By Melissa Miller, Taking the Kids Correspondent
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — After a spectacular wedding in tiny Shenandoah Valley hamlet of Crozet, we were left with a day and a half in the Charlottesville area. It wasn’t difficult to take advantage of all that Charlottesville has to offer in such a short amount of time.
We drove through Shenandoah National Park and saw spectacular views of the valley to the west. Although the leaves were not in full color yet this weekend, it still offered a stunning palette and we couldn’t have asked for nicer day hikes.
On our way back from Shenandoah, we wanted to try a few vineyards. It was getting late, and many were closed at five. As we pulled up to Barboursville Winery, near James Madison’s Montpellier, we knew they must have something else up their sleeve. Although they had typical wine tastings among olive oils and other things, they also have ruins of a pre-civil war mansion designed by Thomas Jefferson, set in picturesque gardens overlooking the nearby mountains which we enjoyed with a lovely glass of wine.
The highlight of the day was the trip to Monticello. Although we only had two hours, you could spend all day learning about the grounds, and going on the two additional tours, the Slavery Tour, giving insight to what life on the plantation was like as a slave, providing contrast to the privileged lifestyle of Jefferson and his family, and the Garden Tour, exploring the grounds and learning about the vegetation on the property. The hilltop setting provides spectacular views in all directions of the surrounding countryside while the brick mansion is packed with intricate details that highlight Thomas Jefferson’s eclectic interests and intelligence. The variety of art and artifacts that clutter the initial entryway is a surprising insight to the man and his era for most visitors expecting a boring and stuffy mansion. The tour guides were informative, friendly, and accommodated the needs and interests of all group members, including effortlessly making sure visitors in wheelchairs were able to see and learn from all that Monticello had to offer. The tour also emphasized the importance that Jefferson placed in education, with his large collection of books, the collection of busts and portraits of great thinkers, and his many state-of-the-art innovations. I was particularly impressed by his office with a polygram and a revolving book holder. Although the tours were all informative, there was much more to explore on the grounds that is self-guided. We saw the the light tunnels, the all-weather path, the smokehouse, kitchens, a slave quarter, privies, and various other work quarters that brought history to life.
We tried several restaurants around the Charlottesville area. The first was Shebeen Pub & Braai, a South African Restaurant near the center of town. New to this cuisine, we ordered the Grilled Salmon and the Peri-peri chicken. The menu showcased interesting South African food with a traditional British influence. Although the grilled meats were good, the stars of the show were the sides. We would recommend the mealie pap, similar to cheesy grits, the tasty samp and beans, and last but not least, the pub vegetables, a mixture of onions, carrots, peppers, and other veggies as a nice addition.
For breakfast, the concierge recommended the White Spot, a classic diner located across the street from the UVA campus (UVA was founded by Thomas Jefferson by the way). We sat at the counter and enjoyed coffee and hearty bacon and egg sandwiches and great conversation with the friendly grill cook, while we planned out our day.
Our last meal in Charlottesville was at Himilayan Fusion, located on the attractive pedestrian mall in the downtown area. A quiet restaurant nestled away still offers outdoor seating. Eight dollars gets you a hearty all-you-can-eat lunch buffet with a variety of vegetable curries and chicken tandoori. I would also recommend the carrot pudding for a sweet treat. The surrounding shops and restaurants offer something for everyone. We found just what we needed in a local bookshop, but there were countless other interesting stores, shops, coffee houses, and restaurants with a bustling crowd enjoying the weather and ambiance.
The car needed to be returned earlier than we were willing to leave, so I am actually writing this from a picnic area outside the Charlottesville airport, which, as far as airports go, still offers a beautiful outdoor area to enjoy this gorgeous fall weather. If we could come back, we would make sure to spend time at Montpillier, and explore the UVA campus, especially the buildings designed by Jefferson. Any drive through the scenic country side will yield countless other wineries and cider mills, so we would spend more time adventuring into those places as well.