A charming town from another time
For us Western Shore dwellers, the legendary little town of Onancock is a kind of a distant dream. A Shangri-La, if Shangri-La were flat, watery, and featured crabs on the menu. Here on the Western Shore, our towns tend to jostle together like spoons in the silverware drawer. Onancock, way over on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is in a world of wild marshes and winding shallow creeks. Cruisers speak of it in hushed tones. “What a beautiful place!,” they say. “We love it!” Then they immediately turn to particulars. “The bakery has the most wonderful cream puffs!” “You must eat at Bizzotto’s. Or the Blarney Stone. Or Janet’s.” “We love the market.” “Onancock is so easy to walk around.” “Be sure to bring your bicycles.”
Onancock stands alone, both metaphorically and in reality: a tiny town with more things to do and see than many small cities we know, and it’s all packaged into a few delightful blocks, at the end of a sweet, deep creek. You can arrive by boat and stay at the city marina or you can tow your boat and launch right in the middle of town. Or you can simply rent a kayak or SUP when you get here. And yes, there are several charming places to stay while you’re here.
The Indians inhabited the area first, of course, for perhaps 10,000 years. And the town, like many places on the Chesapeake, keeps its Indian name—or the English settlers’ interpretation of it, at least. After John Smith dropped by in 1607, the English settlers arrived and, in 1680, Onancock was named one of the ports of entry for English goods and for export of American tobacco. With one of the few deep-water creeks on the lower Eastern Shore, Onancock continued as a port through the 19th century. Even today, occasional tugs push barges up and down Onancock Creek. And the town continues to thrive by attracting artists and entrepreneurs, who in turn attract residents and visitors from all over the world to delight in its jewel-box of galleries, restaurants, historical residences, and easy-going charm.
The waterfront is four miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay. The town is laid out with two east-west streets, Market and King (then Kerr) streets, which have a mix of residences and businesses. These end a good hike later at the Eastern Shore’s main north-south highway, U.S. 13. On the waterfront end of things, you’ll find the town marina, the boat ramp, and the old Hopkins & Brothers store, which is now Mallard’s at the Wharf restaurant. Next door to that is the former ticket office for the ferry, now occupied by Burnham Guides. Walk up Market Street, and in the course of the next four blocks, you’ll come to a couple of little parks, a historic church, homes in a mix of architectures from federal to Victorian to vernacular cottage, and several blocks of businesses including galleries, restaurants, an actual working movie theater, an active playhouse, and Onancock’s famous bakery. You’ll also pass the site of the Saturday market. If you cut over on North Street, you’ll find more galleries, restaurants, an Irish pub, and a new brewery. Turn left on King Street and you’ll find the town’s favorite breakfast spot, Janet’s, and on the other side is the town’s favorite new Italian restaurant, Da Vinci’s. There’s plenty more to discover, but you get the idea.
This is my personal favorite way of doing it. Since I live amidst all those spoons in the drawer we mentioned earlier (which is to say, Annapolis), and because I do only about six or seven knots, I make the trip in two steps, stopping first either in Solomons on the Patuxent or Smith Creek just inside the Potomac, depending on the weather and my ambition. On the second day, I reach Onancock by mid-afternoon. It’s a pleasant, straightforward trip, as long as you watch the weather, because you’ll be crossing the Bay, which is about 20 miles wide at that point. And remember to avoid the long shoals south of both Tangier and Watts islands.
For those of you in the Hampton/Portsmouth/Norfolk area, Onancock is a bit handier, a 50- to 60-mile trip up the Bay. Or try a stop in Cape Charles (see last year’s Weekends on the Water for all the details) on the first day.
Getting to Onancock by car will take you roughly three hours from Baltimore/Annapolis and about two hours or so from Hampton/Norfolk. Summer weekends will probably do some damage to that driving time, of course.
Onancock Wharf & Marina
Like the town itself, Onancock Town Wharf and Marina is small, charming, convenient, and comfortable. And dockmaster Tanner is friendly, efficient, and helpful. During the summer, and especially on weekends, reservations are probably a good idea. Call the marina or go straight to the Dockwa app to request a slip. The marina will confirm with arrival directions.
If the marina is full, or you prefer anchoring, Onancock Creek has several pleasant anchorages. The North Branch just past the marina is good, though the mud bottom is not always reliable for holding. Better yet, try the anchorage basin near the mouth of the South Branch. Also good are both of the no-wake zones behind green “29” and just behind red “26”. There is an additional anchorage off the mouth of Cedar Creek about two miles inside Onancock Creek. Be prepared to find plenty of crab pots no matter where you choose to drop anchor.
The hotel, which sits in the middle of downtown Onancock at 7 King Street, is a star example of a successful reconstruction. The Charlotte has eight guest rooms, a restaurant with two dining rooms, and a lovely old bar. Parking is on the street or, for those with a trailer, in the nearby municipal parking lot.
Just a couple of blocks farther up King Street, you’ll find the lovely Inn at Onancock, which features five themed bedrooms, beautiful grounds, warm hospitality, and some excellent food.
1882 Colonial Manor Inn on Market Street has the longest history as a hostelry, opening in the 1930s. Over the years its reputation has only grown for good food and enchanting rooms.
The 1890 Spinning Wheel B&B on North Street offers guests all the comforts of home without the work, and in my case anyway, better cooking. Like all the other lodging options, the Spinning Wheel is just a few blocks away from everything.
Get out on the water
Since water is our theme, let’s start right there. Frankly we could spend the rest of the day on this one, but we’ll limit ourselves to four options.
1. Explore Onancock Creek by paddlecraft. Launch your own into this lovely creek or rent a kayak or SUP from Burnham Guides. You’ll find them down by the town wharf next to Mallard’s restaurant. Consider signing up for one of their short or day-long paddling expeditions. (You can also rent bicycles here.)
2. Launch your own trailer-boat at the town wharf boat ramp or consider a sunset or day cruise in a 24-foot Wellcraft with Holly Cove Charters.
3. Climb aboard a classic cat boat for a cruise of local waters with Onancock Sailing Adventures.
4. Hop aboard the Joyce Marie II for a trip to Tangier Island, which, along with its neighbor Smith Island, is the most singular spot on all of the Chesapeake. If you came by boat, you passed Tangier on your way in. This is the most convenient way to visit this must-see island. Hop on in the morning, spend the day on Tangier, and hop back on for the return trip that afternoon. Options for overnight stays are also available.
Visit a gallery or six
You will realize early on in your visit to Onancock that there is a charm and allure to this little town that causes people to fall immediately in love with it. Artists, it seems, are particularly susceptible to this reaction. The result is that Market Street has artists’ galleries in abundance. Here’s your chance to spend a few happy hours strolling through the galleries and often chatting with the artists themselves. Not surprisingly, many have been inspired by the Eastern Shore’s watermen and the world of a working life on the water.
Several of the artists were born and bred on the Shore, so their experience runs deep. Some, like Jack Richardson, are classically trained, while others, like Danny Doughty, have developed an extraordinary style all their own. On the other hand, Miguel Bizzotto creates fine art in leather and as a bonus runs his own café along with his gallery. Finally, don’t miss the Red Queen Gallery, which supports a number of local artists.
After visiting those, stop for a bit of refreshment at the Blarney Stone Pub or 3 Knots Tap House, both on Market Street, and then head up Market to College Street and the Historic Onancock School galleries, which offers studio space to local artists. Call first for their hours.
Hit the Saturday market
If you are in town on a Saturday during the growing season, be sure to stroll through the weekend market, where you’ll find local fruits, vegetables, flowers, and crafts. You’ll find it on your walk up Market Street (of course).
See a show or watch a movie
Not only does this remarkable little town have the historic Roseland movie theater, which shows first-run movies, but it also features live theater and entertainment at the nearby North Street Playhouse. Do I need to tell where you’ll find them? Right! Isn’t this easy?
Visit historic and elegant Ker Place
Let’s top off this list with a long step back in time. Set elegantly back from the road, this beautifully restored home and garden, built between 1799 and 1803, is considered, by those who know these things, the finest example of Federal Period Georgian-style architecture on the Eastern Shore. I know it’s a mouthful, but once you see it, you’ll get the gist. The house and grounds are definitely worth a tour.
Mention Onancock to anyone on the Chesapeake and the chances are very good that the first words out of their mouth will be, “Don’t miss the Corner Bakery!” A discussion will then immediately break out—sometimes drawing a crowd of opinionated pastry eaters—whether you should go first for the doughnuts, still warm from the oven if you can get yourself there early enough, or the cream puffs, which are so light they practically drift off the plate. And we haven’t even mentioned the sweet potato biscuits. (I’m not going to tell you which ones I go for every time, because I don’t want to start a fight.) Walking up from the water, you’ll find the Corner Bakery on Market Street, just before you get to North Street.
Step off the boat or out of your car in Onancock and you won’t be there 15 minutes before seven people you have never met will tell you that you must go to Janet’s Café for breakfast. Those people know what they are talking about. Known officially as Janet’s General Store Café, the only problem with eating breakfast here is finding a free table. If you miss your chance, Janet’s is open for lunch too. You’ll find it on King Street where it meets North Street.
Lunch and dinner
Whew, this is going to be tough. There are so many good choices in this tiny town that I don’t believe you can go wrong. It just depends on what you’re looking for at any given time. For example, I’m not even going to talk about the new local favorite for Italian, Da Vinci’s on King Street, only because I haven’t been there yet. (Though I hear great things about the pizza.) And I’m only going to mention Maurice, which has a first-rate reputation for dazzling and innovative food, because it’s a mile up Market Street from the marina and I always get too hungry and opt for something closer to the Wharf.
In fact, that’s just where I’m going to start this quick tour. Mallards at the Wharf, which is located in the old Hopkins & Bro. Inc. mercantile store next to the marina office and boat ramp, is the only waterfront restaurant in Onancock. It is also about 25 steps from the slips, which makes it one of my favorite stops. The food is delicious and the view is delightful. Naturally, fresh local seafood gets star billing. It’s perfect after a day on the water, or just strolling through town.
A few blocks uptown is everybody’s favorite Irish pub, Blarney Stone, on North Street between Market and King. A fresh Guinness paired with fish & chips or shepherd’s pie will more than take the edge off any appetite. I particularly like the corned beef & cabbage egg roll with an ice-cold local IPA.
Speaking of local beers, you’ll find a wide selection on tap right next door at recent addition to the local scene, 3 Knots Taphouse. Right across the street from these, you’ll find the Charlotte Hotel, with its well-regarded and beautifully appointed dining rooms and bar.
Finally, I could never show my face back in town if I didn’t mention Bizzotto’s Gallery Caffé. It’s a village institution. Here you can enjoy a delicious lunch or dinner and admire the work of owner and artist Miguel Bizzotto. ⚓️