by Janine Latus
The great blue heron lifts off and then lands a few kayak-lengths away, dodging the boats as they silently slip by. Bald eagles perch in treetops while cormorants, their bodies iridescent and oily, duck and disappear then reappear improbably far away, climbing onto a log and standing in the sun, wings spread to dry.
The small town of Onancock sits 90 minutes up the Eastern Shore from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, firmly bracketed by the creek that shares its name. Kayak tours launch from its old steamboat ticket house, where travelers once began their long journey up the bay to Baltimore, picking up people and produce along the way.
The building is now home to Burnham Guides Paddling Adventures, where you can rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak, or join one of the Burnham history and nature tours, paddling up tributaries with owners Mary and Bill Burnham to peek into the back yards of historic homes.
Next door to Burnham’s is Mallards at the Wharf, a restaurant built into the Hopkins & Bro. general store, now mostly a museum where tourists and locals alike come to sip drinks as the sun settles into the bay.
Onancock straddles the past and present. From here you can hop a ferry to disappearing Tangier Island, so stalled in time that inhabitants speak their own dialect, or take an hourlong country drive to Wallops Island to gawk as rockets soar into space.
The Inn at Onancock, a luxurious downtown bed and breakfast, runs happy hour boat tours down the creek, or you can stay on land for the inn’s Wine Down Hour, which include hors d’oeuvres and the company of Dante, a stately German shepherd.
Owners Kim Moore and Matt Spuck ditched their six-figure jobs north of Boston during a window between college tuition for their kids. He’s the money guy, an accountant. She calls herself a frustrated real estate agent because she loves to look at houses. In Massachusetts she worked for private schools, running golf tournaments and donor dinners, so the leap to full-time hospitality was easy. And this town, halfway between New York and the Outer Banks, is a natural stopping spot. Two years after it opened, The Inn at Onancock was named to the top 25 properties on BedAndBreakfast.com, primarily because of the friendliness of the owners, but its multi-course breakfasts capped with homemade meringues couldn’t have hurt.
The people here are how’s-your-mama friendly.
Belly up to the bar and someone is bound to commence to chatting – Where you from? What brings you here? This is a town of You-Have-to-Meets, of people dragging neighbors over to be introduced, to talk about the art they create, the plays they perform, and to make sure you’ve been out to the historic school to see the artists’ studios there.
Onancock hosts Equity actors from New York for performances at the North Street Playhouse (which isn’t on North Street) and thousands of fishing fans who compete in tournaments for rockfish and croaker, one event raising money for scholarships, the other for the Fire Department.
The locals divvy their time between watering holes – Mallards for the sunset and the Blarney Stone Pub downtown for sports on TV, depending on weather and who’s playing. If you’re hungry, try the pub’s shepherd’s pie or Mallards’ jumbo lump crab cakes (held together, they say, with nothing but love). All of Mallards’ food is accompanied by the singing of Mo, the musical chef.
This is a walking town, a place where you can park your car and meander, down the main drag to the Corner Bakery (which isn’t on a corner) for pastries with glaze that cracks under tooth and oozes creamy goodness. Then wander across the street to see the stunning aerial photographs of the Eastern Shore at the At
Altitude Gallery @ North Street Market. This gallery is an offshoot of owner Gordon Campbell’s storefront in Cape Charles, the market half of the business offering flavored vinegars and oils, and kitchen tools you didn’t know you needed.
Up the street is The Dogwood Branch, the historical society’s thrift shop, filled with high-end treasures, the inventory ever changing, the proceeds supporting things like Ker Place, a Federal-era museum in Onancock. The historic home, built on the cusp of the 19th century, is furnished like the Architectural Digest of its day, with stenciled ceilings and fancy-era faux painting so that the hearth looks like marble even though it is of local oak.
This is a surprisingly food-rich town. For either breakfast or lunch there’s Janet’s Cafe, inside the Onancock General Store, known for its heaping servings and cheery servers. For upscale dining there is Bizzotto’s Gallery-Caffe, with its tuna poke with sesame seeds and multigrain red quinoa chia chips; or the Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant, with its brined pork chop in cherry sauce and the creaky automated chair lift that carries guests – slowly – to hotel rooms on the upper floors.
This is a town for leisurely shopping, for browsing local art at the historic school’s classrooms-turned-art studios or the Red Queen Gallery downtown. Around the corner and up a flight of stairs is the eye-poppingly colorful gallery of Danny Doughty, his paintings primitive, of the black women of the Eastern Shore who were his refuge during a difficult childhood here on the Shore, in the years before the bridge-tunnel. His art is a joyous celebration, as is the overflowing container garden he creates on the sidewalk outside.
It is a town of art and food and friendly conversation, but it is not a town for rushing around. Onancock is worth a few days, for golfers and birders, but most of all, for those who just want to take a summer stroll.
A previous version of this story contained an error. Kim Moore and Matt Spuck are the owners of The Inn at Onancock. The story has been updated.