There's lots to see for the RVer in Colonial Beach, VA, as our off the beaten path reporters Tom & Patti Burkett report on the area known as the “playground of the Potomac.”
If you get off US Highway 17 in Port Royal, Virginia, cross the Rappahannock River, and head toward the Potomac, you’ll eventually end up in the town of Colonial Beach. You're traveling on what's called the Northern Neck of Virginia, a peninsula between the Rappahannock and the Potomac.
Shell middens and other archaeological evidence show human habitation here as far back as 500 BC. European settlement dates to the seventeenth century. In the day before long bridges and personal automobiles, ferries brought residents from DC and Maryland here for the summer holidays.
Colonial Beach, VA – the Playground of the Potomac
Along the Potomac, here in town, are several little buildings built up on platforms. They look a bit like fire watchtowers, though not as high. It turns out they're part of why the town continued when the ferry service petered out. Just north on the neck is Dahlgren Naval Base. It is the center for development and testing of naval artillery. When the base was being established, the need to draw and keep skilled workers in the area caused the Navy to establish schools, churches, and businesses here. Eventually, the town grew up and became self-sustaining.
They test ballistic weapons here!
Here's the interesting thing about that. The Navy, to this day, maintains an ordnance testing range along twenty miles of the Potomac River, including the stretch that runs beside the town. The elevated buildings are ranging stations, used to test and establish guidance for naval artillery.
Every new and existing ballistic Naval weapon is tested and ranged in here. All along the river are sensors and cameras used to observe the tests. When firing is underway, shock and sound waves travel all up and down the river on both the Virginia and Maryland sides.
In the mid-twentieth century, the waterfront was lined with pleasure palaces. Though all but one are gone now, they existed because of another unique feature of the area. The entirety of the Potomac below the mean low tide mark on the Virginia side belongs to Maryland. Maryland, unlike Virginia, allows gambling.
These buildings, set on pilings over Maryland water, allow local residents and visiting tourists to bet on horse races, play the slots, and engage in otherwise prohibited entertainments.
The Colonial Beach waterfront
The town has a waterfront area lined with businesses and, in the summer season, itinerant vendors. Among the permanent establishments are Willey's barbecue, an excellent Thai restaurant, a microbrewery, and art galleries. Kayak and paddleboard rentals are available. There's a nice, long municipal pier good for fishing and photographing the waterfront, art galleries, ice cream shops, and the second-longest sand beach in Virginia.
Colonial Beach has distinctive waterfront architecture
A walk or drive around the town rewards the observant visitor with a wide variety of seaside architecture. Old, low-slung beach cottages along the waterfront mix with much fancier homes built by notables from times past. Perhaps the most interesting and beautiful of these is the summer home purchased by Alexander Graham Bell's father in 1886.
There are other period homes along the roads, as well as the homes of year-round residents both classic and modern. Several marinas dot the long waterfront and are home to impressive sailboats and yachts, as well as charter fishing boats and the working vessels of trawlers, shrimpers, oyster harvesters, and the legendary crab fleet.
One of our favorites is the Riverview Inn, a sumptuous art deco motel with a classic neon sign, green-lit balconies, and a courtyard with painted lounging chairs right out of the fifties. Just down the street is another classic, Doc's Motor Court, apparently closed and just waiting for the right hand to bring it back to its glory days as well.
Word is that the town is pretty crowded in season, but come calling in the Fall when the leaves are changing and you can have it mostly to yourself, your own nostalgic Chesapeake resort, out here off the beaten path.
CLICK HERE to read more of Tom & Patti Burkett's off-the-beaten-path reports. And listen every Wednesday on the RV Podcast to hear their dispatches from the road. Subscribe from your device's app store.
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