Like most native-born Virginians, I grew up with an ancestral portrait on the wall. The original was said to hang in a museum in Richmond, so ours was a faded black-and-white photocopy mounted in a dime-store frame. It showed a mustachioed English dandy, black curls falling luxuriantly past his shoulders, lace collar spread grandly across his chest, staring into the Xerox machine with an air of courtly insouciance: my mother's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, loyal supporter of Charles I, forced into exile after the beheading of his monarch and newly arrived in Virginia with a retinue of servants and of cattle in the year 1649. We called him the Cavalier.
Today's Cavaliers are a football team (the University of Virginia's), but the kind I grew up with—dashing, heroic, extinct—are as essential to the Virginia myth as ever. During the Revolutionary period, the idea of the English country squire in the New World yielded Washington and Jefferson and their compatriots; less than a century later, the same concept found full flower in the gallantry of Robert E. Lee. Over the years, the legend of the Lost Cause has covered the Virginia landscape with a patina of regret that no amount of suburbanization seems able to erase. Seen through this gauze, the past becomes a haze of white columns and red brick peopled with valorous aristocrats on horseback. But the story is more complicated than that. And since the past is what you're here to find, it's a good idea to know what you're looking for.
What made the Virginia aristocrats great—distinguishing them from, say, the plutocrats of the Gilded Age—was the earnestness with which they took on "the burden of government and public responsibility," as historian Daniel Boorstin put it. But something changed between the Revolution and the Civil War, as the utopian ideal of pure reason gave way to Romantic notions of chivalry—notions that masked the economic imperatives of a 19th-century slaveholding society.
To understand why this happened, start your visit at Arlington House, Lee's grandly porticoed mansion overlooking Washington, D.C. The lawns have been covered with graves ever since Lee left to command a Confederate army and Union authorities started burying their dead there: in Virginia, all time can be measured from this spot. Work your way down the Potomac to Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall and Stratford Hall, plantations of the gentry who created the new republic. Go to Williamsburg, the colonial capital where they forged the ideas that would be realized in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Visit Monticello and walk the grounds of the University of Virginia to experience the perfect geometries of the Enlightenment, which Jefferson the architect rendered in brick as expertly as he did in government. Visit Richmond to see the shrines of the Confederacy and taste the ashes of defeat.
Of course, if you want tour buses and T-shirted tourists snapping photos in Historyland before hitting the theme-park rides, you won't be hard put to find them. But that is not Virginia. Virginia is an ancient place where nothing is far from the soil. It is the impossibly broad rivers of the Tidewater, rising and falling with the moon. It is the red clay of the Piedmont, where Jefferson the country gentleman trod the Newtonian frontier. It is a formal garden at twilight, boxwood perfuming the air with the scent of decay. Breathe deep, and you too can taste the faded glories of cavalierdom.
Grand Hotels and Resorts
The Jefferson Franklin and Adams Sts., Richmond; 800/424-8014 or 804/788-8000, fax 804/225-0334; doubles $155-$225. In 1895, 30 years after the firestorm that consumed Richmond as the Confederacy fell, Carr¶re & Hastings gave the city a magnificent Beaux-Arts pile that over the past decade has been splendidly restored to its crypto-Roman excess. No, the staircase was not used in Gone with the Wind, but alligators did once inhabit the pools in the Palm Court, and Scott and Zelda once cavorted here. Upstairs you'll find all the luxuries you'd expect—but the place to be is amid the marble columns of the Rotunda, sipping Manhattans in a club chair while the world revolves around you.
The Homestead Hwy. 220, Hot Springs; 800/838-1766 or 540/839-1766, fax 540/839-7670; doubles $117-$480 per person, including breakfast and dinner. Virginia's premier resort may look like a turn-of-the-century Georgian Revival spa on the model of Baden-Baden, but it's really the Jefferson transplanted to a 15,000-acre forest in the Allegheny highlands. In its heyday the Homestead drew Rockefellers and Vanderbilts; as it nears the end of a long-overdue renovation, you can see why. Besides golf (three courses, one designed by Robert Trent Jones), the Homestead offers tennis, hiking, skiing, skating, horseback riding, skeet shooting, trout fishing, carriage rides, mineral baths, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a 1930's movie theater, afternoon tea, and five-course dinners with an orchestra in the formal dining room. You can also drive up the road to the village of Warm Springs, where the hotel maintains two 98-degree soaking pools whose rustic enclosures date from the Jeffersonian era. After that, you'll probably just want to sit on the veranda and rock.
Williamsburg Inn137 Francis St., Williamsburg; 800/447-8679 or 804/221-8840; doubles $235-$340. Sometime after John D. Rockefeller Jr. was persuaded to undertake the restoration of Virginia's colonial capital, he realized visitors would need a place to stay. The result is a formal yet intimate hotel that delivers Southern hospitality as only a Rockefeller could envision it. Some of the rooms may be a little dowdy and small, but everything else about the place murmurs comfort and reassurance, from the view of the bowling green as you take tea in the East Lounge to the 1930's Regency Revival decor (which comes as a relief after the relentless Georgianism of Colonial Williamsburg itself). Don't forget to pack a suit if you want to join the Daddy Warbucks types sipping lobster bisque in the dining room.
Tides Inn King Carter Dr., Irvington; 800/843-3746 or 804/438-5000; doubles $137-$154 per person, including breakfast and dinner. You've toured Williamsburg and Monticello, you've driven the crest of the Blue Ridge, you've seen the monuments and the battlefields. You think you know Virginia. You don't—not until you've been to the Tides, a time-capsule resort on a broad inlet just upriver from the Chesapeake Bay. This is the kind of place you didn't think existed anymore, a rambling brick-and-clapboard resort where couples from Richmond or Norfolk or some plantation in between dance the fox-trot as moonlight slants in off the water. During the day there's golf and tennis and a saltwater swimming pool, plus charter boats for fishing and cruises on a vintage yacht. At first you think it's mainly for the older crowd, but then it hits you: you're going to grow old too. And you can hardly wait.
Small Hotels and Country Inns
Morrison House 116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 800/367-0800 or 703/838-8000; doubles $150-$295. This small, refined hotel on a quiet side street in Alexandria's 18th-century Old Town is just downriver from Washington and convenient to Arlington House and Mount Vernon.
Linden Row Inn 100 E. Franklin St., Richmond; 800/348-7424 or 804/783-7000, fax 804/648-7504; doubles $99-$119. Seven Greek Revival town houses on the edge of downtown Richmond, artfully combined and finished in just the right shade of faded mulberry. Downstairs is a courtyard garden that may or may not have inspired Poe.
Red Fox Inn 2 E. Washington St., Middleburg; 800/223-1728 or 540/687-6301, fax 540/687-6187; doubles $135-$155, including continental breakfast. The ur-hunt country inn in the ur-hunt country village: cozy rooms furnished with hooked rugs and wing chairs in an 18th-century fieldstone tavern, with a kitchen that's justifiably famous for its crab cakes.
Inn at Little Washington Middle and Main Sts., Washington; 540/675-3800; doubles $250-$390, including continental breakfast. In a sleepy village some 70 miles west of D.C., Reinhardt Lynch has created the ultimate romantic hideaway, a luxurious cocoon that surrounds a small, secret garden. Does the outside world still exist?Do we care?
Conyers House 3131 Slate Mills Rd., Sperryville; 540/987-8025, fax 540/987-8709; doubles $135-$200, including breakfast. A rustic 18th-century inn where the hunt country gives way to the Blue Ridge. Comfort sometimes yields to character here: the floors creak and the doors may jam, but the hospitality is as genuine as the English tack set out on the porch ($40 a person for a two-hour guided horseback ride).
Clifton 1296 Clifton Inn Dr., Charlottesville; 804/971-1800, fax 804/971-7098; doubles $150-$265, including breakfast. This 1799 house built by Jefferson's son-in-law is now a smoothly run inn set in a secluded woodland, with croquet on the lawn, tennis courts out back, and a private lake down the hill. The rooms—especially the white-and-chintz ones in the carriage house—have a cozy, romantic feel that will make you want to put a match to the logs in the fireplace and keep the shutters drawn until noon.
Sampson Eagon Inn 238 E. Beverley St., Staunton; 800/597-9722 or 540/886-8200; doubles $85. Despite its natural beauty, the Shenandoah Valley has a dearth of first-rate places to stay. Fortunately there's the Sampson Eagon Inn, a marvelously restored 1840's mansion in Staunton's leafy Gospel Hill district, just down the street from the Presbyterian manse where Woodrow Wilson was born.