Chesapeake summers ease you into such a laid-back state of mind that your big decision of the day can be choosing cold beer or crisp wine to accompany a dozen fresh oysters. That cool combo of bivalves washed down with a favorite drink is a beloved Bay ritual. The options were once simple: Natty Boh or Bud for brew fans; red or white for wine lovers. And oysters were only eaten in cold months. Today's Bay oyster scene has evolved dramatically. Now, 100-plus bivalve brands are harvested, and aquafarming makes them available year-round. The steady supply has sparked a raw bar renaissance with new oyster houses opening all over the region.
Could so many choices complicate a relaxing Chesapeake baycation? Not if we can help it. Marinalife teamed up with Chesapeake Oyster Lovers' Handbook to create a pair of oyster tours where Virginia wine and Maryland beer are coupled with local bivalves for a tantalizing bay-to-table event. Visit these 11 destinations and chart a flavorful course for sipping and slurping your way around the Bay.
Pass the Bottle, but Hold the Bubbles Your Chesapeake oyster crawl starts in Virginia amid historic characters, rolling countryside and award-winning wines. Its vino tradition dates back to Thomas Jefferson, and centuries later, more than 250 wineries are curling their vines around 3,500-plus acres of land. The success is partly due to nurturing grapes that thrive here but fail in other places. Local vintners also defy the old adage that champagne and oysters are the ultimate couple. Instead, they pair fine wines with scrumptious bivalves that are cultivated in the same area and complement each other's flavors.
This bivalve quest also takes you to aquaculture sites that are bolstering a lucrative rebirth in the Chesapeake oyster biz and turning Virginia into the East Coast's top seafood producer. Its 2014 season jumped 31 percent by selling more than 40 million oysters, offering a wide range of flavors -- Rappahannocks to briny Chincoteagues. If you're ready for great grape and bivalve adventures, cruise to these five destinations.
When you lounge on the restaurant's deck soaking in a gorgeous view of the Bay, you might see workboats chugging by and gently dropping spats on shells (baby oysters) into the water. It's a pleasant reminder that oyster beds are right in front of the eatery, and you get to witness the infancy of the process that delivers fresh oysters to your table. Usually two or three local bivalve brands are presented with a smooth chardonnay grown about 15 minutes away at Chatham Vineyards. On Watermen Wednesdays, Eastern Shore aquafarmers give talks about their oysters and shuck them for tastings. (theoysterfarmatkingscreek.com)
Just a stone's throw from the Atlantic awaits an unforgettable experience where harvesting and eating oysters is not a spectator sport. At this aquafarm, guests tug on tall waterman's waders and step into the Lynnhaven River where briny bivalves lie beneath the waves. With the current swirling between your feet, the Chef 's Table Tour presents a feast of oysters and other local seafood served on tables in the water. Nearby vineyards, such as Boxwood, Williamsburg and Chatham wineries, make bringing your own wine easy. Two other guided tours offer oyster tastings, regional history sessions and hands-on activities with fishpots, oyster cages and aquaculture gear. (pleasurehouseoysters.com)
Two 40-foot-tall corkscrews at the entrance welcome guests to an award winning vineyard that specifically cultivates wines to pair with Chesapeake oysters. Bottles of white, rosé and red are sampled in the Wine Stand, while the Oyster Stand dishes out Windmill Point and Kellum oysters, soft-shell crabs and other seasonal seafood. The canine component of the name honors the sweet rescue dogs that roam the grounds to protect grape vines from deer and other hungry critters. Docked nearby is the Faded Glory, a Chesapeake Deadrise workboat that gives tours of oyster beds along Carter's Creek. In early November, the vineyard hosts the Virginia Wine & Oyster Classic, which features 15 of the region's top wineries. (dogandoyster.com)
Where to dock: Tides Inn Marina (804-438-4418, tidesinn.com)
This little hidden gem has played a big role in the Chesapeake oyster resurrection. Merroir is owned by Croxton family members, who were early pioneers in aquafarming and are now growing world-class oysters. Their 250 acres of oyster beds lie just a hundred yards away from the charming eatery. These oysters grow in cages on the Rappahannock River bottom, but when they're pulled from the water, you relish a spectacular farm-to-fork experience that pairs beautifully with Virginia wine. Three types of oysters appear on the menu Rappahannocks (sweet), Stingrays (mild) and Olde Salts (briny) and they're prepared on outdoor grills with a variety of seasonings or presented simply on the half shell. (rroysters.com/restaurants/merroir)
Built in 1730, the luxurious inn overlooks the Potomac River with 1,900 acres of exquisite gardens, fields andforests. Four outstanding wineries are located nearby, creating noteworthy wine and exceptional cuisine. The chef at this oyster haven serves only Chesapeake oysters, often shucked on the half shell, baked with local bacon and parmesan, crispy fried or roasted with wasabi butter. Tasting the paired wine before the oyster is his preference, because guests find it's hard to resist a chilled glass placed on their table. Stratford's September Wine & Oyster Festival is a must-go event. (innatstratfordhall.org)
Let's Raise a Frosty Mug to Brews & Bivalves Migrating north on the second leg of the journey, your oyster quest meanders to Maryland's farmlands, urban pockets and quaint Eastern Shore towns. You'll savor the rewards of folks who blend hops and barley to brew beer that couples well with Bay oysters. The state's long tradition of raising frothy mugs dates back to 1703, when the first brewery opened in Annapolis. From the iconic Natty Boh to today's craft ales, Maryland digs suds with bivalves.
Steamed crabs garner the most notoriety in the Bay's current seafood scene, but oysters have been major players in Maryland's commerce and culture since colonial times. These bivalves grew so abundantly and were devoured so voraciously that towns such as Crisfield and Solomons were built upon discarded shells. By the 1800s, Chesapeake oysters were the delicacy that everyone wanted to bring to their lips. Now, Maryland aquafarmers are rekindling the global oyster mystique by branding Bay bivalves with alluring labels such as Skinny Dippers, Chesapeake Golds and Sweet Jesus oysters. If you want to discover the bliss of beer and bivalves, then head for these six destinations.
Located on the narrow causeway to St. George Island and flanked by the Potomac River and St. George Creek, Ruddy Duck gracefully blends into Southern Maryland's serene landscape. Next to the deck, a solitary loblolly pine guards a secret that's hidden beneath the gorgeous waterfront view: Oysters are growing just beyond the shore under the waves. These sweet bivalves are harvested daily for the restaurant and are a perfect match for the beers made fresh in house. A collection of brews are offered year-round from pale ales to stouts and traditional German festival biers. (ruddyduckbrewery.com)
Where to dock:Haskell's Marina (301-994-1008)
Sailors, yacht owners, engine mechanics and anyone who loves the Chesapeake Bay gather at this lively Eastport pub. Tales of sea adventures and fishing conquests fill the air, while shuckers place fresh oysters on icy trays and bartenders drop the delicate meat into petite shooter glasses. Chilled mugs are filled with an impressive list of beers from across the country, including Maryland-made favorites such as Flying Dog, DuClaw, Fordham Copperhead Ale (from Annapolis) and the Boatyard Lager, specially crafted to highlight thesubtle flavors of oysters harvested in local waters. (boatyardbarandgrill.com)
Discover a destination that toasts Baltimore's industrial heritage while quenching Maryland's thirst for good beer and bivalves. This waterfront seafood house resides in the former facility of Tin Decorating Co., and its towering smokestack used to rise among scores of oyster processing plants that once lined the shore. Today, it hovers above the deck where guests nibble on oysters and watch ships zip around Inner Harbor. A glass case at the bar is filled with Bay bivalves such as Skinny Dippers, Choptank Sweets and Chincoteagues. Happy hour buck-ashuck oysters and Wednesday Craft Draft Night featuring Maryland brewsfit the bill without busting the wallet. Don't forget to check out the Dock Bar at the BoatHouse offering live music weekly. On-site free dockage is available while dining. (boathousecanton.com)
Barstools around the shucking station at Ryleigh's are among the most coveted seats in the house. That's the best vantage point to gaze at oysters blanketed in ice with little wooden signs heralding local brands such as Shooting Points and Nassawadox Salts. This iconic oyster house offers 10 to 14 types of bivalves, but the favorite is Avery's Pearl. These oysters are custom grown in Hog Island, Va., through a unique restaurant-aquafarm partnership. Maryland brews such as Natty Boh, Evolution IPA and Loose Cannon flow freely, especially during buck-a-shuck Oyster Hour. (ryleighs.com)
Across the Bay on the Eastern Shore lies a seafood house beloved by locals for its dedication to regional oysters and beer. Family owned since 1947, it began as a small crab factory and has evolved into the ideal place to sample an ever-changing list of local oysters such as Choptank Sweets, Barren Islands, Holy Grails and Sewansecotts. You can slurp them indoors or on the outdoor deck and beer garden that's decorated with a waterman's mural, tropical plants and colorful umbrellas. Maryland craft brews take center stage, especially bottles of Choptank designed by a Baltimore brewer to match the unique flavors of the Chesapeake. (toddseafood.com)
On the main street of historic St. Michaels stands a lovely Victorian house that has become a prime destination for oyster and beer seekers. Beneath its gingerbread trim hangs an aquaculture cage where oysters once grew in Chesapeake waters. Every day, a raw bar list of a dozen or more types of oysters displays its unique flavors and brand names such as Chesapeake Gold, Sewansecott and Chincoteague. On tap are local ales that include Eastern Shore natives Real Ale Revival from Cambridge and Evolution from Salisbury. Extra bonus: The Eastern Shore Brewing Co. is located a few blocks away with a tasting room. (awfularthursusa.com)
About 14 miles off Virginia's Eastern Shore, oyster aquaculture's cutting-edge science is helping to preserve a traditional way of life on Tangier Island. Richmond native Tim Hickey introduced to local watermen a new oyster farming method growing thousands of oysters in cages along the shore and shipping them to raw bars along the East Coast. That's a big economy boost from a tiny mollusk and a valiant effort to defend a unique part of Chesapeake heritage. For more, go to Tangier Island Oyster Co., tangieroysterco.com.