The back of a nickel doesn’t do the place justice.
In visiting Monticello, I was expecting the American version of Versailles. But Thomas Jefferson’s home, even with 21 rooms on three floors, seemed pretty small. Maybe I expected more because the creator of something no less revolutionary than the Declaration of Independence is so rightfully massive in legend.
Monticello was just one of the many delights of discovery I found in Virginia recently, a place I’d never really explored, including a great new brew pub, wineries, a whopping walking mall in upscale Charlottesville, kayaking, white-water rafting and terrific places to eat and stay.
At Monticello, they don’t skirt the unpleasant issue of Jefferson owning slaves, nor the fact he fathered children with one of them, Sally Hemmings, after his own wife died. They address it as part of the overall tour of Monticello, which Jefferson designed.
Here, you’ll find a new visitor center that opened in 2009, a marvelous, dark-wooded 40,000-square-foot center, with shops, museum and a pleasant common area, the whole thing earning LEED Gold certification, one of a handful of visitor centers in the U.S. to do so. Monticello itself is the only house in America designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jefferson’s house is an amazing look into the mind of an American genius, including the foyer where a cannon-ball weighted clock of his design still keeps time. Also here is a precise 1802 map of the United States, created by his father, later made obsolete with the Louisiana Purchase, another Thomas Jefferson accomplishment.
In a tiny family room, our guide talked of Jefferson burying a wife and five of six children, having his surviving child’s family move in, how this space doubled as a schoolroom. Jefferson didn’t believe in equal education for women, we were told, but educated his daughters because, he said, “they have a one in 14 chance of marrying a blockhead.”
We then walked through Jefferson’s bedroom, where he died on the Fourth of July, 1826 – 50 years after the signing of the declaration, and on the same day his great and good friend and fellow revolutionary, John Adams, died.
In his study are more things Jefferson, who in his retirement founded the University of Virginia as “my last act of usefulness,” he famously said, including the polygraph he created, a tandem-pen system that created duplicate letters as he wrote the originals. And Jefferson was a man of letters, having written more than 19,000 in his time.
The iconic dome atop Monticello is off limits to most visitors, but available for special behind-the-scenes tours, used in its day for storage and a children’s play area. The grounds around the home are spectacular, and tours are available there as well, including one highlighting the life of slaves.
There’s also a pretty significant food scene in Virginia. One great eatery that opened last summer, Tavern on the James, is tucked away in tiny Scottsville, where musician Dave Matthews lives nearby, his farm located across from Donald Trump’s winery. At the tavern, I had an amazing sweet-potato fries dish served with vanilla ice cream dip and a Captain Morgan-infused butterscotch sauce, a most unique creation.
Another can’t miss spot is The Whiskey Jar in Charlottesville, where I got a whopping shrimp-and-grits, and a peach cobbler for dessert that was more pie than cobbler. But this was the place for it, as peaches were coming into season, and it was loaded with fat, sweet slices of fruit.
Over in Leesburg, I had dinner one night at The Wine Kitchen, a place all about local wine, including cards that explain the flights of wine you can sample, with vintage information and thoughts on each, such as a red from nearby Tarara Winery being “as fresh and vibrant as the first strawberries of the year.” Speaking of which, they also serve a unique fried strawberry shortcake dessert here, if you have room after meals like the “Mussels Creole,” a blend of crawfish, chorizo and stone-ground grits.
A great new brew pub opened up Labor Day weekend 2012 and has been going gangbusters ever since, said Chris Kyle, who with business partner Dustin Caster, created James River Brewing in Scottsville, churning out 30 barrels of brew a month, and now in the process of ramping it up commercially with 500, with distributors lined up for sales regionally.
“Craft beer has come a long way,” said the tall, lean Kyle, adding about the proliferation of such brewers “it’s like an army of ants, step on one, there’s 20 more right behind them. We can’t make enough beer.”
Easy to see why. They sell an amazing assortment here in a tiny space where music is regularly featured, including a heady, fruity pint of Flavanna Fluss, a Hefeweizen with tropical and citrus taste, paired with banana notes of German yeast.
The place has a curved-plank bar with blue lights above and no booths, forcing you “to talk to the people around you,” Kyle said. Out back is a gravel seating area and small stage, as well as soapstone benches from local quarries, and a fire pit, all nestled beside Mink Creek that ambles behind it.
For your recreational needs, check out James River Reeling and Rafting, a Scottsville outfitter where you can take tube, canoe or kayaking trips down the James River. A buddy and I did a leisurely four-mile kayak trip, marveling at the gentle, wide river, treated to the occasional site of a majestic blue heron sitting on a rock. At the company headquarters, you’re likely to be greeted by Wellington, a friendly silver-backed great dane who’s always up for a scratch of his giant head.
I also took in a white-water rafting trip one day over at Harpers Ferry Adventure Center in Purcellville, a guided three-hour trip down the Potomac in an inflatable raft that was a blast, not terribly difficult but just enough so in spots to ensure our total soaking. It’s a great way to see rural Virginia, our guide pointing out spots of local interest along the historic river, and at the end, stopping long enough for us to jump in for a swim.
And expect the unexpected: We spotted a fat snake sunning on a rock, with colored belly, and wondered what it was, prompting our guide to shrug, “Don’t know, never seen that one before.” Wisely, we moved on.
Wine lovers should check out the abundant Virginia vineyards, including Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, a 404-acre estate with more than 100 of them planted in 18 different grape varieties, nestled between hills and extending up Short Hill Mountain, affording vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another is Tarara Winery in Leesburg, specializing in single vineyard blends showcasing each of their offerings and the best of the state’s varietals like Viognier, a winery in the Catoctin foothills with 475 acres of Potomac River front property.
For a different fruit, hit apple-centric Carter Mountain just outside Charlottesville, with 360-degree views of the city on one side, distant Richmond on the other, a wonderful place for families to do their own picking and buy all-things apple.
If you like to shop, wander the Walking Mall in downtown Charlottesville, considered one of the finest urban parks in the country, with a wide open pedestrian area between rows of more than 120 stores, 30 restaurants and assorted entertainment venues, a tree-shrouded hot spot to cool off with lunch at ample tables scattered throughout.
This most walkable way is an ode to urban living at its most convenient, and also where you may spot author John Grisham, who has an office here. It’s also home to Miller’s, a dark bar where Dave Matthews once toiled as a bartender and befriended a University of Virginia professor who urged Matthews to follow his musical dream.
Speaking of UVA, it’s also in Charlottesville, a great place to walk in itself, home to the massive and fabled green space known as “The Lawn,” a quad where small student apartments line the sides, lush gardens behind, apartments that for years no one wanted to live in but are now so popular with upperclassmen, there’s a waiting list to get in.
To take all this in, stay in places like the historic Clifton Inn of Charlottesville, built by Thomas Mann Rudolph, a son-in-law of Thomas Jefferson. The majestic inn is a member of Relais & Chateaux, 17 antique-appointed rooms on a lush 100-acre setting in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Closer to Washington and Loudon County is the Lansdowne Resort, an AAA Four Diamond resort on championship golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones II and Greg Norman. The Lansdowne is centrally located and not far from DC’s Dulles Airport, but commuter traffic can be a nightmare, so pick your traveling spots accordingly.
Jefferson’s Monticello reigns as one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions with more than 400,000 visitors a year, but with so much else around the Virginia countryside and urban landscapes, there’s plenty more to see as well.
All photos by Paul E. Kandarian
Top to bottom: Monticello, peach cobbler at The Whiskey Jar, flight of beer at James River Brewery, kayaking on James River, The Walking Mall and The Lawn at UVA.