What It's Like to Live in the Chesapeake Bay Area
A schooner sails on the York River near historic Yorktown, Virginia, site of the British surrender marking the end of the Revolutionary War.
It’s hard to pick a single thing that defines the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. The bay itself, the largest estuary in the United States, stretches about 200 miles from Havre de Grace, Md., to Norfolk, creating many unique communities along its way.
In the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, two peninsulas jut out into the bay. The Middle Peninsula, divided by its lower neighbor by the York River, comprises the counties of Gloucester, Middlesex and Mathews, which includes the tiny hamlet of Susan. There isn’t a single stoplight in Mathews County’s 85 square miles, but waterfront living is plentiful.
The more-populated Lower Peninsula, between the York and James rivers, includes the cities of Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson and Williamsburg, and the counties of York, James City and New Kent.
So much is available: There’s fishing, including for oysters and crabs. Fishing piers are plentiful and popular up and down the bay, and deep-sea fishing ventures leave from Virginia Beach. It’s not unusual to see fishing boats anchored at nightfall near the two bridge-tunnels that connect the Lower Peninsula with South Hampton Roads, where Virginia Beach and its popular oceanfront lie along with the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth.
There are peanuts — Suffolk is the home of the Planters company, and peanuts are grown in vast quantities south of the James River. There’s ham — in Smithfield you’ll find the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer. There are daffodils — celebrated each spring in Gloucester to recognize what was once a major cash crop on the Middle Peninsula.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge (commonly known as the Bay Bridge) crosses the bay at the northern end in Maryland.
Every branch of the military is represented. Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval base in the world, with about 70 ships home-ported there. The Army is at Fort Eustis in Newport News and Fort Monroe in Hampton; the Marines are in Newport News; Coast Guard is in Yorktown and Portsmouth; the Air Force is at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.
NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton was the initial home of the Mercury 7 astronauts, and you can see where the astronauts trained for their landing on the moon. Even the CIA has a presence near Williamsburg. Officially named the Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity, the 10,000-acre Camp Peary is a training center — known as “The Farm” — for the CIA.
History abounds around the Chesapeake Bay and the large metropolitan area known as greater Hampton Roads. Native Americans, who roamed the woods and waterways when Capt. John Smith came to Jamestown four centuries ago, still have a presence here — including members of the Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond and Mattaponi tribes. Streets in Hampton carry the names Pocahontas, Algonquin, Pochin and Cherokee.
Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown Settlement are tourism hot spots as well as historical areas. Each year, visitors swarm by the thousands to Busch Gardens, Water Country USA and Great Wolf Lodge for the fun. Virginia Beach, where the first English colonists came ashore, is a bustling oceanfront resort area with towering hotels, seafood buffets and festivals that pay homage to everything from sandcastles and kites to beer and strawberries.
There's no shortage of activities involving the water. Go whale or dolphin watching. Take a sunset harbor cruise. Take a sailing trip, or learn to sail — countless marinas offer classes. Take a day trip to the Eastern Shore by crossing the 17-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which crosses over and under open waters that connect the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.
If golf is your thing, the Williamsburg area alone has upwards of a dozen well-thought-of courses, both public and private. New Kent County alone has two of the best in the area — Stonehouse and Royal New Kent, where a couple of holes offer a view of the adjacent horse-racing track. In fact, why not watch a horse race? Colonial Downs in New Kent offers races through much of the year, including the prestigious Virginia Derby.
Even pirates have a presence here: After Blackbeard was killed in 1718, his head was put on a pole in Hampton as a warning to other pirates, and the city has a pirate festival every year. There are countless museums, a zoo, wineries, bed-and-breakfasts, outlet malls, concert venues and performing art centers. There are colleges, hospitals and shipyards — everything needed to work hard, play hard and live well.