Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the only way to get from Baltimore to the hamlet of Irvington, Va., was by hopping aboard a steamboat. The trip would take 24 hours as the boat steamed along, stopping at countless crossroads and plantations on the way from big city Baltimore to the tiny outpost on Carter’s Creek.
Thanks to automobiles and bridges spanning the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, these days the journey to Irvington takes about 31/2 hours. Even that feels like a far piece of road given that, after all that driving, you’re still on this side of the Bay (and given Virginia’s vigilant highway patrol officers— ouch!). But when you set eyes on the butter-yellow beauty that houses Hope and Glory Inn, you know immediately the drive was worth it. The inn is one of a kind, and the perfect setting for a weekend getaway that’s about relaxing and exploring in equal measure.
“This building was originally the Chesapeake Academy, a private school for day students and boarders,” says Dudley Patteson in his gentle Richmond drawl. Dudley owns the inn with his equally Southern-charming wife, Peggy. “It was coed, which was rare, but the school kept the female and male students separate,” he says, gesturing to the inn’s two separate front doors, where floor mats read “H” and “G.”
The Hope and Glory Inn is known as the H&G to insiders, and it seems many guests are insiders in the sense that after their first stay, they come back as often as they can. Perhaps the best evidence of this is in the H&G’s cozy bar, which, in keeping with the school theme, is called “Detention” and decorated with schoolbooks on the wall and marble notebooks on stainless steel tables. We ducked in for a drink before dinner and had a ball scanning the entries in those marble notebooks that detail the various “crimes” guests committed in order to be sentenced to detention.
A brief and random survey reveals that the entries generally fall into two categories: over-indulging in beer, wine and spirits; and over-indulging in, uh, romance, often in the inn’s outdoor shower and tub. Far from your run-of-the-mill hot tub— that would be too expected for the H&G— the bathroom is actually an enclosed outdoor room with a clawfoot tub and rain shower decorated with potted plants and twinkling Christmas lights. “We just had a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary and after they came out of the shower they said, ‘We feel like we did something naughty,’” Peggy Patteson tells us.
Peggy loves that story because it fits with the inn’s unabashed mission: to help couples relax, reconnect and romance each other. That means no TVs or phones in the guest rooms (and iPhone users have no cell service of any kind). That means there’s Billie Holiday or some other mood music playing day and night in the main inn and garden. And that means there are really comfy beds in pretty rooms that make you feel years younger for having spent a night in them.
But at H&G, the romance isn’t cloying— you won’t feel like you’re walking around in a cloud of aggressively sweet perfume. It’s humorous and playful, light and whimsical. The main inn features painted checkerboard floors, toile upholstery and assortment of dollhouses, birdhouses and a chess set that pits cats against dogs in a fight to the death. Upstairs, a deer head hanging in the guest lounge wears a necktie. “Lots of things here make you smile,” says Dudley. “That’s the point.”
Each of the seven rooms has its own charm— one with a balcony overlooking the front gardens, one with its own sitting room, one with a clawfoot tub in a corner of the room (complete with rubber ducky). The six garden cottages— four dating from the 1920s and two from the early 21st century— are more private than the rooms in the house, but you can’t go wrong with any of the lodging choices here.
Along with a gurgling fountain and a riot of charming, old-fashioned flowers, the inn’s garden features metal signs that offer a variety of koan-like messages. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what to do with your life.” “Don’t be afraid to love.” “Say yes to something you usually say no to.” “Sleep naked.” And, outside the garden cottage where we stayed: “Don’t work when you sleep.” We didn’t, especially after drinking cocktails in Detention and at Nate’s Trick Dog Café— more on that later.
After Peggy showed us to our cottage, which featured a sitting room on the ground floor and a king-sized bed upstairs, we faced that age-old question: stay and relax, or go out and explore? Our curiosity got the best of us, and within a few minutes we’d grabbed a couple of the inn’s bikes that are free for the borrowing and were off to explore Irvington. “You can’t get lost,” Dudley told us. “All roads lead to the water.” We biked one way and found ourselves at the entrance to The Tides Inn, the venerable resort right at the tip of Carter’s Creek. If we’d had more time, we might have eaten dinner or lunch on their patio, but instead we just strolled through the grounds and got back on the bikes to head “downtown.”
The population of Irvington is 673, so it’s definitely a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place. But what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. There are a few nifty stores offering home accessories and clothing— I spent an hour in The Dandelion women’s boutique alone, which is housed in an old parsonage and staffed by a crew of very helpful ladies who were kind enough to deliver my purchases to the H&G— and there’s a charming coffee shop and Nate’s Trick Dog Café. Yes, the café is in a tiny town in rural river country. But inside, it’s all big city, sleek and chic, offering a vast martini menu, terrific steaks and crab cakes— and an inestimable tuna tartare appetizer.
When we parked our bikes to poke around in the stores, we noticed the same metal signs we’d seen at the H&G. Later I learned they are the handiwork of Bill Westbrook, the impresario and visionary responsible for the fact that we were even visiting Irvington in the first place.
During its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, tiny Irvington thrived as a fishing port, and boasted its own newspaper, opera house, hospital, roller rink and more. Then it got hit with a double whammy: a fire that destroyed much of the town in 1917, and the end of the steamboat era 20 years later.
By the 1970s, when Westbrook was driving through Irvington looking for a place to sail that wasn’t too far from his advertising job in Richmond, there wasn’t much except a rundown inn “calling my name,” he says. He resisted for a while, but then he read John Irving’s “Hotel New Hampshire” and answered the call. He bought the inn, renovated it completely and in the mid-1990s opened the Hope and Glory to rave reviews.
“But there was no repeat business,” he says. “I was perplexed. So we started asking guests and they said, ‘Where is there to eat? What is there to do?’ I decided to build shops and a restaurant. After I did that, the inn took off.” And so did the town, garnering such descriptions as “tiny meets tony,” “small town uptown” and “where Mayberry meets Manhattan.”
Westbrook happened to be in Irvington while we were there, which was serendipitous since he clocks most of his time in Minneapolis these days. He’d come to take care of business at White Fences Vineyard, which is his main gig in town now that he sold the H&G to the Pattesons.
After a quick snack at the coffee shop, we biked to White Fences, where the entrance to the six-acre vineyard is marked by two gigantic steel corkscrews, “follies” that apparently ruffled a few of the townspeople’s feathers, and another koan-like message: “Stay amazed. Make wishes. Enjoy your wine.” “I have a need to tell people how to live their lives,” says Westbrook. “I think we all need a lot of encouragement to get through the day.”
Beyond the vineyard are seven Gothic cottages that are modeled on those at the 19th-century Methodist camp meeting in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Each has three bedrooms and three baths and is decorated with the same shabby chic charm as the inn itself. Nestled near the cottages is a lovely swimming pool with an outdoor “tabernacle” (a sculpture wrapped in wisteria).
We left our bikes outside the screened-in “wine lounge” and went inside to commence tasting under the tutelage of Anne Kirkmyer, the chef at the vineyard. Kirkmyer told us the vineyards feature both vinifera and French American hybrid vines, and the wines are called Meteor because the grapes were planted during a meteor shower in 2003.
With such a small boutique operation, everything is done by hand— or by feet, as is the case with the Irvington Stomp, which the vineyard hosts every Labor Day Weekend in honor of the grape harvest. It’s a big celebration that involves local mayors stomping grapes in barrels, live music and food and wine. That would be a great event to take in while visiting Irvington, as would one of the dinner parties the Pattesons host in the inn’s dining room on Saturday nights.
We were still working our way through the Meteor wines when Dudley Patteson drove up and said, “I heard you were over here.” That’s how small the town is! “There’s a bit of a storm expected so we’ll need to postpone the boat trip until tomorrow morning.” As it turned out the storm never came, and we had a lovely stroll from the inn to the Trick Dog Café for dinner, and then back to the inn again along the quiet tree-lined streets.
After breakfast in the inn’s courtyard (served to us at individual tables— no buffet, no forced conversation!), I jumped in the car for the four-mile drive to Kilmarnock, a neighboring town that has become known for its antique stores. It’s no wonder— there are several on the main street alone, including Lewis Trimble antiques, which specializes in early modernism. Trimble, a 30ish transplant from New York City, opened the gallery with his mother and grandfather seven years ago.
“Most of the buildings on the street were empty when we opened,” he says. “But now things are really starting to move.” He’s encouraging more friends from New York to move to Kilmarnock and open businesses. “We’re getting to be like the Hamptons of Virginia,” he says. Next door is Comer & Co., which opened in June 2009 and specializes in 18th- and 19th-century English and Continental furnishings and accessories. The gentleman at the desk when I popped in was Brad Stephens, a playwright, actor and artist, also a transplant from New York City.
Kilmarnock, together with Irvington and another little town called White Stone, make up the triad of charming towns at the southern tip of the Northern Neck. In White Stone, you can hit Charlie’s Tiki Bar out on Windmill Point, where the Rappahannock meets the Bay, Seven Sinful Martini Bar, or hit the River Market for picnic fixings. I wish I’d had more time in Kilmarnock and White Stone, but I had to hurry back to the H&G to meet Dudley for our ride on Faded Glory, the inn’s 42-foot Chesapeake Bay Deadrise, whose boat design is the Virginia state boat.
When we arrived the day before, he’d said, “You have to get out on the river. If you don’t, you won’t understand Irvington.” Chugging along Carter’s Creek— which is far more like a river than any creek I’ve ever seen— I get his drift. With its deep water, boaters can dock right at the foot of the hill upon which their glorious homes are perched— the tall bluffs mean no flooding worries. Ospreys nest in channel markers. And in the distance— nine nautical miles, to be exact— is the Bay itself. Whether you explore the water on the Faded Glory (the inn offers crab cruises and sunset cruises) or rent a canoe or kayak, it’s a must-see.
So is the Steamboat Era Museum, which opened in 2004 in a quaint little building just across the town park from the H&G. The museum tells the story of the 600 steamboats that once plied the waters between Baltimore and Norfolk, carrying livestock, produce, churchgoers and even actors on a floating theatre between 300 landings. Without the steamboat, Irvington and the entire Northern Neck would have been cut off from the world. I was struck by the beauty of the boats, and as we made our way back to Baltimore quickly and efficiently, eating up the road miles with our car, I found myself wanting to be on the water instead, watching the land float past as we slowly chugged northward.
Hope and Glory Inn
65 Tavern Road, Irvington, Va.,
Rates, $175-$350, breakfast included.
>Steamboat Era Museum
156 King Carter Dr., Irvington, Va., 804-438-6888, http://www.steamboateramuseum.org
>Historic Christ Church is a National Historic Landmark and one of the most important examples of Georgian architecture in U.S. 804-438-6855, http://www.christchurch1735.com
>White Fences Vineyard offers wine-tastings and wine/food pairings. Whitefencesvineyard.com. The Irvington Stomp is Sat., Sept. 4 at 3 p.m. Adults $10, $5 kids 6-16, under 6 free. http://www.irvingtonstomp.com
>Farmer’s markets offering crafts, folk art and produce are held in Irvington the first Saturday of each month, and in Kilmarnock every fourth Saturday through October.
>The Dandelion is an old parsonage transformed into a treasure trove of distinctive ladies’ clothing, shoes, jewelry, gifts and decorative accessories. 4372 Irvington Road, 80-438-5194, http://www.thedandelion.com
>Nate’s Trick Dog Café offers great cocktails and food with a sleek uptown vibe. 4357 Irvington Road 804-438-6363, http://www.trickdogcafe.com
>Something Different Country Store and Deli is the creation of Dan Gill, a former farmer and river country native who calls himself an ethno-gastronomist. He serves up out-of-this-world barbecue, fresh roasted peanuts, she-crab soup, hoecakes and something called the Virginia Sandwich, which is smoked turkey and country ham salad. Located 2 miles north of Urbanna, Va.