Virginia’s Northern Neck: Lively Mix of History and Recreation

Lancaster House

A mere two hours or so from the nation’s capital is one of the most historic areas of America: the Northern Neck of Virginia, the birthplace of George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee. Because of its early influence on the new nation, this peninsula, which lies between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, has been called “the Athens of the New World” and “the garden of Virginia.”

Rich with tobacco exports, the plantation-owning society was a powerful leader with river transport so easily at hand, but the peninsula was left behind by the railroad and the nation’s expansion. This pause in time may prove in the years ahead to be beneficial for the region, which is gaining newcomers via retiring baby-boomers, second homeowners, boaters and water enthusiasts.

While the English explorer, Captain John Smith, discovered the land where eight Algonquian tribes lived in 1608, you can drive south of Fredericksburg, Va., turn off Interstate 95 and get on the main road, King’s Highway, and take it easy. This is Route 3, which has also been called Historyland Highway.

From Montross down to Irvington and perhaps checking out some places on the southern banks of the Rappahannock on the Middle Neck, as it is called, this can be a trip not merely down memory’s lane but an active adventure, whether boating, sailing, fishing, biking, hiking, antiquing, eagle watching, dining, vineyard exploring or just going to the beach.

Smith saw the Northern Neck “as a place heaven and earth never agreed better to frame man’s habitation.” Today, more and more people seem to agree with him, too.

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument on Popes Creek with home and farm (not the original) evoke the 1700s. Stratford Hall, home of the Lee family, is a lively place. It holds various workshops during the summer, and in other buildings on the grounds it rents rooms and cabins.

There are many historic attractions to see, but save time for the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington and historic Christ Church in Weems. Also consider the Mary Ball Washington Museum in Lancaster.

There are marinas and beaches for boating and water sports – it’s all about the water along this peninsula of eastern Virginia’s Tidewater that claims more than 1,000 miles of shoreline.

There is also Belle Isle State Park, Bush Mill Stream Natural Area Preserve, Caledon Natural Area, Dameron Marsh Natural area and Westmoreland State Park. Along with the Northern Neck Birding Trail, these wildlife spots offer a chance to see bald eagles soaring in the sky above.

Although the Northern Neck seems like a great getaway secret newly revealed—its tourist board’s slogan is “Experience the Road Less Traveled”—there was a time when Washingtonians flocked to its Colonial Beach on the tidal Potomac. There were even barges where gambling was legal, as the Potomac is controlled by Maryland all the way to the Virginia shoreline. It was the time when steamboats crisscrossed the Chesapeake Bay.

Today, local connections continue. The Rappahanock Oyster Company, located in Topping, has an outpost in DC at Union Market on Fifth Street, NE. Chef Troy Clayton, owner of Geranio Restaurant on King Street in Alexandria, along with business Thomy Moore, formerly with the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, opened the Landing Restaurant and Waterfront Bar at Coles Point Marina in May.

The Northern Neck is justly proud of its wineries: Athena Winery near Burgess and Wicomico Church, Belle Mount Vineyards in Warsaw, Dog and Oyster Vineyard in Irvington, General’s Ridge Vineyard in Hague, Good Luck Cellars in Kilmarnock, the Hague Winery in Hague, Ingleside Plantation Vineyards in Oak Grove, Jacey Vineyards in Wicomico Church, Oak Crest Winery in King George and Vault Field Vineyards near Kinsdale. The region has an official wine appellation: Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace American Viticultural Area.

You may be visiting friends or family or just camping, but sometimes a great resort is required. The Tides at Irvington is that place. It is a world-class inn with a golf course, spa and marina at the southern tip of the peninsula. It often uses the sailing teachers from Norton’s Yacht Sales in Deltaville across the Rappahannock on the Middle Neck. Owned by Carolyn Norton Schmalenberger and Ken Schmalenberger, Norton’s sells, fixes and charters boats—and can teach you how to sail. Also not to be missed in Irvington are bed-and-breakfast Hope and Glory and Nate’s Trick Dog Cafe.

Back up in Montross, sample Angelo’s pizza. For great sandwiches and pastries, try Art of Coffee in Montross or the Daily, which is down the road in Warsaw. Local farms offer produce to weekenders as well as to restaurants in the District and elsewhere. Virginia ham? You know it, and someone mentioned Whitley’s peanuts and Joe Lewis’s tomatoes, to name but a few of the top items to bring home besides the history lessons.

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