My relaxed weekend in Virginia starts with a monsoon and I arrive at the comfortable luxury of Tides Inn amidst a downpour, driving past new corn that looks like it’s growing in a creek and creeks that have turned into roiling chutes of water.
A bit damp and still a little frazzled, I am installed in a wood-paneled room — the Eagle Room — for a bourbon tasting, the unrelenting rain rapping on the windows. The wood panels are actually little lockers, a throwback to Prohibition when this was a dry county and guests were boated to the next jurisdiction to buy booze that was then secured for them in these cabinets. Nearly 100 years have passed, and now samples of the Tides’ own private barrel are poured for guests. Crafted by A. Smith Bowman near Fredericksburg, the same distillery that won World Whiskies Awards in 2016 and 2017, the inn’s namesake is cinnamon-y and warm without the fire trail of a lesser potion.
This is vacation, I think, enjoying life’s little luxuries. Comfort and pampering after a storm.
Then, executive chef TV Flynn leads us into the kitchen to see the box of soft crabs delivered by a local waterman that afternoon. Three dozen crabs, their backs still mud colored, their legs cobalt streaked, they are a familiar sight in unfamiliar scenery. Later that night, they will be served with a wedge of cornbread between their claws, a perfect summer meal and example of the tide-to-table cuisine here.
The entree also foreshadows the rest of the weekend: In a bend of Carters Creek, not far from the Rappahannock River and in the tributaries of Virginia’s Oyster Trail, this Maryland native is about to learn about and sample some of the region’s best seafood.
The rain relents enough the next morning for us to go out on the Miss Nicole, a small boat captained by waterman William Saunders and named after his daughter, who earned her oyster license the day before, making her the fourth generation of the family to pursue a career in the waters of the Rappahannock.
Crabbing and oystering “picked me,” says Saunders, who looks every bit the part in his “Tangier tuxedo,” the bright orange overalls that keep him from getting too wet in his work. “I can’t say I don’t love it,” he says of the job. Why be in an office, he muses, when he could be out on the water. At his elbow as he steers is his tiny dog Rusty, who then circles the vessel in full guard mode, more nosy than threatening.
The boat skims past a seafood house with a one-story-high pile of oyster shells that towers above a Bobcat that eventually will be used to load those shells back on a boat. From there, the shells will be released back into the Rappahannock to rebuild the oyster reef. Back in the day of John Smith, who infamously fell ill on the Rappahannock from the life-threatening nettle of a sting ray, the oyster colonies were as tall as that tower of shucked shells, Saunder says, and a captain like him would have to steer his craft around the reefs. Now he uses sonar to see the oyster beds.
Saunders stops the boat to talk to a fellow a waterman who’s been out crabbing and asks how many jimmies he caught that morning. At the mouth he points out a narrow flow of the waterway that can be crossed easily in five minutes by a swimmer but would take 25 minutes by car to drive from one side of shoreline to the other.
The creek and river banks are green and lush, and the water a deep, healthy blue. The ride is relaxing, but as the clouds threaten, we head back to the resort. From dock to kitchen, our group of travelers reconvenes with Chef Flynn who is ready with a shucking lesson and a sampling of the Rappahannock’s finest.
It’s a good day when it’s not even lunch time and you’ve already had your first oyster.
The Tides Inn has the old-lodge feel of a well-established resort. Guests can sink into a sofa or a terrace chair and turn their gaze to the scenery outside, uninterrupted by anything too fussy. It’s the sort of place that people return to, and its comfortable luxury also makes it a natural for milestone moments; the weekend I am there, there are two weddings, a baby shower and several couples on babymoons. The staff is attentive and good at their jobs — for as much rain as there is outside, inside is a dry island of respite.
There is plenty to do. In addition to the Oyster Academy, the inn has sailing lessons, kayaks, a swimming pool and golf. It also has a fleet of bikes — pistachio or aqua in color, with white baskets, of course — and our group of six travelers borrow some for the quick spin into Irvington. Notable among the shops there is Jimmy and Sook, which has crab-accented shirts, leggings and more. We spin back to the resort with a dog trailing us.
For rainy weekends like this one, the spa can be a refuge. So can afternoon tea, a meal of finger sandwiches, scones worth leaving room for and a sampling of bite-sized desserts. The tea itself is from the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, the only large-scale commercial tea plantation in North America, and a cuppa was an uplifting counterbalance to the gray skies.
The sun stays tucked in the clouds, but we eat, drink and enjoy each other’s company. Summer is just around the corner, and we have found the perfect way to welcome it.
The Tides Inn is a less than four-hour drive from the Baltimore area and offers a wide range of activities for couples who want to get away for the weekend and for families who want to get outdoors and get on the water. I would recommend the Oyster Academy and regret not having enough time to kayak while I was there. It’s on my list for when I return. Another must: exploring more by bike. tidesinn.com
Chesapeake Restaurant — Plan for at least one dinner in the resort’s main restaurant, which has a beautiful view of Carters Creek, and opt for whatever the seafood special of the day is, soft shell or rockfish or other freshly caught delights. tidesinn.com
The Dog and Oyster Vineyard — This nearby vineyard has daily summer hours and is open on the weekends in the winter. Their five estate wines will sate a wide variety of palates, and bottles are reasonably priced at $40 or under. You can’t go wrong with any of the oyster offerings, but leave room for the key lime pie on a stick. dogandoyster.com
Merroir —Defined as a “tasting room,” this restaurant on the water in nearby Topping is owned by the Rappahannock Oyster Company, which has oyster bars as far as Los Angeles and as near as Washington, D.C. Follow the shell gravel trail to a waterfront picnic table for small plates of seafood cooked on an outdoor grill. The crab cake is delicious, even by this Marylander’s standards, and, of course, there are plenty of oysters. rroysters.com
Visit Virginia’s River Realm website to find places to oyster, festivals to attend and heritage sites to tour, plus information about the area’s history and conservation efforts. virginiasriverrealm.com