Cape Charles, Virginia
Perhaps Cape Charles doesn’t typically get large crowds because of its location at the southernmost tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It’s a bit of a trek from the Washington, D.C., metro area—238 miles from Bethesda—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. You likely won’t find any surfers but may see families with small children splashing in the pool-like waters. 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 fishing pier that spells out the word “love” is a popular place for photos. A Virginia tourism site points out how 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, reflects 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.
Walk a few minutes to town to take in the historic architecture. You’ll find one of the largest concentrations of turn-of-the-century buildings on the East Coast, a feature that got the Cape Charles Historic District listed in 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 with a Southern charm, but there are also plenty of inns and hotels. The Northampton Hotel on Mason Avenue was renovated recently and 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 hiking at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge or kayaking at Kiptopeke State Park.
Matoaka Beach, Maryland
Southern Maryland is where you’ll find Matoaka Beach and its picturesque views of the Chesapeake Bay. Located in St. Leonard, about 70 miles from Bethesda, this is truly an off-the-beaten-path beach—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 open to the public every day for a small fee—$5 during the week and $10 on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays.
This is a beach for true nature lovers and outdoors people who want to spend the day kayaking (bring your own), fishing and swimming. Much like better known and nearby Calvert Cliffs, it is also where people come to collect shark 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.
This beach is ideal for a day trip, but the more adventurous and those who prefer the feel of a private island might choose to stay longer.
Bowers Beach, Delaware
Looking for a “sleepy beach town” to visit?
Bowers Beach is it, 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,” Bradley says of Bowers, located about 105 miles from Bethesda 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 in town, but there are no hotels.
A drive through Bowers is like entering a time warp. Much of the town consists of small homes reminiscent of its once-bustling fishing community. Though the local fishing industry isn’t as prosperous these days, 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. Bowers is also ideal for those who prefer lounging and quiet strolling on the beach.
There are three parks within the 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.
Bowers Beach also has activities for nature lovers, including bird-watching and experiencing the horseshoe crab spawning season. Each May and June, millions of Atlantic horseshoe crabs descend on the shores of the East Coast to spawn. Delaware Bay is at the center of it all, including at Bowers Beach, where the crabs cover the sands like a blanket.
It’s the one time of year that the beach is crowded.
Betterton Beach, Maryland
In 1976, Kent County bought the land that makes up what is now Betterton Beach and turned it into a waterfront public park. The beach is nestled at the end of a residential community and feels like an extension of that neighborhood—like a local park that happens to have a beach.
The 5-acre bayside beach, located at the mouth of the Sassafras River and about 99 miles from Bethesda, is particularly popular among locals but can also be a good spot for out-of-towners who want a day of quiet 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 place to watch the water and just relax. There is a bathhouse and a pavilion for picnics and grilling. On the boardwalk, which isn’t commercially developed, you can go for walks or watch the sunset from one of the benches. Betterton is a nice fit for families with kids who are looking for smaller crowds and calmer waters for swimming. Those who want to stay overnight won’t find hotels in Betterton 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 nearby Betterton Heritage Museum provides an 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, according to the museum’s website. It is also home to one of the few existing arks once used as overnight housing for watermen.
Andrea K. McDaniels is the managing editor of The Baltimore Banner, a digital startup that was slated to launch in June. She looks forward to a beach vacation this summer.
This story appears in the July/August 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.