Lazy days and active adventures await at The Tides Inn, a genteel retreat that bridges past and present.
The Tides Inn makes a great first impression. As I arrive in the small town of Irvington, Va., and turn onto the resort’s quarter-mile-long driveway, I see manicured lawns shaded by mature trees, blue water dotted by white sails, and the tips of red tile roofs. At the end of the drive, a man in a spiffy straw hat greets me with fresh-baked cookies and lemonade. He points out the resort’s major activity centers—the marina, pool, putting green—then gestures toward the fitness center.
“Do I look like someone who regularly uses a gym?” I ask, referencing the obvious fact that my aging metabolism hasn’t kept up with my nightly need for chocolate bars.
He laughs. And there’s a second reason to like the Tides Inn. Even though the place oozes class, the staff hasn’t been drilled into being robotic. They’re allowed to be real people, so I can relax and be real, too.
The first step inside the lobby reveals floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a large brick patio with tables topped by striped umbrellas. To the right, a croquet court and a sweeping lawn leads to water that surrounds the property on three sides. To the left, sailboats and yachts bob next to the docks of a floating marina with a party deck.
The magic of this 106-room inn is that it manages to feel simultaneously elegant and homey, posh without being stuffy. Clearly, there’s a deliberate effort to create that ambience, as evidenced in the dining room. It has one menu, but two sections: one is for those who want to dress up for dinner; the other welcomes guests in shorts and sneakers.
Even beyond that detail, you feel an ineffable sense of authenticity. It’s the difference between a chain restaurant and a fine, family-owned establishment with recipes passed down through generations.
In fact, the resort was operated by a single family, the Stephenses, from the time it was built just after World War II until recently, when it was bought by Enchantment Group, which also owns a boutique resort and destination spa in Sedona, Ariz.
The property was farmland when E.A. Stephens decided to create a resort, acting as his own contractor with his wife, Ann, as the decorator. He bought the roof tile from the Army after it tore down a large building at Langley Field, among the nation’s oldest airfields, in Hampton, Va. The paneling in the resort’s clubroom came from walnut trees that had blown down on the land.
The current general manager, Gordon Slatford, lives in a house that abuts the property. He seems to spend every waking moment at the resort, much of the time chatting with guests. An Englishman who previously worked at upscale boutique resorts in the U.K., Bermuda and Lake Placid, Slatford nonetheless takes pride in the fact that most of the staff is local.
If their roots are provincial, though, their polish is world-class. Staff training takes place every January and February, when the resort closes. “It’s ‘The World According to Gordon,’ ” Slatford says. “I start out writing two words on the board: service and servility. The right answer is service.”
Many on the staff grew up working at the resort, taking on increasingly responsible positions. Susan Williamson, director of rooms and revenue—the second-ranking executive at the resort—started as a “bread and butter girl,” meaning she literally delivered bread and butter to tables.
“There are so many stories like that,” Slatford says. “For me, that’s the heart and soul of the place.”
As if on cue, Clarence Smith walks by, and Slatford notes that the man has worked at the inn for 57 years, including as a gardener, maître d’, yacht captain and, currently, manager of the wastewater treatment facilities.
The resort even employs descendants of the area’s original settlers, the Car-ters, who arrived in the mid-1600s. The descendants of John and his son, Robert “King” Carter, have included three signers of the Declaration of Independence, eight Virginia governors, a Supreme Court Justice, Robert E. Lee and two U.S. presidents (not Jimmy, though; the Carters claim as kin the two presidential Harrisons—Benjamin and William Henry).
Nearby Christ Church was financed by Robert “King” Carter, so named because he owned 300,000 acres and 1,000 slaves. The church is one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in America. Completed in 1735, during a time when membership in the Church of England was obligatory and attendance mandatory, the church is a study in simplicity with its natural wood and stone. The brick walls, 3-feet thick, are mortared with animal hair and oyster shells. Tours are offered daily spring through fall, with services on Sundays, and the church is open all year by appointment.
The Tides Inn repeatedly has been chosen the top resort in Virginia by Travel + Leisure magazine. That includes last year, when it also was ranked No. 23 in the magazine’s selection of top U.S. and Canadian resorts. And in my two days there, I can see why. For one thing, I can’t imagine anything better than playing croquet near sundown as the water becomes tinged with the pink and orange of the sky. That and the inn’s signature drink (a specially formulated hard lemonade) lull you into a state of relaxation deeper than an hour of massage.
Of course there are massages available at the resort spa, plus a sandy beach for swimming in Carter’s Creek, just where it joins the Rappahannock River and, a short sail away, connects to the Chesapeake Bay.
During my time at the Tides Inn, I swim in the pool overlooking the beach and kayak up the river, where every mile marker is topped with osprey nests. I also cruise in a sailboat—the resort has a sailing school on the property and plenty of boats of different sizes—and ride one of the inn’s bicycles along the rural roads and into the tiny but attractive town of Irvington, which is located about 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. The town has a steamboat museum and a few shops and restaurants, with a larger selection in nearby Kilmarnock. Several nearby wineries offer tours.
I also experience Frisbee golf for the first time on the resort’s nine-hole, par-three course. It’s outfitted with cups in the ground for swallowing golf balls, and baskets above ground for catching a “putter” Frisbee. The putter is the lightest of three Frisbees used to play the game, with the largest and heaviest Frisbee being a “driver” for long “shots” from the tee.
Although I don’t golf, I enjoy simply walking the resort’s 18-hole course, which is carved out of a 500-acre wooded area and surrounds a 50-acre lake. It’s as much a wildlife preserve as a golf course, with deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, herons, turtles and two nesting pairs of bald eagles watching the people hitting little white balls.
But one of the best activities is enjoying the cuisine. The restaurant emphasizes fresh, local food, including fish, crabs and oysters caught within a few miles of the resort. Herbs are grown on the property, and farmer Clark Blackwell, just up the road, provides in-season squash, greens, asparagus, tomatoes and other vegetables. Executive Chef TV Flynn relocated from New Orleans, via restaurants in Hawaii, to run the kitchen. On certain occasions, cooking classes are offered, and select recipes are on the inn’s website.
To cap it all off, s’mores are served every night around a bonfire on the beach, with chocolates from Hershey, Pa., and marshmallows harvested from the shelves of Walmart far, far away.
Unfortunately, I never do get around to using the fitness center. But I could have—certainly I know where it is.
PLANNING A TRIP
From the Beltway, merge onto I-95 South via exit 57A toward Richmond. After 45 miles, take exit 126 to U.S. 1 / U.S. 17 South, toward Spotsylvania. Go 40.6 miles and turn left onto U.S. 360 East/ Queen Street. Continue for 7.4 miles, then turn right onto VA-3 East / History Land Highway. After 29.6 miles, turn right onto Irvington Road in Irvington. Go 4.5 miles, then turn right onto King Carter Drive. The resort is on the left. The drive is about 150 miles and takes about three hours if you avoid rush hour, particularly on a Friday in summer.
The Tides Inn (480 King Carter Drive, Irvington, Va., 800-843-3746, www.tidesinn.com) is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. About 30 percent of guests are families, but it also attracts couples of all ages and hosts
Standard double rooms usually start at about $200 a night, with a $24-per-room-per-night resort fee. Special prices are often available, particularly on weeknights and in the spring and fall. Regular and two-bedroom suites are also available. Packages include accommodations with unlimited golf for $169 per person, a romance package including breakfast and spa treatments for $239 per person and a family package including half-day camp for two children for $399 per family.
Boaters who tie up at marina slips—prices start at $2 per foot per night—also pay a $25 activities fee and are welcome to use the resort facilities.
The resort’s East Room (coat-and-tie required) and Chesapeake Club (come-as-you-are) both feature outstanding gourmet food, with seafood and steak as specialties. Dinner entrées range from about $25 to $38. Make reservations when booking a room, as they can be hard to get at the last minute. Inexpensive, casual food is available at golf course and beach restaurants.
Hi-speed Internet and the use of computers, nonmotorized boats, bicycles, croquet, the nine-hole golf course and certain other activities are included in the resort fee. The 18-hole Golden Eagle Golf Course was named one of the top 20 in the South by Condé Nast in 2011.
The spa offers massages and facials starting at $80 for 30 minutes, in addition to other services.
The Chesapeake Bay and the Premier Sailing School offer several options for lessons. For more information, call 804-438-4489 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For history buffs in particular, Robert “King” Carter’s Christ Church in Irvington (www.christchurch1735.com) is a must- see. Guided tours are available daily, except major holidays, from April 1 to November 30. Worship services are held Sundays at 8 a.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. To tour the church at other times of the year, call 804-438-6855 to make an appointment.
Cindy Loose is a former travel writer for The Washington Post.