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Chesapeake Bay

Two groups--eight wine-loving friends and a female twosome--decide to design their own itineraries without using a big tour operator, and find adventure and savings in the bargain

August 04, 1996|JANE ENGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Engle is a news editor on The Times foreign desk

CAPE CHARLES, Va. — The sky was overcast and the afternoon air muggy. The only sound was the whirring of our bicycle wheels as Wendy and I pedaled down a country lane past soybean fields and white Victorian farmhouses.

"This is great!" Wendy said, about 10 minutes into our bucolic tour of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland.

Except for the dogs. Seemingly out of nowhere, a giant black farm dog materialized

alongside me, a blur of legs and teeth, barking just inches from my ankle. It resembled the Hound of the Baskervilles. And it was fast.

"Whoa!" I yelled as we geared up to warp speed and finally flung ourselves out of our pursuer's orbit.

That was the first of many encounters with the unexpected--including a roadside rescue of a kitten, which we placed later with a local resident--during our two-week bicycle trip through the historic rural peninsula that forms the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, nearly all the surprises were delightful.

Wendy and I, both fortysomething editors and weekend cyclists from the Los Angeles area, discovered the peninsula by accident. We were looking for a self-guided bicycle adventure that would roll us into Washington, D.C., for a conference.

I was the bicycle touring "veteran," having pedaled for a week in my 20s through southern Illinois on my own, but Wendy was the more gung-ho cyclist, accustomed to racking up 50 miles a day.

We didn't bother to look up organized tours (there are a couple), preferring the adventure of navigating unknown places and the freedom to stop when and where we wanted. But we did scour bookstores. From guidebooks we learned that the Eastern Shore is full of early American history--and that few tourists visit the Virginia end. That intrigued us. We also found topographic maps, which guided us throughout the trip and yielded a critical fact: Unlike much of Virginia, the marshy peninsula is flat. That clinched it.

We packed and loaded our wheels--a mountain bike and a lighter-weight "hybrid"--onto a flight to Virginia Beach, Va., terminus of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that funnels traffic to the Eastern Shore's southern tip. Cyclists are banned from the 17.6-mile-long structure--the world's longest bridge-tunnel. An intercity bus that crosses the bridge will take boxed bikes for a fee. But we made friends with a hotel employee, who whisked us across in his truck, and we were on our way.

What we found on the shore was a bit of Brigadoon.

Explored by Capt. John Smith and settled by the English in the 17th century, the peninsula is studded with Colonial and Federalist architecture and supports a culture of "watermen" who ply the 200-mile-long bay--the continent's largest estuary--for blue crabs, oysters and clams.

The southern Virginia portion, largely isolated from the mainland until the bridge-tunnel opened in 1964, is a piece of forgotten small-town America. Its 50,000 people are scattered over more than 100 tiny settlements.

*

A couple of hours after outrunning the dog, we pulled into our night's lodging and encountered our amiable host.

Retired schoolteacher Robert Rittenhouse has operated the Rittenhouse Motor Lodge, which he built himself in tiny Cheriton, Va., for four decades. The 13-unit motel isn't fancy ($45 per room), but it has a lovely wooded setting.

We dined up the road at Someplace Else, a funky bar and steak place where the beer was bone-chilling cold and the food was . . . priced right.

The next day, we biked west to Cape Charles, a faded port founded in 1883 as a major railroad terminus and ferry dock and now bypassed by interstate traffic. It has some lovely 19th century homes and a public beach and boardwalk. But in the October off-season, when we were there, it was sleepy enough to seem caught in a twilight zone between ghost town and real town.

To enter a real way-back machine, we pressed on to Eastville, founded in the 17th century and said to have the oldest continuous court records in the United States, dating back to 1632. On this Friday, a clerk at the Northampton County Courthouse was happy to pull down the heavy, hand-written volumes for us. One of them recounted the public reading of the Declaration of Independence on Aug. 13, 1776; it took a few weeks for the document to arrive in the county.

Bad knees--mine were weary after 37 miles of pedaling--brought us to an unexpected halt in Exmore (population: 1,115), one of the Virginia Shore's bigger towns and home to the Trawler Restaurant, the region's only dinner theater. Here we enjoyed catfish dinners ($9.95) and then joined about 150 others watching "Hymn to the Chesapeake," a passionate, sea-soaked reverie on the lives of watermen based on Robert P. Arthur's book of the same name.

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