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Colonial Beach prides itself on its small-town feel and on having the second-longest public beach in Virginia.
Beach-goers spend a day at Colonial Beach, Va.
Paul Downs chats with friends outside Nancy's Ice Cream Shop in Colonial Beach, Va.
Beach-goers at Colonial Beach, Va.
The "boardwalk" at Colonial Beach, Va.
Golf carts are a popular mode of transportation around Colonial Beach, Va.
Beach-goers at Colonial Beach, Va.
Saturday, August 24, 2013
A trip to Colonial Beach means slowing down — way down — and enjoying the simple pleasures of a summer day at the beach: warm sand under your toes, free entertainment from persistent seagulls and towering ice cream cones just a short walk from the water.
This small beach community is in Westmoreland County along the Potomac River on Virginia’s Northern Neck. The trip takes about an hour and a half from Richmond, but it’s an easy drive past farmlands and through little towns where antiques shops and churches dot the landscape. And once you’re there, you can just relax.
Despite having the second-longest public beach in Virginia (behind Virginia Beach), Colonial Beach prides itself on its small-town feel, so don’t expect the restaurants, bars, mini golf and other attractions typically found in large beach-resort communities.
The area spans less than 3 square miles, and most of that real estate is consumed by homes. Cars share the roads with golf carts (the popular mode of transportation for the locals), and ospreys perch on nests high above everyone.
Church bells resonate on the hour and the half-hour.
Census numbers from 2010 show that roughly 3,500 people live there year-round.
It’s exactly why Alexandria resident Paul Downs makes the drive on weekends from the hectic Northern Virginia scene. He has a home in the Horner’s Beach community about 15 minutes away but often ventures into Colonial Beach in his spiffy older-model Ford Mustang (he keeps it here and only drives it on weekends) for something to eat or to hang out with the locals.
“I get down here to get away from everybody,” Downs said, as he ate the ice cream in his root beer float at Nancy’s Ice Cream Shop, a walk-up joint on Washington Avenue serving soft serve and, while the season lasts, creamy peach milkshakes.
“Everything else changes, but this place never seems to,” he said of Colonial Beach.
While quiet, the town isn’t devoid of attractions. Boating enthusiasts can take advantage of the area’s marinas to get into the water while fishermen cast their lines off the Colonial Beach Municipal Pier.
Just north of the pier is an off-track betting parlor that juts out into the water and is operated by the state of Maryland. (The Virginia-Maryland line lies just offshore.)
A handful of quaint art shops are within walking distance of the beaches, and in mid-July, international jet-ski races come to town. Heading into town on state Route 205, you’ll find Colonial Beach Dragway, where engines roar on most weekends through November.
But the lack of commercialization can be a draw for day-trippers or families with children who want nothing more than to build sand castles and play in the water.
The gentle curves of the shoreline along Irving Avenue — which runs parallel to the water on the town’s southeastern side — form little coves that are perfect for swimming. Other than the ripples of small waves from the wakes of passing boats and jet-skis, the water is calm.
If you plan to spend the night, check out the Bell House Bed and Breakfast, an 1880s Victorian house that was once the summer home of telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell. The house, on Irving Avenue, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark. The original privy still stands out back.
If getting back to nature is more your thing, there are campgrounds in town but also motels and other B&Bs.
And when you’ve had enough sand and surf, make time for a history lesson — or three.
Our nation’s fifth president, James Monroe, was born near Colonial Beach, and a marker and a small visitor center about one mile outside of town, on Virginia 205, promote and preserve his legacy. The center is open on summer weekends through Labor Day.
Additionally, just a short drive from Colonial Beach, you’ll find the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Stratford Hall, the birthplace and family home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Both sites are off Virginia 3 and are open most of the year except major holidays.
The area offers big-time beach fun in a little beach town and enough history to keep history buffs and unassuming tourists happy.
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