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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 "We’re beautiful!" and "We’re historic!" But after spending a fair amount of time in Virginia, I’ve come to the conclusion that, well, they’re 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" – you’ll 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. He’s 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. There’s 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 Jefferson’s 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 two-for-one.

A big part of any Monticello tour is somebody in the group hassling the poor tour guide with the question, "Didn’t Jefferson sleep with one of his slaves?" Their standard response is, "Most scholars now believe he didn’t." I also asked about Jefferson growing hemp there, and the response was, "Yes, but they wouldn’t 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, Monroe’s 550-acre estate, is open for tours, too. In a way, it’s 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 that’s 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 family’s belongings out onto the lawn, including the dining table and the punch bowl, and kept right on partying while the house burned down.

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 heaven’s 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 it’s a cultural mecca.

But it’s in the spring that the mountains turn green, the waterfalls are most happening, the wildflowers are all over the Shenandoah, the tourist hordes haven’t 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.

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