Coastal Virginia has untold pleasures in store for those who care to savor them while enjoying the region’s beauty and each other.
I come from a family of water lovers. We used to live in California within range of the Pacific Ocean, which we would visit and pay tribute to regularly. Now that we live in Virginia, the beaches we usually think of visiting are Virginia Beach, Ocean City, Maryland and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Until recently, that is, when my mother and I had the wonderful opportunity of discovering the “Northern Neck” of Virginia, or what locals call the “Land of Pleasant Living.” This area is bound on the North by the Potomac River, the South by the Rappahannock River and on the East by the Chesapeake Bay. We only spent three days in the Northern Neck, but I imagine I will make several more trips to that enchanting region.
We stayed at the quaint and elegant Tides Inn in picturesque Irvington, which is about a one-hour drive from the Richmond Airport. Both Irvington and the Tides Inn are polished, comfortable and relaxing. Our balconied room at the inn overlooked the Chesapeake Bay and one of the first things I did was take a picture of the view.
History, Antiquing & Spas
We happened to visit in November during the weekend of the 48th Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival. Urbanna is a small town, about a half hour’s drive away from Irvington, that is, when there is not a festival causing tourist traffic. We missed Friday’s Oyster Festival activities which included a street fair, the Fireman’s Parade (locals anticipate and celebrate it) and the Fireman’s Dance. Instead, we did some sightseeing around Irvington and Kilmarnock (a town about 10 minutes from Irvington).
Historic Christ Church, a National Historic Landmark, was well worth the visit since I am a history buff. We had a docent give us a tour of what she called with pride “the finest colonial church.” She toured us through the inside and outside, explaining the significance of the architecture and its preservation (it remains mostly unaltered to this day), and a brief history of the man behind it. Robert “King” Carter (of the most famous Virginians) was a local politician who served in various positions including acting governor. He commissioned the brick church to be built in 1730. The visitor’s center has a film, an exhibit and an interactive game for visitors who might be bored by this point in the tour. Then, the docent and other workers urged us to sign the guest book before we left, making sure we put our complete home address in the book.
For a change of pace, we visited something else the Northern Neck is known for — antique stores. We went into the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery, which boasts being the “Northern Neck’s Largest Antique Mall.” This is quite an accomplishment since there were many we saw throughout our trip. I am not one of those people who is very into antiquing, but I enjoyed this shop, because its wares were displayed in the manner of museum exhibits– by genre and historical period. They had a wide range of items, from the local oddities — plates made of oyster shells — to things kids and kids-at-heart would enjoy like 1960s comic books, porcelain dolls, stuffed animals, a Winnie the Pooh section, antique dress-ups, to fresh local classics like Virginia honey and peanuts. There was some reasonably priced jewelry that tempted me and I looked through the 25-cent, 50-cent, and $1 books, but I didn’t buy anything.
What I needed next was an afternoon pick-me-up. Naturally, I visited the Spa at the Tides Inn, and enjoyed sitting back and doing nothing but look at the Chesapeake Bay, which was literally just outside the door from the spa room where I got a pedicure and a manicure. My mom and I knew we could get used to this kind of lifestyle.
Museums, Markets & Fine Dining
Revived and beautified, we strolled to “downtown” Irvington, which is about a five minute walk from the inn. Irvington has about eight cutesy shops and eateries that line its main street, displaying enough variety to satiate the coffee addict, the needlepoint fanatic, the artsy eater, the trendy shopper and the kids stuck with such weird adults.
In addition to these cookie-cutter shops, Irvington has its own museum, the Steamboat Era Museum, which has the remains of a steamboat on its front lawn. The museum has dioramas of historic Irvington ships, paintings of historic steamboats and oral histories from Irvington and the Chesapeake region. While we were in town, the exhibit on display was “Properly Attired: Fashions of the Steamboat Era 1880-1937.” Its exhibits change about twice a year, and generally deal with daily life in the Northern Neck during that time period. Its insight on local color made it worth the brief trip. Once again, as I left the curator made sure that I signed the guest registry.
We got back in time to change our clothes and accentuate our newly decorated nails, for a dinner at the Inn’s nicest restaurant, The Tides Inn Dining Room. The restaurant’s offerings were quite traditional with dishes like Sweet Potato Bisque and Lumpy Blue Crab Salad, but they quickly created a new fixed price meal for me when they found out I am a vegetarian. After too many tastes from the delectable Virginia Sampler Dessert Plate, we knew we should do something to exercise, and felt a bit better after we walked through the lovely wooded grounds and to town and back.
Saturday morning, still stuffed from dinner, we only ate the fruit from the Dining Room’s buffet breakfast. Then we walked to the town’s Farmer’s Market, which is held on the “commons” (and is impossible to miss in such a small town) on the first Saturday of every month from April to November. About 80 to 100 vendors participate in the market which offers all hand-crafted or home-grown goods. Part of the community-building efforts of the Irvington Chamber of Commerce Village Improvement Association, the market was lively and bustling, with guitar players serenading the shoppers even at 8:30 in the morning. My mom was happy because she was able to buy a Virginia grown sweet potato so she could make sweet potato soup—inspired by the Tides Inn’s cuisine. I was happy because I got apricot preserves and raspberry chocolate sauce for my sweet tooth.
Next we drove to Kilmarnock, this time to visit the Kilmarnock Museum. It was very tiny but despite its small size, it gave us quite an understanding of life in the Northern Neck, from as far back as the late 1600s. Poor Kilmarnock was plagued by fires and had to rebuild itself three times within a span of 50 years. Much like the other historical sites we visited, this museum was full of dioramas of different historical scenes and had the seemingly mandatory pictures of ships. Of course, as we left, the volunteer at the museum urged us to sign the guest book.
The surprisingly warm weather for November beckoned us to return to the Tides Inn and sit by the pool, on the lounge chairs that faced the bay. We did not disobey this command, and we rested lazily in front of the sparkling water and actually tanned in November! This respite was short, however, because we, like what seemed like every other person in the land of pleasant living, had the urge to see what this Urbanna Oyster Festival was like
Urbanna’s Oyster Festival
The road to Urbanna was lined with cars and we realized we should not have left in the middle of the day. We ate our Tides Inn sack lunch in the car and wondered what the festival would be like for quite some time while the car remained almost motionless. Finally, we arrived in Urbanna and the town was a chaotic mess of people, booths, oyster flags and noise from the parade and all the oyster fans.
We watched the parade for a few minutes, but the crowds were too much, and the marching band and Urbanna floats were not tempting enough for us to stay. Instead, I indulged in some funnel cake from one of the food vendors who, surprisingly enough, had very few oyster dishes for sale. The restaurants around town seemed to have more of the traditional oyster fare. I wish we had more time to go through all the shops, because a lot of them seemed to have more local color than those of Irvington, and Urbanna’s old-timey Ice Cream Parlor looked like a fun place to get a snack.
Even though the streets were crowded with people and booths (with traditional carnival games, prizes and food), we were able to visit some of the buildings listed on the “Walking Guide of Historic Urbanna, VA.” We spent the most time in the Old Tobacco Warehouse, which dates back to 1766 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We looked at its familiar dioramas and paintings of ships. Our stay was brief, however, because we had to catch the Tides Inn’s yacht, the Miss Ann – for our ride back to Irvington. Our “Whiskey Run” ride was the same run that existed when Irvington was a “dry” town, and Urbanna was not (and so yachtsmen would go there for spirits). While we did not imbibe any spirits, others around us did, as we indulged instead in the breathtaking sight of the sun setting on the water. I took about 50 pictures of varying stages of the sun lowering over the water. In spite of the crowds at the festival, the cruise to Irvington made visiting Urbanna the best part of our trip. But I do look forward to receiving mail from all the places whose guest book I signed.
That evening we had dinner at the inn’s more casual Chesapeake Club, where live musicians accompanied our meal. The dessert — tofu cheesecake — was once again my favorite part. On Sunday we said goodbye to the Tides Inn, Irvington, and the Northern Neck of Virginia and had one last celebratory meal. We ate at one of Irvington’s cutesy-pie places, the Trick Dog Cafe, which has quite a trendy and tasty brunch for being relatively in the middle of nowhere.
On the drive to the Richmond Airport, I looked at all of the pictures I took on my digital camera and knew that I would never be quite as satisfied with the waters at Ocean City or Virginia Beach. And I will look forward to receiving mail from all the places whose guest book I signed during our stay.
The Tides Inn (804/438-5000 or 800/843-3746) is located at 480 King Carter Drive Irvington, VA 22480. For reservations at The Spa at the Tides Inn, call 804/438-4430.
Historic Christ Church (804/438-6855) is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. The reception center and museum are open April through November 10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday, 2pm to 5pm on Sundays. Admission is a suggested donation.
The Kilmarnock Antique Gallery (804/435-1207 or 800/497-0083) is open daily from 10am to 5pm and is located at 144 School Street in Kilmarnock, VA 22482. The Kilmarnock Museum (804/436-9100), located at 76 North Main Street, Kilmarnock, Virginia, is open from 10am to 4pm Thursday through Saturday, March through December. Admission is free, but there is a suggested donation.
The Steamboat Era Museum (804/438-6888) is open 10am to 4pm Thursday through Saturday and is located at 156 King Carter Dr. Irvington, VA 22480.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.