One of the first things you notice about Charlottesville is its rather long name. Try saying C-ville, as locals do. Then use the time you save to take advantage of all that this small city two hours southwest of Washington, D.C., has to offer—from quiet country retreats to horseback rides in nearby Shenandoah National Park. Thomas Jefferson looms large, whether it's at his Monticello estate or at a used-book shop near the University of Virginia. So raise a glass of wine from an area vineyard and toast our third president for instilling in C-ville's residents a strong respect for that most American of ideals: the pursuit of happiness.
"This is nothing like Colorado," my fiancée, Joanna, kept telling me (she has family there). Well, no, I suppose it isn't—the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia top out at 4,000 feet—but since I haven't yet made it out there with her, these hills would have to do, and they suited me fine.
We were driving into Albemarle County from Washington, D.C. Though we could have taken the direct route and arrived in a little more than two hours, we chose to go through Shenandoah National Park, along the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the aptly named Skyline Drive. Rockies, Schmockies—the winding roads and hairpin turns made me feel as high up as I'd want to be. The 105-mile ride (at a strictly enforced 35 mph speed limit) takes about three hours without stops—but if you're not stopping you're missing the point.
We expected to pay a $10-per-car entrance fee at Front Royal, on the park's northern end, but the booth was empty when we pulled up. We waited a couple of minutes to see if anyone would show. Nope. (Cutbacks, I guess.) So we drove in, not without guilt, and began the slow climb. The 69 overlooks gave us equal opportunity to see the verdant hills of the Piedmont to the east and the more resplendent Shenandoah Valley to the west.
Some stretches were just like any other drive through the woods, while others took us past beautiful rock formations and miniature waterfalls. We saw a deer scampering among the trees and another stopping to sip from a puddle on the road, oblivious to the fact that it was holding up traffic. Other highlights include Mary's Rock Tunnel (look for the sign that reads rocks older than mankind) and Big Meadows, which is just what the name says. It sneaks up quickly—we rounded a bend and were suddenly on the veld in South Africa, looking for gazelles.
We stopped for a break at the Skyland Lodge (mile 41.7; 800/999-4714 or 540/999-2211; lunch for two $15), the kind of place where "Oh! Susanna" plays on the lobby sound system. But sitting at a table by the huge westward-looking windows, we didn't care; we were too busy sharing a veggie burger on focaccia and a plate of grilled salmon with mango salsa and black beans. Skyland is also a convenient point from which to begin a hike, and its stables offer trail rides with plenty of vistas.
You can take the drive all the way to the end, near Waynesboro, where you pick up I-64 east to C-ville. If you don't feel like driving the whole length of the park, there are two crossroads along the way—Highway 211 intersects Skyline Drive about a third of the way down, and Highway 33 slices through about 30 miles after that; you can get to Route 29 easily from either one and follow it south into town.
Clifton, the Country Inn 1296 Clifton Inn Dr.; 888/971-1800 or 804/971-1800, fax 804/971-7098; doubles $165-$415, including breakfast. An introductory tour never sounded so good: "Take one, take twenty" (regarding the giant cookie jar in the tea room); "Take one to your room, or take it home—just mail it back" (regarding the books in the library). Choose from 14 rooms and suites in either the 1799 Federal-style main house or one of the outlying buildings. The converted livery's rooms have claw-foot tubs, fireplaces, and Frette linens; they may be a bit buggy, but what can you expect when there's standing water (the private lake) down the path, and your bedside lamp is the only light for what seems like miles?
Boar's Head Inn Ivy Rd. (Hwy. 250); 800/476-1988 or 804/296-2181, fax 804/972-6024; doubles from $165. The Boar's Head is a modern 173-room resort with a somewhat quaint veneer. (It's owned by the university, not the cold-cut manufacturer.) Aside from the king-size four-poster and Natural Essence soaps,you could be in almost any hotel room. But step out on your semi-private porch (be sure to ask for a room with one), and it's a different story: the views of the pond bring new meaning to the word serene. Go for a dip in the pool, visit the spa, or take a hot-air balloon ride above the grounds.
Keswick Hall 701 Club Dr., Keswick; 800/274-5391 or 804/979-3440, fax 804/977-4171; doubles $250-$595, including breakfast. One of three Ashley House properties (the others are in Maryland and Wales), this country-club estate is the most stylish—and expensive—château in town. Each of the 48 rooms in the 1912 Italianate mansion is decorated with Laura Ashley fabrics and wallpapers, and many bathrooms have both deep tubs and stall showers (not to mention towel warmers). Golfers should make a pilgrimage to the Arnold Palmer course; non-golfers can indulge themselves at the spa and indoor/outdoor pool. Meet up later to decide which video you'll watch from Keswick's extensive library of classics.
Inn at Monticello 1188 Scottsville Rd. (Rte. 20); 804/979-3593, fax 804/296-1344; doubles from $125, including breakfast. The five-room inn is not on the grounds of Jefferson's estate, as its name might imply, but two miles away, set back so far from the road that you can't see it until you've passed by. Norm and Becky Lindway modeled the rooms after Monticello's. For the full experience, stay in the Jefferson Room, where a portrait of Tom peers down on the canopy bed.