Northern Neck holds history, wineries and beautiful countryside

There are two types of day-trippers in my mind — those who meticulously research and map out their adventure, and those that who out to explore with no itinerary in mind.

I'm somewhere in between. For a day trip to the Northern Neck, I picked out a starting point, the Ingleside Vineyards in Oak Grove, a place I've always wanted to visit and one that's located at the western end of this beautiful peninsula. I planned to finish my trip at Merroir, a waterfront restaurant across from the eastern tip that I'd heard great things about. But I left plenty of room in the middle for discovering out-of-the-way places or just leisurely driving.

From Newport News and Hampton, the Northern Neck is about a 90-minute drive. Head up Route 17 through Gloucester, cross onto the Northern Neck at Tappahannock and continue west on Route 3.

Bounded by the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, the region is one of the most historic — and picturesque — spots in the state. Originally home to eight Virginia tribes, it was settled by the English in the mid-17th century, according to the Northern Neck Tourism Commission website.

My first stop was Ingleside Vineyards, the oldest of the 10 wineries that dot the Northern Neck. Visiting one or more of these wineries is a great introduction to the growing Virginia wine industry. Many offer tours and tastings, and you can sample wines that are only available on site.

The terroir (wine folks use this word to describe the soil, climate and other characteristics of a particular grape-growing region) on the Northern Neck includes soil that's a mix of sand and clay, says Chris Flemer, whose family owns the winery and vineyards.

"We're at 200 feet above sea level so we bypass some of the spring frost," says Flemer. "And because of our elevation, he have good drainage both to the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers."

Ingleside was started in 1980 by Chris' father, Carl Flemer Jr. Chris does the marketing and his brother, Doug, is the general manager. They cultivate 50 acres of vines and produce 8,000 to 10,000 cases of wine a year. About 95 percent of the grapes grown on the land are used in the wines they bottle.

Over the years Ingleside and other vineyards have learned what grapes grow best in Virginia soil. Today they grow chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, but they are also finding success with albarino, sangiovese and petit verdot in the 20 different wines they make.

"We've had a lot of success with petit verdot," says Flemer. "We were one of the first wineries to bottle it as a varietal."

After your tour and tasting, buy some cheese and sausage in the retail shop and sit in the shaded center courtyard, which is often used for wedding receptions.

The vineyards are open daily. Tours are free, though groups should call ahead to reserve one. Tastings cost $5 and $7.

Harvesting the grapes takes place between mid-August through mid-October, which is a great time to visit. The winery also has two guest houses on the property that can be booked for an overnight stay.

History and more

In recent years, the Northern Neck has become more welcoming to visitors with the addition or renovation of several lodgings, says Lisa Hull, economic development and tourism coordinator for the Northern Neck Tourism Commission. The Belle Grove Plantation Bed & Breakfast in Port Conway, the River's Edge Inn in Colonial Beach, the Inn at Montross, and the Bay Motel in Reedville are a few of the newer places that entice travelers to stay overnight.

If you're a history buff, you'll be in heaven visiting spots near Oak Grove. Presidents George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe were born here, as was Robert E. Lee.

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument. (Route 204 off Route 3) marks the location of the plantation of Augustine Washington, the first president's father, and the Washington family burial grounds on the Potomac River. The original house burned in 1779, and in 1931, the National Park Service took over the site and built a memorial house and dependencies.

Head toward Colonial Beach and you'll encounter the site where James Monroe was born (4460 James Monroe Highway). The foundation of his house was unearthed during a College of William and Mary archaeological dig in 1976.

The area's most spectacular attraction is Stratford Hall (Route 214, off Route 3, west of Montross), the ancestral home of the Lee family. Built by Thomas Lee in the 1730s, the plantation home has a great collection of 18th century American and English furnishings.

Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, lived there, and Gen. Robert E. Lee was born there. The 1,900-acre grounds have a dining room and lots of wooded nature trails.

You might also want to visit Menokin (4037 Menokin Road, Warsaw), the ruins of the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee. Plans are underway to renovate this 18th-century Neo-Palladian mansion into a conservation and educational center.

Scenic byways

If you're in a driving mood, travel east on Route 3, the spine of this body of land. Meandering along this windy, hilly road, you'll past corn fields, small towns and farm stands. "We have lots of scenic byways for people to enjoy," says Hull.

Eventually you'll end up in the Kilmarnock-Irvington area, home of The Tides Inn resort. There are several wineries to visit on this end of the peninsula as well.

I kept going and crossed back over the long Norris Bridge to reach the Topping area of Middlesex County. A short drive away is Merroir (end of Locklies Creek Road off Route 3), a casual waterside restaurant opened by the owners of the Rappahannock River Oyster Co. There I feasted on three kinds of Virginia oysters — Rappahannock Rivers from nearby, Stingrays from Mobjack Bay, and Olde Salts from Chincoteague.

After a day of sightseeing and driving, a platter of oysters and a Virginia craft beer were a suitable reward.

David Nicholson can be reached at 757-247-4794.

Want to go?

The Northern Neck Tourism Commission office is at 457 Main St., Warsaw. 804-333-1919. Information on the area, including historic sites, festivals and suggested itineraries, is available online at

Historic attractions

George Washington Birthplace National Monument. Route 204, Oak Grove. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Free admission. 804-224-1732.

James Monroe Birthplace. 4460 James Monroe Highway, Colonial Beach. Honors our fifth president who was born and raised in Westmoreland County. Open Saturday and Sunday during the summer months. Free. 804-214-9145.

Stratford Hall. Route 214, off Route 3, west of Montross. Open daily from March 1 to Dec. 23. Tours of the Great House, $12 adults, $7 children age 6 to 11, free to children age 5 and under. 804-493-8038.

Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society, Montross. Information relating to the history, antiquities, and literature of the counties of Northumberland, Lancaster, Westmoreland, Stafford, Richmond, and King George. Research Library. 804-493-1862.

Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library. 8346 Mary Ball Road, Lancaster. Named in honor of George Washington's mother, a Lancaster native, this county history and genealogy center features a variety of exhibits in 1797 to 1830 buildings and an extensive research library. 804-462-7280.

Menokin. Warsaw. Home of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee circa 1769. The visitors center depicts architectural conservation. 804-333-1776.

Reedville Fishermen's Museum. 504 Main St., Reedville. Museum dedicated to the watermen and the heritage of the lower Chesapeake Bay. 804-453-6529.

Historic Christ Church, Irvington. Completed in 1735, Christ Church is the best preserved of Colonial Virginia's Anglican parish churches. 804-438-6855.


Upper Northern Neck

Belle Mount Vineyards. 2570 Newland Road, Warsaw. 804-333-4700.

General's Ridge Vineyard. 1618 Weldons Drive, Hague. 804-472-3172.

Vault Field Vineyards. 2953 Kingsmill Road, Kinsale. 804-472-4430.

The Hague Winery. 8268 Cople Highway, Hague. 804-472-5283.

Oak Crest Vineyard & Winery. 8215 Oak Crest Drive, King George. 540-663-2813.

Ingleside Vineyards. 5872 Leedstown Road, Oak Grove. 804-224-8687.

Lower Northern Neck

Athena Vineyards and Winery. 3138 Jesse Dupont Memorial Highway, Heathsville. 804-580-4944.

Jacey Winery. 612 Train Lane, Wicomico Church. 804-580-4053.

Good Luck Cellars. 1025 Good Luck Road, Kilmarnock. 804-435-1416.

The Dog and Oyster Vineyard. 170 White Fences, Irvington. 804-438-9463.

About the series

Summer Day Trips takes a look at five places to make a quick getaway for the day before the season ends. All within driving distance of the Peninsula, join us each Sunday in August for Summer Day Trips.

TODAY: Northern Neck

Coming soon: Richmond, the Eastern Shore, Petersburg, Edenton, N.C.

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