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Virginia's Historic Charlottesville
On your approach to Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, you'll gaze down on one of America's most historic landscapes, where gardens, vineyards and venerable country estates dot rolling hills and woodlands. On one hilltop, you'll spot an elegant, white-domed Palladian villa that mysteriously arrived from northern Italy and materialized here in the hills of central Virginia. That will be Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's beloved estate, where he lived from 1770 until his death in 1826, through a career as author of the Declaration of Independence, secretary of state, minister to France and third president of the U.S. And, as you'll soon discover, Charlottesville remains Jefferson's town; his influence continues to set the style and pace for this small, graceful city with a countryside drenched in culture and history.
Start your visit to Charlottesville on the University of Virginia campus, the Academical Village that Jefferson founded and designed in 1819. Wander along The Lawn, a grassy esplanade flanked by the columned student and faculty residences of Jefferson's original campus. Presiding over The Lawn is the stately, white-domed Rotunda, which once housed the university library and lecture halls. Modeled after Rome's Pantheon, it has been recognized, along with Monticello, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting it in the same category as such other international treasures as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.
Take a few minutes to explore the historic walled gardens behind each pavilion, then head to the nearby University Art Museum, a trove of everything from Asian art to French modernists. Afterward, follow Main Street to the city's Downtown Mall, once the town's traditional business district, but now a bustling, tree-lined pedestrian island with al fresco cafés, local artisans selling their wares and early 20th century storefronts hosting trendy 21st century boutiques, restaurants and galleries.
Although the Mall has enough shops to keep you and your plastic fully occupied, don't miss Caspari, the only U.S. branch of the Parisian boutique famed for its stylish paper products and hyper-fashionable housewares, and the Signet Gallery, with its vibrant mix of posh jewelry and gifts. The Mall also boasts a lively collection of contemporary art galleries, including the Sage Moon, where you'll find an eclectic assortment of artists and artisanry from Toledo to Tuscany, and Les Yeux du Monde, with works by local and international artists. Book lovers will want to poke through browse-worthy bookshops like Daedalus and Read it Again, Sam. And since this is the heart of Virginia wine country, a visit to Tastings for an introduction to the area's top vintages is mandatory.
Next you'll want to drive through the hills above Charlottesville to pay your respects to Mr. Jefferson at Monticello, which features abundant evidence of his towering intellect-his collections of books and scientific instruments, his personally designed furniture, the dumbwaiter (which he invented) and even the classic architecture of the mansion itself. After your tour, stop by the house's South Garden and vineyard. That's where Jefferson-convinced that Virginia could produce wines as fine as those he loved in France-planted America's first European vines, prompting Nathan Hale to grumble that his fellow revolutionary had returned from Paris so "Frenchified" that he had "abjured his native victuals."
Working from Jefferson's exhaustive household records and his Garden Book, horticulturalists have painstakingly restored his 1807 vineyard, the first terroir of American wine, where vines twined around split-rail trellises overlook the serene panorama of wooded hills and tidy farms that reminded Jefferson of Burgundy. "Jefferson's vineyard made Monticello the birthplace of modern American winemaking," said Gabriele Rausse, Monticello's current winemaker and its assistant director of gardens and grounds. "It's also a perfect example of the Virginia wine country's ancient roots in American history and of Charlottesville's enviable lifestyle."
Although Virginia winemaking still goes hand in hand with America's past, contemporary techniques and attitudes have radically changed the way vintners view their craft and brought a new excellence and even international recognition to the state's wines. Do your own field testing by sampling a silky Petit Verdot or a citrusy Viognier and other terrific 21st century Virginia wines at Jefferson Vineyards, just down the Thomas Jefferson Parkway from Monticello.
You'll then follow Route 53 to another Presidential home, Ash Lawn-Highland, the often-overlooked estate of James Monroe, who purchased this plantation property in 1793 to be near his friend Jefferson. There's a time-warp feel to Monroe's house, where a dining room table surrounded by chairs from his White House is set as if awaiting his return, perhaps from a visit to Monticello. And in the Presidential drawing room, the cabinets, clock and chairs imported from Napoleon's France reflect Monroe's galloping Francophilia, a souvenir of his days as the American minister in Paris.
To call on the area's third President and visit another top winery, follow state Route 20, one of those back roads that mark the difference between mere driving and motoring, past the imposing homes and manicured pastures of Virginia's tony horse country, to Montpelier, the stately residence of James and Dolley Madison. During your tour of Montpelier you'll see Madison's impressive drawing room, with its Gilbert Stuart portraits of the Founding Fathers, and the meticulous archeological sleuthing that is guiding the estate's ongoing restoration. The tour ends in Montpelier's library, where Madison drafted what became the U.S. Constitution.
A few minutes away, you'll enter Barboursville Vineyards and Historic Ruins, a unique enclave dedicated to fine living and great wines. Start out in the tasting room by sampling some of Italian winemaker Luca Paschina's vintages, especially the opulent Cabernet Franc Reserve. The "Historic Ruins" in Barboursville's name are the remains of the 1814 plantation home of Governor James Barbour, a close friend of Jefferson, who designed the house for him. Fire gutted the house in 1884 and it was never rebuilt; only the massive columns and walls, which appear on every Barboursville label, were spared.
Adjoining the ruins, visitors live an elegant lifestyle amid antiques and oil paintings in the five luminous cottages and suites that comprise Barboursville's 1804 Inn. In Barboursville's five-star Palladio restaurant, which features northern Italian cuisine, open a bottle of Octagon, a sumptuous blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, and ponder Jefferson's remark after planting his vineyard: "By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt." That's saying a lot, especially these days.
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (A+): Charlottesville itself offers a full range of lodging options, including many well-known hotel chains. In the hills around the city, you'll find high-end country inns and resorts, many with health spas and exercise facilities.
Food (A+): For a small city, Charlottesville has a surprisingly cosmopolitan array of excellent restaurants, serving everything from French to fusion. Of course, you can
also find classic Southern dishes such as black-eyed peas and fried chicken.
Activities (A): Wine tasting and vineyard touring are high on the list. But Charlottesville also has trails for hiking and biking, including the Saunders-Monticello Trail, which begins near the visitor center at Monticello. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, about a half-hour est of town, you'll find even more challenging hikes, while the Blue Ridge Parkway is perfect for a sightseeing drive, especially for autumn-leaf peeping. There are plenty of fishing, canoeing and kayaking possibilities on the nearby James River.
Quietude (A): In town, the atmosphere is low key, relaxed and never noisy.
If you stay outside Charlottesville, you'll find so much silence and serenity you'll almost be able to hear the grapes grow.
Traveler Fast Facts:
What it is: A town of 40,000 steeped in American history. Perched in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville is the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, who lived at nearby Monticello, his hilltop estate.
Where it is: In central Virginia, 100 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and 60 miles northwest of Richmond, Va.
Ambiance: Although it was one of colonial America's earliest political and intellectual centers, Charlottesville is no period piece. As the home of a prominent and historic university, it has a lively, college-town feel. And even after 300 years, Jefferson's legacy of elegance, fine living and academic achievement lives on in Charlottesville's mellow, distinctly Southern lifestyle.
History: In Colonial times, Charlottesville's fertile lands and equable climate attracted tobacco growers, followed by landed gentry who established large plantations. The most influential of these was Jefferson, who used his estate as a showcase for his inventions and his agricultural experiments with fruits, vegetables and grapes. Although Jefferson's winemaking attempt failed when disease devastated his vines in 1807, Charlottesville is today the center of a thriving wine district.
Flying In: Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (CHO), eight miles north of town, has a 6,001-foot runway and jet-A fuel. For more information, visit www.gocho.com. Landmark Aviation (434-978-1474, www.landmarkaviation.com) furnishes ground support.
Where to Stay
Boar's Head Inn, actually a 573-acre estate, has a championship golf course, tennis courts and a spa. Lodging runs $166 to $575 per night. (434) 296-2181, www.boarsheadinn.com.
Clifton Inn is the white-pillared and now hyper-chic mansion Jefferson visited when it was his daughter's estate. Clifton's 18 rooms and suites run $365 to $695 per night. (434) 971-1800, www.cliftoninn.net.
Keswick Hall is an exquisitely furnished English manor house with a world-class
spa and golf course. Lodging costs $375 to $975 a night. (888) 778-2565, www.keswick.com.
Omni Charlottesville is on the downtown pedestrian mall. Lodging is in the $200 to $300 range. (434) 971-5500, www.omnihotels.com.
200 South Street Inn, a centrally located and charming B&B with 19 rooms, charges $160 to $320 per night. (434) 979-0200, www.southstreetinn.com.
Where to Dine
Bizou is an unassuming diner-bistro on the pedestrian mall where the chef serves up refined down-home cooking. (434) 977-1818, www.pursuecharlottesville.com/dining.
C&O Restaurant, just off the mall, gets raves for its French and American dishes. (434) 971-7044, www.candorestaurant.com.
Hamilton's, also on the mall, offers top-notch American comfort food amid a lively vibe. (434) 295-6649, www.Hamiltonsrestaurant.com.
The Kluge Estate Farm Shop is an elegantly stocked Parisian food hall where chefs prepare dishes like salmon rillette and sorrel vichyssoise, along with sumptuous desserts. Carry your "take out" to tables set under towering oaks for a memorable picnic. Kluge also offers winery tours by appointment. (434) 984-4855, www.Klugeestate.com.