Captivated in Cape Charles: The Road to a Renaissance

A visit to Bay Creek in Cape Charles proves small-town charm and a sophisticated coastal lifestyle go together like oysters and white wine

by | Jan 9, 2022

Cape Charles is having a moment. Maybe more than a moment. You might call it a renaissance. One in which lifelong locals are joining forces with creative entrepreneurial spirits hoping to capitalize on the unique charm that recently led Southern Living magazine to crown this Eastern Shore destination the “Best Little Beach Town in Virginia.” And why shouldn’t they?

It’s easy to be smitten with its mini-Main Street chic, bolstered as of late by its inclusion along with Onancock in the statewide Virginia Main Street revitalization program. To kick back on its family-friendly beaches and revel in its spectacular Bay sunsets. To unplug from the mainland mayhem while still enjoying a Shore-sized helping of cultural cachet.

What’s not to love about strolling its eclectic shops, galleries, turn-of-the-20th-century homes, historic churches, markets and restored 1940s era art deco theater? About digging in at restaurants like the Oyster Farm Seafood Eatery, Kelly’s Gingernut Pub, Cape Charles Coffee House, Hook @ Harvey, The Shanty or Deadrise Pies? Or drinking up at Cape Charles Brewing Company, Cape Charles Distillery or Buskey Cider on the Bay?

Even if the average day-tripper to Cape Charles isn’t aware of it, at least part of the reason for the renaissance lies just a pleasant golf cart ride away from downtown—on more than 1,700 picturesque acres home to the Bay Creek planned community and resort. As I learned on a recent “Discovery Tour” of Bay Creek, its new owners are eager to showcase not only the community’s upscale modern-coastal homes and villas, vacation and membership opportunities, but a lifestyle that is distinctly Cape Charles 2.0.

Originally opened 20 years ago and known for its Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses, Bay Creek was purchased by Atlanta-based Preserve Communities in 2019, which quickly set about raising its profile for potential homebuyers and visitors and transforming its vibe by playing to its strengths—a stunning natural landscape and, you guessed it, small-town charm.

They started with a bold move, closing off nine holes of one of the property’s golf courses and establishing a permanent conservation easement in order to transform it into a 350-acre nature preserve, now accessible to residents and guests via walking and biking trails. It didn’t take long for native plants like sweetgum and sassafras to start popping up where manicured and fertilized putting greens once were. The preserve now occupies a large section of Bay Creek’s southern waterfront property. Connecting people to nature in a meaningful way is all part of the plan, says Bobby Masters, vice president of lifestyle communities for Preserve Communities.

“Cape Charles has been reborn,” Masters told a group of guests gathered beneath the majestic branches of Bay Creek’s Tree of Life—a massive oak that has become a popular gathering spot on the property for parties, live music and more. “It’s just a charming, charming town, and the resources on the Shore are tied into the agriculture and the aquaculture, the hunting, the fishing, and just getting out in nature. And that’s what we like to think Preserve Communities is all about. It’s all about the beauty of the land and the feeling that you get when you go on the land. It’s not sticks and bricks and it’s not real estate that we are selling. We’re selling a way of life.”

I got a delightful taste of that way of life on a three-day group tour that that began on a beautiful fall afternoon at the Tree of Life, where guests were greeted with a craft cocktail—an Old Fashioned from the bar at Bay Creek’s Coach House Tavern, featuring just-picked persimmons from the Nature Preserve as the star fruit, in place of the traditional cherries. It was the start of a uniquely Cape Charles culinary and cultural adventure—from fresh-off-the-boat oysters to fine art, captivating scenery to welcoming folks—that had me immediately dreaming of a return trip.

Resident naturalist Joe Fehrer was our expert guide as we explored the wooded pathways of the Bay Creek Nature Preserve, designed by Avid Trails, stopping to admire a group of monarch butterflies lighting on golden rods or a heron swooping through the tidal landscape. Residents and guests can traverse the trails on their own, join Fehrer on a guided group tour or bring along canoes or kayaks to take their adventures onto the water. The Preserve’s Base Camp is a central launching point for planned activities and nature excursions.

We rounded the shoreline in our golf cart, meandering through old growth pines to the north of the Preserve to get a sneak peek at Bay Creek’s newest neighborhood, Muirfield. Named for the legendary golf course in Scotland, the site will feature new single-family homes with arguably the most spectacular Chesapeake Bay views on the property. Bay Creek currently has about 370 homes with another 39 under construction. Home prices start in the 400s. Vacation rentals are available through the Bay Creek Resort starting at about $250 per night and include access to property amenities and activities, the Life Center pool, fitness facility and the Coach House.

Memberships, including those for sports and golf, are available to Bay Creek residents starting at just over $100 per month. Don’t worry, golfers, there are still 27 award-winning holes of golf to challenge you here. And, Bay Creek recently introduced a new series of activities programming called Shore Traditions, offering Bay-inspired experiences like creek exploration, birdwatching, paddleboarding, skywatching, beach yoga, outdoor cooking and more.

One of the highlights of our adventures was the chance to partake in the creative cuisine of Chef Jason Van Marter, director of food and beverage at Bay Creek and no stranger to farm-to-table or boat-to-plate goodness. Van Marter, whose erstwhile The Local in nearby Cheriton was an off-the-beaten-path destination for foodies, is now putting his gastronomical imagination to work at the Coach House. There, hungry residents, guests and members nosh on house-made soups, fresh sandwiches and salads, fill up on burgers and bar bites like clam chowder and soft pretzel sticks with house-made beer cheese, or dig in to comforting main-courses like shrimp and grits or truffle mac-n-cheese.

But you can also expect some elevated, out-of-the-box offerings coming from the chef and his team for special events and select menus. At a welcome dinner for our tour, held at a Bay Creek resident’s beautiful waterfront home, Chef Van Marter graced our elegantly decorated communal table with even more elegant fare. Poached crab and lobster salad led the way for grilled duck breast with curry lentils and sauteed spinach. And a dessert of pecan pie with bourbon vanilla ice cream had us all aswoon.

The next morning, we gathered bright and early at Oyster Farm Marina at Kings Creek, just north of downtown Cape Charles, where we were treated to a boat tour and lesson in aqua-farming from farmer Bubba of Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, which ships local clams and oysters to gourmands around the country. Bubba’s passion for bivalves and protecting the health of the waters from which they spring was apparent as he lifted oyster cages from the water to give us a closer look and elucidated the distinctive qualities of his favorite Cherrystone oyster, the Chunu, distinguishable by its cocktail-ready, cup-shaped shell.

Back at Bay Creek, we got a chance to compare Chunus to a variety of oysters from other parts of the Shore. Chef Van Marter gave us a hands-on shucking lesson and tasting notes—the closer to the Bay, the saltier the oyster—before whipping up his take on Oysters Rockefeller and a twist on a classic oyster po’boy, lightly fried fresh oysters on a sweet potato biscuit complemented by a crisp apple slaw. All of the above paired delightfully with a steel chardonnay from nearby Chatham Vineyards. The chef’s artistry continued in an even artsier setting that evening with dinner served inside the At Altitude Gallery in downtown Cape Charles, among aerial landscape photographer Gordon Campbell’s breathtaking large-scale prints of the Shore’s serpentine waterways and shorelines.

It was also downtown that our tour wrapped up the next morning with a stop at the trendy boutique Hotel Cape Charles and its recently opened specialty coffee shop, The Almeta, a behind-the-scenes look at newly remodeled Moonrise Jewelry, and a quick sweep for foodie finds at Gull Hummock Gourmet Market. From start to photo finish, our hosts from Bay Creek and Cape Charles were the embodiment of Southern hospitality, but most of all their love for this unique spot along Virginia’s coast and all it has to offer came through in every moment and every morsel. 

Visit Bay Creek and the “Best Little Beach Town in Virginia” and you just might fall in love too. Take your own discovery tour or learn more at BayCreekLife.com, or visit CapeCharlesVirginiasCape.com to get a taste of the town.

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