News & Politics

Beach Getaway: Smith Island, VA

The only way to get to Smith Island is by boat. Once there, you may have the beaches and seashells all to yourself.

Wise Cabin has no electricity or running water—but wonderful views across the marsh. Photograph of Wise Cabin by Dave Burden

SouthEast Expeditions
The Wise Cabin retreat through SouthEast Expeditions begins at $595 a person for a minimum two-night stay for up to six people. The price includes all equipment, guides, and lodging arrangements. There’s no additional cost for meals prepared by Burden.

Except for a lighthouse and the remnants of a few World War II watchtowers, Smith Island is deserted. No footprints mar the sand, which is strewn with seashells.

While no one lives on this small barrier island, one of 18 off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, it isn’t silent. The wind sings through the marsh grass, and the cries of birds serenade those visitors fortunate enough to find their way here.

Many who do visit owe it to Dave Burden, owner of SouthEast Expeditions. For a dozen years, he has led kayaking outings out of the town of Cape Charles, Virginia. A member of a half dozen green boards and commissions, Burden studied environmental science at the University of Virginia; he knows these waters better than anyone. Part of the joy of paddling with him is the ease with which he points out creatures great and small, explaining how they fit into the fragile ecosystem of the Mid-Atlantic’s last wild coast.

Though he offers trips of varying lengths, the most unusual is a three-day getaway to Wise Cabin, a century-old waterman’s dwelling perched a long way from civilization in the Virginia Coast Reserve.

The excursion begins with a four-hour paddle, broken up by a leisurely lunch on Mockhorn Island. No experience is required to pilot the one-person kayaks. Burden tries to follow the current, and the trip requires about the same effort as a half-day hike.

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By midafternoon, the party arrives at Wise Cabin, a one-room wooden structure with a set of bunks, a small double bed, a weathered table and chairs, and little else. There’s no electricity or running water. A chemical toilet sits behind a curtain in the mudroom.

As his guests relax on the deck, Burden cooks supper on a propane camp stove. Like every meal he prepares, it’s made from local ingredients such as in-season vegetables and just-caught crab and fish. Breakfast includes farm-fresh eggs and sausage made by a local butcher.

After dinner, Burden departs for the night, leaving guests to watch the sun sinking into the marsh as herons and egrets, ospreys and pelicans glide through the fading rays.

The next day is spent at his guests’ behest; options include volunteering on oyster or seagrass restoration projects or birding with a renowned guide from the area. For many, it’s enough to paddle peacefully from beach to beach, watching as dolphins play in the surf and fat seals bob comically in the waves. Often, Burden’s group digs clams on nearby mud flats. Back at the cabin, Burden breads and fries the day’s bounty, serving up fresh clam fritters.

The next morning, it’s time to kayak back to civilization, though Burden, who says he founded his company as “a way to show people how special the Eastern Shore is,” isn’t so sure anyone really leaves it behind.

“This place,” he says, squinting in the bright sun, “can be life-changing.”

the washingtonian summer guide 2011
This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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