At first glance, Virginia seems to be a pretty arrogant place.
It keeps calling itself the "cradle of democracy" and the "birthplace
of presidents," and it practically slaps you in the face with
cries of "Were beautiful!" and "Were historic!" But after spending
a fair amount of time in Virginia, Ive come to the conclusion
that, well, theyre right. Virginia is a great place to vacation,
for lots of reasons, and Charlottesville is about as good a spot
as there is to explore it from.|
First and foremost in Charlottesville, there is "Mister Jefferson."
What Elvis is to Memphis, Thomas Jefferson is to Charlottesville,
and just about everything in the area relates to him one way or
another. He founded and designed the University of Virginia, which
is about the nicest campus excuse me, "grounds" youll ever
see. He lived right outside of town, just up the road from James
Madison and James Monroe and all three houses are still there.
He designed and planted a forest, also still there, for his own
personal retreat. Hes called the "Father of Virginia Wines,"
and about two dozen wineries carry on the tradition.
Jefferson was a statesman, philosopher, scientist, writer, musician,
astronomer, gardener, and gadgethead. Think about it "Jeffersonian"
is in the dictionary. His house, Monticello, is full of devices
and historical goodies, as well as many of the original furnishings.
He died in the house on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of
the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the same day
as John Adams, and the bed he died in is still there. A monstrous
set of elk antlers hangs over the entrance lobby, sent back from
the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805, as do large maps showing
large, unexplored areas where Colorado and Wyoming are now. Theres
a massive clock in the lobby that tells the time and the day of
the week. When they built the house they messed up on measurements
for the clock, so late in the week the weights drop down into
the basement. My favorite gadget was Jeffersons prototype "copy"
machine a pen with another pen attached to it by a device that
makes pen #2 follow exactly the movements of pen #1, so you write
A big part of any Monticello tour is somebody in the group hassling
the poor tour guide with the question, "Didnt Jefferson sleep
with one of his slaves?" Their standard response is, "Most scholars
now believe he didnt." I also asked about Jefferson growing hemp
there, and the response was, "Yes, but they wouldnt have smoked
it." Right like Jefferson would write in his diary about how
he got all toked up, ran through the slaves quarters real quick,
and then worked on the Declaration.
Ash Lawn-Highland, Monroes 550-acre estate, is open for tours,
too. In a way, its cooler than Monticello, because it has people
acting out life on the farm in the old days weaving and cooking
and gardening and whatnot. Like many tourist things in Virginia,
it can get hokey, but the reality behind it makes up.
The Charlottesville area is loaded with houses and churches and
other buildings dating to the 18th century, so anybody interested
in such things would be in heaven there. You can also tour a few
Civil War battlefields within an hour or so. The Michie Tavern,
up near Monticello, is a touristy place thats worth visiting,
anyway, if only for the chance to have a beer in a place that
was built in 1784. A whopping lunch is served by people in period
garb, and then everybody is invited to participate in "18th-century
activities, including a lively Virginia dance." Or so the brochure
says I had the food and beer and then escaped.
If there are any drinking archaeologists among you, check out
the Barboursville Ruins and Vineyard. These are the remains of
a Jeffersonian-era home which was destroyed by fire, and the excavation
is ongoing. The local legend says the Barbours were having a big
party when a fire broke out. The guests helped move most of the
familys belongings out onto the lawn, including the dining table
and the punch bowl, and kept right on partying while the house
For my money, all this history and culture is well and good, but
what I recommend most highly about Virginia is spending some serious
time outdoors. Shenandoah National Park is less than an hour from
Charlottesville, with 300 square miles of hiking, fishing, camping,
biking, driving, and relaxation. The Appalachian Trail goes through
there, as does a wondrous thing called Skyline Drive. The latter
drives right through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley and is
almost as breathtaking as the Blue Ridge Parkway, which just happens
to be less than an hour from Charlottesville as well.
So start planning a trip to Virginia, and plan it for the spring
and for heavens sake, drive there. The place is jumping with
wine festivals then, and in May they have the Virginia Festival
of the Book. Charlottesville claims to be third in the country
in book sales per capita and heck, John Grisham lives there,
so we know its a cultural mecca.
But its in the spring that the mountains turn green, the waterfalls
are most happening, the wildflowers are all over the Shenandoah,
the tourist hordes havent shown up yet, and the summer heat is
still on its way. Just thinking about getting back to Virginia
actually makes the winter seem a little bit shorter.