After nearly a decade away from this tiny Virginia town, the author returns to find that his favorite places are better than ever.
by Paul Clancy
photos by Jay Paul
I'm halfway across the Rappahannock River in my dinghy, its two-horse egg beater chattering away, when I see it--a megayacht the size of an ocean liner, sailing haughtily into Carter Creek with its crew no doubt purring on the radio about dockage at the Tides Inn. Also probably tee-times, cable TV and room service to their yacht. And perhaps a deep-tissue, aromatheraputic, muscle-tingling, mind-easing massage.
You expect no less from this legendary inn, a signature part of Irvington, Va., the old seaport and now mostly residential town just around the corner from the Robert O. Norris Bridge. But there's much more to this town--another inn, for instance, equally classy, as well as some amazing places to eat, a great little museum, a new marina about to make its debut, and a vineyard with some very agreeable wines. It's a terrific place and I'm excited about returning here. And yet I'm about to drop into this posh world in a little rubber ducky that deserves no respect at all, or even the time of day--which, by the way, is about noon on a Sunday in late October, sweet and calm out on the wide river.
So why the dinghy, you might ask? Well, I'd recently sold one boat and bought another, a sweet Cape Dory 25 lying just around the corner in Kilmarnock, Va. But it wasn't ready, even for this short a voyage. I was desperate; I was going to go by water, come hell or. . . well, you know. So I'd hauled the inflatable to Mill Creek on the south side of the river, just east of the bridge. I jogged on the foot pump at least a thousand steps, then set off, scooting by Parrot island and out into the river.
Now, as I'm crossing under the Norris Bridge I pass a couple of fellows in a fishing skiff--more my class, I'm thinking. We wave and one of the fishermen holds his hands about four feet apart as though describing the size of a fish he caught and let go. I nod vigorously--yeah, sure!--and we both rock our boats with laughter.
I speed by, jouncing over inconsequential waves in the big, fast-flowing river, heading for the northern shore. Carter Creek is lovely this time of year, flush with pastel reds and oranges, as I fall into its soft embrace and putt-putt unashamedly up to one of the Tides Inn docks. There I'm met by dockmaster Stormy Thornton. (Born on a stormy day some 50 years ago--and so dubbed by his father--he's rarely been called anything else.) He and his assistant help me tie up with just as much attention as I'm sure the megayacht recently received. "You can find a lot to do here--or nothing at all," Stormy says. I'm quickly feeling at home in this lap of luxury.
Barb, who has beaten me here by car, meets me with some amazing sandwiches she got at the Local, a new coffee/sandwich place in town. We dine in splendor on a bench overlooking the marina. Then, unable to resist, we take off our shoes and play a barefoot croquet match on the Inn's carpet-soft croquet lawn overlooking the creek.
We'd been to Irvington recently, in fact last year, but it had been a decade since we'd come by water. Much has changed on the waterfront and, besides, it's a satisfying experience just being on Carter Creek, which embraces the town with its lovely eastern and western branches and numerous inlets.
We finish our croquet game at the Tides (Barb wins) and meander around the grounds before checking in. Our room looks out over the creek-- an impressionist, oh-my-God view if there ever was one. And I'm thinking, this is about as good as it gets: Irvington on its best not-all-that-snooty behavior on a great fall day.
I don't know when Irvington first put on airs. It had humble beginnings, back when Eastern Shore families, lured across the Bay by abundant oysters, crabs and timber, settled here after the Civil War. At first it was called Carter's Creek Wharf, but it became Irvington in 1891, to honor prominent resident Captain Lewis Handy Irving. What gave the town its prosperity, however, was the steamboat.
It's hard to imagine today what steamers meant to towns all up and down the Bay, so we make Irvington's new Steamboat Era Museum our first stop. An introductory video gives a quick overview, summed up by the narrator: "We are who we are because steamboats were." Baltimore was the steamboat hub, launching hundreds of the boats to every corner of the Bay. The landings made it possible for Irvington to set up canneries for beans, potatoes and all the rest, and send off seafood that ended on tables in New York and Philadelphia. At its heyday in the late 1800s, the town had an opera house, a skating rink and beach resorts.
Inside the museum, there's a recreated country store stocked with goods just off the wharf and a display of old photos of a church camp meeting, with outdoor sounds of a choir singing old timey hymns in the background: "Shall We Gather at the River." There are ship models and marvelous old photographs. And of course, cans from the canneries. "These boats completely changed the lives of everyone up and down the Chesapeake Bay," museum director Terri Thaxton tells us later. "All of these little tiny towns that were isolated suddenly became booming places."
Irvington has seen a lot of change: The old part of town, down where the steamboats used to land, has almost completely faded and has been replaced by a thriving, much newer, upper village. We want to see the old part first, so we head out on our trusty Tides Inn bikes to Steamboat Road. Partway to the waterfront we're attracted by Seafood Lane and veer off down to a landing. Old timers there tell us there was once a pretty good-size seafood operation there a few dozen years ago, but now the landing is dominated by Custom Yacht Service, a full-service boatyard. Several gorgeous boats are on the blocks, undergoing repair.
Back on Steamboat Road we find a cute little town office building where we collect a couple of brochures and maps. Nearby is the Old Post Office Art Gallery, which displays the soft mixed-media portraits and landscapes of local artist Sibyl Bayne in front and offers a framing service in back. I can see a slight indentation on the old floor where post office customers used to stand at the counter.
There's the stately, neo-classical former Lancaster National Bank that's now a private office building. Across the street, another road descends toward what's now called Gaskins Landing. This, we're informed, is not far from where the steamboats landed. The actual spot was a bit farther down, where you can no longer reach the waterfront by road. Still, one can imagine what it might have been like in those heady days. Now it's serenely quiet on this eastern branch of the creek, and I make a mental note to anchor out here next time. There's a private ramp but the public may use it for a $5 put-money-in-the-box honor-system fee.
Then there's much more to explore tomorrow, but for now we've got a date with Irvington's other main attraction, the extravagantly whimsical Hope and Glory Inn. We were at the inn recently for a special anniversary, but this time we're just here to dine. We drop off our bikes at the Tides and change, then walk the short distance back to the village and the Hope and Glory.
Fifteen years ago Inn owner William Westbrook, a Minneapolis advertising executive who had fallen in love with Irvington, bought what in the 1890s had been the Chesapeake Male and Female Academy--with separate entrances for boys and girls. Eventually it became a rooming house and then the King Carter Inn, but it's safe to say it wasn't anything like it is today. Hope and Glory may be in a class by itself--shabby chic and lavishly eclectic. From its cozy bar to its massage room, from its private outdoor shower to its fine dining, from its sunset cruises to its own vineyard, the inn is loaded with surprises and elegance.
Westbrook wasn't thinking small. He also built a row of shops a short distance from Hope and Glory, The shops include what are now the town's only two independent restaurants, Nate's Trick Dog Cafe and the Local, a coffee/lunch shop that seems to be a popular gathering spot, complete with coffee, news, wi-fi, edibles and libations. Next door is "Jimmy & Sook, Their Clothes and Things," and then another mens clothing and gift shop called Khakis. Across the street, in a building that used to be the parsonage for the Irvington Methodist Church, is the Dandelion, a women's clothing and jewelry shop.
The Hope and Glory Inn has become an enduring Irvington institution. For one thing, Peggy Patteson (who was Westbrook's partner), and her husband Dudley have bought the inn and cemented its place among the best and most romantic inns of America, according to top travel publications. Where its neighbor, the Tides, is extravagantly sumptuous, Hope and Glory creates its ambiance with charm and whimsy. You're constantly aware of the possibility of fun. It begins as you enter. There are vines and strings of lights snaking around columns, a painted floor, tattered lampshades, Ella Fitzgerald softly crooning over the speakers, elaborate birdcages on scratched-up tables.
Out back is an authentic English garden, with winding lavender-scented pathways leading to quaint English-type cottages. For those after-hours strolls, there's a moon garden that comes to peak bloom at night. You might even steal off to the secluded and giggle-inducing outdoor bath, complete with clawfoot tub and sink.
Inside, in keeping with the inn's origins as a school, the bar area has a sign that says "Detention," and you can, if you want to, record your impressions of the place in one of the black-and-white composition books. "It all started when he looked at me," one of the entries begins. "I told the teacher, I said, Johnny is looking at me! But all she did was roll her eyes. The next time he touched me. . . ." Another says, "I am dating the teacher, so that pretty much explains why I am in detention." Upstairs, in a room called "Recess," you can have--you guessed it--a body-tingling, soul-soothing massage.
The other news about Hope and Glory is that it is now offering fine dining. Really fine. Five nights a week as a two-sitting, price fixe dinner. It's a Sunday and we're the only ones at the late sitting, but only two diners doesn't stop chef Anne Kirkmyer from working her magic in the kitchen. We're served an elegant four-course meal that includes creamed local oysters and wild mushroom served en baguette, an apple salad with blue cheese, and local rockfish topped with lump crab béarnaise on creamy grits, all artfully presented. When Kirkmyer comes out to ask how we like it, I tell her that I can't decide whether it's one of the best meals of the year or of my life. It's drizzling outside now and Peggy gives us a ride back to the Tides.
The next morning, Barb slips into a kayak to explore the western side of Carter Creek. I hop onto one of the inn-provided bikes and ride down toward the mouth of the creek to a place where important things are happening. Rappahannock Yachts, a boatyard with one of the best reputations on the Bay for repairs and restorations, has expanded slowly over the years and is now really spreading its wings.
As I pull up on my fat wheeler, owner Bruce Sanders is watching a bulldozer muscle about the property. Sanders has a saltwater lineage that includes sea captains way back in colonial times. He grew up in nearby White Stone, Va., and after college decided this is where he wanted to grow a business. He started the yard 40 years ago, building docks, repairing boats and selling sailboats. In the process, he established a reputation for breathing new life into classic boats. This passion for getting it right is evident. His blue eyes beam as he takes me from one shed to another and out on the pier: a Hans Christian 48 with a new teak deck; a catboat gleaming with new fiberglass, its wooden eyebrow trim bent to conform to the hull shape; an Alberg 30, also with solid teak and new standing rigging. These are works of art.
As we're walking, the bulldozer is making short work of the sagging old boathouse next door, part what used to be the Irvington Marina--a place that can most politely be described as having a lot of character. After staying at that marina 10 years ago, I wrote that it "sprawls along the waterfront like a scruffy but lovable old dog," with slanting walkway and piers and old boats that hadn't left their slips in years. Out back was an aluminum foundry where owner Andy Wylie made wheels for boats and stored thousands of other parts. He loved it when people called all that stuff junk, and he could find just about anything you needed.
But some Irvingtonians considered the place an eyesore, especially in its later years. Sanders had been eying this next-door operation for years, and when Wylie passed away and his heirs wanted to sell, he saw his chance to make a big change to the Carter Creek waterfront. He's removed hundreds of pilings, he tells me, and crushed dozens of abandoned boats. In the place of all this tangled mess on the waterfront will be 150 new slips. It's a long and complicated process, involving permits, pier removal and dredging, but the first phase should be completed by the end of this year. Eventually, up on the hill overlooking the creek, about eight new houses will be built.
The other big change for Irvington is back at Hope and Glory--or at least just down the road. The inn recently acquired another of Westbrook's creations, White Fences Vineyard. The owners have changed the name to Dog and Oyster, a play on both Aesop's fable of the same name, but more importantly an allusion to Chesapeake Bay oysters and the rescue dogs (a beagle and two deer hounds) that guard the vineyard from deer, raccoons and such.
Wine and oyster pairings are in the works, a not-too-shabby idea. At dinner the night before we toasted each other with glasses of crisp, mango-peachy Dog and Oyster chardonnay. Dudley told me that six new wines will be offered this year. On Labor Day weekend, there likely will be a revival of something similar to the Irvington Stomp, a harvest festival--yes, you can stomp on grapes--that had been a tradition with the vineyard's pervious owners.
The vineyard, a short bike ride from Hope and Glory, sprawls along the headwaters of Carter Creek's eastern branch. It includes several three-bedroom cottages--rural gothic, I think you'd call them, looking like someone plucked them from the Oak Bluffs section of Martha's Vineyard. Some are privately owned while others are for rent to inn guests. Nestled in the woods is a serenely isolated swimming pool. Behind the cottages, a narrow branch of the creek beckons. We haven't tried this, but, in theory at least, you could sail to Irvington, anchor out in the eastern branch of the creek and dinghy to your cottage at the vineyard.
Back in the village, after a stop at the Dandelion for gifts, we have lunch at the Local, checking emails, the news and all that not-so-important stuff. Then we make our getaway, but not by boat. Instead, we pop the valve on my humble inflatable, sit on it until it's flat and stuff it in the car trunk. Then drive off. Not a very classy exit for a town that deserves--no, commands--way more respect, but Irvington's got a big heart and next time I know we'll be welcomed back. And next time we won't wait another decade.