News & Politics

Close-In Getaways

Mountain retreats, country towns, and waterfront treasures—all a short drive away.

Many second-home hunters want to escape the noise and congestion of the city. These five resort towns, all less than two hours from Washington, offer everything from water views to quiet countryside—and you don’t have to fight Bay Bridge traffic to get there.

A Step Back in Time

Robert and Joan Ballard opened their gift shop, R.H. Ballard, 12 years ago in Washington, Virginia—often called Little Washington. At the time, they lived in Bethesda. “A lot of people start the way we did, coming out on weekends,” says Robert Ballard, who moved with his wife to Little Washington two years later. “Then they realize there’s so much out here.”

Framed by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Rappahannock County, Little Washington’s five-by-two-block downtown was designed by George Washington in 1749. Today the village of 200 people about 70 miles west of DC is a rustic arts and dining destination.

The biggest draw is chef Patrick O’Connell’s legendary restaurant, the Inn at Little Washington. There also are five family-owned wineries, six art galleries, and six bed-and-breakfasts. A 130-seat theater brings international performances and hosts annual festivals and events.

Zoning regulations have protected Little Washington from sprawl. There are no traffic lights or Starbucks. A spike in sustainable farms in recent years has fueled an organic-food movement, and Shenandoah National Park’s mountain streams, hiking trails, and campsites are 20 minutes away. “It’s like a step back in time for an hour-and-a-half drive,” says Ballard.

Homes there include everything from log cabins to Arts and Crafts styles to contemporaries. Prices vary widely, from about $200,000 for a small rambler to more than $2 million for a country estate.

Lakeside Living

Life in Lake Anna centers on the water. The largemouth and striped bass, northern walleye, and catfish there are favorites of fishermen. One church—Elk Creek Baptist Church in Mineral, Virginia—has boat parking for members.

Lake Anna, built by Virginia’s power company in 1972, is Virginia’s second-largest inland freshwater lake, with more than 250 miles of shoreline. “In places there are the mountains, steep shorelines, and good views, and in others it’s flat and you’ll get these sandy natural beaches,” says Olivia Ryan of Valere Real Estate.

Locals take pride in the lake and work to maintain it. “People take care of their property,” says Douglas Rubsam, who manages Lake Anna Marina. “They want it to look nice.” Residents also hike, ride horses, and camp out in Lake Anna State Park, which has 15 miles of wooded trails, picnic areas, campsites, and cabins.

Robin Wheeler of Lake Anna Realty says available waterfront lots start around $250,000, while waterfront homes can sell for $3 million. The average, says Wheeler, is $650,000 to $1.1 million. For a house that’s not on the water, prices range from $130,000 to $350,000.

Scheduled to open this summer, Lake Anna Island Shops will have restaurants, a health club, and offices on the waterfront. Noah’s Landing, a new development with nearly 60 vacant lots priced from $125,000 to $700,000, offers walking trails, a private pool, and sandy beaches.

The 19 lots at the Estates at Cutalong will have access to covered boat slips at the Lake Anna Yacht Club and a stall in a community horse stable. Prices start around $149,000. For those who don’t want to build, Lake Anna Island Condos has new townhouses starting around $388,000.

Gateway to the Outdoors

Thurmont, Maryland—65 miles north of Washington—feels far from the city. “It’s attractive as much for what is not here as for what is,” says Long & Foster agent Peter Gibaud. “There’s less traffic, less hassle.”

The town of 6,000 is nestled among the Catoctin Mountains in northern Frederick County. Three 19th-century covered bridges cross over creeks on the outskirts of downtown, where streets are lined with 18th-century buildings and Victorian homes from the early 20th century.

Trout fishermen and swimmers enjoy Cunningham Falls State Park’s 43-acre manmade lake and waterfalls. Twenty-five miles of trails wind through Catoctin Mountain Park, which also has camping, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Gibaud says homes average around $250,000 but can exceed $2 million for a newer structure or a lot of land. Historic Victorians downtown sell for $250,000 to $350,000.

Vickie Grinder, general manager at the 80-year-old Cozy Restaurant and Inn, says that on weekends the town fills with visitors. Colorfest, one of the biggest outdoor craft fairs on the East Coast, brings hundreds of artisans and as many as 150,000 people every October.

Thurmont’s most famous visitor stays at Camp David, in Catoctin Mountain Park. “Occasionally you’ll see a very large squadron of black SUVs,” says town official Nancy Poss, who once ran into broadcaster Tom Brokaw at a gas station. “Then you know the President’s in town.”

Waterfront Hideaway

After James and Mary Loreto traded their Bethesda home for an apartment in Silver Spring five years ago, they set their sights on buying a second place on the water. Annapolis, their first choice, was too expensive, pushing the Loretos to look south—to lesser-known Solomons Island.

“We just fell in love with it,” says James, an ophthalmologist who still works three days a week in Silver Spring. “I fish all the time, so I think it’s paradise.”

Water plays the starring role at Solomons, which is on the southernmost tip of Maryland’s Calvert County, where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The community is made up of a two-mile-long island and a nearby strip of mainland.

Solomons’ deep waterways can accommodate large boats. A boardwalk with shops and restaurants stretches across the island, which has a lighthouse. About 45 minutes away, the American Chestnut Land Trust—3,000 acres of preserved wetlands, forest, and farmland—has 15 miles of hiking trails and guided canoe trips. In summer, the 40-year-old Calvert Marine Museum hosts big-name concerts by the likes of Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys.

Realtor Chris McNelis says prices have dropped by about 20 percent in the last year. Island properties start in the $400,000s, single-family waterfront houses and condominiums on the mainland start in the $400,000s, and non-waterfront homes start in the $200,000s. Five miles north of Solomons, Hidden Treasure is a new development of 35 single-family homes. Prices start at $339,990.

Warm weather in Solomons means waterside drinks at the Tiki Bar, sailing regattas, and crabcakes at Stoney’s Kingfishers restaurant. “One of the biggest draws was the lack of traffic on water and on land,” says Loreto. “It is like a breath of fresh air.”

Hunt Country Escape

People are drawn to Middleburg for many reasons: Blue Ridge and Bull Run mountain views, a quaint downtown with good shopping and restaurants, and hiking on the Appalachian Trail. But the scenic Loudoun County town of 600 is best known for its horses.

Middleburg’s rolling countryside, about 40 miles west of Washington, is a mecca for horse farmers and equestrians. Residents play polo, join hunt clubs, and attend shows and races. During the Memorial Day Weekend Stable Tour, many of the horse farms open their doors to the public.

Founded in 1787, Middleburg has more than 160 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Brick sidewalks are lined with restaurants, antiques shops, and art galleries. “The downtown shops are really eclectic,” says Lisa Patterson, who owns Mello Out, a cafe that makes marshmallows and other desserts. “A lot of them have a European feel.”

Market Salamander is a high-end carryout with gourmet sandwiches, seafood, cheeses, and fresh bread. Two blocks away, the Red Fox Inn has been open more than 280 years. Vineyards dot the surrounding countryside—Loudoun County has 26 wineries.

The most sought-after properties are estates with enough land to raise and ride horses. Long & Foster manager Michele Stevens says equestrian estates—which can sit on as many as 100 acres—start around $4 million. Properties on five to 15 acres usually fetch between $700,000 and $1.5 million. In town, newer townhouses and homes on less than five acres start around $700,000.

Middleburg’s scenery and slower pace of life tend to attract urbanites. Marc Swedenburg runs a winery on the outskirts of downtown Middleburg. In his twenties, he lived in Alexandria and loved city life. Says Swedenburg: “Now I like the peace of country.”