rave reviews from customers for its dock-to-dish seafood as well as standards like chicken marsala. Facebook: Bizzottos Gallery Caffe

Blarney Stone Pub: Onancock’s answer to Cheers, this friendly neighborhood pub offers fine fare and drink and an outside patio for dining al fresco. BlarneyStonePubOnancock.com

Corner Bakery: Try their legendary maple bacon donuts, along with eclairs, anything cream-filled, and decadent sweet potato biscuits. An anchor of Onancock’s sweet scene for over two decades. Facebook: Corner Bakery

Market Street Grill: This family-style restaurant serves up fresh seafood, steaks, unique salads, sandwiches, Greek, Italian, and Turkish cuisine. MarketStGrillOnancock.com

Scoops Ice Cream Shoppe: This walk-in or drive-thru ice cream shop serves up Hershey’s hand-dipped ice cream, waffle cones, sundaes, milkshakes, and more. Facebook: Scoops Ice-Cream Shop

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum