This Tiny Coastal Virginia Town Is Home to the Ultimate Oyster (and Wine) Lover’s Getaway
Meet the little town with a luxury inn, incredible oyster and wine experiences, and a population of 500 lucky locals.
Balanced on the deck of his wooden deadrise boat, wearing an oysterman’s armor of orange bib pants and black rubber gloves, William Saunders peers down at gentle ripples of water. The third-generation boat captain with a buzz cut breaks the morning quiet by plunging 18-foot-long tongs into Carters Creek, a tributary of the Rappahannock River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
What follows is a waterman’s workout—opening and closing by hand the heavy wooden shafts that resemble two giant rakes hinged together, in order to separate wild oysters from their reef 10 feet below the surface and pull them up. Sifting through the raised treasure of seaweed, mud, and world-class raw oysters snug in their shells, Saunders, with more than 31 years of experience on these waters, gestures throughout the messy, organic mound, and says, “See? This is absolutely full of life.”
Irvington’s Oyster Bounty
The insider opportunity to watch this tradition unfold up close is part of The Virginia Oyster Academy, a half-day offering of the Tides Inn resort in the tiny town of Irvington, situated along Carters Creek on a peninsula known as Virginia’s Northern Neck. Experts like Saunders and the inn’s culinary team share Rappahannock oyster history, ecology, economics, and prep tips (including oyster shucking 101) during this sensory immersion into the realm of the bivalve that has sustained this region for centuries. Today, Virginia produces the largest quantity of fresh, farm-raised oysters in the country, shipping worldwide, year-round, supplementing the wild harvest.
The most enjoyable learning here, though, has to be in the tasting: Raw, fried, roasted, you name it, there’s a special quality to Rappahannock oysters, renowned for their sweet, buttery flavor with low salinity. After sampling during the Academy experience, there’s nowhere to go but directly to dinner at the inn’s Chesapeake Restaurant, and order up this season’s bivalve must: Rappahannock Cornmeal Fried Oysters with collard greens and a Béarnaise Sauce.
And while Rappahannock oysters may rule, local seafood dishes share the spotlight, and deservedly so. Don’t miss the Chesapeake Bay Rock Fish—served with black eyed peas, succotash, fish fumet, and asparagus—as well as She Crab Soup. For those few human beings who are immune to the lure of local catch, land-based entrees include Virginia Farm Raised Half Chicken and Cheshire BBQ Pork—both local, both delicious.
Summer Camp for Everyone
Staying at the Tides can evoke a civilized summer camp feeling. It’s a sprawling retreat connected by honeysuckle-lined red brick walkways, including a marina of watercraft for the well-heeled. There’s sailing school and bee-keeping classes, croquet and signature lemonade (with or without vodka). The staff is friendly; it’s the kind of place where a valet helped a guest’s son learn to ride a bike for the first time down the inn’s long, lovely driveway. First opened in 1947, the stay can be as sophisticated here as the Sunday afternoon tea and new trademark bourbon (tucked in historic liquor lockers), or as down to earth as evening s’mores on the rocking-chair-lined patio.
Irvington’s Wine Culture
Tempting as it is to settle in, the bicycles available outside the inn’s entrance are the best way to explore the charms of wee Irvington (population: about 500), complete with white picket fences and boutique shops. Located only a few minutes of breezy pedaling away, The Dog and Oyster Vineyard connects Virginia oyster culture to Chesapeake Bay wine culture, whetting your palette for the tasting fun to come as you cycle down the dirt driveway past rows of delicate, pretty vines.
With its proximity to an estuary, Chesapeake Bay, and its sandy soil, the area is like Bordeaux, and the wines produced here have won their share of awards. The vineyard name comes from its resident guards: friendly rescue hounds that roam—or snooze—among the Vinifera and French American Hybrid vines and keep hungry deer away just by their scent. The wines, grown 100% on site, were made to pair with area oysters, so naturally, wine tastings go with scrumptious oyster tastings as well, brought out one by one, from roasted to raw to fried. The tasty Virginia Slider, for example, combines Smithfield country ham, golden fried oysters, and Chesapeake remoulade on slider rolls.
As the sun sets and frogs chirp just outside the screened-in cottage of tables, vineyard owner Dudley Patteson’s eyes sparkle behind tortoiseshell glasses. The former Washington, DC, banker and his wife Peggy also own Irvington’s acclaimed Hope and Glory Inn, a converted 1889 schoolhouse with a spa appropriately named Recess and bar named Detention. Patteson affably pulls up a chair and happily shares the vineyard and region ethos. “Oysters and wine both have a sense of place,” he says. “Here you get both grown together; that’s unique in the world.”
Ready To Go? Here’s Your Getaway Guide to Irvington, Virginia
Irvington is an hour’s drive from Richmond (63 miles from Richmond International Airport) and less than three hours’ drive from Washington DC.
Where To Stay
With 106 guest rooms including 22 suites, many with views or private balconies overlooking the water, the Tides Inn is like luxe summer camp for all ages, and has a pet-friendly Garden Wing. Rates start at $185. The Tides Inn Oyster Academy runs on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday in the fall season; meanwhile, this summer check out the inn’s new fleet of Duffy Boats, the irresistible little electric boats that are synonymous with lazy days of exploring. Book a 90-minute cruise tour of Carters Creek or rent one yourself and get a picnic to take along.
Where To Eat and Drink
At the Tides Inn’s Chesapeake Restaurant, fresh seasonal ingredients drive the menu, with seafood sourced from surrounding waters. Opened on the inn’s waterfront this spring, Fish Hawk Oyster Bar ups the Chesapeake-style game with outdoor oyster roasts, an indoor raw bar, seafood classics, live shucking, and a daily Chesapeake Bay boil.
At ADRIFT in neighboring White Stone, husband and wife team Devin and Kati Rose present a contemporary take on Southern flavors with a menu that highlights fresh daily catches, regional oyster harvests, and seasonal locally sourced produce.
Converted from a Victorian-era schoolhouse to a luxury inn, the Hope & Glory Inn’s Dining Hall offers chef Meseret Crockett’s prix fixe menu that showcases local produce from nearby Dug In Farms as well as rock fish, oysters, and crab; the inn’s Detention Bar stocks a wide selection of local and global wines and beers as well as a full cocktail menu. In celebration of that schoolhouse provenance, bar patrons are invited to write down the reasons they’re in detention in composition notebooks.
Also in Irvington, Dredge puts a Caribbean spin on local favorites while The Office Café is an American bistro with classics like flat breads, soups, and sandwiches. Pay a visit to Dug In Farms, where you’ll find fresh produce and pickled vegetables, eggs, seeds, baked goods, flowers, and artisan gift and home items.
Dog and Oyster Vineyard offers five wines crafted 100% on site to complement the region’s oysters. For more tastes of the region, follow the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail here and the Virginia Oyster Trail here.
Related: How To Shuck an Oyster: