It Takes a Village

Chris M. Rogers

Maybe you know Gloucester for its daffodils. These “soft reminders of English springs,” brought to Gloucester County by the early English settlers, thrive in this coastal community, beckoning visitors every April with their own festival.

But this one-time capital of the Native American Powhatan Confederacy, located an hour from Richmond and about half that from Williamsburg, Jamestown, and York County, is about more than flowers. Gloucester is a destination all on its own.

Chris M. Rogers

People think about us in the springtime,” says Becky Heath, an internationally recognized grower who owns Brent and Becky’s Bulbs with her husband. Of course, she’d like you to visit the eight-acre working garden and retail shop on Daffodil Lane. “Bring the kids, bring your dog on a leash. We have benches throughout; some are in the sunshine, some are in the shade. It’s a great place to visit. You’ll feel like you’ve gone back in time.”

But daffodils aside, Heath is passionate about all that makes her hometown unique. “In my mind, Gloucester is just a magical little village,” she says. “You can park your car at one end of downtown and walk up one side of the street and down another. It’s got great little shops that are different. They are all privately owned. There’s history here, if you have that interest.

“There are not a whole lot of true villages in the country, but Gloucester is one of them.”

Veer right off Route 17 to enter Virginia’s oldest Main Street village, and shortly, history stares back at you. His name is Thomas Calhoun Walker. The Cook Foundation commissioned four murals on Main Street: one honors the watermen who fish, crab, and oyster for a living; another celebrates the daffodil; and the inaugural one commemorates the life of Pocahontas.

Chris M. Rogers

The newest, completed last fall, brings you face to face with Walker, born a slave less than a year before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The mural illustrates his devotion to education and church, but the prominent image of the first Black man to practice law in Gloucester County is him waving a big stick. It’s actually a cane that he wasn’t bashful about using on others. “He used it when he prodded kids standing around on the street and told them to, ‘Walk like you’ve got somewhere to go,’ or ‘Don’t stand around. Do something with your life,’” says Jenny Crittenden, executive director at Main Street Preservation Trust. “When I drive or walk down Main Street and look up at it, I take it as a reminder and an inspiring poke to find and channel my inner T.C. Walker.”

While it’s tempting to park the car and study the mural for a while, keep driving. Street parking is free, but for efficiency’s sake, start your tour at the far end of the district at Courthouse Circle. The collection of buildings there includes the Gloucester Courthouse, built in 1766 and the place where troops were mustered in the Revolutionary War. The courthouse is among the oldest in use, though it’s reserved for county meetings, not legal proceedings. 

Chris M. Rogers

The Botetourt Building, across Main Street from the Court Circle, houses the Gloucester Museum of History, built in the late 18th century. Check out the nearby debtor’s prison, circa 1810, one of three in the state. Imagine the incarcerated, who lay on straw mats and were only allowed outdoors for exercise.

From there, experience Main Street’s bounty. “It’s like a page out of Norman Rockwell’s America,” says Theresa Stavens, innkeeper at nearby Warner Hall. “There’s some really cool boutiques—Up South, Yolanda’s, an apothecary, which smells wonderful inside. You have gourmet popcorn and the Kelsick Market.”

Don’t leave without stepping inside Arts on Main. The nonprofit showcases jewelry, pottery, paintings, wood and fiber designs, glasswork, and more. Funky windchimes and unusual sculptures live among the 4,000 square feet of gallery space. Price points are reasonable; it’s only $1 to buy a postcard that captures the bright colors and striking details of local artist Brian Moss’s original paintings. “We’re a resource for people to come and see art and to purchase the work of local artists,” says gallery manager Alisa Potter.

Chris M. Rogers

Gloucester rivals nearby Williamsburg and Jamestown for history. Colonial and pre-revolutionary churches and homes line the streets of the county, formed in 1651. The Rosewell Plantation, the former home of a branch of the Page family (one of Virginia’s first families), burned in 1916, leaving behind a scarred brick wall and chimneys. Its ruins are worth visiting. Stand up close to the bricks to visualize what once was a 12,500-square-foot mansion with four chimneys.

An upgraded visitors center features custom cabinetry full of artifacts from that era. “They’ve been hidden away for years, so we’re excited to bring them out this spring,” says executive director Elizabeth Judd. “They’re things that speak to life back then—drinking vessels from the 1700s, an ivory domino charred on the back.”

Visitors can also meet up for nighttime ghost tours. “There’s no zombies jumping out like at Busch Gardens,” Judd says. “But believe me, they’re spooky.” 

Chris M. Rogers

Gloucester is also home to Walter Reed’s birthplace; Abingdon Episcopal Church, built in 1650; and the Woodville School, one of the remaining Rosenwald Schools built for Black children between 1912 and 1931. 

If you’re looking for outdoor activities, lovely Beaverdam Park, a 635-acre reservoir, is a local gem where you can hike, bike, fish, ride horses, kayak, or picnic. Don’t be surprised if you spot deer or beavers from the lakeside trail, and have your camera handy for the occasional bald eagle sighting. A boat ramp for private boats costs just $6, and rental boats and canoes are available at the ranger station. Otherwise, simply walk the park for free.

The Commonwealth’s 40th state park, Machicomoco, is expected to open later this year. Located near Werewocomoco, the village headquarters of Chief Powhatan, the park will focus on the history of Virginia’s Indian tribes, including the Algonquin nation.

Chris M. Rogers

Dial up Capt. Bill Berger to tour the area by water. The owner of South Bay Charters touts his sunset cruise and provides aquatic taxi service to any waterfront restaurant on the southern part of the bay. He’s happy to take families fishing for striper, flounder, or whatever is biting. His 51-foot custom Chesapeake Bay Deadrise holds up to six people and includes a kitchen and bathroom. “These are custom cruises based on what interests you,” Berger says. “It’s a unique experience for people who handle the water well. I narrate as I go. One tour is all about the Chesapeake Bay and how it was formed by a meteor.”

Capt. Berger’s hands-on eco-tour offers a first-hand look at the region’s watermen. “I take people out and show them how the oyster men are  dredging and tonguing and pulling crab pots and fishnets out,” he says.

Chris M. Rogers

Land lovers will find respite in one of Gloucester’s newest attractions, Under the Stars Lavender Farm. C.J. McDonald started the business after growing weary of logging 180,000 miles of corporate travel annually. “We planted our first test crop in May 2019,” she says. “Our yield was about four times what we bought, so we branched out into small batch handmade products. In June 2019, our first small batch sold out.”

That prompted expansion from 150 plants to 1,000 plants, all of which can be enjoyed by making reservations 48 hours in advance for “lavender days.” Purchase a farm pass for $15 to receive a glass of cold lavender lemonade, a single you-pick bouquet, and the chance to hang in the lavender field for as long as you’d like. McDonald has planned specialty evening events for the summer months and a fall event that will showcase foods from various parts of Virginia.

Chris M. Rogers

When you’re ready for lunch or dinner, good news—fresh seafood is plentiful in Gloucester. Downtown, Olivia’s in the Village is a must for signature crab cakes, fried oysters, or a seafood crepe filled with a collection of shrimp, crab, and scallops. Lulu Birds’ comfort food and Bangkok Noi Thai’s for authentic cuisine are favorites, too.

Nearby Scoot’s Barbecue lists seafood on the menu, but don’t leave without sampling Scoots’ signature barbecue. Crowned Virginia Living magazine’s BBQ Bracket Battle Champion in 2019, the Gloucester Point restaurant beat out 250 others from around the state for the honor.

Some of the tastiest food around is in one of the unlikeliest places—Nuttall’s Store on Ware Neck Road, a couple miles past Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. The landmark from 1877 looks like an old post office and while it is that, it’s so much more. Locals know that Johnson & Wales-trained chef Win Goodier has dinner waiting inside, whether it’s his cream of asparagus soup with Edwards country ham or Rappahannock oysters from Garnett Seafood. His sour cream pound cake sells out daily; the shrimp salad is delish; and his crab cakes with minimal filler are succulent.

Chris M. Rogers

Planning for more than one day makes an overnight stay at the Inn at Warner Hall a must. The majestic bed-and-breakfast along the Severn River belonged to George Washington’s great-great grandfather, Augustine Warner I. It’s a marvelous retreat. Don’t plan on breakfast anywhere else as Stavens isn’t just the innkeeper, she’s something of a chef. Her three-course first meal of the day includes a fruit plate, fresh baked goods, and, if you ask, banana pancakes with orange blossom whipped cream.

The trouble with staying at the Inn is you might end up putting any additional plans on hold. “Often when people get here, especially at night, they don’t immediately see all the beauty that surrounds them,” Stavens says. “They find that having a quiet, restorative rest walking the grounds, riding in the kayaks, birdwatching, or sitting in a lounge chair or lying in a hammock and imagining what life was like 350 years ago is pretty special, too.”


Make It A Weekend

STAY

Chris M. Rogers

  • Inn at Warner Hall: Relax and rejuvenate by savoring the same views on the Severn River that captivated George Washington in his youth. Each of the 11 rooms is named for a Virginia historical figure. WarnerHall.com
  • The Inn at Tabb’s Creek: Secluded waterfront getaway in Mathews County with all the extras. Don’t miss breakfast, where favorites include lemon blueberry cornmeal pancakes, crab quiche, and strawberry cream cheese French toast casserole. InnAtTabbsCreek.com
  • Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort at Gloucester Point: The campground located at the end of the Severn River includes its own beach, inflatable fun zone, and a boat shack to rent paddle boats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle- boards. JellystoneGP.com

DO

Chris M. Rogers

  • Brent & Becky’s Bulbs: Stop and smell the flowers while you explore the working garden. Bring the kids and your pooch on a leash. Visit the retail shop, too. BrentAndBeckysBulbs.com
  • Gloucester Village: See why they call Main Street the tour de force of shopping, dining, culture, and history. Park your car at Courthouse Circle and make sure you have good walking shoes. GloucesterVillage.com
  • South Bay Charters: Capt. Bill Berger can pick you up at Warner Hall or at York River Yacht Haven and customize an aquatic tour just for you. He prefers calls to make reservations: 804-854-6031.
  • Under the Stars Lavender Farm: Savor the fresh air and fragrant blooms while sipping lavender lemonade. Reservations must be made 48 hours in advance. UnderTheStarsFarm.com
  • Gloucester Arts Festival: If you’re in town June 5-30, head to the Gloucester Arts Festival, voted one of the Best Art Events in Eastern Virginia by Virginia Living readers. A list of events can be found at GloucesterArtsFestival.com

EAT AND DRINK

Chris M. Rogers

  • Scoots’ Barbecue: Pit-cooked barbecue, tangy Carolina vinegar sauce, homemade mac and cheese, and the yummiest sweet potato fries. Come hungry; you won’t be when you leave. ScootsBBQ.com
  • Bangkok Noi Thai Cuisine: Fresh ingredients highlight all dishes that are prepared to order. Consider one of the chef’s creations, like South Sea Specialty, a combo of seafood sautéed in gourmet roasted chili paste. The fresh sushi is wonderful. BangkokNoiThaiCuisine.com
  • Lulu Birds Kitchen: Dubbed as “good food you just want to eat,” by owner Isabelle Keyvan. On the menu: 2 Day Marinated Rack of Pork Ribs, Oven Roasted Oysters, and Pan Seared Mahi. Extensive wine list; ask for pairing suggestions. LuluBirds.com
  • Gloucester Brewing Company: Gloucester’s only microbrewery and taproom serves beer by the pints and flights. Where else can you get a Shucking Good Stout? GloBrewCo.com

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue.

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