Travel: Charlottesville

BY Sandra Chambers

Charlottesville Virginia nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains
is well known for its historical attractions Monticello Montpelier Ash Lawn-Highland and the prestigious University of Virginia but it is also a city where small-town charm meets metropolitan flair.

Offering something for travelers every season of the year Charlottesville is the third most popular tourist destination in Virginia. April is among the best months to visit not only because the city is bursting with springtime beauty but because of a unique hometown tradition.

The Foxfield Steeplechase Race

Since 1978 Charlottesville has hosted the Foxfield Steeplechase Race an event that benefits local charities and attracts thousands of local families students and tourists. A steeplechase race is a “distance” horse race of about two to four miles that features a combination of ditches and hurdles. Steeplechase horse racing began in the 18th century in Ireland where church steeples because of their height and prominence were used as the starting and ending points of the race (thus the name). Currently steeplechase races are held throughout the United States the most famous being the U.S. Grand National Steeplechase at Belmont Park. The most famous yes but perhaps not the most fun.

In Charlottesville on April 24 in sync with the blooming pink and white dogwoods azaleas and redbuds ladies will don pastel-colored sundresses and hats and men will wear colorful bowties to celebrate the hometown classic Foxfield Steeplechase a race that draws 25 000 participants.

There is no grandstand for the Foxfield Steeplechase Race and tailgating is the popular pre-race event. But dont expect your run-of-the-mill “football-style” tailgating party. At the Foxfield elaborate spreads are the order of the day often served on elegant china and linens.

“The spring race is the first big outdoor event of the season ” says E. Anne Susen marketing director of the Foxfield Races. “Family and friends gather to celebrate the horses spring weather and enjoy this Albemarle County tradition.”

In addition to the races Charlottesville has much to offer from its rich history to scenic drives and walks to upscale shopping and dining. So plan to stay for the weekend and take in the sights.

Historic Charlottesville

Charlottesville was established by charter in 1762 and named in honor of Princess Charlotte wife of George III. Much of the early history of Charlottesville was shaped by the presence and vision of Thomas Jefferson who constructed his architectural masterpiece Monticello just outside the town and founded the University of Virginia on a hill at the citys center.

The key historical sites you will want to visit include Monticello Jeffersons home; Ash Lawn-Highland home of President James Monroe; and the 18th-century Michie Tavern. The Presidents Pass (available through the Charlottesville Visitors Bureau) is the best deal if you plan to visit all three. Montpelier the home of President James Madison is also worth a visit. It is located 35 miles north of Charlottesville.

Lunch is not included in the tour so make reservations at Michie Tavern (near Monticello) for their excellent colonial fried chicken hickory-smoked barbecue buttermilk biscuits black-eyed peas and other tasty traditional Southern dishes. Although touristy the Taverns buffet is quite good and the 18th-century atmosphere is cozy and entertaining.

With so much to do you might be tempted to skip a tour of the University of Virginia but dont miss two key university sites: the Rotunda (based on the Pantheon in Rome) which stands as the signature landmark of the University and the 10 Pavilions and surrounding gardens each with a different set of classical details. Free tours and/or a self-guided map are available daily at the Rotunda. Art enthusiasts will love the Universitys museum.

Small Town Charm

Charlottesville offers small-town charm wherever you look. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee and pastries from local bakers home-grown produce from farmers and gardeners and beautiful creations of local crafters make up Charlottesvilles 30-year-old farmers market which is held every Saturday morning from 7 a.m. to noon at Water and First streets.

Just around the corner experience a taste of Charlottesvilles multi-cultural flavor at the Balkan Bakery Caf. Order a steaming Turkish coffee and traditional Balkan pastry or a burek (filo dough stuffed with cheese meat spinach and potatoes). Shop owners Anja and Panto Cetric left Bosnia 11 years ago to escape persecution and began making their traditional Balkan fare in their home stretching paper-thin phyllo dough by hand on their dining room table.

A couple of blocks from the farmers market and Balkan Bakery Caf is the brick and tree-lined pedestrian Downtown Mall with its many specialty shops lively outdoor cafes art galleries live music indoor ice rink and Paramount Theater one of the last grand movie palaces which was restored in 1994.

At the east end of the Mall is the Charlottesville Pavilion an outdoor venue featuring local and national performances as well as free Fridays after Five concerts during the spring and summer.

Art lovers will want to visit McGuffey Art Center on Second Street with its 23 studios three galleries and gift shop where you can pick up a city-wide gallery guide.

Outdoors Charlottesville

Charlottesvilles annual Dogwood Festival which features a parade pageant ball carnival and other activities runs almost the entire month of April (8-25 ). In addition the city is one of the sites of the 77th Historic Garden Week. This statewide event features more than 250 of Virginias most beautiful gardens homes and historic landmarks and is the nations oldest and largest statewide house-and-garden tour. From April 18-20 visitors to Charlottesville can tour numerous homes and gardens including The Morven Estate and Gardens and the University of Virginia Pavilion Gardens and Houses.

Shenandoah National Park which includes The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail is just 22 miles west of Charlottesville and offers a variety of opportunities for camping hiking or sightseeing. If you prefer to stay closer to the action The Rivanna Trail a 20-mile rustic urban-wilderness hiking trail encircles the city.

Where to Stay

Charlottesville offers 20-plus historic inns and cozy hideaways with locations ranging from the downtown historic area to magnificent countryside inns. One fabulous choice is The Boars Head which is located on 573 acres in the Virginia countryside. Whether you want to be in close proximity to all the areas attractions or far enough away for a luxurious low-key weekend this resort has it all.

The Boars Head offers 170 guest rooms and suites four outdoor pools an 18-hole 72-par championship golf course (also designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary) a state-of-the art sports club with 26 tennis courts a lavish spa and even hot air ballooning for the adventurous early-risers. Be sure make reservations for dinner at The Boars Head AAA Four-Diamond award-winning restaurant The Old Mill Room which was built from the materials of an old grist mill dating back to 1834.

Where to Eat

The Ivy Inn Restaurant located one mile from the University of Virginia provides a richly historical and elegant atmosphere for dining. Formerly named Faulkner House after William Faulkner a Southern aristocrat and distinguished university writer in residence it later became a tollhouse where weary travelers rested from their journeys between Richmond and Staunton.

The inn was purchased in 1973 by the Vangelopoulos family who turned it into an outstanding restaurant. Dinner is an event so slow your pace and let the Ivy Inn spoil you.

Whether you come to participate in one of the local hometown events walk in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson and other historical figures or just to relax and enjoy the surrounding natural beauty Charlottesville is a sensational springtime destination.

Planning Guide

Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau

Foxfield Races

(434) 984-9822

Ash Lawn-Highland
(434) 293-8000

Michie Tavern 
(434) 977-1234

(540) 672-2728

University of Virginia
For tour hours call: (434) 984-9822

Art center museum

Balkan Bakery Caf
218 West Water Street
(434) 293-7421

Downtown Mall

McGuffey Art Center
(434) 295-7973

Charlottesville Pavilion

Charlottesville Dogwood Festival 

77th Historic Garden Week

Shenandoah National Park & Skyline Drive

Rivanna Trail

The Boars Head  
(800) 476-1988

Ivy Inn Restaurant
(434) 977-1222