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Published: November 25th 2009
Festivals can be fun and then they can be fantastic. This one is fantastic.
OYSTERS, OYSTERS AND…URBANNA OYSTERS
The first frost of the season crunched beneath our boots as we stepped off the porch. In the east the soft pastels that heralded a new dawn were just peeking through the trees and the crisp November air snapped at our cheeks. The clear sky promised a great fall day for a festival.
We were headed to Urbanna where every November since 1957 the town has put on the Urbanna Oyster Festival. Originally called Urbanna Days, the festival originated to promote the local economy. It has succeeded beyond the originators wildest dreams. This year’s festival was estimated to draw about eighty thousand people over two days.
We arrived just outside Urbanna around 9:00 AM on a beautiful Saturday. The festival begins on a Friday and ends Saturday evening. The local sheriff and state troopers were manning the roadblock and directing traffic off road into grassy fields where you paid your fee and parked ($10 parking Friday and $20 parking Saturday). The festival is a walking pay-as-you-go affair. Aside from the parking fee the entire festival is free. There were over a hundred and fifty concessionaires selling food, arts and crafts, books, jewelry, clothing, and this year even boats and RV’s.
From the parking lot it was a short walk across the bridge over Urbanna Creek and into the town of Urbanna. During the festival the entire town is closed to vehicular traffic. All the vendors are set up along the streets and in a specially designated Festival Village. There are several performance stages including one along the waterfront. Urbanna is bordered on two sides by the Rappahanock River and Urbanna Creek. Many festival goers arrive by boat and dock at the marina or anchor in the inlet to Urbanna Creek and row to the festival in their dinghy.
You can see two festival parades, the Fireman’s Parade Friday evening and the Oyster Festival Parade on Saturday afternoon. The musical performances run the gamut from Gospel to Bluegrass to Country to Classic Rock and more. Kids will enjoy the Children’s Activity Center where they can make crafts including building small model boats. Car buffs love the classic car show and this year two new features were added, an RV and boat show and a wine tasting event.
A festival wouldn’t be complete without a Queen and the Urbanna Oyster Festival Queen reigns along with Little Miss Spat (a spat is a baby oyster). Originating as a beauty pageant the contest evolved into a scholarship competition for high school senior girls in Middlesex County. Each queen contestant selects a first grade girl to compete as her Little Miss Spat. The queen contestants are judged on their individual community service project, academic achievement, a judge’s interview, a spontaneous written response to a random question and their overall participation in the festival. The competition runs from early summer to the crowning on the Friday of the festival. The Little Miss Spat contestants are judged separately based on how well they conduct themselves at the queen and spat dinner, their overall participation and individual interviews with three separate judges.
The highlight of the festival is of course the oyster shucking contest. Since Urbanna is home to the “Official” oyster festival of Virginia it’s natural that you would find some of the best oyster shuckers in the world here. The contest is open to men and women and you don’t have to be a pro to join in the fun. The amateur division is always the funniest to watch. The winner in the professional men’s and women’s divisions is declared the State Champion and moves up to the National Oyster Shucking Contest at St. Mary’s, Maryland. The National Champion then participates in the World Oyster Shucking Championship in Galway, Ireland.
While the festival is about oysters raw, roasted, fried, steamed, and stewed there are lots of other food vendors. If you’re not into having oyster stew with your pancake breakfast at the Urbanna Baptist Church then you might want to try the breakfast buffet at the Virginia Street Café or lunch at the counter in Marshall’s Drug Store. You can also get crab cakes, clam chowder, seafood fritters and the typical festival food like blooming onions, corn dogs, kettle corn and funnel cakes from at least forty different food vendors
To make your visit as enjoyable as possible there are some things you can do that will make you a festival pro. Arrive early and leave early. You park closer to town (arriving later insures a long walk back after having walked the entire town) and you avoid the traffic jams on the back roads leading to Urbanna. Some people waited in the traffic for up to an hour simply to get into one of the parking areas. You can imagine what the exodus after the festival ends on Saturday must be like. We arrived about 9:00 AM and left around 2:00 PM. The early bird also gets the freshest and best cooked oysters. Later in the day the cooking crews get swamped and sometimes the oyster coating isn’t as done as it should be. Be sure and bring plenty of cash. There are several portable ATM’s located around the town but the fee charged this year was $3.00. Most of the concessionaires do not take checks or offer credit card services. Wear comfortable shoes and if it’s going to be sunny like our visit you’ll want to bring some sun screen.
For information on next years festival, call or write the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation, Drawer C, Urbanna, VA 23175, 804-758-0368.
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