18 JUL 2017: There’s Northern Virginia – an easy jaunt from Dulles Airport OR a good diversion from the long drive to Florida. It’s here where you discover a strong entrepreneurial ethos of mom and pop shops, quaint family-run establishments, and incredible natural attractions that boast some kind of superlative.

This part of the Commonwealth also has been the incubator for a presidential A-list that includes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, who built monumental mansions that evoke a ‘can do’ sensibility Americans are famous for.

It’s time to pay a visit to the Mother of all States.

Famous Houses

Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There’s a peculiar water basin on the floor at the bedside of Thomas Jefferson. His bed was barely big enough for a kid let alone a man who stood 6 foot 2 in bare feet, and who just happened to pen The Declaration of Independence.

“Every morning, Mr. Jefferson believed plunging his feet into cold water was the perfect wake-me-up,” smiles my guide on this eye-opening 40-minute ticketed tour arguably of one of the grandest historic homes in America.

It’s this type of revealing tidbit, plus the idea of walking through the private rooms where he and the scores of his guests and family once stayed, that attracts 450,000 people annually to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Visitors can easily spend a day touring the 2,500-acre estate. Hike the groomed trails around the ‘little mountain’ (Italian for Monticello). Take a guided tour of the recreated slave quarters to learn about slaves who lived and laboured on the plantation. On the Gardens and Grounds tour you can visit the restored vegetable garden, orchards and centuries-old trees, and vineyards on the property. On the Hemings Family Tour learn about one of the best documented slave families in the US and hear some of the tangled secrets that existed between Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and other family members. Bottles of a rare Jefferson wine varietal are sold at the gift shop. One bottle cost $95 (a 2015 pinot noir) but what a souvenir! Jefferson’s considered America’s first foodie and the father of wine in Virginia.

Mount Vernon

There’s a sadness that washes over me walking inside America’s most popular historic home. It’s the love story of George and Martha Washington. I learn on my guided walking tour that she loved the first President of the United States so much, that after his death the age of 67 she became a recluse. “It was as if her life had left her,” as a tour member said describing the heartbreak she endured over Washington’s passing. Martha died nearly two and a half later on May 22, 1802.

The historic estate that sits on the edge of the Potomac River has incredible experiences for visitors in its year-round programme that includes guided tours. Enjoy the restored gardens and explore a working 1700s farm with outbuildings, a gristmill, a working distillery, and the big show stopper: the stunning mansion.

Visitors will discover the life of George Washington through a multitude of interactive experiences and exhibits at the museum and educational centre.

Overnights

In the heart of Shenandoah Valley lies By the Side of the Road Inn and Cottages. A quaint B&B in Harrisonburg, the entire inn captures the feel of the Old South. A restored labour of love from innkeepers Janice and Dennis Fitzgerarld, the historic house on the hill circa 1790 has weathered the Civil War and even served as a hospital for wounded Civil War vets.

What I liked was an evening spent inside my secluded cottage which was a new build, listening to Shenandoah valley music with my brandy nightcap and fair trade chocolates. Come morning, it was a healthy spin on the Southern breakfast sans grits delivered to my door in a handcrafted basket from Appalachian white ash, the same wood from which baseball bats are made.

For that brand new, just painted look, head to the Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria for a stay. The waterfront hotel in Alexandria which opened in May blends a colonial past with contemporary design. Even the location Wows. Developers excavated the remnants of a 300-year-old ship. The boutique hotel incorporates a marking of the original shoreline and has nautical displays in the lobby.

In Lynchburg, a shoe lover’s dream comes true at the Craddock-Terry Hotel. A former shoe factory, each room is decorated with shoe-related motifs. Mornings you can order the room service breakfast delivered in a wooden shoe box. Lynchburg which has dramatic views of the James River and Blue Ridge mountains was a major shoe manufacturing centre for nearly a century. To boot, the Craddock-Terry Shoe Company was also once the fifth largest shoe manufacturer in the world.

This 44-room boutique property has also been a labour of love for great grandson Hal Craddock who has created a chic ‘to be seen’ spot located by the bustling Bluffwalk Center with eclectic shops and restos in renovated factory buildings. Pet-friendly, guests are welcomed by hotel greeter Buster Brown, and can even take the beautiful wirehaired fox terrier for walks. Complimentary shoe shines are included.

Natural Wonders

The Luray Caverns

One of the most breathtaking sights is Dream Lake in Luray Caverns. Reflections of stalactites in the reflective pond appear like stalagmites, and the glistening textures enhanced by some artificial lighting make the setting both dreamy and dramatic.

A 90-minute drive from the Capitol next door to nature-rich Shenandoah National Park, discover why these ancient caverns are considered the most visited caverns in the United States. A guided tour of this underworld will appeal to families, outdoor travellers, and those who aim to see something totally unique. The natural wonder which is a designated US Natural Landmark was discovered in 1878 and has attracted tourists ever since. See what one drip at a time can do.

Other neighbouring attractions also have fascinating discoveries. There’s the Car and Carriage Caravan which is an exhibit of restored vintage vehicles including a car worth US$4-million. The Luray Valley Museum is a collection of relocated 19th century houses from the nearby farming community. One house in particular is significant. A young George Washington would have ridden by the Bernard Willey House every day during his surveying days in Frederick County for Lord Fairfax. There are also other rare Shenandoah Valley artifacts on display like a Swiss bible printed in the German vernacular in 1536. This is one of the oldest bibles on display in the United States.

Shenandoah National Park

The Blue Ridge Mountains via Skyline Drive, a 105-mile outdoor paradise, is also a short drive (75 minutes) from Washington DC. Visitors interested in nature and those who need a digital detox (although I was able to get free Wi-Fi at the Skyland Resort lobby) will be able to choose from a variety of activities and accommodations such as lodges, cabins and campsites. The many hiking trails range from easy to difficult (the park has 516 miles of hiking trails), and clients can also enjoy horseback riding on the horse trails. Picture 75 overlooks overlooking peaks, ridges and clusters of forests. My favourite hike took me to the summit of Stony Man on the Stony Man Trail.

Pretty towns

Only two and a half hours south of Washington DC. or a 30-minute detour east off Interstate 81 on I-64, Charlottesville is a good launch pad for daytrips into the countryside and city sightseeing. Home of the University of Virginia, the university town has revamped a part of the downtown into a pedestrian area known as the Downtown Mall. Good for eats and treats, or shops and nightlife with a local vibe, locals like to point out how Dave Matthews from the Dave Matthews Band was once a bartender at Miller’s Bar there. The watering hole still packs in crowds for oysters, beer and live music.

Nearby landmarks under a 30-minute drive from Charlottesville are Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, plus over 30 wineries within a 30-mile radius.

A 15-minute Metrorail ride from Washington DC in Alexandria has a laidback vibe. A complete change from DC this neighbouring historic town dating back to 1749 has managed to preserve many colonial buildings which today house quaint local businesses.

Local tourism officials hope Canadian tourists will want to linger a few extra days to enjoy the selection of offerings too. And why not? The city, festooned in history, has been named a Top Romantic City and a Top Dog Friendly City.

One-of-a-kind Galleries and Museums

In Harrisonburg you can purchase handmade artisanal jewelry at a museum dedicated to vintage jewelry. At Hugo Kohl’s Museum of American Jewelry Design and Manufacturing Company, the museum is the only one of its kind in the United States to showcase jewelry designs from the Industrial Age. The owner Hugo Kohl, a local James Madison U grad, salvaged thousands of patterns ready to be scrapped from a plant in Providence R.I. and has revived these delicate molds into intricate collections. Watch the process and see goldsmiths in action at this living museum. Contemporary pieces are sold too.

Had I been there five more minutes…who knows the purchasing potential …

At the bustling riverfront in Alexandria hit the Torpedo Factory Art Center which is home to 165 professional artists who work, exhibit and sell their art. The arts complex inside a retrofitted ammo building used to have Rosie the Riveter wielding gals make torpedoes during WW2. On my visit I spotted artist Lisa Schumaier. She’s made Van Gogh’s bedroom in chewed gum balls and licorice and creates ceramic sculptures.

When stopping by her studio there’s an ongoing community art project for regular folk to donate chewed gum to blot on her canvas too.

 

Images by Ilona Kauremszky

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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