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Virginia's River Realm
Small Towns Along the River Bring a Haven for Relaxation, Adventure and More
By Eric Wallace
Evening has begun to creep in as we pass through the 500-person riverside village of Urbanna. Perusing Virginia Street and other heart-of-town corridors brings charming clusters of beachy cottages interspersed with hedge-lined historical homes and buildings dating to the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries. Elsewhere are brightly painted shopping boutiques, small but interesting-looking restaurants, a coffee house, an old-time pharmacy, a whitewashed brick courthouse that was built in 1745 and is now a women’s club, and the list goes on.
Like many others, I ‘discovered’ the two-county River Realm by way of the nationally-renown Urbanna Oyster Festival, a two-day event that draws about 50,000 visitors each November. Today, however, the vibe is very different. Gone are the crowds and noise, the raucous air of carnival and festivity. Also, the traffic. Now it’s just ... relaxed. I take a deep breath and, heaving a sigh, feel the workaday stress evaporate. Reaching our destination, the Town Marina, we’re greeted by the sight of dozens of sailboats, sloops, fishing vessels, small yachts and a couple of houseboats bobbing alongside the docks of Urbanna Creek. Known as Bailey Point, the inlet opens on the smooth-flowing Rappahannock River, here about 2.2 miles wide. We pursue wooden walkways toward the big, vintage, 50-foot-long M/V Veteran. Built in 1914, the former fisherman’s ‘buy-boat’ received a luxury overhaul around 2007. It is now used for chartered recreational, ecological and maritime history tours on the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay. Options range from 2-hour sunset and sunrise trips, to custom private outings replete with meals at dockside restaurants 5–15 miles downstream.
Virginia tourism sites hail the Veteran as supplying one of the finest marine tours in the state, and we discover that it sets the stage for a premium experience. Sunset finds us luxuriously reclined, cruising eastward down the Rappahannock. We watch the show from the back deck over glasses of wine—a delightful 2017 viognier courtesy of Kilmarnock’s Good Luck Cellars. Aside from a few distant fishing boats, we have the river to ourselves, and peacefulness falls like a warm blanket. The River Realm isn’t all built up and super commercially developed, says Golden Age Charters owner-captain Mike Sheffield. “The river’s clean and the banks are beautiful. And [the people here] are serious about keeping them that way. There are all these little towns on the water, but they’re so old, they feel like they’re a part of the environment.” As the cruise continues, we find ourselves in agreement. Nightfall meets us disembarking at the softly lighted docks of Locklies Marina. We bid farewell to kind Captain Sheffield and the M/V Veteran and stroll toward our reserved table for two on the porch of the tiny Merroir tasting room in Topping. Celebrated by media outlets ranging from People magazine to Saveur, the place is, of course, somewhat famous. It was here the cousin-founders of Rappahannock Oyster Co., Travis and Ryan Croxton, lit the first humble sparks of the Chesapeake Bay oyster revolution in the early-2000s. And it does not disappoint. “Estuaries offer premium oyster farming, and the Chesapeake Bay is the world’s largest and most [environmentally] varied estuary,” says Ryan Croxton. Rappahannock capitalizes on the terroir by taking a no-limits approach to farming superior bivalves. “Our goal is to be the globe’s best oyster producer, period.” We follow the shellfish with a sampler of tasting dishes. These include a grilled romaine heart with anchovies and parmesan; a fresh-caught shad roe pan-fried and sprinkled with bacon and caramelized onions; and baked oysters adorned with thick, crispy pieces of Edwards ham. All are fantastic.
Dinner segues into a car ride across the Rappahannock by way of the Robert O. Norris Jr. Bridge. Turning left in the tiny village of White Stone, we proceed to the Tides Inn Resort in Irvington. Occupying a small private peninsula on Carter’s Creek in Irvington’s National Historical Register district, the 106-room resort dates to the 1940s and offers the finest lodging in the River Realm. But that’s not all. Additional features include an array of amenities like The Chesapeake Room, a waterfront fine-dinery boasting pre fixe meals prepared by chef Alex Pasco; a private 60-slip marina replete with kayaks, paddle boats, tour ships, and sailing school; the full-service Journey Spa; the Fish Hawk Oyster Bar; and much more. Our suite is furnished in a manner befitting its four-star rating. There are boutique leather sofas and chairs; antiques abound, including tables, lamps, dressers, chest-of-drawers and a carved fourposter bed; windows, ceilings and a pair of French doors are trimmed with ornate mahogany. Wet-bar and bathroom countertops are marble. The jacuzzi tub is backed by pearlescent tiles and looks brand new. The bedroom’s French doors open onto a private outdoor patio. Outside, the thrumming song of insects and bullfrogs fills the night. We pass through a small gate in the fence, carefully pick through the landscaping and emerge on a manicured lawn of soft grass surrounded by what, in the darkness, look to be the silhouettes of willow trees. Overhead, the stars burn fierce and bright.
“Boy, we don’t get views like this in the city, do we?” murmurs my partner. With the softest of laughs, she takes a seat on the grass; like a child preparing to make snow angels, she sprawls her arms and legs. Following her lead, I say, “No, we certainly don’t.” To plan your visit go to VirginiasRiverRealm.com
Two Great River Realm Events To Explore This Spring
Spring in Virginia’s River Realm is a magical time. Riverbanks and creek sides erupt with new greenery and buds; historical homes bring a delight of floral eye-candy. Among residents, winter’s recent passing evokes an atmosphere of festivity and general mirth. Interested in experiencing it for yourself? These awesome local events will make your visit all the more interesting.
The Urbanna Cup
May 30. Urbanna Town Marina, Urbanna A fantastically fun and quirky event, the regatta is a nationally sanctioned competition for cocktail class wooden boat racers. Held in waters adjacent to the picturesque Town Marina, the pier and grounds are perfect for family-friendly viewing. Events run throughout the day, with food trucks and beer and wine vendors. www.virginiasriverrealm.com/event
Arts in the Middle Fine Arts Festival
May 30–31. Hewick Plantation, Urbanna Held at the edge of town on grounds punctuated by giant mature trees and a regal plantation home that dates to 1678. The setting is as much a draw as the show itself. In its sixth year, the fest features around 100 artists from throughout the U.S., whose work spans at least seven media categories. Expect tents with regional beer, wine and champagne; two stages with continual lineups of music; and food vendors galore. www.virginiasriverrealm.com/event