John Denver was right. That given, Virginia’s country roads are home to many a happy southerner and to some of the best places to visit any time of the year. Though it isn’t my home nor was I reminded of a “home far away”, I sang that song loud and proud a few days ago as I drove the wonder that is the Blue Ridge Parkway in central western Virginia.
I know what you are saying at this point, especially if you are a John Denver fan . . . the song says, “West Virginia!” No slight to Virginia’s northwestern neighbor who has all but adopted the song as their unofficial anthem, but the only place I know of where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Shenandoah River is in the central western part of the lush, rich, and inviting state of Virginia. And, in this writer’s opinion, the starting point to see this wonder is via the sprawling city that lies in the foothills of those Blue Ridge Mountains: Charlottesville.
It’s hard to say whether Charlottesville, Virginia http://www.visitcharlottesville.org is more enchanting or historic. Perhaps the words of the 3rd President of the United States of America can mediate. Of Charlottesville (Albemarle County) Jefferson once said, “On the whole I find nothing any where else in point of climate which Virginia need envy to any part of the world . . .” (http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/quotations-albemarle-county).
I can almost hear the founding fathers singing the John Denver ditty at this point – can you? Speaking of the founding fathers of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe all hail from this treasure that lies very near the birthplace of America. Some might contend that Albemarle County is the cradle that nurtured those founding fathers for so many years. A visit to each of their homes will attest to their individual love of this part of the United States. For Jefferson, Monticello http://www.monticello.org was his home.
Not as up on your US History as you’d like to admit? Pull a US nickel out of your pocket and flip it in the air. Catch. Reveal. Chances are 50-50 you are now looking at the US Mint’s rendition of Monticello. Similar chance that you are looking at the Author of the US Declaration of Independence who made that house a home for 56 of the 83 years of his life. Truth is, Jefferson would often have to take leave of Monticello while serving the United States in various capacities (including two presidential terms, one VP stint, Secretary of State, US Ambassador to Europe and delegate in the Continental Congress) but he certainly always considered Monticello his the home for which he longed.
Our trip to Jefferson’s home was wonderful. There are various self-guided tours (garden, cemetery, slavery at Monticello etc.) and a short film we’d highly recommend, but the tour of the house itself is not to be missed. Be sure to book/buy early and arrive in enough time to take in the ambience of this historical gem.
Not far from Monticello, indeed, just down the mountain, James Monroe’s more practical and unassuming Ash Lawn – Highland Estate http://www.ashlawnhighland.org can be found. Home to the fifth President of the United States, Highland is well worth a stop. Within the descent of the same mountain, one can also visit MichieTavern http://www.michietavern.com where it is touted that for some 200+ years folks have been coming for food, drink and lodging. A time-period meal is available for those who desire to eat as the founding fathers may have eaten. We skipped along to a more current invite of eats at the Carter Mountain Orchard http://www.cartermountainorchard.com where we enjoyed fresh cider (apple and donut peach), preserves and baked delights. The views of the valley below are, in themselves, reason alone for the ascent atop the orchard. Apples to the right, grape vines to the front, and rolling foliage-filled rows of orchard everywhere you turn. Don’t miss this easily neglected favorite.
Once down from Jefferson’s “little mountain”, we stopped downtown Charlottesville for a continuation of historical mixed with a hint of modern. Lunch at Brixx http://brixxpizza.com/locations/charlottesville for their wood-fired pizza (try the Pear Gorgonzola or Rustica for the advanced palate) was followed by a jaunt through Historic Charlottesville. Earlier, much as Jefferson himself had done during its construction, we’d caught a glimpse of the Rotunda at UVA (University of Virginia) from the back deck of Monticello. It was a treat to now climb its steps, take in its library and bask in the history of this well-crafted edifice. Outside its doors we walked past the Poe bedroom (dorm room for Edgar Allen Poe during the years in which he’d written his famed narrative poem, “The Raven”). We enjoyed the old churches, statues and various remnants of the Jeffersonian Era. UVA has done much to both preserve their deep rooted history and yet move comfortably into the now. UVA is a magnet for concerts and arts/film festivals, UVA boasts elite sports teams (having won 20 NCAA Championships in various sports) and is regularly ranked high among top schools for various aspects of higher learning and research.
Freeing from UVA campus, we saved enough room for eats at another of Charlottesville’s epic eateries – The Virginian thevirginiancville.com. Their Stumble Down Mac N Cheese with fried potato cake is legendary.
We also tried our hand at, and savored, their Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Coupled with our burgers and sandwiches, our light summer’s meal was truly a joy at this historic yet modern restaurant. Further, one would be crazy not to indulge in their Farmhouse Apple Cake.
Speaking of cake . . . knowing we’d be soon leaving Charlottesville, we took a local tip and stopped at Hot Cakes http://www.hotcakes.biz for our carb fix for the next few days. Their Hot Cake’s Best Coffee Cake, Peach Frangipane and Fresh Fruit Tarts, Napoleons, Cheesecakes and Cupcakes were both buttery and decadent. Somehow we escaped without Brandi letting me talk her into the Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray (Celery) Soda – my one regret. (Personal Aside: Curse you Perry Montoya! Who are you if not a lapper of celery soda when faced with the chance?) We’ll be back to this bakery-gone-bananas haunt on our return trip.
Charlottesville, Virginia truly is the both a prime destination as well as a central, jumping-off point for any southern or even eastern seaboard vacation. Within a little over 2 hours north and east, Washington DC, Jamestown, Historic Williamsburg, the Chesapeake Bay (including Virginia Beach) can be reached. Head the same time/distance south and southwest and you’ll be in any of a number of state parks, the City of Lexington (home of the Virginia Military Institute as well as resting place for both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson), or even be amidst such natural wonders as Natural Bridge http://www.naturalbridgeva.com in Rockbridge County.
Take me home, country roads . . . home to Charlottesville, Virginia and its down-home, warm-southern, history-rich, cutting-edge goodness.
Perry Montoya, M.Ed., Husb., D.a.d., is a former banker and medical marketing and sales professional who left the business world behind to tackle a career in teaching while moonlighting as a traveler, writer and public speaker. His passion for people and travel can be found in his writing.
“Travel exposes you to a nation or region. Where you stay while there introduces you to people. Food welcomes, cements, reminds and endears you to their culture. Individuals you “chance” to meet sculpt your life and leave you changed. WHAT YOU WRITE about the aforementioned is a piece of who you are and an invitation to come along. The sands that adorn my office wall (from over 400 worldwide locations) are as eclectic as the stories that come with them. I’ve lived in 39 homes, reinvented myself again and again and yet remain the curious, accepting, convicted and compelled boy-gone-man that drives each new adventure.”
Perry currently resides in SLC, Utah with wife Brandi and their three children. He can be reached with questions/comments at email@example.com