In 1970, the county possessed two stoplights, and 33 years later there aren't many more. Livings are still made from the water (oysters, clams, crabs) and the land (corn, soybeans, winter wheat, potatoes, cotton). Weathered pickups fan around the Exmore Diner ("Old-fashioned food, old-fashioned prices") like feathers in an Indian headdress. Within its cozy confines you can get stuffed shrimp, crab cakes, and fresh oysters, or, for the budget-inclined, liver and onions or a bowl of lima bean soup.

In Willis Wharf, you can stop in at E.L. Willis & Co., a circa 1850 general store and now a cozy restaurant where locals lunch alongside walls hung with oyster tongs and shelves lined with colorful oyster cans. At the new Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo, you can explore the area's meticulously documented history with Jerry Doughty, a walking encyclopedia disguised as a mild-mannered docent.

On Virginia's Eastern Shore, the friendliness of the people is matched only by their propensity for understatement. After walking me through the Hog Island display, Doughty stands quietly. I ask if he knew anyone who lived on Hog Island.

"My family owned it," he says nonchalantly.

Farthest north lies Chincoteague, the best-known and most-visited island in the barrier chain, given you can drive onto the island. Most of the barrier islands are shielded by the grand buffer of water, and all are protected by various entities - the Nature Conservancy, the federal government, even the United Nations, which has declared them unique and beautiful enough to be recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve.