Drive the diminutive main street of Onancock, and you can’t help but feel you have landed on a movie set, near perfect as the look of a script calling for the quintessential American small town. Gingerbread trimmed and porch-embellished homes could set the story in the Victorian age. Or it could evoke the retro feel of the 1940s with the Roseland Theatre marquee jutting over the sidewalks lined with vintage storefronts.
The Eastern Shore harbor town (pronounced O-nan’cock, Native American for “Foggy Place”) located halfway on the rural, 70-mile peninsula, was chartered in 1680 and originally called Port Scarburgh. Adding to its historic appeal are well-cared-for churches and houses built in the 1700s and 1800s, including the brick mansion-turned-museum, Ker Place, constructed in 1799–1803—the place to delve into the town and region’s past lives.
All this visual candy is best savored on foot, so ditch the car and explore.
It’s a town of many charms, but topping the list is location, 4 miles inland from the Chesapeake Bay on the headwaters of Onancock Creek. The southern and northern branches wander pleasantly around the neighborhood, and the main branch provides a popular deep-water harbor.
Boaters visit the picturesque, 16-slip Onancock Wharf from all over Coastal Virginia. Water-bound “snowbirds” make a habit of ducking in on their way south and north again. Boaters stay overnight or several nights, along with day trippers, drawn, says Harbormaster Thomas Fitchett, to the “small town feel.”
And that neighborliness is put into action with a free Uber-like service for boaters. Town folks, some even members of the town council, volunteer to give needed lifts to the drug store, liquor store and other out-of-town places.
“Our volunteers won’t take any money, not even a tip,” says Fitchett proudly. You don’t have to own a boat to experience the water here. The Tangier-Onancock Ferry carries 25 passengers for a tour of the remote fishing village of Tangier, a no-car island with a unique way of life. Two-hour cruises and sailing lessons are available on catboat Gratitude with Onancock Sailing Adventures. The husband-and-wife kayak gurus of Burnham Guides are also headquartered at the Onancock Wharf and offer a smorgasbord of tours including floating, fun history tours of the town and exploration of the Eastern Shore’s other bay and seaside locales. The Inn at Onancock even offers WOW, their Wine Down Hour on the Water, which is as wonderful as it sounds. Perhaps that’s why they were voted in the Top 25 U.S. B&Bs of 2017 at BedAndBreakfast.com.
Beyond the Bed
As for other Onancock lodging options, you’ve fortuitously found a destination with a distinctive selection. The Charlotte Hotel & Restaurant is a trio of treats: a boutique hotel, intimate gourmet restaurant and gallery with paintings by one of the owners who once was an artist for American Greetings.
The remaining B&Bs include the oldest operating inn on Virginia's Eastern Shore, the Colonial Manor Inn, built as a home in 1882. It sits pretty on a 2-acre parkland complete with gazebo. A cozy, treat-you-like-family ambience can be found at The Spinning Wheel B&B, and The Inn and Garden Café’s restaurant is currently in a delicious partnership with the Eastern Shore Yacht and Country Club.
Go nowhere without your Fido? Many of these accommodations are pet friendly.
No Growling Stomachs
With a population less than 1,500, the number of eateries in Onancock is astounding. The variety provides real foodie fun from an authentic Irish Pub to an assortment of bistros that would be just as at home in a cityscape. Here are some highlights, but certainly check ESVATourism.org for a full list.
Any pub worth its beer is a community gathering place, as is The Blarney Stone Pub. The handsome, dark wood bar sets the stage; its raved about Fish and Chips touts its heritage. But it’s the Eastern Shore Chowder and burgers topped with lump crabmeat that remind you you’re in Chesapeake country.
The red-and-white-striped awning and red checkered tablecloths bid a cheery good morning and lunchtime welcome at Janet's General Store and Café. Try the Janet Omelet with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes or a warm ham and brie sandwich with slices of tart apples slices.
Watercolor sunsets can be savored alfresco or in the historic Hopkins Store now home to Mallards at the Wharf. When not in the kitchen whipping up gourmet entrees, Johnny Mo’s crab cakes excel in a region where the competition is stiff. Recognized as the acclaimed “Musical Chef,” he’s known to perform on the deck.
The town’s sweetest institution is found not on a corner, but nevertheless named the Corner Bakery. Follow your nose as the aroma of fresh-baked pastries and to-die-for-doughnuts cannot be contained.
No need to worry about the calories (wink, wink) as you stroll and shop, discovering galleries with original works by exciting local artists and boutique stores with everything from jewelry, gourmet kitchen supplies and food, women’s apparel, gifts and intriguing antiques.
Celebrate the Seasons
Throughout the year Onancock gives seasonal events that special, small-town touch. You can become an honorary leprechaun at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and commemorate a patriotic 4th of July with Onancock’s beloved Ice Cream Social & Music.
This fall Onancock hosts the 26th Annual Between the Waters Bike Tour on Oct. 27. It’s bi-coastal biking bliss with four routes to choose from: 25, 40, 60 and 100 miles. The perennial sellout caps at 1,000 riders. The community will applaud the riders as they return, with the Beer, BBQ & Music Festival from 2–7 p.m. at the Historic Onancock School.
Yet it is magic of the holiday season that sparkles brightest when the town welcomes you to its Winter Holiday Weekend. Events include a special theater production at the town’s North Street Playhouse, screening of Miracle on 34th Street at the Roseland Theatre, a holiday open house at Ker Place, Santa's arrival on boat—of course—and a Christmas Parade finale.
The centerpiece of the festivities is the highly anticipated Onancock Christmas Homes Tour & Music Festival. It’s a rare treat to visit six genteel homes on Onancock Creek decked out in the season’s finery. Tickets are only $20 with a portion of the proceeds donated to the nonprofit environmental group Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore.
Visit Onancock.org to start planning.