I was looking forward to a Virginia soft with spring buds and alive with color, after the persistent gray chill of Boston. But the countryside heading east from Richmond Airport was dry and scrubby along the look-alike US highways.
Until we got closer to Irvington.
The tiny village of 670 is a portal to Virginia’s Northern Neck, a graceful split of land jutting out into Chesapeake Bay, well south of Washington D.C., along the easy-flowing Rappahannock River.
The roads narrowed, the towns became more authentic and the drive up to the Tides Inn in Irvington was a real spirit lifter.
Awash in flirty-eyed pansies, rows of bright tulips balanced on slender stocks, and filled with the sounds of songbirds, Tides is not a slick inn.
It’s been around since 1947, and the new owners work hard to keep it fresh; to keep up with the changing tastes of today’s sophisticated, often demanding travelers.
But there’s something reassuring about the 106- guest room resort, a reassurance born of knowing what its guests want, and of successfully combining southern traditions with luxury and contemporary tastes.
It’s the kind of place that works its charms slowly.
Irvington itself, in fact all of the Northern Neck towns we visited are neat blends of New England picturesque softened by southern breezes…mixed with the strong Chesapeake Bay culture of fishing, especially crabbing, along the quiet coastline.
Irvington feels more like a movie set than actual town.
Quiet broad streets, a few colorful store fronts, tables and chairs in the afternoon sun.
But the towns are deceptively simple. A layer of sophistication and humor lies just below the surface.
The local dentist’s office, for example, is a plantation type house, tall columns and very white. Except the classic columns are huge toothbrushes, bristles facing the main street.
And among the cluster of shops is Time to Cook, a bright, shiny kitchen gadgets store (www.timetocook.net) offering drop-in cooking classes in Tuscan Cuisine or a Dinner for Friends course.
About five or so miles northeast, sometime in 1778, a Scotsman, Rawleigh Hazzard, built a homestead he called Steptoes Ordinary. He changed the name to Kilmarnock, after the town in Scotland he came from.
It seems Kilmarnock is evolving into the default capital of Northern Neck, with lots of concern and controversy about WalMart’s planned move into the sleepy town.
For now it’s the region’s antique center, with probably more antique shops per capita than would be logical.
A highpoint of my visit is a discussion with the octogenarian, white-haired ladies who run the two-room, white clapboard Kilmarnock Museum on North Main Street.
People in the Northern Neck love to talk. Everyone has a story to tell and no inhibitions about sharing it.
So, I listened carefully to the docents as they regaled me with tales of Kilmarnock, but was amused their apparent uncertainty as to why the town was named Kilmarnock … or why, since it was founded in 1778, it was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The story-telling tendency continued in the historic town of Urbanna, one of twenty port towns established in 1680 to grow tobacco for export to England.
We sailed across the Rappahannock to Urbanna on the Miss Ann, an elegant 80 year old beauty of a yacht, 127 feet long, and carefully appointed with mahogany chairs, and dark wainscoting that were a touch faded with time.
The Miss Ann has been owned (if a “Miss Ann” can be owned) by the Tides Inn for sixty years and is the resort’s most iconic feature.
At night her lights form an arced halo of sorts, and since the water is visible from every angle and nearly every room, the yacht quickly becomes a collective reference point. And sailing on her quickly becomes a signature event that the Tides urges all its guests to experience.
Urbanna, a steamboat stop, could be my favorite town (if I’m permitted to have favorites) because of the historic homes, quirky shops and engaging personalities.
Ms. Barbra Shackelford, the proprietress, of Bristow’s, is a slow-speaking, soft-drawling authentic daughter of the south, who loves talking about the hundred-year-old dry good store she manages.
Bristow’s used to sell salt meats, fat back, live chickens and coffee. Its rich wood counters and worked wood planked floors are still beautiful, but today it sells a random collection of tools, clothes, yarn, and memorabilia.
Ms. Shackelford’s stories and characterizations are the stuff of oral histories, cadenced recollections of another era.
Marshalls Drug Store around the corner has one of those “old fashioned” horseshoe fountain counters where they still sell cherry Coke, make plain or chocolate sundaes, home-made lemonade (a touch too sweet for this northern boy) and hot dogs ($2.00).
It’s a welcome relief from the sterile CVS’s of today.
Small jars of mixed freshly picked buttercups and violets dot the counter tops and, yes, they fill prescriptions.
There are very successful, more upscale shops like The Garden Club, a series of artfully laid out rooms arrayed with imaginative, garden and home furnishings, temptingly priced.
Tides itself is perfectly perched on a rich grass belvedere dotted with white wickets waiting for the next croquet players. But guests usually prefer to sit and watch the water’s changing moods, have a drink, get some sun or just listen to the birds.
On hot days the flower lined paths leading to the sparkling pool or solitary benches seem so appropriately Southern somehow.
But today was misty, so we drove to Reedville, a tiny village saturated with the history and labor of Northern Necks fishermen and watermen. Big, well-made homes of the early menhaden captains line the village center, and the Fisherman’s Museum houses the region’s maritime traditions.
Try the crab cake sandwich at the Crazy Crab. The restaurant is quite literally on the water and serves some of the best crabs and oysters anywhere. The oysters are served grilled or in a soup, on the shell, or breaded….
Northern Neck story telling reached its acme at the Paperback Writer (www.paperbackwriterinc.com) in White Stone.
The store’s fun, jigsaw puzzle layout leads to books, cds, enamel pots and whatnots for sale.
The owner was having a coffee when we were arrived; he told us it was the best coffee in Virginia.
He also talked nonstop about the Tides, its previous owners, its history, the changes in White Stone and how a favorite local singer passed away all too early in her life.
Eventually we returned to Tides, an easy ride back on roads free of traffic.
We were surprised when the staff said they missed us.
We were only gone a short time, but it seemed like a homecoming.