The Life Aquatic

Retreats & Outdoor Living on the Water

Retreats & Outdoor Living on the Water

By Jennifer Shapira

Sun streams into a McCarthy residence bedroom.
Sun streams into a McCarthy residence bedroom. Courtesy of Audrey McCarthy

Audrey McCarthy and her husband were not interested in becoming empty nesters. The parents of three college students, they were “looking for a way to grab ‘em and keep ‘em back. We thought a beach house would be a really great way to stay connected to the kids as they were moving on with their independent lives,” she says. “It’s been fabulous for us.”

They purchased a 3,500-square-foot home in quiet Bethany Beach, Del. Ideal for use in summer, the McCarthys use it year-round.

McCarthy’s parents, in their 80s, come for frequent visits. An elevator makes negotiating the multi-level home easy—even McCarthy’s 12-year-old golden retriever is a frequent hitcher of rides.

And while the kids might favor the nightlife of nearby Dewey Beach over sleepier Bethany, McCarthy hears no real complaints. It’s oceanfront: Perfect for taking morning jogs along the water, whiling away the days with a book or sipping cocktails from the decks above. 

A family-oriented place, Bethany offers plenty of going-out opportunities—restaurants, ice-cream shops, golf courses. Most summer weekends, the McCarthys have a full house with too many guests visiting to dine out. So McCarthy’s honed her skills in cooking for dozens, dishing up buffet-style meals, and cherishing every minute of it. But she is quick to state that the real beauty of the house is its invitational quality for family togetherness. 

From the moment they closed on the house in March 2007, McCarthy had just a couple months to get it into shape for the first big event: a weeklong party for her daughter and 17 girlfriends to celebrate the completion of their first year of college. 

The McCarthys employed area interior designer Kathy Alexander for their McLean home’s game room, theater and wine cellar, so when it came time to paint and furnish the Bethany abode, McCarthy knew whom to call. Alexander sized every room to specification so that when McCarthy shopped online and headed to North Carolina for furniture, she had exact measurements. They worked quickly to decide on paint colors and patterns, ordered appliances and redid the bathrooms.

On the Waterfront
“I was there for days sleeping on air mattresses waiting for deliveries. It was unbelievable! But it was so much fun,” McCarthy says of that imminent deadline. “It’s just a picturesque place.”

How can you beat oceanfront?

“It’s just so decompressing to be near water,” says Alexander, who has also done work in nearby Rehoboth Beach. “It’s one of those things that humans just gravitate toward—the busy lifestyle and the hectic way people live. If you can get away to one of these places, I think that’s the main draw. You just get away and forget everything else. You start to feel like a human again.”

And if you have the added bonus of liking your family, you get a beach and family time. 

Of the McCarthys, Alexander says, “A lot of time, as you get older, you don’t want to be around your parents. But the fact that they have this really cool beach house—it keeps the family together.”

Overlooking the Magothy River in Maryland, the Crawfords’ second home peers out over a well-stocked private dock. Courtesy of Chris Crawford
Overlooking the Magothy River in Maryland, the Crawfords’ second home peers out over a well-stocked private dock. Courtesy of Chris Crawford

On Maryland’s Banks
Chris Crawford and his wife have owned a second home for 25 years on Maryland’s Magothy River, where they plan to retire. The McLean homeowners are avid boaters. Their original riverfront home was 1,400 square feet, which over a period of five years was torn down and rebuilt to 3,800 square feet. The Crawfords, both technophiles, worked with a home designer, drawing their own visions of their “smart” home using CAD/CAM software. 

At 97 feet from the waterline, “we have about 63 feet of waterfront with a 110-foot dock,” says Crawford, who put in a 30,000-pound-capacity boat lift about five years ago when the couple bought their trawler. Though the trawler got little use last summer, Crawford says he sailed his Trinka almost every weekend. He has the best intentions for their Sunfish this summer, as he plans to teach their oldest grandson how to sail.  

Local Lakes
From Reston lakes to the Potomac River, residents enjoy water’s restorative effects year-round. But in summer, the waterways thrive. More people are outside hiking, boating, bird watching, communing with nature, setting up picnics.

It’s relaxing, it’s serene, it makes you feel like you’re on a “little bit of a vacation a lot of the time,” says Bobbie Hering of her home on Reston’s Lake Thoreau.

The Hering home situated on Lake Thoreau affords the family a sense of peace and privacy.
The Hering home situated on Lake Thoreau affords the family a sense of peace and privacy. Courtesy of Joseph Hering

“Our home is almost on the water,” she says of her single-floor, white cube designed by D.C. architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. “It gives us a feeling of being halfway on a boat.” It’s peaceful and private, she adds, and close enough to commute into Washington. 

Every room in the home boasts water views, except the bathrooms. And the home has a wraparound deck that encompasses the entire house—perfect, Hering says, for hosting waterfront cocktail parties. A canoe and a sailboat are docked, at the ready, on their pier. 

“Our grandchildren love to go out on the lake and swim, and we go in the canoes and explore and fish. We seldom catch anything,” she laughs, “but like to watch the fish take the bait.” 

Hering recalls one recent summer day when she and her granddaughter caught a glimpse of a huge animal in the water. They hopped in the boat and rowed to the neighbor’s house. He met them at the shore with arms outstretched, informing them that it was a huge turtle. So grandmother and granddaughter pored over books, studying the possibilities until they discovered it was likely two snapping turtles mating.

Maximizing the potential of any outdoor spaces heightens a home’s dimensionality.
Maximizing the potential of any outdoor spaces heightens a home’s dimensionality. Courtesy of Lowe's

When  Nature  Calls
It’s precisely that excitement that David Mizejewski, a naturalist for the Reston-based National Wildlife Federation, wants to foster. In these harried days of kids’ and parents’ overcommitted schedules, of video games and sitting in traffic, the organization wants to remind people to take time to get outside and experience wildlife. 

Although the association doesn’t organize nature walks or sightings, it does encourage citizens to nature watch. NWF updates its species list on its website every season, posting six to nine animals you’re likely to spot and offering tips on how to catch a glimpse at Visit the site to pinpoint the sighting on the interactive map and describe your experience. 

And there’s no shortage of things to see, Mizejewski says. The bald eagle, once listed as an endangered species, has repopulated and become a success story. Still considered the holy grail of raptors in this area, there are no guarantees, but if you spend some time looking, “you can spot them up and down the Potomac and the Chesapeake,” he says. 

Marked with red and yellow striping, eastern painted turtles are a common species native to this area, says Mizejewski, adding that they and other turtles are easy to spot if you live near a larger body of water. They often climb out onto felled trees and sun themselves in clusters. 

But “at the first movement or crunch of a stick, if you get too close, they’ll dart into the water really, really fast. Most people are shocked that the turtle, with its reputation for being slow-moving, is actually pretty fast,” he says. 

Wildlife-watching is often perceived as a highbrow activity, when it’s portrayed in documentaries. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s exciting and dramatic, if you choose to see it that way, according to Mizejewski. “It’s the whole idea of people being aware of what’s around them.” 

A Home with a View
Homeowners are always looking to maximize their water views, says Paul Craven, owner of Cravens Nursery in Fairfax. For a project in Clifton where the owners sought direct lake access, Craven and his team hauled in slabs of Pennsylvania flagstone to create a big, rustic staircase that he filled in with ferns, mountain laurel and rhododendrons. 

For a condominium project in South Riding, Craven was asked to landscape a lake edge. He established a green water boundary to prevent erosion with a mix of inkberry holly, river birch and bald cypress, ultimately creating a little forest.  

Landscape architect Rob Tilson, president of the Tilson Group in Vienna, created a prairie-like setting for a Mount Vernon home. “We spec-ed a lot of the native species of wildflowers,” creating pops of colors from the herbaceous perennials, black-eyed Susans, purple cornflower and daisies, he says.

Tilson receives requests for the decking surface Trax, a recycled plastic material that is low on maintenance and high on longevity. He is also putting in a number of ipe decks, made from a popular Brazilian hardwood that is dense, and comes certified from a managed forest.

‘I Feel Like We Won the Lottery’ 
Barbara de Beaufort and her husband moved into their 40-year-old townhouse on Old Reston’s Lake Anne just over a year ago. It’s a friendly spot to be, from kayakers to people walking their dogs, to those out for a stroll. 

“Just looking at the water makes us calm and peaceful. It is a different world—so relaxing. We’ve seen so many birds—redheaded woodpeckers, herons, nuthatches, sparrows, cardinals—it feels like a bird sanctuary,” she says. 

From restful evenings on the deck, or watching the light and the leaves change, de Beaufort says home feels like paradise. 

“When we moved in, I noticed a huge log sticking out of the water near the shore and thought, What an eyesore, we’ll have to pull that out. Then I noticed the turtles sunning themselves on it, the Mallard ducks preening, and the heron visiting it, and immediately realized the log was actually center stage—there is always some sort of small drama going on.”

Mother Nature’s own feng shui. 

A Natural Habitat
David Mizejewski, naturalist at National Wildlife Federation in Reston, offers tips on spotting the area’s wildlife.

Weren’t bald eagles on the endangered species list?
Yes. The reason that they were listed originally was because of the use of the pesticide DDT. It didn’t actually kill the [eagle] adults, but what it did was make their eggshells really soft and brittle so the eggshell would crack before the eggs could hatch. The population plummeted; we banned DDT and put the bald eagle on the endangered species list. Twenty years later, the populations have recovered, and you can now see them in the D.C. area which, maybe even 10 years ago you probably couldn’t.

What’s the best way to spot them?
Definitely stick to the waterways, like the Potomac, and your chances of spotting them are pretty good. But there are no guarantees. If you do a lot of research and find an area where there’s a known bald eagle nest or a place that organizes eagle watches, then you can probably count on seeing one.

How do I know if I’m looking at one?
They’re pretty big birds. It’s pretty much the biggest raptor you’re going to see. When you’re looking from the ground up, and if you see a large bird, bald eagles just have this really massive head. It’s most likely to be confused with one of the vultures. The black vulture or turkey vulture has a much smaller head in comparison.

How can I share what I’ve learned with others?
We identify six to nine different species by state on our website with pictures and a description. We offer tips for watching and encourage people to come back and pinpoint on our map where they’ve seen a specific species, and they can comment about their sighting. Visit

What else am I likely to see?
Four kinds of turtles: eastern painted turtles, the red-eared slider, the mud or musk turtle.

Painted: They literally look like someone painted them with bright red and yellow striping in a really beautiful pattern.

Slider: A similar species, they get a little bigger than the painted turtle. You can identify them by the big red patch behind their eye.

Mud and/or musk: If you’re really lucky you might be able to spot a mud or a musk turtle—those are two different species. These guys typically live most of their time at the bottom of the pond; they only come up for a breath of air. They actually look like dead and rotting leaves. The musk turtle has the ability to put out a stinky smell to threaten.

Snapping: Largest turtle species in this area. They can be easily be 2 feet long, and that’s not counting the long neck and the long tail. They’ve just got this massive head with a pointy tip. Their shells are very jagged. They stay camouflaged at the bottom of the water.

What if I see an animal in danger?
In spring and summer nature centers and animal control receive many panicked phone calls: ‘Oh my god, there’s a giant turtle, and it’s going to bite me!’ No. The key here is, and this is the rule of thumb for any wildlife: If you don’t bother it, it’s not going to bother you.

If it is a turtle crossing the road, pick it up and put it on the opposite side of the road in the direction that it was heading, as long as pulling over isn’t going to put you in danger. If it’s a large animal, call animal control or the animal rescue league. Leave a detailed message, and volunteers will respond accordingly.

Flood Preparations
From Lowe’s Home Improvement

You don’t need to live on waterfront property to be at risk for flooding. Heavy rains, melting snow and inadequate drainage can also inundate a home with water. Standard homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover flooding, so shop for separate flood insurance.

    Here are some tips:
  • Be prepared. Find out the base flood elevation for your property from the local authority that issues building permits. Use this figure as a guideline for preparing your home against high water.
  • Keep an adequate amount of basic supplies: plastic sheeting, sand and sandbags, plastic garbage bags, lumber, shovels, as well as plywood.
  • Install a backflow-prevention device in the main waste line of your plumbing system. This will prevent sewage and storm water from backing up in your home.
  • Every spring, test your sump pump by filling the sump pit with water to ensure it switches on and off properly.
  • Seal basement walls with waterproofing to avoid seepage.
  • If you’re remodeling or upgrading, consider raising your heating and cooling systems and main electrical panel to a level higher than the base flood elevation.
  • Take an inventory of your belongings and write down brand names and serial numbers. Make a video or take digital photos to help with documentation.
  • Keep important papers such as insurance policies, deeds and other crucial documents in a safe, waterproof place, perhaps away from your home in a safety deposit box.

  • After a Flood
    Standing water, damaged furniture and ruined carpeting and drywall can make recovery after a flood a daunting, confusing and potentially hazardous task. With hours of work on the horizon, it’s important to make sure you have the knowledge, tools and products to safely and effectively clean your space.

  • Assess the home’s condition. Take a look around your home, and prioritize your to-do list by determining which problems need to be addressed first. If you have standing water, move that problem up to the top of the list.
  • Invest in safety gear. Standing flood water can contain contaminants like chemicals, sewage water and poisonous debris that should not come in contact with your skin or be inhaled into the respiratory system. Before tackling cleanup, make sure to have protective gear like rubber boots, gloves and face masks to wear around the house.
  • Remove flood water. Never enter an area with standing water if the power is still connected. Electrical devices may be covered by the water, thereby creating a safety hazard. When it is safe to enter, use a Shop-Vac to get rid of water. It will vacuum and hold multiple gallons of water at a time for easy removal. Speed up the drying process by using a dehumidifier and a box fan to circulate and eliminate excess moisture from the air.
  • Throw away ruined items. Dispose of unsalvageable items, such as mattresses, carpeting, upholstered furniture, cosmetics, stuffed animals, baby toys and books. Also, remember to remove any drywall and insulation that may have been contaminated by the sewage water.
  • Protect against mold. Disinfect all hard surfaces with hot water and commercial-grade cleaning products to protect your home from mold and mildew. Thoroughly wash all flooring, walls, concrete, molding, wood and metal furniture, countertops, appliances, sinks and other plumbing fixtures. After cleaning, make sure to wash your hands with soap and water, and wash all clothes worn during cleanup and those that were exposed to contaminated flood or sewage water with hot water and detergent.

  • (May 2009)