Virginia's Northern Neck sticks out as a place to visit

Former home of presidents now a haven of vineyards, more

Contributing Travel WriterOctober 21, 2012 

  • Virginia's Northern Neck

    Where to stay: The Tides Inn, 480 King Carter Dr., Irvington. Located on a private waterfront peninsula, it's a perfect destination for a romantic getaway or a family reunion. Tidesinn.com.

    Where to eat: Nate's Trick Dog Café, 4357 Irvington Rd, Irvington. A charming bistro where the art on the walls is matched by that on your plate — whether it's Nate's jumbo lump crab cakes or shrimp and grits with shoe peg corn and tasso ham tomato gravy. Trickdogcafe.com.

    Learn more: Northernneck.org.

IRVINGTON, Va. — Nestled between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and thrusting into Chesapeake Bay, is one of this historic Virginia's most historic regions.

The Northern Neck peninsula was dubbed "the Athens of America" in the 18th century, not only for its great plantations but for its great minds. The area was home to three presidents — George Washington, who called it "The Garden of Virginia," James Madison and James Monroe — and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Northern Neck's history dates back much further, however. Originally home to eight Indian tribes that built their villages along the quiet creeks and inlets, and in the lush forests, it was here in 1608 that Capt. John Smith first set foot in the New World, ultimately meeting Pocahontas and earning a place in history books and Disney filmdom.

A half-century later, King Charles II awarded land grants in the region to Royalists who supported his father against Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. These Royalists initially built stately homes and grew tobacco for export to England; later they became the founding fathers of our nation.

Today, the peninsula, about 55 miles from Richmond, is a rich tapestry of colonial architecture in picture- postcard towns and hamlets, tidal creeks, Indian trails, and a collection of historic attractions unmatched anywhere in the United States.

Within an hour's drive are Colonial Williamsburg, Washington's birthplace in Wakefield and Lee's birthplace (Stratford Hall Plantation); Historic Christ Church, dating to 1735; and the Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library, housing one of the largest collections of genealogy records in the Southeast.

Virginia Wine Trail

Of more recent vintage are the 10 Northern Neck wineries that form part of the Virginia Wine Trail. The verdant land and year-round temperate climate make this area perfect for producing reds and whites.

Athena Vineyards and Winery is a great place to start. Run by three former nurses, it is on the Great Wicomico River; their motto is "whether you come by car or boat, we'll welcome you."

After your tasting, the winery's spacious porch is a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch, preferably with a bottle of Athena's Chardonnay or Cabernet Franc.

You also can enjoy a picnic on the wraparound covered porch at Good Luck Cellars in Kilmarnock. The 12-acre vineyard, which produces eight varietals, was created from a parcel of land previously used for mining sand and gravel.

If you're still thirsty, head back to Irvington and stop at Dog and Oyster Vineyard, whose unusual name is an homage to the rescue dogs that protect grapes from rapacious deer and the noble oyster, one of the Chesapeake Bay area's greatest assets.

The vineyard claims to be the only one in America that pairs its wines (Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin and Merlot) with oysters.

Resort destination

It never ceases to amaze me how tiny towns — some little more than a post office box — can boast world-class hotels. There's Walland, Tenn. (The Inn at Blackberry Farm); Summerville, S.C. (The Woodlands Inn) and Pittsboro, N.C. (Fearrington House Inn).

To that select list, add Irvington. With a population of about 500, it seems an unlikely spot to find a gem like The Tides Inn. But find it you will, regally perched amid manicured grounds on the shore of Carter's Creek, a tributary of the Rappahannock River, which flows into the Potomac and ultimately, Chesapeake Bay.

For more than 60 years, the 106-room Tides Inn has been a preferred destination for those in search of romance, relaxation and rollicking fun.

In summer, you can sip a refreshing Lancaster Lemonade or a glass of local wine, and nosh on roasted oysters while catching a fiery sunset from the inn's Chesapeake Terrace.

On a crisp autumn evening, you can bring out your inner child with s'mores by the fire (licking your fingers is permissible).

You can join the resort's dock master on a boat tour of Carter's Creek, stopping at the 100-year-old, family owned Rappahannock Oyster Co. for a tasting, or take one of the Tides' yellow bikes and pedal to the Town Common for a visit to the Steamboat Era Museum, a loving tribute to the boats that plied Chesapeake Bay in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Get active with a lesson at The Tides' Premier Sailing School or a round at the 18-hole Golden Eagle Golf Club — or not. It doesn't take any effort to revel in the signature Ginger Essence hot stone massage in the full-service spa.

While adults enjoy "date night" in the candlelit ambiance of the Chesapeake Club, youngsters (ages 4 to 12) enjoy their own good time as Crab Net Kids. Activities change weekly, from crabbing and croquet to scavenger hunts and nature explorations.

With all this, it's little wonder that The Tides Inn has won accolades ranging from being one of the Top 10 Wine Country Inns in the U.S. (Gayot.com) to inclusion in Travel + Leisure magazine's 2012 edition of the best resorts in the United States and Canada.

Whether you're in search of history, recreation or the best wine on the East Coast, you're sure to find it on Virginia's Northern Neck peninsula.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouthnet.

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