Not Into Crowds? Visit These Lesser-Known Beaches
For fun in the sand away from the masses, try these mid-Atlantic hideaways.
Perhaps Cape Charles sees fewer crowds because of its location at the southernmost tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It’s a bit of a trek—about 230 miles from Arlington—but it can be worth the drive.
The beach sits on the Chesapeake Bay, rather than the Atlantic Ocean, which means calm and shallow waters and the gentlest waves for families with small children. The conditions are also ideal for some water sports; you can rent stand-up paddleboards and kayaks from SouthEast Expeditions. Or you can fish from the pier.
An art display near the pier that spells out the word “love” is a popular place for photos. The sign, which sits on pallets in the sand, is reflective of the town: The “L” is made of sea glass and seashells in an ode to the bayside community, while the “O” is a tractor tire to celebrate agriculture. The “V,” made of kayaks, represents outdoor adventure activities, and the “E,” made of crab pots, is a nod to aquaculture.
Cape Charles, with a population of about 1,000, is just 2,817 acres, meaning everything is nearby. Some visitors park their cars and rent golf carts for their stay.
Venture from the beach and walk a few minutes to town to take in the historic architecture. Here you’ll find one of the largest concentrations of turn-of-the-century buildings on the East Coast. (The Cape Charles Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.) Expansive porches front many of the homes, where residents sit to watch the sunsets.
Some of the houses have been transformed into quaint bed-and-breakfasts, but there are also plenty of inns and hotels, including the recently renovated Northampton Hotel on Mason Avenue, which boasts that it combines the historic with a modern flair. Hotel Cape Charles, also on Mason Avenue, features private balconies with harbor views.
Cape Charles is near nature and eco excursions, such as hikes at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge or kayaking at Kiptopeke State Park.
Looking for a sleepy beach outpost? Bowers Beach is just that, says Nancy Bradley, who works at JP’s Wharf seafood restaurant in town (technically it is in Frederica, but it’s considered a part of Bowers Beach). “You come here for a quiet experience.”
Located about 110 miles from Arlington, Bowers sits on the Delaware Bay between the St. Jones and Murderkill rivers. With its motto “The Way Life Used to Be,” the town clearly shuns the commercialization of the more popular beaches. Visitors can rent bungalows, but there are no hotels.
A drive through this coastal community is like entering a time warp. Though the local fishing industry isn’t as prosperous as it once was, many townspeople still make their living off the waters beyond their backyards. JP’s prides itself on serving fresh local catch, from oysters to rockfish and trout.
The Delaware Bay’s calm waters offer great conditions for swimming, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, or for simply lounging and quiet strolling on the beach.
There are three parks in town where visitors can play bocce or shuffleboard, go for a picnic or find a quiet spot to read or meditate. The Bowers Beach Maritime Museum on Main Street, open weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day, chronicles the history of the town, waterman culture and coastal history. Bowers Beach is just 205 acres, putting all attractions within a short walk or drive.
Nature lovers will appreciate bird-watching, as well as the bayside spectacle that occurs in May and June when millions of Atlantic horseshoe crabs descend on the shores to spawn, covering the sands like a blanket. It’s the one time of year that the beach is crowded.
Southern Maryland is where you’ll find Matoaka Beach and its picturesque views of the Chesapeake Bay. Located in St. Leonard, about 60 miles from Arlington, this is truly an off-the-beaten-path hideaway—you have to walk down a small trail from the parking lot to get to the water. There is no commercial development, and there are no restaurants. The only lodging is camping at rental cabins on the beach.
The privately owned beach that once operated as a Girl Scouts camp is now open daily to the public for a small fee—$5 most weekdays and $10 on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. It’s a choice spot for naturalists and outdoorsy folks who want to spend the day kayaking (bring your own), fishing and swimming.
Like nearby Calvert Cliffs, it is also where treasure hunters come to collect sharks teeth that fall from the nearby cliffs. How these fossils, which are millions of years old, came to be is a lesson in Maryland history. They were preserved in the cliffs from a time when the state was under water.
Matoaka Beach is ideal for a day trip, but adventurous travelers who prefer the feel of a private island might choose to stay longer.
In 1976, Kent County bought the land that makes up what is now Betterton Beach and turned it into a waterfront public park. Nestled at the end of a residential community, the beach feels like an extension of that neighborhood—like a local park that happens to have a beach.
The 5-acre bayside strand, located at the mouth of the Sassafras River and about 100 miles from Arlington, is popular among locals, but is also a nice escape for out-of-towners who want a quiet day on the water. The drive to Betterton Beach takes less than an hour after crossing the Bay Bridge—faster than the traffic-heavy drive to Ocean City.
Betterton is a good fit for families with kids who are looking for smaller crowds and calmer waters for swimming. There is a bathhouse and a pavilion for picnics and grilling. On the boardwalk, which isn’t commercially developed, take a walk or sit on a bench to watch the sunset. Those who want to stay overnight won’t find hotels, but can look for Airbnb options. There are hotels in nearby towns, such as Chestertown.
While the beach doesn’t offer many tourist attractions, the Betterton Heritage Museum provides a nice overview of the town’s history as a fishing village. It features decoys carved by Charlie “Speed” Joiner and a collection of postcards dating back to the 1880s. It is also home to one of the few existing arks once used as overnight housing for watermen.