Bikes-n-Bites Around the “Rivahs”

Bikes-n-Bites Around the “Rivahs”

A tasty, two-wheeling weekend tour through Virginia’s Northern Neck, River Realm and surrounding towns includes sweeping views of the Rappahannock and the Chesapeake 

By Eric J. Wallace

In-the-know travelers celebrate the Northern Neck as one of Virginia’s most beautiful and laidback destinations for water-themed fun and bivalve delights. But it’s also home to some incredible cycling opportunities.

A signature 90-mile loop connects flagship towns like Urbanna, Irvington, Kilmarnock and Tappahannock (some of which are situated on the Northern Neck proper, while others hug the shoreline of the Middle Peninsula) for a scenery-rich bike tour.

As I discovered recently when I tried it myself, the route pairs unsullied views of the Rappahannock River, Chesapeake Bay, tidal creeks and marshlands with amenities like breweries, wineries, historic inns, restaurants, raw bars and boutique shops.

While an enthusiast could tackle the 90-mile circuit in a day, stretching it out over a long weekend brings an active but less intense adventure that lets you explore the region from a totally unique vantage.

Highlights from my two-wheeled adventure.

From the banks of Urbanna to Irvington…

Find the chic and funky Chesapeake Inn in a smartly renovated midcentury motel in the heart of a historic riverfront downtown defined by Colonial-era Georgian and Federal style homes, river cottages and an array of old warehouses, hardware stores and garages that have been transformed into boutique shops and eateries. The 12-room compound is centered on a spacious lobby/living room area and raw bar that opens onto a cozy courtyard surrounded by walkout rooms. The latter evoke more junior suite than motel and boast amenities like sitting areas, full-size fridges, beachy décor and modern, well-equipped bathrooms.

Six restaurants sit within easy walking distance of the Chesapeake Inn, but Something Different is a can’t-miss. Housed in a neatly renovated corner market, their tagline—“specializing in fine neanderthal cuisine”—evokes the eatery’s good-time vibe, but belies its finger-lickin’-good menu of smoked meats and fresh seafood. My wife, Laura, and I started with a bowl of iconic local she crab soup and soft-shell crabs, which were lightly breaded, spiced, then fried to perfection. We followed that with a delectably juicy, pit-smoked, locally raised half-chicken rubbed with a fiery blend of spices accompanied by house-made baked beans and molasses jalapeño hoe cakes.

I set out from Urbanna for Irvington after a solid country-style late breakfast with Laura (who opted to travel by car) at nearby Virginia Street Café, pedaling south and taking in views of historic downtown homes, gardens and the countless slips, boat houses, docks and vessels navigating into Urbanna Creek and Bailey Point inlet. I crossed the .2-mile Beryl R. Newman Memorial Bridge—catching an eastward glimpse of the Rappahannock River—then passed into lush coastal lowlands dominated by sprawling farmland and dense maritime forests interspersed with alternatively decaying or remodeled 1950s brick ranchers, bungalows, turn-of-the-century farmhouses, gated vacation homes and quaint country churches. 

As I breezily turned left onto U.S. 33 toward Deltaville, sparse traffic and a slight downhill grade helped me burn through a similarly rural 7.5-mile stretch to Topping and a lively pedal over the 2.12-mile Robert O. Norris Jr. Bridge. The crossing offers bedazzling views of the Rappahannock, Grey’s Point and the Lancaster County shoreline—but its narrowness sparks an uptick in adrenalin (leading one to wish an upcoming rebuild with bike lanes had already happened). I get lucky, though, and encounter naught but a single box truck passing in the opposite direction. 

Entering Lancaster County is like slipping into another world. Passing through the tiny communities of White Stone and Irvington I found vacationy stands of historic buildings filled with boutique shops, restaurants, art galleries and B&Bs offset by densely forested riparian marshes and tidal creeks lined with extravagant homes. A final 6.5-mile pedal along route 200 through rural Pitmans Corner delivered me to the Neck’s biggest town Kilmarnock—population 1,400.

On to Kilmarnock with delicious detours…

I located the historic Kilmarnock Inn in the middle of a surprisingly bustling downtown area replete with more than 55 boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, drinking spots and wine bars. The iconic Queen Anne Victorian dates to 1884 and houses a Southern-style restaurant called Filibusters. There is a wood-rich bar area, three elaborately decorated dining rooms and a trio of B&B-style suites upstairs. Through the backdoor, you’ll find a neatly landscaped courtyard centered on a 200-year-old pecan tree and boxed in by eight two-story cottages. Spring for the latter: They’re modern, spacious, thoughtfully decorated, and have private court-fronting balconies.

Laura ferried us back to Topping for an early dinner at Rappahannock Oyster Co.’s famed flagship restaurant, Merroir Tasting Room. The small but mighty eatery boasts an expansive outdoor patio area overlooking oyster docks, atavistic boat houses, and a marina where Locklies Creek meets the Rappahannock. We took advantage of warmish weather to pair panoramic views with a dozen oysters—half raised onsite, half at a Chincoteague sister farm—savory bowls of oyster chowder, and an entrée of blackened, fresh-caught puppy drum served over a bed of jasmine rice and crawfish gumbo.

We caught a delicious brunch of blue crab eggs benedict over brioche buns and to-die-for bloody marys at Filibusters before I (reluctantly) set out on the tough (for me) 37-mile climb to Tappahannock. I intended to pursue state Route 3 for the duration of the ride, but Laura persuaded me to indulge a 2-mile detour to meet for a wine tasting at Good Luck Cellars. The detour proved worth it as the 2019 Petit Verdot, a silver medalist at the 2023 Virginia Governor’s Cup, is a delightful surprise. 

The post vino ride carried me through vast swaths of sparsely populated lowland farms, coastal forests, occasional marshes and a string of blink-and-they’re-gone communities like Lancaster, Lively, Farnham and Emmerton. I reconvened with Laura in Warsaw for brews and blackened chicken tacos at Main Street’s Old Rapp Taphouse. From there it was a breezy 6.7-mile jaunt past a trio of national wildlife refuges and meandering wetlands to the mile-long Downing Bridge, which ferried me over the Rappahannock into the Tappahannock Historic District.     

Tappahannock and the last scenic loop…

Nothing captures the essence of this 2,300-person, Colonial-era port town better than the Essex Inn. The regal Greek Revival style, 12-room main building dates to 1851 and retains its historic elegance through original hardwood floors, period-style wallpaper, antique furniture, early 20th century crystal chandeliers, light fixtures and more. Those looking for a historic vibe will love the four large upstairs bedrooms, which are outfitted with antique beds, furniture and nifty vintage tile bathrooms. Suites are situated along a beautifully landscaped courtyard and brick patio area in a smartly overhauled, two-story 1840s rowhouse.

A fabulous casual fine-dining experience awaits across the street from the Essex Inn at 1710 Tavern. The name pays homage to an 18th century watering hole that, after a series of expansions, took its current form in 1758. The newly renovated interior stays true to its historic roots with original wide plank flooring, fireplaces, Old World style handcrafted wood bar, exposed rafters and mullioned, lead glass windows. We opted for chef Matt Lyon’s four-course dinner, which is studded with comestible delights like a seared lamb lollipop starter topped with house-made salsa verde and served over a butternut squash puree with cubed Idaho Gold potato confit.

I saddled up for the loop’s final 29-mile leg post breakfast, which was an exquisite crab quiche and Bloody Marys at the inn. Designated historic homes and the Hoskins Creek bridge provided welcome eye candy before I descended into a lengthy stretch of strip mall suburbia. The tableau again waxed rural after turning south on U.S. 17. From there, I utilized the mild downhill grade to burn through 20 miles before hanging a left onto state Route 602. The final 6-mile run into Urbanna topped off my adventure with a surprisingly pretty glide through lush forests, marshland thickets and properties overrun with old boats and fishing accoutrements from a bygone era. Then, just like that, I was breezing down Old Virginia Street, headed back to where my trip began.  

Photos courtesy of Eric J. Wallace, The Chesapeake Inn, Town of Urbanna, Leona Baker, Consociate Media, and Something Different.

Eric J. Wallace Headshot
Eric J. Wallace
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Eric J. Wallace is an award-winning lifestyle journalist based in Staunton who has contributed to WIRED, Outside, Reader’s Digest, Atlas Obscura, Best American Food Writing, All About Beer and more.

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