Timeless Appeal

There is something about the Tides Inn, set on a peninsula overlooking Carter’s Creek on the historic Northern Neck, that has kept guests coming back again and again for generations.

I noticed it when we turned left onto Irvington Road from Route 3 in White Stone and found ourselves tailgating another SUV on the two-lane drive.

We backed off—a bit, anyway—and checked the GPS; we were almost there. Our destination on this sun-soaked early summer afternoon? The Tides Inn. My husband and I and our daughter, 16, and sons, 12 and 9, had a full programme planned for the weekend—crabbing, kayaking, sailing, golfing … lots of activities ending in ‘ing’—and I had hustled my brood out of Richmond at light speed so we could get the good times rolling. (Had toothbrushes been packed? Pajamas? No time to check bags, I thought, we’ve got to get moving.)

But once we arrived in Irvington, no one else seemed to be in a hurry.

It wasn’t until later when my husband and I had installed ourselves on the inn’s terrace with cool drinks in hand that I had my answer.

There was no need to rush.

With Carter’s Creek at our feet and the mouth of the Rappahannock glinting beyond, and our kids (who had by that time abandoned their shoes) playing croquet in the thick, soft grass of the lawn adjacent to the terrace, I realized what everyone else here already knew. A visit to the Tides Inn doesn’t have to be scripted or tightly scheduled. In fact, it shouldn’t be. The best way to enjoy it is to just let the time unfold.

There is certainly plenty to do at the 106-room resort, which first opened in 1947 on the peninsula overlooking Carter’s Creek in the historic Northern Neck. In addition to a 60-slip marina and a professional sailing school, the inn has an 18-hole golf course, 9-hole par 3 golf course, full-service spa, swimming pool and tennis courts. The resort was accessible only via steamboat until 1957, when the Robert O. Norris Bridge (also known as the Rappahannock Bridge) was completed to connect Lancaster and Middlesex counties. At that time, guests would often stay for several weeks.

Today, the average stay is about three days, says General Manager Gordon Slatford—definitely not enough time to cover the resort’s extensive activity list as I had originally thought we’d do. But that was OK. Unlike other resort destinations I have visited, I felt no urgency to do it all. No, our weekend lay before us in all the meandering pleasantness of Carter’s Creek itself. This, I decided, must be part of the reason people come back to the Tides Inn again and again.

“I’ve been on airplanes and sat next to people from all over who tell me they have heard of the Tides Inn,” says Slatford, a convivial man with a puckish wit who came to the inn in 2006. The Brit, who can often be found chatting up guests and joking with staff that number as many as 200 during the height of the summer, has managed leading hotels all around the world. He says he thinks the Tides Inn has become a tradition with so many families because it’s a place for them to reconnect and play together.

And play we did. Our first stop was the marina. The inn introduced a new floating dock in 2011 that can harbor vessels up to 150 feet, and added 24 new boat slips. As we approached, a shaggy golden retriever leapt off an arriving sailboat and onto the dock, clearly glad to return to land. “Well-behaved” canine guests are welcome at the Tides Inn, Slatford told me. The inn offers pet-sitting and grooming services as well as amenities including beds, water bowls and a bottomless biscuit barrel. Note to self: Bring dog next time.

A pathway leading around the property drew the kids off to explore. Kids can do that safely, by the way, head out for some of their own time at the beach, or cruise the property and pick up a game of disc golf or tennis. When they reappeared, we were all lured by the boats, and in fairly short order found ourselves paddling out into the creek—three of us in a kayak, and two in a paddleboat. After one minor collision with a dock post, we paddled our way toward the mouth of the river, stopping to inspect the many osprey nests along the way.  

Like the boats, bikes at the Tides Inn are available first-come, first-serve, waiting neatly in a row beneath the porte cochere at the main entrance. (How nice it was not to have to sign up for everything.) On our first outing, Earl Baker, one of three bellmen who have worked at the inn for nearly 30 years, helped us select our bikes and helmets. Before we set off though, we helped ourselves to a brownie—or two—and a sip of the fresh lemonade available at the bellmen’s station. I realized then that there was no chance of anyone going hungry during the weekend.

We pedaled past the spa (which, we found, requires advance booking, so we would have to save that for next time), tennis courts and Crab Net Kids Club (a supervised play program for younger kids) and then down the entrance road and out onto King Carter Drive. As we rode into the village of Irvington in the mellow late afternoon light, we passed the Steamboat Museum and several churches in addition to a lovely field of wildflowers. The bells of Irvington Baptist Church peeled the hour and then rang out a short song while my sons raced ahead and jumped off the curb to see which one of them could get the most ‘air.’ There was something for all of us in that moment.

But the Tides Inn is not just about play; it is also about great food. The inn has four restaurants, and we had reserved a table for our first evening in the East Room, the inn’s fine dining restaurant. Plates for my husband and me arrived artfully laden with the inn’s specialty—Chesapeake Bay crab cakes—along with fresh asparagus and fried Rappahannock oysters. My daughter enjoyed scallops served over white cheddar cheese grits, and the boys were thrilled to find a cheeseburger on the menu.  

Unbelievably, the kids found room after both our evening meals to indulge in another of the resort’s nightly traditions: gooey s’mores, roasted and assembled around a fire pit on the terrace or beach from 6 to 8 o’clock. They were such a hit that the kids had s’mores before dinner, between their salad and entrée, and again just as the operation was closing down, chocolate-smearing the boys’ shirts and chins. Too indulgent? The kids didn’t think so.

We ended both our evenings at the resort in the cozy View Room, a large library-like space off the lobby with several cushy seating areas and stuffed chairs. We played board games (including a round of Scrabble on a super-sized board) and joined in several rounds of Bingo led by the inn’s activities staff. At first, our video-game-generation children were not interested in the classic, played on wooden boards with sliding windows that revealed the letters beneath, but by the end of the night the thrill of competition—and the accompanying milk and cookies and prizes—had won them over.

Before going to bed, my husband and I topped off our days with the inn’s signature Lancaster Lemonade—a deceptively devilish cocktail—at the bar in the Chesapeake Club. Consisting of most parts Vodka, with splashes of Limoncello, fresh lemon juice and ginger ale served over ice in a Mason jar with fresh lemon balm, it looks harmless, even a bit frilly. But drink too fast and you’ll discover it carries a punch.

On Saturday, I was treated to a tour of the kitchen by the energetic Executive Chef TV Flynn. Some of his staff of 45 were prepping for a large wedding anniversary party, a wedding, and a fundraiser for several hundred taking place later that evening in addition to the regular meal service of the day. As he strode through the kitchen and I hustled to keep up, he pointed out peanut butter and jelly moon pies, blood orange ceviche and edamame hummus among many other delectable dishes in various stages of production. The well-ordered kitchen was humming.

“We’ve been farm-to-table since I got here,” Flynn told me, “We’re surrounded by it.” Menus change according to what’s being caught in the creek and river (sea bass and trout in addition to oysters and crabs), and what is farmed nearby. Says Flynn: “When we have fresh corn, I’ll do corn relish or corn salsas. Our asparagus comes from a farmer a few miles down the road.” Flynn grows his own herbs on the property, and Slatford also maintains a garden, cultivating loofas for use in guest rooms, tomatoes and, this year, corn.

Before we left, as we were packing the car, I asked Earl why he thought guests return again and again to the inn. “It’s the employees,” he said smiling widely not missing a beat.

When we left, we all took one last brownie for the road, and as we slowly drove off the property past the wildflower field and church parking lots on Irvington Road, we noticed another family just arriving, clearly headed for the Tides Inn. How did we know they were just arriving? They were tailgating the car in front of them, of course.

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