Start planning your trip with a visit to the Mathews County Visitor and Information Center's Web site, www.visitmathews.com, where you can order a copy of the Blueways guide and research your options for lodging, dining and recreation. You'll also want to get a preview of the Blueways trails at www.blueways.org.
To get to Mathews take Interstate 95 south to U.S. 17 east to a left on Route 198 to a right on Route 14. When you get to Mathews, stop by the visitors center (240 Main St.; 877-725-4229) for other goodies, such as a Virginia Department of Transportation map to Mathews County (handy for getting around all those back roads), a Gateways Network map and guide, the usual assortment of brochures and fliers, and good tips on what to do and see when you're not on the water. If you're lucky, you can also witness Executive Director Bobbi McElroy feeding the toadfish, blue crabs and eels making their home in the visitors center's aquarium tanks.
Where to stay: There's no hotel in Mathews County, but there are two campgrounds (tent and RV), several bed-and-breakfasts and a growing number of guest cottages, which range from a fairly basic one-bedroom efficiency to the five-bedroom Grandview Manor, complete with swimming pool, tennis court and deepwater dock. It's $750 a night, with room for up to 10 people. (On the East River at 46 Tick Neck Rd. in Foster; contact McElroy in the visitors center at 804-725-4229 for reservation information.)
We chose Holly Cottage, a more than well-equipped and very reasonably priced two-bedroom, waterside cottage owned by retired Navy captain Will Story and his wife, Martha. The very hospitable Storys were a font of interesting Mathews history and lore, and my 7-year-old son was thrilled to catch his first blue crabs (and release them, ever the lover of all creatures great and small) under the watchful guidance of "the Captain." (On Lanes Creek at Cricket Hill Road near Gwynn's Island; 804-725-9134. $100 a night, $500 a week for a fully equipped two-bedroom, two-bath cottage.)
What to do: Paddle, of course. But if you're in town on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday between May and October, put the Gwynn's Island Museum on your must-do list. Packed into a two-story former Odd Fellows Lodge that was a near-ruin only a few years ago (ask to see the picture), the museum is a very well-organized but almost indescribably eclectic collection spanning the natural and cultural history of Gwynn's Island, from a 400-million-year-old bryozoan fossil that museum Director Jean Tanner picked up while beachcombing in front of her house one day, to a mastodon tooth and leg bone, to photographs and a collection of medical instruments (some of them alarming to the imagination) that belonged to island physician Jennings Haynes. The museum is free, but donations are welcome. (804-725-7949; on Route 633 on Gwynn's Island; www.qsl.net/w4rzb/gimuse.html; open Friday-Sunday 1 to 5 from May through October).
Load your carbs: There are two full-size grocery stores within a mile of each other on the main route through Mathews for provisioning your picnic basket, and a single fast-food outlet (Hardee's). Southwind Cafe (on Church Street, one block from the visitors center; 804-725-2766) came widely recommended and serves fresh, contemporary cuisine. For fried clam strips and the local scene, Seabreeze restaurant is just over the bridge on Gwynn's Island (804-725-4000).
Get your feet wet: If you've never tried kayaking, Mathews is a good place to start, and a guided tour with Bay Trails Outfitters is a good way to get on the water for the first time. (www.baytrails.com; 888-725-7225; retail hours Tuesday-Saturday or by appointment; from the visitors center take Route 14 east to left on Route 608 to left on Route 609. Bay Trails is one mile on the right.)
"I don't recommend that your first experience be a class," says co-owner Shawn Towne. "Our tours give enough instruction for you to see if you like it. We want to make sure you have a good experience."
That good experience includes fitting you to just the right boat. But beware: Bay Trails' in-stock collection of some 150 kayaks can precipitate unbridled lust. And best forget about your romantic visions of hitting the water with your spouse in a tandem: "We call them 'divorce boats,' " Towne says.
Required reading: In the museum or the visitors center, pick up a copy of Gilbert Klingel's "The Bay." A naturalist, boat builder, adventurer (he once spent several months happily shipwrecked on an island in the Bahamas), and, as it happens, Marcy Benouameur's father, Klingel penned this delightful account of the Chesapeake Bay's natural worlds above and below water. First published in 1951, it will make you weep for the Bay that was; fortunately, your sorrow will be tempered by the sheer pleasures of the prose, as in this line about the alarums and excursions of the fright-filled life of the fiddler crab: "Although there is not a sound to be heard, so violent are their exertions that one can almost imagine them rushing down the beach screaming."
-- Caroline Kettlewell