“Christmas on the Potomac” ICE! at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center The South Pole Comes to National Harbor

Jordan Wright
November 19, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times

Gaylord National's ICE Santa Reindeer

Gaylord National’s ICE Santa Reindeer

Santa and Company won’t get a moment’s rest this holiday season at the Gaylord National Resort.  And neither, it seems certain, will his merry elves.  If you haven’t gotten the Christmas spirit yet, a visit to the resort will kick it into high gear.  Named one of the “Twelve Most Festive Places to Find Holiday Spirit” by AAA, the Gaylord National’s ICE! is bringing a magical Arctic paradise to our region from now until January 5th.

Who cares if the weather is frightful!  Inside this winter wonderland you’ll find twice-nightly indoor snowfalls in the 1½-acre atrium replete with gardens and a small stream set amidst a colonial village and a 60-foot-tall glimmering glass “Tree of Light”.  Sit beside a water fountain to watch colorful waterspouts soar three stories while dancing to Christmas carols every hour until nine at night.

ICE 2013 at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center

ICE 2013 at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center

Just off the 19-story atrium is the main event — ICE! – - a breathtaking village of larger-than-life ice sculptures hand-carved from two million pounds of real ice.  This year’s theme interprets Clement C. Moore’s classic poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.   The winter wonderland was created by forty master artisans sculpting 5,000 blocks of ice from China’s Songhua River into the most popular themes of Christmas.

ICE 2013 Slide Room

ICE 2013 Slide Room

Roaming through the enormous white tent you’ll see all the trappings of the holiday in living color – - from adorable mice all snug in their beds (actually giant teacups) awaiting Santa’s arrival, to Santa on his sleigh with his nine not-so-tiny reindeer.  And you needn’t travel to New York when this year’s highlight is the city-in-ice at Christmas.  Just hop inside a bright yellow ice taxi and you’re on your way to Rockefeller Center.  The interactive exhibit is kept at an icy 9-degrees so despite the big blue loaner parkas issued at the door, be sure to wear your hat and gloves.

Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating

Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating

But the Christmas spirit doesn’t end there.  Beneath the tree is a Peeps & Company old-fashioned “Potomac Express Train” for the little ones and Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating center where the whole family can create a gingerbread house or gingerbread family together.  All the sweetest decorations from icing to gumdrops are provided.  A life-size “Gingy” presides over the shop giving out heart-warming hugs to all the children.

Another fun activity is getting up close and personal with King Julien, Alex the Lion and their friends at their Madagascar Crack’ A Lackin’ Cook-in Character Breakfast.  These crazy guys are always ready to party while you dine on Madagascar-themed breakfast items including a Flingin’ Chimps chocolate fountain.  Afterwards join the self-guided interactive scavenger hunt for clues from the Madagascar movie to solve the puzzle.  Shrek, Fionna, Donkey and Puss in Boots are there too sharing the meaning of Christmas.

Up on the rooftop overlooking the Potomac River from the 18th floor, Sunday brunch is served.  Reservations are strongly advised for this event that sells out every year.  The lavish brunch includes delicious savory selections along with gorgeous desserts like Yule log cakes, peppermint whoopee pies, chocolate chestnut s’mores and sticky toffee pudding.  Santa is on hand to pose for keepsake photos.

Christmas - Nighty Tree Lighting Show

Christmas – Nighty Tree Lighting Show

Dazzling light displays are everywhere from Christmas trees throughout the lobby to two million twinkling LED lights.  At night you can even witness the changing colors of the Northern Lights.

The best view and most romantic spot for viewing the snow cascading down is two stories above the garden level at the Old Hickory Steakhouse bar where you can pass the time while sipping Yule time spirits.

To purchase tickets to ICE! and ‘Brunch with Santa’ or to check on schedules for the hotel’s free events visit for information or call 301 965-4000. 

Potomac Express in Atrium

Potomac Express in Atrium

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Culpeper County VA – The Other Culpeper

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times

The "Love" sign crafted with old film reels welcomes visitors to Culpeper

The “Love” sign crafted from old film reels welcomes visitors to Culpeper

Historians have recorded Culpeper’s impact on the Civil War from its battlefields to its illustrious residents and their military legacy.  Better known for battle re-enactments, a biplane “Flying Circus” airshow and “living history” encampments the area is currently celebrating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.  And that’s just fine by me though my only experience with Culpeper’s residents were the rough-hewn guys in pickup trucks who arrive in fall with racks of firewood to sell to us “city slickers”.  Locals call them “woodchucks”.

But there’s another Culpeper – - a small Southern town that has blossomed into a hip destination for foodies, shoppers, equestrians and even classic film buffs.  That’s the Culpeper I’d been hearing about and the one I wanted to experience – - though I knew there’d be plenty of history along the way.  What I found to my delight was a charming town eager to embrace change with open arms.


The Depot in historic downtown Culpeper

The Depot in historic downtown Culpeper

Housed in a working 1904 train depot is the visitor’s center where guided walking tours begin and folks disembark from the Amtrak line.  At The Depot I fall into step with Mary Jo Browning, a sprightly octogenarian whose knowledge of the town’s historic homes and churches is legendary.  Everyone knows Mary including Pastor Smith of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church who has come to the station to await his daughter’s arrival on the train from New York.  She cordially greets him before we trot off to his church, key in hand.  At the 19th century church, adorned with Tiffany stained glass windows, Mary regales me with a story of its old bell and how it survived the “War Between the States”.  As we stroll she points out things I had seen but not processed – - the window bars on the Civil War period jail, still firmly in place, the town’s giant “LOVE” sculpture whose letters are formed from old movie reels, the farm store where you can buy feed and baby chicks, and a gargoyle roosting atop a roofline.

Clark Hardware Store on East and Davis Streets in Culpeper

Clark Hardware Store on East and Davis Streets in Culpeper

We pass the grandiose columns of Clarke’s Hardware, a 100-year old store still vital to the town sailing past dozens of meticulously restored buildings to get to the Museum of Culpeper History, a low brick structure surrounded by a modest white picket fence.  Inside a set of 215 million-year old dinosaur tracks found in a local quarry share space with Manahoac Indian artifacts from Culpeper’s first residents, an interactive topographical map, and relics from the Civil War.  Burgandine House, an early 19th century log structure, once used as a tavern and furnished as though still occupied, is a few steps away along a garden path.

Ready for a game or two at the Burgandine House, a log structure once a tavern and home

Ready for a game or two at the Burgandine House, a log structure once a tavern and home

To take your own walking tour pick up a free pair of ear buds at the Depot’s Visitor’s Center.


Culpeper Cheese Company

Culpeper Cheese Company

Style has come to Culpeper with a host of independently owned specialty shops.  Try David Eddy’s for chic gifts and home décor, Quail at the Wood for unique antiques, Reigning Cats & Dogs for pampered pets, Taste for unusual oils, balsamic vinegars and organic spices, Jeffery Mitchell’s Culpeper Cheese Company with over 100 local and international cheeses, craft beers and a wine lounge that houses a Wine Station, where you can sample eight different wines.  Calhoun’s Ham House for bacon, ham, sausage, and Wade’s Mill stone-ground flours and grits is around the corner.  Pick up a country ham.  They’re legendary.

The country hams and bacon at Calhoun's Ham and Deli

The country hams and bacon at Calhoun’s Ham and Deli

Candy-aholics will be in their element at the Frenchman’s Corner for posh European chocolates and Allison Haught’s, My Secret Stash, an old-time candy store chock-a-block with classic treats like Cow Tails, Mary Janes and Red Hots.  Best sellers are the faux pimento olives (Okay, they’re really chocolate almonds.), sugar-sanded grapefruit gummies and chocolate sea salt caramels.  Scoop up some pumpkin malt balls too.  The glass apothecary jars filled with candies share space with a well-culled selection of unusual antiques and funky collectibles, like vintage fans and 50’s barware.

My Secret Stash for vintage-themed candy

My Secret Stash for vintage-themed candy

At the Herbal Connection, Mary R. Benson, a Reiki master and specialist in nutrition and homeopathy welcomes questions.  Her herb-lined shelves, vitamins and Ezekiel bread highlight her twenty-two years dispensing kindness and healing.

Kim Kelly’s Vinosity reveals an astonishingly comprehensive, hand-selected collection of wines.  Step up to chest-height tables for informal tastings with fellow wine enthusiasts.

World travelers, or those who aspire to be, will have plenty of ethnic souvenirs to bring home from a visit to The Camaleer.  Housed in two restored historic buildings are international giftware, aboriginal arts and crafts, and clothing from over 80 countries.

Michelle Burris of Whole Heart Farm at Saturday's Farmers Market in downtown Culpeper

Michelle Burris of Whole Heart Farm at Saturday’s Farmers Market in downtown Culpeper

On Saturday morning the Farmers Market fills a parking lot across from the Depot.  There you’ll find locally grown goods from vegetables and herbs to meats, honey and pretty flowers.  Specialty items like salmon from East Street Fish (smoked by Pranas Rimeikis, Culpeper’s former mayor), home baked goodies, scented soaps made with goat’s milk, and pretty crafts entice buyers.

Stop in at Harriet’s General where made in America products shine and where you can pick up a pair of Red Wing work boots or the Green Roost for a life-size paper sculpture of a moose and earth-friendly gear for men, women, baby and home.  Check out the license plate end of an aqua-and-white Airstream on display in the stylish shop.


Within a few blocks there are a myriad of dining options.  For the gourmand there’s exceptional dining at Foti’s, whose Chef/Owner Frank Maragos is an Inn at Little Washington alumnus.  The horsey set will appreciate the Pimm’s Cup cocktail properly served with a ribbon of cucumber.

Foti's refreshing autumn salad uses fresh local figs, pears and goat cheese - A hearty lamb dish with eggplant and sweet potatoes - A caramelized crust distinguishes Foti's luscious apple bread pudding with caramel sauce

Foti’s refreshing autumn salad uses fresh local figs, pears and goat cheese – A hearty lamb dish with eggplant and sweet potatoes – A caramelized crust distinguishes Foti’s luscious apple bread pudding with caramel sauce

Mediterranean-influenced cuisine tempts from It’s About Thyme, while fresh caught seafood lures like a sea goddess at the Copper Fish Seafood & Raw Bar where from 4 till 7PM you can slurp raw oysters at half price.

For downhome cooking there’s Frost Café, a 50’s throwback diner boasting booth jukeboxes and mega portions of Southern-style comfort food with all the fixin’s.

The rhubarb pie at Raven's Best Coffee House

The rhubarb pie at Raven’s Best Coffee House

At the Raven’s Nest Coffee House you’ll find fabulous pies, quiches, scones, cakes and muffins baked by owner Jessica Hall.  Local artists’ paintings grace homey brick walls, and the world music vibe is downright groovy.

Raven's Nest Coffee House

Raven’s Nest Coffee House

Breakfast is a pastime in Culpeper and many purposely ease into their day with coffee and delicious muffins from Thyme Market whose umbrella-lined alleyway serves as a desirable respite for a glass of wine and cheese or a slice of “Orange Dreamsicle” cheesecake.  Later in the day the pace quickens as locals pick up wood-fired pizzas and herb-crusted roast chickens for supper.

What to Do

Chuck Miller, Master Distiller at Belmont Farm Distillery amidst his whiskey barrels

Chuck Miller, Master Distiller at Belmont Farm Distillery amidst his whiskey barrels

In addition to the spots listed here, you’ll find wineries and farms to visit nearby.  The Stillhouse Distillery at Belmont Farm is a half dozen miles out of town, but well worth the visit.  It is the oldest craft distillery in the United States and where the corn, wheat and barley used to make the whiskey is grown on the 195-acre farm.  Chuck Miller presides over the distillery and the family’s secret recipe that was developed by his grandfather during Prohibition.  Try the “Virginia Lightning Whiskey”, a classic moonshine, or the “Kopper Kettle Whiskey” aged in charred oak barrels and similar to bourbon.  Tours are offered throughout the day.

Among the many places to hop on a horse is the Equestrian Center at the beautiful Inn at Kelly’s Ford, a 500-acre property just off Route 29 where you can trail ride along the Rappahannock River.  Afterwards stop in at Pelham’s Pub in the Main House for a hand-pulled pint to wet your whistle.  On October 27th the inn will host a special Canoe/Kayak Wine Run and Gourmet Lunch.  Call 540 399.1800 for reservations.

The restored State Theatre of Culpeper

The restored State Theatre of Culpeper

City leaders are betting that the $10M restoration of the town’s Art Deco State Theatre will lure audiences from far and wide with live music, comedy and dance and screenings of classic films.  Working in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Library of Congress, whose Packard Campus houses the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center with its voluminous archives of classic films, the theater shows some of the greatest classic films ever known and has a highly active year-round schedule of performances including live comedy, dance and music.  For tickets and information visit

Where to Stay

The country chic Thyme Inn is smack dab in the center of downtown Culpeper and offers Jacuzzi tubs, gorgeous high-ceilinged rooms with gas fireplaces, and downy duvets in a distinctly Old World European style.

Or go modern at the Suites at 249, an equally posh boutique hotel adjacent to the railroad station.

All photo credit Jordan Wright.

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Central Texas neighbors Austin and San Antonio Are Well Worth a Visit.

Cary Pollak for Whisk and Quill
July 31, 2013 

A recent business trip to Austin, Texas provided an opportunity to do a quick Texas Two Step to a couple of the Lone Star state’s most intriguing cities.  I had heard nothing but good things about the Austin scene over the years, and I could take a short drive to nearby San Antonio’s famed Alamo and River Walk.

If you want to check out San Antonio from the airport in Austin, you can hightail it by car and arrive in San Antonio in just over an hour.  And despite the basketball playoffs in San Antonio that night, we made good time.  Legend has it Spurs fans on their way to a playoffs game are more fearsome than Santa Anna’s troops when they stormed The Alamo, but we managed to sneak through their lines safely.

It was a picture perfect day to visit to The Alamo. Though the 18th century Spanish mission is a relatively small and simple edifice, once you get up close you notice it is dwarfed by the thriving modern city that grew up around it.

The Alamo

The Alamo

The sight of the Alamo can conjure up feelings of reverence for the men who fought and died in a battle critical to the shaping of the United States.  It was Sam Houston’s Texas Army that drew on the incident for inspiration during a successful campaign to gain independence from Mexico.  Now a lovely and peaceful garden graces the iconic structure, and a small museum portrays daily life in March of 1836 when the Alamo fell.  A beautifully elaborate vest worn by Tennessee frontiersman Davey Crockett and a Bowie knife from the 1830’s are among the displays.  Both Crockett and Jim Bowie were killed in the legendary battle.

Davey Crockett’s vest -  Bowie knife

Davey Crockett’s vest – Bowie knife

Across the street from the Alamo is the entryway to the San Antonio River Walk.  Billed as “The Number One Tourist Attraction in Texas”, it is a long, winding path along the San Antonio River lined with charming restaurants, shops and hotels on both sides.  We chose an outdoor table at Rita’s on the River, and enjoyed fabulous Tex-Mex cuisine in a lovely setting.  The fajitas arrived sizzling on a cast iron skillet hot as a branding iron.  Rita’s menu prepares you for “Texas-sized portions,” and accordingly, fajita platters feature an astonishing three quarters of a pound of meat along with onions, peppers, rice, refried beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and cheese.  You might want to take an extra-long stroll down the River Walk to work off one of Rita’s generous meals.

San Antonio River Walk -  Rita’s on the River

San Antonio River Walk – Rita’s on the River

First time visitors to Austin might be surprised to learn that the town’s informal slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” which can be seen on t-shirts and in store windows around town.  The more traditional moniker for the capital city, chosen by community leaders in 1991, is “Live Music Capital of the World.”  A good argument can be made for both descriptions.

Reliable sources such as the Travel Channel reckon that the town is home to over 200 live music venues and more than 1900 musicians.  As you stroll down popular 6th Street, where bars and restaurants often keep doors open and live bands in view, don’t be surprised if the cadence of your walk shifts to the musical strains of blues, jazz and country.  On Briscoe Street, step into The Driskill Hotel to view an elegant showplace reminiscent of early Texas.  The Driskill is a beautifully restored Romanesque-style hotel built in 1886 by a rich cattleman who seemed to want to best his neighbors to the north.

Interior of the Driskill Grill

Lobby of The Driskill Hotel

The 1869 Café and Bakery occupies a light and airy room with high ceilings and a display of house made pastries that will have you craving dessert at any time of day.  Try the glistening cherry Danish.  The elegant and highly rated Driskill Grill features local Texas beef and game in a clubby 1920’s décor.

Interior of the Driskill Grill

Interior of the Driskill Grill

Stubb’s Bar-B-Q at 801 Red River bills itself as “the heart of an explosive music scene,” with good reason.  It offers about four or five live performances a week, usually ticketed, on both indoor and outdoor stages.  Barbequed meats get a coating of house made dry rub before being slow smoked over Texas Post Oak.  Side dishes are made from scratch.  The place is so busy that some of the meats can be left on the slow smoker a bit too long.  On one visit the turkey breast was tasty but too dry.  But the sweet potato fries were timed just right, crispy on the outside, hot and tender on the inside.

Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden on Rainey Street boasts the largest selection of sausages in Austin and has 100 beers on tap to wash it all down.  The restaurant claims to be named for fictional character Olaf Banger, whose legend can be enhanced by anyone who goes on to the website and makes up a new story.  The menu draws on sausage making traditions from all over the world.  The signature bangers and mash is house made Irish style pork sausage with onion gravy and skin-on mashed potatoes.  The Cajun Boudin Plate features the famous Louisiana sausage with saltine Crackers, Tabasco Sauce, red beans & rice.  Bratwurst is mild and flavorful, just like in the old country.  It is made of pork, but the menu correctly explains that any combination of veal, beef or pork is authentic.  The most creative menu item is the “Veggie BLT,” actually a sausage made of crushed sun dried tomatoes and cheese curds and topped with shiitake mushroom “bacon”, field greens, and onion aioli.  Fabulous!  Diners are frequently treated to live music in the beer garden .

Live band next to the Banger’s sign

Live band next to the Banger’s sign

If you think that Banger’s provides an unusual dining experience, you should pay a visit to Threadgill’s, a food and music establishment that holds itself out as the reason why “Keep Austin Weird” became a popular expression.  Threadgill’s now has two charming and homey locations, on North Lamar Street and on West Riverside Drive.  They feature a southern style menu that appears not to have been changed for decades.  One minor concession to modern tastes might be that the menu offers their “world famous” chicken-fried steak with cream gravy on top or on the side.  Those in favor of lighter fare have some options too.  Grilled or broiled chicken is well prepared and the Rio Grande veggie burger packs a lot of flavor.  The West Riverside Drive location has on display a piano that was played by rock star Jerry Lee Lewis and that accompanied a young Janis Joplin when she developed her early folk singing style.

Piano at Thrreadgill’s

Piano at Thrreadgill’s

There are a number of reasons why many Austinites think their hometown is unique.  Austin is known for being socially and politically progressive in predominantly conservative Texas, and residents usually vote Democratic.  And one of the most unusual attractions in the country is a nightly celebration.  Here people of every political stripe gather under the Congress Avenue Bridge throughout the summer to watch the nightly outpouring of the world’s largest urban colony of bats. To top it off, The Museum of The Weird on 6th Street houses a collection of creepy attractions, some in the form of display items from horror movie sets, and some live bugs and reptiles.  There’s an entertaining live show by sword swallower Juan Martinez.  After the sword is fully inserted down his gullet, he takes a deep bow.  He explains that this is a rare and dangerous move, even among the 100 or so sword swallowers currently practicing in the U.S.  This performer clearly is a cut above.

Bats flying from Congress Avenue Bridge - Sword swallower at Museum of the Weird

Bats flying from Congress Avenue Bridge – Sword swallower at Museum of the Weird

Austin and San Antonio deliver some of the most interesting experiences Texas has to offer.  Austin is alive with the sounds of music and is full of surprises, some weird and some just wonderful.  San Antonio’s River Walk is a joy to explore.  Long after you leave that historic city, you will always “Remember the Alamo.”

All photo credit to Cary Pollak

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The Lure of the Small Town – A Weekend Getaway to Oxford, Maryland

Jordan Wright
July 18, 2013
Special to Alexandria Times

Oxford may be a scant eighty-four miles from Washington, DC, but it is a long and fascinating journey back in time to a postcard-pretty village that has vouchsafed its history as one of the oldest towns in Maryland.

Parked along the strand in Oxford

Parked along the strand in Oxford

For our adventure to the Eastern Shore we drove a 2013 Ford Escape Eco-Boost Titanium and it proved to be beyond our expectations in fun, style and technology.  Some very cool features stood out – nighttime sidelights that illuminate the area you are turning towards, a remote starter (How did we ever live without this?), blind spot detection and GPS, and the foot-activated rear door, especially handy when arms are loaded down with baggage and souvenirs.  Ours was a lovely shade of celery green they call “ginger ale” that drew compliments wherever we went.

The BBQ Joint in Easton

The BBQ Joint in Easton

We crossed the Bay Bridge to Rte. 301 and headed due south past acres of flat farmland and roadside stands.  Wooden crates stacked high with fresh corn, sun-ripened tomatoes and juicy cantaloupes had to wait for our return as we made our way to the county seat of Easton and a pit stop for lunch at The BBQ Joint.  This super cute restaurant with its shady sidewalk tables is recognized as having some of the South’s best barbecue and definitely merits a detour.  It’s where Chef/Owner Andrew Evans left the world of fine dining to serve up his award winning smoked meats and unique sauces.

The list of hot sauces - Local blue crab salsa at Crabi Gras in Easton

The list of hot sauces – Local blue crab salsa at Crabi Gras in Easton

Easton boasts tons of antique emporiums, galleries and upscale gift shops along with the Academy Art Museum A whose exhibits feature local as well as world-renowned artists.  On Harrison Street is Crabi Gras for hot sauces, spices and pickles from around the country.  We rehydrated at Hill’s Soda Fountain and Café with a glass of JMX, a vitamin-packed elixir of fruits and vegetables, juiced on site, that locals buy by the quart.

The Academy Art Museum of Easton

The Academy Art Museum of Easton

After a ten-mile drive we come upon Oxford and the Oxford Inn.  The yellow clapboard structure with green shutters and a large porch was built circa 1880 and sports an antique British taxi parked out front.  The seven-bedroom B&B owned by Lisa McDougal and husband Dan Zimbelman was bustling as preparations were in high gear for dinner and the bar already had its first guests of the afternoon.  McDougal is a world-class chef who thrills diners with her inventive European bistro cuisine in the inn’s Pope’s Tavern, a country chic dining room where she showcases her imaginative seasonal dishes.  Have a cocktail in the bar and meet the locals or sit on the front porch for a view of the canal.  We discover the taxi is to give locals a ride home after an evening of over-tippling.  You need only climb the stairs to your cozy room to call it a day.

The Oxford Inn with its iconic antique British taxi

The Oxford Inn with its iconic antique British taxi

If you came to the Eastern Shore to do some crab picking, there’s no better spot than the Masthead at Pier Street Marina whose waterside view of the sunset is breathtaking.  Get a bucket of Ipswich steamers and spiced crabs and dig in.

Chef Lisa McDougal's soft shell crabs with succotash - Salmon seviche with house made crisps at the Oxford Inn

Chef Lisa McDougal’s soft shell crabs with succotash – Salmon seviche with house made crisps at the Oxford Inn

The combination of savory aromas wafting upstairs and the morning’s sunlight pouring into our bedroom window pushed out any thoughts of lolling about in bed.   There’s nothing like the sound of halyards pinging against a ship’s mast and pennants flapping in the breeze to get the spirit moving – that and sizzling bacon.  Weekends are when McDougal goes all out with a lavish breakfast of omelets, bacon, sausage, pancakes, frittatas, fresh fruits and house made breads and scones.  Did I mention she does the baking too?  All with an engaging energy that makes you feel you’ve known her all your life.

"Come Bike With Me" - Oxford Picket Fence Project

“Come Bike With Me” – Oxford Picket Fence Project

Exploring the village by foot is the best way to experience its tree-lined streets and historic homes.  For the past five summers the town has organized a picket fence project.  Twenty-two fence sections are given to local artists to decorate and display around town before being auctioned off at the end of September with proceeds going to the artist’s favorite charity.  Grab a map from the inn and see how many of these highly original fences you can spy.  If you see one you like you can bid online before the big night.  This weekend a free historical walking tour of Oxford leaves from the ferry dock at 1pm Saturday, July 20th.

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry

By the river’s edge is the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, in operation since 1683.  Purported to be the oldest ferry service in the nation, it is currently owned by Captain Tom and Judy Bixler.  The ten-minute ride is a short cut to Tilghman Island, a fishing village punctuated by an old drawbridge.

Watching the watermen return to port from the Tilghman Island Inn

Watching the watermen return to port from the Tilghman Island Inn

We took a leisurely lunch under a willow tree on the deck of the Tilghman Island Inn.  The peaceful spot comes with sweeping views of Knapps Narrows and the redwing blackbirds and great blue herons that soar across the marshes and perch on wildflowers.  Over rockfish chowder and fried local oyster sandwiches we watched sailboats heading out to the bay as watermen returned with their daily catch.  With a bit of prodding proprietor and Southern gentleman extraordinaire David McCallum will regale you with stories of his notable guests like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant who brought his family for a week earlier this summer.

Rockfish chowder at the Tilghman Island Inn

Rockfish chowder at the Tilghman Island Inn

After lunch hop a ride on the Rebecca T. Ruark, built in 1886.  The antique skipjack leaves from nearby Dogwood Harbor for a two-hour tour of the water.  Or check with the inn to book fishing charters, kayaking and bicycle rentals.

Take the Royal Oak Road back to Oxford and you’ll pass Oak Creek Sales.  The store cum barn holds an eclectic olio of vintage patio furniture, junk from Grandma’s parlor and attic and terrific finds.  I snagged a small cast bronze dog and a brass jockey-themed wall hanging for keys and caps.

The veranda at the Robert Morris Inn

The veranda at the Robert Morris Inn

On warm summer nights dining is alfresco at the Robert Morris Inn, a bespoke colonial inn built in 1710 and owned by British Master Chef Mark Salter and Ian Fleming.  Salter’s elegant cuisine delivers a modern approach to classically styled dishes like summer gazpacho with lump crab, or the inn’s original recipe crab cakes served with corn succotash, grilled watermelon and white corn sauce.  Save room for a slice of pecan pie or Salter’s version of the iconic multi-layered Smith Island Cake topped with whipped cream.

After dinner we strolled along the strand gazing at the stars and hearing the osprey’s call.  Then back to Pope’s Tavern for a nightcap with plans for the next day’s stop at a farm market to bring home some of those glorious peaches.

Sunset from the Masthead at Pier Street Marina restaurant

Sunset from the Masthead at Pier Street Marina restaurant

All photos by Jordan Wright

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The Charms of Airlie House and The Castleton Festival – An Engaging Duet in the Countryside

Jordan Wright
July 11, 2013
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts and LocalKicks  

Airlie House - photo credit Jordan Wright

Airlie House – photo credit Jordan Wright

It is with heavy heart that I divulge to my dear readers one of my secret pleasures – because not to share my latest adventures is anathema to my nature.  But first I’ll tell of my history with a place that has been dear to my heart for many years.

Fifteen years ago I discovered one of the nation’s most under-the-radar destinations.  A secluded destination that has more in common with Britain’s “Treasure Houses” than a Virginia gentleman’s farm, although that is what it once was.  It began innocently enough on a Saturday morning in the beautiful foothills of the Piedmont region where we had gone to meet friends at the steeplechase races.  After driving about an hour from Washington we turned off the highway onto a country lane past a series of stone columns fitted with iron gates.  A large rock waterfall beside the road appeared as if out of nowhere.  Meadows resplendent with wildflowers and a small airstrip came into view.  The winding road led us high up to a racetrack that coursed over hill and dale and around several ponds.  We spent a glorious day wondering where indeed we were.

The moon gate at Airlie - photo credit Jordan Wright

The moon gate at Airlie – photo credit Jordan Wright

Fast forward to the following year and we are watching sheep trials on the same wondrous property.  We take luncheon in the manor, tour the formal gardens, watch collies work the sheep, and stroll the grounds circling around quiet ponds bordered with more houses, cottages, swimming pools and a small pub.  Herons and geese abound, frogs and crickets whir in concert and fish leap out of the water breaking the silence.  We are at Airlie House.

Trumpeter Swans swim alongside Canada Geese on one of Airlie's nine ponds - photo credit Jordan Wright

Trumpeter Swans swim alongside Canada Geese on one of Airlie’s nine ponds – photo credit Jordan Wright

On our next visit we were guests at a lawn party at one of the homes on the property where the landowner’s son, a young doctor and musician, lived in bohemian splendor amidst mansions and stables and wild raspberries.

The Roger Tory Peterson Butterfly Garden dedicated to Airlie by his wife Virginia Peterson - photo credit Jordan Wright

The Roger Tory Peterson Butterfly Garden dedicated to Airlie by his wife Virginia Peterson – photo credit Jordan Wright

Soon after we learned of the Airlie Environmental Studies Center and its Director Dr. Bill Sladen whose swan migration program trained Trumpeter Swans, bred on the property, to follow an ultralight plane.  And so, we returned for a swan conference, an international ornithological event that occurs somewhere in the world every ten years.  For the first time we spent a night in one of the lovely cottages before taking off to a secret location near the Chesapeake Bay where we banded swans while cradling them in our arms.  The bus then took us further south to the Great Dismal Swamp on a 32-hour expedition shared with thirty-five ornithologists speaking seventeen languages.

Poolside at Airlie - photo credit Jordan WrightPoolside at Airlie - photo credit Jordan Wright

Poolside at Airlie – photo credit Jordan Wright

Last weekend I returned for a stay at Airlie House for the full-on guest experience.  The 1200-acre conference center, once known only to high-level government officials, corporate CEOs and those whose business is conducted free from prying eyes, has now flung open the doors and grounds of this historic property to overnight guests, offering weekend packages, winemaker’s dinners in the field and a new partnership with the Castleton Festival.  No longer is it the exclusive purview of conference attendees.  At last anyone can experience its once-hidden glories.

Airlie House Executive Chef Jeff Witte at the entrance to the kitchen gardens - photo credit Jordan Wright

Airlie House Executive Chef Jeff Witte at the entrance to the kitchen gardens – photo credit Jordan Wright

As the summer sun climbed high overhead I met with Airlie’s Executive Chef Jeff Witte, a Los Angeles native and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, who guided me through the sustainable gardens, a passive solar hoop house and raised beds bursting at the seams with herbs, vegetables and flowers.  Bee hives, the wellspring of Airlie’s honey, dot one side of the fenced-in plots, while climbing hops twine around poles in the biergarten.

The Center’s kitchen benefits from 4,500 pounds of organic produce each year, some of which is shared with community food banks.  “We source from over 30 local farms for our meats, cheeses and fruits, buying everything as locally as we can.  We’re totally committed to our relationships with the community’s farmers,” explains Witte whose upscale regional cuisine strikes an elegant chord with diners.

A trio of palate cleansers -  Alaskan halibut with Airlie garden vegetables - Garden figs with goat cheese ice cream, shortbread cookies and caramel sauce - photo credit Jordan Wright

A trio of palate cleansers – Alaskan halibut with Airlie garden vegetables – Garden figs with goat cheese ice cream, shortbread cookies and caramel sauce – photo credit Jordan Wright

Kae Yowell, Head Gardener for the Local Food Project at Airlie, who grew up on a dairy farm where her grandparents grew and canned their own vegetables, enjoys teaching others about the pleasures of the garden. “Throughout the year we have a series of lectures on gardening, seed saving and beekeeping.  We just had one on making fruit jams and jellies from our strawberry patch.

The summer garden at Airlie - Flowers grow side by side with herbs and vegetables at the Local Food Project - photo credit Jordan Wright

The summer garden at Airlie – Flowers grow side by side with herbs and vegetables at the Local Food Project – photo credit Jordan Wright

This weekend guests can join in the annual Butterfly Count and by the looks of it there will be plenty of monarchs and swallowtails flitting about the gardens and the surrounding wildflower meadows.  For more information on Airlie Center and its weekend packages with tickets to Castleton visit

Butterfly weed in the meadows of Airlie - photo credit Jordan Wright

Butterfly weed in the meadows of Airlie – photo credit Jordan Wright


The fields of Castleton - photo credit Jordan Wright

The fields of Castleton – photo credit Jordan Wright

Entering its fifth anniversary season with Maestro Lorin Maazel, Castleton’s founder and world-renowned former conductor of the New York Philharmonic and guest conductor of many of Europe’s finest orchestras, the festival plays host to international opera and musician superstars, as well as up and coming orchestral virtuoso artists.  Situated on a 550-acre farm the Theatre House and its concert venue feature weekend programs of classical music concerts played by a full orchestra, chamber music performances, cabarets, and operas by composers from Puccini to Verdi to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Maazel’s wife, Dietlinde Turban Maazel, is the festival’s co-founder and Associate Artistic Director.  As a stage and screen actress she is singularly qualified to train the young artists that come from around the world to Castleton’s doors for the summer Artists Training Seminars and workshops in the performing arts.  Another famous faculty member is American mezzo-soprano, Denyce Graves, veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and native Washingtonian.

Westward ho for Castleton Festival's "The Girl of the Golden West"

Westward ho for Castleton Festival’s “The Girl of the Golden West”

Last Saturday the Castleton Festival staged a spectacular performance of Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” and organizers had put an exclamation point on the theme with a cowboy galloping around the hills on a black and white Paint and a Conestoga wagon pulled by two perfectly matched draft horses at the entrance to the concert hall.  It was a glamorous night for attendees and benefactors who basked in the glow of a glittering opening night.  For tickets and information on the Festival’s upcoming performances through July 28th visit

OTELLO this week-end

OTELLO this weekend

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