No journey through Virginia's storied history is complete without a stop in Fredericksburg. Sitting on the banks of the Rappahannock River, it offers both a glimpse into Colonial America and a testament to the vast amount of blood that soaked the state's soil during the Civil War.
I must admit, however, to hating the 50-mile drive on often-clogged I-95 to get here from my home in northern Virginia. All that traffic is due to rapid suburban sprawl, which is quickly absorbing Fredericksburg within the Washington, D.C., megalopolis.
But once I have arrived in Fredericksburg's remarkably preserved Historic District, I'm thrilled to walk the same streets trod by George Washington, James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and other Founding Fathers who created the notion of a Bill of Rights protecting our freedoms.
And from up on Marye's Heights, my spine tingles as I look down over the killing fields where Robert E. Lee's dug-in Confederate troops literally mowed down Union forces trying to capture the town in 1862. It was the first of four great Civil War battles fought in and around Fredericksburg.
For a bit of levity, I retreat back down the hill and into two of Virginia's more entertaining historic sites, the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop and The Rising Sun Tavern, both survivors from Colonial times.
For a complete escape, I drive southeast from Fredericksburg onto the bucolic Northern Neck (we call it a "neck"; you call it a peninsula) between the Potomac River on one side and the Rappahannock on the other. Large and small creeks crisscross the neck, and bald eagles, blue heron, flocks of waterfowl, and an occasional wild turkey inhabit the unspoiled marshland.
Both Washington and Lee were born on the Peninsula, and their birthplaces are easy side trips from Fredericksburg. Otherwise the Northern Neck today primarily attracts weekenders from the mid-Atlantic region who -- like me -- come here to totally get away from it all.
At the end of the Peninsula is the fishing village of Reedville, built in the Victorian era and still making its living from the Chesapeake Bay. But the star of the Northern Neck show is Irvington, a gentrified creekside hamlet in which reside The Tides Inn and The Hope and Glory Inn, two of the state's finest retreats.
The peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers known as the Northern Neck stretches 100 miles southeast from Fredericksburg to the Chesapeake Bay. A popular weekend getaway for us residents of nearby metropolitan areas, this rural land of rolling hills serrated by quiet tidal creeks is the ancestral home of the Washingtons and the Lees, who created large plantations on the riverbanks. Its hills are still punctuated by agricultural and small fishing villages (they speak in terms of counties here, not towns).
To my mind, the Northern Neck has three areas of interest. Heading east from Fredericksburg on Va. 3, you first come to George Washington's Birthplace National Monument, where the first president was born in 1732 on Pope's Creek Plantation, and Stratford Hall, the magnificently restored Lee plantation. Nearby, the Ingleside Vineyards offer tours and tastings. These three sites can easily be seen on a day trip from Fredericksburg.
A left turn on Va. 202 will take you northeast to the end of the Northern Neck, at Smith Point on the Chesapeake. Here you can explore the town of Reedville, founded as a menhaden fishing port in 1867 by Capt. Elijah Reed, a New England seafarer. Reedville soon became rich, and its captains and plant owners built magnificent Victorian-style homes. One plant still processes the small, toothless fish, which is of little use for human consumption but extremely valuable as meal, oil, and protein supplements used in everything from Pepperidge Farm cookies to Rustoleum paint. You can learn all about the menhaden at the local fishing museum. From Reedville you can depart on cruises to remote Tangier Island out in the bay.
Va. 200 will take you 20 miles south to my favorite spot on the neck, the genteel creekside hamlet of Irvington, home of Christ Church, perhaps the nation's best example of Colonial church architecture; The Tides Inn, one of Virginia's premier resorts; and The Hope and Glory Inn, one of its most romantic bed-and-breakfasts. Irvington and its neighboring villages of White Stone and Kilmarnock constitute one of Virginia's most affluent retirement communities. I stay in or near Irvington and use it as a base to explore the Northern Neck's eastern end.