With the new visitor center opening at Monticello this week, now is the perfect time to plan a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia. IT Editor Janelle Nanos shares some of the highlights from her recent trip.
I’m no country bumpkin, but I do admit that I tend to feel a bit confined if I don’t get out of the city from time to time. So a few weeks ago, when I was looking for a weekend away, my boyfriend and I decided to check out the rumors about Virginia wine country and packed up our car for the three-hour drive down to Charlottesville.
Home to both the University of Virginia and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s quirky estate (did you know that both are World Heritage sites?), Charlottesville is a easy escape. Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, downtown C’ville, as it’s known to locals, is a hip mix of independent storefronts, a local theater and ice-skating rink, and a funky outdoor pavilion with free live performances every Friday during warmer months. Huge chalkboards along one stretch of the main thoroughfare encourage free speech – and the vibe is distinctly warm and friendly, even in February when I visited.
Pulling up to downtown C’ville and a bit hungry after the trip, we stumbled upon one of the best finds of the weekend: The delectable dumplings from Marco & Lucas. Cheap and hot, with a line of hungry college kids spilling out the door, this spot is located along the downtown pedestrian-only West Main Street, and they’re the best dumplings I’ve found in the (relative) D.C. area. When fried, they were like little crunchy pockets of heaven, and honestly, I’ve been craving them ever since. Unbeknownst to us, these dumplings would kick off the weekend’s theme: food and drink, as many of the adorable clothing shops closed early over the weekend. But that turned out to be just fine.
We were hoping to stay in a bed and breakfast, as there are dozens in the area, and were fortunate to find at room (on short notice) at the High Meadows Vineyard Inn in nearby Scottsville. Immediately taken with the periwinkle home with chartreuse shutters, I was even more smitten with our host, Nancy, who was incredibly warm and generous with her suggestions about where to visit in the area. Plus, she and her daughter make a mean breakfast – if you haven’t tried their broiled grapefruit drizzled with honey and cinnamon, book your reservation now (plus, they offer great mid-week deals).
There are dozens of fun restaurants to choose from downtown, but we were fortunate to find Zinc, a gastropub serving “Anglo-French tapas-style comfort food,” out of a converted car garage. The space is funky and sexily lit, and the menu is spectacular. The small-plate items often are served in the iron dinnerware they’re cooked in, and their moule-frites, cassoulet duck confit, and mac and cheese with gruyere were divine. It’s always hard to order dessert when you’re stuffed, but we were glad we followed with the tart tartin, an apple upside-down cake with creme fraiche.
Since one of our main goals was experiencing the area’s wines, the next morning we set off for a visit to the vineyards. Nancy immediately suggested Veritas, and honestly, we could have easily spent the entire afternoon on its gorgeous grounds. The winery has a huge open tasting room with plush leather couches and lofty ceilings; we cozied up in the corner not far from the fireplace and worked our way through several whites and reds. Our favorite, surprisingly, was a port wine called the Othello blended from three varietals. The $5 tasting fee goes toward a bottle purchase, so we picked one up to take home. The service was consistent and the staff knowledegable and friendly. Of all the wineries we visited, Veritas was certainly the best.
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But who are we to limit ourselves to wine alone? We also found a flight of tasty brews at the Blue Mountain Brewery, which was just down the road from Veritas. Tippling each beer from tiny glasses proved hunger-inducing, so we ordered up another spectacular find for the weekend – the Brat pizza – which takes the standard mozzarella and marinara and dresses it up with carmelized onions, apples, balsamic reduction and bratwursts made at a nearby farm. (Believe me, I’m also craving that pizza right now.)
Fortunately, we didn’t just eat and drink over the course of the weekend. We also visited the new visitors center at Monticello, which officially opens with a series of events on April 15th. The five red-brick pavilions which house films and exhibits about Jefferson’s life and home are arranged around a central square, and seek to blend in with the area’s forested surroundings. Two of the buildings have green roofs, and the site’s other sustainable elements include a geothermal heating and cooling system; locally-sourced, sustainably produced building materials; advanced storm-water removal; water conservation measures; enhanced waste-water treatment; and recycling protocols. The entire effect is sleek and contemporary, but with a rustic touch. You can’t help but think that Jefferson himself would have approved.
Photos: Janelle Nanos; Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Mary Porter