VIRGINIA: PRESIDENTS, CAPITALS & BATTLEGROUNDS

 

ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

The state of Virginia is steeped in history and offers a banquet of interesting and diverse attractions for all kinds of travelers-for historians, for those who want to frolic in the ocean, and for those love the mountains. From the seashore of the Delmarva Peninsula to the broad sweep of the Shenandoah Valley, to the mountains of the Alleghenies, Virginia is a place you’ll want to taste, to savor, and to remember. Its historical legacy is impressive-the birthplace of eight presidents, and the site of two Colonial capitals and more Civil War battlegrounds than any other state in our nation. Take that history and add the state’s natural beauty and handsome, fascinating old towns, and you have a bounty of attractions and memories in the making.

The first permanent settlement in America was established at Jamestown in 1607, with the state’s capital being moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg and then to Richmond in 1779. In 1775, when the war between England and the Colonies broke out, Virginian Patrick Henry made his now famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Thomas Jefferson, native son of Virginia, was instrumental in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, which was signed on the Fourth of July, 1776. In 1781 the British surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War, and 80 years later the Civil War came to an end with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Much of the history of the battlefields has been memorialized in Manassas, Appomattox, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Yorktown, Richmond, and Lexington.

Recommended Pacing: Leaving Washington, D.C., a visit to Arlington and Alexandria can take a day of leisurely meandering-this day can be added on to your visit to the nation’s capital or can be the first day of your Virginia itinerary. A second day is delightfully spent traveling west through the Virginia hunt country and beginning a drive down the Blue Ridge Mountains. Plan to spend the night in the Staunton, Lexington, or Charlottesville areas. On the following day extend your drive farther down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Roanoke and Christiansburg or visit the historic treasures in and around Charlottesville. On day four travel on to Richmond and Williamsburg. Plan on spending two nights here so that you will have an entire day for exploring this Colonial town before returning to Washington, D.C.

Cross the Potomac for the short drive to the neighboring town of Alexandria. The boyhood home of Robert E. Lee is steeped in history and many of its 18th-century homes have been preserved. A walking tour of the town provides a glimpse into that earlier time and visiting Alexandria’s many boutiques, antique shops, galleries, and restaurants can make for a delightful diversion. Christ Church, where George Washington attended services and where Lee himself was a member almost a century later; Lee’s Boyhood Home (now closed to the public); the Old Presbyterian Meeting House; Woodlawn Plantation with its formal gardens; and Mount Vernon are all worthy of your time. Most impressive of all is Mount Vernon, made all the more so if you approach this home of George Washington by boat as he did in his day (Driving the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Mount Vernon is a lovely alternative way of getting there.) This ancestral home dating back to 1738 has been restored as it was in Washington’s later years. The main house, the outbuildings, and the gardens set on a rise up from the Potomac River are lovely as well as historic. (703-780-2000)

Just north of I-66 and off Route 234 is one of the most famous of all Civil War battlefields-the Manassas National Battlefield, where the armies of the North and the South engaged in the most bloody and deadly battles of the Civil War. For those interested in this period of history, the battlefields of Manassas are marked so as to give the visitor an understanding of the troop movements and the strategies that were employed. (703-361-1339)

To the west of the suburbs of Washington on Route 50 is  Middleburg, a town whose surrounding countryside is known as “horse country.” Mile upon mile of white fences separate green pastures smelling of freshly mown grass where horses graze, and one can only imagine the gracious farmhouses very sophisticatedly but comfortably decorated for those privileged enough to live in this area.

The drive west on Route 50 is particularly lovely since the countryside is so beautiful-there are no fast-food establishments or other highway detractions from your enjoyment of this part of northern Virginia. Of particular note for lovers of antiques is the town of Millwood where there are several shops.

Just to the west of these historical suburbs and countryside of northern Virginia you come to the beginning of the mountainous region of this state (I-66 west or Route 50 west to I-81 south or the more leisurely Route 11 south). The ridge that lies along the western edge of Virginia and the eastern borders of West Virginia includes the Shenandoah, Appalachian, Blue Ridge, and Allegheny Mountains. Along the top of this mountain ridge runs the Blue Ridge Parkway, 569 miles of road winding amid spectacularly beautiful scenery unspoiled by any of the commercialism of most of our nation’s byways. These mountains are known for their spring-flowering dogwoods and rhododendrons, and in the fall the changing color of the deciduous trees is magnificent. Whether you drive the entire length of the parkway is unimportant-what is important is that you drive at least a portion of this road to appreciate the beauty of this state. In a time when most freeways are driven at 65 miles an hour or more, the Blue Ridge Parkway gives you an opportunity to slow the pace and to relish your surroundings.

Halfway down the state, detour west into the mountains on I-64. A scenic loop takes you up Route 42 to Millboro Springs and west on Route 39 to Warm Springs, returning south to I-64 at Covington. The medicinal springs in this region have made the area a health resort for generations. Once back in Covington you can travel west to White Sulfur Springs and Lewisburg in West Virginia or return eastward to rejoin the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road through the mountains is an especially beautiful one-but do be sure to check weather conditions if you are considering traveling it during those months when ice and snow may restrict access.

An alternative drive south is along Route 11, which parallels I-81, passing through many historical towns with lots of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. All the commercial activity in each of the towns is on this route, including a large number of antique shops. Among the towns and historical sites worth visiting are Staunton, birthplace of Woodward Wilson; Lexington, where you find Washington and Lee University, the Virginia Military Institute, the George C. Marshall Museum, and the home of Stonewall Jackson; and Roanoke, the commercial center of this area. South of Roanoke is the Booker T. Washington National Monument.

Among other attractions of this portion of the state are the Natural Bridge, a 23-story arch located south of Lexington, and the Luray Caverns on Route 211 just outside Luray. These caverns, enormous in size, have thousands of unusual stone formations.

The area bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, Charlottesville and Richmond to the north, and the North Carolina border to the south is called the Piedmont and is known as the heartland of Virginia. It’s an area of beautiful valleys and rolling hills, as might be expected in a valley between the mountains and the coastal plain. Within this Piedmont region is Appomattox, reached from the Blue Ridge Parkway by taking I-81 or Route 11 then Route 60 east to Route 24 south. Appomattox is the site of the famous Civil War battle where General Robert E. Lee became surrounded by the armies of the North and surrendered on behalf of the South.

Charlottesville, located just north of I-64, is where Thomas Jefferson built his home, Monticello. Touring Monticello is an opportunity to glimpse into Jefferson’s life and to understand the life and times of this American patriot (434-984-9800). Charlottesville is also the home of the University of Virginia, founded in 1817, many of whose buildings were designed by Jefferson.

Heading east on I-64, you come to Richmond, which was for a time the capital of the Confederacy and is now the capital of the state. It’s a city of much historical interest while at the same time having a thriving modern business economy. Information on guided tours of the city may be found at the Metro Richmond Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, 550 East Marshall Street, 888-742-4666. Visitors’ centers are also located at 1710 Robin Hood Drive (exit 78 off I-95), Bell Tower on Capitol Square (off I-95 at exit 75), 101 Ninth Street, and at the Richmond International Airport.

Of interest in the city are the Museum of the Confederacy with its collections of more than 15,000 articles associated with the Confederacy (1201 E. Clay Street, 804-649-1861); the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2800 Grove Avenue at N. Boulevard, 804-340-1400); the Virginia State Capitol on Capitol Square (804-698-1788); The Valentine, the museum of the life and history of Richmond (1015 East Clay Street, 804-649-0711); and the Virginia Historical Society’s Center for Virginia History (428 North Boulevard, 804-358-4901).

Referred to as Virginia’s Historic Triangle are the colonial towns of Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown. An interesting way to begin to understand the history of this area is to visit these three significant towns, all part of the Colonial National Historical Park, located on a peninsula between the James and York Rivers, and connected by the beautiful and scenic Colonial Parkway.

Straddling the banks of the York River, the historic seaport of Yorktown was the site where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, which proved to be the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. Tour the battlefield and then enhance the experience with a visit to the visitors’ center where the battle on land and at sea is presented through a series of multi-media exhibits. Founded as a tobacco port and seat of the county government since 1634, Yorktown’s picturesque streets are home to antique shops, galleries and some historic homes. The waterfront development, Riverwalk Landing, was designed in keeping with the colonial character of town and features a variety of shops and restaurants. Yorktown’s Visitor Center provides information on narrative cruises and the candlelight walking tour complete with tales of resident ghosts that are said to haunt the town as well as the historical events that have made this area so famous. (800-447-8679)

Predating Plymouth in Massachusetts by 13 years, Jamestown, VA became the original settlement in North America when three merchant ships carrying 104 men and boys landed on what are now Virginia shores in 1607. Board life-size replicas of the three ships for a full appreciation of what these early colonists endured to reach the new land.

While very little of the original Jamestown remains, other than the Old Church Tower, there has been much excavation in this area and there are many monuments and statues of those prominent in Jamestown’s history. Much of the history of the War of Independence has been recorded here and those interested in the history of our nation will find much to study and see. Visit historic Jamestowne, site of the original English Settlement, which brings history to life as a living museum; visit the fort and the Powhatan Indian Village.

Colonial Williamsburg is one of our nation’s treasures and certainly one of the highlights of a visit to the Mid-Atlantic States. After you have toured Richmond, it is but a short drive to reach Williamsburg, first on I-64 and then south on Route 199. First settled in 1633 and known as Middle Plantation, it was the capital of the state and the social and cultural center for over 80 years. Thereafter, Thomas Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond, where it remains today.

Williamsburg, whose visitors’ center is near the Governor’s Palace (757-220-7645), has been restored to closely resemble the 18th-century town as it originally existed. There are more than 80 buildings on this 301 acre living museum, from the 18th and 19th centuries while others have been rebuilt on original sites. Among these are public buildings and numerous shops, taverns, homes, and gardens, all now open to visitors. Trades are demonstrated as they were originally practiced and interpreters of the history of Williamsburg are dressed in period costume, making the past come alive with their interesting dialogue on life in the 18th century.

The village has numerous events, both during the day and into the evening, which are suitable for young and old alike. In addition to touring the historic area, especially the Capitol, the Governor’s Palace, the DeWitt Wallace Gallery, and the Bruton Parish Church, you should visit the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. (757-220-7645)

At the heart of the town of Williamsburg is the College of William and Mary, one of America’s finest academic institutions since it was founded more than three hundred years. Many of the students who attend this college get involved in the reenactment of history as staged throughout Williamsburg.

From Williamsburg travel back to Yorktown. From there bridge to Gloucester on Route 17 north, connecting just south of Fredericksburg to I-95 north, which will speedily transport you back to Alexandria and Washington, D.C.

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