During our recent visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, where our daughter, Lia, lives and works, my wife, Catharine, and I had the chance to leave the city a bit and explore the attractions of the nearby region.
Since it was our third visit to Charlottesville, we had already toured Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the Jefferson-designed University of Virginia campus, sporting some of the country’s finest architecture. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Now it was time to see some of the nearby cities, take some scenic drives, negotiate some hiking trails, absorb some additional culture, visit some wineries, and even make a pilgrimage to the factory that produces my favorite potato chips. (Special thanks to Lia, her boyfriend, Mike, and their trusty Prius for chauffeuring us around.)
So here are my top six attractions all within an hour’s drive (and change) from Charlottesville — ideal for baby boomer travelers and their friends and families of just about any age:
- Shenandoah National Park: It takes only a half hour or so driving west to reach the southern entrance to the famous Skyline Drive, which winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 scenic miles as part of Shenandoah National Park. Allow plenty of time to make the drive itself, because the speed limit on the curvy road is 35 miles per hour. But you don’t have to do the whole drive to enjoy the park — there are plenty of places to get off and take a hike or enjoy panoramic views.
- Bonus: if you head south instead of north, you’ll enter the equally scenic (and equally meandering) Blue Ridge Parkway, but keep in mind that it continues south for 469 miles.
- Blackfriars Playhouse: Located in Staunton, Virginia, 45 minutes west of Charlottesville, the playhouse is the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s own indoor theater. The American Shakespeare Center, now celebrating its 15th year there, performs Shakespeare’s repertoire along with a few other plays throughout the year. The talented actors adhere to staging techniques much as they were done in Shakespeare’s day: the entire theater is lit throughout, allowing the actors to see and interact with the audience (and they do); scenery and props are minimal; costuming spans several historical periods; some members of the 15-person troupe double up on roles; and live music plays a prominent role. We saw a clever production of Twelfth Night, and loved it.
- Richmond: Virginia’s capital, Richmond, is an hour’s drive east of Charlottesville and well worth a visit. Don’t miss Monument Avenue, where century-old mansions line the leafy boulevard and several monuments honor prominent Civil War figures from Virginia such as Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson (the late African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, is also honored). Have dinner at Dutch and Company located in Richmond’s historic Church Hill District (400 N 27th St,), where I had one of my favorite restaurant meals in years — try the tasting menu, which changes based on what’s seasonal and local.
- Crabtree Falls: Located within George Washington National Forest, a bit more than an hour’s drive southwest of Charlottesville, Crabtree Falls is — in one sense — the tallest waterfall in the eastern U.S., falling over 1,000 feet. But it’s not a single drop — it’s divided into three sections, all of which you can hike along on a winding, sometimes rocky uphill trail that’s one of the most iconic in the entire state. The 3.4-mile round trip hike took us about three hours, including stops for scenery and snacks; I recommend bringing hiking sticks. If you still have energy and leg strength after reaching the top of the falls, you can continue on to meet the Appalachian Trail and climb to Spy Rock, known for its knockout 360-degree views.
- Wineries: A number of wineries dot the countryside around Charlottesville, and some of them come with interesting stories. At the King Family Vineyards in Crozet, just 15 minutes from Charlottesville, you can watch polo matches on summer Sunday afternoons, weather permitting. Blenheim Vineyards, about 20 minutes’ drive southeast of Charlottesville, is owned by musician Dave Matthews. Near Blenheim is Trump Winery — Donald Trump’s only winery — whose ads trumpet its “sophistication, quality, breathtaking scenery, and spectacular award-winning wine,” which is unusually understated for a Trump property. (Ironic fact: Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whom Trump has famously tangled with, live in Charlottesville.) For a delicious lunch with a view just 15 minutes’ south of Charlottesville, head to Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards, where the outdoor patio looks out over mountains and vineyards, the menu changes seasonally, and the wines are good, too.
- Route 11 Potato Chip Factory: My favorite potato chips –so named because the factory is just off Route 11 about an hour and a half northwest of Charlottesville in Mt. Jackson, VA — come in a variety of flavors. (I especially like the Dill Pickle favor, but the Salt and Vinegar, Sour Cream & Chive, and others are the height of chip heaven as well.) You can find them in Charlottesville stores, it’s true, but our trip there was like a pilgrimage to a sacred site, and I was able to order a boxful to send home and buy a T-shirt, too.) Besides, the mountain and valley scenery along the way is magnificent, and, on the way back to Charlottesville, you can stop for lunch at the Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, about a half hour west of town, where you can wash down your chips with a hand-crafted brew.)
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NOTE: Congrats to the National Park Service, celebrating its 100th anniversary August 25th. Shenandoah is just one of many national parks that have enriched my travels, and, I hope, all of yours.