The Assateague lighthouse on the Eastern Shore of Virginia was first lit in 1867. It stands 142 feet tall. (Mike Holtzclaw / Daily Press / August 16, 2014)

It's easy to think of the Eastern Shore of Virginia as one place, but that's too easy.

After all, it's a good 70 miles from the tip of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Maryland state line, and the trip up U.S. Route 13 will take you through all sorts of small towns, each of which has its own personality.

If you're planning a day trip, you can do some research online at esvatourism.org, which has plenty of information about what to do, where to eat and places to shop.

But truthfully, it's more fun to just take Interstate 64 East to the Northampton Boulevard exit, follow the signs to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and head to the Eastern Shore with nothing but a day full of time to spend.

The bridge-tunnel

The pleasure of a trip to the Eastern Shore begins before you even arrive there – because to get to Virginia's Eastern Shore you must drive across the breathtaking Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which was hailed as one of the "Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World" shortly after it opened in 1964.

The bridge-tunnel, a 23-mile crossing, connects Virginia Beach to the southern tip of the Eastern Shore. There is a toll to cross — $15 during peak hours (Friday through Sunday from May 15-Sept. 15) and $13 the rest of the year. That toll may sound steep to first-timers, but the experience is worth it. The view crossing the bay is lovely (and if you're making a longer trip up the coast, this route can save you hours by avoiding metro traffic).

There is a substantial discount ($3 peak hours, $5 off-peak) if your return trip across the bridge is within 24 hours – but only if you use your E-ZPass transponder. (If you haven't driving the bridge-tunnel in a while, the EZ-Pass requirement is new, having been implemented at the start of this year.)

When you pay that toll to enter the bridge headed north , you will receive a coupon good for discounts at Virginia Originals & The Chesapeake Grill. That's the gift shop and restaurant located at the entrance to the first tunnel along the bridge's path, and it's worth a stop if you're hungry.

As you exit the bridge you will hit a welcome center for the Eastern Shore. Unless you want your day trip to be completely off-the-cuff, you definitely want to stop here. It has brochures and other literature for hundreds of destinations, restaurants and businesses, as well as a helpful staff to answer questions during the day. Also, if you are looking to stretch your legs, the welcome center's parking lot abuts an entrance to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, which offers a variety of hiking trails, overlooks and nature walks.

I visited on a nice day and covered about 2 miles on the refuge's paths, including a trek through the butterfly trail and a scramble up the steps (65 of them, I counted) to the top of a scenic overlook. The trails are quite peaceful and showcase all different types of trees and foliage.

Driving the shore

You could have a very fine day trip just meandering aimlessly, pulling off Route 13 whenever something catches your eye, or to hit certain shops or restaurants that you found at the welcome center.

But it's also a good idea to have a destination or two around which to build your itinerary. A serious favorite is the historic lighthouse at Assateague, which will take you all the way up the shore until just before the Maryland state line. The 142-foot lighthouse dates back to 1867. It was recently renovated and given a fresh coat of paint, so it looks great.

The structure is open for tours ($5 adults, $3 kids) every day from June through September, but only Fridays through Sundays in April, May, October and November. It is closed over the winter. And be forewarned: It closes early, at 3 p.m., so if you want to make the long, steep climb to the light tower, get their on time. The tours are worth the cost. It's very interesting to learn the details of the light's history and to get that wonderful view from up top.

The lighthouse is located within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, so you will have to pay a few bucks (depending on time of day) enter the refuge before you get to the lighthouse. The refuge is another great hiking spot along the shore, and it is a magical moment when you are walking along a wooded path and you get your first glimpse of the red-and-white lighthouse through the trees.

To get to Assateague, you will pass through Chincoteague, which sits at the northern tip of the "barrier islands" located between the Eastern Shore proper and the Atlantic Ocean. Chincoteague, famous for its ponies, has the look and feel of a family-friendly tourist resort – much more so than the most of the other quaint, quiet villages in the region. Make sure to stop by the Museum of Chincoteague, which is home to the stuffed remains of Misty and Stormy, the island's two most famous equines.

Between Route 13 and Chincoteague Island, by the way, you will drive right past NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility, which has launched many a rocket and which just last month launched a spacecraft that took almost two tons of supplies to the International Space Station. The facility has a free visitor center that will be fascinating to anyone with an interest in space exploration.

If you have an interest in regional history, make sure to check out the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, just off of Route 13. It's a sublime little museum dedicated to the oral history of the barrier islands. This is not a flashy, high-tech museum, but its lovingly preserved artifacts and first-hand narratives form a time capsule that will truly immerse you in the background of this distinctive region.

The Barrier Islands Center was one of the highlights of my trip. It's a small museum, but the second floor is filled with treasures – everyday items that represent the lives of ordinary residents of the barrier islands. I was especially moved by a collection of vintage musical instruments – a cello, a violin and a harp – positioned around a piece of music titled "A Little Strip of Land." Looking at those instruments, I imagined friends and families gathered together at the end of a day and making improvised music together.