Charlottesville Charm

From Thomas Jefferson's historic plantation and university to the wines of up-and-coming Virginia vintners, this quiet haven northwest of Richmond is much more than just a college town

$500 Getaway

December 17, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,[Sun reporter ]

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. -- John Grisham bought

a plantation on the outskirts of town once his best-selling books became blockbusters. Howie Long relocated his family to the area after retiring from an all-pro football career in California. And Dave Mat-thews formed his band in this laid-back college town.

It seems writers, actors and celebrities have flocked to Charlottesville for its tranquil yet urbane existence. Visitors will find its Colonial history, Piedmont wine country and preppy university atmosphere equally alluring.

Less than a four-hour drive from Baltimore, the area is rich with historical, cultural and culinary offerings. The city is home to the University of Virginia, founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson, and Monticello, the majestic plantation where he lived and is buried.

I'm a Virginia girl myself, so consider this a Charlottesville insider's guide.

After spending two hectic days with my family in Richmond for Thanksgiving, my boyfriend, Dan, and I packed up the car and set out on Interstate 64 West. The scenery was splendid. Naked, spindly oaks shaded gentle hills blanketed with crisp hay. Miles of uniform white and brown fences framed farms and red, weathered barns.

Driving past cows and horses grazing in lush pastures, we veered off toward Gordonsville headed for a local vineyard, where we planned to spend a disturbingly balmy afternoon sampling vintage reds and steeping ourselves in all things viticultural.

When we finally reached the Barboursville Vineyards, nestled in an eponymous town, the holiday open house weekend was in full swing. The vineyard waived its $4 wine tasting fee, charging $1 to keep the souvenir wine glass. The onsite Palladio Restaurant provided a free buffet, enticing us to sample velvety porcini bisque, rosemary-cured ham and tangy salami, bread and cheese.

The food cleansed our palates between wines, which included the 2005 barrel-aged reserves that were our favorites. Most memorable was the pear-vanilla accented chardonnay reserve ($14.99) and the cabernet franc reserve ($22.99), redolent with ripe berries and forest fruit. Though Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to cultivate European vines in these parts more than 200 years ago, Barboursville is thriving. The vineyard is one of several propelling Virginia closer to California in the eyes of oenophiles.

Built around the brick ruins of Gov. James Barbour's manor - a residence Jefferson designed and which was destroyed in an 1884 fire Christmas Day - Barboursville marries the present and past.

An Italian winemaker bought the 900-acre property in 1976. Now, the winery produces at least 30,000 cases of wine each year. On a tour, we gaped at wine-soaked barrels and stainless-steel, ceiling-high blending tanks. There was an octagon-shaped room, an homage to Jefferson's favorite shape, where Barboursville's Octagon Bordeaux-style red ($39.99) is made every few years.

The sun was just starting to melt into the surrounding slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains as we began the 30-minute drive from Barboursville to the Omni Hotel where we were staying in Charlottesville. The hotel is a cornerstone of the vibrant, pedestrian-only Historic Downtown Mall on Main Street. The best part about the Omni was its proximity to the outdoor mall's ubiquitous upscale boutiques and restaurants. Our room was clean and boasted a comfy, king-size bed. We had wanted to stay at one of Charlottesville's charming bed-and-breakfasts, such as the 200 South Street Inn, but they all had two-night minimums, and our plan called for one night, two full days. I later realized we could have spent two nights and still stayed within our $500 budget.

For those with lined pockets, the elegant Clifton Inn is about 15 minutes outside downtown. Interested in a one-night B&B stay? Try calling at the last minute. Sometimes innkeepers will bend the rules if a room is available.

On the town

After settling into our hotel, we walked over to the mall to meet some college friends for a drink. Christmas decorations adorned the streetlights on the mall's wide brick lane, where Tibetan vendors sell jewelry, knit scarves and hats. A holiday market sets up on the east end of the mall Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 23.

We settled on hot drinks at the bohemian Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. Wannabe hippies are at home here, where live bands, heavy on the bongo drums, play some nights. We shared two pots of tea - South American green yerba mate and a licorice and ginger herbal blend to soothe my sore throat - and a snack plate of nuts, dried fruit, hummus and manchego cheese ($28, including tip). After tea, we decided to grab a beer before dinner. Not surprisingly, there was no room at the popular C&O Restaurant bar on a crowded Saturday night. But it's worth a late-night trip for the best bar menu around. The bustling downstairs bistro serves a variety of tidbits, including its popular cheese plate, an artichoke pate, mac and cheese and chicken barbecue - all served until 1 a.m.

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