- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Chances are when you mention Williamsburg, Virginia, those within hearing range are likely to respond, “Oh, you mean that place where they recreate Colonial times?” While, yes, Colonial Williamsburg is indeed a major attraction in the riverside city 150 miles south of the nation’s capital, there is far more culture to this town sandwiched between the James and York rivers beyond the (absolutely thorough) recreation of 18th century American life.

The Washington Times was invited to experience the cultural resurgence that is shaping Williamsburg, a city long known for its history and its educational legacy — thanks to William & Mary — that is rightly joining other cuisine-specific regions of the Commonwealth.

 

Friday:

Rolling into town from Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello in midafternoon on a flawless, unseasonably warm post-Thanksgiving day, my girlfriend Victoria and I make our first stop The Virginia Beer Company (401 Second St., Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185, 757/378-2903) located a stone’s throw from Colonial Williamsburg.

Surprisingly, with that name, you’d expect the business to be a mainstay of the Commonwealth for some time, however, it’s been open but a few short years.

Proprietor Chris Smith greets us with a warm manner and firm handshake. The tasting room is both welcoming and spacious, with an extended outdoor area available to drinkers in the warmer months. Chris brings us over two sampler platters — they’re rather large, so we might have shared one — of Virginia’s wares.

Of the perennials I especially like the Saving Daylight citrus wheat, with its refreshing profile and smooth taste, and the Free Verse IPA, which is fruity and delicious. Elbow Patches is precisely what you’d expect from a stout, and the Wrenish Rye dry-hopped amber ale is also exceedingly pleasant.

For something a bit more unique, check out the Peachwood Smoke, a brew whose barley from the nearby Copper Fox Distillery is smoked and thus give the beer its singular taste. It’s unlike any other beer to yet pass my tastebuds, but I’m not sure I would order a sixer of it to go.

To get cleaned up and refreshed afore dinner, Victoria and I check into our digs for the weekend, The Historic Powhatan Resort (3601 Ironbound Rd, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23188,800/438-2929), a gated hospitality community.

In the interests of full disclosure, I need to state upfront that the check-in process is both lugubrious and more than slightly irritating. It seems to take incredibly long to get our room keys (10 minutes), and immediately afterward, we are shuffled over to a “concierge,” but who more rightly should have been labeled a saleswoman.

Thinking we are about to be recommended to activities to do on the grounds, we are instead subjected to a 15-minute hard sell about buying into the property for a “great deal” that was “only offered” now. I keep my composure but, having sat through such timeshare pitches, I politely decline. (Diamond Resorts Regional Marketing Manager Keith Bielsk reached out to apologize to The Times for the irritation, which was much appreciated.)

 Victoria and I find our way to our “room,” which is, in reality, an entire apartment. The aggravation of what awaited us upon check-in melts somewhat beholding this enormous two-bedroom vacay-villa, which also offers an outdoor patio overlooking the property’s central pond. Cable TV operates in all three rooms, as well as a fully functioning kitchen that is stocked with plates, glasses and whatever else we might need to cook up a meal if we are so inclined. This is the kind of place where an entire clan is meant to spend a vacation together.

Checking out the grounds, we pass by a mini-golf course and then make our way into the activity center. Of course, the outdoor pool is closed for the winter, but inside we find a thoroughly relaxing indoor pool as well as two whirlpools, where we dutifully unwind after a long day.

After a quick rest, we head out for dinner at Waypoint Seafood & Grill (1480 Quarterpath Rd., Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185, 757/220-2228), a fine dining spot that comes highly recommended.

In one of the most brilliant bits of hospitality engineering I have witnessed, menus come with in-situ illumination built into the apparatuses, providing lighting to adequately choose from the offerings without the squinting that has bedeviled me in my later years. (Seriously, why has no one thought to do this before?)

We select a lovely Sonoma County Chardonnay, and dive into the bread course, which is served with Virginia ham and butter infused with parsley that is absolutely stellar. The cornbread is outstanding, as is the mini-baguette. I also order up a platter of oysters on the half shell, and try out the house Oysters Waypoint Way, which is the joint’s take on Oysters Rockefeller. It’s tasty for sure, but I preferred the raw Virginia mollusks.

For my entree I go for the salmon served with crab cake pilaf and greens. It’s a symphony of tastes that goes excellently with the Chardonnay. Victoria has the rockfish, which I find flavorful but not as fine as the salmon.

Dessert course is a caramel creme brulee and chocolate cake, all of it complemented with an aged Grahams port. Neither particularly lights my fire, though I give points for effort on the caramel option.

Filled with food and tired after a fine day, Victoria and I return to Powhatan to retire.

 

Saturday:

I truly appreciate something a little … different. And so our first stop on this blissful Saturday morn is none other than the Williamsburg Salt Spa (1111 Old Colony Ln., Williamsburg,Virginia, 23185, 757/229-1022). Polish immigrants Agnieszka (known as “Aga”) and Macin Drygala took inspiration from the Wieliczka Salt Mine is their home country, renowned for its healing abilities. The couple set about creating something similar in the New World, and so, as the centerpiece of their spa, a manufactured salt “cave” can be experienced.

After leaving all electronic gizmos and shoes behind, we are given booties to slip over our socks as we walk into the cave, stepping on salt as we make our way to a series of arrayed deckchairs. The staffer tells us to sit back and enjoy the “30-minute treatment.”

So what precisely does one “do” in a salt cave? As it turns out, not much. You’re supposed to focus on your breathing a la yoga, perhaps meditate, and allow the salted air to clear our your sinuses. Truth be told, I fall asleep while Victoria, seated next to me and fired up on morning coffee, is wide awake.

I have to say my sinuses do feel clearer after exiting the saline cavern, and my mood is lighter. Hopefully next time I’ll be able to get a soak treatment or perhaps a massage.

If there’s one thing my travels in 2016 have taught me, it’s that you don’t need to be in the traditional distilling hotbeds of Kentucky and Tennessee to enjoy some locally sourced whiskey. Virginia distiller Copper Fox, based out of Sperryville in Rappahannock County, has opened a Williamsburg outpost, located at 901 Capitol Landing Rd. The distiller is in the process of renovating an entire old hotel property to increase its locally produced beverages for its satellite concern, and some VIP overnight rooms and a wedding venue will be a part of that restoration.

A staffer gives me a tour of the grounds, and I can picture in my mind how the operation will all work once the full enterprise is revving its motors in 2017.

The operation is still getting up and running, but I’m happy to report that the Williamsburg tasting room is now open for business in one of the old hotel property’s buildings, now repurposed for sampling. For now, at the tasting room, we are doled out samples of the rye, single malt and, with full points for a creative name, the VirGin single malt gin. (As my girlfriend is English, she goes for this first, of course.)

We are both whiskey/whisky snobs (go here to learn about the spelling disjunct) and the single malt is an absolute winner. Its aroma I would stack against anything from Scotland, and its taste isn’t far behind. Well done, Copper Fox!

To go along with our drinks, we are presented delightful ham samples by Sam Edwards III, the third-generation proprietor of Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, a Williamsburg institution for 90 years. He runs the family business now with the help of his own son, Sam IV.

Sam relates how, despite a devastating fire in January, he and his employees are pressing on, continuing to sell holiday hams for the busy Christmas market. The investigation for the insurance payout is ongoing; Sam is philosophical about getting the operation back up and running the way it was, however, he is visibly crestfallen recalling how the tragedy was worsened as circumstances required him to significantly reduce his labor force, including some employees who had been with the company for decades.

Sam’s cured ham slices are a delight, as are the sandwiches he has fashioned for us. They’re rather salty, but that’s what makes it “cured,” after all. One sandwich, with a delightful yellow cheese on top, is amazing. He shows us his catalog, which remains busy despite the tragic setback to the company. I can’t help but wish him the best.

Before dinner we head over to the Williamsburg Winery (5800 Wessex Hundred, Williamsburg, Virginia,23185, 757/229-0999). As I recently learned at Monticello, Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who brought back many a bottle from France during his time as ambassador, tried unsuccessfully to grow wine grapes in the Old Dominion — though time would show he was correct to try, as Virginia now ranks near the top of wine-producing states.

The Williamsburg Winery features a rather large tasting room shaped like a square, with staff at its center to pour samples. I can’t help but notice the tasting room is understaffed, and nearly everyone around the square waits longer than necessary for each pour, which makes the experience less enjoyable.

I lived in California for 15 years, so I’ve done a fair number of tastings, and I admit freely to being in possession of a bit of a snobbish palate, and many of the offerings didn’t touch me. However, I was a fan of the James River White, a varietal made from grapes imported from Washington station that offers a decent taste. The Plantation Blush is a good wine to enjoy by the pool in the warmer months. The 2014 Arundell Cabernet Sauvignon, perfect for salad or a pasta course, was the definite winner. I also enjoyed the Gabriel Archer Reserve with its complex taste and, for dessert, I recommend the 2015 Petite Fleur.

But a stone’s throw from the winery, on the same property in fact, is the trendy restaurant Cafe Provencal (5800 Wessex Hundred, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185, 757/941-0317), located inside the swanky Wessex Hundred hotel. It’s a lovely setting, accentuated with a French motif that also finds its way onto the menu.

It’s the off-season, so not super busy, but no matter as our waiter is attentive and polite. Chef Troy Buckley, who works under executive chef Ian Robbins, sends out an amuse-bouche of oyster topped with blue cheese to whet the appetite.

Victoria and I take in the menu while noshing on some delicious spicy cornbread (trust me), and we celebrate the weekend with a flute of Cremant de noir champagne.

Because this area is part of the Virginia Oyster Trail, I order up a platter, which goes perfect with the Cremant. For her appetizer, Victoria gets the kale salad served with smoked duck pastrami, cherry tomatoes and an orange reduction. She smiles with every bite.

I haven’t had rabbit in years, so I take a chance on the rabbit stew entree, which is tasty and thoroughly enchanting on a chilly late-fall evening like today. Victoria opts for the pheasant special, with is served with mushrooms, fried onions and green beans. On the side it comes with heirloom carrots and beat rots chips — all of it in a fine red wine reduction. It’s a grand slam.

Hot Mexican chocolate is then served as a welcome intermezzo with a little bit of a south-of-the-border bite, offering a warmth to stomach and spirit alike. This is followed by a truffle-and-vanilla ice cream dulce de leche concoction served with creme Catalan. This we pair with a Virginian dessert wine, a Barboursville Paxxito Late Harvest, whose sugar content is definitely plentiful, but not so much so that it pushes the taste of dessert to the afterthought realm.

It’s been a good day.

 

Sunday:

For breakfast on our way out of town, we pop by the Blue Talon Bistro (420 Prince George Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185, 757/476-2583), located not far from the campus of William & Mary in a busy section of downtown.

With my requisite iced tea in hand, I go for the breakfast omelette, which, if you go there, is seriously enough food for two. The traditional ham, cheese and bacon is complemented by basque sauce. It’s more filling than flavorful, but I’ll take it.

Being an Englishwoman, Victoria has the European breakfast plate, which features a brie wedge, toasted baguette and sausage. She’s nonplussed with the result, but again, she grew up on such platters in England and thus has some high standards to be met.

Tipping our staff, we get into my Scion and head north on I-64. Already the post-Thanksgiving traffic is starting to snarl its way back toward Richmond and the District.

It’s always hard to say goodbye, and I look forward to returning.

Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.

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