Timeless Tides

The Tides Inn makes memories with a unique blend of heritage, hospitality, and modern amenities.

Photo courtesy Tides Inn

Tides Inn

The Tides Inn has been entertaining visitors since 1947.

The Tides Inn’s special brand of hospitality makes you feel at home from the moment you step through the door, whether you are a regular or a new guest eager to begin your own vacation traditions. It is a welcoming and personal place where people create lasting connections.

E.A. and Ann Stephens

Tides Inn founders Ann and E.A. Stephens.

That personal touch was the goal of founders E.A. and Ann Stephens, who welcomed their first guest at the waterfront hotel in 1947. Known for their love of entertaining, the couple purchased an abandoned farm overlooking Carter’s Creek near Irvington, designed a gracious coastal resort, and then built it from the ground up. Big Steve, as he was known, was the general contractor for the project, and Miss Ann served as interior decorator and landscape designer. Together, they created a look of understated “always been there” elegance reminiscent of a villa by the sea. A network of supporters donated their own trees to transplant onto the property. The Stephens’ philosophy was to “treat guests like welcome friends in our own home.” 

My parents spent their honeymoon at the Tides Inn, and our family has been going back ever since. On a recent visit, I discovered that the inn has been reimagined for modern travelers by blending beloved traditions with appealing updates, while remaining true to its heritage. Among the changes are a new arrival experience, 66 refreshed guestrooms and four luxury suites, updated dining and recreation options, 12 new day-use boat slips, and even an extended season: For the first time, the Tides Inn will be open through December 31. The trees have matured and the décor updated, but guests are still welcomed as friends and invited to make memories at the Tides Inn.

Traditions Updated

Photo courtesy Tides Inn

Things have a tendency to slow down at Tides Inn for lucky visitors.

“The first 30 years included simple things,” says Susan Williamson. The director of lodging and the inn’s unofficial historian, Williamson began her career at the inn as a “bread and butter girl” in 1985. She explains how, in the early days, guests appreciated the art of dressing up. They spent evenings together as a family playing bingo and parlor games—activities that are still popular on chilly evenings or rainy days. “Live music and dancing in the Chesapeake [Restaurant] were popular during those first 30 years,” adds Williamson. “Today, our live music on the terrace and by the pool continues to be popular with our guests of all ages. 

“Those old-fashioned habits have the power to enrich our lives,” Williamson continues. “People lived slower and in the moment. Now, we live in a fast-paced, attention-split world. The Tides Inn strives to help guests find balance between the two.”

Photo courtesy Tides Inn

The 127-foot Miss Ann had a fascinating history thanks to clandestine “whiskey runs” for guests.

Sharing a story from a book celebrating the inn’s first 50 years, The Tides Inn: A Half Century of Hospitality, the Tides Inn’s general manager, Stuart Barwise, describes a time when private establishments in Virginia were prohibited from selling alcohol, so the staff motored guests across the Rappahannock River to Urbanna for “whiskey runs” on the Miss Ann, a 127-foot yacht purchased in 1955 from the U.S. Navy and fitted with a glamorous teak cabin and walnut-paneled interiors. Selling alcohol has long been legal (the inn partners with local producers to stock exclusive spirits) and the Miss Ann was sold in 2008, but the Eagle Room is still paneled with the bourbon lockers where guests stashed their liquor upon their return from Urbanna. Barwise says the wooden lockers are a source of fascination for the inn’s youngest guests, who like to hide candy in them.

In the commemorative book, the Stephens’ son Randy described efforts to change some long-standing traditions. When he and his brother Lee asked their father to relax the coat-and-tie requirement for dinner, E.A. informed them that casually dressed guests were welcome in the Golf Lodge, but in the Chesapeake Restaurant, jacket and tie were required. “Because so much was based on the Southern Genteel times, that was what dining was,” writes Stephens. “In the finest hotels, cruise ships, and restaurants in the country, you dressed well for dinner. As society started to change, we did not—until very late in the game.” The restaurant still offers gorgeous waterfront views, attentive service, and chef-driven delicacies—but it is no longer formal.

Food Familiar and Refined

Photo courtesy Tides Inn

Alex Pasco, executive chef at Tides Inn.

The Chesapeake Restaurant and the Tides Inn’s other dining options are now the purview of a new executive chef, Alex Pasco. Pasco got his start in San Francisco, where, he says, “sourcing local products is not just preferred, it’s the expectation,” and has cooked in Arizona and Hawaii, as well. When he arrived last year, he began shopping the local farmers’ market and meeting with regional farmers to incorporate farm-to-table and seasonally driven dishes into the menus. “We are using Yellow House Farm eggs for breakfast and produce from Dug In Farms. Our seafood and oysters are as local as possible. Even our flowers in the dining room and lobby are locally grown,” Pasco says, adding, “I am excited to put a Virginia beef on the menu this year.” 

Striving for a level of hospitality that is both familiar and refined, Pasco is updating the menus to include exciting new dishes, while assuring guests that iconic favorites will remain. He has researched the inn’s culinary history and customs, and is inspired by the staff’s enthusiasm. “There are so many resources, including looking at older menus and learning from our employees, more than a few of which have been working here for decades,” he says. “Though I’ll probably impart my style in some ways, the she-crab soup, the abundance of oysters, and the sweet rolls at breakfast won’t be going anywhere.” 

Photo courtesy of Tides Inn

Chef Alex Pasco’s crab cakes are made from local products.

The wood-paneled Chesapeake Restaurant has huge windows overlooking the water beyond. The inn’s premier dining option for breakfast and dinner, it offers both creative “Tides-to-Table” dishes and familiar comfort food. Thankfully, not only is a jacket no longer required, but tableside cocktail service is available on the terrace just outside. For a light lunch, try the Golden Eagle Grill at the golf course. For a romantic dinner, try Overlook, where a prix fixe menu is served under twinkling lights just a few feet from a bluff overlooking the water. “It’s an intimate option, with changing menus that reflect the best of what is available locally and seasonally,” says Pasco. “The view, regardless of the setting, is simply breathtaking at sunset.” 

Photo courtesy of Tides Inn

The farm-to-table philosophy at Tides Inn means nearly everything on the menu was sourced locally.

The newest restaurant, introduced last summer, is Fish Hawk Oyster Bar, a casual eatery accessible from the pool and creek. It’s a bright, airy space with lots of windows and a nautical theme. The menu features a raw bar, oyster roasts, and cocktails (try the inn’s signature Lancaster Lemonade), plus burgers, salads, and sandwiches. “It goes without saying that oysters and crab are staples here, and the new baked oysters dish is stellar, with black garlic butter, herbs, breadcrumbs, and bacon powder,” says Pasco. Fish Hawk also offers a boat-load of candy (literally—it’s displayed in a boat) and prepackaged s’mores supplies for roasting at the nightly beach bonfire.

Speaking of Oysters

The Tides Inn sits on the Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three peninsulas forming Virginia’s Tidewater region. Thanks to its rich soil and abundant seafood, the area was home to Indian villages before the English arrived, and it has been a vital part of Virginia for 400 years. Some of the earliest settlers became prosperous landowners whose families helped form the American government and birthed three American presidents: James Madison, James Monroe, and George Washington. 

Oysters flourish in the area, thanks to the brackish brew that forms when fresh water from rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay mixes with Atlantic seawater. In the 19th and 20th centuries, factors like pollution and habitat loss nearly decimated the region’s oysters, but today, clean water and thriving oyster businesses are helping to replenish the bivalve population. 

The Tides Inn turned Carter’s Creek into an oyster sanctuary called Ellery Kellum Rock, named for a much-admired waterman. “The ecology of the environment around us is very important to the Tides Inn, and the wellbeing of the oyster fishery is as important as it gets,” explains general manager Barwise. “Ellery Kellum Rock and our interpretive signage allow us to share the history of the fishery and to acknowledge and appreciate our local watermen.” 

To help guests explore the local oyster industry, the Tides Inn partners with Rappahannock River Charters to offer the Virginia Oyster Academy. The four-hour program, offered every fall, begins with oyster hunting on the Miss Nicole, an authentic, all-wood Chesapeake Bay dead rise. Captain William Saunders, the owner of Rappahannock River Charters, explains, “I teach them the history, the harvest, the preparation, and my signature trick—the easy way to open oysters without hurting your hands.” Guests then sample a few Rappahannock River Oysters before heading back to the inn for an oyster roast. “They always tell me how exciting it is, and that they learned something they never knew before,” says Saunders. This summer, the Tides Inn debuts the new Crab Academy, where Saunders demonstrates how to catch and cook crabs onboard the Miss Nicole. “Then we eat them,” Saunders says. “They don’t get any fresher than that.”

Stay and Play

Photo courtesy of Tides Inn

Making memories on and along the water has been a hallmark for Tides Inn for generations.

Of course, the resort offers many more ways to get out on the water. I spent a peaceful hour cruising up and down the creek with the inn’s captain, Stormy Pearson, who pointed out great blue herons and bald eagles while sharing his wealth of knowledge about other native wildlife and regional history. Pearson noted that guests can rent the easy-to-drive electric Duffy Boats for self-guided tours, and he also offers guided rides on a Pontoon Cruiser. 

Another active option is the Chesapeake Bay Premier Sailing School, where guests spend the day piloting a Catalina 30 or J24 guided by a Premier Sailing instructor. The lessons focus on docking, steering, trimming the sails, and helping students earn their U.S. Sailing Basic Keelboat certification. The inn offers kayaking, canoeing, fishing, swimming, jet skiing, and stand-up paddle boarding, as well.

Back on land, families love lounging on the sandy beaches and playing croquet, cornhole, pickleball, and bocce—as well as dueling with a giant chess set on the Chesapeake Terrace. Kids spend hours crabbing off the boardwalk that runs along the waterfront below the inn and can also take fishing lessons and craft classes designed just for them, while their parents take mixology classes or cooking lessons in the Chef’s Kitchen with Pasco. Plus, this summer the inn is debuting a new Maker Space with expert programming.

Photo courtesy of Tides Inn

Duffy boat rentals at Tides Inn allows a variety of ways to get out on the water.

Golf has always been a big draw for guests of the inn. Seasoned golfers know the Golden Eagle Golf Course, opened in 1976, for its challenging elevations carved around a 50-acre lake. A driving range, complimentary round at the par-3 course, and lunch at Golden Eagle Grill can create a memorable experience for beginners, too. 

Wellness activities also abound at the resort. An all-new TechnoGym fitness center with two Peloton Bikes is opening this year. Outdoors, guests can play tennis, practice yoga on the beach, and join a guided fitness walk. For relaxation, the inn’s spa offers facials, massages, body treatments, and even a poolside mani-pedi. Guest Nicole Warner of Rixeyville recently went to the Tides Inn for a mother-daughter day. “It was the perfect location for my mom and I to spend an afternoon being pampered at their spa, which was relaxing and very welcoming,” she says. “Afterward, we had a delicious meal at their waterfront restaurant.”

Guests also enjoy exploring the rural byways of the Northern Neck. The inn provides complimentary resort bicycles and offers guided rides to local fishing villages and historic sites. For my family, no visit is complete without coffee at The Local, pizza at The Office Café, and a visit to the weekly farmers’ market, which has nearly 100 vendors selling food and crafts. I also like to pop in to Objects, Art & More, which showcases the multimedia artwork of the Northern Neck’s robust artisan community. Plus, the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail offers six nearby wineries, including the Dog & Oyster Vineyard, whose wines are specifically designed to pair with oysters. 

Photo courtesy of Tides Inn

Cornhole is one of just many land-based ways for guests to have fun when they’re not on the water.

After more than 50 years of welcoming guests “home,” the Stephens family sold the resort to the Enchantment Group in 2001. Headed by financier Oscar Tang and his family, Enchantment Group develops and manages independent resorts that “embody the locales and pay homage to local history, culture, and communities in which they reside,” says a spokesman. “Much like the resort’s original owners, the Stephens family, the Tang family shares a deep love for the town and its close-knit residents—a number of whom have worked or stayed at the inn for generations. … Oscar Tang and his daughters, Dana and Tracy, visit regularly, and Oscar was even married at the nearby Historic Christ Church in 2013.” Since taking ownership, Enchantment Group has led two multi-million-dollar refurbishments of the inn, a reflection of the resort’s importance and the desire that it remains a place both locals and visitors call home and build lasting memories.” 

And they do. Over its 73-year history, generations have gathered at the Tides Inn: Some guests originally visited on their honeymoon, returned with their children in tow, and now enjoy family vacations there with their grandchildren. They cherish the inn’s heritage and homey hospitality while enjoying the modern amenities, expertly prepared cuisine, and curated activities. Barwise sums up the draw: “People know that the Northern Neck is a place to get away from it all without having to go too far away—the beautiful views, a host of leisure pursuits, the inn’s rich history.

Plus, we have the best seafood in Virginia.” Recent guest Julie McCool of Reston agrees. “We loved the relaxed luxury of the Tides Inn,” she says. “It’s upscale and classic without being stuffy. We could wander around and be with other guests, or find a quiet place to post up with a book. There are so many hidden surprises and spaces to explore.” 

Photo courtesy of Tides Inn

The famous bourbon lockers in the Eagle Room at Tides Inn can often be found to contain hidden candy that young guests have snuck into the lockers.

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