Photos by Dori Arrington
Cape Charles, Virginia as a Cruising Destination
The perfect destination for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the Mid-Atlantic.
Cape Charles provides visiting boaters an opportunity to take a step back in time without sacrificing modern comforts. Located on the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula, the town hangs out the welcome sign for those looking to trade the frenetic pace of the Northeast’s urban centers for a lifestyle that rolls to the beat of a slower drum.
The town offers newcomers an eclectic mix of Southern -hospitality, waterfront charm and strong roots to its farming and fishing past. The central business district along Mason Avenue is a natural blend of old-time hardware stores and coffee shops. Rather than rolling out the wrecking ball, local merchants celebrated the architecture of the town’s old banks and packing houses by repurposing them into delightful restaurants and breweries.
Cape Charles, Virginia
One of Cape Charles’ standout treasures is the historic Palace Theatre, a beautifully restored Art Deco building constructed in 1942. The facade features the original front entrance with porthole glass and a curved-glass ticket booth. The theater offers a wide range of shows, from traveling dance and performing companies to locally produced plays and musicals.
Residents and investors have turned Cape Charles’ inventory of early 20th century homes into vacation rentals and guest houses, most of which stay full during the summer. Vacationers and seasonal residents move about via golf cart. Follow any one of those carts on most summer days, and you’re likely to end up at the town beach, the only public beach on the eastern shore of Virginia that does not require an entrance or parking fee. It is also the longest beach on Chesapeake Bay. The gentle bay water laps at soft sand, making it the perfect place for young children to play. Sandbars and tide pools are fed with fresh ocean water from the nearby Atlantic, which makes for great shelling and investigating the plentiful marine life. The sky over the western-facing beach lights up with colorful sunsets above the Bay.
If you stay with those golf carts into the afternoon, you’re sure to end up at the Brown Dog Ice Cream Shop, a destination worthy of a trip to Cape Charles by itself. Not far from downtown, the golf carts can be put to their intended use at one of several courses. Nearby Bay Creek Resort is the premium course in town. The award-winning resort is the first in the U.S. to feature signature courses from two of the top names in golf—Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—which has earned it prestigious national rankings.
Cape Charles came to be after the Civil War. While most of America was rebuilding, the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay remained in bucolic bliss, where farming and fishing were the dominant ways of life. The peninsula is largely cut off from the mainland by the Chesapeake. Many residents enjoyed the peaceful isolation of that remoteness, but business interests in the Northeast and the railroads saw opportunity. The railroads realized the most direct route from New York and Philadelphia to points south was through the eastern shore, if only they could span the mouth of the Bay.
In the spring of 1883, William Scott formed the New York, Philadelphia and Norfolk Railroad Company, intending to extend rail service from New York to Norfolk, Virginia. Scott saw an opportunity to bring crops and oysters to Philadelphia and New York, and to ship goods from the north to reconstruction efforts in the south. After purchasing 2,500 acres near the southern tip of the Delmarva peninsula, Scott laid out plans for a city, which would serve as the southern terminus of his new railroad. Cape Charles would be built on a dredged, deep-water harbor, where barges could ferry rail cars across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, connecting with the Southern Railroad in Norfolk. “Few people in this country know that within seven hours of Philadelphia and nine hours of New York they can reach a climate as mild and balmy as that of Marseilles in France,” Scott told a Philadelphia newspaper at the time.
Today, we are all heirs of Scott’s great vision to enjoy a town so charming and well positioned as Cape Charles. Railroads have come and gone, ferry services expanded and contracted, and the great Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was built. Cape Charles has seen its fortunes rise and fall. Where once the residents of New York and Philadelphia were interested in how quickly they could get Cape Charles oysters, today they are more interested in how quickly they can get to the town itself. The best way, of course, is running down by boat.
Cape Charles is the perfect destination for boaters. The city’s deep-water harbor is maintained for a commercial wharf and two recreational marinas. The municipal marina near the entrance of the harbor serves recreational boaters, along with a fleet of charter and commercial fishing boats. Slightly farther back in the harbor lies the new Cape Charles Yacht Center, which has made the city a serious contender for yacht service.
Cape Charles may be a short run from many ports in the region, but you’ll land in a charming oasis that feels a world away.