I tend to rave about the yurt at Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore, just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, 23 miles and a world away from Virginia Beach. I love the place’s tranquil, otherworldly setting on the Chesapeake Bay and its reasonably priced, outdoorsy, yet climate-controlled family fun, but I can’t deny that a large part of what I love about the yurt is that it’s so fun to say “yurt.”
A yurt is a domed hut, made famous(?) by Mongolian nomads and made nowadays using high-tech fabric supported by a latticed interior frame, with a floor and a domed ceiling. The Kiptopeke yurt commands the best campsite in the park. Nestled among pine trees and surrounded by a large deck that provides a gorgeous view of the bay, it’s also close to a boardwalk that leads to the soft white-sand beach.
Yurt-dwelling is camping for smarties. Inside are chairs, a dining table, and beds for six, with amenities nomads would have wandered far for: electricity, air conditioning and heat. Sure, it’s bring your own linens, the campground bathrooms (though perfectly nice) are a walk away, and cooking over an open fire and cleaning up pots and pans can get old when the hash browns become one with the pan, but what’s a stay in a yurt without a little rusticity?
Kiptopeke means “big water,” an apt appellation for the Chesapeake, and water-related activities abound in and around the park. There are dune walks and trails in the park that lead to terrific spots for beachcombing, baywatching or birdwatching. In the summer, Kiptopeke’s gently sloping beach is lifeguarded, and park rangers plan canoeing, crabbing and other programs for campers. There’s excellent fishing from the southern beach and the large fishing pier, or you can dip a line from your own boat, which you can launch at the park’s boat ramp. Boaters and birds flock to the artificial reef of nine concrete ships that were placed 1,500 feet from shore in 1948 to form a safe harbor for the Kiptopeke-Norfolk ferry before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel sank the ferry, so to speak.
If kayaking floats your boat, nearby Southeast Expeditions offers rentals and instruction for trips on the bay, past barrier islands or through marshes. A few miles south of Kiptopeke, my family enjoyed a scenic paddle in tidal waters along the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge before walking the birding trails there.
On our latest trip, we cooked sparingly, so Friday night we headed to Sting-Ray’s, an Eastern Shore landmark a few miles up Route 13 that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We lined the walls with the locals, waiting to place our orders. Sadly, the amount of fried food ordered that night overwhelmed the fryer and the waitstaff, so my son never did get his fried chicken, but the broiled rockfish was delicious.
The next day, we took off for a 10-mile bike ride to Custis Tombs. The final resting place of John Custis II and his grandson John Custis IV (first lady Martha Washington’s first marriage was to his son, Daniel Parke Custis, who died in 1757), it’s an old spot in a new neighborhood overlooking Plantation Creek. Afterward, we drove up to the town of Cape Charles. Mason Avenue, the town’s main drag, is lined on one side with shops and restaurants, many of which were being renovated. We weren’t dissuaded by the rusty rail car across the street, thankfully, because the Harbor Grille’s comfortable coziness and delectable quesadillas, salads, sandwiches and desserts were just what we needed. I chose Mom’s Famous Double Mustard Mayo Apricot Almond Chicken Salad — a mouthful, actually many happy mouthfuls. We were tempted to return at dinnertime for the raw bar (and more desserts), but our late lunch sufficed for dinner, too.
Once we made it back to Kiptopeke, we headed to the beach for a walk to the fishing pier. A spring storm was on the way, so except for a few pelicans gliding by, we had the place to ourselves. The Kiptopeke yurt is the only one in the state park system, and I like to think of it as my yurt, but I’m willing to share.
How to get there:
Take 64 East through the Hampton Tunnel to Route 13 North. Cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel ($12 each way). On the Eastern Shore, go 3 miles then take a left at Route 704. Follow it for a half-mile and you’ll be at the entrance to Kiptopeke State Park.
Where to stay:
Kiptopeke State Park’s yurt is available from March 1 to Labor Day. For reservations, call 225-3867 or (800) 933-7275, or visit www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/kiptopek.htm. Yurt rates vary by season: $59 to $80 a night; $480 weekly in summer. Summer bookings (May 28 to Sept. 6, 2004) require a 7-night rental, unless there’s availability within 30 days; then a two-night minimum applies.
Where to eat:
Harbor Grille and Take-Out Market, 203/205 Mason Ave., Cape Charles, (757) 331-3005.
Sting-Ray’s Restaurant, 26507 Lankford Highway (Route 13), Cape Charles, (757) 331-1541.
What to do:
Kiptopeke State Park, 3540 Kiptopeke Drive (Route 15), (757) 331-2267, seasonal campground activities.
Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, 5003 Hallett Circle (Route 13), (757) 331-2760. Walking trails, observation platforms, visitor center with wildlife exhibits.
Southeast Expeditions, 32218 Lankford Highway (Route 13), (888)-626-2774 or www.sekayak.com.
For more information:
Virginia’s Eastern Shore Tourism Commission, (757) 787-2460 or www.esvatourism.org.