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It Puts the 'Va' In Delmarva

Beyond the maps and tourist knickknacks, the dining room is decorated with a 54-pound blue sailfish and other fishing trophies. It's a friendly, informal place where watermen in rubber boots rub elbows with gourmands up from Virginia Beach.

The seafood this morning is fresh and outstanding, and somehow the waitresses always seem to know who ordered what amid the bustle. ("I'm a mind reader, hon," said one server.) It's easy to pair a selection from the shore's most extensive wine list with the crab imperial, followed by creme brulee or Tennessee bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

Virginia's Eastern Shore backwaters include this marsh near Hog Island Bay and some morning boat traffic. (Photo Mary Porter)

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Not everything on the Eastern Shore is being reclaimed by the earth. Some of these once-sleepy towns are reawakening as word gets out about the solitude, silence and, quite often, architectural treasures waiting to be snapped up and restored. Most often this happens at the hands of "come-heres," as opposed to "from-heres" (and the occasional "stuck-heres"). Cape Charles, near the peninsula's southern end, is a case study in resurrection. Once the Eastern Shore's busiest town, it was left for dead in the middle of the last century with the fading of ferry traffic across the bay. Recently, though, it's reviving.

The change is exemplified by the Wilson-Lee House, a 1906 Colonial Revival mansion turned into a B&B by architect Leon Parham and theater designer David Phillips. They tell of the woman who bought the house across the street with a credit card 15 or so years ago.

Downtown you can still visit the old general store, now a museum, and peruse the dusty post office boxes (some with mail still in them) and the foot-pump dentist's drill. As for the effect of the arrival of two new golf courses and marinas for 100-foot yachts, that is anyone's guess.

The future of Virginia's Eastern Shore itself is indistinct, like the horizon out on the water. Fortunately, people like Rick Kellam are around to protect the shore's wonders even as they promote them.

"We all have a place we're meant to be," he says, "and I found this was mine. If we don't preserve our heritage, no one will do it for us."

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Virginia's Eastern Shore is about 160 miles from Washington via Route 50 east to Salisbury, Md., then Route 13 south to the Virginia line. The 70-mile-long peninsula runs from near Assateague Island National Seashore to the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which connects to Virginia Beach. Cost: $10 each way, or $14 round trip within 24 hours.

STAYING THERE: Many of the larger towns have B&Bs and chain motels, and there are a few campgrounds scattered the length of Route 13. Chincoteague has the most tourist amenities. The Wilson-Lee House (757-331-1954, www.wilsonleehouse.com; rooms from $110) is comfortable and conveniently located to explore the southern end of the shore. Also try the Montrose House (757-787-8887, www.bbonline.com/va/montrose; from $90) in Onancock, an 1810 plantation home filled with antiques.

EATING THERE: Seafood is obviously the way to go, and here it's as fresh as it gets. Sting-Ray's Restaurant is in the Cape Center Truck Stop in Capeville, about 10 miles north of the bridge-tunnel. Also excellent is Armando's (10 North St., Onancock), open for dinner. Just north of Eastville on Route 13 sits the Great Machipongo Clam Shack, offering seafood shipped anywhere overnight and superb salmon chowder to go.

WHAT TO DO: Rick Kellam's Broadwater Bay Ecotours (757-442-4363, www.broadwaterbayecotours.com) can be custom-tooled to focus on history, nature or sightseeing. Rent your own kayak from Southeast Expeditions (888-626-2774, www.sekayak.com), which also offers tours. Bird-watching is outstanding the length of the shore, particularly for waterfowl in the fall and winter. More than 400 species have been recorded during the annual Eastern Shore Birding Festival, scheduled this year for Oct. 3-5 (events around the region, 757-787-2460, www.esvachamber.org/festivals/birding). Learn about the Eastern Shore's human history at the Barrier Islands Center (757-678-5550, www.barrierislandscenter.com) at the historic Almshouse Farm in Machipongo, and shudder at the whipping post in front of the Debtor's Prison in Eastville, boasting the oldest continuously kept court records in the country.

INFO: Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission, 757-787-2460, www.esvatourism.org.

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