Even if you don’t know the words to “My Shot” by heart, you’ve probably at least heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s theatrical production Hamilton by now. An absolutely fascinating mélange of American history and hip-hop, the play is as much a game-changing cultural phenomenon as it is a biography about one of our founding fathers.
Thomas Jefferson has a role in the Broadway smash, but it’s clearly one of the supportive variety. History buffs know that if they’re to get the full story on the United States’ third president, they have to look somewhere other than New York City for it. (And who are we kidding? You couldn’t score a ticket to the play before 2018 anyway.)
For a true peek into Jefferson’s life, you have to venture to his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the proud city steeped in history has a lot more going for it than massive estates sitting atop the Blue Ridge Mountains. Charlottesville is a naturally stunning city with a burgeoning culinary scene, Five-Star-quality accommodations, world-class golf and a calendar full of spring activity. So, if you have a few days for exploring, continue reading this guide to set the stage for a memorable vacation.
One of the more topographically diverse states in the south, Virginia has small towns that remind you of Mayberry and waterfront areas with enough cragged shoreline you’d think you were in Montauk.
Charlottesville has a decidedly hilly and green landscape. Tree lines and farms seemingly go on for miles on the outskirt of the city. One such stretch leads you straight to Keswick Hall and Golf Club, the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel about seven miles outside of the city that will serve as your home base for the weekend.
When you walk into the main lobby, you will immediately feel the 48-room mansion’s aristocratic air. Coffered ceilings, leather chairs and Persian-inspired rugs have had that kind of effect.
If you get to the property between noon and 2 p.m., you may also get a whiff of the Villa Crawford lunch spread. It would border on treason to ignore the smell of duck confit quesadillas or pan-roasted chicken, so hand your bags to the bellman and grab a bite.
After lunch, the king-sized bed in your classic Deluxe Balcony Room may have your name on it — no, really, there’s a chance that a hand-written greeting from the staff will be on your pillow — but fight the urge for a midday snooze.
Instead, take a few minutes to check out the picture-frame molding in the bathroom, snap some pictures of the decorative fireplace or look out onto the Full Cry golf course from your private balcony. You have a 9 a.m. tee time, so it won’t hurt so bad when you have to part from the room to make the short ride to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s iconic home.
Some museums and historic sights lose visitors’ attention with their storytelling; words come off as a passionless rattling of facts and dates. A Monticello visit flips that stale experience on its wig-topped head. A tour here almost feels like a production where a guide tells stories and answers questions in ways that don’t feel scripted.
Why did Jefferson have a thing for spinning knick-knacks? How could Jefferson rationalize having slaves while, at the same time, fathering four children with enslaved lady’s maid Sally Hemings? After a two-hour exploration through the house, around the gardens and in the domestic quarters, you should have your answers.
Expect an especially busy spring at the UNESCO World Heritage Site as it celebrates Jefferson’s 273rd birthday (April 13) and Historic Garden Week (April 18 to 25).
The logical next stop after visiting Jefferson’s most famed architectural achievement is to see the site of his proudest academic one — the University of Virginia. A school of higher education founded by Jefferson in 1819, UVA’s 1,682-acre campus oozes colonial pride through white-column-adorned buildings surrounded by gorgeous lawns.
The Roman-inspired Rotunda, completed in 1826, is the university’s statement piece. If you’re quiet enough, you can almost imagine early board members James Madison and James Monroe conversing in front of the building. When your moment of reflection is interrupted by an excited bunch of students, cut them some slack — their fantastic Cavaliers men’s basketball team is one of the favorites for a long March Madness run.
After that trip through time, head back to Keswick Hall for your 7 p.m. reservation at Four-Star Fossett’s Restaurant. The hotel’s signature eatery sets a romantic mood with a bay of floor-to-ceiling windows that looks out onto the golf course, and it will melt your heart with a menu of in-season dishes like Keswick Garden beet salad, Chesapeake bouillabaisse or cranberry-crumble-topped pheasant.
Jefferson would have likely ended the evening with a glass of his favorite sherry. No judgment here if you follow similar suit with a selection from the 5,000-bottle Treble wine cellar.
Quickly grab some fruit or house-roasted granola from Fossett’s because you don’t want to be late for any of the action at Full Cry. Christened in 2014, this 18-hole beauty from iconic course designer Pete Dye combines Old World charms with modern golf innovations.
While Dye’s stamp (railroad ties, frightening-but-fun layouts) is seen across the course, the third hole (which is a part of a treacherous five-hole stretch lovingly referred to as The Gauntlet) stands out — and that’s only partially due to the herd of deer running across the fairway. The closing three holes also prove memorable because of a charming bridge, deep bunkers and magazine-cover-quality vistas of Keswick Hall and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Depending on how well you do on the putting green, you may want to celebrate your score over a double-stack burger at the onsite Club Grill. However, if your scorecard had more red on it than the Continental Colors flag, it’s probably time for the next activity.
Michie Tavern is where you’ll go to eat away your sorrows. A sort of hamlet you’d expect to have flourished during Jefferson’s day, the property consists of a restaurant, gift shop and 18th-century lodgings you can tour. Once you’ve waited in line for 15 to 20 minutes (sorry, no reservations for groups under 15), step inside and find a rustic cabin with servers in period attire and a buffet filled with timeless selections like hickory-smoked pulled pork, mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes. Sample a little bit of everything, but make it a point to try the fried chicken, unofficially the best in Albemarle County.
If you can get up from your seat, make the six-minute drive to downtown Charlottesville. Amid the relaxed vibe of the central district, you’ll find Graves International Art. Though the place is a treasure trove for everything from 16th-century Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino to 20th-century Keith Haring any day of the week, when you stop by through May 3, you’ll be treated with “Roy Lichtenstein & Company: 20th-Century Masters of Contemporary Art,” a collection of handmade prints from the Pop icon and his contemporaries.
Stop by as many of the neighboring boutiques as you’d like. Your dinner reservations at The Alley Light aren’t until 6 p.m., so you have plenty of time. Besides, the eatery sits just a few blocks over down a short, harmless alley. Look for the, well, alley light above a nondescript door and it’ll lead you to the dining room.
When you get up the stairs, you’ll spot couples, UVA students and other folks with one thing in mind — enjoying classic French small plates (salmon tartare, potted shrimp and an almost-too-cute-to-eat vegetable board) and cocktails proudly constructed with house-made bitters and syrups.
Once you finish, see what’s happening around the block at The Paramount Theater. No, you won’t find Hamilton on the marquee, but if you’re lucky enough to be in town to see Joan Baez (March 11), an HD screening of Madama Butterfly (April 2) or Mavis Staples (April 9), you still ensure yourself of a night in Thomas Jefferson’s home city that’s nearly as historic.