As tasty as a wild Rappahannock oyster
For this Weekends on the Water destination, we’re going to do something a little different. Instead of highlighting a single town, we’re going to highlight two. In fact, what we’re recommending is more like an area. A good part of it you can get to by boat, but some of it will require land transportation. A bicycle would be a big help, but frankly, a car would be even better this time. The area is also perfect for paddlecraft and towable boats, if you want to bring them along. Do we have you mystified? Let’s get down to details and you’ll understand.
We’re talking about the extreme southern end of the Northern Neck of Virginia. This is lovely, rolling, largely uncommercialized country. Farms, woods, water. Not all that many people. Irvington has a population under 450 and Kilmarnock has a modest-sized population of 1,500. Yet within this quiet amalgam of land and water, you’ll find one of the region’s best-known resorts—The Tides Inn—and one of its best-known inn-restaurant-wineries, Hope and Glory. It also has one of the nation’s oldest and best-preserved churches, a delightful steamboat museum, wonderful restaurants, and very nice natural areas. Ready? Let’s explore.
The Northern Neck of Virginia begins roughly where U.S. 301 crosses first the Potomac River near Colonial Beach and then the Rappahannock River at Port Royal. It ends where the land ends: Windmill Point and White Stone, at the mouth of the Rappahannock River. In between lies the coast with the Chesapeake Bay itself. It’s that southern section of the Northern Neck that is our destination. It’s a place you are going to love, in a quiet, relaxing, and yes, even luxurious way.
Kilmarnock sits at the top of our destination area, its downtown nearly two miles from the nearest marina, the excellent Chesapeake Boat Basin. (We’ll get to the logistics of that later.) Once you get to town, you’ll find restaurants, shops, and some nice bed-and-breakfasts.
About five miles south of Kilmarnock, you’ll find Irvington, which lies astride Carter Creek off the Rappahannock, and is home to both the Tides Inn and the Hope and Glory Inn. The Tides Inn has its own marina, and the rest of the town is walkable or bikeable.
A couple of miles to the east of Irvington is tiny White Stone, and, beyond that, Windmill Point, where you’ll find Windmill Point Marina, which has one of the best views anywhere.
The best way to visit this area by boat is to do it in two or three stops. Think of it as a mini-cruise. First, visit Kilmarnock by heading up Indian Creek. If you are coming from the south, you’ll find Indian Creek about six miles north of Windmill Point at the mouth of the Rappahannock. Windmill Point itself is about 50 miles north of the Norfolk/Portsmouth area. That’s a good day’s cruise or two easy days with a stop in Mobjack Bay or Deltaville. If you are coming down from the north, Indian Creek is about 15 miles south of Smith Point at the mouth of the Potomac, which in turn is about 80 miles south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. That makes an overnight stop in Solomons or thereabouts just right. In either case, the cruise up Indian Creek to Chesapeake Boat Basin is a little less than three miles. From there you can arrange for transportation into town. Or you can walk, or better yet, you can bicycle.
A visit to Irvington by boat is easy since it lies up Carter Creek, 10 miles up the Rappahannock from Windmill Point. Inside, the creek immediately splits into three branches. To the left, you’ll find Carters Cove Marina, small and friendly, and to the right, Custom Yacht Service, an excellent place to have any needed work done. Straight ahead lies the main branch, and about a mile inside you’ll find the docks of the Tides Inn. If you prefer to anchor out and dinghy in, both Carter Creek and Indian Creek have very nice anchorages.
Kilmarnock and Irvington are about 150 miles, or three and a half hours, south of the Bay Bridge. The best route is to follow U.S. 301 south across the Potomac to S.R. 3, then south down the Northern Neck to Kilmarnock. If you continue on 3, you’ll also reach White Stone. If you leave Kilmarnock on 200, you’ll get to Irvington.
Getting there from the Norfolk/Portsmouth area is shorter and easier; about 75 miles, or less than two hours. Take I-64 to U.S. 17 north to S.R. 14 at Gloucester, then 14 to S.R. 3 near James Store. Take 3 across the Rappahannock to White Stone. If you go left on S.R. 200, you’ll get to Irvington. If you stay on 200, you’ll get to Kilmarnock.
Once you get there, you’ll find a generous selection of charming bed-and-breakfasts in addition to the Tides Inn and Hope and Glory. If you are towing your boat, you’ll find a ramp at Chesapeake Boat Basin near Kilmarnock and another, bigger one at Belle Isle State Park farther north up the Rappahannock.
As we mentioned above, Chesapeake Boat Basin on Indian Creek is the best choice for visiting Kilmarnock. Frankly, it’s a good choice even if you are just transiting the Bay and looking for a stopover. You’ll find some floating docks, fuel, a pool, and very nice folks.
For visiting Irvington, the Tides Inn is the most convenient and most elegant choice. The Inn has everything: restaurants, a spa, golf course, water sports, and a long history. Dockage includes all Tides facilities.
Other good options in the area include quiet Carter Cove Marina and Windmill Point Marina, which has floating docks, a beach, a pool, and a tiki bar. Call Windmill first for entrance navigation advice.
Both Carter Creek and Indian Creek also have good anchorages, if that is your preference.
The Tides Inn
This world-famous resort deserves its own category. With restaurants, golf course, spa, docks, oyster bar, and lots more, the Tides Inn is a destination all on its own. The inn opened in 1947 and has been a favorite ever since. We’ll talk about all of that later, in the Where to Eat section.
Hope and Glory Inn
Yes, this tiny town has not one, but two first-class inns. Although this inn is not as old as its neighbor Tides Inn, Hope and Glory’s main building is even older. It began life in 1889 as the Chesapeake Male and Female Academy. In the 1940s it found a new purpose as the King Carter Inn, and in 1997 it was reborn as the Hope and Glory. Now, in addition to the main building, there are several cottages, a spa, and the sister Dog and Oyster Vineyard, located half a mile down the road.
Not to be outdone, Kilmarnock offers two lovely choices. The Kilmarnock Inn on Church Street has a main house (built in 1884 as the Wilson House) and seven cottages. Its beautiful grounds include a 200-year-old pecan tree. The Back Inn Time Bed & Breakfast on Irvington Street occupies a lovely 1908 manor house, set back from the road and surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds that include 40 rose bushes.
Get out on the water
There are a lot of ways you can explore Carter Creek and its several branches, or Indian Creek, when you are visiting Kilmarnock. Launch your own paddle craft or catch a ride on one of several craft available at local inns. At Tides Inn, for example, you can rent an electric Duffy for a day, you can check out a kayak or SUP, or you can sign up for the inn’s Cove Cruise. At Hope and Glory Inn, you can take a tour in True Love, the owners’ handsome Down East-style Fortier 26. Rappahannock River Charters, on the other hand, offers fishing, sunset, and exploration cruises aboard its classic deadrise, Miss Nicole.
If you’ve come on your own boat, do some exploring on your own. On the Chesapeake side of the Northern Neck, you’ll find half a dozen easily navigable creeks to explore, and on the Rappahannock side, you’ll enjoy poking around the lovely Corrotoman River, right next door to Carter Creek. If you’ve towed your boat, you’ll find a ramp at Chesapeake Boat Basin and one at nearby Belle Isle State Park. (More on Belle Isle in a minute.)
Visit the Neck’s watery, marshy world
Here are three ways you can get in touch with your inner naturalist. One of these will surely fit your style.
1. Hughlett Point Natural Area, very near Kilmarnock, is accessible either by car or boat. The parking is limited to only about a dozen cars to keep the number of visitors down, so you may need to opt for one of our other choices if the lot is full. If you do find space, you’ll find trails to follow. Use the PDF from the website to identify what you see. Hughlett lies along Dividing Creek, which is deep enough for most cruising boats, so if that’s the way you arrived, this gives you a great way to visit the preserve. You can anchor off the beach just inside the creek entrance and dinghy ashore to explore. Take extra care when you set the anchor into the sandy bottom; I once had to reset twice to get a good hold. It’s worth the trouble though. This is a lovely spot, even for an overnight, but only when the weather is settled. If it is not, Dividing Creek has very good anchorages either on Laurence Cove or on Prentice Creek near the historic Ditchley estate. This latter will also give you access to Ditchley Cider Works; more on that to come.
2. Dameron Marsh Natural Area lies a little bit farther north, as far as the south shore of Mill Creek near the Great Wicomico River. Most of the water here (except for Mill Creek, of course) is too shallow for most cruising boats, but could certainly be explored with paddle craft and towable powerboats. Generally, though, the best access to the trails is by land by way of S.R. 693, Guarding Point Road. You can launch a kayak or SUP from the beach, but you’ll need to carry it for a bit on the trail from the car.
3. Our third spot is Belle Isle State Park, which is up the Rappahannock about 15 miles from Carter Creek. Unlike the first two spots, Belle Isle on Deep Creek is a full-service park, with camping, lodging, a boat ramp, and lots of places to launch a kayak or SUP. (You can also rent one.) Some of the camping areas are best accessible from the water. Cool! The depths are much too shallow for cruising boats, though. But on the other hand, cruisers can spend a lovely lazy day or two exploring Corrotoman Creek. It’s also the best way for cruisers to get a good look at our next “must see.”
Ride the Merry Point Ferry
If you’ve come by car and you love ferry crossings, you’ll adore Merry Point Ferry. This tiny, old-time ferry, operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation, runs all week except Sundays and Mondays. It has one operator, so if you arrive at lunchtime, you’ll have to wait until he or she finishes a sandwich. Happily, it’s a nice place to wait. The Merry Point Ferry crosses the Western Branch of the Corrotoman River on Scenic Route 604. If you are on a boat, this is where you head to watch from the water. If you are so entranced and you want more, head north up the Neck to S.R. 644, where the Sunnybank Ferry crosses the Little Wicomico River. You can see this one by boat, too. Trust us, a cruise up the Little Wicomico is one of the Chesapeake’s great trips.
Take a wine (and cider) tour
While we’re driving and cruising up one side and down the other of the southern Northern Neck, let’s talk about a golden opportunity for visiting three wineries and a cidery all in one trip. You can do all of these by land yacht, of course, but you can also do one winery and one cidery aboard your cruising boat, assuming you have a way to get ashore. We’ll do a quick rundown, but you can check times and driving instructions online or by phone. Most of these places, especially Ditchley, also have fascinating stories to go along with them. You’ll have a blast.
Beginning in Irvington/White Stone, The Dog and Oyster Vineyard is the delightful invention of owners of the Hope and Glory Inn. Like everything else they turn their hands to, The Dog and Oyster is beautifully conceived and just as delightfully realized. And it’s good!
On Good Luck Road in Kilmarnock, you’ll find Good Luck Cellars, a former sand-and-gravel mine remarkably transformed into a vineyard. Owners, experts, and family and friends all lend a hand in the project, as do their family rescue dogs, who patrol the vines, chasing off any critters who are tempted to take a bite.
You can visit Jacey Vineyards, on Train Lane in Wicomico Church and on Mill Creek near the Great Wicomico River, either by car or by boat. For the latter, you can anchor on Mill Creek just off the winery and come ashore. Either way, visit on a Saturday for a tasting and a bit of tapas and pizza.
Finally, change up your tastings with some of Ditchley Cider Works’ hard cider. Beautiful Ditchley was in the Lee family for generations, dating to the 1600s, before passing into the Ball family and then to Alfred I. and Jesse Ball DuPont. In 2014, Cathy Calhoun and Paul Grosklags bought the manor house, outbuildings, and 162 acres. They revived the farm, raising grass-fed beef and heritage hogs, and planted 50 varieties of apples. You can visit Ditchley either by car—it is on Rte. 607—or by cruising boat. If you come by boat, anchor on Prentice Creek off Dividing Creek and dinghy into their dock. Visitors are also invited to launch their own kayak or SUP from their beach to explore the creek.
Discover unique history and culture
Don’t leave the area without visiting the Steamboat Era Museum. The kids will definitely vote for this one. Here they (and you) can explore the beautifully restored pilothouse of the Chesapeake steamboat Potomac. With 37 staterooms and 36 crewmembers she plied the water of the Chesapeake from Baltimore to Norfolk, including the Rappahannock River, for more than 40 years, from 1894 to 1936. When she was damaged, her pilothouse was trucked up the Rappahannock and used by the former owners as a summer house. The hull was used as a barge, the fate of most old steamships on the Bay. It’s an irreplaceable remnant of an important era in the history of the Chesapeake. Generations of residents depended on steamships for supplies and transportation. It’s a fascinating era with few relics to remember it by. That’s what makes this museum so fascinating.
No visit to the area would be complete without a visit to the Historic Christ Church just outside Kilmarnock on Christ Church Road in Weems. Built by one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the Colonies, Robert “King” Carter, in 1735, Historic Christ Church is generally acknowledged as the finest colonial church in North America. It includes many of the original features, from the three-foot-thick brick walls to the limestone flooring and three-tier-high pulpit. The grounds are nearly as beautiful.
We hate to end our list here. After all, Kilmarnock has five homes you could order from Sears; was home to Henrietta Hall Shuck, the first woman missionary to China; and has its own bagpipe band and museum of Scottish memorabilia. And you owe it to yourself to enroll in the Tides’ Oyster Academy. Check it out on their website.
The Car Wash Restaurant is high on our list of places to eat. Seriously? Yup. The first time I stopped here, it was because friends and I were passing by, and it was open, and we were hungry. Maybe it’s a Northern Neck thing, we thought. After all, in nearby Callao, the favorite breakfast place shares its building with a tire store. Well, this place turned out to be in a whole separate category of automotive-based food establishments. The Car Wash (yes, it’s also an operating car wash) serves actual fresh seafood, like their popular crabcakes and other lunch-style food, as well as good breakfasts. My favorite? Huevos Rancheros. It’s on Main Street in Kilmarnock. Can’t miss it.
Front Porch Coffeehouse on Main Street opens at 7 a.m. and is an excellent option for those of us who get up with the robins.
Lunch and dinner
No discussion of Kilmarnock restaurants could fail to mention the great-granddaddy of them all, Lee’s Restaurant, on Main Street. It was the first place in Kilmarnock I ever ate and is the established after-church stop for half the local population. At 80, it’s about as historic as nearby Christ Church and has better pies.
If it’s lunchtime and you find yourself on Irvington Road, then we recommend you stop at NN Burger for a burger to end all burgers and their curvy fries, or whatever they call them, on the side. NN stands for Northern Neck, of course, and there is another NN Burger upriver in Tappahannock. You can also stop in for dinner because they are open until 10 p.m. They also serve craft beer, which is never bad.
Also on Main Street, you’ll find Bluewater Seafood & Deli—delicious!—and Jim Dan Dee Seafood for whatever is coming fresh off the boats.
You are not going to believe how many terrific restaurants you can find in a town with a population of fewer than 450 people. It’s almost as if everyone in town decided to open the best restaurant ever. Here are a bunch of them.
Let’s begin at the beginning of the day with The Local on Irvington Road, which is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Stop in for coffee, sweets, sandwiches, and, above all, conversation, which is why it’s called The Local. Get it?
Lunch and dinner
At Dredge on Irvington Road in Irvington, you’ll probably want to start with a dozen wild Rappahannock oysters or maybe a bowl of steamed Eastern Shore clams, followed by whatever the catch of the day is. Or maybe roasted Cuban pork or Jamaican jerk Cornish hen with a side of collards? You get the idea. It’s fresh, beautifully prepared, and leans in the direction of fresh local seafood and perfectly spiced island favorites. Dredge is open at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Also on Irvington Road (are there any other transportation eateries here?), you’ll find The Office Bistro, which sounds a little business-stuffy, but is actually a farm-to-table restaurant with a good wine and beverage list and some highly interesting and delicious food. An octopus salad dish occasionally appears on the menu—see, not stodgy at all—or try the cilantro salmon. The whole place has definite pizzazz. Even the outside is cool. There is a giant sculpture of a silverware place-setting and giant toothbrush pillars. (The building started life as a dentist’s office and, well, who would want to destroy giant pillar toothbrushes?)
Now we’re headed to Vine on King Carter Road for wine and tapas. Vine is so charming it reminds us of those wonderful roadside bistros in the southern French countryside, where you sit out on the terrace and sip a splendid wine and enjoy a plate or six of tapas in the midst of flowering shrubbery and singing birds. It makes a person happy just to think of it.
In the land of pleasant living that is the Chesapeake, the Tides Inn is the King Carter. Its buildings, its command of the waterfront, its amenities pretty much tower over everything around it. And that’s despite the fact that its immediate neighbor, Hope and Glory Inn (and vineyard and cottages), is now among the finest inns in the country. But first there was The Tides Inn, opened in the late 1940s.
One quick story. Back in the days when Lancaster County was dry—meaning not that it needed rain but that you couldn’t buy or sell liquor here—patrons of Tides Inn had to bring their own along with them to enjoy a cocktail. When not in use, each guest’s bottle was locked away in lovely walnut lockers, one for each guest. On Saturdays, those in need to a bottle or two would board the Tides’ exquisite 126-foot cruising yacht, Miss Ann, for a whiskey run across the Rappahannock to Urbanna, where liquor was legal. If you stay or dine at the Tides, be sure to take peek at the old lockers in the Golden Eagle Room.
And this is history, too. The last time I sat down with the founders of this magazine, Dick and Dixie Goertemiller, it was for lunch in the Chesapeake Restaurant at the Tides Inn. I remember the occasion and I remember the seafood cobb salad I ordered. The restaurant was nearly full of locals back from the golf course and guests at the inn. The atmosphere was hushed, but friendly and casual. As befits a small town, many of the diners knew each other well, and almost everyone knew Dick and Dixie. It was, I thought, just as a restaurant at the Tides Inn should be. Recently, the Chesapeake Restaurant has gained a lovely terrace, overlooking Carter Creek, and making it all, well, just as it should be. The restaurant opens at 7 every morning for breakfast and closes after dinner every evening at 9. The menu is at once comfortable and thoughtful, with a strong emphasis, as you would expect, on oysters and crabs, with North Carolina trout thrown in to tempt you away.
In addition to the Chesapeake, the Tides’ Fish Hawk Oyster Bar serves seafood and other good things in a more informal setting. The Tides’ wood-paneled Eagle Room, with its bourbon lockers, is an ideal way to remember the inn’s history. Finally, the Golden Eagle Grill serves patrons at the golf course.
Last and very far from least is the Hope and Glory Inn’s Colonnade Restaurant. You’ll need reservations for this one, because they limit the number of diners at 20. And the menu is prix fixe so that chef Meseret Crockett is able to take the best local seafood and vegetables at that moment to make up the evening’s dinner. The dining hall menu even specifies exactly where the various dishes were sourced. In addition to the 1,300-square-foot colonnaded lobby that serves as the dining room, Hope and Glory recently added Hooky, a dining space on the terrace. The same menu is served, and again, reservations are required. The restaurant serves Friday through Monday with seating from 6 to 8 p.m. We recommend that you treat this like a popular New York City restaurant and make reservations well in advance. ⚓️