Brick paved streets lined with eighteenth century buildings, shop doors graced with Christmas greenery and scores of Scottish gents and lasses clad in tartan kilts bustling around town. Was I in Scotland? No, I found a bit of European holiday tradition a little closer to home in Alexandria, Virginia; where on the first weekend in December you’re as likely to hear a Scottish brogue as a southern drawl.
Two of my favorite ways to unwind are spending a bit of time outside reconnecting with nature and enjoying a good glass of wine. Luckily for me Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a short 3 hour drive from my home in Virginia Beach, has both in spades making the area an obvious choice for a weekend getaway.
What comes to mind when you think of Virginia Beach? If you’re like most people you think of the wide, sandy beaches and the gentle waves of the Atlantic; or perhaps the three mile long boardwalk presided over by King Neptune that’s just perfect for a summer stroll or bike ride.Within the past few years, thanks to the hard work of a handful of dedicated watermen, there’s something else you should think of in Virginia Beach.
Now that I’ve had a chance to experience a bit of the Eastern Shore’s present-day oyster heritage and gotten a glimpse of its future with Shooting Point Oyster Company and HM Terry Company I think its time we look at the Eastern Shore’s oyster past. The watermen of the Eastern Sore have usually been independent fishermen who then sold their catch to seafood wholesalers; they caught whatever was in season which traditionally was crabs in the summer and oysters in the cooler months as well as a variety of fish year round. Some accounts liken the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster boom of nineteenth and early twentieth century to California’s gold rush; it was hard work that sustained many and made a few very rich.
Having broadened my oyster palate at Chatham Vineyard’s Merrior and Terrior event and discovering the beautiful Chesapeake Bay inlets where Shooting Point Oyster Company grows its Nassawadox Salts it was time to find out where the sublimely salty-sweet Sewansecott oysters come from. The H.M. Terry Company has been producing oysters in Virginia’s coastal waters for well over 100 years. Located in Willis Wharf, a tiny waterman’s town( that also happens to have some of the best Texas BBQ this side of the Lone Star state), the Terry family has been growing oysters in the peaceful waters of Hog Island Bay for four generations. After two viruses wiped out Virginia’s oyster population in the 1980’s the company switched to raising clams. While they have been quite successful with farming clams H.M. Terry has always at it’s heart been an oyster company and has recently revived their oyster heritage.
Oysters and wine, is there any better pairing of seafood and grape? I think not. Virginia’s Eastern Shore is one of the few places in the world where both of these indulgences are produced within scant miles of each other. Historically Virginia had a booming oyster trade throughout the Chesapeake and along the Atlantic coast that was blighted in the late twentieth century, but a new generation of watermen and women are commited to the resurgence of Virginia’s oyster heritage. November has recently been declared as Virginia Oyster Month and the Virginia Oyster trail has been established to highlight the emergence of Virginia as a premier oyster region.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, located in southeastern Virginia Beach, is worlds away from the tourist hustle of the city’s famous boardwalk. Established in 1938, the refuge is over 9000 acres and lies on the Atlantic Flyway providing a rich habitat for migratory birds. Tundra swans, a variety of ducks, as well as snow and Canada geese call Back Bay home during the fall and winter migration but you can also find year-round residents such as heron, bald eagles and endangered loggerhead turtles. On occasion, if you’re lucky, you may spot a wild “banker pony” who has wandered up from the Outer Banks.
I’ve driven through the Eastern Shore of Virginia countless times en route to points north. Rolling past roadside farm stands, historic rural churches and one stoplight towns I’d mentally note that one day I needed to stop and check things out but, as with many things in life, my attention and time were pulled elsewhere. Connected to the rest of Virginia only by the 20 mile long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the Eastern Shore is a rural area that’s retained much of its own culture heavily influenced by the farmers and watermen that have called this area home for centuries. Vacationers flock to the the tourist heavy beach resorts of Ocean City, Maryland to the north and Virginia Beach to the south leaving the charms of the Eastern Shore a relatively untouched secret. After hearing of the natural beauty and relaxed way of life from a good friend I resolved to start exploring these secrets for myself.
The Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium is a unique addition to the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Located a short drive from the popular Oceanfront resort area the Adventure Park is an aerial ropes course with over 170 platforms and a variety of of “elements” including bridges, obstacles and zip lines that offer up adventure with a bird’s eye view.