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By: Jonathan Boydston, Guest Blogger
When I first moved to the East Coast, history seemed to present itself all around me.
Walking out of the cheap suburban motel outside of Washington where I spent my first night, I spotted a small historical marker lying discreetly along the clogged highway. Upon closer inspection, the marker briefly recounted how, on that spot nestled between my motel and a used car dealership, the first confederate soldier shed his blood for his country.
Being a bit of a history buff, I couldn’t help but feel transported back to 1860’s Northern Virginia, and for a brief second I completely forgot about the multitudes of commuters drudging through traffic next to me.
There are times, though, when to appreciate the history of a place you really need to leave the congestion of our modern cities and search instead for those destinations that offer both history and scenery to match.
Charlottesville, VA and the surrounding Piedmont region offers just that and more: remarkable history, breathtaking scenery, a dining scene that blends upscale with down home and boutique inns that make for a uniquely charming getaway for your family.
The jewel of the historical sites around Charlottesville, and the first stop on many visitors’ itineraries, is Thomas Jefferson’s elegant hilltop home of Monticello. The fact that the home and plantation of our third president and the drafter of the Declaration of Independence is so beloved is a testament to the fact that Jefferson himself saw Monticello as much more than a place to live. Here he dabbled in everything from architecture and engineering to horticulture and wine making, all the while constructing and modifying a home that was in many ways before its time.
Be sure to make a reservation for your tour, especially during weekends, and arrive a few minutes early so you have time to take the short ride from the visitor center to the main house.
After your visit to Monticello, make the short trip down the road to the historic Michie Tavern to experience southern classics like fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits offered up by servers dressed in period attire. The oldest sections of the tavern also offer a fascinating look into life in Jefferson’s Virginia, and the interactive tours are great for the kids.
A short drive from Monticello, amongst the rolling hills at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies the elegant and charismatic Clifton Inn. The 17 rooms and suites, lying on 100 beautiful acres of Virginia countryside, will provide a refined yet relaxed backdrop to your Charlottesville getaway. After strolling down to the private lake and enjoying afternoon tea, be sure to enjoy the masterful creations of chef Tucker Yoder in one of the dining rooms or at the Chef’s Counter, where guests can experience local and seasonal plates inside of the stylish kitchen.
While Jefferson’s Monticello may be the biggest draw amongst the historical sites of Charlottesville, this area of Virginia was also home to two of our other early presidents, James Madison and James Monroe. Both Madison’s Montpelier estate, and Monroe’s Ash Lawn – Highland home are open to the public, and both are well worth a visit. Monroe’s Ash Lawn – Highland is a simple three mile drive from Monticello, and visitors can purchase the Presidents Pass at Michie Tavern for entrance to the Tavern museum, Ash Lawn – Highland and the general tour at Monticello.
While some may be tempted to stay closer to Monticello and Charlottesville, the 30 mile drive through the Virginia wine country to James Madison’s Montpelier should not be skipped. Unlike Monticello, Montpelier has only recently undergone extensive renovations and archeological exploration, leaving visitors able to experience an interactive side of history that is especially appropriate for families.
After your tour of the house, grab a hiking map and set off into the towering oak forests open to the public throughout the property, or settle down to a picnic on one of the expansive lawns. Afterwards, be sure to take the family down the hill from the house to the archeology lab, where staff will gladly show off some of their recent finds from the grounds. During the summer of 2013, families who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty will even have a chance to participate in a ‘Father-Daughter Archeology Dig’ with staff.
While in the Montpelier area, make sure to stop by Barbeque Exchange in nearby Gordonsville, where Craig Hartman, a classically trained chef with a background in fine dining, serves up an array of perfectly cooked barbeque, sides and sweets that is well worth the trip.
What Charlottesville lacks in size it more than makes up for in character and history. The next time you consider taking your family to see the great historical sights of our nation, consider making the trip to the Virginia Piedmont, a place where nature, history and culture meet.
Jonathan Boydston lives in Washington, DC