A 'pot of gold' on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Onancock: People fleeing the rat race join with locals to boost a town full of serenity and smiles.

Short Hop

October 07, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

The drive to Onancock, Va., feels interminable -- mile after mile of highway along the pancake-flat lower Eastern Shore. I begin to wonder if it's worth the trip. But I stop wondering as I roll into town. Unlike some of the down-at-the-heels villages on the lower shore, Onancock looks prosperous.

Market Street, the town's main drag, is lined with upscale cafes and restaurants, galleries and B&Bs. Perennial borders, herb gardens and overflowing planters grace homes and shops.

I wander down the streets, aware that a stranger in this small, close-knit town of about 1,000 people stands out. But instead of curious stares, I get smiles of greeting from the natives and the non-natives, known as "come-here's."

Wrapped around the Onancock River at the bottom of Pocomoke Sound, Onancock is one of the oldest towns in the United States. Founded in 1680 as a trading hub surrounded by farms, it became a major stop for the Baltimore Steamboat Line in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Today, the steamships are gone. Instead, small tugs and barges move oil and other cargo on the river. There is also a steady stream of pleasure boaters, which is how some of the come-here's arrived.

That's how Peter Johnson, a real estate developer from Washington, and his Cuban-born wife, Alicia, ended up here. They were cruising on their sailboat in 1995 when a three-day northeast storm kicked up in the lower Chesapeake Bay. To escape the pounding waves, they scooted into Onancock.

"As we came up the river, it just kept getting prettier and prettier," Johnson remembers. "When we got to the end, it was like reaching the pot of gold."

That night, and the next two, they sat for hours in Armando's, sipping wine and talking about life with the restaurant's Argentine owner, Armando Suarez. Relishing the tranquillity and the sense of history in Onancock, they fantasized about chucking the urban grind and moving here.

Usually, such late-night "getting away from it all" fantasies evaporate after a couple of slugs of morning coffee. But two weeks later, when the Hopkins House, a Victorian beauty in need of restoration, came on the market, the Johnsons bought it. He now commutes from Onancock to his development site in Honduras.

There are a number of artists and professionals who came to Onancock to escape the rat race.

Painter Jerry Lax came from New York to work on his retro series of 1920s flappers. The paintings are on display at Deadrise Enterprises, a gallery owned by former college administrator John Callander. The paintings share space with Maurice Spector's wooden sculptures of really big women.

Ed and Maphis Oswald came for a weekend getaway from New Jersey in 1994, and ended up buying the Colonial Manor Inn, a large turn-of-the-last-century B&B.

New Yorker Sam Finley owns Sam's Place, a cafe above partner Carol Cropper's antiques shop Better Days and beside her luncheonette Truffles.

Marge and Mike Carpenter came from Winchester, Va., to open the 76 Market Street B&B. New Jerseyite Mike Stephano, who owns and runs Hopkins Bros. Store and Restaurant on the wharf, came to Onancock after a hitch in Oxford, Md.

You won't go hungry

Town manager Susan Scott calls Onancock "the restaurant capital of the Eastern Shore," and that might be a stretch. But it's forgivable -- the cafe-per-capita count is impressive. So are the choices in cuisine: Argentine, Spanish, Italian, with a smattering of French and a healthy dollop of down-home, though even some of the down-home has exotic fillips.

Searching for a place to eat lunch, I stopped at Flounders, a seafood restaurant owned by Onancock waterman Darryl Hurley and his wife, Linda. I found Linda and the kitchen staff munching last night's leftovers -- a bowl of moussaka and another of shrimp creole over basil pasta -- as they talked over the evening menu.

Had lunch been offered here, I would have stayed. But it wasn't, so I wandered into Bizzotto's, a Spanish / Italian bistro close to the water on Market Street.

Inside Bizzotto's, tables are covered with white cloths, and its high-ceilinged, brightly painted walls are covered with art. One wall is decorated with intricately worked leather purses made by owner Miguel Bizzotto, who has had two showings of his work at the Smithsonian Institution.

The place is permeated with the scents of herbs, garlic and great food. It turns out that Bizzotto is not only a fine designer and craftsman, but a good cook as well. My pesto tomato soup and the chicken salad with grapes and walnuts were excellent.

Though I'm beginning to get used to the idea of Onancock as a cosmopolitan enclave on the rural Eastern Shore, the young woman who takes my order in Bizzotto's still catches me off guard.

Urbanely dressed and speaking with a thick Russian accent, Natasha, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who hails from Moscow, seems as out of place as beluga caviar at a crab-picking contest. How, I wonder aloud, did she end up in Onancock?

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