IT IS A PLACE of contradictions and puzzles, this Eastern Shore of Virginia. Though Englishmen explored the peninsula in 1603, four years before Jamestown was founded, the shore's wonders are little noticed by today's visitors as they speed by to the beach resorts. Though sided on the west by the Chesapeake Bay and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, it has few places you can view either body of water. Though the beaches and bay are close, there are no big waterfront developments -- not a single high-rise condo -- in the two counties that make up the Virginia peninsula. There are 19 incorporated towns on the peninsula, but the biggest is Chincoteague, a waterfront village known less for its 3,500 or so residents than for its wild pony roundup. Though it has been a prosperous farming region since the middle of the 17th century, the Eastern Shore has two historic debtors' prisons. And in addition to its many estates and homes dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, the shore is noted for a modern space base that launches rockets and satellites. In this isolated 70-mile-long peninsula, the past remains alive in small towns bearing names that curl the tongue -- Pungoteague, Bulbeggar, Wachapreague, Slutkill Neck -- and others that raise questions about their origins -- White Rabbit, Little Hell. The past is also present in the numerous buildings that predate the Civil War, fine old structures still in use today as homes and offices, not as boutiques, souvenir shops or cafes. "The village life of the shore is surely one of its unheralded assets, and admirers of country stores, post offices, and churches will find more than enough to explore," writes Kirk Mariner in his book Off 13, a superb guide to the towns of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Even more than the architectural jewels, Mariner writes, there is the history to be found off the peninsula's main honky-tonk highway, U.S. 13. "Wherever there is a corner," he observes, "there is likely to be a name, and if a name also a story." SHORE STORIES Mystery abounds in Eastern Shore stories. One involves a woman named Ann Toft, who in 1664 came to a neck of land now off Route 680 just south of Assawoman. Toft, a 21-year-old widow with three small daughters, was a woman with an unknown past, an enigma to the locals. Nevertheless, she managed to build a large and wealthy plantation she called Gargaphia, and was much courted by other local landowners. She married Daniel Jenifer in the 1670s. In 1687 she disappeared, vanishing as mysteriously as she had arrived. All she left was a great-grandson, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, a signer of the Constitution, and a neck of land that derives its name -- Gargathy Neck -- from her long-vanished plantation. Then there is Wharton Place, about six miles north of Gargathy Neck, one of the shore's grandest mansions and the former home of "Captain Jack" Wharton, a businessman whose interests are said to have included smuggling during and after the Revolutionary War. Wharton's plantation encompassed 9,000 acres along Assawoman Creek. In 1800, he brought a Philadelphia architect to the shore to build his mansion, one magnificent enough to win awards. A tunnel, legend has it, ran from the house to the creek and was used to hide the contraband Wharton smuggled in on his ships anchored there. Today Wharton Place is just as mysterious. Signs warn trespassers to stay away, that the property is electronically protected and more. A distant view of the house can be had, though, with a short drive. From Assawoman, drive south 2 1/2 miles on Route 679 and turn on Route 762. The house is visible on the left just before Route 762 ends at the old NASA dock. The Civil War period was traumatic for the shore, and left its share of stories about the occupation by Federal troops. One is set in Drummondtown (later renamed Accomac), where feelings ran deep. George Wise, scion of a leading shore family, built a grand house called Woodbourne on Front Street, northeast of the center of town. During the war, Union troops used Woodbourne as a military hospital, burying unfortunate Yankees in a cemetery in the back yard. Wise was himself a war casualty, killed during the Battle of Petersburg. His daughter "Miss Etta," as the locals called her, never forgave the Yankees. After the war ended and Woodbourne was returned to the family, she ordered that all dead farm animals be buried on top of the graves of the occupiers. And so they were. Love also features in shore stories. One love story involves Henry R. Bennett, a traveling salesman who saw possibilities when rail lines were being extended to the shore. In 1884, he designed a community he called Parksley. He named the streets, wrote the laws (no sales of alcohol, though today the state liquor store is on the street bearing his name) and invited northerners to come and build stately Victorian houses. Two of the streets, Mary and Cooke, were named for Bennett's first fiance'e, who died before the nuptials. Later, Bennett would marry Phoebe Bell, who was not bothered by living in a town bearing the names of her husband's first love. "She got the streets," the New York woman explained, "I got the man." And finally, there are the dreamers, those who saw something in the Eastern Shore that others failed to see. On the upper seaside, on Route 712 two miles east of the turnoff in Signpost, is all that remains of a once-grand resort on the Chincoteague Bay. In 1886, Cincinnati millionaire R. B. Sinnickson bought the bayfront village called Nashville, renamed it Sinnickson and built a resort that is said to have attracted as many as 3,000 visitors at a time to enjoy the water. Sinnickson sold out in 1906, and his dream slowly vanished. All visitors will find today is a stunning view of the bay and marshes, a few crabbers and clammers, and the tumbling remains of a few frame buildings. Sinnickson wasn't the only dreamer, of course. At the very northeastern corner of the shore, at the end of Route 679, is Franklin City, the creation of a Maryland judge named John R. Franklin. He persuaded the railroad to build a line to his property, which turned Franklin City into the mainland shipping port for the watermen of Chincoteague. Franklin's dream was a commercial success, but its fate was sealed when a bridge was built to Chincoteague in 1922. Today, at the end of the road in the marsh at the edge of the bay, a few abandoned houses sit -- faded, hollow reminders of one man's vision. ARCHITECTURAL RELICS The Eastern Shore of Virginia is an architectural treasure house. One count has it that more than 400 buildings were erected before the Civil War, some even dating back to before the Revolution. "We had a large middle class," explains architectural historian F. Lloyd Nock III. "By the mid-1600s we had turned to grain and livestock {farming}, which were more conducive to having a middle-class society and a small upper class. Those middle-class people built all these houses. "We have lost the majority {of the houses}, but we started off with so many." Nock, who works in Accomac, says the middle-class buildings were more practical -- and thus were kept in use through generations -- than the imposing mansions found on large plantations. "Who can live in them?" Nock asks. "The cost is too high. "The area will never get over the Depression of the 1930s," Nock says. "We lost them {the old buildings} by the score. We lost a number to affluence, too. Old houses can't stand affluence. They can stand poverty better. When people made too much money too fast, they wanted a new house and made a barn out of the old one or let it collapse." Finding the old buildings scattered among the numerous small towns and villages of the shore isn't difficult. It requires time, a car and some directions. Consulting a map of the area would lead one to conclude that the tour is simple: Just drive down U.S. 13, the main road that runs from Maryland straight to the middle of the peninsula and then to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Virginia Beach area. Simple, fast and very wrong. Around 1700, three roads were built on the shore: the bayside road, the middle road and the seaside road. All three have been incorporated into the present road system, with the "middle road" -- surveyed by an early settler named John Wallop -- becoming U.S. 13, a busy highway lined with the usual detritus of civilization. It is on the seaside and bayside roads and other smaller lanes that the real wonders of the shore are to be found.THE BAYSIDE TOUR This is not a tour like those found in Williamsburg or other historic towns, with costumed guides leading you into restored historic buildings while discussing the past. And this is not a tour for children, for there are few delights for young ones. This tour is for those curious about small towns and old buildings, who are willing to explore on their own rather than be led in a group. On the bayside, driving from the Maryland line south, you will find: Parksley, on Route 176 west of U.S. 13. This town is known for the large Victorian homes that line the heavily treed Cassatt Avenue (named for railroad executive Alexander Cassatt, brother of Mary the artist), across the railroad tracks from the neat one-story downtown area and Mary Street. The home of Bennett and his wife Phoebe is called Bellwood and can be found at the end of Maxwell Street at Browne Street. The Victorian homes, all still occupied and many in wonderful condition, are not open for tours, but are still lovely to view from the outside. In Parksley, drive south on Jones Avenue and turn right just before the Adams Church. This road will take you to Lee Mont, a village that had two doctors, a blacksmith, a carriage-maker and two liquor stores until the Parksley railroad doomed it. Then turn left on Route 658 and head south through several villages, including the large and old black community of White Rabbit. The origin of the town's name is lost to time. After White Rabbit, Route 658 takes several twists and turns before merging with Route 653 and entering Onancock, the site of an Indian settlement when the first Europeans arrived, later a busy ferry and steamboat port, and today a 300-year-old port with a large number of 18th- and 19th-century homes. Start by visiting Kerr Place, on Market Street in the center of town. Kerr (pronounced "car") was built by John S. Kerr in 1799 and is now a museum operated by the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. You can see the mansion and exhibits of period furniture, clothing and other items between 10 and 4 Monday through Saturday. (Admission $1, children free.) From Kerr Place walk west down Market Street to the town square, which dates back to 1680, and then south down East Street to Scott Hall, the town's oldest home (1779). Back on Market Street, turn west again and pass by the Cokesbury United Methodist Church (built in 1854), then continue on to the end of Market Street. There you will find the wharf, where the steamboats carried potatoes, strawberries and other produce to Norfolk and Baltimore. On the wharf is a small white frame building housing the Hopkins & Brothers Store, a Virginia Historical Landmark that was established in 1842 and still sells general goods and arts and crafts. Next to the store is the old ticket office and waiting room used by steamboat passengers. On the rise across from the store is the Alicia Hopkins House, built in the early 19th century. Across the small bridge on the south side of the wharf is the area of town called Mount Prospect, named after the 19th-century home on the right across from the bridge. At the corner of Market and Mount Prospect streets is Ingleside, which dates from the early 1800s. As you leave Onancock by way of Market Street east, watch for Route 718. Turn right on it and then left one-half mile later when it breaks away from Route 638. After passing through Savageville and Locksville, you will find Little Hell, which is said to have gotten its name from a preacher much abused by the patrons of a rowdy tavern there. After one such incident, the preacher reportedly told his flock in Pungoteague, "I don't know what Hell is like, but I sure have been to Little Hell, and you'd better mend your ways if you don't want to go there." After Little Hell -- all three houses of it -- is Bobtown, where you can take Route 178 to Pungoteague, the site of the first drama performed in the New World. On your left as you enter the town is Cole's Tavern, where on Aug. 27, 1665, the drama "Ye Beare and Ye Cubb" was performed. Reviews were mixed, but a man named John Martin complained to the authorities, and playwright/star William Darby and his two costars were arrested. Darby was jailed until the next court session, when justices reviewed the drama. The court held that the play was not offensive to public morality and released Darby. Critic Martin was fined. Just beyond the tavern on the right is St. Cole's Episcopal Church. The oldest church on Virginia's Eastern Shore, it dates from about 1678. Other historic buildings include Heath House (pre-Civil War), on the left at the main intersection of town; Kellam Place (1810), on Route 178 three houses past the post office; Ayres (1815), next door; and Four Chimneys (1830), on Back Street, the other street in town. You can take Route 180 three miles west to Harborton, a picturesque fishing village, or return to U.S. 13 and head south. When you do return to U.S. 13, head south past Exmore, one of the larger and less interesting towns on the shore. Thirteen miles south of Exmore, on the left, is Holly Brook Plantation, a bed-and-breakfast inn whose oldest section dates back to the early 1700s. After visiting this inn, continue south on 13 to Eastville, one of the small gems of the shore. In Eastville, turn west off U.S. 13 and drive to the courthouse green, which traces back to 1715 when the town was called Hornes. The stone marker on the courthouse green is a monument to "Laughing King," a local Indian who befriended the first colonists. The Old Courthouse (1732), the Old Clerk's Office (1830s) and the Debtors' Prison (some say 17th century, but probably 1814) flank the green. You can visit all three by getting the key from the new Clerk's Office, on the first floor in the new Courthouse. While getting the key, you can examine some of the old records dating back to 1632. Eastville's downtown is filled with homes, stores and churches built a century or more ago. Three miles south of Eastville is Eyre Hall (west one-half mile on unpaved road opposite Route 636), cited by the Virginia Historical Landmark folks as "one of the best preserved 18th-century plantation complexes" in the state. Littleton Eyre, a member of the House of Burgesses, planter and owner of a ferry to Yorktown, built the house in 1759, on property his grandfather got in a patent from Virginia governor William Berkeley in 1662. The house belongs today to Furlong Baldwin, chairman and chief executive officer of Mercantile Bankshares Corp. of Baltimore. Baldwin inherited the property from his mother, who got it from his grandmother, one of the last Eyres. Eyre Hall is a large clapboard home, built of white pine in the distinctive Eastern Shore style of big house-little house-colonnade-and-kitchen. "We didn't build it in brick because the clay on the Eastern Shore didn't make good brick; it wasn't like the clay on the Western Shore {the rest of Virginia}," Baldwin explains. "The brick in the house's foundation and the garden wall came from England as ship ballast." The house has a 2 1/2-story main section, five bedrooms, a large hall and two small halls, parlor, dining room and den. Baldwin says of the responsibility of maintaining the house, "We don't feel slavish to history. It is not a muse. My sister and I were raised here. My parents put bathrooms in, but you never want to do anything that would alter it architecturally." The 200-year-old two-acre garden, designed in the formal English style, features boxwood and other decorative bushes and beds of flowers. A graveyard on the farm traces the history of Eyre Hall. "Littleton Eyre was the first buried there," Baldwin recounts, "and every owner is represented there. My mother was buried there in 1979. I asked in my will -- the only thing I asked for in my will -- to be buried there." Eyre Hall is open to the public on April 28 and 29 as part of Garden Week activities. The formal gardens are open every day. Admission is free. South of Eyre Hall are more sights, places such as Cape Charles, a small railroad "resort" town with some nice homes and two inns, and the Custis Tombs on Route 644 east. The tombs are on the 17th-century estate called Arlington by its first two owners, John Custis and John Custis IV. The latter's great-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, built the mansion at what is now Arlington National Cemetery and named it Arlington House after the Eastern Shore estate. Beyond them is the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which carries traffic into the Virginia Beach area.THE SEASIDE TOUR The road to take to tour the seaside is Route 600, which runs north and south east of U.S. 13. If you pick up Route 600 somewhere near the Cape Charles area, the first town that might tempt you is Oyster. It is on Route 639, a short drive east of Route 600, and is a real fishing village. Unfortunately, nice as it is, it isn't historic. If you have the time, visit, but otherwise continue north on 600 until you come to the village of Nassawadox. Turn right on Route 608 and drive until you come to where the pavement ends and the road splits into two roads paved with oyster shells. You are on your way to the headquarters of the biggest and most controversial landowner on the Eastern Shore. Take the oyster-shell road to the left and drive for six-tenths of a mile, until you reach an attractive mansion, Brownsville. John Upshur built Brownsville in 1806, adding the wooden portions three years later when visiting relatives made the main house too cramped for him. President Grover Cleveland is said to have stayed here during his fishing trips to the barrier islands. The mansion and grounds are owned today by the Virginia Coastal Reserve, which makes its headquarters there. The reserve, a preserve of the Arlington-based Nature Conservancy, owns 35,000 acres on the barrier islands, almost all of the 14 islands on the Atlantic side. It keeps its island holdings in a wild state and uses the land only for conservation and research, a move that has caused quite a bit of controversy among some Eastern Shore interests that would prefer developing the islands. The reserve's islands are accessible only by boat, but birding and field trips to the islands are offered by the reserve. The mansion is not open to the public, but visitors can examine its exterior, wander the grounds and hike the trails into the marshes. Head back to Route 600 and continue your journey north to Route 603. Turn right and drive to Willis Wharf, a small but colorful fishing village with a waterfront full of watermen's boats, working and sunken. The center of this town, whose first buildings were erected in the 1700s, is the Willis Store, an operating general store and restaurant that opened its doors in 1850. Turn right when Route 603 ends at the water and head along the waterfront and across the bridge for a good view of the village, waterfront and marsh. To continue, return to Route 600 north to Route 182 and turn right. When that road ends in the village of Quinby, turn right again on Route 605 and drive one-half mile to the site of another shore story. On your left, hidden almost totally by the trees, is Warwick, whose oldest section is believed to date back to the 17th century. In 1749, the house's mistress, Rachel Revell Upshur, was bitten by a rabid fox and developed rabies. Her servants smothered her in her feather bed to end her suffering. There are tales of ghostly visitations by Rachel, and when it rains, it is said, her blood still appears on the doorstep of Warwick, left there when she was carried into the house after the fox attack. The story, however, is better than the view. Turn around, go back through Quinby and continue north on Route 605 to Route 180; then turn right and go into Wachapreague, the place all those fishing boats on trailers that passed you on the road have ended up. The waterfront here, established in 1872, is broad and filled with both sport and commercial fishing boats. It is worth a stop for lunch and a sightseeing stroll. After returning to your car, head west on Route 180 until you return to Route 605. Turn right and drive north on 605 until it becomes, in turn, Route 624 and Route 600. Turn right on Route 600, which will take you into Locustville, a very small town that was a busy stagecoach stop in the early 1800s. The Locustville General Store is still open, across from two unusual homes -- "double houses" -- that are believed to be 160 years old. (The double houses are made up of two wings or sections, equal or almost so in size, connected by a smaller section.) On the northern end of town, on the right, is the Locustville Academy, a small churchlike frame building where Greek, Latin, math, philosophy and music courses were taught to young shore residents who planned to attend college or business schools. The building is open only on the last weekend in October and during Garden Week. From the academy, continue north to Accomac, a town so filled with historic buildings that almost the whole village is in the historic district. Accomac, the county seat of Accomack County, dates back to 1786, when a Richard Drummond established a town called Drummondtown. It held that name until 1893, when the legislature renamed it Accomac, but spelled it differently from the county's name for some unexplained reason. Enter Accomac from the south on Route 605. When that road ends on Front Street, turn right and drive one block, turn left on Courthouse Avenue and park. This is the center of Accomac. On your left is the courthouse green. The grand brick Courthouse was built in 1899. Next to it are several small buildings, including the Clerk's Office, an architecturally out-of-place Victorian brick building in which records dating back to 1663 are kept. Across the street, near the police station, is the old Debtors' Prison, a small brick building first built as a home for the local jailer and later used to house those behind in payments. Today it houses a small museum. Courthouse Avenue, Front Street and Back Street in Accomac have many 18th- and 19th-century buildings. All are within walking distance of the Courthouse, and the best way to find them is to get a brochure from the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center in the Old Mercantile Building (1816), at 1 Courthouse Avenue across from the courthouse green. When leaving Accomac, take Front Street north. It rejoins U.S. 13, which takes you north a few miles to Route 679; turn right on this road, which will lead you through several small towns before coming to Route 175 and the turnoff for Wallops Island, named for John Wallop, who claimed it in 1652. Wallops Island was a hunting and fishing area before the federal government took it over for use as a naval ordnance base during World War II. On Independence Day, 1945, a rocket was launched from the base, the first of many rocket and satellite launches from the installation. A Visitors Center offers displays of real rockets and satellites, models of other spaceships, exhibits of moon rocks and audiovisual shows. The center is open 10 to 4 Thursday through Monday; admission is free. After visiting the base, return to Route 679 and continue north. If you follow this road to its end, on Chincoteague Bay, you come to Franklin City, a small ghost town. Once it was a busy commercial port that shipped oysters and fish harvested by Chincoteague watermen to major cities in the north. Today, Franklin City is quiet, a few vacant buildings in the middle of the marsh at road's end. It is a quiet, picturesque place, one worth visiting for the scenery or the solitude. When you're ready to end your tour of the shore, drive back to U.S. 13 on Route 679, which will take you through a small town called Greenback. That's an odd name for a town, of course, and how it came to be is another Eastern Shore story . . . BEFORE YOU GO The Eastern Shore of Virginia starts about 165 miles from Washington. Take U.S. 50 east across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and then south to Salisbury. You can pick up U.S. 13 there. An alternative route is to take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel north from Virginia Beach to U.S. 13. The best guide to the Eastern Shore of Virginia is Off 13, named after the sights and towns found on the small roads off the main highway of the shore. This detailed guide mixes the history and stories of the shore with a village-by-village tour of the peninsula. It also lists restaurants, motels, inns, antique shops, boat charter captains and more. It can be ordered from The Book Bin Inc., Onley, VA 32418 (804/787-7866), or bought at Travel Books Unlimited, 4931 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda (951-8533). The price is $7.95. THE EASTERN SHORE TOURISM COMMISSION can provide brochures and other information for visitors. Open 9 to 5 Monday through Friday; closed weekends. Brochures can be picked up at 1 Courthouse Avenue, Accomac, or obtained by mail by writing to the commission at P.O. Box 147, Accomac, VA 23301. 804/787-2460. THE VIRGINIA DIVISION OF TOURISM has brochures, maps and other information on the Eastern Shore. Write to 202 North Ninth Street, Suite 500, Richmond, VA 23219. 804/786-4484. THE VIRGINIA COASTAL RESERVE offers educational programs, field trips and birding expeditions. For a schedule, write to the reserve at Brownsville, Nassawadox, VA 23413. 804/442-3049.