Ross, our 14-year-old, is a typical teen who plays too many video games, watches too much TV, and shows little interest in culture, the arts, and history. Of course, over the years, Ross has been to his share of museums, but as he’s entered his teen years, his enthusiasm for such cultural outings has waned. Nevertheless, my husband, Peter, and I recently decided to take our son out of his comfort zone for a dose of culture and chose Richmond, just up the road, as the perfect destination for a big-city getaway.
I have to admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Richmond. During college, I met friends who lived there, and I was always quick to point out that they didn’t have an ocean, poor things, nor a beautiful backdrop of mountains, so what’s the appeal of living there? Later during occasional forays to the city, I found little in Richmond to like. Only recently, when I attended a couple of events in the city, did I begin to discover its appeal: a stable economy, deep roots, Southern charm, friendly folks, and a big-city vibe. In addition, the downtown area has undergone a major transformation from urban blight to green spaces and modern skyscrapers. Now trendy loft apartments overlook the James River, and hip restaurants line centuries-old cobble-stoned streets. Richmond has found its way into the 21st century and looks fabulous.
Planning a cultural weekend in Richmond is almost effortless. It is after all the capital of Virginia and boasts amenities that simply can’t be found down here in our neck of the woods. In Richmond you can explore Civil War history; hike in hundred-acre parks studded with flowers, waterfalls, and elegant gardens; visit an art museum that rivals New York’s finest; dine in hip, tasty restaurants; and stay in a world-class hotel. I always say sharing culture with children helps them appreciate the finer things in life, and who knows? They just might discover that the real world trumps video games and TVs any day!
Its massive granite walls rise up like a fortress, but The Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond is anything but. As welcoming doormen escort us through the sumptuous Palm Court, the stunning opulence of this five-star property begins to sink in. In a word: gorgeous. A circular stained glass ceiling lends a warm light to the lobby, home of the hotel’s iconic statue of Thomas Jefferson. To the left, an elegant staircase leads down to The Rotunda, the property’s original lobby where monumental columns add grandeur to the setting. As we check in, a celebratory senior prom is underway, and dashing couples flit among the columns, enjoying the night’s revelry.
After seeing an alligator statue, I inquire about its significance and learn from our doorman that alligators used to dwell in marble ponds in the Palm Court—brought by people who’d kept them as pets until they grew too big to handle. The midnight bellman cared for them, chasing them back into the ponds with a broomstick whenever they escaped. Pompey, who’s memorialized in the life-sized statue, was the oldest of the alligators and lived until 1948, ending this quirky chapter of The Jefferson’s history.
Off to one side of the Rotunda is a small history museum that showcases artifacts and documents that provide more insight into the hotel’s storied past. Turns out The Jefferson was nearly destroyed by fire in 1901, just six years after it had opened. During an attempt to save Thomas Jefferson’s statue, the head was inadvertently knocked off. Later it was re-attached, and today the statue beams down at hotel guests in the Palm Court. Soon we are riding the elevator to the fifth floor, where our suite features a separate living area with a fold-out couch for Ross, who is pleased to have his own TV. Peter and I melt into our plush king-sized bed and try to get some rest, knowing we have a packed itinerary this weekend.
THE SMELL OF HISTORY
Richmond Segway tours offers a unique way to get an overview of the city. Peter, Ross, and I arrive a few minutes before the 10 a.m. departure, choose helmets, fill out forms, and wait for the tour to get started. I’ve ridden a Segway once before, but it’s been a while, so I’m a little nervous about maintaining my balance. Neither Peter nor Ross has ever ridden one, but after a 15-minute lesson, we take off without mishap. Riding a Segway is harder than it looks, in my humble opinion, and I have to keep reminding myself to relax my knees. Ross, on the other hand, zips along like an old pro.
The tour takes us to city sights, like the Canal Walk, a 32-acre riverfront development along the historic James River, and Brown’s Island, a venue for festivals and concerts and a hub of activity in summer months as kayakers, tubers, and swimmers enjoy access to the only metropolitan whitewater river in the U.S. Trent and Sarah, our Segway tour guides, provide background information on the fall of Richmond during the final days of the Civil War and the ensuing fire that consumed the city. We also check out the Tredegar Ironworks, which manufactured Confederate cannons during the Civil War; the John Marshall House; the Valentine Richmond History Center; the capitol; and the governor’s mansion. Peter and I decide the Segway tour is a perfect introduction to the city and a great way to get our bearings. Ross says learning about history isn’t so bad especially when you’re zooming around on a Segway.
After a delicious lunch at Urban Farmhouse Market in Shockoe Slip, where we hungrily devour sandwiches on crusty bread, we head over to the Poe Museum for a lesson on Richmond’s famous poet and writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Chris Semter, the museum’s curator, provides a fact-filled tour of the musuem, which include artifacts of Poe’s life—his childhood bed, a lock of hair, even a staircase that he bounded up and down as a boy. In one musty room, Ross sniffs and says, “There’s an interesting smell.” Chris answers, “It’s the smell of history.” I decide it’s not unpleasant—kind of herbal and grassy.
I learn things about Poe I never knew including that he wrote comic stories, literary reviews, textbooks, and science treatises. In fact, in his last book, Eureka, Poe outlines the Big Bang Theory a century before it becomes accepted among the scientific community. I’m drawn to a quote in the preface of Eureka: “To those who feel rather than those who think…to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities.”
Outside a delightful garden modeled after lines in Poe’s poems and a shrine create a soothing backdrop for wedding ceremonies and a once-a-month “Unhappy Hour.” I’m glad we learn a few truths about Poe—that the rumors of his being an opium addict, for example, were spun by a rival who disliked Poe and were not true at all—and look forward to revisiting his literary works soon.
ABLOOM WITH AZURE IRISES
More gardens are in store as we drive to Maymont, an idyllic treasure in the heart of Richmond. Maymont Mansion, surrounded by acres of panoramic landscape, was the home of railroad magnate James Dooley and his wife, Sallie, who bequeathed the estate to a foundation for the enjoyment of Richmond’s residents and visitors. First we hop aboard an open-air tram, passing by outdoor wildlife exhibits, a children’s farm, and a beautiful 45-foot waterfall, where children frolic and wade in the water. Next we stroll through a serene Japanese garden abloom with azure irises and watch families feed giant koi. After climbing a steep hill we find ourselves in an Italian garden, where a wedding will soon take place. All around us we see happy families enjoying springtime picnics and fresh air in this verdant oasis. Maymont is a great place to while away an afternoon in Richmond.
Dinner this evening is in Lemaire, The Jefferson’s refined restaurant, which was recently updated to reflect a more casual vibe. While evening wear is still appropriate, Lemaire has relaxed its dress code somewhat and now welcomes everyone to enjoy an exquisite dining experience without the formality of the restaurant’s previous iteration. Of course, the same quality and care that gave Lemaire its stellar reputation has most definitely not changed, under the watchful eye of executive chef Walter Bundy, who continues to showcase local, seasonal bounty.
The main dining area, where we are seated, features elegant chandeliers and a gold-and-white paint scheme that fits the historic venue. In the background a piano tinkles and guests in the bar area unwind with cocktails after a long day. Ross, dressed in black, looks sharp and grown up, and Peter and I relax and try to choose from among Lemaire’s eclectic menu offerings.
As a foie gras fan, I opt for this rich delicacy as a first course, followed by a mushroom risotto. Both dishes are perfectly prepared. Peter has beef tartare (“a mouthful of flavor”) and a bison ribeye cooked rare. Yum! Ross orders the “As Southern As It Gets” plate, which features a pork chop, mac’n’cheese, and collard greens. He’s happy. For dessert we share a carmelized crème brulee and orange-strawberry cobbler. What’s amazing is our meal lasts nearly three hours and Ross doesn’t squirm once. He’s growing up, I think. Slowly but surely.
AIRY, VIBRANT COLORS
We timed our visit to take advantage of the recent expansion and grand reopening of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, a cultural icon which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never visited. It’s a stunner. The exterior is sleek and modern, but inside we find a vast collection of art and antiquities from around the world. We begin with the “Tiffany: Color and Light” exhibit, showing through August 15, which requires an admission fee and a timed ticket. (The rest of the museum is free.) Colorful windows and lamps detail the history of the famous Tiffany studios and offer visitors the chance to appreciate why this dramatic art medium has remained so popular.
The audio tour, included in the admission fee, offers two options: one provides a historic account of the glass and its designers and the other, music to accompany the tour—from jazz to classical. One exhibit details the types of opalescent glass used in the windows and lamps: feathered, draped, streaked, mottled, rippled, fractured, hammered, and turtleback. Louis Comfort Tiffany, who founded the studios, realized early on that painting stained glass prevented sufficient light from emanating through, so he developed the above techniques, which give Tiffany glass its airy, vibrant colors and texture. The last exhibit contains an assortment of exquisite lamps depicting wisteria, snowballs, dragonflies, peonies, magnolias, and peacock feathers. It’s a magical show, though I have to say, Ross isn’t as enamored by the glass as Peter and I are.
What Ross does enjoy is the “egg room” as he calls it, better known as VMFA’s Fabergé display. The highlight of the exhibit are the imperial Easter eggs created for Russia’s ruling Romanov family between 1885 and 1916. Exquisitely decorated with intricate details, the eggs contain surprises, such as scenes of faraway places and royal residences. Other Fabergé pieces include jewelry, frames, boxes, dishes, and more. Elsewhere I explore the South Asian exhibit with its Buddha and Ganesha statues, as well as the Art Deco section.
We lunch in VMFA’s new restaurant called Amuse on the third floor. Its chic décor (think clean industrial lines) with a wall of glass combined with its Southern-influenced menu contribute to its popularity as a hip spot to dine. Ross tried the polenta fries served with a marinara sauce, which he loved, and a fried-green tomato and crabcake sandwich sans bread, which looked scrumptious. Peter had a delicious salad of Mackintowne greens followed by smoked salmon served with crème freche and caviar. I chose fried oysters with surry sausage and, for my main course, shrimp and grits. Amuse offers a delightful dining experience in a relaxing space, well worth including in your visit to VMFA.
A walk in Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is the perfect follow up to our decadent lunch. Among the rolling hills and manicured lawns, we explore numerous themed gardens, where flowers and plants in varying colors display their spring finery. On display throughout the garden is another glass exhibit featuring works of art by Hans Gado Fräbel. From whimsical sprite-like figures to fantasy flowers, each piece is a delightful surprise as you roam the gardens. The children’s area is full of happy kids playing in a water fountain, and Ross and I climb a tree house nearby to enjoy a terrific view of the surrounding grounds.
On our last night in Richmond we visit Carytown, a cozy neighborhood of shops and galleries and home to Can-Can, a restaurant about which we’ve heard rave reviews from friends who live in Richmond. The cool, jazzy restaurant with its Manhattan-like vibe lives up to its name. Out on the patio as the sun sets slowly in the western sky, we enjoy a long evening meal. Too often folks rush into a restaurant, order their food, chow down, and dash out the door. I think taking your time—especially with the cost of dining out these days—means a more memorable experience, a chance to savor the flavors, talk about your day, your week, your life, escape for a time and live in the moment.
Can-Can signature cocktails get us off to a tasty start, and our waiter kindly suggests a mocktail for Ross. Then we order a few appetizers instead of entrées: beef tartare, roasted pepper tapenade, frog legs, duck confit salad, shrimp pancetta, and some of the best darn French fries we’ve ever had. For dessert we share an amazing concoction of grilled pineapple topped with crème brulee and served with vanilla ice cream and baklava. Our server, Rich, is amazing, and at the end of the meal, he shakes our hands, a friendly gesture that endears me even more to this popular restaurant. We will definitely be back.
The next morning as I walk along downtown Richmond’s shady, tree-lined streets before we drive back home, I reflect on the surprises we’ve discovered here. Richmond’s friendly, down-home vibe combined with top-class hotels, restaurants, and museums make this city perfect for a family getaway. So grab your couch-potato kids and head on up to Richmond soon, where history, culture, and art offer a weekend you and your family won’t soon forget.
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