Exploring Virgina's Charlottesville

Exploring Virgina's Charlottesville

The Virginia you love, with a flair you might not expect.

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.

where to stay

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.

1817 Historic Bed & Breakfast 1211 W. Main St.; 800/730-7443 or 804/979-7353, fax 804/979-7209; doubles $89-$159. Everything under the roof of the red-brick, Federal-style inn is for sale (note the price tags); whatever didn't fit can be bought at the adjacent antiques shop. The five rooms have theme decorations (French Empire, African safari). If natural light is a priority, request the room with a glass-enclosed sleeping porch.

Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm 6051 Sugar Hollow Rd. (Rte. 614); 804/823-7086, fax 804/823-2002; doubles from $95, including breakfast. A contemporary house with five guest rooms, Sugar Hollow may be too cute for some—stuffed animals, pictures of the grandkids—but those seeking solitude will be satisfied. Prop your head up on the pillows as you lie on the bed in the Woodlands Room. You'll get a better view through the bay window of the sun going down over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Inn at the Crossroads 5010 Plank Rd. (Rte. 692), North Garden; 804/979-6452; doubles from $80, including breakfast. The Crossroads is on the outskirts of town, but whereas U.S. Highway 29 just north of C-ville is overdeveloped, the stretch south of the city is still pure country. History buffs will love the small touches at the National Register of Historic Places building, constructed in 1820. Check out the back-to-back staircases, built so men wouldn't have to wait while women negotiated the steps in their hoopskirts.

200 South Street 200 South St.; 804/979-0200, fax 804/979-4403; doubles from $100, including breakfast. Built in 1856 (and restored 13 years ago),this inn is a neo-Georgian delight occupying two adjacent houses. The 20 rooms are full of soft yellows and bright crimsons. It's just two blocks from the Downtown Mall, so stay here if, instead of driving back and forth, you'd rather spend your time more wisely—by taking afternoon tea on the wraparound veranda, for starters.

the jeffersons'

Most visitors to Charlottesville come here with one destination in mind: Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson. And now some who hadn't thought of visiting—those who knew Monticello only as the building on the tails side of the nickel—may have had their interest piqued by the new DNA evidence that Jefferson did in fact father a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

I went to Jefferson's house (it's "mon-ti-chel-lo," by the way—Italian for "little mountain") last spring, before the findings were revealed, and although the Hemings story was referred to in literature there, no one in my tour group broached the subject. Guides have since made the matter part of their presentations.

The building's entrance is on its tree-obscured, less photogenic east end; the five-cent view is actually of the back. You may consider yourself an avid reader, but in the library you'll hear how Jefferson suffered from what he described as "bibliomania." A friend once wrote to him asking if he knew of anything good to read; Jefferson recommended 488 books and suggested the best time of day to read each one. His bed was built into the wall between his study and the bedroom so he could get up on either side and work right away if he chose to.

Walk west down Mulberry Row, where most of the slave quarters were located (none of them remain), past the vegetable garden, to what is literally the final stop—the graveyard. Jefferson's grave is covered by an obelisk; the other stones are those of his descendants. Well, not all of them, apparently—it's still being determined whether the cemetery will admit the newly discovered leaves on Jefferson's family tree.

Monticello Thomas Jefferson Pkwy. (Rte. 53); 804/984-9822.

reel me in

Keep your tricornered hat on after a morning at Monticello and head to the Michie Tavern (683 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy.; 804/977-1234; lunch for two $20), a Colonial Revival landmark established in 1784 by Scotsman William Michie (pronounced like "Mickey"). It now provides a glimpse of daily life in the 18th century. Lunch is served on metal plates in the rustic Ordinary tavern; ordinary could also describe the traditional Southern selection—fried chicken, black-eyed peas—but, luckily, not the taste. Afterward, take a tour and learn the Virginia reel. The first tip I got from guide Bea Keaton: "Keep looking into my eyes." Since the dancing of that era wasn't exactly salacious (seen any of the recent Jane Austen films?), eye contact allowed partners to flirt while spinning across the floor. Three twirls, two promenades, and a do-si-do later—with a bow and curtsy to finish—I felt like Mr. Darcy to her Elizabeth Bennet.

where to eat

Clifton 1296 Clifton Inn Dr.; 804/971-1800; dinner for two $116. Once you've assembled with the other diners in the sitting room for cocktails, chef Rachel Greenberg will describe the prix fixe menu in a whirlwind of cooking terms: a reduction of this, a demiglace of that, caramelized something-or-other. She'll also lay down the ground rules: Always feel free to ask for seconds, and to visit her in the kitchen. No matter what she's cooked up—Chilean sea bass, roasted bison rib-eye, hazelnut cheesecake—you'll want to take her up on her offer for more.

Métropolitain 214 W. Water St.; 804/977-1043; dinner for two $70. The hippest scene in town, from the unassuming white-brick exterior, to the saffron-and-black interior, to the black-clad waiters. The ceviche martini appetizer is citrusy, the pheasant stuffed with boudin blanc a perfect mix of spicy and savory. Testifying to the quality of the cooking is regular John Grisham, who takes doggie bags home to his nearby ranch.

C&O Restaurant 515 E. Water St.; 804/971-7044; dinner for two $55. Don't let the Pepsi sign fool you—this onetime diner is far from a soda shop. Downstairs, a lively bar caters to a crowd of after-work revelers. On the rustic main level and the ultracivilized second floor, the setting changes altogether: low light, hushed tones, clinking wine glasses. Start with prosciutto, spinach, and chèvre baked in a phyllo crust, and follow it with pan-fried rainbow trout under shiitake mushrooms and pine nuts.

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.

the horse whimperer

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.

the un-mall

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.

on the vines

"Wine being among the earliest luxuries in which we indulge ourselves," wrote a certain president, "it is desirable it should be made here." And so it is: there are 22vineyards scattered about the Piedmont, a handful of which are within sniffing distance of C-ville.

Jefferson Vineyards (1353 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy.; 804/977-3042) makes for a fitting start. The facilities are bare-bones, but you'll find an array of reds (such as Cabernet Franc), whites (Riesling, dry or sweet), and wine-related gifts in its shop and tasting room.

Wines from Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery (1486 Oakencroft Lane; 804/296-4188) land on many a local menu. In a farmhouse next to a goose-dabbled lake, this is for those who'd like a picnic with their Chardonnay.

White Hall Vineyards (5184 Sugar Ridge Rd., White Hall; 804/823-8615) is the winery as Tuscan villa, with landscaped paths and splashing fountains. Tony and Edith Champ are in the process of expanding it to more than 50 acres, and there's reason for the grand plans. White Hall's 1997 Gewürztraminer won the Governor's Cup last year as the best wine in Virginia, the second straight win for the vineyard.

candid campus

Only a handful of college campuses can be considered destinations in and of themselves, and the University of Virginia is without a doubt among them.

Any tour (and these are historical and architectural tours, not there's-the-dining-hall ones for prospective students) starts at the Rotunda and the adjacent Academical Village, which were designed by—guess who?—Thomas Jefferson. The Rotunda is a half-scale version of the Pantheon in Rome; Time critic Robert Hughes called its dome room "the most beautiful room in America." Downstairs there's an exhibition on UVA's 174-year history, highlighting alumni from Edgar Allan Poe to Woodrow Wilson to Katie Couric.

Outside the Rotunda lies the colonnaded Academical Village, Jefferson's homage to Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The village comprises 10 pavilions, five on each side of a lush, tiered lawn. Many believe Jefferson's design takes perspective into account: the distance between pavilions becomes greater as you walk south from the Rotunda, so that when you stand on the Rotunda's steps, the pavilions appear to be equally spaced. Each of the pavilions—which serve as faculty housing—is unique; connecting them are dorm rooms for accomplished fourth-year undergrads (Jefferson loathed the word seniors). It might feel voyeuristic to read the messages scrawled on the doors' dry-erase boards, but this is after all a college, not a Greek temple.

Beyond the two arms of the village are the two "ranges," where you can easily spend hours strolling the gardens. Check out No. 13 West Range, the room where Poe stayed in the 1820's. Through a glass-covered doorway, you can see what the space would have looked like then—although the statue of a raven perched on the windowsill is surely a later addition. Press a button on the door frame and you'll hear the faint sounds of a heartbeat coming from beneath the floorboards (actually, it's a narration about Poe's life, but wouldn't it be better the other way?). A plaque at No. 31 marks the former room of President Wilson. Katie Couric's room has yet to be memorialized.

University of Virginia For tour information, call 804/924-7969.

down on the corner

The hub of off-campus life, the Corner is really more of a bend in the road lined with shops and restaurants (both pizza-happy and parent-worthy). Those with a need for tweed should stop at Eljo's (3 Elliewood Ave.; 804/295-5230). The Biltmore Grill (16 Elliewood Ave.; 804/293-6700; lunch for two $15) has a wisteria-covered patio; the burgers taste better alfresco. At the Espresso Royale Caffè (1415 University Ave.; 804/923-3226), oversize velvety purple sofas and blond-wood tables sit under a higher-than-high ceiling (plenty of room to bounce off the caffeine).

let the music play

Judging by the number of establishments in Charlottesville that feature live music, you'd think that in order to get a liquor license a place must have a sensitive, guitar-strumming soul in the corner. Even Awful Arthur's, a seafood chain restaurant, holds mini-concerts—you can't accuse C-ville of a lack of range.

From April 23 to October 1, the scene gets started well before dark. For the best of the twilight life, head to the amphitheater at the east end of the Downtown Mall for the Fridays After Five concert series (804/296-8548), which starts at, that's right, 5 p.m. every Friday. A different fun-for-all-ages band plays each week.

After dusk, move over to Miller's (109 W. Main St.; 804/971-8511), if for no other reason than its claim to fame as the birthplace of the Dave Matthews Band, the folksy rock group beloved by many a backward-baseball-cap-wearing student. Matthews, a South African expat, was tending bar here in the mid-80's when he hooked up with the jazz combo playing up front. So get a good look at your server, and remember that face.

A couple of blocks east on the Mall is the Moondance Café (201 E. Main St.; 804/984-3933)—if it's a marvelous night, take advantage of the plentiful outdoor seating. Sip a Moondance Martini, notable for its "Big Damn Olive." The bartender told me he'd keep the place open as long as there were still paying customers. (I didn't test him on that.)

Your choices expand closer to campus. The Blue Ridge Brewing Co. (709 W. Main St.; 804/977-0017) is a first-rate microbrewery, with a late-night menu and—hey!—live music. The Piney River Lager is one of the finest red beers I've ever tasted, rightly advertised as having Vollmundigkeit, or a full-bodied feel. In a rough-and-tumble mood?You could do worse than the Outback Lodge (917 Preston Ave.; 804/979-7211). It's not really Australian-themed; rather, it's "out in back" of a gas station. Pool tables and a beer-swilling crowd add to the ambiance.

Differing mainly in the music they play host to, Max and Trax (122 11th St. S.W.; 804/295-6299 and 804/295-8729) are cavernous nightclubs under one roof. The former is prime country-and-western turf, where you can two-step the night away; the latter is the city's main space for national rock and alternative bands, where you can mosh—or mope—the night away.

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