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Feature Story: Wide Open Spaces

Part II: IRVINGTON; A River Getaway

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If anything, one could complain that it's a little too eerily perfect — with its perfect bed and breakfast, perfect restaurant and perfect little shops, and, of course, the river, perfect for boating. But for a weekend escape when relaxation is the goal, who wants to make a lot of decisions? It's nice to know there's an obvious choice, and it's even better when that choice ends up surpassing expectations.

The other important element of a fall trip is the drive: you want to spend your time on the back roads. What's relaxing about Interstates 95 or 64? Instead head east on Mechanicsville Turnpike, Route 360. Just miles outside the city the land opens up. Clogged retail arteries are replaced with fields, farm houses and farm stands. Blue skies and brown fields of corn cut low for the winter slip past your windows, punctuated by piles of orange pumpkins, awaiting drivers to pull off the road.

There's nothing remarkable about the drive. But it sets the mood for the day: unhurried and simple. Before you know it you've reached Tappahannock. A tiny historic town with a few antique shops, one with windows lined with Ball jars, another with colorful animated wooden sculptures out front, plus two antique malls. Prince Street, the center of the historic district, doesn't have much to interest tourists except the Rivahside Café, known for its homemade soups and chicken salad.

After Tappahannock, 360 continues east over the Rappahannock River to the Northern Neck, the northernmost peninsula of Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay. If you're into destination dining, head slightly out of your way to the old gas station, now home to the popular Good Eats Café, where local seafood like crab and oysters mix with the owners' farm-grown produce. Otherwise, keep on track, following 360 east through Callao, where if your dining tastes gravitate toward a fried burger and milkshake you're in luck. Pull over to the Dairy Freeze and you won't be disappointed.

Belle Mount Vineyards is another tempting diversion. With its hiking trails, pool and cabins available for rent, it's almost more like a state park than a vineyard. History buffs might want to tour the birthplaces of Robert E. Lee and George Washington near Warsaw. But if you're after relaxation, stay the course, roll down the windows and tune into local radio station Windy 105 for soft rock and fishing reports to get you in the local mindset.

From Route 360 head south on Route 200 which winds directly to Irvington. The town is so small you're likely to drive right through before realizing where you are. In the center of town sits the Hope and Glory Inn, a yellow, 1890s schoolhouse that was lovingly converted into a bed and breakfast by former Richmond ad man, Bill Westbrook, and is now owned by Peggy and Dudley Patteson. In addition to the seven rooms in the main house, the inn now has six one- and two-story cottages scattered through the gardens. (And this year they've started renting eight three-bedroom cottages called "tents," as in revival tents, that sit in the woods overlooking Carter's Creek.) The inn is decorated in a beachy, shabby-chic look, which seems to permeate the town. And since Westbrook is also the one who created the town's two short strips of shops, his eye and aesthetic fingerprints are all over anything seeming hipper than it should be.

You realize how incestuous it all is when the front desk asks if you'll be needing dinner reservations. If your answer is yes, there's just one option, the Trick Dog Café, another Westbrook original. But just like the inn, Westbrook knew what he was doing. The Trick Dog has a hip minimalist atmosphere with a varied menu in which each entrée boasts at least five ingredients. While the steak au poivre was as it should be, the rack of lamb was particularly fatty and a crab appetizer was a bit bland. Nonetheless, the café (and the fact that you can get a late reservation) is a pleasant surprise in a town that holds few other dining options.

The Hope and Glory is just about everything you could ask for in a B&B: clean, well-maintained, tasteful and comfortable. The gardens are truly beautiful. Echoing the interior design, the paths are romantic and a bit country-chic themselves. With sitting areas, witty sculptures and sayings, and carefully placed lighting, there are new discoveries to make each time you walk to your cottage.

The flowering scrubs burst at waist height in every direction, carving out passageways for the brick paths. One path leads to a unique element of the Hope and Glory: the outdoor shower. White robes hang in each room encouraging its use, but this is no simple shower; it's an outdoor bathroom complete with claw-foot tub, sink, mirrors and sitting area. The shower itself is roughly the circumference of a basketball and the Christmas lights offer just the right amount of illumination for an evening shower. Romance is encouraged and children discouraged, (they're limited to cottages and require an extra fee, as do pets.)

Beach cruiser bicycles are parked in a row waiting for a ride down to the water. Little black signs tell visitors to "Listen" or "Sleep Naked." They also pop up around town with such witticisms as, "If life were fair Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead," another reminder that this is a town fabricated by one person's vision.

Perhaps the best part about staying at the Hope and Glory is the breakfast. Guests gather each morning at 9 at a long, wooden farmhouse table. A kitchen staff cooks up delicious plates like a tomato-cheese-ham-egg casserole with herb and cheese grits, fruit, and a blueberry muffin sprinkled with powdered sugar. One local confided that she thought the Hope and Glory had discovered the secret to the perfectly cooked breakfast muffin — moist inside and baked to a golden crisp outside — and I believe she's right. (She also let me in on the tip that you can enjoy breakfast there even if you're not staying at the inn.)

Irvington by day offers one main attraction: the river. And with The Tides Inn just down the street, there's plenty of ways to get on it. Premier Sailing charters boats and offers a two- and four-day sailing school based at the inn, but visitors can also book a private, two-hour lesson. Irish-born owners Arabella and Philip Denvir moved their business from Malta to Irvington seven years ago, and either one might take you out for your lesson in the off-season, where you'll learn what tacking, luffing and heeling mean and what kind of knots sailors really use. And Premier is the only school in Virginia that can offer a U.S. Sailing Association certification. Plus, the waters of Carter's Creek, which run through Irvington and into the Rappahannock (which eventually leads to the Chesapeake Bay) offer the best perspective to see the town's grand waterfront homes, mostly owned by Richmonders.

The Tides also runs a daily lunch cruise and weekend dinner and cocktail cruises, all aboard its historical, 127-foot, wooden yacht, the Miss Ann. If you were hoping for something even more relaxing, visit massage therapist Patricio Gomez-Foronda at the Tides Inn's spa for his specialty, the hot river stone massage.

After you've had your fill of the water, grab an after-sailing drink at Commodore's, the Tides' poolside café. Or head back to town for a perfectly cooked panini and mocha frappe at The Local, a sleek coffee bar where well-dressed visitors chat about where they're visiting from.

To get the most from your trip, head home via a different route and soak in some more of the area. Take Route 3 south across the Rappahannock River onto the middle peninsula, and West on 17 toward Urbanna. Of all the small towns in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, Urbanna might have the most going on. The shops and restaurants in its cute downtown warrant another stop. You're likely to see "Keep Middlesex Rural" signs poking out of lawns, revealing the small-town pride thriving in the county.

In November, the annual two-day oyster festival fills the streets with music, beer and vendors selling oysters prepared in every imaginable way. The monthly farmers' market is also a treat, with plenty of fresh food, grown, baked, and caught, along with crafts and thrift items. But for a quick stop on the way home, The Moo Rivers Edge Ice Cream shop might be just the place. It has a full menu of sandwiches and seafood, but the star is the ice cream, and the owners' new marble slab a la Coldstone Creamery is the talk of the town. The owner might hand you a 5-percent-off coupon, even if you say you don't live in town. But the memory of that sundae might just lure you back.

The road home is easy; the main road in Urbanna, Route 33, leads to I-64. The highway eases you back to the big city. And the short trip home is a nice reminder that you can find some of Virginia's best relaxation just down the road.

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