Get Away to the Water

Five fantastic waterfront locations for your summer vacation.

Backbay Getaways, Sandbridge.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson

Beach, bay, river, lake: Whether you’re seeking a relaxing weekend away or hoping to buy a home by the water, Virginia has thousands of miles of shoreline ready to welcome you. Here we offer a few of our favorite destinations as samples of the charming towns, fine food, engaging activities, and unique shopping awaiting you across the Commonwealth. If you want to be where the people are, look to Alexandria’s burgeoning waterfront. Sun seekers, your soothing waves and family fun are in Sandbridge. History buffs, head to Yorktown. And outdoor enthusiasts will find fishing, boating, and hiking in both Clarksville and St. Paul. Here’s to a summer of great getaways!

Fishing on Buggs Island Lake.

Photo by Sam Dean


Laid back in lake country.

Dennie Gilbert cuts a wake below the U.S. Highway 58-bypass bridge, surveying the shore of Buggs Island Lake at Clarksville. From the shallow confluence of the Roanoke and Dan rivers to the lake arms stretching miles deep into North Carolina, where this manmade sea is more commonly called John H. Kerr Reservoir, you could travel 50 miles or more on this 50,000-acre impoundment and not see the same shoreline. “Most all of the lake is in Virginia,” says Gilbert, a fishing guide and longtime tournament fisherman. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this lake in 1952 and controls the shoreline. “There are not near as many people who live on this lake—not as many homes,” Gilbert says. “And you’re not having people all over when you’re trying to fish or running by you, flying.” 

Still, Buggs Island Lake serves as the superhighway in Virginia’s Lake Country—a laid-back land along U.S. Highway 58, anchored by the charms of Clarksville. This is Virginia’s only lakeside town, where the inviting inlets of Buggs Island Lake lap the landscape along shady streets in Mecklenburg County. “It’s almost like a little Pleasantville on the lake,” says Tanya Jessup, 33, a server in Clarksville at Cooper’s Landing Inn. “Everyone’s super friendly. It’s very genuine.”

At dusk, I land a fresh-catch dinner special at Cooper’s: a salmon filet, pan-seared in bacon fat, served on a basil polenta cake over a bed of wilted organic spinach and topped with blistered tomatoes and caramelized onions. I also savor the roasted red pepper crab dip. “It’s our signature item,” says Nichol Cooper, the co-owner. “We’ve been doing it for about 15 years.”

Cooper and her husband, Les, discovered Clarksville nearly 20 years ago. “When we came over the bridge, we said, “‘Where there’s water, people will come.’” Cooper’s Landing Inn & Traveler’s Tavern opened in 2004 and has since grown to a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, six overnight guest rooms, and six cottages. “The lake was the draw for us,” Cooper says. “And I would say that’s still why we love it. We love how beautiful and natural the lake is. There are just so many nice little coves you can go back in.”

Virginia Avenue.

Photo by Sam Dean

One curvy cove shows itself to guests at the Magnuson Hotel on the Lake, a popular inn for tournament fishermen. Another inlet provides slip space at Clarksville Marine Rentals, operating at the 2,600-acre Occoneechee State Park. Here, Gilbert takes the wheel of a pontoon rental. At 67, he has been on this lake for 35 years. “I fish five to seven days a week,” he says. “I bass fish. And, in the fall, I do striper guiding—casting for striper. I like the excitement of casting for fish. I’m an old mountain-trout-stream fisherman.”

Gilbert takes a break when Lakefest arrives on the third weekend of each July at Clarksville. “It’s party city for this lake,” Gilbert says. “Everybody has a good time. Everybody’s swimming and skiing. And, usually, the fishermen come off at that time.” But, of course, those anglers return soon, perhaps hoping to snag a whiskery whopper: The world-record blue catfish was caught on this lake at Clarksville in 2011, weighing 143 pounds! 

On rainy days at the lake, Cooper finds that many visitors “hunker down in their rooms,” she says. “They start ordering bottles of wine and get in their hot tubs.” The more adventurous browse the booths of the Virginia Avenue Mall, set among the specialty shops of the delightful downtown district. Between the mall and Cooper’s, you’ll find the Bobbin’ Cork, an eatery where I select The Rudder Reuben for lunch—thin slices of corned beef piled high on rye bread with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing. 

Buggs Island Lake does not have a thousand islands. In fact, it doesn’t even have “Buggs Island.” That wooded isle actually lies below the Kerr Dam inside the top-waters of Lake Gaston, a 20,000-acre impoundment that fans into both North Carolina and Virginia. But Buggs Island Lake does boast islands that are big enough to park a posse of pontoons. “One of them is a big-time party island,” Gilbert says. “They’ll have 50 boats down there in the summertime. It’s a big island, and they party like the dickens down there.”

The pier.

Photo by Jen Chase


Ships & sips.

ld Town Alexandria is one of my favorite places in the world. Its combination of quaintly uneven cobblestone streets and sidewalks, charming restaurants and bars, and an authentic waterfront providing fish markets, excursion boat tours, and do-it-yourself sailing is so unrivaled that Money magazine named it number one on its Best Places To Go list in 2018.

It is called “Old Town” with good cause: This nationally designated historic district dates to 1749. It lies just eight miles up the Potomac River from George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The town’s signature brick rowhouses even feature real gas lamps burning by their front doors!

The Potomac Riverboat Company provides water taxi service to destinations such as Georgetown, the Wharf, and Nationals Park in D.C., as well as Maryland’s National Harbor. It also offers sightseeing tours to the monuments in D.C. and to Mount Vernon. 

Tall ship Godspeed.

Photo courtesy of Visit Alexandria

Alexandria regularly welcomes tall ships to its Potomac waterfront in the summer, but this year will mark the arrival of the city’s own sailing ship. The Providence is a freshly restored 1976 replica of the ship John Paul Jones sailed for the U.S. Navy against the British Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War. Tours, cruises, and special events in partnership with the city’s own Port City Brewing Co. are planned.

If you’re itching to get onto the water captaining your own ship, the Washington Sailing Marina, on Daingerfield Island at the northern end of Alexandria, offers sailboat, kayak, and paddleboard rentals and classes. If you’re visiting on your own boat, the Alexandria Marina in Old Town has slips available.

Alexandria’s King Street leads away from the Potomac riverfront with a mile of more than 200 shops and restaurants. “The top thing to do in Alexandria is to explore historic Old Town and stroll King Street, known as one of the ‘Great Streets of America,’” says Leah Spellman, director of communications for Visit Alexandria.

The city’s foodie reputation is accelerating, with 25 new restaurants in the last year alone. Good bets include Virtue Feed & Grain, a tavern situated in a former feed store, and Columbia Firehouse, which resides in the former home of the Columbia Steam Engine Fire Company. And in addition to the traditional American fare at these places, there are top-rated Ethiopian, Japanese, Mediterranean, barbecue, sushi, and Vietnamese places to choose from. But if the waterfront has you thinking of seafood, you’ve got the old classics, such as Chart House and Blackwall Hitch, or fresh takes from Vola’s Dockside Grill and James Beard chef nominee Cathal Armstrong’s Hummingbird.

Foodies who like to cook their own can visit Sur La Table to load up on high-end utensils and gadgets. And stop into The Irish Walk specialty shop to green up for a visit to one of Alexandria’s popular Irish bars, including Daniel O’Connell’s, Murphy’s, and O’Shaughnessy’s, all on King Street.

Waterfront dining.

Photo courtesy of Visit Alexandria

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is a former pub and inn dating from 1785 that now serves as a reminder of the city’s history. Follow that up with a trip to the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. It might sound dull, but I promise it is worth a visit for a look at a shop that operated between 1792 and 1933. Fire the kids’ imaginations with shelves lined with real-life ingredients of the sort used in Harry Potter potions, like dragon’s blood and mandrake root.

For more appetizing ingredients, visit the nation’s longest-standing farmers’ market. Every Saturday morning for more than 260 years, farmers have shown their produce at the Old Town Farmers’ Market in front of Town Hall on King Street. Look for fruits, veggies, cheeses, breads, pastries, fresh-cut flowers, and more.

Alexandria is not all history. At the building that was a torpedo factory during World War II, The Torpedo Factory Art Center is the home to 82 artists’ studios, producing painting, ceramics, jewelry, and prints. The venue also hosts live music and event openings. 

The city’s Waterfront Park has expanded for 2019, and this summer through November it will stage Mirror Mirror, a sound-responsive interactive public art installation. Visitors are encouraged to go inside the 25-foot-diameter display to enjoy the rainbow of light.

After a long day enjoying Alexandria, you’ll need a place to stay. There is no shortage of excellent hotels, but the only one whose rooms have views of the river is the contemporary Hotel Indigo. Not far up King Street is Morrison House, a more traditional venue that is built in the style of a Federalist mansion.

After a visit, I’m positive that, like me, you’ll find yourself plotting your next trip back to enjoy this amazing city.

Sandbridge Beach.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson


A quiet coastal escape.

The commotion of a busy boardwalk filled with people, restaurants, and activity options can be exciting. If you’re anything like me, though, the best way to check out, slow down, and de-stress is often to escape the hustle and bustle in favor of a quiet, scenic landscape. That’s why Sandbridge will always be one of my favorite places to enjoy the sun, sand, and sea. Quiet beaches, natural sand dunes, great surfing, local markets, access to diverse wildlife viewing, and hardly any hotels make this coastal spit a quaint beach alternative, just 30 minutes south of bustling Virginia Beach.     

Surfing at the beach.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson

The peaceful rhythm of crashing ocean waves is best appreciated without the distraction of noisy crowds, and that is the real beauty of a day spent in Sandbridge. The beachfront here is located just a short walk from the many private rental properties that dominate the real estate. If you’re only planning to visit for the day, park at Little Island Park, near the entrance to the wildlife refuge. This Virginia Beach municipal park features clean bathrooms, showers, an expansive playground, and beach access. Consistent small waves (1-4 feet most days) and a sandy bottom make this the perfect place for enjoying some boogie boarding or taking your first surf lesson. (Surf & Adventure Company is the area’s best spot for gear rentals or lessons.)

Nearby, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park provide excellent opportunities for

birding and other wildlife viewing. For a memorable daytime adventure, bring your bike—or rent one—and ride through scenic grassy wetlands and freshwater marshes into False Cape, Virginia’s only state park with no public vehicle access.  

There are numerous trails to explore along the bay, through the maritime forest, and amongst massive sand dunes. The undisturbed coastline here is remote and unlike any other in the state. Keep your eyes peeled for eagles, ospreys, tundra swans, ibis, egrets, loggerhead sea turtles, deer, red foxes, snakes, and coyotes.       

No visit to Sandbridge is complete without a stop by the Sandbridge Seaside Market. Much like the general stores of a bygone era, this local market has almost everything you’d need during a beach stay: groceries, delicious gourmet snacks, hot sandwiches, seafood, and much more. Shoes are optional, and the doughnuts are house-made (get there early!). Need I say more?

For a great dinner atmosphere after a full day in the sun, check out Baja Restaurant for live music, delicious seafood, and comfortable outdoor seating and socializing options.

Fishing at Little Island Park Pier.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson

If you’re looking forward to a night in with the family but still don’t want to cook (you’re on vacation after all), Simply Steamed is a great place to stop in for a signature steamed pot of local seafood to take back to your rental. 

When you’re in the mood for a night out or the youngsters in your group get “bored,” entertainment opportunities are only a short drive away. Virginia Beach is home to our state’s best oceanfront boardwalk. This three-mile-long concrete walkway bustles with joggers, bicyclists, strollers, unicycles, jugglers, statues, music, and dining options. It is Virginia’s people-watching paradise! Plan your stroll to end near Neptune’s Park (31st Street Stage), home of Virginia Beach’s free summer concert series. The park, adjacent to the boardwalk and ocean, features a large stage and lawn, making it a can’t-miss spot to enjoy live music after a day at the boardwalk or beach.   

If the kids are craving amusement park-type activities, the outdoor waterpark and go-kart track at Ocean Breeze Waterpark and Motor World will scratch the itch, and their location at the southern end of Virginia Beach shortens the drive from your base in Sandbridge. 

Finally, it’s always good to have a rainy plan in your pocket. I like to escape to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, where getting an up-close look at seals, turtles, owls, and Komodo dragons is fun for everyone.

The schooner Alliance on the York River.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson


More than history.

When the British surrendered in Yorktown in 1781, the Revolutionary War effectively ended, making the town

one of the most important places in American history. Today, the visitors who flock to this picturesque riverfront village for that history also discover its myriad shops, restaurants, events, and activities. From its friendly locals teeming with Southern hospitality to its beautiful vistas, Yorktown has a charm that will keep you coming back for more.

In Yorktown’s riverfront district, there is no need for a car. The free trolley makes stops throughout the town, and riders will find their drivers to be delightful and full of information. You can rent a bike (or kayak or paddleboard) from Patriot Tours & Provisions, or, if you want a more in-depth experience, take one of its Segway tours. Guides will take you through Yorktown’s dynamic history as you visit important sites. 

If sailing interests you, reserve a spot on a river tour aboard the schooner Alliance. On the journey through the York River and Chesapeake Bay, you’ll be encouraged to participate in the ship’s operations while you enjoy the saltwater breezes and spy out local wildlife. Taking your own boat? Two Riverwalk Landing Piers provide docking for day visits and overnight stays.

After a busy day of activities, stop in at one of Yorktown’s many restaurants for a cross-section of locally sourced cuisine, from pub food to fine dining. For a light meal, Carrot Tree Kitchens has a small shop on the waterfront with freshly made sandwiches and salads that honor local culture and food tastes. If you’re looking for a casual meal, stop by Yorktown Pub. With locally sourced seafood dishes, sandwiches, burgers, and beer on tap, this is where the locals go for fun, friendship, and good food. Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters is located in the Historic Cole Digges House (circa 1730), where the owners serve delicious coffees and teas, as well as sandwiches and baked goods. For fine dining, Riverwalk Restaurant has gorgeous river views, high quality dishes, and wine from more than 70 premier wineries; it’s a Yorktown “must.”

Riverwalk Landing.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson

The riverfront district is a treasure trove of locally owned shops. Yorktown Bookshop, a veteran-owned store, is bright, friendly, and filled with quality used books for every interest. Nearby, Auntie M’s American Cottage brims with handmade, unique items ranging from repurposed goods to fine art; the shop also offers creative workshops taught by local artisans. Black Dog Gallery carries antique and contemporary art, prints, floor clothes, and unique seasonal items. Finally, make your way to the Gallery at York Hall, where you will find quilts, jewelry, books, pottery, and other pieces by more than 300 local artisans.

While you’re at York Hall, head down to the basement to visit the York County Historical Museum and learn more about the county’s history, from the Revolutionary War to the present. Plus, during a free lecture series at York Hall on the third Sunday of each month, historians, authors, and other dynamic speakers discuss a variety of historical topics.

Speaking of history, of course Yorktown is filled with excellent museums. The Watermen’s Museum celebrates the area’s maritime heritage and hosts a variety of concerts and events. The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown provides a hands-on, interactive, living history experience. The Yorktown Custom House is filled with artifacts and information about this important Colonial-era landmark. Finally, the Yorktown Battlefield, part the National Park Service, spreads throughout Yorktown with buildings, battlefields, and a museum to celebrate the important early history of the town.

When you’re ready to draw your day to a close, Yorktown has many locally owned and operated lodging options. The Duke of York Hotel is both the only waterfront hotel and conveniently located at a trolley stop. Among the many excellent bed and breakfasts, the Hornsby House Inn’s friendly proprietors provide gourmet breakfasts, an afternoon wine and cheese gathering, and meticulously decorated rooms. But no matter where you stay, you’ll appreciate the warm hospitality, beautiful views, and engaging activities of this delightful riverfront town.

Tubing on the Clinch River.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

St. Paul

River rambles on the Clinch.

Donna Johnson slips past the craggy clay banks of Baptism Hole, the launch for her tubing shuttle service, Clinch River Adventures. Johnson operates inside a red railroad caboose near the canoe launch at the A.R. Matthews Memorial Park in St. Paul. Besides tubing, Johnson offers casual kayak trips lasting 90 minutes to more than three hours. “And then we have the big one, from Cleveland, which is seven hours,” Johnson says. “We offer the shuttle service, and you just float back here.”

The Clinch River flows largely undammed from Tazewell to the Tennessee line in Southwest Virginia, and St. Paul ranks as the greatest go-to town for river rambles. “We’re in the sweet spot of the Clinch River,” says St. Paul’s Terry Vencil, a retired science teacher. “We are just midway between Cleveland and Dungannon, between the upper part and the lower part.”

Kayaking on the Clinch.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

On a spring day in April, I slip past Baptism Hole on a red kayak. Johnson, paddling her own kayak, advises how to easily navigate an upcoming riffle—just barely a Class I rapid—near Blue Bell Island. “It’s a calm river,” says Johnson, 53. “It’s smooth. You are close to civilization.”

At the Western Front Hotel, numbered paddles designate each guest room on the walls of the halls. “We have so many people who come out to visit who are enjoying the Clinch River with their family,” says hotel manager Catrina Mullins, 40. “So they’re coming out to kayak; they’re coming out to use the inner tubes. And we also have a large amount of people that are coming in just to research the river.”

Opened in 2018, this hotel was formerly the site of an apartment house; old doors have been fashioned into headboards for the beds. Mullins calls the hotel “rustic boutique” and says its name comes from a legendary line of buildings that once stood between the hotel and the Clinch River. “There’s one building that’s standing. There used to be six of them right in a row there. The railroad workers would come in on a Friday night. They would get off the train and not have to work again until Monday morning. So that was kind of their time to relax and unwind. They would go to the bars. They would go to the brothels. And it was said that the area became rougher than the Western Front in the war.”

For Saturday night supper, I take a short stroll from the Western Front Hotel to the Sugar Hill Brewing Company, where I enjoy a hamburger and the house-specialty appetizer, deep-fried pimento cheeseballs. I also sample suds from a glass that brags that the beer here is made with waters from the Clinch. “We don’t even have to filter it,” says co-owner Jennifer Bailey. “We use the water straight from the municipal system, which comes from the Clinch.” 

Sugar Hill Brewing Company.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Straddling the Russell-Wise county line, St. Paul contains a couple of little lakes, in addition to its section of the Clinch River. One is Oxbow, named for its shape. This 10-acre impoundment was built when a flood-prone channel of the river was cut off and rerouted in the 1980s. Now, it’s a fishing hole. “And we had a ton of people in here today fishing Oxbow,” says Maddie Gordon, 29, a co-owner of Clinch Life Outfitters in St. Paul. “It’s super nice because it’s accessible to pretty much everyone. You can walk and fish right from the bank, right at the side of the trail. Live bait—shiners—do great down there.” 

More unique and storied is Lake Estonoa. What is now a one-acre pond once spanned three acres in St. Paul—and was popular for baptisms, says Vencil, 67. “When I was a little girl, people swam in Lake Estonoa. They skated on top when it was iced over. The town fathers kept the lake cleaned out. It was about 10 feet deep.” Lake Estonoa now appears green and swampy, loaded with water lilies. Yet it’s a clean territory for turtles, says Vencil, the director of St. Paul’s Wetlands Estonoa Learning Center. “It’s a certified wetland.”

St. Paul’s learning center makes a good stop on a rainy day. But you’ll likely spend more time exploring the nearby Mountain Heritage Museum and Gallery on Russell Street, with its antique farm tools, coal mining equipment, vintage postcards, and wildlife photography. That museum adjoins a law office and celebrates the Clinch River—what Vencil calls “one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the continental United States. And that means we have more kinds of plants and animals than any place else.”

This article originally appeared in our WaterLife 2019 issue.

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Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum