The Commonwealth of Virginia – already well known as a top wine travel destination, is now rapidly becoming the oyster capital of the East Coast. It’s the largest producer of fresh, farm-raised oysters in the US. The diverse flavor of Virginia oysters – from the saltiest in the waters of Chincoteague on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, to the sweet taste of Rappahannock River oysters, and the rebirth of Lynnhaven oysters in Virginia Beach – all give visitors a lot to love about oyster travel in Virginia.
The Virginia Oyster Trail itself was launched in 2015 by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. The trail offers visitors a way to enjoy the glorious Atlantic coastline of the state whilst discovering outdoor adventure, crafts and culture, southern cuisine, history and so much more in this fascinating corner of Virginia.
Comprised of eight distinct regions, the Virginia Oyster Trail showcases the diversity of the state’s waterways. A tour of the trail provides adventurous epicures lesson in these delicious molluscs, provided by the women and men on the frontline of the state’s oyster resurgence. And while technology has contributed to the state’s oyster come-back, traditional tools of the oyster trade remain the same — tireless work ethic, love of life on the water, a boat, overalls and the white rubber boots that are the symbol of the Virginia Oyster trade.
Sometimes called Guinea boots, Tidewater tennis shoes, Chesapeake Bay house slippers, or just sea boots (depending on the region of Virginia) white boots are as much a symbol of oyster culture as wind-kissed cheeks and salt-chapped, calloused hands. Less expensive than other boots, easier to clean, cooler on the feet in the sun, and less likely to scuff the deck of the boat - white boots are worn by oysterman out of necessity, community and tradition.
Oysters can be eaten raw, steamed, grilled and fried. They can also be cooked in a stew. Raw oysters are usually served with lemon juice, vinegar or cocktail sauce. Like fine wine, raw oysters have complex flavors. If you eat them often, you will learn to differentiate the oysters from different regions and know which ones you prefer.
All oysters are eco-friendly and actively filter the water they are grown in. The oyster industry is one of the few industries that as it expands, provides tangible, increased environmental benefits. The oyster farm crops continually filter the waters of Chesapeake Bay, removing excess nutrients and providing habitat for other species. The more oysters, the cleaner the water!
For more information on Virginia and the Oyster Trail visit www.virginia.org. And to get to Virginia check out www.flyporter.com for convenient flights from Toronto to Washington.
Porter offers multiple daily flights from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to Washington (Dulles) year round. Convenient connections are available across the Porter network, including Montreal and Ottawa.
Located in the heart of downtown Toronto, Porter is known for providing a premium passenger experience - expect leather seats, complimentary wine and beer onboard. You also get airport lounge access – the Porter lounge in Toronto is spectacular. Porter’s ‘flying refined’ approach has been recognized by the prestigious Skytrax World Airline Awards. It has been named Best Regional Airline in North America for the last three consecutive years.
All oysters grown on the east coast are of the same species, called Crassostrea Virginica. Oysters take on the flavour of the waters in which they are harvested. The salinity levels of the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries are ideal for sustaining great-tasting oysters.
With different coastal habitats, the flavours of Virginia oysters range from salty to buttery to sweet. Some of the creeks on the Virginia Eastern Shore are no more than a couple of kilometres apart. Yet the oysters from each area take on different nuances in flavour, texture and appearance.
Here is an oyster flavour guide to test your taste buds in each part of the region.
SEASIDE - Initial bold saltiness mellowing into a taste of sweet butter/cream at the finish.
UPPER BAY EASTERN SHORE - Classic Virginia Bay oyster flavour with balanced salt and sweet, with a savory finish.
LOWER BAY EASTERN SHORE - Salty and creamy with mellow sweetness with a quick finish.
UPPER BAY WESTERN SHORE - Sweetwater oyster with a light cream taste.
MIDDLE BAY WESTERN SHORE - Lightly salty with easily distinguished cream or butter and a pleasant slight minerality.
LOWER BAY WESTERN SHORE - Mild saltiness moving to a sweet finish.
TIDEWATER - Salty oyster with sweetness and a smooth finish.
TANGIER/MIDDLE CHESAPEAKE BAY - Traditional Virginia Bay Oyster flavour with a balance of salt and sweet, and a savoury butter/cream finish.
As you travel the beautiful coastline you will have lots of opportunities to learn about and interact with oyster culture. Along the way there are historic sites and museums to provide interpretation. This is wonderful countryside to wander where you please and of an evening there are also many locally-owned lodgings in the Virginia Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore and Coastal Virginia regions to meet the needs of travellers. These include cosy bed & breakfasts, campsites, cabins, historic inns and boutique hotels.
A good starting point to plan your journey is the Virginia Oyster Trail website at www.virginiaoystertrail.com.
Of course you will want to taste oysters during your visit and there are many opportunities to do so. Get out on the water on a waterman tour and oyster boat experience and you will be sure to be able to taste the catch as well. Wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries dotted around the region will feature oyster tasting or Virginia Oyster pairings. You can seek out oysters at farmer’s markets featuring Virginia Oysters vendors and/or tastings on a regular basis. There are also many locally-owned culinary establishments specifically featuring the Virginia Oyster as a main item on their menu. You will find restaurants, oyster bars, diners, night clubs and cafés where you can savour raw oysters or oyster dishes aplenty.
Oysters are celebrated all along Virginia's Coastal Region including two major annual oyster festivals.
Each October the northern end of Virginia’s Eastern Shore celebrates the saltiest of oysters at the Chincoteague Oyster Festival. Oysters and seafood abound as do family games, live entertainment and small town charm.
Each November, the lovely town of Urbanna, found on the Rappahannock River, throws the country’s largest and longest-running oyster festival called the Urbanna Oyster Festival. The town’s streets are closed to vehicle traffic and become filled with oyster booths, seafood dishes, music and crafts. The festival highlight is the oyster shucking contest which draws spectators from around the world.
Oysters also inspire the artists along the Eastern Shore of Virginia. As you travel you will find galleries, retail stores and gift shops where you can buy authentic Virginia Oyster collectibles created by local artists who specifically feature the Virginia Oyster in their media. You will also discover craft and fine art studios where painters celebrate watermen and oyster subject matter as well as jewelers, sculptors and craft artisans who utilize Virginia Oyster shells in their works.
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