The Pursuit of Happiness
Charlottesville, Va., is a city for the senses. The stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains serve as a backdrop for presidential homes, impressive neoclassical architecture, traditional Southern fare, the University of Virginia, and an abundance of attractions and family-friendly activities for a spectacular summer vacation.
I spent two glorious, sunny days of our recent spring break visiting this historic city (population 131,000) with my husband and three kids: 9, 6 and 19 months. We toured the home of Thomas Jefferson, dined on fried chicken, biscuits and tea at an 18th-century tavern, studied bees in an observation hive at a children's museum, and more.
"I am as happy no where else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello. Too many scenes of happiness mingle themselves with all the recollections of my native woods and fields, to suffer them to be supplanted in my affection by any other." - Thomas Jefferson
No trip to Charlottesville is complete without a visit to Monticello, which was named one of eight places every American should visit by Budget Travel and one of the 25 must-see sights in the United States by Travelers Magazine. Much has been written about Jefferson and his beloved home, which took 40 years to build, but I think a New York Times visual columnist Maira Kalman said it best when she wrote, "If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to his home in Virginia. Monticello."
The basic guided tour of the house lasts about 30 minutes and does not include the two upper floors. (Additional rooms can be toured with Signature Tour tickets.) In the hall, we saw many items on exhibit that reflected Jefferson's passions: horns, bones and skins of North American animals, Native American artifacts given to Lewis and Clark, and maps. We toured the dining room, tea room, sitting room and even Jefferson's apartment, which consists of a book room, two outdoor porches, a greenhouse, a cabinet (study) and his bedroom, which featured an alcove bed adjacent to the cabinet.
My kids were intrigued by many of Jefferson's inventions, including a polygraph, a machine that copied letters. My oldest son was especially in awe that he was standing in a room where the author of the Declaration of Independence had once stood.
The house tour isn't ideal for kids under 5 or for kids who have trouble in "no touch" environments. Visitors should be careful not to lean on furniture or walls, and videography and photography are prohibited. Our 19-month-old son rode in a small stroller, but my husband left with him after about 20 minutes, as his typical blabber and repeated "uh-ohs" (when throwing his blankie in the floor) steadily rose in volume as the tour progressed. He never reached meltdown mode or even fussy status*, but our guide tapped my husband on the shoulder during one of the room transitions and suggested that we try holding him because he was distracting.
Hold a toddler who had endured a four-hour car ride the day before? I don't think so. My husband opted for a quick exit instead.
Officials at Monticello also stipulate that "parents of active or restless young children may be asked to take turns touring the house, as a courtesy to other visitors."
But during the summer, Monticello does offer Family-Friendly Tours, designed specifically for children 6-11. According to the Monticello Web site, these 30-minute tours feature hands-on opportunities and a "glimpse of what life was like for the children who lived at Monticello in the late 1700s and early 1800s."
After the house tour, we took a self-guided tour of the area beneath the main house called "dependencies," where domestic work was completed. Here, we saw the kitchen, smokehouse, ice house, wine cellar, dairy and more. On the day we visited, there were several children's activities such as 18th-century children's games, and arts and crafts. My two oldest also attempted to write their names with a feather pen, which was much harder than they expected.
There are also two optional tours included in the admission ticket. The Plantation Community Tour, which takes 45 minutes, leads visitors down Mulberry Row, where slaves lived and worked. The houses and workshops that once lined Mulberry Row are no longer standing, but you can see some of the foundations.
My two oldest never knew slavery existed until this visit to Monticello, and it was certainly an eye-opening experience for them. While their young minds still can't comprehend the reality of what life was like as an enslaved person, hearing these stories and seeing where they labored was life-altering.
The Gardens and Grounds Tour, also 45 minutes, offers information about Monticello's vegetable and flower gardens, grove and orchards.
Our last stop at Monticello was the Griffin Discovery Room, a children's activity area, which features several reproductions from the house and plantation in a fun environment that is hands-on. Located on the lower level of the Smith Education Center, my kids played checkers, wrote their names with a polygraph machine and tried on 18th-century clothes.
* As a mom of three, I realize my definition of "fussy status" is very different than that of a person without children. I have a high tolerance for noise and a remarkable ability to tune it out. My survival and sanity depend on those skills. He didn't break any national treasures, lick the triple-sash windows designed by Jefferson or puke on the floor. I call that a success.
After our morning tour of Monticello, we drove a half-mile down Jefferson Parkway to Michie Tavern, whose motto is "where Southern hospitality prevails." We ate in the tavern's dining room, the Ordinary, and an dined on "hearty midday fare," a Southern-style buffet with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade biscuits, slaw, green beans, black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, hickory-smoked barbecue, beets and more. The food is created using 18th-century recipes. There isn't a separate children's menu, but my kids eagerly ate the biscuits, chicken and potatoes, and washed it down with mulled apple cider. Our servers, dressed in period attire, were extremely courteous, and the food was incredibly delicious. The fried chicken was quite possibly the best I've ever eaten (sorry, Grandma). I would have eaten a lot more, but our extremely tired and grumpy 19-month-old, who we nicknamed Captain Volatile after being ejected from the Monticello house tour, was getting louder by the minute, so we once again made quick exit.
With more time we would have toured the tavern, which was established in 1784 by Scotsman William Michie (pronounced Mickey) about 17 miles from Charlottesville. The tavern was moved to its present location in 1927. In its heyday, the tavern served as a gathering spot for travelers, locals and as a place where news was spread from Washington, Richmond and Philadelphia.
The tours are interactive and highlight many of the games and customs of 18th-century patrons. Young visitors will enjoy Michie Tavern's Treasure Hunt or dressing up in 18th-century apparel. Also be sure to visit The General Store, located in the Meadow Run Grist Mill behind the tavern, for a variety of products: meals/mixes, jams/jellies, jewelry, vintage toys, collectibles and more. The Tavern Gift Shop, adjacent to the Ordinary, specializes in items for history lovers such as Colonial-period dolls and Civil War-era gun reproductions.
And finally, there's The Clothier Shop, located on the Visitors Path, which sells a variety of period clothing as well as quilts, jewelry, books and more.
The University of Virginia
"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind." - Thomas Jefferson
After lunch, we decided to drive around the city to give our youngest a chance to take a much-needed nap in his car seat, and we made our way through the campus of the prestigious University of Virginia, established in 1819 by Jefferson. Not only did Jefferson conceive the university, but he also planned its curriculum, hired its first faculty and designed the buildings. The Rotunda, based on the Roman Pantheon, is perhaps the most notable sight on the college grounds, but the entire campus is an architectural landmark. In 1976, the American Institute of Architects said that the University of Virginia was "the proudest achievement of American architecture in the past 200 years."
Historic guided tours of the Rotunda take place every day when students are in session.
Virginia Discovery Museum
This is a wonderful children's museum geared toward ages 1-10, ideal for my family. There's a lot to see and do, and my kids were thrilled that it was very hands-on. It was a great place to unleash some bottled-up energy. The youngest explored the toddler pirate ship, designed specifically for the under-5 crowd, while my two oldest spent most of their time at the Barnyard Theater. They played dress-up with a variety of costumes and then performed songs and plays, highlighted by general silliness and lots of giggles. The museum also features a puppet tree, 18th-century cabin, walk-in kaleidoscope, art studio and more.
The highlight for the entire family was the observation beehive. It was fascinating to watch the honeybees hard at work, and the oldest used a magnifying glass to identify the queen bee. The hive was impressive, and my daughter loved being able to hear the collective hum that the bees made.
This 535-acre estate and home of James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president, is on my list of attractions to visit on our next trip to Charlottesville. In addition to touring the house, grounds and gardens, visitors can expect educational workshops such as candlemaking or farm tours to learn more about late 18th- and early 19th-century life.
I recommend staying in Charlottesville for a weeklong vacation if you are able. With only two days, our challenge was choosing what to do, with so many great choices in the city and surrounding area. Here are a few additional attractions to add to your list.
Montpelier - The lifelong plantation home of President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, has a 200-acre growth forest, archaeological sites, and cemeteries for the Madison families and slaves. www.montpelier.org.
Downtown Mall - The pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville features a variety of shops, restaurants, an ice-skating rink, cinema and more.
Blue Ridge Parkway - The parkway connects Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. The parkway also runs through George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Entrance is 22 miles west of Charlottesville. www.blueridgeparkway.org.
Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park - Skyline Drive is a 105-mile road that goes north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. Takes about three hours to travel. Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Skyline Drive entrance is 22 miles west of Charlottesville. www.nps.gov/shen/planyourvisit/driving-skyline-drive.htm
IF YOU GO
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902
On the Web: www.monticello.org
Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: Ticket prices vary according to season and type of tour. Buy online or same day.
House Tours and Grounds Ticket (daily): Adults, $17-$22; children 6-11, $8; under 6, free.
Signature Tours (May 5-Sept. 10): $45
Family-Friendly Tours (June 5-Sept. 6): Adults, $22; children 6-11, $8; under 6, free.
Presidents' Pass (a discount combination ticket to tour Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland and Michie Tavern's Museum.): Adults, $31-$36; Children 6-11, $17.50.
683 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902
On the Web: www.michietavern.com
Hours: The dining room is open seven days a week from 11:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. April through October and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. November through March. Tavern tours are available from 9 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. Interactive tours are available April through October, and self-guided tours are available November through March.
Admission: The price for tavern tour is included with purchase of Presidents' Pass. Without a Presidents' Pass tickets are adults, $9; children 6-11, $4.50; under 6, free. Dining costs (excluding tips) are adults, $16.25; children 6-11, $8.25; under 6, free.
The University of Virginia
On the Web: www.virginia.edu
Hours: Guided tours of the Rotunda take place every day when students are in session. Tours begin at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. inside the main entrance of the Rotunda.
Virginia Discovery Museum
East End of Downtown Mall
On the Web: www.vadm.org
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m.
Admission: $4 per person, all ages; under 1, free
1000 James Monroe Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902
On the Web: www.ashlawnhighland.org
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. April-October and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. November-March
Admission: Included with purchase of Presidents' Pass. Separate tickets are adults, $10; Children 6-11, $5
We stayed at the Comfort Inn-Monticello, which is three miles from Jefferson's estate. Staff members were extremely helpful and courteous. Rooms were clean and quite comfortable. We enjoyed the continental breakfast and wireless Internet.
2097 Inn Drive
Charlottesville, VA 22911
Other Charlottesville hotels include The Omni Charlottesville Hotel, Hampton Inn & Suites, Courtyard Charlottesville, Holiday Inn and more.