Old Mill Room Boar's Head Inn, Ivy Rd. (Hwy. 250); 804/296-2181; dinner for two $75. With a hunting-lodge feel—dark wood beams, hunter green fabrics, candlelight—the Old Mill Room serves a little of everything: smoked trout mousse, napoleon of veal, risotto in apple-walnut butter sauce.
Memory & Co. 213 Second St. S.W.; 804/296-3539; dinner for two $70. There are pineapples everywhere—on the flag outside, on the door knocker—so it's clear that hospitality is the first virtue. The second is education: the restaurant doubles as a cooking school. Chef-owner John P. Corbett makes you feel as if you're at home—you can sit either in the simply decorated dining room or in the kitchen (where Corbett will walk you through the meal as it's being prepared). The menu might offer rack of lamb with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes or baked salmon with a lemon, walnut, and caper aioli.
Ashley Room Keswick Hall, 701 Club Dr., Keswick; 804/979-3440; dinner for two $116. Try not to get in the way as the waiter and his stewards clear every last piece of untouched silverware, only to replace it with the same setup: the dining room of this estate is that kind of place. The prix fixe menu designates three or four meals (hope for the striped Virginian bass with smoked trout tortellini and a chive beurre blanc), but you can ask for anything listed and it will be fetched.
Hamiltons' at First & Main 101 W. Main St.; 804/295-6649; dinner for two $70. A good place to try for a change of colonial surroundings—there's a mélange of styles inside, and not one could really be called Virginian. Start with a gold and terra-cotta interior, add a dash of California cuisine, follow with Greek accents (feta cheese abounds)—you get the idea. Then comes something that doesn't fit in anywhere: local rabbit with shiitake risotto and white truffle-sherry sauce.
It's not enough that I was a first-time rider who had never so much as set foot in a stable. I also had to go to one of the prime outposts of horse country—the Piedmont region of Virginia—which happens to be the locale of the most notorious riding accident in our country's recent history, Christopher Reeve's paralyzing fall almost four years ago. The last time I'd been in Charlottesville, in fact, was the week after that accident, and the images of the media swirling around the University of Virginia Medical Center, where Reeve lay in uncertain anguish, left a mark. But there would be no dressage for me, I told myself—I was barely dressed right, in jeans and T-shirt—so how hard could it be to get up on a horse and ride along a trail at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains?
Not hard at all, thank God. There are a number of private stables and horse farms surrounding Charlottesville in Albemarle County; to find a good place that's open to the public, you have to go a bit farther from town. I landed at the Wintergreen Resort's Rodes Farm Stables, which is in Nelson County, about a half-hour drive southwest of the city. But my worries were not allayed at the outset. After reserving on the phone a couple of days ahead and going through the rigmarole of height, weight, etc., I was beset with forms upon arrival, including the very bright yellow release form. Horseback riding ranks 64th among all activities that result in hospital stays, the form said. So as I tried to decide whether that made me feel relieved or more concerned—Is 64th a good bet?What ranks ahead of it?Hang gliding?Lawn darts?—I stopped thinking and signed.
Out of my group of six riders, I somehow wound up with the biggest animal, Daisy, a beautiful rust-colored Belgian draft horse. It was a struggle just to get on her. Once we were aboard, our trail guides, Lindsay and Jennifer, taught us the basics. Give the horse a gentle kick with your heel to get going, sharply tug on the reins to stop or slow down. When climbing a hill, stand up on the stirrups a bit to move your weight forward; on the way down, lean back as far as you can. I was still a little unsure of myself, but Daisy was first in line, and I would be right behind Lindsay if anything were to go wrong.
Of course, nothing did. The muddy trail made for a few slippery moments, but other than that it was smooth going. Even though the ride I took was just an hour long, it was by no means monotonous: there were long uphill stretches, rather steep downward turns through dense woods (adding the obstacle of unruly roots and branches), and even a two-lane road crossing (adding the obstacle of unruly drivers).
I found myself building a rapport with Daisy, stroking her neck after she got through a particularly muddy patch, thanking her silently for not throwing me off her back. I like to think that Daisy was actually responding to my encouragement; or she simply could have wanted to return to the stable for some oats and hay. Once we did pull in, it was infinitely easier to dismount than it had been to get on, and I bade her a fond farewell. This is hardly news to experienced riders, but you really do get a whole new perspective on nature when you're cruising six feet off the ground. I could have been hiking the same area, but that prospect suddenly seemed somewhat, well, pedestrian.
Rodes Farm Stables Rte. 151, Nellysford; 800/266-2444 or 804/325-2200; hourlong trail rides $35 per person (longer escorted rides are available). Reservations are required.
Seven brick-paved blocks in the middle of town, the Downtown Mall is the commercial heart of C-ville. But overly commercial it's not—you have to look hard to find a chain store. Five places not to miss:
• The largest of the many antiques shops is the Princess Pocahontas (118 E. Main St.; 804/970-1997), whose owner claims to be a direct descendant of the Indian princess. Amid lots of furniture, she has copies of her pedigree to prove it.
• The Hardware Store (316 E. Main St.) is a complex of shops in an old hardware building. The best part is the homey theme-restaurant-that-isn't (804/977-1518; lunch for two $15); the only concession made to the name is the toolbox filled with condiments. Virginia peanut soup makes a nutty starter.
• Traditional portraits hang next to avant-garde trash-heap sculptures at Bozart (211 W. Main St.; 804/296-3919), a local artists' cooperative.
• At the Mudhouse café (213 W. Main St.; 804/984-6833), sip a smoothie next to a bleary-eyed teaching assistant grading blue-book exams.
• "I cannot live without books," Jefferson said. Sandy McAdams, the gruff owner of Daedalus bookstore (121 Fourth St. N.E.; 804/293-7595), evidently can't either—he has more than 90,000. He may ask whether you have any books to trade; if you don't, he might let you in anyway.