Change has been slow in coming to the Northern Neck, but that's good for visitors. The area is full of unexpected treasures: little-known historic sites, abundant wetlands and wildlife sanctuaries, and excellent accommodations.
On the Neck, as residents refer to it, you can meet some of America's founding families, watch bald eagles, taste vintage wines, shop for local artists' handiwork and dine on sea-food fresh from the Chesapeake Bay. And a variety of resorts, inns, bed and breakfasts and motels cater to all tastes and budgets.
The Northern Neck is the northernmost of three peninsulas that make up Virginia's Tidewater region. Five counties (King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, North-umberland and Lancaster) constitute the Neck, which is about three hours' driving time south of Baltimore.
Colonial Beach on the Potomac River is a good introduction to the area's attractions. One of the few remaining Victorian-era resorts that once lined the river, Colonial Beach is at once a relic and an active vacation spot.
The wide, sandy beach, old-timey atmosphere, full schedule of events and quiet back streets perfect for bicycles draw scores of visitors in season. And, for birders, the shore offers an expanding population of ospreys and other shorebirds.
A few miles south, immaculately kept rows of grapevines mark the Ingleside Plantation Vineyards. Ingleside offers daily tours of the winemaking operation and free tastings of nearly two dozen varieties produced on the historic farm.
For a nonalcoholic treat, neighboring Westmoreland Berry Farm grows and sells a variety of berries and also has activities for kids. Don't miss the monstrous ice cream sundaes topped with whatever berries are in season.
Down river from Colonial Beach, Westmoreland State Park's 1,300 acres include riverfront beaches and thick pine forests. The park maintains hiking trails, and there are boat rentals for fishing, 138 campsites and 24 seasonal family cabins. The towering riverside cliffs hold Miocene-era fossils some 12 million years old.
Farther south down the Potomac, Stratford Hall Plantation is the home to four generations of the famous Lee family.
Built in 1738 to resemble an English manor house, the H-shaped brick mansion has 18 rooms encompassing 10,800 square feet, all appointed with period furnishings.
Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee were the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. Their nephew "Light Horse Harry" Lee was a Revolutionary War hero and father of Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. All were born at Stratford Hall.
Stratford Hall is not simply about the past, though. It is a 1,700-acre working plantation. Herds of Devon cattle graze in pastures, and colorful Seabright chickens prowl the paths much as they did in Robert E. Lee's time.
A gristmill grinds corn for meal and grits, and workers maintain the fields, grounds and gardens in the style favored at the end of the 18th century. Interpreters in period costumes annually lead 45,000 people through the restored mansion and surrounding grounds and outbuildings.
Restoration work at Stratford Hall began in 1929 when Charles D. Lanier organized the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation to buy the plantation. Visiting Stratford Hall provides an excellent opportunity to leave this century and enter the 18th.
Other Colonial-era sites on the Neck include the birthplaces of presidents George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe; the Mary Ball Washington Museum honoring George Washington's mother; and Historic Christ Church built in 1735 by Robert "King" Carter, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Colonial America.
Stratford Hall also sets the tenor for the rest of the Northern Neck Heritage Trail, linking numerous small museums, courthouse villages and historic market towns.
Montross dining, drinking
Continue south for an evening's accommodation at the Inn at Montross, which further enhances a visitor's sense of the area's history.
Originally opened in 1683 as an ordinary serving the courthouse town of Montross, the inn now offers bed and breakfast lodging, fine dining and John Minor's Pub.
Modern travelers receive a welcome in keeping with the Neck's tradition of gracious hospitality. Each of the five guest rooms is decorated in Colonial style and has a private bathroom. A second-floor common room and the first-floor lounge, with its fireplace and well-stocked bar, are perfect for chatting with other guests or losing yourself in a book.
While the atmosphere may be traditional, dinner at the inn is anything but. Innkeepers Scott Massidda and Cindy Brigman are honor graduates of the Culinary School of Arts and have trained in classical French cuisine.
Along with two other chefs, they prepare a range of dishes spanning cultures and culinary styles. Southwestern, Asian and Caribbean preparations may appear on the menu along with more conventional fare.
Montross is also the home of the Northern Neck Bottling Company, producers of Carver's Original and Northern Neck Ginger Ales. Since 1921, the Carver family has been making and bottling soft drinks. The ginger ales have become one of the Neck's defining flavors.
Using real ginger extract ensures the dry flavor preferred by many ginger ale drinkers. "If you're going to make a ginger ale," Arthur Carver III believes, "you should taste the ginger."
In 1992, Carver resurrected his grandfather's original recipes and began producing the premium Carvers Original and the sharper, more aggressive Northern Neck.
The Neck's eastern end has always been water-oriented. Instead of roads or railroads, steamboats served as primary transport for people and commerce throughout much of the region's history.
As a consequence, the area has had a strong relationship with Baltimore rather than Norfolk or Richmond. That maritime influence is evident today.
Two bay ferries, the Sunnybank and the Merry Point, still carry cars and passengers, and nearly 50 charter boats serve the area either full- or part-time. Boating and fishing are the most popular tourist activities (there are more boats registered in Northumberland County than there are people).
Reedville, on the county's Chesapeake shore, celebrates maritime history. Surrounded by water on three sides, Reedville was originally settled in 1867 by Elijah Reed, a Yankee commercial fisherman following schools of menhaden.
The town itself began in 1874, and the combination of a strong fishing industry and Yankee money resurrected the region during the post-Civil War era.
Reedville reached its pinnacle around 1900, when it was said to be the richest town per capita in the United States. Though home to only 600 citizens, the town boasted numerous canneries, warehouses and menhaden processing plants along the waterfront. Main Street sported its Millionaires' Row, a line of Victorian mansions owned by prosperous fishing captains.
Today, the town is experiencing a renaissance. Since the 1970s, retirees and others have been moving into the area and renovating the older homes and buildings.
Many natives who had moved away are returning to live and open businesses. The town has a new marina, several waterfront businesses and the Fisherman's Museum, which chronicles the history of regional commercial fishing. Superbly curated and maintained by a volunteer staff of more than 150, the museum is one of the Neck's brightest gems.
The museum is a coming together, a unifying, positive force in the community," notes Susan Tipton, executive director of the Northern Neck Tourism Council.
Opened in 1985, the museum focuses on the history of the local menhaden fishery. Models and visual presentations explain the complex processes.
An exhibit this year features Chesapeake Bay tugboats, and the museum houses an excellent art exhibit and library. The museum also owns the Walker House, one of the first Reedville homes, built in 1867.
From B&Bs to a resort
Four B&Bs provide accommodations in Reedville. The Morris House B&B Inn, a splendidly renovated Queen Anne Victorian built in 1895, offers five guest rooms or suites and numerous common areas filled with fine antiques.
Innkeepers Heath and Erin Dill have decorated the rooms with family heirloom collections of Victorian beaded purses, doll furniture, toy soldiers and rocking horses.
The Balcony Suite, fronting on Main Street, is a treat with its sitting room, four-poster bed, Jacuzzi and the morning sun for an alarm clock. At the rear of the house, the lawn sweeps past the Waterside Cottage down to a private dock on Cockrell Creek.
South of Reedville, the Hughlett Point Natural Area encompasses 213 acres of pine forests, wetlands and Chesapeake Bay beach. A boardwalk carries visitors through the loblolly pines out to an observation deck overlooking the point and the bay beyond.
Originally created to preserve the endangered Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle, Hughlett Point is one of nearly a dozen environmentally important sections of the Neck under protection.
The strong environmental ethic found throughout the Neck is coupled with a strong preservation ethic. Just as in Reedville, the people of Irvington have chosen to restore and renovate rather than build anew.
During the steamboat era, Irvington had the only landing of the 57 on the Neck that connected to Richmond, Baltimore and Washington. This area provided Edna Ferber with much of the color for her story "Showboat." Many of Irvington's former commercial buildings have been recycled as homes or small shops.
Irvington is also the home of the Tides, one of the largest family-owned resorts in the mid-Atlantic. A union of two separate facilities (the Tides Inn and the Tides Lodge), the resort has 181 rooms, two marinas and two 18-hole golf courses. The Tides prides itself on personalized service, "casual elegance" and three generations of family ownership.
Perched on bluffs along the shore, it feels like every window in the Tides has a view of the water. The resort has a strong emphasis on water sports, offering a heated saltwater pool, freshwater fishing and rental sailboats, canoes, paddleboats and runabouts. A vintage yacht, recently nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, takes guests cruising on the Rappahannock.
When you go...
From the Baltimore area, follow Route 301 south through Waldorf and LaPlata and across the Potomac River on the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge. The Northern Neck is immediately across the Potomac. Turn left (east) on Route 205 to reach Colonial Beach. Continue south to Route 3, which runs the length of the Northern Neck. The road forks near Warsaw. The right fork, Route 3, goes south to Irvington and the Rappahannock River bridge. The left fork, Route 360, goes east to Reedville.
An ideal day
9 a.m. - Tour Stratford Hall Plantation and learn about the famous Lee family.
12 noon - Have a plantation lunch in Stratford Hall's log cabin dining room.
1 p.m. - Taste the vintage wines at Ingleside Plantation Vineyards.
2 p.m. - Pick berries at the Westmoreland Berry Farm. Indulge in one of their berry sundaes.
4 p.m. - Take a late afternoon hike to the river's edge at Westmoreland State Park.
6 p.m. - Enjoy drinks, dinner and a night's lodging at the Inn at Montross. Be sure to try a Northern Neck ginger ale.