Southern Road Trip #1: Virginia

Most Decembers, my mom, sister, sister-in-law, and I go on girls’ trips right after Christmas and return home on New Year’s Eve. In honor of Travel Tuesday, I thought it would be fun to tell you about our travel destinations so far and tell you a little about what we have done on our Southern Road Trips! The first road trip we took is detailed below, and I will try to post about each of the rest in succeeding weeks!

Stop #1: Virginia (December 2013)

In 2013, I was wanting to look at a couple of the law schools to which I had been accepted. My girls were up for a road trip, and thus the December trips were born. Right from the beginning, the trips were heavy on history. Our first stop was in Lexington, Virginia, where I had been accepted at Washington and Lee. Very friendly people! Lovely campus! Also, while we were there, we did a drive-by of VMI. Very impressive fortress! The town of Lexington was cute, and, of course, packed with history. Stonewall Jackson once taught at VMI and was very much a part of the Lexington community, and Robert E. Lee served as the president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) after the Civil War. Just be cautious about the stop lights! They are not above the car but are instead on the sidewalks beside you. We blew through about three of them before realizing they even existed.

From there, we drove to Charlottesville, where we had supper at a fabulous Mexican restaurant called Plaza Azteca. My sister-in-law spoke fabulous Spanish with the waiter, a gentleman who corrected me on my own Spanish and made exemplary guacamole at our table. Of course, the destination was Monticello. You park, and they take you in fancy little buses up Jefferson’s hill. The tour of the house and grounds is awe-inspiring. Monticello is actually a World Heritage Site now, and it’s easy to see why. As my mom said, “You can really feel Jefferson’s presence here.” Monticello was and is a very loved house. There is also a new exhibition on the Hemingses of Monticello, which was insightful. The staff operates like a well-oiled machine, and the gift shop is not to be disdained. I actually ordered a colonial-style wreath from them this Christmas, and it arrived all the way from Virginia in perfect condition.

Then we went just around the river bend to Michie Tavern, which is a revelation in and of itself. It was originally a tavern and inn, which continued in operation until around the time of the Civil War. It opened as a museum in 1928. Today, you walk up to the big wooden door, knock, and a person in period-appropriate attire comes and welcomes you in. Then you get in line and are given a trencher, which more costumed interpreters fill with typical Southern fare. Our favorite menu item is what we call “Jefferson’s tomatoes,” although we cannot establish whether he actually ever had the recipe. Basically, they’re stewed tomatoes with biscuits crumbled in and a dash of sugar added. Heavenly. You then go out into the tavern dining room, which is appropriately dimly lit, and you are served drinks from metal mugs. It is delightful and delicious.

From there, it was on to Richmond! Rain was pouring down, and our time was limited, so we only got to do two things. We drove down Monument Avenue, lined with mansions and monuments, which you have to do if you go to Richmond. We also went to Maymont, which is a Victorian estate. This is like touring Biltmore Estate in North Carolina or some of the cottages in Newport, Rhode Island. It is the same era, and every bit as fancy. The family story is fascinating, as are their antiques. The house and estate is beautifully preserved. It was very crowded the day we toured, and a little chilly, so I suggest that if you have to wait for your tour under similar circumstances, do not sacrifice your place in the gift shop (they will tell you when they are at capacity). Otherwise, absolutely get outside and explore the grounds, which are still intact with gardens, a carriage house, an arboretum, and some of the buildings used while it was a working estate. The tour is free, but they love donations.

Then we went on to Charles City County, a still-very-remote and untouched area where lots of historical movies are filmed. The destination was Shirley Plantation. However, my mom saw a sign for Berkeley Plantation and made a rapid left turn. We then proceeded down a driveway with no gravel while it continued to pour rain, wondering whether we would ever get out. My mom, however, was quite determined, and we made it. Berkeley was the home of the Harrisons of Virginia (as in Benjamin, William Henry, etc.). While there, we had an excellent tour from a man in an 18th Century waistcoat and tights, admired the odd pink color of the walls, and learned that the Harrison men were very attractive, or at least very photogenic in portraits. Taps was also composed and first played there, to top it off, while the Union Army was encamped there. Talk about worlds colliding!

Then we went to Shirley Plantations, which is *ohmygosh* FABULOUS. First of all, there was a cat in the gift shop called Tuna. How do you top that? Established in 1613, Shirley claims the title as the oldest farm in America and is still owned and operated by descendants today. Maybe it’s just the structure and architecture of the house that I love so much, or maybe it was the deeply colonial feeling of it when you walk in… Either way, it resonates!

And then, our final destination was Williamsburg. Our main point in going there was to see William and Mary, which I was considering attending. Beautiful campus! Amazing setting! We didn’t have time to tour Colonial Williamsburg (do you see a Part 2 coming soon? ), but we did drive around the stunning town and had a great supper at a swanky seafood place which was a little over our budget. But our waitress was really nice and told us about her home in Czechia, which was really memorable. We also went to the great university bookstore on campus and found a Scottish store with accessories in the crests and tartans of the original clans from Scotland (go Clan Colquhoun!). Sadly, the latter was closed, so we made plans to return.  And then…the fourteen-hour drive home!

Next time: Asheville, North Carolina!

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Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain, Northern Fire, and Charleston Tides. A huge lover of all things history, she likes to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.