The beauty, heritage, outdoor recreation, and timelessness of the Northern Neck of Virginia beckon any time of year, but if you haven’t visited this river-framed peninsula that’s less than 100 miles from Washington recently, there are good reasons to come take another look.
One is Historic Garden Week, which focuses on the Kinsale area of Westmoreland County, on April 22. Five private homes, ranging from the 18th century to modern times, will showcase life in town, on a classic revival plantation, and on the water, in this year’s tour. (vagardenweek.org)
The village of Kinsale dates to 1706 and is the oldest municipality in the region. It has War of 1812 history, a marina, a wharf, a gazebo, and the well-known Bevans Oyster Co. The Kinsale Museum, open weekends, offers photographs, artifacts, maritime history, and bits and pieces of life gone by.
Also in the area is Stratford Hall, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthplace in Westmoreland County, which is undergoing a face-lift in its 1730s Great House. The parlor has been redone and attention is now on the dining room.
“A lot of people like to see the restoration work going on,” said Stratford’s Jim Schepmoes.
A visit to the 1,900-acre plantation offers “a little bit of everything,” said Schepmoes, such as the visitor center galleries, gift shop, gardens, gristmill, hiking trails, biking, picnicking, grandparent-grandchild summer camps, and 2 miles of Potomac River shorefront where people love to hunt for sharks’ teeth. Plus, there are the cattle, horses, goats, and llama-herded sheep that live on the property.
Lodging, dining, and meeting space are available through the Inn at Stratford Hall. Upcoming special events include sunset kayaking on May 30, the Lees and Independence Family Fun Festival on July 4, and a popular wine and oyster festival, Sept. 19–20.
Things to do
Nine wineries form the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail. Chris Flemer, of Ingleside Vineyards in Westmoreland, said each winery will offer an oyster dish paired with wines during a Spring Oyster Crawl on April 26. The trail produced a beautiful softbound book, First in Wine, that explores the history of the Northern Neck and winemaking in the Chesapeake Bay Wine Country. The wineries stretch the length of the peninsula and the trail’s website offers several itineraries that include local attraction and dining opportunities.
In Montross, stop by the Westmoreland County Museum, where you’ll find Washington family furniture, artifacts, exhibits, and a Presidents Garden designed by Charles Gillette to honor Virginia-born presidents.
Insider tip: Take a break at the Art of Coffee in Montross, a former service station turned coffeehouse, bistro, and art gallery.
Colonial Beach, long called the “Playground of the Potomac” because of its attraction to boaters and vacationers, is about to undergo revitalization, according to Lisa Hull, who promotes the Northern Neck. The town has lots of events, including the Potomac River Festival in June and the Boardwalk Arts and Crafts Festival in September. Scoot around in a golf cart, and choose from among dining spots, including Lighthouse Restaurant, which specializes in homemade Thai and French foods.
Three state parks in the region offer classic outdoor recreation and some unusual attractions. Caledon State Park is known for its bald eagles. Westmoreland State Park offers an Olympic-size swimming pool and the opportunity to hunt for ancient shark teeth fossils. Belle Isle has seven miles of shoreline on the Rappahannock River, and the Bel Air Historic area including the Bel Air House and its guest house, both available for lodging and events. (www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks)
Where to stay
In addition to the Inn at Stratford Hall, three elegant bed-and-breakfasts in the area have historical cachet.
The Bell House in Colonial Beach was the summer home of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Built in 1882, the three-story Victorian has a wide porch that overlooks the Potomac, original stained-glass windows and heart pine floors, and four guest rooms with private baths.
The Kilmarnock Inn celebrates Virginia’s presidential history with its main house, the Wilson House, dating to 1884, and seven cottages, each named for a Virginia-born president, surrounding a courtyard where you can enjoy your morning coffee.
In King George County, the 18th-century Belle Grove Plantation was the birthplace of President James Madison. Owners Michelle and Brett Darnell are working with archaeologists to learn more from the foundations of the original house. (Don’t confuse this site with another historic property called Belle Grove near Middletown.)
Although easily accessible on U.S. Route 301, the Belle Grove B&B is reached by a tree-lined driveway that transports guests back in time to a riverfront setting with “magical sunsets,” said Michelle Darnell.
The sprawling house has four guest suites named after former owners of the plantation and decorated in their time periods. In the parlor are two gold settees used in the movie Lincoln, which was filmed in Virginia.
The spirits of the past seem to cling to Belle Grove, where numerous ghosts have been spotted, including a “lady in white.” Like the human guests, “I just think they love being here,” said Darnell.
Ghosts or no ghosts, you’ll love the Northern Neck.
For more information
Northern Neck Tourism: northernneck.org