It’s only spring, but the majority of us are already busting out, eager to hit the road, see some sights or just kick back and relax somewhere other than home. But you don’t have to travel far from Richmond to get that “getaway” feeling you’ve been needing. Virginia Beach is typically the go-to relaxation destination for many of us city dwellers, but there are plenty of other, less popular but no less vacation-worthy places to travel for some R&R this spring or summer. You’ve heard of “buy local” – why not “travel local”? Here are our Top 5 Overlooked getaways close to Richmond, although this easily could have been a top 25 list.
Williamsburg is best known, of course, for Colonial Williamsburg, which is well worth a visit, especially if the last time you went was on a fifth grade school field trip. Jamestown, Yorktown, Busch Gardens and Water Country USA are all part of the mix of nearby tourist attractions you can also hit up while in the area. You remember The Pottery, right? The ramshackle charm of the old version is gone, but you can still find everything you didn’t know you needed, but wanted, at the revived shopping emporium. But it’s downtown Williamsburg next to the historic district that needs to be savored and explored, especially the shops at Merchants Square and the Saturday Farmers Market, one of the best in Virginia. Five miles to the northwest, make sure you stop by Williamsburg AleWerks, the city’s only micro-brewery, and sample a Red Marker Ale or the spring seasonal White Ale.
Where to Stay: Kingsmill Resort (www.kingsmill.com) on the James River is almost a self-sustaining vacation attraction in and of itself. With 425 guest rooms and suites, it features two championship golf courses (the third is for members only), a full-service spa, four restaurants and loads of other recreational activities, including tennis, boating, kayaking and fishing. If you’re on a budget, try the Fort McGruder Hotel (www.fortmagruderhotel.com), scene of a raucous Beta Club Convention I attended in high school. (I kid, but really, it’s nice and affordable.)
Where to Eat: Go for the Blue Talon Bistro in Merchants Square. For starters, order the yummy Brandade, made with cod, whipped potatoes, cream and truffle oil with dipping croutons or the Goat Cheese and Leek Tart. A few steps away for dessert, try the newly opened Blackbird Bakery, featuring baked goods from The Trellis Restaurant, Blue Talon Bistro and DoG Street Pub.
There is more to Smithfield than hog, but even if it were only known for that, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, because it’s a recurring, fun little motif in the town. Smithfield is located just across the James from Williamsburg and down Route 10 – you can even take a ferry across the river to get there, which makes you feel like you’re traveling to some remote locale like Ocracoke or Tangier Island. Smithfield’s historic downtown area is highly walkable, taking you past boutique shops – Wharf Hill, a bright and airy shop with gifts for the home and kitchen is a must-visit – antique stores, cozy eateries, historic buildings and white picket fences with blooms poking through the slats. For some good, wholesome entertainment, check out the free downtown Summer Concert Series every Friday night or visit during the Genuine Smithfield Olden Days Festival (June 27 - 28)
Where to Stay: Overlooking the Pagan River, stay at the Smithfield Station Waterfront Inn (www.smithfieldstation.com), with views of the marshes and marina out back. If you can swing it, go for the Inn’s deluxe Lighthouse Suite, Virginia’s only lighthouse accommodation. Housed in the same complex as the Inn are the Smithfield Station Waterfront Restaurant and several boardwalk shops.
Where to Eat: On Main Street, head to Taste of Smithfield, a hybrid gourmet market and Southern café with plenty of Smithfield ham and pork on the menu, or venture over to Smithfield Gourmet Bakery & Café (www.smithfieldgourmetbakery.com). For lunch, sample the Piggly Sticks – yes Piggly Sticks—(What did I say about the recurring motif? You’ll eat and like it.)—deep-fried smoked pork rolled in spring roll wrappers and pimento cheese and served with blueberry gastrique.
About 40 minutes to the west of Charlottesville is the Shenandoah Valley city of Staunton, which is often bypassed by travelers making a beeline for the land of Jefferson. Staunton’s downtown is quite possibly a more interesting stroll than C-ville’s, with loads of shops and cafés to cater to your whim, like the old-timey yet contemporary George Bowers Grocery, selling local staples, imported treats, sandwiches and an ample craft beer selection. Staunton is also known for being home to the American Shakespeare Center, a one-of-a-kind re-creation of the bard’s original indoor theatre, and as the birthplace of 28th U.S President Woodrow Wilson.
Where to Stay: The 124-room Stonewall Jackson Hotel (www.stonewalljacksonhotel.com), a member of Historic Hotels of America, underwent $21.1 million renovation in 2005, restoring the 1920’s structure to its original glory but updated with modern amenities.
Where to Eat: Dine at neighborhood favorite Mill Street Grill (www.millstreetgrill.com) and order the always popular Barbeque Baby Back Ribs, or check out The Shack, run by beloved local chef Ian Boden, a 2013 James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. For a treat, go by The Split Banana (thesplitbanana.com) for some tasty gelato flavors like Pineapple Basil, Coffee Toffee and Sticky Rice.
Norfolk, and even the rest of Hampton Roads, often gets short shrift by ocean-seekers with Virginia Beach tunnel-vision. But there are plenty of sea breezes, water views and things to do and see in there. Explore the maritime science center Nauticas, Norfolk Botanical Garden (the city’s answer to Lewis Ginter), Chrysler Museum of Art, the Virginia Symphony and Town Point Park, host of numerous seasonal festivals. Treat yourself to some shopping at the MacArthur Center or the eclectic mix of shops in historic Ghent. Sight-see the colonial architecture in Freemason, take in the nightlight along Granby Street, hear some regional and national music at the NorVA, or comb the three public beaches along Ocean View Avenue. Finally, pop into Smartmouth Brewing Company and sip on a Man Crush Saison or Notch 9 Double IPA in the tasting room or outside deck along the Elizabeth River.
Where to Stay: If you’re hoping for something a little more authentic and attentive, try a B&B, like the Page House Inn Bed & Breakfast in the Ghent Historic District or the Freemason Inn, housed in a renovated turn of the century Victorian home on the Elizabeth.
Where to Eat: Grub at sandwich shop The Ten Top (www.thetentop.com) in Ghent, with menu items like pimento cheese sandwich, Rick’s big meatloaf sandwich and Parisian ham & pear. The bacon date flatbread pizza sounds appetizing, as does the cornmeal breaded catfish, served over mashed potatoes, Rick’s whisky collards and roasted red pepper remoulade. Also popular are Luna May (www.lunamayarestaurant.com), a Mexican restaurant on Colley Avenue or the farm-to-table establishment Vintage Kitchen (www.vintage-kitchen.com) on the Elizabeth River. Two relatively new eateries well worth exploring are Field Guide (fieldguide.is) on Granby Street, with its eclectic menu (the mac-and-cheese sandwich is recommended) and Handsome Biscuit (www.handsomebiscuit.com) on Colonial Avenue, known for its creative sweet potato biscuit sandwiches.
There are several adorable small towns located within the area known as the Northern Neck – Reedville, Kilmarnock and White Stone, for example – but a must-visit is Irvington, a place that compels you put away your digital devices and soak in the buzz-free calm and tranquility. Take your sweet time checking out the sleepy little community, especially every first Saturday when you can experience the Irvington Farmers Market. If you go outside the town’s confines make sure it’s up the street to White Stone’s FARM, a locally-owned, Anthropologie-esque shop that sells clothing, accessories and housewares. A stay here isn’t complete without copious amounts of relaxation by the water – the remote Westland Beach on the mouth of the Rappahannock and Chesapeake Bay is your answer.
Where to Stay: The Hope & Glory Inn (www.hopeandglory.com), a charming, ultra-romantic B&B located in a former schoolhouse has gained national attention for its service and amenities, including its outdoor garden bath, oyster boat cocktail cruises and vineyard called The Dog and Oyster.
Where to Eat: Nate’s Trick Dog Café (www.natestrickdogcafe.com) is a highlight, from its coffee and cocoa-braised Pork Shank to its squid and fettuccine with white wine and squid ink tomato sauce, as is The Local (www.thelocalblend.com), a café serving coffee, breakfast fare and sandwiches and paninis.
Jennifer Pullinger is a writer and photographer in Richmond. On Twitter @jlpullinger.