When you ask a creative novelist to write a review of her favorite drive, you expect something special and different. That’s just what we got this week from Nicole Kelleher. A beautifully written tour of an area filled with history and romance. Enjoy.
Virginia is for lovers. It says so on our license plates, our welcome signs, and even on the official tourism website. You’ll see this phrase on t-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets, and everything else a tourist might buy. And in the Northern Neck — that peninsula of land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers where they empty into the Chesapeake Bay — this is doubly true. This is America’s “Historyland” and home to George Washington’s Birthplace and Stratford Hall, the Lee family plantation. Along the highways and byways, you’ll find over 50 historical roadside markers. There’s even a website outlining each signpost’s significance because, let’s face it, it’s hard to read the fine print when you’re traveling over 60 mph. But I promised you a romantic drive and I intend on delivering.
The Northern Neck is a little under 3 hours southeast of Washington DC. But for the purposes of this drive, I’m starting the “get there” route outside of historic Fredericksburg. Why? Because after the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95, and then the stoplight riddled Fredericksburg, you’ll find yourself on US-17 S, or the alliteratively named Tidewater Trail. Once on this recently repaved 55 mph highway, the traffic, the noise, the stress, all drop away. The first thing you’ll see is an abandoned house valiantly holding its own against the forces of nature. Keep your eyes open for these mysterious gems of a bygone era; they’re both in plain view and hidden deep within the embrace of the woodlands towering over much of this drive. One can’t help but wonder what happened to the occupants of these homes, some of which were clearly once wealthy landowners of centuries past.
But back to the drive. You know you’re free of urban sprawl when US-17 S opens to a beautiful, single-lane-55 mph curve, cutting through the corn and alfalfa fields. There is something sexy about driving these curvy roads, taking the bends wide, slashing down across the inside without braking to finally accelerate through to the straightaway. If you miss this first curve, don’t despair, there are many more to come. For now, settle in and watch as the forest on either side of your route arches cathedral-like over the road. Spring, summer, fall, and winter, there isn’t a single season where the canopy isn’t breathtaking. You’re on a winding road for miles, and everyone is driving the speed limit or higher. Bliss.
Soon, Tidewater Trail becomes a divided, double-lane highway all the way to Tappahannock. Here, you’ll turn left at Queen Street (VA 360). If you hit the red light, mind the white line; it’s set back for a reason. Many a driver has been forced to reverse at this light so that 18-wheelers can make a tight right turn. It’s the only real traffic you’ll see, because once through the light, you’ll take in the lovely views of the Rappahannock River as you cruise over the Downing Bridge straight onto Richmond Road (VA 360).
From the bridge, it’s a 24 minute drive on VA 360 to Callao (pronounced Cal-ē-o). Turn right at the light and continue on VA-360 as it becomes Northumberland Highway. Along the way, you’ll pass through Heathsville; if you time it right, stop by The Tavern at the historic Rice Hotel for local oyster fare. Heathsville boasts a Heritage Arts Center, featuring weaving, quilting, woodworking and blacksmithing. Pick up a treasure at the artisan gift shop, then continue on your way to Burgess and turn right at the light.
Virginia ranks 5th in the U.S. for the most wineries per state. 10 of our 223 vineyards are located in the Northern Neck. We visited 3 along this route. The first is Athena Vineyard at 3138 Jesse Dupont Memorial Highway (VA-200); it’ll be on your right just after you cross the Great Wicomico River. If you like wine a little on the sweeter side, this is your winery. Best hurry though, the two women proprietors—retired nurses—are retiring again and have sold the vineyard. The new owners are from a local plantation and are opening a cidery with apples grown in their own orchard.
Good Luck Cellars is the next stop. Located at 1025 Good Luck Road and 10 minutes away down VA-200, they offer a ten-wines tasting menu for around $15. Unlike many vineyards around the country, the wines produced in the Northern Neck are created with locally grown grapes, thus infusing the selections with a lovely and distinct bouquet. Try out their chardonel.
After two wine tastings, possibly more if you’ve stopped at one of the other Northern Neck vineyards, you’ve probably worked up an appetite. Good thing NN Burgers in Kilmarnock is only 6 minutes away. There, you’ll learn the difference between a “stay-here” and a “come-here,” and make sure to order the ribbon-cut potatoes. To get there, from Good Luck Road, head back to VA-200 and turn right. When you hit S. Main St., turn left, then right on Irvington Road/VA-200. NN Burger is on your right; parking is handy across the street. And if you like antiquing, stretch your legs and take a walk down Main Street. Make sure to stop in at Specials Wine Seller and pick up some chocolate truffles for later.
The Hope and Glory Inn is next on this route. For no romantic drive would be complete without a boutique hotel with private cottages built for two. Head south to Irvington on VA-200/Irvington Road, and 7 minutes later, you’ll reach this destination. Irvington is a picturesque village near the mouth of the Rappahannock River where it spills into the Chesapeake Bay. The Hope and Glory Inn, converted from a school house that opened in 1889, offers an on-premise spa facility aptly named Recess. Get there early enough and check out a couple bikes to pedal around Irvington. And yes, that really is an outdoor clawfoot tub, open to shade-tree dappled skies and nighttime stargazing. Later, if you want to dine al fresco with a water view, The Tides Inn is less than a mile away—your ride for the evening might just be one of those cruisers.
What else does every romantic weekend need? Oysters. The owners of the Hope and Glory Inn, Peggy and Dudley Patteson, take this to the next level, pairing this local delicacy with wines from their vineyard, The Dog and Oyster Winery in Irvington. We were lucky enough to have Dudley Patteson take center-stage during our wine tasting, regaling us with yarns of a local variety. The friendliness of the vineyard staff is only eclipsed by their loveable working dogs. These rescue hounds are on hand 365 days-a-year to protect the vines from deer and other critters. To get there from the Hope and Glory Inn, it’s a 2 minute drive back up VA-200 to 170 White Fences Drive. You can’t miss it; simply look for the giant wine keys.
There you have it: your Northern Necking Romantic Drive. From start to finish, side trips included, a little over 2 hours in road time. There so much more to do and see, but I’ll stop here and leave you with this spectacular NNK sunset as we drove home after a great weekend getaway.
Nicole Elizabeth Kelleher is a debut romance novelist. Her first novel in the Aurelian Guard Series, Wild Lavender, was released in March, 2016. Its sequel, The Queen’s Dance, will be released in 2017. Visit her website for more information and where to buy her books.
A graduate of the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and Arts, Nicole E. Kelleher studied French Literature and Language, Spanish and Mandarin while concurrently attending classes at U of M’s Art School. She moved to France and attended the Université Catholique de l’Œest before relocating to Belgium to complete an internship at a fine arts and antiques auction house. During this time, she travelled throughout the countryside of Europe, immersing herself in its history, architecture, and art. Nicole lives in Northern Virginia with her two children, husband and Tully the Dog.