As you're making your way into Cape Charles, don't rely on that big, black beacon you see for help in a fog. The lightless lighthouse standing tall above the town is actually a water tower with a clever paint job, bringing a bit of levity to this busy shipping terminus. But we knew that it hadn't fooled you for a second.
On the other end of the harbor, you should walk the boardwalk atop the beachside jetty, where a plaque with the following message may catch your eye: "A world-record 111-pound black drum was caught just offshore by Betty D. Hall at C-10 marker in 1973. Mrs. Hall, a resident of Madison Avenue, Cape Charles, weighed 98 pounds at the time. She still holds the women's 80-pound class world record as certified by the Int'l Game Fish Association."
There's good reason why Cape Charles calls itself the Drum Fishing Capital of the World. So, in the shadow of the lighthouse that isn't, cast a line and see if you can hook one like Mrs. Hall hauled in way back when.
Some cruisers who have visited this former railroad town at the tip of Virginia’s eastern shore say it’s one of the Mid-Atlantic’s best-kept secrets, though a hot second-home real estate market in recent years has put it on the radar of more out-of-towners, so it’s no longer a place where residents know everyone’s name. Life is flip-flop easy, with bikes and golf carts sufficing for transportation and menus heavy with local seafood (this area is thriving with Little Neck Clam aquaculture farms). Start your day with a hearty breakfast from the Cape Charles Coffee House, housed in a beautifully restored 1910 haberdashery on Mason Street. For lunch check out Kelly’s Gingernut Pub, which serves lunch in a 106-year old former bank building. Save room for dinner on bistro nights (Tuesday through Thursday) at Hook U Up Gourmet where you can sample local seafood or indulge with a steak dinner that will easily fill you up. And for your sweet craving after dinner head down the street to the Brown Dog Ice Cream. Save time for shopping at the many boutiques and galleries on Mason Street and then head to the beach at the end of the street — this long, quiet beach is a great place for kids to collect periwinkles on sandbars. Cape Charles can seem charmingly rural, with oyster roasts at the historical society a popular community event. But there’s an upscale edge, too. The Hotel Cape Charles is a very cool, new, upscale boutique hotel in the heart of town. Golfers can play The Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Bay Creek Resort. Enjoy the total Cape Charles experience and attend Fall Festival (October 11) with live music, artisans, crafts and food.
Things to See and Do
When you're in Cape Charles, the time is ripe for a walk around town among the Victorian homes. North of the jetty at Cape Charles Harbor, a lovely beach awaits your blanket and picnic basket. Take a walk over the jetty rocks, get some sun, and then refresh yourself with a swim. Try to catch the Blue Crab Music Festival, a one-day extravaganza held in late July at Central Park on Strawberry Street.
Restaurants and Provisions
Enjoy Fish Head's Cafe (757-331-8695) for breakfast and lunch; they also sell wine, cheese, and specialty foods. Over in the beautiful coach house building, the Coach House Tavern is great for take-out or a casual family meal. For more formal satisfaction of your appetite try Aqua (757-331-8660), featuring impressive entrees from land and sea. The marina's ship's store supplies some groceries and other necessities, including Maptech charts.
In town, B&B Quik Mart (757-331-2282) will help you cross a few items off your shopping list. Nearby, you can rev up at Cape Charles Coffee Co. (757-331-1880) or sip a soda at the old-fashioned counter of Rayfield's Pharmacy (757-331-1212), which also serves food.
Where to Dock
- The Cape Charles Yacht Center (757-678-5800, ccyachtcenter.com) is a new marina located in a harbor that sits right off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and features an 18-foot-deep channel for easy access, even for megayachts. A member of the U.S. Superyacht Association, this marina offers first class amenities and access to activities at the Bay Creek Resort, including the golf course and the pool.
- Cape Charles Town Harbor (757-331-2357) this deep-water slip marina offers 95 slips and is just a short walk from downtown.
- King’s Creek Marina and Resort (757-331-8640, kingscreekmarina.com) is located in the protected harbor of Kings Creek and offers 224 slips, and two onsite restaurants.
Navigation and Anchorages
Use Maptech ChartKit Region 4, page 61 and Maptech electronic and NOAA paper charts 12221 and 12224.
Cape Charles, a port-of-entry for U.S. customs, is a commercial port rather than a cruising destination. Here, at the terminus of the Eastern Shore Railroad, tugs and barges chug back and forth going about their business. Still, transients may stay the night at the small municipal marina, which sells gas and diesel and offers easy access by foot to provisioning in town. Your other option is to continue north to Bay Creek Marina, located just inside quieter Kings Creek.
CAUTION: This is a busy commercial area, and there is not abundant room for maneuvering. Be alert and yield to large vessels.
From any direction, pick up the entrance of the Bar Channel at Fl G 2.5s G "1CC" and follow it for 0.6nm to Q R R "2" marking the turn into Cape Charles Harbor Channel. Follow this channel for about 1.6nm before turning east into the harbor. The municipal bulkhead is in the north basin at the east end of the harbor, a block's walk from town. You can contact the Cape Charles harbormaster (757-331-2357) with any questions.
From the west and Fl R 4s R "36" in the York Spit Channel, steer a course of 131¼m for 4nm to Fl G 2.5s G "1CC" and the Bar Channel. From the south, you may approach the Cape Charles Harbor Channel via Beach Channel. Keep an eye out for Latimer Shoal, which has some 5- and 6-foot spots, just west of Cape Charles. To the east, two strings of concrete ships deployed off Kiptopeke State Park act as breakwaters, providing protection for an anchorage and the beaches. From west of these breakwaters, travel northwest in Beach Channel for about 1.8nm to Fl R 2.5s 18ft 4M "2C" in Cherrystone Channel. Travel 1.4nm north in the Cherrystone to reach the dredged Cape Charles Harbor Channel.
NOTE: Although the north basin at the east end of the harbor is designated a Harbor of Refuge, anchoring is not allowed in the basins or in the outer Harbor Basin.
Fishing boats and pleasure craft frequent Kings Creek, which opens east-southeast of Sandy Island, about 1nm north of Cape Charles Harbor. The entrance channel is well-marked and carries at least 6 feet (mlw). Inside, Bay Creek Marina offers slips and amenities. If you prefer to anchor, you should find a room-just watch the shallows.
Build it and they will come in droves. Heralded as an engineering marvel upon completion in 1964, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel has transformed East Coast automobile travel. Journeys between the Hampton Roads area and points north of the Chesapeake were trimmed by almost 100 miles. More than 60 million vehicles have crossed the span to date, saving drivers countless hours on the road.
Private ferries once plied the volatile waters at the Chesapeake's mouth between Norfolk, Virginia, and the Delmarva Peninsula. From the 1930s to the 1950s, as the popularity of ferry service grew, so did the number of vessels crossing the bay laden with passengers and vehicles. Due to the increased traffic across the bay's busy shipping lanes, Virginia's legislature corraled the private ferries under the auspice of the newly-created Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commission in 1954. After the commission regulated prices, schedules, and departure points, they began to explore the feasibility of constructing a permanent crossing.
A fixed crossing at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay?! Many balked at the idea. Nay-sayers cited as obstacles the 17-mile width of the bay's mouth, the extreme weather of the Atlantic Ocean, and the need for open shipping lanes. But the Ferry Commission's studies said otherwise. The results recommended a structure with a combination of bridges and tunnels to carry vehicles across the water, while minimally disrupting shipping traffic.
Unlike many public works projects, the Bridge-Tunnel was not funded by public tax money. In 1960, numerous investors purchased $200 million worth of bonds from the Ferry Commission, with future tolls designated to pay the principle and interest on these. Building the Bridge-Tunnel in today's dollars would cost approximately $1.1 billion; by comparison, Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel Project, the nation's largest public works project ever, was estimated to require $11 billion in public money.
The Bridge-Tunnel opened to traffic on April 15, 1964, after only 42 months of construction. The final structure measures 17.6 miles from shore to shore, including 12.2 miles of trestle, two one-mile tunnels located beneath the Chesapeake and Thimble Shoal shipping channels, and two fixed-bridge spans with a maximum vertical clearance of 75 feet. In addition to the bridge and tunnel sections, four 9.9-acre islands were constructed from 1,142,895 tons of rock to house the entrances and exits of the tunnels.
Recognizing the temptation for drivers to gawk at the unconventional vantage point provided by the structure, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commision (formerly the Chesapeake Bay Ferry Commision) built Sea Gull Island. Located three-and-a-half miles off Virginia Beach, this southernmost of the four manmade islands houses a restaurant, fishing pier, rest stop, and souvenir shop. Curious and weary travelers alike can take a break from the 26-mile (including approach roads) crossing to appreciate the mighty Chesapeake.
The artificial shallows and shelter created by the manmade islands have spawned fertile fishing grounds. Many anglers crowd the Sea Gull Island fishing pier and surround the other three islands in their pleasure craft, waiting for a bite from a variety of fish, including striped bass, red and black drum, bluefish, speckled trout, and weakfish. In order to keep pace with the demands of increased traffic and scheduled maintenance, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission approved the Parallel Crossing Project in 1995. The project expands the present two-lane bridges and trestles to four at a cost of $200 million. While there are no immediate plans to build additional tunnels, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel's popularity and history suggest there will be continued expansion and innovation to meet the needs of bay-area travelers.