The Tides Inn still wears the crown for hospitality on Carter
Creek, down in Rappahannock country. [January 2005]
By Jane Meneely
Photographs by Starke Jett
My friend Paul and I had just spent an exhausting weekend singing sea chanteys at Norfolk's Harborfest, and we wanted a couple of days to unwind before facing the rigors of real life again. So instead of heading straight for home, we looked to the Rappahannock for well earned respite. And find it we did. Along these river shores we had our pick of things to do, places to go and people to meet—albeit country-style. Not a lot of hubbub here. Plenty of people have bought up the shoreline and planted new homes or spiffed up the old ones, but there are no suburban eyesores, no clumps of high-rise condominiums, no spreads of look-alike bungalows—and, frankly, not many boating facilities for so large and grand a river. Sure, marinas abound in Deltaville (at the river's mouth), there are several at Urbanna (a bit of a reach up the south shore) and you'll find wharves crowded with workboats or headboats in places like Locklies Creek, but by and large, the Rappahannock so far has wisely conserved its wooded shoreline to remain one of the sterling boating destinations of the lower Bay—for thems that like their scenery au naturel, anyway.
Paul and I had made reservations at the fabled Tides Inn on Carter Creek, a fat thumb of a waterway that pokes into the river's north shore near Irvington. For all intents and purposes, the Tides is the only act in town for traveling boaters. Nearer the mouth of the creek you'll see the Rappahannock River Yacht Club, the Rappahannock Yachts Boat Yard and Marine Service, and the Irvington Marina, whose docks sit side by side on the right. None of these offers transient slips (although the yacht club extends reciprocity to other clubs), and the marina sells the only gas and diesel fuel to be had on the creek. So, for boaters looking to tie up for the night, it's the Tides or nothing. But, oh my, what a place. You'll find everything here but hot-and-cold running diesel repair. (Fortunately, Patsy Panis at Rappahannock Yachts can tend to those more mundane needs.)
Being in Rome, as they say, Paul and I took a room, forgoing the pleasure of dockside comforts. We had a balcony overlooking Carter Creek and the little fleet of J/22s owned by the Premier Sailing School. In the wee hours of the morning we could hear the sputter of a workboat engine outside our window, and we watched as a waterman hauled his pots within a stone's throw of our room. We couldn't have anchored so close. As daylight crept onto the river, we could see that the woods around us teemed with oak and holly. Bluebirds were everywhere, and we could hear cardinals call from the treetops. This was heaven without the bottom paint.
The umbrella was the tip off that the Tides is indeed a classy place. You can find a newspaper at your door anywhere; at the Tides Inn, though, our paper came with a polite knock and the presentation of an umbrella. The Weather Channel predicted showers, the presenter said. Far be it for a guest at the Tides to be caught without an umbrella were he or she to venture out. And we were going to venture out, Paul and I. We were going for a ride on theMiss Ann. And we thought the umbrella was a very nice touch.
It didn't rain (of course, if wehadn'thad the umbrella . . . ). Instead the sun came out in magnificent splendor and dropped flecks of golden light like confetti on the water of Carter Creek. We climbed aboard the
Miss Ann, the Gatsby-esque yacht named for Ann Stephens, who, with her husband Ennolls (and ultimately their son Robert) presided over the Tides Inn and built up its reputation for gracious hospitality. The boat looks like a Trumpy, but she actually came from a yard on Delaware Bay in 1925. After being lavishly appointed as the personal yacht for a Detroit tycoon, she wound up serving as Coastal Patrol Yacht
Aquamarineduring World War II, assigned to the Naval Research Laboratory in the Chesapeake. The Stephens family acquired the vessel after the war and meticulously restored and maintained her for the pleasure of their guests, thinking she would add to the overall attraction of the small resort they were developing there in the Virginia outback.
The boat is stunning. She retains all the grace and elegance of her early years. Lovely furnishings adorn the main saloon. Comfortable seating lures guests to the upper deck, where an awning provides delicious shade in the open breeze. A white-coated barman is ready with the cocktails, and the buffet table is crowded with wholesome fare: fried chicken, cold cuts, fruit, salad, cake. What more could a body want for a toot up the river and back? A clutch of passengers had already gathered in the main saloon, but Paul and I climbed to the top deck to enjoy our run up the river in the open air. There we met Captain Clarence Smith, who was scrutinizing the creek from the expansive windows of the wheelhouse. The breeze was just spunky enough to make him wonder how far up the river he would go. These long narrow yachts will split through the chop as sweet as you please, but they can roll in a blow, and he didn't want to slosh anyone's drink.
On Saturdays theMiss Annruns across the river to Urbanna. Once upon a time Lancaster County on the Tides side of the river was "dry"—that is, no, liquor could be bought locally and the Tides couldn't sell booze at the bar. In Urbanna, though, a body could purchase all manner of alcoholic elixirs, and the liquor stores there did a brisk business. Knowing full well that their clientele wanted to wet its whistle on more than just sweet tea and lemonade, the Tides proprietors sent the
Miss Ann, loaded to the scuppers with guests, on a weekly run to the "wet" side of the river. After a pleasant stroll through the streets of Urbanna the excursionists would clamber back onboard with a bottle or two of strong spirits tucked under their arms. Back at the inn bar, guests were assigned a liquor locker where they could store their hooch. The bartender had a key and would mix and serve drinks on request. Nowadays, passengers have other reasons for visiting the hamlet of Urbanna. But the liquor lockers (empty now) still line the wall of the bar at the Tides Inn, and the weekly run to Urbanna is still called the "whiskey cruise."
Back at the dock, we stopped to admire a lovely sloop namedSelf-Reliance. Her classic lines looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place her. Her owners were aboard, and soon we were too. She is a custom Dickerson, we learned, modified above and below to suit her owners, John and Judy Harrison. John didn't want the traditional yawl rig, and Judy had wanted more comfortable living space down below. The result was a spacious live-aboard that could be single-handed. Interestingly, the Harrisons are part of an ever-growing cadre of Bay boaters who live far afield—Austin, Texas, in fact. They spend a month or so cruising the Bay in the spring and fall, then leave their boat on the hard at Rappahannock Yachts. The dry storage is cheaper than a slip and means less wear and tear in the long run.
"We just love it," Judy said. "We're here in the best weather, and it's so easy to get around from here."
"But the Tides is our home base when the boat's in the water," John chimed in. "We haven't found a better spot."
We thanked them and wandered on, figuring to borrow a pair of bicycles and try to find the old Christ Church—a must-see, according to the Harrisons. The afternoon was perfect for a bike ride. Not too hot, not too cold. And the winding country roads lured us along in style. I'm used to the flat of the Eastern Shore. This land was gently rolling, and we had to pump a bit to get where we were going. "This is remarkably like exercise," Paul said suspiciously. Perhaps, but only enough to put some color in our cheeks.
The small country church was easy to find, but unfortunately it had already closed for the day. An exhibit building holds artifacts recovered during recent restoration efforts, and the church itself is open daily for self-guided tours. We were an inch too late. Still, the grounds are lovely, and the church (completed in 1735) is well worth the ride. As we rested on our bikes, the soft glow of sunset warmed the bricks and the hush of the churchyard kept even the birds at a whisper. The roar of a motorcycle broke our reverie. A single rider swung down the driveway and approached us meaningfully. We thought he was going to ask us directions, so we waited.
Stephen Stewart had not come to ask directions. He had come because he thought we were there for the same reason he was: to watch the evening sun light up the dentils of the church. The sky was just overcast enough to mute the sun's rays, but if we'd had a clearer day, Stewart said, we would have seen the church "clock" in action.
According to the church's website, no one knows who actually designed the church, but Stewart claims that the structure is a dead ringer for other Georgian churches designed by Christopher Wren, who, according to Stewart, very deliberately positioned the buildings and crafted their trappings—like the spacing of the dentils (small rectangular blocks that appear to be supporting the cornice) and even the spacing of the windows—as a sort of cosmic timepiece. We must have listened to him for an hour as he explained how the sun lights up a different dentil each day and illuminates different areas of the church's interior on different days, even falling on the tomb of the church's builder, who lies beneath the church floor. The sun wasn't out, so we had no way of establishing the veracity of our learned companion. But his spiel sounded utterly fascinating and really quite plausible. Natural lighting had to have had a certain appeal in the centuries before electric lighting, and wouldn't a master architect have taken that into account? And why not, even if only for the fun of it, arrange things so that the sunlight beams directly on the altar on certain feast days.
Paul and I headed back to the Tides for dinner.
One makes dinner reservations at the Tides, which Paul and I had dutifully done prior to our departure on the bicycles. We had two main dining rooms to choose from. The Dining Room offered traditional Chesapeake cuisine and required a coat and tie. Bugger that. We opted for the Chesapeake Club, where diners could dress more casually and partake of "American Bistro Cuisine." Alas, our little foray into archeo-astronomy had delayed us and we were nearly a half-hour beyond our appointed time. Luckily, the maitre d' was forgiving, and we were ushered into the Chesapeake Club with little fanfare. Our friends the Harrisons were already seated, and they waved us over. Would we join them? they asked. Most certainly! (So much for reservations.) The food was elegant. Plenty of seafood and Tidewater specialties like country ham. The servings were ample but not overwhelming. And we had the feeling that the server would have jumped in his car and hopped down the road for us if we'd needed something the kitchen didn't offer. The Tides is like that, we found.
A piano player was ensconced in one corner of the room, and throughout the evening she'd been playing soft jazzy numbers interspersed with show tunes and a few dusty hits. The Harrisons had headed back to their boat, but we ordered a nightcap and listened for a bit. When the musician took a break, we got to chatting, and well, yes, we did music too, and well, yes, we had our guitars with us, and well (this was after a couple of nightcaps) yes, we'd be happy to fetch them and sing a few tunes. So we did. No kidding. And it was a hoot and a half. Those who were lingering in the bar gathered around and sang along—these were sea chanteys, mind you, and some of them were naughty. And a ripping good time was had by all.
The next morning, guests actually stopped us in the hallway and thanked us for our music. Even the concierge (Violet Whay, delightful lady) had heard about it, and she invited us to come back and play for them again sometime. (Now that's an invitation we won't refuse.) The point is, we were made to feel at home, and sharing our music with the patrons in the bar was just part of being comfortable. We were all having fun, which was a fine thing and something to be encouraged.
Paul lives for golf. He has golf shirts and golf hats and golf gloves and golf shoes. He tells golf jokes. You never have to wonder what to give Paul for his birthday. He likes sailing too— especially if he can sail to a golf course. So the Tides, with its famously obscure Golden Eagle golf course (dubbed the "toughest course no one's ever heard of" byGolfmagazine), was hog heaven for Paul. I'd never played golf before in my life, so this was going to be an adventure.
The concierge was completely sure that the course wouldn't be crowded (it was a Tuesday, after all), and so it would be fine for me to play along with Paul. So far so good. We had to drive to the golf club. (There's a small par 3 course at the inn, but Paul wanted the real thing.) And we were assigned a golf cart and given a map of the course and sent on our way.
Paul let me drive . . . which may have been a mistake. I really wasn't trying to kill him, but he took it the wrong way when I went caroming down that first hill. I just couldn't figure out the brake thing. At any rate, we survived that little mishap, and Paul showed me how to whack golf balls in the general direction of the hole and how to replant my divots and how to keep score (my score was considerably higher than his, so I must have won, right?). He would send his ball sailing up the fairway and I would whack my ball another couple of feet. It would have been boring, except that every now and then Paul would hit his ball into the trees, and he would need me to help him find it. I found plenty of balls, all right, and had a bit of a brush with some poison ivy as well.
We had a lovely time, really. I wasn't so very bad for a beginner, and it was another stellar day, weather-wise. According to Paul the course had an interesting layout with a variety of holes, changes in elevation and a lot of water (and a lot of goose poop). He said it was a challenging track for the weekend golfer, and it provided ample opportunities for dedicated hackers like him to make a few pars. He thought it would be a good idea to propose that the Tides hire us to play naughty sea chanteys for them on occasion in exchange for a few rounds of golf. I thought it had been a lovely walk, goose poop and poison ivy aside, but if I was going to sing naughty sea chanteys, I'd rather do it for food.
On our way back to the inn we de-cided to first stop in Irvington to see the sights. There's not much there. I actually missed Irvington the first time I drove there. Look for the gas station. Beyond that you'll find a row of storefront houses, which includes (when we were there anyway) three or four gift and clothing stores, a coffee shop called the Local, where you can get coffee any which way and Miss Bev's homemade ice cream, and the Trick Dog Cafe.
A sign posted on the Trick Dog lawn read: under certain conditions, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer. Sounded like our kind of place and yes, they could seat two for dinner (we were early, and it was Tuesday; otherwise it's best to have reservations there, too). We settled into a booth with a glass of Trick Dog Ale and another of Flying Dog Pale Ale (I preferred the latter). Paul ordered the salmon, I ordered the rack of lamb. The meal was exquisite. Downtown Irvington may not have a lot to offer, but when you get right down to it, terrific food and a good cup of coffee are all a town really needs.
Our respite over, our bellies full, it was time to haul away for home. We were sorry to go and can't wait to go back. The Tides offered us a home away from home and took us in like family. They even liked our music. Heck, what's not to like about this place?
Cruiser's Digest: Carter Creek, Va.
The Tides Inn (800-843-3746) is the only transient marina on Carter Creek. The primary facility is the original resort complex, where boaters will see theMiss Anntied up at the end of the dock. Across the creek, what used to be called the Lodge is currently closed and under-going renovations. Plans are afoot to convert these premises and docks into residential condominiums.
Marina dockage runs $2.25/ft ($65 minimum) on in-season weekends (two-night minimum); $1.95/ft ($65 minimum) during the week. Off season rates are $1.50/ft (no minimum). Dockage includes all amenities, including the use of bikes, tennis and croquet courts, and canoes and kayaks. Free dockage for diners. Room rates at the inn vary depending on season, size and location: currently $159–$425/night; May–Sept. $295–$625/night (two-night weekend minimum).
Fuel is available at the Irvington Marina (804-438-5113), an unlikely looking collection of docks and tumbledown buildings next to Rappahannock Yachts. (We heard a boater ask if there had been a fire at the marina. No, he was told—it just looks that way.)
The Rappahannock River Yacht Club (804-438-6650) offers reciprocity to other yacht clubs, but it's resources are limited: only two transient slips.
The Trick Dog Cafe (804-438-1055;www.trickdogcafe.com) is open for dinner at 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Sunday brunch is served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. Credit cards accepted.
Christ Church (804-438-6855;www.christchurch1735.org) is open Monday–Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sunday 2–5 p.m.