There’s a lot more to oysters than just eating them
Oysters from Virginia’s Eastern Shore are plucked from the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. Oysters from the region ship to restaurants around the world. Buy them at Whole Foods and order them at Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan.
Head here to eat your fill, right from the source. You’ll find them raw, smoked, roasted, fried, topped with crab, and in chowders, pastries, sandwiches and salads.
But there’s more. Oysters played a central role in the culture here over centuries. Since the first days of America, oysters brought generational wealth to savvy business people and provided a good living to many more. Oysters caused bloody and violent conflict and the infamous Oyster Wars. In the 1980s, Virginia’s oyster industry collapsed, devastating local economies. Fast forward to today. The oyster and clam industry on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is one of the largest and fastest growing on the East Coast.
So come feast your way along two coastlines and savor four distinct flavors of oysters on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. But go a little further.
The Fall Oyster Roast
This tradition hearkens back to the days when cooler weather signaled that oysters were safe to eat – the old “r” month rule. Today, because of refrigeration and modern aqua farming, you can eat oysters all year round, but this age-old fall tradition continues: roasting local oysters just pulled from the water over an open fire. There’s one almost every weekend starting in early fall and it kicks up a notch during Wine and Brine Month when pairing oysters and wine grown in the same Chesapeake Bay watershed is celebrated. As they say, what grows together goes together. Sip an award-winning Chatham Vineyards wine along with your roasted oysters or enjoy a late morning brunch with oyster shooters.
TIP: Tickets go fast, so get them sooner rather than later — all of these oyster roasts sell out.
Tour An Aqua Farm
Aqua farms combine technology, science and traditional waterman practices to cultivate shellfish in a more sustainable way than older techniques. The Eastern Shore is the epicenter of Virginia’s aqua farming industry, with two coastlines growing four distinct flavors of oysters and an industry that’s one of the largest on the East Coast. The Ballard family has been producing seafood for over a century and grows shellfish on both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Tour their state-of-the-art Cherrystone facility and learn how oysters are cultivated from microscopic specs. Email here to set up your tour.
TIP: Buy just-caught oysters and clams after your tour to take back and cook up.
On-the-Water Culinary Tours
One of the best ways to really understand how oysters and clams get to your dinner table is to get out on the water where shellfish grow in shallow water surrounding Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Boat out to an oyster rock on the Broadwater Bay Oyster Tour, pluck an oyster right from the water and slurp it down; request a side-by-side tasting of different Eastern Shore oyster flavors. Dig for your clam dinner on SouthEast Expeditions’ Kayak Clamming Tour or kayak to a winery along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline. Sip wine and slurp oysters grown in the same Chesapeake Bay watershed on the Church Creek Wine and Oyster Tour.
TIP: On-the-water tours are affected by tide and weather dependent; book in advance and be flexible if weather impacts your plans.
Whip Up Your Own Feast
Forage for fresh, local ingredients and cook up a storm if you’re staying at a vacation rental with a kitchen. Family-owned retail seafood grocers bring in their catch daily and often hourly. Gourmet food shops have superb selections of wine and local artisan and specialty foods. International gourmet food manufacturer Blue Crab Bay has its only store here. Local farms, farmers markets, pick-your-own farms and pop-up farm stands have seasonal produce, local seafood, artisanal breads and cheeses and heritage meats. Chatham Vineyards’ award-winning Steel Chardonnay is perfect with local seafood. Feast like the locals do, on the porch watching the sun go down.
TIP: Put on your own oyster roast – cook them in a single layer until they open, about 11 minutes, over a hot grill.
Let Someone Else Do the Cooking
It’s easy to steer clear of generic chain food here because most of the seventy plus restaurants on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are locally owned. Cape Charles, Onancock and Chincoteague, three walkable towns right on the water, have growing numbers of waterside restaurants, upscale bistros, casual cafes, bakeries and some of the world’s best handmade ice cream. The tiny town of Wachapreague, right on the Atlantic Ocean, has a stellar restaurant, the Island House, which looks straight out to the barrier islands. Chincoteague and off-the-beaten path spots around the region sport growing numbers of food trucks. Seafood shacks are sometimes obvious along main roads and in the small towns, but they’re also in remote coastal villages like Greenbackville and Saxis. Slurp a platter of cold, crisp oysters at dozens of raw bars and boat up to eat in Cape Charles, Wachapreague, Onancock and Chincoteague.
TIP: Winter hours may be reduced so call ahead.
Boat/Kayak to the Wild Barrier Islands
Experience Virginia’s Eastern Shore much as John Smith did when he landed here in 1607. Virginia’s 23 barrier islands once had thriving communities but today are deserted and protected by strict conservation measures. The longest stretch of undeveloped barrier islands on America’s Atlantic coast, these islands are a United Nations World Biosphere Reserve and wild ecosystems like this are increasingly rare worldwide. Make sure to stop at the Barrier Islands Center to learn more before you head out. Hire an outfitter to lead your expedition — they have an encyclopedic knowledge of the channels, tides and other challenges of getting there, and are experts in birding, wildlife, history, marine science, ecology, fisheries or any other interest you have.
TIP: Please adhere to the Seven Leave No Trace Principles when visiting these precious and delicate areas.
Antique Stores: Comb through antique stores scattered throughout the region along Rt. 13 and in little towns on both coastlines. History buffs will enjoy the vintage oysters cans and advertising posters from the last century and nothing gives a home a shabby chic nautical vibe like a wire waterman’s basket filled with fluffy blankets or an oyster rake adorning a front porch display.
TIP: Antique stores here range from collections of interesting junk to high end.
Fine Art, Artisan Goods, Galleries: Dozens of art galleries and gift stores show off stunning local painters, jewelers, potters, sculptors, fiber artists and creative endeavors of all stripes. Ask for an Artisan Trail brochure wherever you see the trail sign and follow its detailed map to some of the Eastern Shore’s most interesting studios, galleries and people working in very remote and beautiful places you’d never see otherwise.
TIP: Check out the Virginia’s Eastern Shore Artisan Trail website, but get a printed map in hand – wherever you see the Artisan Trail sign – once you arrive.
Trek to a Remote Fishing Community
Saxis Island: This is not actually an island per se but is surrounded by a huge Chesapeake Bay marsh. Take the scenic route from Parksley. If it’s a Saturday, stop by the Saxis Island Museum then spend some time on the 200-ft. Saxis fishing pier to drop a line or just sit a while. Locals gather at Martha’s Kitchen, right on the wharf, every morning for breakfast.
Tangier Island: Take the ferry out of Onancock to Tangier, a small spit of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a place where people have lived a long way from the mainland for hundreds of years. Their distinct accent evokes Cornwall, England. Rent a bike or a golf cart and head out to the town’s breathtaking wild beach, eat at one of five seafood restaurants, stay in a B&B, browse the Tangier History Museum and take the Watermen Tour. The Onancock ferry runs May to October; off season, catch it out of Crisfield, Maryland.
TIP: Saxis Island is a 30-minute drive off Rt. 13 and Tangier is over an hour by ferry out of Onancock (which itself is a mile off Rt. 13).
Nine Charming Small Museums
Because the story of the oyster and seafood industry IS the story of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, local museums all touch upon the history of watermen. The Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum is devoted to it, and the Museum of Chincoteague Island (once called the Oyster Museum ) has a wonderful oyster exhibit (and Misty, the famous Chincoteague pony). The Barrier Islands Center preserves the history of those who once lived on the barrier islands where fishing and oystering was paramount.
TIP: Most museums here are free and some have small fees. The free ones greatly appreciate donations!