Beyond the Beltway blur, the sweetness of rural Virginia settles around you like a fresh breath of salt-spiked air as you drive south along Interstate 95 to the state's Northern Neck Heritage Area. Settled by the English in the 17th century, the sleepy peninsula was long inhabited by Native American tribes who made the most of the rich fishing and hunting grounds that sit sandwiched between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and dead-end at the Chesapeake Bay. For today's travelers, there is much to explore in its inviting small towns. This itinerary suggests spending a night or two in Reedville, then on to Irvington for a night and Onancock for another two. But you're likely to want to linger longer in this beautiful coastal area.
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Northern Neck Tourism Commission
Days 1 and 2: Washington, D.C., to Reedville and Tangier Island, Virginia (121 miles)
Roughly halfway to Reedville from D.C., break for lunch at Colonial Beach, a pleasant small town with a 2 1/2-mile-long sandy beach on the Potomac (it's somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours south of the city, depending on traffic). Stop for a swim and then make your way to Denson's Grocery, run by the same family for three generations, for curbside takeout of Chesapeake Bay specialties the locals can't get enough of — try the fried oyster platter or flaky rockfish bites. Walk just a block and a half west for shaded picnic tables at Torrey Smith Recreation Park.
Continue about another 90 minutes southeast along VA-3 (then 202 E) to tiny Reedville, a fishing village home to many watermen and an idyllic Main Street that takes you back to the 1800s. Immaculately restored Victorian homes in a modified Queen Anne style — towers, turrets and gracious wraparound porches — line the street, dubbed “Millionaires Row,” a nod to the town's mid-1800s heyday as a major player in the Chesapeake's seafood industry.
Reedville sits at the Northern Neck's tip, where the Potomac meets the Chesapeake, and fishermen head out daily from its small fishing marina on Cockrell's Creek into open waters to fish for menhaden. Don't miss delving into the area's rich maritime history at the Reedville Fishermen's Museum. Even if the museum is closed, you can see outdoor exhibits of skipjack and deadrise boats, typical watercraft of the area.
The Crazy Crab
Come dinnertime, get comfortable on the breezy deck of the Crazy Crab, fronting the marina, to feast on fried green tomatoes, crab cakes and steamed shrimp, classic Chesapeake Bay comfort foods. Or order takeout and dine in the quiet of a cozy gazebo next to the museum, just three blocks away.
During summer, Reedville is the ideal launching point for a must-do day trip to Tangier Island, a speck of an isle (home to fewer than 500 residents) in Chesapeake Bay with a long crabbing history and where the locals speak with a specific American-English accent derived from 17th- and 18th-century British English. Several times a week, a passenger-only ferry operated by Tangier Island Cruises makes the 90-minute trip to the island, which you can spend about three hours exploring before the ferry returns to the mainland. On Tangier, dubbed the “soft-shell capital of the U.S.,” you'll want to venture out with James Eskridge (the island's mayor) to a crab shanty in the harbor to see soft-shell crabs in various stages of shedding their shells (it's particularly amazing to catch them mid-process, almost reptilelike, shedding their old “skin” for a new exterior). Eskridge, a true Chesapeake waterman who does crabbing, oystering and more, knows Tangier and its marine life in and out and regales with fascinating stories. Book the 40-minute tour through Fisherman's Corner Restaurant — and while there, order one of its delicious soft-shell crab sandwiches for a takeout picnic by the nearby wharf, where you can watch fishermen unload their fresh catches from their boats or set out to sea.
Where to stay (one or two nights, depending on whether you include a day trip to Tangier): With just five comfortable rooms in a 1914 house, Ma Margaret's House is a family-run bed-and-breakfast tucked down a country road five miles northwest of Reedville.
Sarah Hauser Virginia Tourism Corporation
Day 3: Reedville to Irvington (23 miles)
Make the short (about a half-hour) drive from Reedville along U.S. 360 West and then VA-200 South into the heart of the Northern Neck on the Rappahannock River for a relaxing stay in Irvington (population: 404), known for its scenic coastline of coves and inlets, plus quaint shops and cafes along the main drag, Irvington Road. Here, wine tasting, a river cruise and an oyster feast can easily fill a laid-back day's bon vivant itinerary.
The Dog and Oyster Vineyard showcases dry Virginia white wines made from chardonel and vidal blanc grapes. Order a flight of four varietals and a charcuterie platter and sit outside on the patio in the shade of an umbrella, surrounded by acres of French-American hybrid vines. On weekends, a pop-up patio restaurant called Slurp beckons shellfish fans with not-to-miss platters of fresh Rappahannock River oysters on the half shell and oyster po'boy tacos.
As evening approaches, board a 60-minute sunset cruise around Carters Creek, lined with stately homes, and into the Rappahannock to catch a colorful show as the sky glows pink. The Tides Inn takes no more than six passengers (you needn't be a hotel guest) out on its Duffy boat, with comfortable seating and lots of shade. Adding to the sail's appeal, the captain shares stories about the area's wildlife and history.
For dinner, cross the Rappahannock to the Merroir Tasting Room in the tiny outpost of Topping to fill up on raw oysters, steamed clams and tuna tacos. Savor it all in Merroir's outdoor picnic area overlooking the river.
Where to stay: A former boarding school, the Hope and Glory Inn, in Irvington's postcard-perfect downtown, oozes charm with just six guest rooms decorated in soothing pastel hues and six garden cottages as well as a saltwater pool. Across the river, Grey's Point Camp caters to RVers and tent campers with riverfront sites.
Days 4 and 5: Irvington to Onancock (148 miles)
Today your drive is a little over three hours, but there are beautiful stops along the way. Head south along VA-3 and U.S. 17, leave the Northern Neck and Virginia mainland and take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to Virginia's Eastern Shore, a 70-mile-long stretch of peninsula buffered by the Chesapeake and barrier islands lining the Atlantic Ocean.
About 10 miles after exiting the tunnel, take advantage of the free parking at Cape Charles Town Beach for a refreshing dip in the Chesapeake. Or for some good bird-watching, stroll the boardwalk through a peaceful pine forest for sweeping bay views at the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve. More than 240 bird species — including red-breasted mergansers and wood ducks — have been recorded here.
If hunger strikes, follow the locals to Shanty, a favorite Cape Charles restaurant, for she-crab soup and blackened shrimp burgers. Its outdoor patio with umbrella-shaded tables overlooks the harbor.
From Cape Charles, drive less than an hour north along U.S. 13 to Onancock on Onancock Creek (a branch off Chesapeake Bay). Spend time soaking up the town's charm — it has an attractive historic district — then go kayaking with Burnham Guides. For two hours, you'll wend your way up several of the creek's sheltered tributaries as guides share insightful stories about the area's Native American and shipping history.
From Onancock, it's 182 miles north through Maryland to D.C., but what's the rush? Linger as long as you like to enjoy the slow pace and small-town life of rural coastal Virginia.
Where to stay (one or two nights): Works by the artist-owner adorn the Charlotte, a boutique hotel in Onancock with five classically decorated rooms featuring dark-wood furnishings and Oriental rugs.