Charlottesville, Virginia – Antebellum Charm and Contemporary Culture

Charlottesville, Virginia – Antebellum Charm and Contemporary Culture

Imagine a gracious historic small town set against a serene backdrop of rolling hills and vineyards in Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, home to a thriving artists’ community and a vibrant cultural life, all within a two-and-a-half hour’s drive from Washington D.C. Welcome to Charlottesville!

The Mark of Jefferson

Virginia - Charlottesville Downtown Mall

Charlottesville Downtown Mall

The city bears to this day the mark imparted upon it two centuries ago by its most illustrious citizen, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading figures of the American Revolution and the man who penned the Declaration of Independence. In addition to his Monticello “Little Mountain” home, he founded and designed the University of Virginia. Both of these neoclassical (or Jeffersonian style) masterpieces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, Monticello attracts half a million visitors annually and the University of Virginia, with its yearly enrollment of over 23,000 students, contributes significantly to the cultural vitality of the area.

Virginia - Charlottesville, Freedom of Expression Wall.

Freedom of Expression Wall at Downtown Mall.

The once Main Street is now Downtown Mall, an eight-block pedestrian walkway lined with restored historic buildings. Café terraces, restaurants and pubs mingle with antique shops, art galleries, fashion boutiques and several movie and live performance theatres. This favorite spot for tourists and locals alike includes a Freedom of Expression Wall where passersby can pen (in chalk) what’s on their mind. The wall is erased each night to give others an opportunity to express themselves.

Among the vineyards

Virginia - Monticello Wine Trail.

Vineyards of the Monticello Wine Trail.

Jefferson also made a significant, albeit posthumous, impact on the landscape of the area when he attempted to establish vineyards on land adjoining Monticello in 1774, only to have his efforts thwarted by the Revolutionary War. Fast-forward two centuries and a handful of determined growers inspired by his vision developed the Central Virginia Vineyard. Today Virginia has over 2,000 acres of vineyards, half of it around Charlottesville. Over 25 of these mainly boutique wineries form the Monticello Wine Trail and welcome visitors in their tasting rooms. The well-mapped itinerary meanders along some of the loveliest back roads of the greater Charlottesville area. One of the oldest, Jefferson Vineyard, is within a stone throw of Monticello, on the very land where Jefferson made his own winegrowing attempt.

The Artisan Trail

Virginia - Artisant Trail

Potter’s studio on the Artisan Trail.

Central Virginia has been home to artisans and artists since early settlers brought their traditions of craftsmanship to these parts. Over time, they have developed into a thriving artistic community of potters, weavers, painters, woodcarvers and other artists of varying medias. Their creations can be admired and purchased in individual studios scattered along the scenic back roads of well as in downtown galleries.

 

All the Presidents Homes

In addition to Thomas Jefferson, the Charlottesville area was also home to two more of America’s Founding Fathers, James Monroe and James Madison, who were to become President of the United States. Their respective homes Monticello, Ash-Lawn Highland and Montpelier are now open to visitors.

Virginia - Charlottesville, Monticello.

Jefferson’s Monticello.

Monticello. In its manicured hilltop setting, Jefferson’s palatial “essay in architecture” feels more like a museum than a home. The extensive guided visit through carefully curated exhibits expresses the importance of the residence as the core of Jefferson’s world and focuses on the renaissance man as well the political giant.

 

Virginia - Montpelier

James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier.

Ash-Lawn Highland. Nearby Ash-Lawn Highland, the estate of James Monroe has retained the unassuming atmosphere of a working plantation. The refurbished house, filled with the Monroes’ American and French furnishings (acquired when Monroe was Ambassador to France), is representative of the family’s private life.

 

Virginia - Montpelier, Library.

The view from James Madison’s library in Montpelier.

Montpelier. A 40-minute drive from Charlottesville, in a 2,750 acre (1,113 hectare) estate of serene farmland, meadows and paddocks, James Madison’s Montpelier has been recently restored to its original neoclassical grace. The newly reconstituted interiors offer an insight into the lives and accomplishments of James and Dolley Madison. Especially telling for me is the second floor library where Madison is said to have spend several months studying past forms of governments, and pondering the guiding principles for a representative democracy that was to become the American Constitution.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Charlottesville is located in Central Virginia, 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Richmond, and 115 miles (185 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C. With its wealth of attraction within a 20-mile (32 kilometer) radius of the city, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Monticello is at 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia. monticello.org. It is open for guided visits seven days a week year-round excluding Christmas Day. Tours are every hour. The number of visitors per tour is limited. Advanced purchase of tickets is recommended.
  • Ash-Lawn Highland is adjacent to Monticello at 2050 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia. ashlawnhighland.org. It is open seven days a week year-round excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
  • Montpelier is on Route 20 at 11350 Constitution Highway, in Orange, Virginia, 25 minutes north of Charlottesville. montpelier.org. It is opened seven days a week year-round excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas Days and the first two weeks in January.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Charlottesville

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

I was less than enthusiastic when the opportunity for an Alaska cruise arose. Actually, I turned it down first the time around. Nothing against Alaska, which I understood to be a place of great natural splendors; I bristled at the idea of boarding a floating hotel in Seattle or Vancouver and being whisked at a vast rate of knots for a weeklong northbound marathon of coastal highlights. However, Alaska didn’t give up. One year later it came calling again, and this time it had an offer I couldn’t resist: The Island Spirit.

CATCHING THE ISLAND SPIRIT

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman's art.

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman’s art.

I board the Island Spirit in Peterburg, a small fishing port still solidly anchored to its Norwegian roots, wedged on the Northern tip of Mitkof Island, in the Alexander Archiplago of Southern Alaska. The unassuming blue vessel barely stands out among the jumble of working fishing boats in the tiny harbor. But the powerful 128 foot (39 meter) long ship, once a rugged oilrig supply vessel painstakingly repurposed by his owner and captain Jeff Behrens, is just the right size to squeeze its way into narrow fjords and idyllic anchorages inaccessible to larger vessels. On board, it’s all casual comfort and thoughtful amenities: viewing decks on both passenger levels plus a rooftop “terrace”, large sliding windows everywhere and good binoculars always within easy reach. And Captain Jeff is a man with a passion for the pristine wilderness of Southern Alaska. He and his enthusiastic crew of eight clearly can’t wait to share it with us, the 16 passengers on this early June voyage.

Alaska Frederick Sound.

Dusk on Frederick Sound

We leave Petersburg on the evening tide, sailing up Frederick Sound at a leisurely 10 knots per hour (that’s 11.5 mile or 18.5 kilometer for us landlubbers). Within minutes, any hint of human encroachment disappears. All that’s left is unspoiled Alaska immensity. Distant snowy peaks sparkle in the clear dusk light. Within two hours, we’ve reached Portage Bay, our anchorage for the night.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Early morning whale sighting.

 

 

The next morning we get underway at 7:00 AM. I am still hovering at the edge of consciousness, lulled by the gentle rocking of the ship, when Captain Jeff’s announces over the ship’s public address system: “whales at eleven o’clock”. We all emerge from our cabins, most of us with anoraks hastily thrown over pajamas, to congregate just a few feet a way on the bow viewing deck.

 

WHAT’S WITH FORD’S TERROR?

Alaska Inside Passage Ford's Terror.

The Island Spirit anchors for the night in Ford’s Terror.

Today’s destination is Ford’s Terror, a cove protected from the outside world by a passage so narrow that the Island Spirit is said to be the only commercial passenger vessel in the area small enough to navigate it. Additionally, fierce currents make the canyon unmanageable at any time but slack tide (the moment when currents stand still while the tide turns). The cove is named for a late nineteenth century sailor who didn’t follow this wise procedure when he tried to row a dinghy through the twisting gorge and was trapped in its roiling waters for several harrowing hours. We wait in Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord framed by towering granite cliffs, for the timing to be just right before engaging into the passage.

Alaska Inside Passage Grizzly.

Alaska Grizzly in Ford’s Terror.

We emerge into an oblong cove rimmed with dramatic slopes of black pines forests streaked by thundering waterfalls. Above the tree line, snowy mountaintops gleam against the cloudless cerulean sky. As we finish our dinner, First Mate Andy announces that a grizzly bear is grazing at the water’s edge. We don our life vests and rush en masse toward the awaiting skiff.

The weather is still radiant the next morning and wildlife viewing stunning. A flush of colorful harlequin ducks take flight just in front of the skiff, a marten peers at us from behind a rock and a black bear sow and her three tiny cubs scamper as we approach while bald eagles soar above. I muse that, should Captain Jeff decide to remain in Ford’s Terror for a week, I would happily forgo the remainder of the itinerary. But we are off again on the afternoon slack tide.

A mile-long wall of ice

Alaska Inner Passage glacier calving;

Dawnes Glacier calving

The next morning is all gloom and mist. Ice floes get increasingly larger as we head up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier. Then the ship slows to a crawl and we are staring slack-jawed at an approaching mile-long wall of jagged ice about 20 stories high. Captain Jeff inches the ship forward to a mere 600 feet (200 meters) from the glacier. We spend the rest of the morning listening intently for the next gunshot sound of cracking ice, followed by huge slabs of ice sliding into the sea. Crew members hand out cups of hot cocoa to ward off the chill.

Pulling into Juneau that evening is a bit of a downer. The entire waterfront is lined with city block-sized cruise ships pouring throngs of tourists onto the streets of the state capital. Churlish of me I admit, but I opt to forgo joining them for an after dinner stroll. I am in a better mood the next morning, when I discover that most of the behemoths have vanished during the night.

Totem Poles and Icons

Alaska Inside Passage Tenakee Spring.

Tenakee Spring (Population 129)

The small Juneau State Museum with its superb collection of objects from Alaska’s many native populations is well worth a visit. Still, I am glad when we sail again toward Chichagof Island and anchor off Tenakee Springs (population 129) where Main Street is a stretch of gravel road lined with small wooden homes.

The next day we stop at the tiny settlement of Baranof Warm Springs (seasonal population 30). Here, Main Street is a simple boardwalk leading up a hill to hot spring pools located right where we enjoy a soak with a view next to a roaring waterfall.

Alaska Sitka Russian Orthodox Icons

Saint Michael’s Cathedral is a treasure trove of Russian Orthodox Icons

Our final destination is Sitka, a bustling fishing port with a varied cultural heritage as the home of the native Tlingit people for over 10,000 years as well as the nineteenth century capital of Russian America. This allows me to enjoy in the course my last Alaskan afternoon a striking open air display of Tlingit totem poles and, in the onion-domed Saint Michael’s cathedral, the richest collection of Russian orthodox icons I have ever seen.

Never did nine days in the slow lane flee so quickly.

GOOD TO KNOW

With comfortable accommodations for a maximum of 32 passengers, the Island Spirit offers an opportunity to explore at leisure the narrowest fjords of the Inside Passage of Alaska from May to September. Its small size enables it to sail in close proximity to glaciers, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Owner and captain Jeff Behrens adjusts the itinerary in real time to take full advantage of frequent wildlife sightings, including whales, porpoises and sea lions.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Petersburg, Alaska