A Presidential Tour of Virginia

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The Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. A brick Colonial house with a courtyard, and former home of Thomas Jefferson.

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 Parknear 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-Highlandis 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 Montpelieris 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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