Style Weekly: Palms on the Potomac

palm trees

Our day trip series heads to charming Colonial Beach, a relaxed small town featuring the second-longest beach in Virginia.


Style Weekly photographer Scott Elmquist and I are following mostly blue highways for a 90-minute drive to Colonial Beach, which fronts the Potomac River on the Northern Neck. It’s a destination many Richmonders seldom visit, though it’s roughly 60 miles from both Washington and Richmond.

Soon we are in Westmoreland County. We arrive in Colonial Beach and although we can see the Potomac River in the distance, we pass through town to its eastern edge to arrive at a wooded historical site, the James Monroe birthplace. Monroe (1758-1831) was the fifth president and a popular one. He spent the first 17 years of his life here on the then-500-acre farm before beginning a life of public service.

We stroll around the stalwart frame dwelling built on the foundations of the house where Monroe was born. It sits in a grove of trees and is visible from highway 205 beyond a flurry of state and national historical markers. The multiyear restoration is nearing completion by the James Monroe Memorial Foundation. Archeological work was conducted by the College of William & Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation executed the architectural work. Landscaping and furnishing the place is a work in progress. Plans call for replanting orchards and re-creating houses for enslaved people and other structures that once populated this 18th and early 19th century farm.

Just beyond the modern reception center and museum is a so-called Time Trail, a half-mile, aggregate-paved and oyster shell-deckled walkway. Here we meet an engaging woman walking her dog. We chat at one of the regular intervals on the trail where large granite slabs and benches are engraved with information pertaining to Monroe’s life and times. “This path leads to water and a canoe launch,” Messner explains.

We ask for breakfast suggestions.

“Lenny’s is where the old timers go,” she says, while “the Colonial Buzz Espresso across the street from Lenny’s is more hip.”

For a county steeped in 18th-century architecture and lore, George Washington’s birthplace and Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lees, are near Colonial Beach. Meanwhile, our breakfast spot, Lenny’s, is a local institution with an authentic midcentury modern vibe. The restaurant’s shallow A-frame exterior silhouette gives way upon entering to an outbreak of turquoise blue. Every table and booth in the L-shaped space is filled with a customer mix equally Latina, Black and white.

It’s late morning, spirits are high and no one seems in a hurry.

As we leave Lenny’s, I scan a number of the photographs and newspaper clippings that hang throughout the restaurant. The eatery was opened in 1978 by Leonard Skeens, who operated it until his death in 2007. Today it is run by his stepdaughter, Brandy Robinson, who we observed this busy morning in high gear. One of the newspaper clippings stresses how Lenny’s has played an important generational role in the life education of scores of teenagers and young people in Colonial Beach. They had their first real jobs there.

Leaving Lenny’s we cross Colonial Avenue, the main road to the beach and a strip of suburbia – if only a hint. We stroll onward to Colonial Buzz Espresso and approach a woman and man enjoying a late-morning beverage. They lounge in chairs under stylish blue fabric swaths that are billowing next to the cottagelike coffee house. The friendly pair asks us where we ate breakfast and light up when we tell them Lenny’s.

Finally, on to the beach!

At two and a half miles, Colonial Beach is the second-longest bathing beach in Virginia. The freshly groomed sand extends flush to the concrete boardwalk. Shade trees – mostly sycamores and a few specially planted (and unexpected) palm trees offer a shady respite for those without beach umbrellas.

We drive along Colonial Avenue to where it reaches River Edge Inn, a large motel at the far western edge of the boardwalk.  We examine a piece of realistic, newish-looking sculpture that depicts two apparent visitors to the beach dressed in late-19th century attire. It is a reference to the town’s founding as a summertime escape hatch for Washingtonians in the pre-air conditioning era. Strolling along we notice a number of piers. The town pier and visitor center is on Hawthorn Street.

An exception is the Riverview Inn at 24 Hawthorn St. It is an art deco marvel with curved brick walls and a brightly colored exterior. There is nothing quite like it in Virginia. It looks, well, jazzy. It recalls an era when Colonial Beach was known – not always fondly – as a gambling destination. So gambling was legal in Virginia back in the day? No, but interestingly the southern border of Maryland extends to the low water mark along the south bank of the Potomac. Therefore, when you go into the water along Colonial Beach, you are wading or swimming in Maryland. Taking advantage of Maryland’s considerably more liberal gambling laws, savvy entrepreneurs built piers from the boardwalk into the water with gambling operations, including slot machines at the ends of the piers.

One of the charming things about Colonial Beach is walkability. And the number of golf carts rolling through the streets seems to exceed automobiles. Among those we meet today on the beach are two day-trippers from Washington, Deja Robinson and James Knighton.

“We’d heard about Colonial Beach word of mouth and today is my birthday,” Robinson says.

Colonial Beach is a pleasantly sized peninsula that narrows to four blocks wide as one moves toward its end. At First Street the blocks become residential and from First Street to the Colonial Beach Yacht Center, at the tip, the town looks its best. Dozens of heartbreakingly attractive beach cottages front Irving Avenue, which overlooks the Potomac. With relatively few shade trees, each of the houses reflects the distinct tastes of its builder or owner. For a beach mostly off-the-beaten path for 150 years, there is an understandable, low-key variety. From Victorian cottages to stalk modernity, the houses seem to coexist beautifully. The back streets closer to Monroe Bay – Lossing, Bancroft and Marshall avenues – are lined with modest-sized showstoppers.

One of the largest riverfront cottages is the 1885 Bell House at 821 Irving St., a Queen Anne-style confection that also exhibits rare stick-style tendencies. This startling-looking place is a vacation home of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. He inherited it from his father and retreated from Washington here from 1907 to 1918. Locals will tell you that Bell experimented while in residence with modest-sized flying machines that were launched from the front, third-story balcony.

Colonial Beach has a wide range of dining options. One popular spot is High Tides on the Potomac with its Black Pearl Tiki bar that dominates the boardwalk with its Disney-like design and decor recalling the set of the CBS reality show, “Love Island.”

Before departing Colonial Beach, Scott and I decided to drive a few miles to the edge of town and the considerably more sedate Wilkerson’s Seafood Restaurant, a local destination for 40 years. He visited the salad bar and I had the seafood platter, including a crabcake, while enjoying the 270-degree panoramic view of the water and countryside. It felt like being on a ship and the clientele was decidedly more Gilligan’s, in an affectionate way, than “Love Island.”

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