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A Presidential Tour of Virginia

By James Thurston
updated September 29, 2021
governor, palace, colonial, williamsburg, virginia, brick, courtyard, thomas, jefferson
Paul Hakimata / Dreamstime.com
At George Washington's Ferry Farm, the Virginia plantation where the nation's first president lived as a boy, you learn some of his youthful secrets.

At George Washington's Ferry Farm, the Virginia plantation where the nation's first president lived as a boy, you learn some of his youthful secrets. Like the time he took a dip in the Rappahannock River, which flows past the farm, and two women from a neighboring town pilfered his britches. "It's in the court records," I was told as I toured there recently. Did the Father of Our Country scamper home unclothed? I wondered. On that we can only speculate. Part of the fun of traveling to historical places is coming across odd, sometimes gossipy—but always fascinating—stories like this one, which add flesh and blood to notables like Washington who figure so prominently in school texts. In Virginia, four of America's first five presidents almost seem to step from the pages of history at the plantation homes where they once lived. You can meet them on a seven-day, budget-priced driving tour, in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers.

The 500-mile loop itinerary out of Washington, D.C., takes you to Mount Vernon and two other plantations on which Washington lived; and on to Monticello, the gadget-filled home of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president. Settling nearby as neighbors—and good friends—were James Madison, the fourth chief executive, who called his mansion Montpelier, and James Monroe (the fifth) who retired to Ash Lawn-Highland. At these sites (and more), you learn about the everyday world of the men chosen to shepherd the new United States. The tour skips John Adams, the second president, who hailed from Massachusetts.

To see Virginia's presidential quartet, plan on staying two nights each in three small colonial-era cities—Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville. I've scouted out economy lodgings and good family-priced restaurants in each. Entrance fees at the presidential homes are modest. For recess from the history lessons, I've also pointed out inexpensive recreation. Outside Fredericksburg, take a cooling dip in lovely Lake Anna, a state park with an inviting sandy beach. Sample Virginia's fine vintages on a winery tour. Hike a shady segment of the famed Appalachian Trail not far from Monticello. Go tubing on the gentle James River. You'll mostly travel country roads past woodlands, fields, and pastures.

But the focus of this drive is on the men—and their wives—who helped create the nation. They have the continuing power to inspire. We see them both as the pedestaled icons they have become and as the real-life men and women they actually were. What struck me most as I recently revisited their homes is that they achieved so much while facing daunting personal problems: the early death of loved ones, troublesome debts, family squabbles. Poor Madison, I learned at Montpelier, had to put up with an alcoholic stepson addicted to gambling.

A disillusioning note is that all four-champions of freedom-kept slaves. This, too, is a story told at their plantations.

Fredericksburg

We know George Washington as a victorious general and astute president. But he was also a pioneering farmer, experimenting on new crops and methods of growing them. This is one of the stories told at Mount Vernon, the estate where he lived for 45 years. Little has changed, including the handsome furnishings in his white-pillared mansion (which you can tour) and its grand view across the Potomac River. Adult tickets from $17, kids ages 6-11 pay $8, $16 for seniors.

As a farmer, Washington was especially proud of the massive 16-sided treading barn he designed to keep his wheat crop safe from the weather. Destroyed in the nineteenth century, it was rebuilt recently—and visitors can now watch his innovative structure at work. As my wife and I stood in the center, piles of newly cut wheat stalks were spread on the nearly circular plank floor. Then a trio of large horses, treading in a circle around us, separated the grain. Kernels fell though gaps in the floorboards to collecting bins below.

Mount Vernon is 30 minutes south of Reagan National. You can stop for a half-day at the estate before continuing on for the evening to Fredericksburg, Washington's hometown. Devote the next day to visiting his boyhood homes: Popes Creek Plantation, where he was born, and Ferry Farm, where the family moved when he was six. Entrance to Popes Creek Plantation is free; admission to Ferry Farm is $8 for adults, $4 for students, and free for children under age 6.

Officially designated the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Popes Creek celebrates Washington's ancestors. His great-grandfather John, an English merchant seaman, was the first of the family to land in America in 1657, and he is buried here. The 550-acre park, about 38 miles east of Fredericksburg via Route 3, is maintained as a colonial-era farm with costumed interpreters. Devon oxen keep the grass mowed and a trio of turkeys struts. The river views are as lovely as Mount Vernon's. Pack a lunch and savor them at the picnic area.

From Popes Creek, return to 115-acre Ferry Farm, just outside Fredericksburg. As a youth, Washington learned to hunt, ride, and farm—the skills of Virginia gentry. Here, too, is where he may have chopped down a cherry tree-wild cherries still abound—and perhaps tossed a stone across the Rappahannock. The river is not wide, and his arm was strong. Time your visit so you can watch archaeologists dig for colonial artifacts.

In Fredericksburg's Historic District, you can also pick up the early footsteps of James Monroe. As a young man, he practiced law in the city. The James Monroe Museum, located at the site of his office, displays rich furniture pieces he took with him to the White House. As a history buff, I've known him as a statesman. But here I learned he was a Revolutionary War hero, wounded as a lieutenant the night Washington crossed the Delaware. His wife Elizabeth, so a guide told me, introduced place cards to society dining in America—etiquette she picked up when Monroe was minister to France. Admission is $5 for adults, $1 per child (ages 5 and under get in free).

Getting there
From Reagan National, take the George Washington Parkway/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway south through Alexandria to Mount Vernon. After touring, continue west on Route 235 to Route 1 south and follow signs to I-95 south. The beach at Lake Anna State Park is about 25 miles southwest of the city.

Where to Stay & Eat
Except in summer, try for one of the 26 fully equipped cabins at Westmoreland State Park near Popes Creek. Contact them for current rates. Eat at Yesterdays in nearby Montross. In Fredericksburg, well-priced motels are clustered at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443).  Near the motels, the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features southern cooking with full dinners under $9. In the Historic District, Sammy T's is a local favorite with a nineteenth-century look. Go for the quesadilla plate, $5.50.

Williamsburg

As the capital of England's richest American colony, Williamsburg drew important visitors. The footprints of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe crisscross often here. Many lodgings, taverns, and government offices they frequented have been rebuilt or restored to create Colonial Williamsburg, a 173-acre eighteenth-century town.

Washington served for 16 years in the House of Burgesses. Topped with a soaring cupola, Colonial Williamsburg's impressive brick capitol duplicates the one in which the burgesses met as revolutionary fervor grew in the 1770s. Jefferson and Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, adjacent to the Historic District. The school's beautiful eighteenth-century Wren Building, where they studied, is the oldest academic building in use in America. A lifelong scholar, Jefferson is credited with broadening the school's curriculum to include chemistry, medicine, and modern languages.

As Virginia's second state governor, Jefferson occupied the Governor's Palace that earlier had housed England's colonial governors. A beautifully symmetrical structure, which had to be rebuilt, it was one of America's most ornate residences. As you exit, take a stroll—as Jefferson may have—through the garden's holly bush maze. Washington and Jefferson were often guests at Raleigh Tavern, a popular gathering spot also authentically reconstructed. Step inside for a tour. As a student of 20, Jefferson is known to have spent at least one especially gala evening here dancing and drinking - to excess, it seems. After the night's revelry, he complained in a letter to a friend, "I could never have thought the succeeding sun would have seen me so wretched."

To meet Washington as a military commander, take the Colonial Parkway about 12 miles east to the Yorktown National Battlefield, where his troops won the war for independence in 1781. Stretch your legs as you walk among the still-evident trenches and earthworks he ordered dug beside the York River.

Getting there
Williamsburg and Yorktown are about 105 miles south of Fredericksburg via U.S. 17.

Where to Stay & Eat
Area motels are plentiful and inexpensive. Summer-season rates begin at about $30; at the 22-room Rochambeau (800/368-1055), $32; the 75-room Econo Lodge Pottery (757/564-3341), $60; the 39-room White Lion (800/368-1055), $44; and the 108-room King William Inn (800/446-1041), $65 weekdays/$79 weekends.

Dine one night at a colonial tavern. At Chowning's, full dinners begin at $14. A less expensive alternative, the Old Chickahominy House serves up a bountiful colonial lunch-fruit, Virginia ham, Brunswick stew, biscuits, homemade pie, and coffee—for $7.75. In Yorktown, meals at Nick's Seafood Pavilion, beginning at $7, come with a water view; a heaping seafood platter is $16.

Charlottesville

The homes of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all perch atop green hills with grand Blue Ridge views. Acres of fields and gardens surround them. So untouched is the setting, I find it easy to imagine each Founding Father is at home when I come calling.

Jefferson designed Monticello himself, adding to it for 40 years. More than any museum house anywhere, it reflects its master's inquisitive and industrious nature. He filled it with gadgets he designed, such as the giant clock over the front door that faces both inside and out. Indoors, the clock sports two hands; outside, he placed only an hour hand—since, to quote my guide Charlie Gay, "You only have to know the approximate time when you're working outdoors." A man with expensive tastes, Jefferson furnished his beloved retreat lavishly—and died deeply in debt. Admission from $25 for adults, $16 for children ages 12-18, $8 for children ages 5-11, children under five are free.

Two miles up the road, Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland is humbler, seated at the end of a long entrance drive lined with ash trees. Monroe, instrumental in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, held more major offices than any other president: senator, ambassador, governor, secretary of state, and secretary of war. His home displays many of the rich objects he and his wife acquired in their travels. In the drawing room stands a bust of Napoleon that the emperor himself gave to Monroe. Admission is $14 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-11, $12 for seniors over 60.

Madison's Montpelier is located 30 miles north near Orange. Take Route 20, a scenic byway. Its entrance marked with four soaring pillars, Montpelier is a stately structure with a dual personality. Madison's lifelong home, it was acquired subsequently by a horse-loving Delaware du Pont, who greatly enlarged it. Scholarly and introverted, Madison was complemented by his vivacious wife Dolley, a born hostess, according to my guide Bob Carr. Admission is from $18 for adults, $7 for children 6-14, and free for children under age 6.

Elsewhere in Charlottesville, the "academical village" Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia was cited in 1976 by the American Institute of Architects as "the proudest architectural achievement of the nation's first 200 years." His magnificent Rotunda is patterned after Rome's Pantheon. Jefferson so loved the university that he ordered "Founder of the University of Virginia" carved onto his Monticello tomb, ignoring his presidency. Two miles from Monticello, the city-run Monticello Visitor Center displays 400 original Jefferson objects.

As a study break, stop for a complimentary tasting at Jefferson Vineyards, a 50-acre vineyard near Monticello. After all, Jefferson is considered America's first wine connoisseur.

Or drive south 18 miles on Route 20 to Scottsville, where James River Runners will put you in a rubber tube on the James River. The fee is from $24 per tube. Just 18 miles west, hike along the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park.

Getting there
Charlottesville is 120 miles west of Williamsburg. The fastest way is via I-64; the most scenic, Route 6 west from Richmond. En route, stop in Richmond to see the neoclassical State Capitol Building Jefferson helped design when Richmond succeeded Williamsburg as the capital city. A famed full-size statue of Washington stands in the Rotunda.

Where to Stay & Eat
The 37-room Budget Inn (800/293-5144) is an easy walk from the college campus; $46 weekdays/$55 weekends. Other choices: On the northern outskirts, the 115-room Knights Inn (804/973-8133), $54 weekdays/$65 weekends, or the 65-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $49 weekdays/$59 weekends. In Orange, the new 65-room Holiday Inn Express (540/672-6691) occupies a Monticello-like hill with a view, $85.

Just outside Monticello, eighteenth-century Michie Tavern serves the same hearty buffet lunch daily. For $10.95 (adults), the bill of fare lists fried chicken, black-eyed peas, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, corn bread, stewed tomatoes, green beans, "tavern beets," and biscuits. Across the street from the UVA campus, join students for budget meals at the College Inn, a pub where the eight-ounce steak platter (fries, salad) comes to $9.50. Up the street, the Virginia offers a baby back rib plate for $8.95. An easy walk from the Knights Inn and Super 8, the Chiang House Restaurant features lemon chicken at $7.45. Next door, heap your plate high at the Wood Grill Buffet; a choice of salads, entrees, and desserts runs $7.99.

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Inspiration

Australia Wine Tours

Forget Fosters, the Australian beer. Oz is fast becoming famous for another tipple: wine. It's no secret to Aussies that their island's varied climate is apt for cultivating a plethora of premium vinos--they've been producing wine since the first grape vines arrived in 1788. But it wasn't until the past decade that word got out to the rest world and Australia's discreet winemaking production blossomed into the sixth largest in the world. From Chardonnay to Shiraz, Aussie wines are now known to be some of world's best, and the same can be said for the dozen or so beautifully rustic valleys where they are produced. Of course, vino is the star of the show in Australian wine country, where light quaffers and aficionados alike can revel in everything wine, from "cellar door" tastings and winery tours to leisurely strolls through the vineyards flanking rugged terrain. Luckily for travellers, three of Australia's most popular wine valleys are just a short drive outside its biggest cities-- Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. These palatable city escapes are worth more than just a daytrip, so follow our tips on how to spend a few solvent and maybe not-so-sober days on the trail of the Australian grape. Hunter Valley--114 miles (190 km) north of Sydney Set along the fertile flats of the Hunter River, the Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest commercial wine-producing region. Top-quality whites and reds have been pouring out of here since the 1830s; more recently tourists have been pouring in to visit the 80-plus wineries and cellar doors dotted among the rich vineyards and pastoral farmland. Two or three days will allow you to enjoy free wine tastings, terrific cuisine and beautifully varied scenery, but be warned: you'll want to stay longer. Highlights: The gateway to the valley is the south, known as the Lower Hunter. Over 50 wineries, including many well-known producers, are scattered over the rolling green hills around the towns of Cessnock and Pokolbin, leaving no shortage of cellar doors to visit and an array of wines to taste--Semillon, Shiraz, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir are just a few of the varieties produced in this region. Most wineries are open for tours and free tastings, so don't be shy about trying: it's perfectly acceptable to sample a few wines without buying a bottle. Of the many cellar doors in the Lower Hunter, don't miss a visit to the grand Rothbury Estate (Broke Rd., 02/4998 7555) in Pokolbin, renowned for its magnificent Shiraz and Great Cask Hall, a lofty dinning area bedecked with huge wooden barrels. The friendly staff leads free tours of the vineyards and winemaking process daily at 10:30am, followed by a tutored tasting. McGuigan Wines (Broke Rd. & McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 02/4998 7402, mcguiganwines.com.au/) has free tours at noon and several fine wines to taste--enjoy them on the spacious, farmhouse porch. There is also a cheese factory, fudge shop and bakery on site. The small and privately-owned Tamburlaine (McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 02/4998 7570, tamburlaine.com.au/) is one of the best boutique wineries in the area, offering an intimate setting to taste their award-winning vintages. Australian rural life prevails in the "Upper Hunter" to the north, with its sheep and cattle farms, small country towns and traditional homesteads. Nestled between verdant plains, farms and rugged bush, vineyards in the Upper Hunter are more spread out than their neighbors in the south but many come just for the sprawling Rosemount Estate (Rosemount Rd., Denman, 02/6549 6450, rosemountestates.com/). Home to world-famous wines, it overlooks a picturesque Upper Hunter panorama: flat, green plains flanked by steep mountains. Stop here to enjoy the view over a glass or two of chardonnay and Semillon. Dining: Locals and tourists agree that Il Cacciatore (Hermitage Lodge, Pokolbin), which means 'The Hunter' in Italian, prepares the best Tuscan food in the valley. Lunches start at $11, dinner is just a few dollars more. For Australian country-style cuisine with a gourmet twist The Cellar, an al fresco eatery nestled alongside the beautiful Hunter Valley Gardens, is a good choice (Pokolbin, 02/4998 7584; lunch from $8.00, dinner from $23). And for extra-fine dining there's Robert's Restaurant (Peppers Convent, Pokolbin, 02/4998 7330; lunch $12; dinner from $21; $3 per-person surcharge weekends and public holidays). Chef and owner Robert Molines has a talent for combing classic French and Australian dishes with the region's best wines. The dining room, decorated with a diverse collection of antiques, is almost as spectacular as the food. The Barossa--45km (28 miles) northeast of Adelaide Half of Australia's wines originate in South Australia, and a large number of the best vintages come from the shallow valleys of the Barossa, less than an hour outside of Adelaide. Softly sloping hills, rich soil and a temperate coastal climate have made the Barossa one of the best wine-producing regions in the country. When German Lutherans first settled the area in 1842, they brought not just their grapes, but cultural influence that still lingers today. In addition to its 50 wineries, the Barossa is known for its quaint valley towns, chock full beautiful 19th-century architecture, craft shops and traditional German eateries. Highlights: The wine industry in the Barossa is focused around the towns of Angaston, home to two the Barossa's oldest wineries; Nuriootpa, the valley's commercial centre; and Tanunda, the nearest town to Adelaide. Like the Hunter, the Barossa offers a dazzling choice of wines to sample--Shiraz, Grenache, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Frontigac are just some of the favored varieties. Wineries range from huge, big-label vineyards to small mom-and-pop cellar doors, literally all of which offer tastings and tours. One of Australia's largest wine producers, Penfolds (Tanunda Rd., Nurioopta, 08/8568 9408, penfolds.com.au/) houses the largest oak maturation cellars in the Southern hemisphere. History tours show off the 20-acre grounds, cellars and the Penfolds museum (four times Mon-Fri, three times on weekends; adults $5, children $1.50), though tasting Penfolds superior wines, including the famous Penfolds Grange, is the real highlight. Follow the avenue of conspicuous-looking palms trees to Seppelts (Seppeltsfield, Nurioopta, 08/8568 6217, seppelt.com.au/), a historic complex of stone buildings built in 1857. After a 'structured tasting' of five Seppelt premium wines ($4.50 per person), don't miss the tour around the gardens and bluestone buildings (three times daily; adults $5, children $1.50). Yaldara Wines (Barossa Valley Highway, 08/8524 0200, yaldara.com.au/), just outside the small town of Lyndoch, is home to another architectural feat: an impressive European-style chateau, surrounded by vineyards, housing a fine collection of art and antiques (daily guided tours at 10:15am & 1:30pm, adults $4.75) Dining: Set along the vineyards, the Vintners Bar & Grill (Nuriootpa Road, Angaston, 08/8564 2488, meals from $18) features fresh regional produce and a six-page wine list. It's my top choice, but there's also Salters Restaurant (Satram Winery, Nuriootpa Road, Angaston, 08/8564 3344, mains from $8) which united Mediterranean and traditional German cuisine featuring seasonal Barossa produce, smoked meats and wood-fired pizzas. Yarra Valley--38 miles (61 km) east of Melbourne At the foot of the striking Dandenong Ranges (and just an hour outside Melbourne) lies one of Australia's best cool-climate wine regions: the Yarra Valley. Dubbed the fastest-growing wine region in Australia, Yarra Valley has long been producing great wine, but it wasn't until the 1980s that the region really began to grow, not only in terms of sales but in taste and range. Today, the rolling hills of Yarra Valley house over 50 wineries and you'll find a thriving 'vineyard culture' has also developed here, thanks to the luxuries that accompany premium wine-making: gourmet restaurants (featuring delicious local produce), historic houses, rambling gardens, and crafts shops. Visiting Melburnians bring their cosmopolitan chic, but while Yarra Valley is still young, the atmosphere is pleasantly unpretentious. Enjoy it before it gets glamorized. Highlights: The majority of the wineries, from boutiques to grand estates, are scattered between the towns of Coldstream, Yarra Glen and Dixons Creek, connected in triangle by the valley's major roads. The valley is hailed for its spectacular cold-climate varieties, including sparkling wines, chardonnays, pinot noirs and cabernets. A good number of the smaller wineries are only open for tastings, while most of the big-label producers offer vineyard tours. One of the area's most famous wineries, Domaine Chandon (Maroondah Highway, Coldstream, 03/9739 1110, domainechandon.com.au/, open 10:30am - 4:30pm) revamped a 19th century homestead to build its striking, multi-million dollar complex in the heart of Yarra Valley. The highlight of the new architecture is undoubtedly the Green Point Room, with its soaring glass windows looking out onto the vineyards. Unfortunately, tasting Chandon's superb sparkling wines comes at a cost (you have to purchase a flute or a bottle), but visitors can take a free self-guided tour of the bottling area and riddling hall cellar. Rows of Manchurian pear trees lead the way to De Bortoli (Melba Highway, Dixons Creek, 03/5965 2271, debortoli.com.au/), maker of many premium wines, including the excellent Yarra Valley Chardonnay. There are guided tours of the winery daily at 11 am and 3pm, weather permitting, followed by a tutored tasting at the long bar made from recycled wine vats. Don't miss the excellent onsite restaurant for lunch or dinner (see 'Fact File'). Steep, closely-planted vineyards are the trademark of Coldstream Hills (31 Maddens Ln., Coldstream, 03/5964 9410, coldstreamhills.com.au/), one of Yarra's leading small wineries. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the best bets for the free tasting, though more serious wine buffs will want to sample the selection of reserves and vintages for $3.50. Dining: Tasty local produce along with fruits from the owner's orchard give customers at the Mediterranean-style Eyton on Yarra (Maroondah Highway and Hill Road, Coldstream, (03/5962 2119; mains from $16) more than enough reason to "eat their vegetables". A top choice. There's also De Bertoli (Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek, 03/5965 2271, meals from $14) which as you may guess from the name, serves Italian fare. A highlight of this restaurant? The stunning views of surrounding vineyards and mountain ranges. Finally, for a quick lunch pop inot the friendly Fergusson of Yarra Glen (Wills Road, Yarra Glan, 03/5965 2237, meals from $9).

Inspiration

Exploring Shenandoah Country

Fabled in song and story-remember Shenandoah! the movie (with James Stewart) and Broadway musical?-Virginia's Shenandoah Country welcomes visitors with a full agenda of compelling things to see and do: Civil War history, wine tastings, nineteenth-century villages, cave tours, antiques shopping, a museum filled with colorful Rose Parade floats, tubing on the Shenandoah River, a visit to a gourmet potato chip factory. Happily, many of these activities are free, and the rest won't bust your budget. Similarly, chain motels quoting rates of $55 to $65 for two are plentiful, and you can dine nightly on roast ham, fried chicken, tasty pork barbecue, and other Virginia treats for about $10 per person. Consider this four-day, 450-mile drive a down-home getaway. By Shenandoah Country, I mean both Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah National Park. The 110-mile-long valley is tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. Traced by the meandering Shenandoah River, it is a popular regional playground. The national park embraces a 100-mile stretch of the Blue Ridge, where forested peaks climb above 4,000 feet. On this circle tour, you will drive south through the valley and return north on Skyline Drive, the park's scenic ridgetop road. A fertile region of farms and orchards set among green, rolling hills, the Shenandoah Valley has played an important role in American history. In the early eighteenth century it was the raw frontier, where a young Colonel George Washington commanded Virginia troops during the French and Indian War. In the Civil War, it became the breadbasket of the Confederacy, feeding General Robert E. Lee's troops until almost the end. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Lee's valued lieutenant, earned his first laurels defending the valley. Both are buried in Lexington, a pretty Shenandoah Valley college town that today is something of a Southern Civil War shrine. In a hurry, you can drive the length of the valley from Winchester in the north to Lexington in the south in a little over two hours on busy I-81. But on this trip, we'll stick mostly to U.S. 11, the Old Valley Pike, a lightly traveled, mostly two-lane road that covers the same route at a more leisurely pace. As a city dweller, I often pull over to watch newborn farm animals-calves, colts, kids, and lambs-scampering in the fields. Getting started Fly into one of the Washington, D.C., area's three airports. Generally, the best fares are available into Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) in suburban Maryland, a hub for Southwest Airlines, America's largest discount airline. America West, another discounter, also operates out of BWI. But the most convenient airport is Washington Dulles International (IAD) in suburban Virginia, served by a trio of discount carriers: AirTran, America West, and JetBlue. Discounters ATA and America West fly into Washington's third airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA), just minutes from the White House and the U.S. Capitol. This drive begins at Dulles, located less than an hour from Shenandoah Valley. Dulles is 60 miles from BWI and 35 miles from Reagan National. Rental cars average $175 a week at various Dulles counters. Day one: On the road From Washington Dulles International Airport to Winchester, Virginia, 60 miles. The drive gets off to a scenic start, crossing through Virginia's affluent horse country. Stately stone mansions stand surrounded by acres of broad green pastures, where aristocratic-looking steeds graze contentedly. Jacqueline Kennedy lived and rode here. To view the rich, stop in Middleburg, the hub of the horsey set. Browse its elegant antiques shops just to see the museum-quality items for sale. A few miles west, the road (U.S. 50) skirts the little village of Paris and climbs a modest Blue Ridge pass called Ashby Gap. From the summit, you descend into the Shenandoah Valley. In minutes, you will cross the Shenandoah River, which flows rather lazily in summer en route to its confluence with the Potomac River. This drive crisscrosses the Shenandoah many times. Winchester claims to be the first city established west of the Blue Ridge. At least eight structures in the Old Town district date back to the late 1700s. Among them is George Washington's Office, a log-and-stone cabin preserved as a museum (adults, $5). It focuses on the year 1755 to 1756, when Washington was assigned to protect the western frontier from attack. Nearby, the white home with a cannon on the lawn is Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters (540/667-3242; $5), a museum detailing Jackson's stay from 1861 to 1862, when his troops fought off Union attempts to seize the valley. Winchester is said to have changed hands more than 70 times during the Civil War. Country music fans will want to see the home, grave site, and other landmarks celebrating the life of singer Patsy Cline, who was born and raised in Winchester. Pick up free brochures about local area attractions at the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center (800/662-1360; 1360 S. Pleasant Valley Rd.). Details From Dulles, take Virginia Route 28 south five miles to U.S. 50 west to Winchester. Stay at the 113-room Red Roof Inn (540/667-5000), $60; or the 62-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $55 weekdays, $65 weekends. Dine with the local folks at the friendly, funky Amherst Diner (540/665-4450), where the pork chop plate with dressing and vegetables is priced at an easy $7.25. More romantic is the Cork Street Tavern (540/667-3777). Try the broiled trout at $9.95. Information 800/662-1360, visitwinchesterva.com. Day two: Winchester to Lexington, 160 miles Today's drive mostly follows U.S. 11 past prosperous farms and quiet nineteenth-century towns, each with a special attraction. Still a breadbasket, the Shenandoah Valley markets lots of locally grown produce. But perhaps its most famous edibles are the gourmet potato chips made at Route 11 Potato Chips, a small factory in Middletown, just south of Winchester. The chips are fried the old-fashioned way-hand-stirred in small batches in bubbling kettles. Visitors can watch through the kitchen window (no charge). Samples on Friday and Saturday; best to come before 11 a.m. On October 19, 1864, Middletown was the setting for the last great Civil War battle in the valley, when the North finally claimed victory. The story is told at the Cedar Creek Battlefield Visitor Center ($5), which overlooks a landscape little changed since then. In the distance stately Belle Grove ($7), an eighteenth-century plantation home, is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You don't have to tour the house to enjoy its magnificent Blue Ridge views. Walk among the gardens and orchards at no cost. Both sites are part of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park. Down the road in Strasburg, browse the Great Strasburg Antiques Emporium, where 100 dealers display objects (some expensive, most not) from America's past. My wife frequently snaps up fancy porcelain serving dishes at a bargain. Treat the kids to a swim at Half-Moon Beach Park ($5 adult, $3 ages four to nine, add $2 on weekends), a 16-acre rock-quarry lake in the woods with a five-acre white-sand beach. It's the Strasburg swimming pool. On to Edinburg, home of Shenandoah Vineyards. In recent years, Virginia's more than 70 wineries have begun winning raves for quality vintages. Judge for yourself at the vineyard's rustic tasting room, a red barn in the midst of 40 acres of grapevines. I stopped recently to sample a fruity Chardonnay and the offbeat Shenandoah Ruby. No charge for tasting, and the view is grand. Now it's the youngsters' turn for fun again. Take them to American Celebration on Parade ($8), a massive museum of famous parade floats located south of Mount Jackson. The museum displays 27 huge floats, all but three of which appeared in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. I'm a Northerner, and my sympathies do not lie with the Confederate cause. This said, I can admit that I came away touched by the story told at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park ($8) in New Market. On May 15, 1864, a band of 247 teenage cadets, hastily assembled at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, charged an attacking Union line and helped win a Southern victory. The Visitor Center movie, Field of Lost Shoes, which focuses on the death of one young Confederate hero, is especially poignant. Enough sightseeing for the day? Relax and enjoy the scenery as you cover the remaining 75 miles to Lexington. En route, take a look at Staunton's beautifully restored nineteenth-century town center. And connect here to Virginia Route 252 to Lexington, one of the valley's loveliest roads. A twisting, two-lane pathway, it tops a series of rolling hills, yielding a view of farm-country America as beautiful as you could hope to find. Every turn presents a landscape worthy of a painting: a grand old farmhouse on the far hilltop; a tall, brick silo looking worn but solid; bales of hay rolled up in the fields; a pasture of Black Angus cattle knee-deep in lush, green grass; lots of sheep, of course; Moffatts Creek tumbling by the roadside; and thick stands of trees, where the branches reach across the road to form a shimmering tunnel in the sunlight. Details From Winchester, take U.S. 11 south to Staunton, connecting to Virginia Route 252/39 into Lexington. Stay in Lexington at the 50-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $65 weekdays, $72 weekends; or the 148-room Red Oak Inn (800/521-9131), $65 weekdays, $75 weekends. Dine at Aunt Sarah's Restaurant (540/464-5227); the cod plate is $7. Information 877/453-9822, lexingtonvirginia.com. Day three: Blue Ridge Vistas Lexington to Skyland Resort, 140 miles Spend the morning touring Lexington on foot. Pick up a map at the Visitor Center (106 E. Washington St.). Visit Robert E. Lee's tomb at Washington and Lee University, where Lee served as president after the Civil War, and the Stonewall Jackson House ($5), which Jackson bought when he was a professor at Virginia Military Institute. Pay your respects, too, to their famous horses. Lee's horse Traveller is buried on the grounds of Washington and Lee; Jackson's mount, Little Sorrel, stands as if alive at the VMI Museum. In a glass case nearby is the raincoat Jackson was wearing when he was accidentally shot. Look for the fatal bullet hole below the left shoulder. From Lexington, begin the return trip north on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We will cover only 20 miles of the famed 469-mile ridgetop parkway, but it's enough to give you a taste of this spectacular drive. Keep an eye open for deer, which are plentiful. Glide down from the mountains on Virginia Route 56 to Vesuvius to visit the McCormick Farm (no charge) in yet another gorgeous pastoral setting. Here in 1831 Cyrus McCormick demonstrated the first successful mechanical grain reaper in the fields near his farm. Tour his blacksmith shop and gristmill, and a museum. Head back into the mountains at Waynesboro, southern gateway to Shenandoah National Park. The park's 105-mile Skyline Drive was built to show off the scenery. Flowing like a stream among the rocky peaks, it offers grand valley views. Far below, green pastures and golden fields form a patchwork quilt, and the Shenandoah River makes silvery loops. Skyline tempts motorists to stop at nearly 80 overlooks. That's one way to see the park. The best way, though, is to go for a walk in the woods. About 28 miles into the park, Ivy Creek Overlook provides an opportunity to hike a short, rock-strewn stretch of the Appalachian Trail. You might bump into a bear here, but don't count on it. Tonight's stay is in the park. At dusk, watch the lights twinkle on in the valley. Details From Lexington, take U.S. 60 east to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Travel 20 miles north and exit on Virginia Route 56 west. At Steeles Tavern take U.S. 11/340 north to Waynesboro and the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. Follow Skyline Drive to Skyland Resort. Stay at 174-room Skyland (800/999-4714), beginning at $55 weekdays, $70 weekends. Also in the park is 97-room Big Meadows Lodge (800/999-4714), beginning at $70 weekdays, $85 weekends. Dine with a grand view at Skyland Resort or Big Meadows. At Skyland, the fried-chicken plate with apple fritters is $9.55. Information 540/999-3500, nps.gov/shen. Day Four: On the River Skyland Resort to Dulles Airport, 100 miles From Skyland, drop back down into the valley for one last look. In Luray, consider a one-hour tour of Luray Caverns ($16), which claims to be the region's largest cave. A guide leads the way through cathedral-size chambers of fantastical stone formations. Easier on the budget is the adjacent Garden Maze ($5), a one-acre footpath puzzle formed by eight-foot-tall evergreens. Save time for a Shenandoah River trip. At Bentonville, 14 miles north, Downriver Canoe Company (800/338-1963, downriver.com) will put you on the Shenandoah in a canoe, rubber raft, kayak, or inner tube. A three-mile, three-hour tube float with shuttle service costs $14 per person. Or plan a picnic at Shenandoah River State Park ($3 per car), which boasts five miles of river frontage. And then head for the airport and home. Details From Skyland Resort, head north ten miles, exiting west to Luray on U.S. 211. From Luray, take U.S. 340 north through Bentonville to Front Royal. Return to Dulles quickly on I-66 east to Virginia Route 28 north.

Inspiration

Santa Fe and Taos

The beauty of northern New Mexico's high deserts and mountains enchanted artist Georgia O'Keeffe when she first visited Santa Fe and Taos, and she made this majestic landscape her home-and the subject of many of her paintings-for almost the last four decades of her life. Ah, Georgia, I thought repeatedly as I recently toured what fans like me now call "O'Keeffe Country," if only I could sta y on as you did. Futile dream that one, but at least I got to live it for a few days. And you can, too. Although Santa Fe and Taos rank today as highly sophisticated arts-oriented communities, they prove surprisingly easy on the wallet. Except for the celebrated stars, many painters, sculptors, and other artists tend to struggle on modest incomes, I've been told. As a result, visitors can find quality lodging and dining at budget rates. For all its ritzy appeal, New Mexico counts as one of America's cheaper vacation places. Figure on paying about $45 to $60 a night in summer to rent a double in a name-brand motel and under $10 per person for a heaping dinner plate of tacos, enchiladas, and other Mexican dishes savored in the Southwest. Much of the art-as intriguing as it is fun-can be viewed for free in dozens of galleries in both towns. On a recent Friday night in Santa Fe, my wife and I went gallery hopping, sipping complimentary champagne or ginger ale and nibbling hors d 'oeuvres at a series of public art-show debuts. For an hour or two we felt like locals, chatting with the artists and gallery owners. A resident of New York in her younger years, O'Keeffe learned to drive when she moved to New Mexico, turning her car into a mobile studio. To aid you in seeing the settings she captured on canvas-pink rock cliffs, adobe churches, the Ghost Ranch-what follows here is a relaxed, four-day, 475-mile driving tour that focuses both on O'Keeffe Country's vibrant cultural wealth and the scenic grandeur that captivated her. This is a trip for art lovers in a rugged land that also draws lots of hardy backpackers, mountain bikers, and white-water enthusiasts. In O'Keeffe's footsteps, you will have a chance to watch expert pottery makers at work on Pueblo Indian reservations scattered along the famed Rio Grande River. At Bandelier National Monument, ascend a lofty Pueblo-style ladder into the cave dwelling of the ancient Anasazi, predecessors of the Puebl o people. In the village of Abiquiu, join an escorted tour of O'Keeffe's home, studio, and garden, kept as they were at her death at age 98 in 1986. In Santa Fe, walk half-mile-long Canyon Road, perhaps America's densest concentration of art galleries. Giant outdoor sculptures-the odd, whimsical, and realistic-line the way. (I've been amazed by a sculpture garden filled with massive metal bugs.) In Taos, try your luck at the slot machines at Taos Mountain Casino, operated by the Taos Pueblo. The nickel bandits can't do much damage to your wallet. In my mind (and surely O'Keeffe's), northern New Mexico's summer climate-sunny, dry, and mild-is almost reason enough to go, or to settle in as she did. When you're calculating costs, this bonus treat is free. Getting started On the Internet, both Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com) and Alamo (800/327-9633, alamo.com) quote the same midsummer rate: $167 a week for a compact car with unlimited miles. Budget (800/527-0700, budget.com) comes in at just a couple of bucks higher. June lodging rates tend to be slightly cheaper than rates in July and August. Last-minute bookings shouldn't be a problem, except during special events such as the annual Santa Fe Indian Market in late August. Most budget properties are a five- to ten-minute drive from the historic district. But in little Taos, parking is free on side streets. In Santa Fe, municipal lots charge $1.20 an hour; maximum, $6 a day. Museum and pueblo entrance fees can mount up. Most charge $5 to $10 per adult, though some are less. The heftiest fee ($22) is for a tour of O'Keeffe's home in Abiquiu. Day one: On the road Skilled pottery makers, the Acomas encourage outsiders to visit Sky City, where many market their craft. But you can enter only in small, hour-long group tours (505/552-6604; $10 adults, $6 children). Once, only guarded secret trails ascended the heights; today, a paved road from the visitors center climbs in steep curves, and outsiders are escorted up in a small bus. But at tour's end, the sure-footed are invited to descend one of the old paths. Acoma pottery is noted for its extreme thinness and for the intricate geometric designs painted in black, red, and shades of orange. If the prices are too hefty, indulge instead in a big pumpkin cookie homemade by a villager. The stop at Acoma introduces you to one of the native peoples of New Mexico. Now double back through Albuquerque to Santa Fe to meet the cultures that moved in on them. First came the Spanish, who founded Santa Fe in 1607 (13 years before the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock). Mexico wrested the trading post from Spain in 1821, and the United States snapped it up in the Mexican-American War of 1846. The cultural mix is credited with sparking the city's artistic vitality. Set at 7,000 feet at the base of the pi-on- and juniper-clad Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe is one of this country's prettiest cities, and yet it looks absolutely foreign-a blend of Pueblo adobe, old Mexico, and the Frontier West. You can wander the meandering streets for hours (and for free), absorbing the wonderful architectural details. Look for lovely, hand-carved wood doors, graceful arched gateways, tiled fountains, and color-filled flower gardens tucked behind pink adobe walls. Spend what's left of your first day exploring the bustling, gallery-lined streets around the Palace of the Governors, which overlooks the Santa Fe Plaza. Built by the Spanish in 1610, the elegantly simple Palace is believed to be the oldest building in the country in continuous public use. Once it housed the Spanish governor; now it is a museum of Southwestern history (105 W. Palace Ave., 505/476-5100; $7 adults, children under 16 free). Dozens of tribal members sell their crafts daily from beneath its portal. Handmade pottery can be pricey, but we recently bought a delightful little bowl from a Jemez Pueblo potter for just $40. By law, crafts sold under the portal must be authentic. Details From the Albuquerque airport, take I-40 west to the Acoma Pueblo. Return to Albuquerque via I-40 and connect to I-25 north to Santa Fe. Stay about a ten-minute drive from the Plaza at the 96-room Super 8 (3358 Cerrillos Rd., 505/471-8811), $61; or the 104-room Motel 6 (3007 Cerrillos Rd., 505/473-1380), $50 weekdays, $60 weekends. Information 800/777-2489, santafe.org. Day two: A world of art But first, check out the major museums. Near the plaza, a must for O'Keeffe fans is the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St., 505/946-1000; $8 adults, children under 17 free), America's first museum dedicated to the work of a woman artist. You will see some of her most famous works, including Jimson Weed, a white blossom that fills the canvas. My favorite museum, though, is the fun-filled Museum of International Folk Art (710 Camino Lejo, 505/476-1200; $7 adults, children under 17 free) on Museum Hill, a short drive from the plaza. The world's largest collection of folk objects, it features a colorful miniature Mexican village-cathedral, train station, marketplace, and dozens of little townsfolk-all crafted by noted potters. Take the youngsters to this one. Near the plaza, save at least an hour for a stroll up Canyon Road and its dazzling array of outdoor sculpture. End the day with dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame (319 S. Guadalupe St., 505/982-2565), a down-home barbecue place with plenty of Southwestern spice. The bourbon-splashed salmon plate is $9.95. Day three: O'Keeffe country Out of your price range? Mine, too, but you'll find small pieces by other, less prestigious San Ildefonso potters for under $100. Even if you don't buy, you can me et them in their workshops, which in most cases is in their home, and watch them at work. First pay the parking fee at the visitors center (505/455-3549; $3 per car), and then pick up a map for a walking tour. You are welcome to enter any home or shop with a "Pottery-Open" sign on the front. You will be treated like a guest. Then it's back in the car and on to the Anasazi ruins and caves at Bandelier National Monument ($10 per car). They are set deep in narrow Frijoles Canyon, which is cut by a burbling mountain stream. You'll clutch the steering wheel as the road suddenly drops over a high ledge into the canyon. A mile-long trail traces the base of the cliff, where Pueblo-style wooden ladders provide somewhat tricky access to the caves. At some points, the route edges between rock walls so narrow you momentarily have to suck in your stomach and twist your hips to slip through. As you head now for the little village of Abiquiu to tour O'Keeffe's winter home (505/685-4539, ad vance reservations required; $22 per person), you are likely to spot views that you saw in her paintings hanging in the Santa Fe museum. The Pedernal, a lofty mesa shaped like a ship's smokestack, is instantly recognizable. On the hour-long tour of the modest adobe, the sensation is much the same. The guide stops at a courtyard door, holding up photos of O'Keeffe's impressionistic renderings of this very door. A few steps away, a jimson weed bush displays its exuberant white blooms; perhaps it was the model for the museum's Jimson Weed. And those elk horns on the wall look familiar. In summer, O'Keeffe moved 12 miles north to Ghost Ranch, once a guest ranch and now a church-run conference center set on 21,000 wilderness acres. Currently the summer home-owned by the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum-is not open to visitors. But you are invited to drive onto the ranch for a look at the white cliffs and other landscape features O'Keeffe painted. We recently bought a picnic lunch at the Ab iquiu General Store and ate at the ranch under a shady cottonwood. From Ghost Ranch, take the northern route through Tierra Amarilla to Taos. The winding, empty road cuts across Carson (as in Kit Carson) National Forest, climbing high into the mountains for a spectacular view of the sheer Brazos Cliffs. And then it drops back down onto the desert plateau, where it takes a giant leap across the 650-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge, a mini Grand Canyon, just outside Taos. Details From Santa Fe, take U.S. 285 north. Just south of Espanola, pick up Route 502 east to San Ildefonso. To continue to Bandelier, take Route 502 to Route 4 south, following the signs. To Abiquiu, follow the signs back to Espanola via Routes 4, 502, and 30, connecting to U.S. 84 north. To Ghost Ranch and Taos, continue north on U.S. 84 to U.S. 64 east. Stay in Taos at the 37-room Days Inn (1333 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, 505/758-2230), $60; the 50-room Super 8 (1347 S. Santa Fe Rd., 505/758-1088), $62; or the 60-ro om, close-in El Pueblo Lodge (412 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 800/433-9612), $69. Dine just off the plaza at Michael's Kitchen (304 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 505/758-4178), a local hang-out oozing Taos style. The enchilada plate, $8.65. Information 800/732-8267, taosguide.com. Day four: Frontier flavor Begin the day with a visit to Taos Pueblo, three miles north of town (505/758-1028; $10 adults, children under 13 free). Tu cked at the foot of 12,282-foot Taos Mountain, the pueblo's two five-story adobe structures-the finest examples of Pueblo architecture anywhere-are believed to date back at least to 1450. Without plumbing or electricity, they remain home to about 150 people. A guide escorts you on a short tour of the grounds; afterward, you can get a peek inside the ancient condominiums by visiting the pottery and other crafts shops on the first floor. If you visit only one Taos museum, make it the Ernest L. Blumenschein Home and Museum near the plaza (222 Ledoux St., 505/758-0505; $5 adults, $3 children ages 6 to 16). Blumenschein was one of the creators in 1915 of the Taos Society of Artists, a group that began the flow of artists to New Mexico. The adobe home, rooms of which date back to 1731, is fascinating itself as an example of the territorial style. Its walls are hung with examples of the society's paintings-many of them highlighting the same scenes you still see today on Taos streets . The one gallery not to miss is the neighboring Navajo Gallery (210 Ledoux St., 505/758-3250) owned by Navajo artist R.C. Gorman, Taos's most famous and successful artist. His brightly colored canvases of tribal women in traditional dress sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Make the San Francisco de Asis Church (505/758-2754; $3 adults, children under 12 free) the final stop before heading back to Albuquerque. Located four miles southwest of Taos in Ranchos de Taos, the old adobe church is the subject of countless paintings-the most prominent of which, of course, is one by O'Keeffe. She was awed by its beauty, as I've been, and you will be, too. Details From Ranchos de Taos, take the scenic High Road through mountains and meadows back to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Follow Routes 518 and 76 to Espanola, connecting to U.S. 84/285 and I-25 south. Stay in Albuquerque at the 243-room Super 8 Midtown (2500 University Blvd. NE, 505/888-4884), $50; or the 109-room Motel 6 Coors Road West (5701 Iliff Rd. NW, 505/831-8888, $50. Information 800/284-2282, itsatrip.org.

Inspiration

Hidden California: The Anza-Borrego Desert

When you hear the words "Palm Canyon Drive," you probably think of the main drag in Palm Springs, with its Rolls Royces, expensive department stores and leather-skinned ladies with Gucci bags and too much jewelry. But did you know there's another Palm Canyon Drive in another California desert community that is known more for its casual, friendly locals, rustic, inexpensive motels, and charming hole-in-the-wall eateries? Yep, if you're looking for the ultimate in quiet, relaxing, low-frills/low-cost desert getaways, don't head for the Palms, consider the "other" Springs: Borrego Springs, a tiny but scenic and well-equipped, visitor-friendly desert town happily isolated within the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- America's largest desert state park. Borrego Springs -- known to most of the locals simply as Borrego -- is what Palm Springs probably was, say, 50 years ago. But it's doubtful if Palm Springs was ever this charming, this peaceful. Borrego is surrounded by rocky peaks inhabited by rare bighorn sheep and blessed with a bountiful array of nature's wonders. A two-hour drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles, Borrego provides an old-school desert ambiance that reinvigorates the spirit and refreshes the mind. There are no traffic signals in sun-drenched Borrego, no Starbucks, no long lines, and, as a result, no stress. All you need to remember are these three magic words: relax, explore, save. Pillow talk Borrego offers several economical lodging options, perhaps the best being Palm Canyon Resort on Palm Canyon Dr., 800-242-0044. With rooms as low as $70 a night, the Palm Canyon, which looks like an Old West town from the outside, offers a pool, BBQ area and fully stocked fitness area for all guests, and each room is equipped with a refrigerator, fresh brewed coffee and hair dryers. Another inexpensive but comfortable option is the Stanlunds Resort Inn and Suites on Borrego Springs Rd., 760-767-5501. The Standlunds, whose October-May rates are as low as $75 a night, offers a pool, private patios, a BBQ facility, continental breakfasts on weekends, and coffee in all rooms. And it, too, is right in the heart of town. But the real story in Borrego is the surrounding Anza-Borrego desert and its open-camping policy, which means you're free from the restrictions of designated campground areas found at more densely populated parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia. Visitors to this state park can explore a virtually limitless range of camping experiences unmatched anywhere in the country. There are also plenty of RV spaces. Campers can call 767-5311 for more information. The blossoming desert An early spring trip to Borrego is what we advise. In the spring, there are all kinds of things to do and see. The desert and mountain wildflower season, which runs from February through April, is a sight to behold. Bring your camera. A favorite annual spring event is the Grapefruit Festival, the third week of April. Capping off the wildflower season, the festival includes special events live music, dances, a tennis tournament, picnic, classic car show, youth games, interpretive programs at the state park, and more. And both you and the kids will love going "critter watching." Who says there's no life in the desert? Borrego is loaded with wildlife in the spring. Just driving through town, you'll see coyotes -- don't worry, they're more scared of you than you are of them -- as well as road runners, jack rabbits, and much more. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers a virtually limitless range of jaw-dropping scenery. Highlights include Font's Point, Borrego Palm Canyon, 17 Palm Oasis, Southern Emigrant Trail and Split Mountain. The park also offers a wide variety of programs, films, tours, etc., covering areas such as paleontology, geology, animal/plant life, astronomy, history and more. The park's main visitor center is just outside of town, west of Palm Canyon Drive, 760-767-4205. Helpful websites include statepark.org/ and borregosprings.com/. Simple pleasures There are several inexpensive public golf courses, and Borrego is also a perfect place to play tennis. At Borrego Springs Tennis Club there are four lighted courts available to the public, and at Borrego Springs High School and Elementary School, a total of three courts are available when school is out. All hotels and motels in Borrego have pools, and the high school pool is open to the public in the summer. Another fun idea when visiting Borrego is to bring your telescope. Because the area is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges (which help block out interfering light), Borrego is one of the best places in America for stargazing, with crystal clear desert skies. There aren't a whole bunch of dining choices, but the ones that are there are charming and fun. They include Borrego Pizza, Etc., 767-4310, Crosswinds at the Airport, 767-4646, George's & Family Little Italy, 767-3491, Kendall's Cafe, 767-3491, La Casa del Zorro, 1-800-824-1884, Pablito's of the Desert, 767-5753, and the Coffee & Book Store, 767-5080. The County Airport at Borrego Springs has a lighted 5,000-foot runway and offers fueling and space for overnight or longer stays. But the best way to get to Borrego is by car. Just drive from wherever you are, or take a cheap flight to San Diego or McClellan-Palomar Airport (in north San Diego County, just east of Carlsbad), rent a car and take the scenic, relaxing two-hour drive away from the city and out to Borrego.