The Little Town the Eastern Shore Forgot

The hardest part about encouraging people to visit my hometown on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is making them understand where it's located.

When your opening line is 'It's that little part of Virginia that's not actually attached to Virginia,' you can get some confused looks. In Washington, 'the Eastern Shore' means Maryland, and I am regarded as someone who clearly failed geography class, even though I'm talking about a place where I spent most of the first two decades of my life. I've settled on this line by way of helping people picture what I'm talking about: 'You know the Delmarva Peninsula? We're the '-va.''

That sometimes produces a few thoughtful nods as my audience squints, probably calling up a mental image of a coastline map.

The second hardest part is making them believe and/or pronounce the name of my hometown. Yes, really, it's Onancock. As in 'Oh-NAN-cock.' Yes, it has appeared on T-shirts featuring dirty-sounding town names.

Hey, at least it's not Intercourse, Pa.

But it's also difficult to explain to people why, exactly, they should visit Onancock. Not that the town doesn't do a good job of selling itself: There's a great inn, a picturesque harbor, outdoor activities, a bit of history and some mighty fine restaurants. It's just that my experience of Onancock, and of the Eastern Shore, was special, and difficult to replicate.

Most tourists won't get to do the things I did that made Onancock a little magical. They probably won't scale the dumpsters in the alley behind the main drag to climb up to the rooftops, where they'll spend hours talking with friends. They won't have bonfires on Crystal Beach, a small and private sandy strip of shore just outside town, or ride a convertible along the back roads that crisscross it.

Still, there's a soul to Onancock that even a visitor passing through can't miss. There's a feeling of possibility, a sense that you might stumble across something amazing, whether it's a painting at a local gallery, a rare bird spotted in the marshes or a friendly conversation at the local pub.

It's also a place where fun isn't forced onto visitors. Restaurants keep odd hours, and the town's single-screen old movie house has only one show a day ' and only on weekends. Onancock isn't the sleepy fishing village it once was, but it's still more of a small town than a tourist hub. But for the visitor who finds the crowds of St. Michaels just as stressful as the ones on K Street, that's a good thing.

For lodging, try the Charlotte Inn and Restaurant (7 North St., 757-787-7400). Owners Charlotte Heath and Gary Cochran have created a serene, comfortable vibe at this boutique hotel and restaurant. The beds are dreamily comfortable, and the thick-but-crispy bacon served in the restaurant might be enough reason to make the trek from Washington. If you're not the doily-draped B&B type, this is your place.

One option for dinner is the Flamenco Restaurant (4 North St., 757-787-7780). Proprietors Olga and Ales Gregor hail from the Czech Republic, but the huge menu at this quirky spot spans the continent of Europe, from Spanish fare to Eastern European delicacies.

Another choice is Mallards at the Wharf (2 Market St., 757-787-8558). Margaritas and crab cakes are a couple of the standouts at this historic general-store-turned-restaurant on the town wharf.

Activities include SouthEast Expeditions (2 King St., 757-331-2680, southeast expeditions.net) for kayaking, which is a great way to explore the Onancock Creek and the bay. SouthEast has the tours, rentals and gear you need.

Check out Ker Place (69 Market St., 757-787-8012, kerplace.org). This Federal-style historic home is the Eastern Shore headquarters of the Virginia Historical Society. It features a museum and library devoted to the area's past.

At the North Street Playhouse, (34 Market St., 757-787-2050, northstreet playhouse.org) Artistic Director Terry Bliss does an excellent job of selecting plays and programs with broad appeal.

And don't miss Roseland Theatre (48 Market St., 757-787-2010, roselandonan cock.com). The vintage marquee of this 1950s movie house is one of Onancock's signatures. In addition to current titles, the Roseland hosts a series of mainstream international films.

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