It was kind of a forgotten area," said our guide, explaining why the stately Colonial mansion in the Northern Neck of Virginia came through the Civil War unscathed.
The region -- an 80-mile tongue of land bounded on the north by the Potomac River, on the south by the Rappahannock and on the east by Chesapeake Bay -- had little strategic importance. It had no industry or railroads or major ports.
Except for some pigs, chickens and other provisions grabbed by raiding parties for the Army of the Potomac, there was nothing to attract the interest of Union soldiers on their way to do battle in Fredericksburg or Richmond.
More than 100 years later the rolling countryside of the Northern Neck, about a two-hour drive from Washington, remains largely undisturbed. Still without a rail line or an interstate, the area has had minimal development.
Along state Route 3, the main thoroughfare traversing the peninsula from west to east, there are no sprawling malls, few fast-food restaurants and few billboards. At the eastern end, towns such as Irvington attract some sailing enthusiasts, intent on catching the wind on the Chesapeake.
The Northern Neck also brims with history. It was the birthplace of George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.
The living is easy
But while hordes of tourists jostle each other at such well-worn sites as Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg, the parks, inns and historic mansions of the Northern Neck, including the plantation where Washington was born and Stratford Hall, a grand Colonial mansion, offer charm, graceful beauty, a languid pace and plenty of elbow room.
It is an area where simple pleasures dominate; a place to pass easy afternoons seated on porch swings or, in summer, to pick blackberries or raspberries. You can take a riverboat cruise on the scenic Rappahannock, where you are likely to spot bald eagles soaring overhead or skimming the water to snare a fish.
Board the two-car ferry that chugs across the Corotoman River and for a few moments you feel transported back to a simpler era. On our last trip my wife, daughter and I walked a shady trail in Westmoreland State Park until we came to a secluded pond. Before I knew it, I was teaching my 5-year-old the intricacies of skipping rocks. My arm seemed to remember its boyhood skills and I was soon getting two, three, four bounces per stone.
We begin our trips down the peninsula at Wilkerson's, a family-owned restaurant on the Potomac at Colonial Beach known for its crabs and unpretentious ambience.
"We keep the windows clean; that's about all we do for atmosphere," says Jim Wilkerson, who owns the place with his mother. Every morning the crabbers pull up to the Wilkersons' dock to unload freshly caught Chesapeake Bay crabs. The Wilkersons serve up a tray of around a dozen hard-shell crabs for $15 and a host of other dishes including crab cakes, crab imperial and the soft-shelled variety that have molted in the tanks out by the docks.
A few miles southeast of Colonial Beach we stopped at the Westmoreland Berry Farm, a 1,600-acre farm where you can pick strawberries, raspberries or whatever is in season. When we last visited in August, rows of bushes planted on a rise above the Rappahannock were heavy with fat, sweet blackberries. Invigorated by the setting and the cool breeze off the river, we picked five pounds -- far more than we needed -- in less than
At the farm store you can buy apples, pumpkins and other produce, depending on the season. The store also sells ice cream sundaes, and you can eat a picnic lunch under a green and white striped awning while watching the Rappahannock glisten in the distance.
Nearby, the Ingleside Winery outside Oak Grove offers free wine tastings. During the harvest, which may come any time from early August to mid-October, a tour of the facility allows you to see the de-stemming and crushing of the grapes and the wine being bottled.
Ingleside produces a full and surprisingly good variety of local wines, including Chardonnays, Bordeaux, champagnes and dessert wines. Usually we find it virtually empty, but one time we ran into a boatload of tourists from one of the Rappahannock River cruises that make the winery one of its stops. It was one of the few times that I had the feeling of being in a crowd.
Our palates sated, we plunge into history with a visit to the tobacco plantation where George Washington was born in 1732. The original house is long gone, but the National Park Service maintains an eight-room house, built in the 1930s, that is considered typical of the place and period.
It is outfitted with furniture from the 1690s to the 1750s, including a few pieces associated with the Washington family. Like Colonial Williamsburg, Wakefield often employs people in period dress to demonstrate 18th-century life and customs.