Virginia’s Northern Neck: Undiscovered history and Natural Beauty
By Cindy Bigras
The Northern What? My friend had proposed a weekend getaway to Virginia’s Northern Neck… an area I had never heard of. Little did I know that I was in for a treat! It was the end of summer in New England, but in Virginia, it was still as warm as July.
Imagine lush, flat green fields stretching to the horizon; narrow roads winding around tall trees, and in any direction you choose, a bay or cove or inlet. They’re called creeks in the NN and are wider than many rivers.
This region has changed little since colonial times, when George Washington, James Monroe, James Madison and Richard Henry Lee were born here, amidst working farms, historic villages and watermen who still ply their trade on the rivers and the bay.
Water Everywhere You cannot, in fact, discuss the NN without emphasizing the water. Framed by the Rappahannock River to the South and the Chesapeake Bay to the east, Virginia’s most northern peninsula relies on the waterways for seafood, recreation, tourism, and charm.
Virtually unreachable until the 1940s when the Rappahannock River Bridge was built, the area has managed to maintain its rural charm and undeveloped character. There are still fewer than 50,000 people in this sprawling area of 8,200 square miles. From Richmond’s airport head south on Highway 64 to Virginia Route 33 East to Saluda. Turn left on to Route 3 and over the Rappahonnock and you’re there. The Northern Neck stretches down from the more populated north to the wonderfully rural tip, where we spent our time.
The Tides Inn
We headed directly to The Tides Inn in Irvington, (www.tidesinn.com) a classic resort that since the late 40s was owned by the local Stephens family. A few years ago it was sold to Sedona Resorts. The recent multi-million dollar renovation didn’t change the character of the hotel, according to many long time employees. Understated elegance greets you as you come into the lobby and look out at the brick terrace and Carter Creek.
The hotel’s décor is soft and southern. Mahogany shutters, wicker, and slow moving ceiling fans evoke another era. The view from nearly all the rooms focuses on the boat traffic coming in from the far off Chesapeake, and includes osprey’s nests and a slew of expensive yachts moored at the dock.
Aboard the Miss Ann
We boarded the hotel’s 127-foot yacht, The Miss Ann, for our first evening’s cruise out towards the Chesapeake. We were fortunate to have requested a tour guide – Nancy Newlin of the Tides Inn, who enthusiastically pointed out places of interest and offered historical commentary.
Croquet, Golf and TennisThe Miss Ann is an historic treasure with a colorful history that includes service as a sonar boat during World War II. You’ll be welcome aboard for a whiskey run to Urbanna on Saturday mornings. During prohibition the boat made a weekly run to nearby Urbanna’s ABC Liquor Store so guests could purchase their favorite tonics which were then stored in individual guest lockers at the Tides’ Chesapeake Room. Irvington is no longer a dry town so the wine list at The Tides Inn’s three restaurants will provide ample choices.
If you want to take the helm yourself, try borrowing or renting a boat from the Inn. Or if land is preferred bikes are available at no charge to guests. There is croquet, a par 3 golf course, tennis courts, three pools and a world class spa. Across the creek you can reach a regulation 9-hole course plus a saltwater pool. My partner was glowing when he emerged from his soothing hot stone massage, at the Inn’s full service spa.
They offer treatments including lilac body polish, aromatherapy facials and herbal body wraps. If you have children they might enjoy spending time at the Crab Net Kids Club for daily activities, fun projects, and maybe a field trip or two. The charming village of Irvington is coming alive with activity as new local ventures that have started to appear.
There are a few boutiques with costly clothing that will probably appeal more to urban visitors.
The Trick Dog Cafe
But the real gem is the Trick Dog Café, (www.trickdogcafe.com) located in this stretch of Irvington Road. Groovy interior, attentive service, and a meal that knocked my socks off. Everything we had was superb and I eagerly await my next trip to the region because the Trick Dog will be on my itinerary! (If you go try the yellow fin tuna with sesame soba noodles, shiitakes & baby bok choy).
The New York Times agreed with our stellar assessment of the place. The next morning brought a visit to nearby Christ Church, a National Historic Landmark located in Irvington. (www.christchurch1735.com). This elegant example of Georgian architecture was designed as a private chapel by one of the wealthiest and most famous men of the 1600s, Robert “King” Carter. In his heyday Carter owned more than 300,000 acres of the Northern Neck, on more than 22 plantations on the peninsula.
He had the church built but never got the chance to worship there. The introductory video, narrated by local resident newsman Roger Mudd, is an excellent review of colonial history. Docent Virginia Fleet then accompanied our group through the building and over the grounds, complete with colonial herb garden. We were especially touched by the inscription on the tomb of Judith Carter, first wife of Robert “King” Carter, which reads that she left the “sweet perfume of a good reputation”.
Fishermen’s Museum in Reedville For a completely different experience head north to Reedville, a lovely fishing village. You may never have heard of the small fish called menhaden but chances are you use products made with its oil and fish meal. The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum (www.rfmuseum.org) documents the town’s commercial fishing industry that developed in the late 19th century.
Once again the brief introductory video was a good way to begin our tour through the home built for Elijah Reed when he transferred his fishing operation from Maine in 1874. Children and anyone interested in fishing will enjoy this tour. The stroll through town offered a glimpse at the lovely homes originally owned by the sea captains of Reedville.
The Northern Neck, with its natural beauty and everyman’s water views, may someday be as crowded and populated as Cape Cod or Florida. Until then, hopefully a long time from now, it’s a place worth discovering.
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