Virginia’s oyster country by the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay is where you’ll encounter some of the tiniest towns in the commonwealth. The communities of Deltaville, Irvington and Reedville all have their charms, but the Northern Neck’s Kilmarnock strikes an urbane pose with its lively, contemporary lifestyle and developed downtown. The typical residents of Kilmarnock are established families who’ve lived here for centuries and transplanted newcomers from Northern Virginia and Richmond. Folks will tell you they’re here to enjoy “Virginia’s rivah realm,” an existence that features a slower pace, easy friendships and miles of undeveloped shoreline.
While Kilmarnock had a population of only 1,438 people in 2016, it maintains a busy Main Street with two Thai restaurants, two wineries and a brewery. Good Luck Cellars is a sprawling vineyard with regular wine and food tastings. Front Porch Coffeehouse offers custom coffee drinks, sandwiches, ice cream, plus free Wi-Fi. Kilmarnock Brewhaus sells flights of their craft beers, often with a side of live music. On the fourth Saturday of the month from May through October, visit the farmers market at Kilmarnock Town Centre Park to sample bountiful produce and seafood hauled out of the Northern Neck’s tributaries. Be on the lookout for Byrd’s Seafood trucks to try their celebrated oyster tacos.
Kilmarnock has some notable independent retailers like Pearl, a women’s fashion boutique selling upscale merchandise, like flax clothing, decorative purses and hand-painted slippers. The Kilmarnock Antique Gallery is a 22,000-square-foot warehouse featuring vintage furniture, oyster plates and 18th century tall-case clocks. RAL Art Center has a fine collection of art inspired by local landscapes. Stock up on resort wear at Weekends, clothing perfect for boating or hanging out at the Tides Inn Resort.
Just 5 miles from Kilmarnock is the beloved Tides Inn. Built in the mid-1940s as a golf, tennis and boating resort, guests were required to dress for dinner until recently, when the Tides Inn adopted a casual dress code. Today, guests and locals mingle on the terrace with sweeping views of the harbor enjoying the resort’s signature Lancaster Lemonade or Prosecco and oysters. Join Captain Stormy Pearson for daily sunset cruises to see the million dollar mansions. Another option is booking a cruise with Watermen Heritage Tours (watermentours.com), a network of fishermen who offer angling, crabbing, wildlife viewing and instruction in the harvesting of Rappahannock oysters—considered some of the sweetest in the world.
Biking and hiking are also popular in the Northern Neck. The landscape is flat and uncrowded, perfect for cycling from town to town. Nature lovers will enjoy the pristine Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve, a 204-acre habitat for migrating birds. Explore the preserve’s tidal pools, wetlands, dunes, beaches and upland forests on the boardwalks of Bay Shore Trail.
Northern Neck is rich in history too. The birthplace of three of the first five American presidents—George Washington, James Monroe and James Madison—explorer John Smith described the region on an early trip to Virginia. You can see a reproduction of Smith’s 1608 boat at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.
Kilmarnock and the Northern Neck will leave you longing for more than one weekend of their affordable tidewater lifestyle.
Where to Dine
Voted Virginia’s Best Burger by Virginia Living Magazine readers, the NN Burger features extreme shakes, twisted chips and juicy burgers layered with toppings, fresh-baked brioche buns and locally sourced beef. Popular hangout with live music and craft beer. // nnburger.com, $
Open since the 1940s, this friendly, old-fashioned diner serves very inexpensive breakfast, lunch and dinner. Known for their fried oysters, fried chicken and homemade seasonal pies. // facebook.com/LeesinKilmarnock, $
Chao Phrya Thai & Sushi Grill
Thai food never tasted so fresh than it does when this Kilmarnock chef uses seafood and produce harvested locally. That’s how the family-owned fine-dining restaurant approaches everything. Great lunch specials too. // chaophrayathaiandsushigrille.com, $$
Where to Stay
The Tides Inn Resort & Spa
This elegant resort offers wide-ranging activities including kayaking, paddle boarding, jet skiing, sailing lessons, bikes, kids’ programs, golf and tennis. The spa is first-class and many rooms have views of the harbor. // Ranges from $250-$400; tidesinn.com
This whimsical and enchanting inn celebrates the Northern Neck’s presidential heritage by naming some of the guest cottages after local presidents. The decor is lovely and fun; the gardens are magical; and the dining first-rate. // Ranges from $165-$275 (weekdays), $185-$305 (weekends); kilamarnockinn.com
Hope and Glory Inn and Vineyard
This luxurious inn was voted into the Top 20 Best Inns in the South by Southern Living. Multiple dining venues, pool and garden are on property. Choose between schoolhouse rooms, garden cottages or their unique vineyard “tents.” The inn owns Dog & Oyster Winery, just a bike ride away, and offers cruises on the True Love. // Ranges from $205-$355; hopeandglory.com
The biggest crabs are harvested in early fall, so that’s when Virginia’s River Realm celebrates the Irvington Crab Festival and Bay Seafood Festival.