Virginia’s River Realm is comprised of the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck regions along the Chesapeake Bay. Known for world-class oysters, pristine coastal views, and waterfront activities, the River Realm is the perfect spot to forget about all the worries of the workplace.
—TRIP PLANNING OVERVIEW—
Located on the north shore of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula on the Rappahannock River, Bethpage Camp-Resort has one, two, and three-bedroom cottages available for rent, as well as RV and tent campsites, all pet-friendly. The cottages contain full kitchens and all have private patios and fire pits. For those looking to get out on the river, the resort offers boat ramps within the campgrounds, as well as kayaks and paddleboard rentals. During summer months, a luxury water park with a poolside cafe, miniature golf course, ice creamery, fishing pond, and swimming beach are open to guests. Special activities are offered throughout the year, including drive-in and dive-in movies, live music, pedal boat racing, and scavenger hunts. The campground store sells everything you need for your stay, from s’mores kits and snacks to towels, sunscreen, and apparel for the entire family.
For affordable boutique lodging on the Northern Neck, stay at the Kilmarnock Inn. The 16-room inn is centrally located, only steps from Downtown Kilmarnock’s charming Main Street, and is also a pet-friendly property. The main home dates to 1884, but the inn also has seven modern luxury cottages with Jacuzzis, fireplaces, and private decks that overlook the back courtyard. Your stay includes a full breakfast at the inn’s on-site restaurant, which also serves lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Suggested Prior Reservations: Bethpage Camp-Resort cottages, kayaks or paddleboards at Bethpage Camp-Resort, Kilmarnock Inn, Urbanna Cruises, Crabbe’s Charter Fishing and Oyster Farm Tours, Adrift Restaurant
The first stop on your River Realm getaway is Bethpage Camp-Resort, where you’ll check out your rental kayaks or paddleboards from the camp store before setting out from the boat launch behind the store. For a shorter paddle through the inlet, head left when you hit open waters, or if a longer exploration of the Rappahannock is your goal, turn right and paddle out of the inlet.
Paddle back to the boat launch after your paddling journey and grab lunch right down the road at Urbanna Seafood & Raw Bar. This local dining staple serves the freshest catch, and if you arrive during the lunch hour, you’ll most likely spot several boats stop by the docks to drop off oysters, fish, and other sea fare caught mere hours before. Eat on the patio if the weather allows, where you can enjoy a waterfront view as you dine on dishes from the raw bar like steamed mussels, crabs, or shrimp and local oysters, entrees like the Chesapeake Bay Crabcakes, or sandwiches like the Market Fresh Fish Sandwich.
For an afternoon of adventure and history, three local museums team up to provide a scavenger hunt with the chance to win both prizes and money. Start at the Urbanna Museum and ask staff about the scavenger hunt; they can help you download the app to your phone and create a login to participate. Built in 1766, the museum is one of the oldest surviving mercantile stores in America, and exhibits share the history of the store and its importance to the surrounding area in the 18th century. Tobacco and locally grown crops were traded at the store for cash and credit that then went towards the purchase of imported goods. The museum also features an exhibit on the region’s oyster history and houses an original 1755 John Mitchell Map, a map that was used to decide borders after the Revolutionary War and referred to as “the most important map in American history”.
The second museum along your scavenger hunt is the Middlesex Museum in Saluda. Start in the Visitor’s Center next door (there are several clues inside) before browsing the museum, which covers more than 400 years of local history, including fossils, artifacts from Indigenous peoples, tale of local military heroes like Lt. General “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in corps history, and a 1930’s General Store with authentic ledgers and goods from the era.
Finish the scavenger hunt at Deltaville Maritime Museum, about 20 minutes down the road from the Middlesex Museum. Dedicated to preserving the history of the Chesapeake Bay, the watermen who make their living on the water, and the boats and tools used in their profession, the museum has a large indoor facility with exhibits and 36 acres of woodlands, parks, and gardens along the Rappahannock River. After perusing the dozens of boat replicas inside the museum, head outside to see the replica of John Smith’s boat, the Explorer, and the Nationally Registered restored oyster buyboat, the F.D. Crockett.
Drive back to Urbanna and take some time to explore the downtown, stopping in at shops like Cydny’s Bynn and The Fin & Pearl, which carry women’s clothing, shoes, accessories, and home goods, Lowe Tide, a high-end boutique with women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing, accessories, and décor, and Bristow’s, the oldest surviving general store in the region that has been selling home goods, women’s and men’s apparel, and locally made goods since 1876. If you need a little pick-me-up, stop by Grounded Coffee Shop for a caffeine boost.
While in the downtown area, satisfy your sweet tooth at Marshall’s Soda Fountain and Drug, an old-fashioned soda counter, gift shop, and pharmacy. Sit at the round Formica counter on the old-fashioned barstools and order a fresh limeade or handmade milkshake, made with vintage appliances like a juice presser and milkshake mixer.
Embark on a relaxing ride along the coast with Urbanna Cruises. If possible, book a sunset cruise, as the dramatic evening colors create a breathtaking reflection off the water’s surface.
Head back into downtown Urbanna for dinner at Something Different . The restaurant is a favorite spot for locals and if you’re interested in getting the “local” experience, try the barbecue, voted best in River Country by Pleasant Living Magazine readers. Save room for dessert, as their seasonal sweets are made in-house daily.
Return to your cottage at Bethpage Camp-Resort and spend the rest of the evening on the patio or beside your private fire pit.
Start day two of you River Realm getaway with breakfast at Big Oak Café, where you can fuel up with one of their huge breakfast platters like the French toast (made with their homemade French bread) or the Chipped Beef over Toast Points. With breakfast entrees ranging from $7-$10 and served with two sides of your choosing, you’ll get a hearty meal without breaking the bank at Big Oak Café.
Travel north about 45 minutes to Crabbe Charter Fishing, also the home of Fat & Happy Oyster Company. You can either choose a charter fishing trip or opt for a Waterman Heritage Tour; each waterfront ride is led by Captain Danny Crabbe and begins at his dock on the Little Wicomico, a small river inlet that leads out to the Chesapeake Bay. We chose the Waterman Heritage Tour, and as we cruised along the scenic river, Captain Danny and his wife, herself an experienced water(wo)man, taught us about the history of oyster farming and crabbing in Virginia. A short ride brought us to the oyster beds, where the Captain raised up a cage and gave us a closer view of the beautiful bivalves.
As we headed back to the docks, we made a short pit stop at the crab pots to pay a visit to some vibrant Chesapeake Blue Crabs. Back on dry land, the Captain served us a few of his Fat & Happy oysters before we hit the road for Kilmarnock.
First stop in Kilmarnock is Carried Away Cuisine to get some lunch. Choose from their daily options of homemade soups, quiche, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and specialty entrees. As you wait for your lunch to be prepared, you can browse their expansive selection of high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars, all available for tastings. They also carry upscale grocery items like local honey, premium pastas, and all sorts of spreads and foodie items. If you’ve still got a little room after eating, order one of their homemade desserts to finish off your meal.
Take a few hours and explore Downtown Kilmarnock, stopping in to a few of the shops along the way. Right next door to Carried Away Cuisine, The Wild Bunch floral shop connects to Papeterie, a stationery store that also carries all sorts of creative home décor goods, including aquatic-themed ornaments, embroidered pillows, and serving bowls.
Right off Main Street, Northern Neck Popcorn is a must. While you may not be very hungry after your lunch, you should at least sample a few of their wildly imaginative popcorn blends, with flavors ranging from your basic White Cheddar and Movie Theater-style popcorns to the more creative blends of Birthday Cake, Northern Neck Ginger Ale, Cotton Candy, and Dill Pickle. The specialty shop carries over 50 flavors, so you’re practically guaranteed to find at least a few that you love.
Back on Main Street, head north to Weekend Fashions, an upscale boutique that sells men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, and accessories, then walk next door to Front Porch Coffee for a little afternoon caffeine indulgence.
The River Realm area has a lot to offer when it comes to scenic beauty, delicious oysters, and cute downtown areas, but it also boasts a rich history that should be explored. Learn a little about early Colonial life in the region at Historic Christ Church, recognized as the best preserved parish church from the Colonial era. Start your tour at the museum and visitor center, where you’ll discover the history behind the church and its importance in everyday life for colonists, then head over to the church to explore the awe-inspiring building.
A few miles from Christ Church, The Dog & Oyster Vineyard is the next stop on your River Realm experience. You’ll notice two massive corkscrews flanking the entrance as you turn into the vineyard. Owner Dudley Patteson claims these are the largest corkscrews in the world (although they don’t actually open bottles, which was the Guinness Book of World Record’s requirement). Take a few pictures by the corkscrews before continuing to the “Sip” tasting room, where you can sample all of their award-winning wines and pair them with a variety of local oysters from the “Slurp” food stand beside the tasting room. Before departing, be sure to stroll over to the vines and say hello to the vineyard dogs, which protect the grapes from deer and other wild animals.
Return to downtown Kilmarnock and check in to the Kilmarnock Inn, where you can relish a little down time before walking over to Kilmarnock Brewhaus. The brewery often has live music performances during the evenings, so grab a seat, order a flight, and kick back while listening to local artists. You may need a little snack to tide you over until dinner, so if Byrd’s Seafood Truck is outside, order up some of their famed oyster tacos or a cup of their oyster stew to pair with your brews.
Continue to Adrift, one of the newest additions to the River Realm food scene. Chef and Owner Devin Rose is a Northern Neck Native who studied at Culinary Institute of America and worked in the prestigious Inn at Little Washington, a Five Diamond and Two Michelin Star Restaurant, before moving to the west coast to work at an upscale restaurant in California. A decade after originally leaving, Rose has returned with his wife (and business partner) to open a fine dining establishment that highlights the flavors of Virginia’s coastal regions. While he prepares an incredible seasonal menu, his wife Kati is out front, greeting guests and sharing her extensive knowledge of the culinary industry, also gained from her time working at the Inn at Little Washington. Their partnership makes for an impeccable dining experience; it’s well worth it to splurge on this dinner and go for the three-or-five course Prix Fixe menu.
Head back to Kilmarnock Inn and turn in early for a good night’s rest.
Set your alarm to wake up before dawn and travel to Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve, about 15 miles from the inn. Be sure to wear layers during the off-season, as the first hours of the day can be chilly and windy along the water. Follow the hiking trail through the woods to the first fork; if you want a short trip to the water, head left, or if you want to stretch your legs, take the one-mile trail to the right of the fork. Both trails end at pristine beaches with tranquil views of the Chesapeake Bay, which provides the perfect backdrop for catching an unforgettable sunrise in the River Realm.
Hike back to the car and set out to Car Wash Café for breakfast. Another popular spot for locals, the restaurant can get quite busy on the weekends, but it is worth the wait. Generously-sized dishes like Huevos Rancheros, Crabcakes Benedict, and Biscuits & Gravy ensure you’ll be full until lunch.
Check out of your room at Kilmarnock Inn and spend a little more time browsing the shops of downtown Kilmarnock, or drive over to Good Luck Cellars if you want to do a little more research into the wineries of the River Realm. Their tasting consists of about a dozen red and white wines, including a Chambourcin, Petit Verdot, a Bordeaux-style blend named “Interitage”, Vidal Blanc, and a crisp Traminette.
Pick up some fresh produce and locally made goods to take home with you from Dug In Farms, a small farm and food stand that sells their own farm produce as well as an array of goods from local farmers and artisans. We were lucky enough to be greeted by the mascot of the market, Doug, a very energetic Australian cattle dog, as we perused the current stock of items, from cider made just up the road at Ditchley’s Ciderworks to bouquets of enormous sunflowers artfully displayed in tasteful arrangements.
Get lunch (or brunch!) at Willaby’s Restaurant, a waterfront establishment that incorporates fresh local seafood into various dishes throughout the menu. For those that aren’t feeling seafood, they also offer a huge selection of sandwiches, burgers, breakfast items, and several daily specials. On sunny days, ask for a seat on the patio to enjoy one last meal beside the waterfront before wrapping up your River Realm vacation and heading home.
More Regional Virginia Destination Guides:
- Guide to Loudoun County
- Guide to Harrisonburg
- Guide to Richmond
- Guide to Nelson County
- Guide to Farmville
- Guide to Roanoke
- Guide to Virginia’s Eastern Shore
- Guide to Bristol & Abingdon
- Guide to Southern Virginia