The years melt away as my college buddy, Stacy, and I hug in front of The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. We’ve seen each other occasionally in the 30+ years since we graduated from Radford, but this gals-only weekend is all about catching up, hanging out, and forgetting our worries for a while.
Richmond is perfect for a girlfriend getaway. In case you haven’t heard, our capital city has been receiving accolades aplenty lately. National Geographic says Richmond is a top destination for food travel, and Travel & Leisure included the city on its “Best Places” list. Who knew that we’re just a short drive away from a world-famous destination?
Stacy and I are here to find out what the buzz is all about—and soak up some of Richmond’s hip, trendy vibe.
WINE & TAPAS
Since 1895, The Jefferson Hotel has been welcoming travelers seeking luxury and elegance. Today this stately property feels brand new. After a recent multi-million-dollar renovation, the hotel fairly gleams, from the colorful stained glass ceilings to the sleek marble columns. As Stacy and I stroll through the lobby, classical music plays in the background, and we try hard not to ooh and aah.
But in our beautifully decorated room, we can’t hold back any longer. “Look at the view,” Stacy says, pulling back the brocade fabric curtains to reveal Richmond’s skyline.
I check out the huge bathroom with floor-to-ceiling carrara marble. “Look, there’s a TV in the mirror!” I turn it on, and an old war movie starring Robert Mitchum stares back at us.
There’s no time for TV. Stacy and I have to scoot out the door for a wine and tapas event—part of the Virginia Wine Expo—at Quirk, Richmond’s new boutique hotel. Formerly a dry goods store, Quirk is gaining popularity among hip, trendy millennials.
We join a few dozen festively dressed folks for tapas and wine in the mezzanine overlooking the lobby. Servers pour samples of wine—both new and old world—and mini-cocktails featuring Virginia moonshine. The tapas range from cheese and charcuterie to paella and meatballs—yum.
From our vantage point, we admire the limestone arches that soar above Quirk’s first-floor restaurant, Maple & Pine. Its curvy benches and modern décor are inviting. An elevator whisks us to the rooftop bar, originally the venue for this wine and tapas event. Even though it’s cold and windy, the view is stunning. Stacy and I take a couple selfies with our hair whipping in the wind and head back downstairs. Before leaving, we meet two 30-something gals, who attended college together and are also having a girlfriend getaway. It must be a thing!
After a dip in the indoor pool, Stacy and I hike down to the river and cross a bridge to Belle Isle, a natural haven that feels miles away from the city. That’s what I love about Richmond. Its location on the James River is not only scenic but also perfect for hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding, even tubing. During our cool spring visit, however, watersports are out of the question. As we walk back across the bridge, we spot an intrepid kayaker, navigating the currents. He’s all bundled up, but he’s in his zone.
One of Richmond’s newest restaurants, Laura Lee’s, is getting rave reviews, so we head back across the river—this time in a car—to a neighborhood called Forest Hill. Laura Lee’s is the fifth restaurant owned by Kendra Feather, a local restauranteur who’s built a reputation for serving quality food in relaxing surroundings. Her formula is working! The restaurant is packed, and Stacy and I sit at a two-top surrounded by happy diners.
I love the cozy décor with exposed brick, wooden floors, and tin-plated ceiling. The adjoining bar is known for its craft cocktails, but Stacy and I decide to order a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo as we peruse the menu. I know, wine snobs would say you shouldn’t select your wine before choosing your food, but hey, red wine goes with everything in my book.
Stacy asks to substitute steak for duck confit, and I’m a wee bit jealous when I see her entrée arrive: juicy sliced steak atop shaved Brussels sprouts, bacon, corn, and butternut squash with healthy microgreens on top—until I dig into mine: the absolute best-ever cornmeal fried oysters, crunchy outside, sweet and succulent inside. My side of broccolini is a game-changer: cooked al dente, bathed in butter, and sprinkled with almonds. Swoon-worthy food and highly recommended.
Listening to bluegrass seems like the perfect after-dinner activity, so Stacy and I head to Garden Grove Brewing Company in Carytown. Besides making small-batch craft beer, the pub offers game nights, weekly bluegrass jam sessions, and free concerts most Friday nights. Dalton Dash, a band started by two Radford students (woot!), is on stage tonight, and we settle in with a couple tasty brews for an evening of high-energy bluegrass.
During the break a talented local musician named Corey Axt hops on stage and sings off-the-wall songs that the audience loves: Feelin’ Groovy, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, and Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You. What fun! I chat with Corey after his set—he’s super friendly—and find out he also works as a preschool teacher. Connecting with local folks while traveling is always rewarding.
Our comfy beds at The Jefferson await, and we have a big day planned tomorrow. So Stacy and I head back downtown and fall asleep as Corey’s songs echo in our heads.
It’s hard to choose from Richmond’s myriad attractions, but we settle on a couple museums we’ve never visited. One is the new Black History Museum and Cultural Center in the historic Leigh Street Armory. An exhibit of MurryDePillars work is on display. He was dean at VCU School of the Arts, and his colorful, geometric art reflects African and civil-rights themes. I like the “Briefcase Series,” briefcase-sized works that DePillars painted during his travels.
The Valentine Museum tells Richmond’s stories—past and present—through local artifacts and photographs that trace the city’s history. Stacy and I love the bright, open feel of the museum and wander among its spaces, learning about Richmond’s neighborhoods and famous residents. The Valentine also offers tours throughout the city, including one at the 1812 Wickham House next door, where you can learn about early 19th-century life.
Back in Carytown Stacy and I wander down Cary Street, checking out the eclectic shops and boutiques. At Cool Colors, we meet owner-artist Mehmet SahinAltug, who shows us around his cozy shop filled with art, scarves, and gifts. Mehmet paints beautiful birds, and Stacy and I love his paintings. After window shopping, we meet our friend, Robin, at Nacho Mamas and spend an hour or so gabbing and eating Mexican cuisine—with a couple margaritas thrown in for good measure. Olé!
After all that yummy food, we girls decide to take a walk, and Hollywood Cemetery beckons. Spread across 135 acres, the lush, hilly cemetery (est. 1847) is the final resting place of two presidents, thousands of Confederate soldiers, local dignitaries, and ordinary folks. Its beautiful garden setting and winding paths attract visitors year-round, and weekly tours are popular. As birds twitter and the sun shines, Stacy, Robin, and I stroll among the trees and gravestones and reflect on the people—young and old—who are laid to rest in this peaceful cemetery.
SONGBIRDS AT SUNSET
One thing I’ve learned while traveling is to be spontaneous. I love Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Since I tend to plan everything down to the minute, spontaneity can be difficult for me, but lately it’s getting easier.
After our walk, Robin suggests we head to James River Cellars Winery just outside of town. Stacy and I intended to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts after lunch, but it’s such a beautiful day, we can’t resist the temptation to relax in the sun and sip wine. En route to the winery, we pick up Robin’s friend, also named Robin, and soon find ourselves overlooking rows of grapevines as we sip red wine in the late-afternoon sunlight.This is what girlfriend getaways are all about, right? After I tell Robin and Robin about Corey’s fine singing last night at Garden Grove, they break into song—really. Maybe the wine has something to do with it, but soon we are all crooning “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” The couple at the next table views us with trepidation, but before long they are groovin’ to the music. It helps that Robin and Robin sing like songbirds. Stacy and I do our best to keep up, and we all end up laughing and singing and forgetting our cares.
The day’s not over yet. We say goodbye to the Robins and return to The Jefferson for a quick change of clothes. A few blocks from our hotel, we enjoy a fabulous dinner at Graffiato Richmond, a bustling urban restaurant specializing in artisanal pizza and Italian fare. We sit at the pizza bar and watch chefs crafting thin-crusted pizzas, which are fed into a wood-fired oven. We order wine—natch—and share a small plate of delicious seared tuna crowned with carmelized fennel. Our pizza arrives, topped with spinach, mozzarella, smoked ricotta, chili-garlic oil, and tomato marmalade. OMG. Is it ever good.
The evening’s entertainment is Violet, a contemporary musical playing across the street at the Virginia Repertory Theatre. Produced by the Cadence Theatre Company, Violet is a story of self-discovery set in the 1960s. I am enthralled by the show and the amazingly talented performers, but Stacy, not so much. Maybe it’s due to our busy schedule, maybe it’s the wine, but when I look over at my companion during the show, her eyes are closed. After it’s over, Stacy’s mortified that she fell asleep, but I tell her not to worry. It happens to the best of us.
On Sunday morning, we decide to relax in our room at The Jefferson before heading to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see a special exhibit of Rachel Lambert (Bunny) Mellon’s exquisite jewelry collection. Crafted by Jean Schlumberger, the jewelry and objet d’art are displayed in brightly lit cases that contrast with the pitch-black setting—perfect for admiring these dazzling pieces.
In fact, it feels like you’re in outer space as you explore the exhibit, a black hole studded with brooches, bracelets, necklaces, and more—adorned with diamonds, lapis lazuli, moonstones, amethyst, emeralds, turquoise, peridots, and multi-colored sapphires and ensconced in silver and gold settings. A table with notebooks invites you to sketch a piece of jewelry or share your thoughts about the exhibit, which runs through June 18.
Stacy and I check out the Fabergé eggs, a collection of gold and silver eggs finely painted and decorated with jewels, given as gifts by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. VMFA has five Fabergé eggs, the largest number outside of Russia, donated to the museum by Lillian Thomas Pratt. Interactive computer screens let you view the eggs up close and learn about their extraordinary provenance.
The weekend is coming to a close, but I have one more stop: Can Can Brasserie in Carytown, one of my favorite Richmond restaurants. Every time I go I feel like I am transported to France: high ceilings, tiled floors, linen tablecloths, aproned servers. It’s casual elegance personified. When I order a baguette to bring home for Peter, I eye the croissants hungrily. The hostess tells me that a couple came in recently, having just returned from France, and proclaimed Can Can’s croissants are better than those in France. That says a lot.
I decide to have a decadent hamburger (say it with a French accent and it sounds better). Stacy orders a French dip. The sandwiches and accompanying French fries are perfection. We order half a carafe of wine—our last hurrah before the weekend winds down. Our table near the window is bathed in early afternoon sunlight, and I want to stay here forever. But life is calling, and our fabulous girlfriend getaway is ending.
Fortunately, knowing that this world-class city is just up the road makes it easier to leave. A bientôt, RVA, until we meet again.
For more information, go to www.visitrichmondva.com
The Jefferson is offering a special rate this summer to celebrate its grand reopening. Details at www.jeffersonhotel.com.