Onancock: the Eastern Shore's Historic Waterfront Village

© by Mary and Bill Burnham

Onancock harbor

It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and the Liars Bench at Onancock Wharf is full.

The four older gentlemen on the bench have spun a few fishing yarns in their time. From their perch, they watch boat trailers back down the ramp and kayakers in red life vests preparing to launch into Onancock Creek, which leads four miles out to the Chesapeake Bay.

Boat slips and a deepwater anchorage are filled with sailboats and cruisers from as far as Nova Scotia and Florida. Local folklore holds that Capt. John Smith came up this very creek in 1608, and a revolutionary war hero is buried downtown, though nobody's sure exactly where!

Onancock (pronounced "o-NAN-cock" by locals), means "foggy place" in the language of the Algonquians, who fished here long before Captain John Smith sailed by. The mist often settles on the creek at night and lifts with the rising sun.

Market Street

Though small, population just 1,500, the town has much to attract visitors. Eclectic eateries range from Eastern European to local seafood, with a couple of wine and gourmet shops. Several Victorian "painted ladies" house B&Bs with wide gingerbread-trimmed porches, where guests enjoy wine and cheese before they walk to dinner.

You can peek inside art galleries to see local artists at work, and locally-owned shops offer intriguing, one-of-a-kind treasures for home, garden, gifts and clothing.

There's not a chain store in sight in this truly authentic town, where the family-owned pharmacy is located in the oldest bank building on the Eastern Shore, and the hardware store sells nails, local produce, fresh seafood, and muskrat (in season) by the pound. There's usually a running game of Crazy Eights going on in back.

The retro movie theater shows first-run films and an international film series, while the playhouse stages first-rate theater throughout the year.

Onancock is 'green' -- all the lodgings are Virginia Green certified, and there’s recycling at the wharf—and 'pet-friendly,' with waste bag dispensers around town, decals in the windows of shops that welcome furry friends, and a monthly Yappy Hour during the Second Friday Art Stroll.

Annual events include a hometown Ice Cream Social and Band Concert in the town square, Harborfest in the fall, and a Christmas Homes Tour.

What strikes most visitors about Onancock is the friendliness: there's no vying for parking spaces, and folks nod in greeting. Grab an ice cream cone and take the historic downtown walking tour that includes a half dozen churches and the Ker Place Historic House. You'll soon be on a first-name basis with shop owners and artists, a mix of "born-heres" and "come-heres" in this charming waterfront village.

Visit www.onancock.org for more info.

Things to Do

Kayaking Onancock Creek

Kayak Onancock Creek: The three branches extend like fingers into neighborhoods of stately mansions and Sears-catalog homes. SouthEast Expeditions offers narrated kayak tours of Onancock Creek for paddlers of all abilities; call 757-331-2680 to book a trip.

Shop: Antiques, art, and gifts can be found at half a dozen good shops and galleries. gardenART on King St. is a funky oasis in a former power plant, Onancock General Store displays the clever and cute in an ice-cream-parlor setting, and Herbal Instincts natural foods is in a converted Craftsman-style home. Pick up some of the owner's homemade mozzarella to take home. (Some shops are closed on Mondays.)

History: See how the 19th century's other half lived inside the impressively preserved Ker Place, a brick-house museum and headquarters for the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society.

Places to Stay

Inn at Onancock

Charlotte Hotel The owner's art on the stairs leads to eight whimsical rooms in this restored 1907 hotel.

Colonial Manor Inn. The Virginia Eastern Shore's oldest operating inn. *Pet-friendly

Creekside Inn. With a dock on Onancock Creek.

Heartsworth Cottage. Weekly and monthly vacation cottage on Onancock Creek.

Inn and Garden Cafe. Breakfast at this elegant inn includes truffled scrambled eggs with caviar and smoked salmon in a martini glass.

Inn at Onancock. The restored inn has spalike bathrooms, in-room massages, and breakfast that always includes a dessert selection of the innkeeper's homemade pastries.

Spinning Wheel Bed & Breakfast. You'll feel like part of the family at this antique-filled home. *Pet-friendly

Places to Eat

Behind the Racks Wine Bar and North Street Market. Foodies can get their shopping fix, then dine at the piano-shaped bar (Thursday through Saturday) on tapas-style fare paired with wines from around the world.

Bizzotto's Gallery-Caffe. Before or after dining on entrées like pan-seared crab cake with chipotle aïoli, you can admire the owner's handmade leather bags and other artists' jewelry, pottery, and glass.

Mallards Chef Johnny Mo

The Bistro. Affordable lunch and dinner, sandwiches, pizzas and home-style entrees. Dine in or carry out.

Blarney Stone Pub. This family-friendly, no-smoking pub serves the requisite fish and chips along with twists like "Irish nachos"—Alaskan salmon on a bed of waffle fries.

Charlotte Hotel. Art and function meet perfectly in the hotel's cozy dining room, where imaginatively prepared local game, fish, and produce are served on tabletops adorned with folk art.

Don Valerio's Steakhouse. Family dining downstairs, sports pub upstairs.

Flamenco European Restaurant. Czech proprietors Olga and Ales Gregor cook up Spanish and Eastern European dishes. Their dance club next door — Olga's vision of an American nightclub—features a jukebox, disco balls, and 33- and 45-rpm records decorating the floors and walls.

Inn & Garden Cafe. Enjoy regional favorites with elegant twists in a windowed, four-season gazebo or beside the fireplace. Ask Paul for his wine-pairing advice.

Mallard's at the Wharf. Guitar-playing chef Johnny Mo serves crab cakes and cocktails inside a historic 1842 general store or out on the waterfront deck.

Janet's Cafe at Onancock General Store, 49 King Street; 757-787-9495. Tasty breakfasts and lunches to take-out or eat inside the old-fashioned gift shop. Soft-serve ice cream too.

Scoops Ice Cream, 132 Market Street; 757-787-3230. Stop in for some hand-dipped goodness.

Onancock Events

For full details, visit the Onancock Business and Civic Association.

Second Friday Art Stroll
5-8 p.m., April through December Onancock event

Super Saturday
Second Saturday in May
8 a.m. - 2 p.m.

Patriotic Band Concert and Ice Cream Social
6:30-8:30 p.m. July 3

Onancock Harborfest

Eastern Shore Birding & Wildlife Festival

Onancock Christmas Homes Tour
Second Saturday in December

Onancock Christmas Parade