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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Chesapeake Bay

By Deane Winegar

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Chesapeake Bay > The Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck > The Northern Neck

The Northern Neck

Four Virginia counties make up the peninsula called the Northern Neck, or simply the Neck by locals. Bounded to the north by the Potomac River, to the south by the Rappahannock River, and to the east by the Chesapeake Bay, the counties include Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond, and Westmoreland. Depending on who’s doing the defining, King George County is sometimes included. King George is less isolated than its eastern neighbors are, but it does have Caledon State Park and Natural Area [Fig. 9(12)] in a remote bend of the Potomac where there is a large concentration of bald eagles.

The people who live on the Northern Neck share ancestral traditions of working the salt water that nearly surrounds them, hunting the marshes and woodlands, and farming the rich soil. While harvesting Chesapeake Bay crabs, clams, oysters, and fish, the Northern Neck waterman faces the daily uncertainties of weather—a sudden squall, ice freezing on the boat deck, baking summer sun, and heavy fog, to mention a few. Most watermen come from long lines of watermen before them and take great pride in their ability to wrest a living from the sea.

Before modern game management practices evolved, many game animals were just about wiped out on the Northern Neck, just as they were all across the Commonwealth. Today, however, wild turkeys are abundant and turkey hunting is excellent. Fall also brings deer, quail, and waterfowl hunters to Northern Neck counties.

The Robert O. Norris Jr. Bridge, known locally as the Rappahannock River Bridge, provides a dramatic entry to the southeastern corner of the Northern Neck on VA 3. Far below the 2-mile-long span, anglers in boats pull tasty croaker and spot from around the bridge pilings or from the waters off Parrott Island. Other boats leave V-shaped wakes as they head out of marinas from inlets on both sides of the Rappahannock to fish for pan trout, bluefish, and rockfish off Windmill Point, Stingray Point, the Hole in the Wall, the Cell, and other Chesapeake Bay hotspots.

Stingray Point, by the way, got its name from a fascinating incident involving Capt. John Smith. While exploring the Chesapeake, Smith was stung by a stingray. Pain and swelling became so great that he ordered his men to begin digging his grave and making funeral arrangements. However, local Indians knew of a remedy. By dinnertime, so the account goes, Smith was well enough to join his comrades.

The quiet community of White Stone in Lancaster County is near the northern end of the Rappahannock River Bridge. Quiet, that is, unless the local fire department is holding its Rappahannock River Waterfowl Show (804-435-6355). This March event annually draws thousands of waterfowl and art enthusiasts for a decoy-carving competition, waterfowl art, and photography exhibits. The fire department building and adjacent schoolhouse are filled with the sounds of goose and duck callers and the mixed aroma of barbecue, fried chicken, hot dogs, and fresh popcorn. White Stone also celebrates its Chesapeake Bay heritage with the annual Bay Seafood Festival in early September.

Up the road from White Stone, in nearby Kilmarnock, is the Lancaster County Visitors Center (800-579-9102) in the Chesapeake Commons Shopping Center.

On VA 200 between White Stone and Irvington is Historic Christ Church (804-438-6855), a National Historic Landmark completed in 1735. It doesn’t take an architect to appreciate the exquisite brickwork and unusual roof flare of this Colonial Episcopal church. Costumed interpreters will point out the altarpiece of native walnut, the wainscoted pews, and the triple-decker pulpit with dome top. The church is about 1.5 miles north of Irvington and clearly marked. A museum, small gift shop, and restrooms are on the church grounds.

On Carter’s Creek at Irvington is The Tides (800-843-3746 or 804-438-5000), recognized by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the world’s premier resorts. Golf Digest has rated the resort’s Golden Eagle course one of Virginia’s top ten golf courses. Moonlight, lunch, and dinner cruises are available aboard the 127-foot classic 1926 yacht, the Miss Ann (reservations required, phone 804-438-5000). Tennis, biking, sailing, canoeing, fishing, or relaxing on the sandy beach are other options.

At Lancaster on VA 3 is the Mary Ball Washington Museum (804-462-7280), honoring George Washington’s mother, who was born in Lancaster County. In the museum complex are the Old Clerk’s Office from the 1790s and an 1820 jail. The self-guided walking tour of the Lancaster Courthouse Historic District highlights the past 350 years in Lancaster County.

The fishing village of Reedville is located on the northeastern tip of the Northern Neck in Northumberland County. Take US 360 northeast out of Richmond, drive 86 miles, and you’ll dead-end at this picturesque village of grand old Victorian homes built at the turn of the century by ship captains and wealthy industrialists. Some of the homes have been converted into B&Bs with second- and third-floor rooms where you can watch ships, sailboats, and workboats on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum (804-453-6529) is located on Cockrell’s Creek in the center of the historic district. On display is a growing collection of typical Chesapeake Bay workboats such as a crabbing skiff, a menhaden striker boat, and a 1929 buyboat pilothouse. Ask for a brochure of the Reedville Walking Tour as a guide for the turn-of-the-century Victorian homes lined up on Main Street. Also, the museum has exhibits on Reedville’s thriving menhaden industry, which provides jobs for many Northumberland County residents. (On some days, depending on wind direction, the air is filled with a pungent fishy aroma from the local menhaden processing plant.)

Reedville is a premier destination for saltwater anglers. Several charter boats operate out of Cockrell’s Creek (see Outfitters, Guides, and Suppliers). The annual Reedville Bluefish Derby in mid-June draws hundreds of boaters in pursuit of big bluefish and big cash prizes. Prizes are also awarded for the largest rockfish (striped bass). Buzzard’s Point Marina (804-453-6325) is headquarters. Reedville is also the site of the Blessing of the Fleet on the first Sunday of May.

From May 1 through October 15 (weekends only the first and last two weeks), cruise boats depart Reedville at 10 a.m. daily for Smith Island and Tangier Island, returning to dock at 3:45 p.m. The Smith Island Cruise (804-453-3430) operates out of the KOA Campground. The Tangier Island Cruise (804-453-BOAT) operates out of Buzzard’s Point Marina.

Tangier Island is in Virginia waters 17 miles out in the Chesapeake Bay east of Reedville. According to legend, Captain John Smith named the island on his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, although there is no mention of the name "Tangier" until 1713. The Indians, so the story goes, traded Tangier to an enterprising man named John West in 1666 for two overcoats. The first permanent settlers, John Crockett and his two sons, arrived in 1686. By the 1800s, the island had 100 residents, half of whom were Crocketts.Tangier—only 1 mile wide and 3 miles long—has been used as pasture for livestock, as a hideout for pirates, as a British base during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and as a site in the 1800s for huge Methodist camp meetings. The 800 islanders now on Tangier are mostly watermen and their families, who rely on crabs for a living as their ancestors have done for many years. Soft-shell farms maintained along the shoreline produce such an abundant harvest that Tangier is often called the "soft-shell capital of the world." A few cars are on the island, but golf carts, motorcycles, bicycles, and walking are the usual modes of transportation. While mainlanders have cars, the islanders have boats. There are two grocery stores, a post office, and one school with grades K-12.

To avoid summer crowds, spring and fall are good times to arrange a visit to Tangier Island. Or make a reservation at one of Tangier’s three B&Bs to enjoy the island at night, after the tour boats have left. The Chesapeake House (757-891-2331), located on Main Street near the boat dock, has a restaurant on the premises and is open spring through fall. Sunset Inn (757-891-2535) is on the waterfront and is open year-round. Shirley’s Bay View Inn (858-891-2396), an 1806 home converted to an inn, is on Ridge Road and is open year-round. In addition to the famous Chesapeake House Restaurant, three other island restaurants also specialize in seafood.

The Northumberland County Visitor’s Center (804-529-5031) is located at 410 Northumberland Highway at Callao in the northwestern part of the county. Eleven miles west of Callao, VA 3 and US 360 merge at Warsaw, the seat of Richmond County. The Richmond County Courthouse is located at the juncture of these two highways. This classical Colonial courthouse was built in 1748 and is still in use. Two buildings down the hill from the courthouse is the Old Jail, which houses the Richmond County Museum and Visitor Center (804-333-3607). A brochure is available here describing a walk through Warsaw, which includes an 1835 Episcopal church and cemetery, Antebellum and Victorian buildings, and a local nature trail.

The Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge (804-333-5189) is an 1,100-acre wildlife sanctuary on Cat Point Creek. Trails follow several miles of old farm roads through woods and marshes. The refuge is located on VA 634 off US 360, about 5 miles southwest of Warsaw. No facilities are on the refuge.

Westmoreland County has several attractions of interest. The historic deep-water harbor of Kinsale is a boaters’ community between two branches of the Yeocomico River in the southeastern corner of the county on VA 203. Until the early 1900s, when steamboats went the way of the horse and buggy, the town was a commercial shipping hub. Exhibits on the town’s past and information on a walking tour of the historic district are available at the Kinsale Museum (804-472-3001), housed in what used to be a meat market on the town green.

The Westmoreland County Visitor’s Center (804-SEE WCVA) is on Courthouse Square at Montross, which lies on VA 3 in the heart of the county. Westmoreland County Museum and Library (804-493-8440), also at Montross, has as a centerpiece a life-size portrait of William Pitt, a member of the House of Commons, by well-known artist Charles Wilson Peale.

The birthplaces of George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and James Monroe are only about 10 miles apart, as the crow flies, near the southwestern side of the Potomac River. All three birthplaces are off VA 3 in Westmoreland County. The birthplace of Robert E. Lee and George Washington are on either side of Westmoreland State Park. James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, was born off VA 205 near Colonial Beach, but little has been done to commemorate the site. A group of concerned citizens has received a grant to develop the site and reconstruct the home.

Lee was born at Stratford Hall Plantation (804-493-8038), a massive H-shaped manor house built in the late 1730s, home to many prominent members of the Lee family, and maintained in immaculate condition today. On the grounds are a formal garden outlined in boxwoods and a reconstructed gristmill turned by a giant waterwheel. Three miles of nature trails wind through woods where General Lee once rode horses. From the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River is a magnificent view of the river cliffs where fossils from ancient seas are embedded. Visitors who arrive in the middle of the day can enjoy a plantation lunch served in a log cabin. Stratford Hall, open from 9 to 4:30 daily except major holidays, is maintained and operated by the nonprofit Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. The dining room at Stratford Hall is open for lunch and dinner daily, year-round. To get to the plantation, travel on VA 3, approximately 1 mile east of the entrance to Westmoreland State Park, then go east on VA 214 about 2 miles to the entrance.

George Washington’s Birthplace at Wakefield is a national park that leaves more to the imagination than does Stratford Hall Plantation. The actual home where the first United States president was born burned to the ground on Christmas Day in 1779 while Washington was serving with the Continental Army at Morristown, New Jersey. In 1936, the site on Popes Creek was excavated, then covered again for preservation. With no records about the house to go on other than the excavated foundations, the National Park Service has built Popes Creek Plantation house next to the original site in an attempt to replicate an eighteenth century plantation and lifestyle similar to the one Washington was born into. Costumed interpreters invite visitors to temporarily transport themselves back to the world that produced several early U.S. presidents and leaders. The plantation and a marker that serves as a national monument are part of the 538-acre national park, which is located on VA 204 about 2 miles north of Wakefield Corner and VA 3.

Just up the road from the birthplace is Ingleside Plantation Winery (804-224-8687). The 2,500-acre plantation has an interesting and varied history, dating back to 1834. It has served as a school for boys, a Civil War fort for Union troops, a temporary courthouse, and a dairy farm before becoming a winery in 1980. Special events held annually at the plantation include Summer Jazz in the Courtyard in June and the Northern Neck Seafood Extravaganza in September. The winery is located on VA 638 between Leedstown and Oak Grove.

From May through September, there are ripe berries of one kind or another at Westmoreland Berry Farm and Orchard on VA 637 (800-997-BERRY) west of Oak Grove. Sun-warmed strawberries are delicious from mid-May to early June. Cherries, black and red raspberries, blackberries, and apricots never taste sweeter than when you pick them yourself. You can also shop for already picked berries, as well as fresh peaches and apples, preserves, cookbooks, and gifts. Hikers can enjoy the several miles of trails of the Voorhees Nature Preserve, property at the berry farm managed by the Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The trails pass through woodlands, opening to views of the Rappahannock River and marshes at several observation points. To find the farm, go 2.5 miles west of Oak Grove on VA 3, turn left (south) on VA 634, and follow signs about 3 miles to the farm.

The town of Colonial Beach is on VA 205 on the tidal Potomac River, about 5 miles north of Oak Grove and VA 3. Colonial Beach Visitor’s Center (804-224-0732), located on the boardwalk, is open seasonally. The community has a wide, lifeguarded beach (804-244-8145 or 804-224-1781) that is cleaned and smoothed daily during the summer. Restrooms are available.

Hughlett Point Natural AreaSnowy egret (Egretta thula) Snowy egrets have a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet sometimes referred to as golden slippers.

[Fig. 9(13)] On a secluded Chesapeake Bay peninsula northeast of Kilmarnock, at the mouth of Dividing Creek, is a mix of wetlands, uplands, and sandy beach that comprise Hughlett Point Natural Area. Walking trails, boardwalks, and platforms make the natural area an excellent place for nature observation. Early mornings and dusk are the best times to hear the calls of birds or see critters emerge from the marsh edges, but any time of day has its rewards.Many visitors to Hughlett Point hope to get a glimpse of a river otter (Lontra canadensis) floating on its back, picking the meat from a crustacean, or see a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) or osprey (Pandion haliaeetus) perched on trees at the marsh edge.There is also the possibility of seeing a gray fox, great blue heron, snowy egret, clapper rail, or the elegant tundra swan. Bird watchers are familiar with the many migrating and nesting songbirds that find food and cover in the mix of tidal and nontidal wetlands or upland forests of the preserve.But a creature at least partly responsible for the preservation of the 205-acre natural area is a barely noticeable insect, the northeastern beach tiger beetle (Cicindela dorsalis dorsalis) that skitters or flies a short distance away from your approaching steps. The undisturbed beach on the peninsula has all the necessary requirements for this threatened species to complete its two-year life cycle. After hatching from eggs laid in the sand, larvae of tiger beetles live in burrows, capturing small prey with their large jaws. The agile, predatory adults are about 0.66 inch long, with bronze-green heads, large, pinching jaws, and a white or cream-colored back with dark markings.According to the Virginia Division of Natural Heritage, which manages the natural area, the species was once found in abundance on beaches from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to mid-New Jersey, and on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Now, however, the protean tidal environment of this sandy beach is one of the few places the federally protected species is found in the northeast.

Westmoreland State Park

[Fig. 9(11)] Westmoreland State Park was one of Virginia’s six original parks built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC parks are recognizable by their sturdy log cabins, restaurants, and other buildings that have stood the test of time. Even roads had to be dug by hand. Also note the expertly constructed stone walls and arched bridges from the park’s early days. The 1,299-acre park is positioned on a high bluff above the Potomac River, which is 6 miles wide at this point. From the screened porch of the park restaurant, which sits in a grove of giant tulip poplars, red oaks, and white oaks, the view of the river is breathtaking.Bald eagles soar beneath the cliffs, easily visible at times from the restaurant and from the back yards of the shaded rental cottages near the cliffs. As eagles continue to recover from their once-depleted numbers, they become an increasingly common sight on the Potomac River.Seven hiking trails totaling 6.1 miles lead into the mature woods and to swamps around the park and down to the beach below the fossil-rich Horsehead Cliffs. Raccoons, foxes, deer, and owls inhabit the woods, while beavers, nutria, and wood ducks live in the park swamps. Along the cliffs that front the Potomac River is an entirely different habitat favoring waterfowl, shorebirds, and birds of prey such as sandpipers, terns, gulls, and osprey.Anglers fishing from the surf, pier, or boats can catch striped bass, spot, and bluefish. Rock Spring Pond has freshwater fish, including catfish, bream, bass, and crappie. (Licenses are required.) Rowboats and paddleboats may be rented at the park. Powerboats are also allowed.

Big Meadow Interpretive Trail

The Big Meadow Interpretive Trail follows an 1890 logging road at the start. Acorns crunch underfoot. The white oaks, red cedar, sweetgum, hickory, and tulip poplar of a mature forest block the sunlight and provide a fairly open understory dotted with red maples and American holly trees.The path leads to an overlook on Yellow Swamp, where Indians under the rule of powerful Chief Powhatan once hunted. Then it leads steeply down to the Potomac River. Here, below the fossil-rich Horsehead Cliffs, beachcombers equipped with plastic bags stroll the sands looking for the fossilized remains of the prehistoric Miocene sea that once washed the area. As marine animals died, their remains settled to the bottom and were covered in sediments. Over millions of years, the land rose and the sea retreated. Now, as the Potomac cuts into the cliffs, sharks’ teeth, whale bones, and fossils of crustaceans are revealed. Locating fossils can be difficult, and removing them by digging is only allowed with prior permission from the state park administration office in Richmond.Trail: 1.25-mile (one-way) moderate interpretive path with steep sections, leading through woods to an overlook at Yellow Swamp and to the beach.

Belle Isle State Park

[Fig. 9(10)] Belle Isle State Park is being developed from the tidal wetlands and upland fields and forests along Lancaster County’s Rappahannock River shoreline. Today, anglers catch spot and croaker and families picnic on the same ground where there was once a village of Moraughtacunds, a tribe under the rule of Chief Powhatan. For many years after the Indians were gone, the Belle Isle peninsula was farmed as a plantation.The state acquired the 733 acres, including 7 miles of shoreline, in 1993. Call for information on canoe trips, pontoon boat rides, interpretive programs, and environmental education programs.

Caledon Natural Area and State ParkTuliptree or Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

[Fig. 9(12)] Bald eagles in one of the largest concentrations on the East Coast are the reason many people make time for a visit to Caledon Natural Area and State Park. So many eagles perch on the bluffs rising above the Potomac River that the park has been designated a National Natural Landmark. One of the best ways to see this magnificent bird of prey is to make a reservation to go on a guided tour, conducted from mid-June to September. Spotting scopes are available.Even if no eagles are visible, five hiking trails that lead through Caledon’s mature forests have their own rewards. Massive poplars, oaks, and beech trees rise 100 feet or more to a high canopy that shades out sunlight and leaves an open understory. The trails adjoin in partial loops. Each trail is about 1 mile or less in length and is crisscrossed with streams and sprinkled with benches and footbridges. The Boyd’s Hole Trail to the Potomac River is open only between October 1 and March 21. Sensitive eagle habitat is closed during nesting season.

Restaurants on the Northern Neck

There are some excellent restaurants on the Northern Neck, but some are tucked away on the waterfront on back roads, easier to find by boat than by car.

Chesapeake Cafe. VA 3 North, Kilmarnock. Sunday lunch buffet. Closed Tuesday. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 435-3250.

Horn Harbor House. Burgess. This restaurant on the Great Wicomico River is a favorite with travelers and locals. Come by boat or car. Moderate. Phone (804) 453-3351.

Elijah’s Restaurant. 729 Main Street, Reedville. Restored 1800s market with waterfront location. Fresh seafood, beef, homemade soups and salads. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 453-3621.

Kinsale Harbour Yacht Club Restaurant. VA 203, Kinsale. Serving seafood and other fare Apr. through Oct. Moderate. Phone (804) 472-2514.

The Pilot’s Wharf. Cole’s Point Plantation, Cole’s Point. Fresh seafood, steaks, chef’s specials. Come by land or sea. Casual. Seasonal live music and outdoor crab deck. Located on the Potomac River off VA 202. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 472-4761.

Sandpiper Restaurant. VA 3, White Stone. Charbroiled steaks, fresh seafood. Opens at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Casual. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 435-6176.

Wilkerson’s Restaurant. VA 205, 3900 McKinney Boulevard, Colonial Beach. Crab cakes, rockfish, other fresh seafood, steaks, chicken. Waterfront. Open daily. Buffet Friday through Sunday. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 224-7117.

Lodging on the Northern NeckWhite oak (Quercus alba) White oaks grow to 100 feet and have rounded tips on their leaves.

Although motels may be a bit scarce on the Northern Neck, the peninsula is a haven for those who enjoy B&Bs. Restored ship captains’ homes in Reedville are a highlight. Campgrounds and cottages are available at Heritage Park Resort in Warsaw (800-335-4464), at the Reedville KOA (804-453-3430) where the Smith Island ferry is located, and at Coles Point Plantation in Coles Point (804-472-3955), where there is a marina and restaurant.

The Hope and Glory Inn. 634 King Carter Drive, Irvington. Bed and breakfast, built in 1890 as a school. Victorian gardens. Complimentary bicycles for exploring Irvington. Pets and children are welcome in cottages. Named one of the world’s best hotels by Europe’s Tatler/Cunard Travel Guide. Expensive. Phone (804) 438-6053.

Bay Motel. US 360, Reedville. Convenient to Reedville fishing activity and cruise boats. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 453-5171.

Best Western. 4522 Richmond Road, Warsaw. Restaurant nearby. Pool. Small pets allowed. Moderate. Phone (804) 333-1700.

The Morris House. Lower Main Street, Reedville. Restored sea captain’s home (1835) on the waterfront in the historic district. Children and pets are allowed with prior notice. Beautiful interior woodwork, antiques. Private dock, complimentary bikes. Moderate to expensive. Phone (804) 453-7016.

Strangers in Good Company. 170 Bell’s Cove Road, Callao. B&B in a secluded 150-year-old farmhouse with large library. Victorian decor. Children and pets are allowed with prior notice. Moderate. Phone (804) 529-5132.

The Tides. Irvington. Two historic resort hotels. Three restaurants with award-winning cuisine, two golf courses including the top-rated Golden Eagle, marina, tennis courts, swimming pool, exercise room, beach. Closed in winter. Expensive. Phone (804) 438-5000 or (800) 843-3746.

Whispering Pines Motel. VA 3, White Stone. Located on VA 3 just north of White Stone. Inexpensive to moderate. Phone (804) 453-1101.

Windmill Point Resort. VA 695, Windmill Point. Restaurant, 150-slip marina on the Chesapeake Bay, beach, swimming pools, nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, nature trails. Expensive. Phone (804) 435-1166.

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