Tidewater Treasures

Virginia: The often-overlooked Northern Neck offers a pleasing mix of attractions along with old-fashioned Southern hospitality.

June 18, 2000|By Reed Hellman | Reed Hellman,Special to the Sun

Cradled by the Potomac River to the north, the Rappahannock to the south and the lower Chesapeake Bay to the east, Virginia's Northern Neck has long been isolated by geography and its largely agricultural and maritime economy.

Change has been slow in coming to the Northern Neck, but that's good for visitors. The area is full of unexpected treasures: little-known historic sites, abundant wetlands and wildlife sanctuaries, and excellent accommodations.

On the Neck, as residents refer to it, you can meet some of America's founding families, watch bald eagles, taste vintage wines, shop for local artists' handiwork and dine on sea-food fresh from the Chesapeake Bay. And a variety of resorts, inns, bed and breakfasts and motels cater to all tastes and budgets.

The Northern Neck is the northernmost of three peninsulas that make up Virginia's Tidewater region. Five counties (King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, North-umberland and Lancaster) constitute the Neck, which is about three hours' driving time south of Baltimore.

Colonial Beach on the Potomac River is a good introduction to the area's attractions. One of the few remaining Victorian-era resorts that once lined the river, Colonial Beach is at once a relic and an active vacation spot.

The wide, sandy beach, old-timey atmosphere, full schedule of events and quiet back streets perfect for bicycles draw scores of visitors in season. And, for birders, the shore offers an expanding population of ospreys and other shorebirds.

A few miles south, immaculately kept rows of grapevines mark the Ingleside Plantation Vineyards. Ingleside offers daily tours of the winemaking operation and free tastings of nearly two dozen varieties produced on the historic farm.

For a nonalcoholic treat, neighboring Westmoreland Berry Farm grows and sells a variety of berries and also has activities for kids. Don't miss the monstrous ice cream sundaes topped with whatever berries are in season.

Down river from Colonial Beach, Westmoreland State Park's 1,300 acres include riverfront beaches and thick pine forests. The park maintains hiking trails, and there are boat rentals for fishing, 138 campsites and 24 seasonal family cabins. The towering riverside cliffs hold Miocene-era fossils some 12 million years old.

Farther south down the Potomac, Stratford Hall Plantation is the home to four generations of the famous Lee family.

Built in 1738 to resemble an English manor house, the H-shaped brick mansion has 18 rooms encompassing 10,800 square feet, all appointed with period furnishings.

Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee were the only brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. Their nephew "Light Horse Harry" Lee was a Revolutionary War hero and father of Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. All were born at Stratford Hall.

Stratford Hall is not simply about the past, though. It is a 1,700-acre working plantation. Herds of Devon cattle graze in pastures, and colorful Seabright chickens prowl the paths much as they did in Robert E. Lee's time.

A gristmill grinds corn for meal and grits, and workers maintain the fields, grounds and gardens in the style favored at the end of the 18th century. Interpreters in period costumes annually lead 45,000 people through the restored mansion and surrounding grounds and outbuildings.

Restoration work at Stratford Hall began in 1929 when Charles D. Lanier organized the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation to buy the plantation. Visiting Stratford Hall provides an excellent opportunity to leave this century and enter the 18th.

Other Colonial-era sites on the Neck include the birthplaces of presidents George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe; the Mary Ball Washington Museum honoring George Washington's mother; and Historic Christ Church built in 1735 by Robert "King" Carter, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Colonial America.

Stratford Hall also sets the tenor for the rest of the Northern Neck Heritage Trail, linking numerous small museums, courthouse villages and historic market towns.

Montross dining, drinking

Continue south for an evening's accommodation at the Inn at Montross, which further enhances a visitor's sense of the area's history.

Originally opened in 1683 as an ordinary serving the courthouse town of Montross, the inn now offers bed and breakfast lodging, fine dining and John Minor's Pub.

Modern travelers receive a welcome in keeping with the Neck's tradition of gracious hospitality. Each of the five guest rooms is decorated in Colonial style and has a private bathroom. A second-floor common room and the first-floor lounge, with its fireplace and well-stocked bar, are perfect for chatting with other guests or losing yourself in a book.

While the atmosphere may be traditional, dinner at the inn is anything but. Innkeepers Scott Massidda and Cindy Brigman are honor graduates of the Culinary School of Arts and have trained in classical French cuisine.

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