Whatever Floats Your Boat

Itineraries for exploring Virginia’s River Realm.

Whether it’s the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, or the adventurous spirit inspired by the endless horizon—exploring by boat brings a special feeling of freedom. If you’re longing for the water, we know just the place. The Rappahannock is Virginia’s longest free-flowing river, meandering past 451 miles of quiet shoreline before meeting the Chesapeake Bay. The Rappahannock’s final stretch is known as Virginia’s River Realm, a charming network of narrow inlets teeming with wildlife, quaint coastal towns perfect for dining and exploring, and enough water-based adventure to keep even the most seasoned water enthusiast content. We hope you’ll use these ideas and itineraries as an introduction and adapt them to suit your style.

Map by Shaw Nielsen

Overnight Cruising

A weekend cruise is a great way to experience the charming towns, delicious eateries, top-notch marinas, and amazing scenery of the River Realm. There are options for everyone, whether you’re bunking on a boat or looking for a berth on land.

Deltaville is the boating hub of the Chesapeake, so head there via General Puller Highway (Route 33). Boasting about a dozen marinas, the town is the perfect spot for any maintenance or repairs necessary to get your boat ready for the water. 

Fresh oysters at Merroir.

Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson

Once you cast off, go west up the Rappahannock, making your way past Parrott Island to dock in Topping and enjoy lunch at one of the state’s most acclaimed restaurants, Merroir. A tasting room for the Rappahannock Oyster Co., Merroir serves small plates of the freshest seafood, either raw or cooked over an outdoor grill.   

After lunch, continue west another 90 minutes or so to the tidewater community of Urbanna. You can drop anchor off Bailey Point or head to Bridge Marina, which offers fuel, or the Urbanna Town Marina; both are located on Urbanna Creek and offer transient slips. Trolley service into town begins Memorial Day, but it’s just a quarter-mile for those who prefer to find their land legs with an easy walk. You’ll find a number of charming restaurants and shops in town, including Marshall’s, an old fashioned drugstore with a soda fountain, and R.S. Bristow’s, a traditional general store, complete with wood floors and glass display cases. 

If it’s too hot to sleep on your boat, consider spending the night at Atherston Hall Bed & Breakfast, where owners Bill and Judith Dickinson say they have tried to create “a little piece of England here in Urbanna,” with the food, grounds, and well-appointed décor helping bring their vision to life. Take an evening stroll down to the water, and you will fall in love with the atmosphere that attracted this sailor and his wife. “The sailing and the small town feel are what brought us here,” says Judith. “Bill had always dreamed of being able to walk to his boat, and here he finally can.”

Photo by Wayne Butler

The next morning, make a leisurely crossing of the Rappahannock River and explore Irvington. There are several marinas, including Carter’s Cove Marina, but we suggest you choose to dock at The Tides Inn. Not only does the inn offer outstanding waterfront dining and accommodations, but it’s close to the Irvington Farmer’s Market. Held the first Saturday of the month from May through November, the market is a unique opportunity to shop for artisan crafts and local artwork, or to learn how to start your own oyster garden. Another overnight option is The Hope and Glory Inn, a former schoolhouse turned into an exquisite bed and breakfast—and located next to The Dog and Oyster Vineyard. Both inns offer complimentary guest bicycles, which are a romantic way to explore the nearby Steamboat Era Museum, Historic Christ Church, and village shops. 

When you’ve had your fill of fun, cast off and head east along the northern bank of the Rappahannock, sailing past Mosquito Point for a final crossing of “The Rapp” to arrive back in Deltaville.

Tip: Want the experience but don’t have a boat? The Chesapeake Inn in Urbanna and the Tides Inn in Irvington both offer river cruises; the Tides Inn also rents easy-to-pilot electric Duffy boats.

Map by Shaw Nielsen

Day Boating

If you’re a fan of fishing, consider launching from the Yankee Point Marina in Lancaster, owned for more than 20 years by Karen and Ken Knull, “as a chance to run a business and treat people in a way that we were never treated in the corporate world!” The shores of the Corrotoman River, a small river along the north bank of the Rappahannock, make for a memorable day of casting and a great place to experience what Karen calls the “low, slow, and mellow” way of life on the Northern Neck. Croaker, puppy drum, stripers, and rockfish are just a few of the fish found in these waters. 

NN Burger Freakshake. 

Photo courtesy of NN Burger

To pass time between nibbles, watch the slow chug of the Merry Point Ferry, which was first operated in 1847 and is one of only two free cable ferries remaining in Virginia. And if you’re feeling the call of open water to end your day, the Rappahannock is only a few miles away. Karen says that the six miles of water out to the Route 3 bridge are fantastic for sailing: “You get the same winds as if out on the bay, but without having to deal with the waves.”

Alternately, exploring Fleets Bay, near Kilmarnock, is another great way to unwind. Rather secluded from the wind, Fleets’ many grassy shelves and drop-offs make it a great spot to wet a line; it’s also a scenic place to sit in calm waters and enjoy a sunset. There is a beautiful little beach on the southern end of the bay near Oyster Creek and Horsepen Cove; thanks to a deep drop off, you can practically float your boat onto the beach. Cap your day with a chef-crafted burger and a fabulous Freakshake from NN Burger in Kilmarnock.

Tip: Remember to obtain a Virginia Saltwater or Freshwater Recreational Fishing License before you cast in the state’s tidal waters or rivers. DGIF.Virginia.gov/Licenses

Map by Shaw Nielsen

Kayaking & Canoeing

Discover the joy of a slower pace and reap the many fitness benefits of paddling your own vessel around the River Realm. Belle Isle State Park in Lancaster offers canoe and kayak rentals and boasts eight distinct wetland environments, which are home to a variety of animals. Park manager Katie Shepard says, “Belle Isle features 900 beautiful acres of peninsula and offers one of the few public access points to the lower Rappahannock,” as well as Mulberry and Deep creeks. The creeks’ protected shorelines and reduced motorboat traffic create quiet oases for wildlife and shoreline viewing. Plus, says Shephard, “The sunsets are just amazing! It’s my favorite part of being here.”

Canoeing in Belle Isle State Park. 

Photo courtesy of Belle Isle State Park

Jackson Creek, near Deltaville, is another great spot to explore on your kayak or stand up paddleboard. Look for coastal waterfowl while gliding over the smooth, sheltered waterways. Beach on the sandbar at low tide for a picnic and a chance to stretch your legs. Prefer watching people instead of birds? Paddling out of Jackson Creek from the Deltaville Marina is a stylish way to arrive at Groovin’ in the Park, the monthly summer concert series at the Deltaville Maritime Museum & Holly Point Nature Park (DeltavilleMuseum.com). 

To master a different kind of paddling—rowing sculls—consider booking a stay with Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster (CalmWatersRowing.net), for what might be the most unique vacation option in the realm. Run by two former U.S. National Team members who have won multiple international medals, this sculling training camp and vacation destination features a Georgian-style inn and world-class rowing instruction on a private millpond with no motorized traffic.

Tip: Want more itineraries? The Virginia Water Trails website (VirginiaWaterTrails.org) is packed with ideas for paddling the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, and Eastern Shore.

Charter Your Own Adventure

Belle Isle wildlife.

Photo courtesy of Belle Isle State Park

Owning a boat isn’t for everyone, but anyone can enjoy the waters of the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay. At Virginia Watermen’s Heritage Tours (WatermenTours.com), genuine, working watermen breathe life into the landscape by sharing the interesting history, culture, and traditions gleaned from years spent living on the water. Their customizable tours can include aquaculture education, fishing, historical landmarks, water-to-table seafood tastings, or just a scenic cruise. “The Chesapeake Bay is just the place to be! It is always changing, which makes each day and each tour an entirely different experience,” says Wes Marks, captain of the Pamlico, based in Deltaville.

If you’re looking for more adventure, consider learning to sail with Norton’s Sailing School, also in Deltaville (NortonYachts.com/Sailing-School). This American Sailing Association certified sailing school is also a full-service marina, boatyard, and service center. They’ll even help you coordinate a captain for your own charter if you want to get out on the water without a day full of instruction.   

No matter how you explore Virginia’s River Realm, you’ll find a peaceful rhythm of life and inherent connection to the water along these shorelines and within these towns. So cast away from your own shore, slow your pace of life, welcome the smell of salty morning air at low tide, and discover the endless horizon that awaits you. 

The oyster buyboat F.D. Crockett at the Deltaville Maritime Museum.

Photo by Nicki Ahrens / courtesy of Deltaville Maritime Museum

Water Lingo

Gunkholing: A boating term used to describe a leisurely cruise exploring the shallow waters of creeks, inlets, and coves. “It was a great day of gunkholing!”

Sloop: A boat with one mast and two sails. The most common type of sailboat seen on the Rappahannock River and Chesapeake Bay.

Draft: The vertical distance between the water line and the boat’s hull or keel. An important number to know when navigating smaller channels.

Taylor blues: A type of fish rumored to be named after Taylor’s restaurant in Deltaville, which makes fish sandwiches with it. A great fish for spring and summer grilling.

Sea walnuts: A fun name for the translucent invertebrates with brightly colored iridescent bands that are commonly found in the Chesapeake Bay. Look for them in the wake of your boat if you’re on the water at night.

Sketch by Captain John Smith

Sailing Back in Time

From 1607 to 1609, the famed captain and adventurer Captain John Smith sailed nearly 3,000 miles on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers searching for gold and silver, assessing trade potential with native tribes, mapping the region, and seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail was designated in 2006 as our country’s first national water trail. When you are boating the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay, you are literally following in the wake of his 17th-century shallop. NPS.gov/CaJo

This article originally appeared in our April 2020 issue.

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