The picturesque harbor town of Onancock (pop. 1,525; pronounced “o-NAN-cock”), on the Chesapeake Bay two miles west of US-13 via Hwy-179, is one of the nicest towns on the Eastern Shore. A short walking tour of over a dozen historical homes and churches begins at perhaps the finest mansion on the Eastern Shore, the Ker Place (69 Market St., 757/787-8012, Tues.-Sat. 11am-3pm Mar.-Dec., $5), built in 1799 and now home to the offices and museum of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. Another historical curiosity is the 150-year-old Hopkins and Bros. General Store (2 Market St.), on the wharf, which in the past has sold everything from sweet potatoes to postcards—and now serves as a sort of mini welcome center.
A great taste of Onancock life awaits inside the Corner Bakery (36 Market St., 757/787-4520), where great doughnuts and fresh coffee are served up to a mostly local crowd. In the evening you can catch a flick at Onancock’s nifty 1950s movie theater, the Roseland (48 Market St., 757/787-2209). Dinner and nice rooms are available at the Charlotte Hotel (7 North St., 757/787-7400). Finally, back on US-13, the hamlet of Exmore has one last road-food stop, the Exmore Diner (757/422-2313).
Onancock was born and grew up around its natural deep-water harbor, and the town wharf is still the place to catch the seasonal ferry across Chesapeake Bay to Tangier Island, an evocative old place where things seem to have hardly changed since colonial times. The few hundred people who live here year-round have a unique and almost indecipherably archaic accent—which some trace back to 17th-century Cornwall, England—and earn their livelihoods catching crabs and the occasional oyster from Chesapeake Bay. Tangier Island is best known for its soft-shell crabs, which are sold all over the eastern United States.
Visiting Tangier Island is easy but takes some advance planning. From May until October, boats leave twice a day Tuesday-Saturday from Onancock Wharf (757/891-2505, about $25 round-trip); travel time is one hour and 15 minutes each way, leaving around 10am and 5pm and returning around 7:30am and 3:30pm. This means visitors departing on the 10am ferry and returning the same day by 3:30pm would have only about two hours on the island, so staying overnight at a homespun B&B like Bay View Inn (757/891-2396) or Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House (757/891-2331) is about the only way to have any kind of close encounter with the tourist-shy locals. Hilda’s also serves meals, and good seafood can be had at a handful of unpretentious places like the Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant (757/891-2900), where you may well be served by the person who caught your meal (or his sister).
Bike rentals are available on Tangier Island, no part of which is more than five feet above sea level.