Autumn Outings

Try these four regional destinations to sample the beauty of the season.

October 09, 2005|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

As a brilliant display of reds, oranges and yellows descends on Virginia's Thomas Jefferson Country this month, getting lost while driving might be the best blunder you could make.

Imagine miles of white-painted fences on either side of you as rolling acres of horse farms, woodlands and vineyards unfold while you explore the Piedmont region. Imagine the morning mist lifting from dewy fields or an evening fog enveloping the mountains.

All across the Mid-Atlantic, similar colorful scenes will be occurring, which makes autumn an ideal time for a getaway. We've chosen four nearby destinations that make for great weekend trips. Whether you love hiking, biking, boating, festivals, historic sites or just splendid scenery, there's something for everyone at the destinations below.

The motorist with wanderlust will surely fall in love with Virginia's long, winding roads. Each seems to lead to some worthy exploration, whether it's downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains or sites like Jefferson's Monticello and James Madison's Montpelier.

Virginia has "natural beauty no matter what time of year you come, but fall is especially beautiful," says Judy Geary, innkeeper at the Holladay House B&B in Orange, Va., near Charlottesville.

"You go out any of those rural roads, and it's just the most peaceful and relaxing drive you'll experience. With all the historic aspects of the area, the farms, apple orchards and walking trails, the fall foliage is just the icing on the cake. You'll feel like you're in a different place and time," Geary says.

Although many visitors to the region head straight to Albemarle County, where Monticello is, bypassing Orange County is not advised. This is where Madison, the fourth president, resided. Virginia Route 20 takes you to Montpelier, the 2,700-acre estate that Madison described as "a squirrel's jump from Heaven."

Don't let a four-year, $30 million renovation of the estate discourage you from visiting. The project actually offers a rare opportunity to see what the bare bones of an 18th-century mansion looked like in construction.

Guided tours show the original wood floors in the house and a chimney in Dolley Madison's chambers. Walking through the barren library, you can imagine Madison sitting beside a fire as he considered ideas for the Virginia Plan, which would become the foundation for the U.S. Constitution.

"You're walking into history backward," says Jayne Blair, a tour guide at Montpelier. "This project will take the mansion back to the time when he lived there with Dolley. ... We want to bring President Madison back home." Renovations are expected to be completed by 2008.

While you're at Montpelier, take a leisurely hike to the Madison family cemetery and the slave burial grounds a few hundred yards away in the woods.

From Montpelier, U.S. 15 to U.S. 250, where you can pick up Interstate 64, provides a gorgeous, 40-minute journey through farmland and vineyards to Jefferson's Monticello, the 5,000-acre estate atop what Jefferson called a "little mountain."

The plantation is well known for the magnificent architecture of the 43-room mansion (pictured on the back of the nickel). But outdoor enthusiasts can take a nature trail from the visitors' center up the hill to the house for a tour. Any stroll should include Mulberry Row, where enslaved, free and indentured workers and craftsmen once lived in the shade of mulberry trees near the mansion.

Markers on Mulberry Row indicate where various structures once stood, including a workmen's house, blacksmith shop, smokehouse and dairy. A stone foundation from the remnants of a log cabin can be seen not far from Jefferson's vegetable garden.

Visitors are urged to walk through the grove and orchard, where 160 species of trees can be found, and the flower garden, where more than three dozen types of flowers were in bloom last month, including blackberry lilies, African marigolds and prickly poppies.

"We live near here in Fredericksburg, so this is an easy drive for us," says Al Conner, a retired intelligence officer. He and his wife spent a recent weekend showing friends from England both presidential homes. "We're taking them to places that tell how Americans came about. ... It's a wonderful time of year to visit this area because the deeper you get into autumn, the more beautiful it gets."

After Monticello, hop back in the car and take the short trip into Charlottesville. Downtown, a brick-paved walkway lined with shops, restaurants, music and jewelry vendors is usually packed on weekends with tourists, residents and students from Jefferson's other love, the University of Virginia.

If you head back to Orange County while it's still light out, take scenic Va. 20, a fun, curvy road to drive.

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