Visiting Mobjack Bay's B&Bs by boat means sleeping in the lap
of luxury while wading knee-deep through Virginia history. [August 2009]
By Paul Clancy
Photography by Tamzin Smith
There's a buzz of anticipation that comes with every journey on the water: fair winds, a newly discovered cove, a shared sunset in the cockpit, a simple meal, a cozy berth. At the same time-to me at least-there's the ragged edge of worry that everything won't go exactly as planned. Well, I had few such concerns on a beautiful morning last fall as my wife Barb and I cast off our mooring lines on the Lafayette River and headed up the Bay. We were going for the ultimate sailors' bliss-days on the water that end with four-poster beds in elegant rooms, followed by mornings that begin with the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and somebody's award-worthy breakfast creation. We were going to be flat-out pampered on a Mobjack Bay bed-and-breakfast cruise.
Before you scoff at this comfort-loving scenario, consider that while cruising is wonderful, there are times when you'd like not to wake up at first light, throw breakfast together and, while still sipping your first coffee, haul up anchor and shove off for the next destination. Consider too that cruising often means not conversing with anyone but your ever-loving spouse and/or companion for days on end. Nor do you always learn anything about the places you visit. Why, you don't even get the chance to stand off and admire your boat riding at anchor or sitting at the dock.
"This," said Barb, my ever-loving spouse and/or companion, as we prepared to leave, "is my kind of boating." The Chesapeake Bay is one of the world's great sailing areas, and when it comes to quaint accommodations on or near the water, it's none too shabby either. In fact, with a little planning, you could go B&B cruising almost anywhere. What we particularly like about Mobjack Bay, however, is that it's one of the most beautiful places we've ever put wind in our sails-wide, deep and relatively undiscovered. But what we hadn't realized until we started planning this trip is that it also has an embarrassment of bed-and-breakfast riches.
There are four major rivers flowing into Mobjack Bay-the Severn, the Ware, the North and the East-and all of them, it turns out, have B&Bs that you can get to-or pretty close to-by boat. We would like to have visited Airville Plantation on the Ware River, a place with a Colonial- and Federal-era pedigree, as well as a deep swimming pool. Airville has a dock at the mouth of the Ware, two miles from the inn, where the owners will pick you up, so getting there would have been easy. Time was a factor, though, so we decided we'd have to save that one for later. The East River has the Inn at Tabbs Creek, but last fall the inn was still undergoing extensive remodeling under new owners, which made a visit there impossible. (Now, though, the Inn at Tabbs Creek is open and flourishing.) So circumstances had made the choices for us: the Inn at Warner Hall on the Severn River, and the North River Inn on . . . yes, the North River. Oh what choices they were! We were about to sail deep into Virginia . . . and history.
We could feel the energy of the season as we sailed out of Hampton Roads in Ode to Joy, our Tartan 30, and headed up the Bay. To our right and left we saw schooners quitting Hampton Roads after the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race and now flocking north toward home. At the same time, passing from the other direction were the white sails of snowbirds on their journeys south. We waved like crazy to them all.
After passing the York River in late afternoon, we turned to the west, picked up a nice northwesterly breeze and slid into Mobjack Bay and then the Severn River, bound for Warner Hall. The sun, which had been as bright as a torch all day, now became muted by clouds. This change was followed by something quite miraculous. Like rainbow smudges in the sky, a pair of sun dogs (created by light refracted by ice crystals) punctuated the western sky. Then, at last, a crimson sunset scorched the horizon.
Our trip had been a little slower than we'd planned because of the northerly winds, so our arrival was going to be made in the dark. After making a last turn up the Severn's Northwest Branch and passing Brays Landing to port, we began running out of water, as we'd expected from the chart. Not far ahead, though, we could make out the twin blue silos that we'd been told were right next to Warner Hall, so we picked a spot near a little spit of land, dropped the plow anchor and stepped into our inflatable. (Did I mention we'd been dragging it behind?) By motor, it would have taken about five minutes to reach the landing, but we opted to row, so it took nearly thirty. (There had to be some hardship!) We took turns.
"I didn't know you'd be using a one-horse motor," said Troy Stavens, who had come down to help our landing, accompanied by Cocoa, one of the B&B's resident beagles. Troy and his wife Theresa are the proud owners and restorers of a place that goes back to the dawn of Virginia Colonial history. The couple had owned a personal investment management company in Williamsburg, Va., but found 10 years ago that the history and beauty of Warner Hall was irresistible.
Barb and I followed Stavens and Cocoa up to the house from the river. After a long day on the water, Barb and I were famished, and luckily we had called ahead and ordered a dinner basket for two. As we sat and happily consumed its contents-along with a couple of glasses of pinot noir-Troy regaled us with the hall's history.
Augustine Warner first arrived in the Colonies in 1628 at the age of 17, putting in seven years of indentured servitude before striking out on his own. He sailed back to England and then in 1642 returned to Virginia with a dozen settlers, which earned him-at $50 a head-600 acres on the Severn River in what would become Gloucester County. He called the place Austin's Desire, reflecting a shortening of his name, but not of his ambitions. There would follow several generations of Warners, and then, through the marriage of one of the daughters, several more generations of Lewises before the property was sold out of the family. One of Augustine's great-great-grandsons was George Washington, who often visited his ancestral home (and no doubt slept there). General Robert E. Lee, too, can be found on a branch of that family tree, as can explorer Meriwether Lewis. And so can Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor (better known to the world as Queen Elizabeth II), who is a twelfth-generation descendant of Augustine Warner. In fact, shortly after her coronation, she came to America and laid a wreath on the grave of her ancestor, here at Warner Hall.
With all the right political connections, with income from tobacco and the assistance of generations of slaves, the Warner and Lewis families prospered, and the riverfront plantation grew. The house itself was not as lucky. It was taken over and ransacked in 1676 by that rebellious rascal Nathaniel Bacon. And twice it was burned and rebuilt. So, with the exception of one of the dependencies-a west wing of the mansion that dates to the 1680s-little of the original structure remains. The current main house, a stately Greek Revival manor, was built in 1903 and meticulously restored by the Stavenses almost a century later.
There's a spacious elegance about the place that envelopes you as soon as you enter the house's center hall-with a staircase that would make Scarlett O'Hara envious. There are portraits of George Washington and Augustine Warner II-and a couple of new owner Theresa Stavens as a young girl. To the right is a spacious drawing room, with a huge Italian olive wood breakfront. To the left, a large formal dining room and a bar. All with 14-foot ceilings, mind you. But there's an informality to the place, too, that is underscored by the presence of Cocoa and Maxine, the owners' beagles, lounging and napping on the sofas.
After our dinner and conversation, Barb and I retreated to our room, "Bacon's Retreat," with its soft coral print wallpaper. There are 11 bedrooms at the inn, all of them spacious, all with full baths, closets with terrycloth bathrobes, antique furniture, high ceilings. It's not surprising that the website www.Iloveinns.com this year chose Warner Hall as one of the top 10 romantic B&Bs in America.
The next morning we discovered that, having arrived after dark, we'd missed a major part of the inn's attraction: its views. That was immediately clear as we sat down to breakfast on the wide covered porch facing the river. Warner Hall sits on 40 acres adjacent the waterfront, but there's another 500 acres of undeveloped farmland surrounding the inn that is owned by Theresa's brothers and sisters. This preserves the "view-shed." When I stood up and looked to the left, I could see the mast of our boat downriver. This could have been the same view the original owners had as they awaited boats bringing supplies to the mansion.
It was the perfect motivational vista, Barb said. "You can't quite see everything, so it makes you want to go out the door and explore." And after our elegant breakfast of lemon poppy-seed muffins, asparagus, and ham and cheese quiches we did just that, embarking on a long walk around the property. The path led down to a boathouse and the pier where we had tied up our dinghy. Circling around by the waterfront, we came across a small walled cemetery. We were amazed to see dark gray limestone tablets with legible inscriptions, including those of Augustine Warner and his wife Mary Townley Warner. The stones, a brochure informed us, were probably imported from England. We stood at this spot, looking across at the mansion, the peaceful riverfront, the sprawling fields, and felt as though we had slipped back into early Colonial history.
We left the Inn at mid-morning, rowing back to our boat. Troy and the "girls," Cocoa and Maxine, saw us off. A nice northwesterly breeze allowed us to sail the entire five miles out of the Severn and back into Mobjack Bay. There the wind was building, and as we turned northward and sheeted in the main and jib, we found ourselves going at almost breakneck speed toward the North River, and then up it. But after we had rounded the bend at Lone Point, we entered calm water, and suddenly the pace of our boat, as well as our mood, slowed to an agreeable crawl.
The best way to locate the North River Inn is to spot Breck and Mary Montague's sailboat, Promise, tied to their dock, just beyond Toddsbury Creek. The water was absolutely placid here, so we were able to maneuver Ode to Joy alongside the pier and tie up. We'd been hearing about the likelihood of gale-force winds, so we fished out every fender and line we could find and tied up snugly.
The North River Inn is about as different from Warner Hall as you can get. Instead of a single plantation-style mansion like Warner Hall, North River Inn is a collection of three dwellings that are spread out across a rambling 100-acre property bordering the river and beautiful Toddsbury Creek. Secondly, where Warner Hall is mannered and elegant, North River Inn is rustic and laid back.
There was no one to greet us because it was a weekday and both Mary and Breck Montague have day jobs, but there was a welcoming letter, which directed us to walk down a pretty tree-lined lane to Creek House, a four-room cottage that nestles up to the creek. It's a spacious cottage, in the style of a West Indies British officer's residence, with tray ceilings and many French doors that give way to the creek and to garden walks. There was sherry, crackers, brie and snacks in the fridge. And, maybe best of all, a laid fire in the fireplace and an invitation to fire it up.
But first, we wanted to take a walk around the property. The main house, where the Montagues live, must be one of the oldest dwellings in Virginia . . . or America, for that matter. Called Toddsbury, the house was built by Captain Thomas Todd sometime after he claimed the land in 1652. This restless sea captain soon moved to Anne Arundel County, where he acquired land on the south side of Maryland's Severn River. By sailing frequently back to England and returning each time with new settlers, he received a succession of land grants, among them a chunk of land in Fells Point in Baltimore County and another, called North Point, on the Patapsco River-the site of Todd's Inheritance, a 1664 home site. Todd must have been constantly on the go since he apparently returned often to Virginia to obtain sweet apple cider to sell to his Maryland neighbors.
Toddsbury has been lived in and well maintained for something like three and a half centuries, and it's no wonder the present owners are keeping it for themselves rather than turning it into part of the B&B. But Toddsbury Cottage, once a tenant farmer's house, and Toddsbury Guest House, a small replica of a Colonial Virginia cottage, both have guest rooms, as does Creek House, where we were staying. One of the great things about Toddsbury Cottage is its view of the river across a pasture occupied by a couple of pretty horses. As Barb and I made our leisurely tour of the property, one of them nuzzled me as I patted him across the fence. There was also a country lane lined with tall red maples, an 18th century walled garden and an equally old ice house to explore. At the corner of the property we found a couple of Adirondack chairs, so we tried them out as the sun set to the west of the creek, turning the water a soft rouge.
Back at Creek House, we lit the fire, sipped some sherry, read books and enjoyed the solitude. When we awoke in the morning, it dawned on us that the bustle we heard and smells we smelled, not artifacts of a pleasant dream, were coming from the kitchen, where the inn's chef, Marjorie Hayes, was already at work. It was Saturday morning, and the Montagues soon joined us at Creek House for fruit, scones, savory Virginia bacon and a wonderful egg creation that owed its character to free-range chickens raised on the property.
The Montagues are actually distant cousins, but they'd never met until Toddsbury brought them together. Breck is named for his great-great grandfather, John Breckinridge-a Kentuckian who served as vice president of the United States before the Civil War and as a Confederate general during it. The modern-day Breck was a Navy salvage diver before turning to the slightly more genteel world of financial advising.
He inherited Toddsbury from his aunt and moved to Gloucester, Va., from Alexandria in 1990. Mary Montague, a marriage and family therapist who works as a counselor at St. Margaret's School in Tappahannock, Va., also traces her family back to Toddsbury plantation. Her great-great grandparents bought the estate in 1880. Their descendants sold it in 1946 to Breck's side of the Montague family. But her grandmother held on to a small portion of the land, where she built Creek House. Mary inherited it and moved there. She and Breck lived within shouting distance until, as they put it, friendship, love and marriage followed.
But what were they going to do with the centuries-old property? Neither of them wanted to give up a place that hadbeen in both of their families. They decided to recombine what had been broken apart in 1946. Then 10 years ago, after a visit to Great Oak Manor in Chestertown, Md., they decided to go the bed-and-breakfast route. They'd keep its character, its sense of unhurried, gracious country manners, alive by inviting others to share it. "We decided that if we were not going to live in the real world, we were going to bring the real world to us, in the form of our guests, and that has been so true," Mary said.
Barb and I were not sure we qualified as the real world, having arrived in such an old-world fashion-water-but we did now know that a weekend of exploring Mobjack Bay's quiet rivers could lead to surprising discoveries, fascinating people, and history we'd never known about. As we left the North River Inn later that morning and headed back home, we knew we'd tapped into a great way to both see and know part of our world.
Cruiser's Digest: Mobjack Bay B&Bs
One of the great parts of exploring Mobjack Bay's rivers is having the chance to sail the bay itself. Mobjack is wide, wild, deep and gorgeous. You'd not be sorry reaching the bay early enough to take a couple of turns. Popping in from the Chesapeake is easy, especially because Mobjack is presided over by the white, sail-like, New Point Comfort light, and the markers ushering you inside are helpfully labeled "MB".
We turned into the Severn and marveled at the shoreline, long and pristine, off to starboard. At Stump Point, about three miles in, there's a sharp left into the Southwest Branch, the place to go if you're looking for dockage and fuel, but otherwise you hold steady and follow the markers to the Northwest Branch. One mile later, after rounding green "5" at Cod Point, you're out of markers but almost there. Another sharp turn to the right, then past Vaughans Creek, you're within dinghy range of Warner Hall.
Leaving the Severn, we gave a wide berth to the shoals off the Ware River and headed toward the North River, which, so it happens, is almost due north. Another wide berth for the entrance marker, flashing green "1", and you're in a narrow but well marked river. At about three miles, past Lone Point on the left and a duck blind on the right, there's a sharp turn to port and then about two miles to a final turn to starboard and the last stretch of river. The channel is narrow here and it's wise to proceed slowly. Just past Toddsbury Creek we spotted Breck and Mary Montague's sailboat at their dock and took the outside T berth. At low tide it would have been difficult to dock with five feet of draft. We arrived and departed at mid-tide.
The Inn at Warner Hall on the Severn River (800-331-2720; www.warnerhall.com) has 11 rooms, each with a bath. Rates during the week are $175-$225; weekends $190-$245. There's a "chef's tasting" dinner on Friday and Saturday for $70 per person. A supper basket at $65 for two includes cheeses, fruit, appetizer, entree and dessert.
North River Inn (877-248-3030; www.northriverinn.com) has three separate cottages, rates are $155-$255. There's a full breakfast on the weekends. During the week, breakfast is self-serve, continental style.
The Inn at Tabbs Creek (804-725-5136; innattabbscreek.wordpress.com) is just off the East River, and is reachable by small boat or dinghy. The new owners, Lori and Greg Dusenberry, pride themselves on their organic gardening and have been working hard to make their 19th-century farmhouse as green as possible. Rates $89-$189.
On the Ware River, there's a dock with six feet MLW where Larry and Kathie Cohen, the proprietors of Airville Plantation (804-694-0287; www.airvilleplantation.com), will meet guests. Airville Plantation has three accommodation choices (rates $105-$160) and 300 acres of gardens, meadows and woodlands to explore. The home dates to 1756.