The ghost of Thomas Jefferson presides in the rolling hills around Charlottesville—under the eaves of Monticello, beside the slopes of Barboursville Vineyards, on horseback in the woods of Oakland Farms, and around the Rotunda of UVA. Jefferson crops up in conversation unannounced as if he wants to chime in and share his knowledge, curiosity, and passion for all the possibilities that exist in the world. You can almost hear his sage advice on how to make things better—whether it’s penning the words that announce our country’s independence, growing fruit and vegetables more efficiently, or synthesizing the lessons learned by other great men throughout history.
Jefferson’s contributions to the world are many, and on a recent trip to Charlottesville with my husband, Peter, we found ourselves constantly amazed at this Renaissance man’s vision. It also became clear that Jefferson derived great pleasure from simply living—for he wasn’t always engaged in discussions about serious matters. In fact, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were themes that he embraced in his daily life. He loved simple pleasures: playing with his grandchildren, entertaining guests, drinking wine, and riding horseback regularly. In fact, he averaged four hours in the saddle most days he was in residence at Monticello.
I love this quote of Jefferson’s: “Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.” It seems to sum up his view that bettering oneself through education is important, of course, but exercise, fresh air, and leisure activities are equally essential in order to achieve a happy life.
Peter and I resolved to follow Jefferson’s advice on our three-day getaway to Charlottesville and pursue the simple pleasures of life in this small, but worldly city just four hours to the west. It was easy to do. Charlottesville is a delightful mix of history, nature, and adventure. Add in its reputation for fine-quality lodgings and restaurants and you have the perfect recipe for a rejuvenating retreat, one of which Thomas Jefferson would surely approve.
Our visit began with a stay in the historic Clifton Inn just minutes from town. A luxurious Relais and Chateaux property, the inn was originally a private home known as Edgehill built by Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., governor of Virginia, who married Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha. Much has changed in the 200 years since Edgehill housed the Randolph family, and the current owners opened the Clifton Inn in 1995 as a five-room bed and breakfast. Today the inn comprises 18 total accommodations, including a lovely carriage house, and welcomes discerning guests to experience its richly appointed ambiance.
Our suite on the second floor offered a separate sitting room with a fireplace and lovely antiques as well as a spacious bedroom. I loved the creaky stairs and historical feel of the Clifton Inn, yet the amenities were decidedly 21st-century—think high-speed WiFi, Bose CD player, spa jet shower, and Italian bed linens. Another nice touch was a complimentary carafe of Madeira, a fortified wine popular in Jefferson’s day.
One morning we set out to explore the grounds, following a trail around a small pond. Serene settings in the surrounding woods offer the perfect backdrop for outdoor weddings—or a relaxing picnic on a warm, spring afternoon. Underneath the blooming dogwoods, you could repose with your sweetheart, a book of poetry, your favorite bottle of wine, some cheese, and while away the afternoon in bliss.
An infinity pool, a croquet lawn, and a flagstone terrace with Adirondack chairs offer other recreational pursuits, but Peter and I visited in winter, so chose to seek recreation inside by taking part in a cooking demonstration in Clifton Inn’s kitchen with Chef Tucker Yoder. Peter and I joined two other couples at a cozy bar, where we sipped wine and watched Chef create risottos using unusual ingredients.
“You don’t need to use rice when you make a risotto,” Tucker confided and proceeded to create a winter vegetable dish that had the creamy texture of risotto sans rice. He also whipped up a potato risotto with onions, garlic, vegetable stock, butter, white wine, and black truffle purée. For his finale, he created a chocolate risotto with canoroli rice and a splash of port or sweet sparkling wine. Peter and I were slightly disappointed that the demo didn’t involve tastings, but you can choose to enjoy any of the risottos for dinner in the adjoining dining room.
Instead we opted to order off the menu and proceeded to enjoy a feast of Biblical proportions. After a lavender martini—mmm—I enjoyed creamy, decadent foie gras for my first course, followed by a divers scallop accompanied by a roasted fig. Next a pasta dish with duck confit, and for dessert a deconstructed cheesecake with tart lime. Breakfast the next morning was also over-the-top. I ordered sunnyside-up eggs layered over smoked salmon with capers on a toasted English muffin with Applewood smoked bacon. Peter relished a goat cheese omelette with spinach and oyster mushrooms. Chef Tucker prides himself on the freshness of his creations and sources as much as possible locally. He even grows herbs and vegetables right outside the kitchen and can often be found tending his garden in spring and summer accompanied as often as not by one or more of his four children and, in spirit, perhaps Mr. Jefferson as well.
This wasn’t our first visit to Monticello. We’ve toured Jefferson’s home twice in the past, each time with kids in tow. Now we could relax and absorb our surroundings without worrying that one of our mischievous boys would knock over a priceless vase. In fact, Monticello is more family friendly than ever and offers kids’ activities in the visitor’s center—like a discovery room, where you can try on 18th-century clothes, and a movie about Jefferson’s life. The tour inside Monticello is fairly brief, but not recommended for kids under six. Our tour guide, David Thurson, showed us many of Jefferson’s unique inventions and brought our third president to life with stories about his grandchildren and famous visitors like the Marquis de Lafayette with whom he shared copious amounts of wine, and his love of books, music, letter writing, and languages.
Peter and I always allow time to stroll around the grounds of Monticello, admiring the tidy landscape and symmetrical layout of the main building and the dependencies. On staff at Monticello are a number of archeologists currently excavating Mulberry Row, a lane beside which craftsmen lived and labored in support of Jefferson’s household. It also became a social center for slaves and indentured servants who worked at Monticello. Efforts are currently underway to create educational exhibits about Mulberry Row and its important contributions to Jefferson’s domain.
After our tour we lunched at Michie’s Tavern, an authentic tavern established in 1784 and then moved to its present site near Monticello in 1927. The rustic building welcomes guests to dine on Midday Fare, a buffet of delicious Southern dishes that will please any palate. Choose among fried chicken, hickory-smoked BBQ, mashed potatoes and gravy—natch—stewed tomatoes, green beans, cole slaw, and of course old-fashioned desserts like pecan and apple pie. I loved the fried chicken and ate it until I couldn’t eat anymore, but everything tasted home-cooked. Cindy, the marketing director for Michie Tavern, said the recipes have been handed down for generations and the cooks in the kitchen pride themselves in the consistent quality of the food.
Allow time for touring Michie Tavern. You can choose a self-guided tour year round or an interactive living history tour from April through October. You’ll learn what it was like to stay in a tavern, and if you’re lucky, you’ll dance the Virginia Reel during the tour. There’s also great shopping at Michie Tavern: a general store housed within a grist mill and a metalsmith shop with unique jewelry and period pieces to add a historic touch to your home décor. The Clothier sells period clothing for anyone who wants to get in touch with her inner pioneer. Cindy says families are always welcome to dress up in the clothing to take a picture—no charge! I’d driven by Mitchie Tavern numerous times and was glad to experience it this visit. Besides great food, you can enjoy learning more about Virginia history in a family-friendly atmosphere.
BANANAS & CLOVES
Jefferson made beer, we learned at our next stop—an award-winning brewery called Starr Hill in nearby Crozet. The lead brewer, Levi Duncan, gave us a tour of the facility after Melanie led us in an educational tasting. In fact, Levi said, Starr Hill makes a Monticello Reserve Ale in the style Jefferson would have quaffed, using wheat and corn, lightly hopped, as opposed to barley, which didn’t grow well here.
Starr Hill started out as a brewpub in 1999 and moved to its present location in 2005. Business is good, Levi said, and in 2011 they brewed over 20,000 barrels and distribute in eight states. Their brews include stouts, IPAs, lagers, and ales. I loved the Hefeweizer, which tasted of bananas and cloves. I also liked a brew available only in winter called The Gift, a German-style Hellerboch with a sweet finish. Speaking of sweet, we also sampled locally made chocolate bark with toffee, a delicious treat made with Dark Star Stout that Levi calls “chocolate crack.” It was hard to stop nibbling on it, that’s for sure.
Peter and I drove into C’ville next for a walk on the lively Downtown Mall, where a variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants line the pedestrian street. In warmer months live concerts every Friday attract families and students to the mall, and outdoor terraces offer al fresco dining as well as opportunities for people-watching.
For dinner we headed to the Commonwealth Restaurant & Bar, a new establishment that blends big-city décor with excellent cuisine at affordable prices. The swanky interior, decorated in muted tones, features semi-circular banquettes, sophisticated lighting, and a well-appointed bar. Trendy setting aside, the Commonwealth’s food is what’s bringing crowds through the doors. The chef, Alex George, a native of Gayana, creates dishes with a mixture of flavors that hint of time spent in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and South America.
Peter and I started with charcuterie, a trio of cured meats from near and far. Two offerings from a company called Olli Salumeria in Richmond included Sweet Lomo, a cured tenderloin rubbed in a aromatic spice blend, and Salame Toscano with a lovely fennel flavor. Rounding out the trio was Jamon Serrano from Spain that tasted smoky and salty and delicious. Condiments included homemade harissa and a sweet onion jam. For his entrée Peter followed the waiter’s recommendation and ordered grilled wild boar chops with gooseberries and horseradish mashed potatoes and was most satisfied. I loved my entrée, too: crispy duck breast with green beans in confit brightened with a mango ginger sauce. Absolutely heavenly. Before leaving, we peeked at the Sky Bar upstairs, where a happy crowd hung out under a plastic roof and waited for warmer weather when they could imbibe under the stars.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ROOM
Bright and early the next morning, we toured the Rotunda with Nick, a UVA student from England. The white dome structure is synonymous with UVA, yet I knew very little about it. Jefferson, who founded UVA, designed the Rotunda as a half-scale model of the Pantheon in Rome and positioned it at the head of the lawn around which he designed the original campus.
The original Rotunda burned down in 1895, but has been rebuilt to resemble Jefferson’s original plans as closely as possible. It’s a stunning example of architecture with rounded walls and curving staircases, yet it’s not ostentatious in the least. On the top floor under the dome is a space that’s been described as “the most beautiful room in America.” Around its circumference desks sit under the windows, providing an ideal spot to ponder the meaning of the universe. Indeed, Jefferson was known to spend long hours staring out the windows of the Rotunda. For him, founding the University of Virginia was among his proudest accomplishments.
That afternoon we drove north to Gordonsville for a horseback ride at Oakland Farms. Even though it was early February, the weather was perfect. A clear blue sky, warm sun, no wind, and mild temperatures combined to create a relaxing outing. David Lamb, the owner of Oakland Farms, shared Civil War history with us on the ride, describing in detail a battle won by the Confederacy on nearby land that resulted in heavy Union casualties. As we rode along a ridge, David said we were riding on the same trail that Thomas Jefferson and his good friend James Madison used as they rode between Monticello and Montpelier. For a moment I sensed Jefferson’s presence as our horses ambled through the quiet stillness of woods in winter.
For our last night we stayed in Barboursville Vineyard’s 1804 Inn, which offers three luxurious suites and a cute cottage. After entering our suite and surveying the large living room, I thought to myself, “This could be a close contender for the most beautiful room in America.” Indeed as the late-afternoon sunlight filtered through large windows, the cozy room invited repose—and to help us relax, a plate of fruit and cheese and a bottle of Barboursville Cabernet and two wine glasses awaited on the table. We had a quick nibble and then went to the winery for a tasting of Barboursville’s award-winning wines. Next the general manager Luca Paschina gave us a tour of the facility, regaling us with stories about the winery’s early days and its efforts to produce some of the New World’s best wines.
They’ve succeeded, but it’s taken a lot of effort. When the Italian owners, Gianni and Silvana Zonin, bought the land in 1976, there were only four other wineries in Virginia. The state agricultural board told them that the future of Virginia was in tobacco and didn’t share their vision that Virginia’s terroir had the potential to create marvelous wines. Undaunted the owners persevered, and today their worldly wines have achieved a level of quality most other Virginia wineries can only dream of. Octagon, Barboursville’s red blend, is a multi-dimensional wine which celebrates the best of the varietals it comprises—the liveliness of Merlot, the brightness of the Cab Franc, and the depth and expression of the Cabernet Sauvignon.
The best way to enjoy wines is of course with food, and the best place to enjoy Barboursville wines is at Palladio, Barboursville’s stellar restaurant run by Chef Melissa Close Hart. This is a place where you will literally feel like you have been transported to Northern Italy—linen tablecloths, fine cutlery, and elegant table setting. Service was impeccable, provided by Alessandro Medici, an affable Italian who has presided over Palladio since the restaurant opened its doors in 1999.
Chef Melissa’s flair for creating extraordinary cuisine has brought international recognition ever since she took the helm in 2000. From our amuse bouche, a flavorful rabbit pot pie in a 2-inch cast iron skillet, to the delicious rosemary ice cream that ended our meal, Peter and I swooned at the tastes and textures of our four-course menu with wine pairings. My courses included house-made charcuterie that was truly art on a plate with duck proscuitto, salami, and a foie gras paté. Next I tried squid ink risotto, black as midnight with the flavors of the sea. My main course was rib eye slices, cooked a perfect medium rare with beef confit and a potato hash with roasted Brussel sprouts. Amazing flavors that leapt from the fork onto my tongue. Peter’s courses included balsamic braised beef tongue—salty and sweet; pappardelle with duck and liver ragu; and porcini-braised goat, from a herd of goats that Luca told us lived off the shrubs and grasses of Barboursville Vineyards. For dessert Peter had almond and cherry panna cotta, its crunchy exterior a perfect foil for the creamy oozing goodness within.
Dinner at Palladio lingers in my memory like a half-forgotten song. It’s almost as if Peter and I had crossed the Big Pond and landed magically in Italy for the night. We drove down the quiet lane under the light of a transcendent moon, returning to our dreamy suite. We shared breakfast the next morning with four sisters who celebrate each other’s birthdays by visiting noteworthy destinations. Like us, they’d dined at Palladio the night before and fell under its spell. “It’s hard to leave,” I told them, but work and responsibilities were calling us home.
As we drove south toward the coast, I thought about our encounters with Thomas Jefferson. I felt as if I’d met him somehow: in the woods on horseback, sipping wine as we dined on fine food, and staring out the windows of the Rotunda, marveling at the possibilities that exist in the world.