Richmond for the Holidays

Jordan Wright
December 5, 2017
Photo credit Jordan Wright

The holidays are a time for making memories with loved ones.  Agreed?  But if thoughts of capturing your seasonally-imbued memories feature a well-worn sofa and boxed wine, then read no further.  This adventure requires you trot out your childlike sense of wonderment.

In a city that has emerged as a world class destination with cutting-edge cuisine, art exhibitions often seen nowhere else in America and a five-star luxury hotel, Richmond provides everything a couple or family could ever dream of.  Okay, no skiing.  And that’s what the holidays are all about isn’t it?  Making wishes come true.

The magnificent stained glass skylight in the Palm Court lobby

The magnificent stained glass skylight in the Palm Court lobby

I admit, I get a thrill of anticipation each time I check into The Jefferson Hotel – a turn of the 20th century American classic in the tradition of the country’s grandest hotels.  The more familiar I am with its pleasures the more I feel the need to revisit, if only to assure myself that all is well with the world.

Carrara marble statue of Thomas Jefferson amid Tiffany windows in the Palm Court lobby

Carrara marble statue of Thomas Jefferson amid Tiffany windows in the Palm Court lobby

On this trip, I planned to experience the recent room renovations.  The improvements at this 2017 recipient of the Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond Award are not mere window dressing, they are both elegant and technologically clever with television screens built invisibly into the vanity mirrors.

New marble bathrooms at The Jefferson Hotel – Courtesy photo

Marble, marble and more marble abounds on bathroom countertops, soaking tubs, and the spacious walk-in showers.

Grand Premier Room – Courtesy photo

Luxuriate on poufy comforters and down pillows adorning beautifully tailored designer bedding.  Recently the hotel’s 262 guest rooms were rebuilt into 181 spacious new rooms, including 15 suites with entry foyers and spacious dressing areas.  Our suite had a kitchen with marble countertop plus a large mahogany dining table and spacious living area with a view of the city.

JEFFERSON SUITE LIVING ROOM

Jefferson Suite Living Room – Courtesy photo

Perfect for inviting guests in for cocktails before dinner, or entertaining six for dinner in your private suite.  And though room service is 24-hours a day, you’ll want to get out and about.

 Jefferson Hotel Holiday Tree ~ Photo credit - "The Jefferson Hotel".

Jefferson Hotel Holiday Tree – Courtesy Photo

But first we stare in wonder at the Christmas decorations.  Hundreds of poinsettias, yards of garland and ribbon, thousands of twinkling lights and dozens of toy soldiers adorn the Palm Court Lobby and the surrounding areas.  A gingerbread display made from hundreds of pounds of gingerbread, royal icing and candies dazzles even the grownups.  At midday, musical ensembles play familiar carols in the Rotunda and the festive ambiance is utterly magical.

Courtesy photo

Pro tip: If you’re planning on being here on a Sunday, book ahead for the lavish ‘Champagne Brunch’, and do not miss the spoonbread.  The hotel’s signature breakfast concoction with deep Southern roots, is as light and fluffy as a cloud.  Ask for the recipe.  No, beg!  I did.

Oh, and be sure to swing by Blooms at The Jefferson, the flower and gift shop on the lower level.  I always find great hostess gifts and, of course, petits bibelots pour moi.

The hotel is currently offering a Holidays at The Jefferson Package for those wishing to celebrate the season with an overnight stay.  It includes a newly constructed Grand Premier Room, complimentary valet parking, and rates from $275 per room, per night.

Sally Bell’s Kitchen

Sally Bell’s Kitchen

There is so much to do in town that after dropping off our luggage with the bellman, we head for lunch at the iconic Sally Bell’s Kitchen, a luncheonette directly across from the Science Museum of Virginia where you can tour special holiday exhibits including Ralphie’s, A Christmas Story, and “Fruitcake Science”.

At Sally Bell’s find throwback lunch fare like pimento cheese, corned beef spread, Smithfield ham on a roll, tomato aspic (this must be a Southern thing) and more, plus thirteen different flavors of cupcakes (caramel!) and five different kinds of pies (lemon chess!) with which you can fortify yourself for the day ahead.

Black History Museum of Virginia is housed in the former Leigh Street Armory

Cross the street to visit the Science Museum or opt for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center featuring art exhibitions and artifacts commemorating the accomplishments of African Americans in Virginia.

Black History Museum of Virginia

Black History Museum of Virginia

Recently relocated to a beautifully renovated location (at the Leigh Street Armory), it is an interactive and modern museum.  For hours of operation visit website.

A must see is the Lewis Ginter Gardens spectacular Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights from 5 till 10pm.   This annual holiday tradition glows with more than half-a-million twinkling lights, hand-crafted botanical decorations, model trains, holiday dinners, a fire pit with s’mores and hot chocolate, nightly family activities and more.  For tickets and information visit website.

A restaurant I’d been hearing a lot about is L’Opossum, where chef and proprietor David Shannon has been creating masterfully complex dishes in an eclectically decorated, nondescript corner spot on China Street.  I promise you’ve never seen anything like it with its Flintstones throw pillows and 50’s satellite chandeliers in a cozy, candlelit, appealingly garish room that feels like Gay Paree meets your granddad’s rec room. But don’t cast a gimlet eye on the quirky décor or the 1940’s illustration of a chic pirate on the menu – Shannon has a curatorial eye for mid-century modern – this is serious cuisine and it’s the essence of the new Richmond.

Charred and chilled Chinese five-spice slices of venison – Chasing Dragons Above the Clouds of Yuzu with Lotus Chips (Left) – Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Fernet-Branca soaked Apricots, Butternut Squash Puree, Cherry-brandied Apples and Brown Butter Toasted Pecans (Right)

Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fab craft cocktails made with top shelf liquor and house made ingredients.  Expect the unexpected.  The ‘Hooty Hoo’ is a White Russian served with Yoo-Hoo, Black Lava salt and Xocolatl bitters.  The ‘Honey Badger’ is a blend of Belle Isle Honey Habanero Moonshine, muddled jalapeno and orange, Ginjo Sake and St. Germain.  Go on with your bad self.  Have one of each.

Les Escargots a la Ham Biscuit with Sweet Garlic Beurre Blanc (Left) Old Thymey Chicken Fricassee - Port and Chardonnay Drenched Breast and Thigh Topped with Lemon Spaetzle, Escarole and Lardons in a Mustard Jus (Right)

Les Escargots a la Ham Biscuit with Sweet Garlic Beurre Blanc (Left) Old Thymey Chicken Fricassee – Port and Chardonnay Drenched Breast and Thigh Topped with Lemon Spaetzle, Escarole and Lardons in a Mustard Jus (Right)

Shannon, who was a semi-finalist for ‘Best Chef Mid-Atlantic’ by the James Beard Foundation, likes luxe ingredients – caviar, foie gras, brandied figs, absinthe mists, escargots and flambéd desserts.

La Petit Mort au Chocolat en Flambe avec une compote de la cerises noir (Left) – The Rainbow Spoonicorn – “A mythical saffron and citrus confection with hand churned blackberryice cream. “A defiant lack of inhibitions and sprinkles” (Right)

Expect a dining experience that would wow even the most sophisticated palate.  Reservations are a must in this tiny, romantic spot.

Citizen restaurant

Citizen restaurant

On day two we rose early and headed downtown for breakfast at the industrial-cute, Citizen.  Laser-focused on the Southern thing, we order bowls of stone ground Byrd Mill grits topped with swirls of melted butter, sour dough toast with pear butter, Benton’s bacon, lentils with feta (too healthy?) and steaming hot cappuccinos.

Citizen’s bar and open kitchen

Citizen’s bar and open kitchen

This lively spot serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a menu that trends hip, healthy and international.

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Virginia Museum of Fine Art, one of the nation’s premier museums, is currently featuring ‘The Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China’.  The exhibition showcases ten majestic terracotta figures, including a cavalry horse and 130 works that tell the story of China’s birth.

The Sculpture Garden at VMFA

The Sculpture Garden at VMFA

You’ll also see arms and armor, horse and chariot fittings, ritual bronze vessels, works in gold and silver, jade ornaments, precious jewelry, and ceramics from the First Emperor’s mausoleum complex.  If that isn’t thrilling enough, there’s the reinstallation of the museum’s breathtaking Fabergé Collection.  For timed tickets to The Terracotta Army exhibit visit website.

The Urban Farmhouse Market & Kitchen

The Urban Farmhouse Market & Kitchen

You can linger at lunch at Amuse or the more casual café, or head over to Scott’s Addition to The Urban Farmhouse Market & Café, a nifty, rustic place that features local artists and farm-to-table.  It’s a friendly, low-key hangout with wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling retractable windows and, naturally, a farmhouse vibe.  The daily selection of gourmet sandwiches and salads, smoothies, espresso drinks, fresh pressed juices and fair-trade teas are listed on the chalkboard menu.  Browse the antique wooden cupboards for local foodstuffs to take home.

Scott’s Addition is the trendy neighborhood for millennials, with its reconverted warehouse loft apartments, hipster eateries, coffee brewers, and craft beer breweries like The Veil Brewing Company, Strangeways Brewing, Isley Brewing Company, Väsen Brewing Company, Ardent Craft Ales and more.  It’s the holy grail for brewhounds and those who like their aging done with apples.  Blue Bee Cider has moved to the hood and is now firmly ensconced in a 19th century reconverted stables.

Blue Bee Ciders

Blue Bee Ciders

While in the neighborhood, scour Class and Trash for cool retro collectibles, farmhouse tables, architectural elements and garden ornaments.

The tasting room at Buskey Hard Cider ~ Buskey Founder/Owner William Correll (Left)

The tasting room at Buskey Hard Cider ~ Buskey Founder/Owner William Correll (Right)

Stop by for a tour and tasting at Buskey Hard Cider.  You’ll probably meet Founder/Owner, William Correll, whose usually on site to explain the aging process – some ciders in steel barrels, some in old whiskey barrels from the Virginia Distillery Company.

Stocking up at The Veil Brewing Company

Stocking up at The Veil Brewing Company

Nearby is The Veil Brewing Company. When we arrived, just before the 4pm opening, there was a line around the block.  We were so shocked we thought they must have been having an early bird bargain sale.  No such luck.

This über popular brewery has a comfy lounge area and a very efficient pick up area for take away and growler refill.  You’ve probably heard of their ‘Double Espresso Hornswaggler’, an espresso chocolate milk stout that shouts “school’s out!”.

Back at the hotel we took a relaxing dip in the indoor pool before dressing for dinner at Lemaire.  There’s no way to prepare you for Lemaire, except to describe it as the height of destination dining.  The hotel’s lavish dining room fairly sparkles with grandeur.  The capacious room is resplendent with crystal chandeliers, heavy silk draperies and exquisitely carved period architecture.

Pearl Oysters, with champagne mignonette ~ Chilled Cucumber Soup with Georgia Olive Oil, Poached Shrimp and Preserved Lemon

Pearl Oysters, with champagne mignonette ~ Chilled Cucumber Soup with Georgia Olive Oil, Poached Shrimp and Preserved Lemon

Place yourself in the expert hands of sommelier Shawn O’Keefe who will gently guide you toward the perfect pairings for Executive Chef Patrick Willis’ seasonal haute cuisine.

Fresh Strawberry and Beet Salad with Wildflower Honey Chèvre, Orange, Ginger and Aged Balsamic Vinegar ~ Pan Roasted Swordfish with Carolina Gold Rice, Grilled Alliums, Roasted Fennel, Pine Nuts, Red Veined Sorrel and Strawberry-Rhubarb Gastrique

Fresh Strawberry and Beet Salad with Wildflower Honey Chèvre, Orange, Ginger and Aged Balsamic Vinegar ~ Pan Roasted Swordfish with Carolina Gold Rice, Grilled Alliums, Roasted Fennel, Pine Nuts, Red Veined Sorrel and Strawberry-Rhubarb Gastrique

Whether your preference leans toward seafood or meat, vegetarian fare or poultry, everything is sumptuously prepared and exquisitely plated.  Desserts are as pretty as they are delectable and you’ll want to linger over a postprandial port or brandy till the cows come home.

Slow Braised Spring Lamb Shank with Mascarpone Cheese Grits, Baby Carrots, English Peas and Trumpet Mushrooms and Port Jus ~ Meyer Lemon Tart with Toasted Meringue and Raspberries

After a quick breakfast of muffins and coffee at the hotel’s bistro, TJ’s, shopping was on our minds and there are plenty of specialty clothing boutiques in Carytown.  Bygones, the vintage clothing store for men and women, comes to mind.  But my personal favorite is Helen Campbell’s La Petite Boutique on MacArthur Avenue.

La Petite Boutique

La Petite Boutique

Helen has an eye for distinctive and feminine statement clothing in luxe fabrics, often with embroidery or intricate pleating.  She also carries fabulous hats and accessories to complete a stunning ensemble you’ll see nowhere else.

Charleston City Including Backroads and Byways – Test Driving Hyundai’s 2018 Sonata and Elantra

Jordan Wright
October 9, 2017
Photo credit: Jordan Wright

 

Historic Charleston

The beautifully preserved port city of Charleston and its neighboring countryside proved an excellent opportunity to test drive the soon-to-be-released the sporty 2018 Sonata with its minimalist design and 8-speed transmission, and the 2018 Elantra GT.  Two daytime road rallies exploring this area on its cobblestone streets, highways and country lanes were no challenge for these two excellent-performing, mid-priced cars.

2018 Elantra GT

2018 Elantra GT

Both the 2018 Elantra GT and 2018 Sonata presented well through sudden downpours, bumpy roads, last minute turns and quick braking.  Our 90-plus degree day consisted of a four-hour morning drive in the Elantra GT and the same time in the Sonata.  We drove the vehicles past horse farms and golf clubs, across bridges and beside lush gardens with no stops for a refuel.  Plenty of highway and two-lane roads were instrumental in testing its maneuverability, comfort level and braking system.  Both dual clutch and manual are equally fuel-efficient and can be started and have the car’s temperature set by using Google.  Gotta love that in both hot or frigid climates!

Hyundai’s 2018 Elantra GT at the Charleston National Golf Club

Hyundai’s 2018 Elantra GT at the Charleston National Golf Club

For our early morning road rally 18 Elantra GTs started out from the beautiful Belmond Charleston Place, a magnificent property in the tradition of America’s grand hotels.  It was exciting to see them all lined up on the hotel’s cobblestone driveway in all their shiny new colors.

Charleston National Golf Club

Charleston National Golf Club

Our morning drive took us down Meeting Street and across the city then on to Route 526 to Sullivan’s Island and Route 703 on the Isle of Palms.  From there we drove inland to Mt. Pleasant arriving at the Charleston National Golf Course for snacks and cold drinks in their beautiful clubhouse set amid old Live Oaks and swaying Spanish moss.

A different route with different challenges defined our return.  From sizzling hot country roads that billowed clouds of steam from the frequent bursts of rainfall, the car handled it beautifully as we headed back to the hotel for a lunch break.  We had the chance to note the air conditioning and inside defroster were effective to handle such quickly changing weather conditions.  As we drove east on Route 526 beside the Ashley River and across the Cooper River, two rivers that converge at the port of Charleston, we enjoyed the panoramic views of the low country marshes with their acres of sweetgrass that the Gullahs make their intricately woven baskets from.  From there we passed the Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens before making our way back to the hotel for a lunch break.

Low country marshland along the route

Low country marshland along the route

Our afternoon drive in the Sonata took us across the Stono River on Route 700 and down through John’s Island to stopped at The Plantation at Stono Ferry and on to the Links at Stono Ferry Golf Club in Hollywood before heading back to town.  It is a stunning drive, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in touring the area.

Both cars exceeded expectations.  Most especially in what comes standard, though add-ons can raise the final price.  They are zippier, snazzier and more comfortable than earlier models with great attention paid to overall design, mileage and performance.

For fuel economy, you can expect the Elantra to give you a ton of savings at the pump.

FUEL ECONOMY City Highway Combined
2.4L (SE) 25 MPG 36 MPG 29 MPG
2.4L (SEL, Sport & Limited) 25 MPG 35 MPG 28 MPG
2.0T (Sport) 23 MPG 32 MPG 26 MPG
2.0T (Limited) 23 MPG 32 MPG 26 MPG
1.6T (Eco) 28 MPG 37 MPG 31 MPG

And as for safety, its braking system tell the story.

BRAKES/TIRES/WHEELS
Front Dual diagonal, split circuit, power-assisted 12.0-in. ventilated disc with pressure proportioning valves (2.4L/1.6T)
Dual diagonal, split circuit, power-assisted 12.6-in. ventilated disc with pressure proportioning valves (2.0T, Optional on SEL, Limited 2.4L)
Rear Dual diagonal, split circuit, power-assisted 11.2-in. solid disc with pressure proportioning valves

You can choose either the 6-speed electronic automatic with torque converter, shift lock and SHIFTRONIC™ manual shift mode on the 2.4L or the 8-speed electronic automatic with torque converter, shift lock and SHIFTRONIC™ manual shift mode on the 2.0T.  And there’s also a turbo model.

Utility without sacrificing driving dynamics is one of the key benefits to hatchbacks, and the 2018 Elantra GT brings an 8 percent increase in cargo capacity versus the prior generation.  It is one of only a few hatchbacks classified by the EPA as a Large Car due to total interior volume eclipsing 120 cubic feet.  In fact, Elantra GT has more cargo volume than other hatchbacks such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf and Toyota Corolla iM. Elantra GT is also a sporty alternative to small CUVs. Elantra GT with the rear seats folded down has more cargo capacity than the Toyota CH-R, Mazda CX-3, Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade.

Even more sophisticated safety features are standard on some Elantra models.  Advanced Driver Assists are available on Elantra GT Sport through Automatic Emergency Braking w/ Pedestrian Detection, Lane Keep Assist, High Beam Assist and Smart Cruise Control that features stop/start capability.  A Hyundai-first, Driver Attention Alert, analyzes driver inputs to determine attention level and provide both a visual and audible warning if it determines the driver’s attention level has become too low.  Great for a teen’s first car.

All that utility is wrapped in an evolution of what they call the “Fluidic Sculpture” design language that features Hyundai’s new signature cascading grille, which is flanked by standard LED Daytime Running Lights.  Pretty sexy!  To further enhance the front light signature, available LED headlights are utilized for both the low and high beams.  The side profile is strongly supported by standard 17-inch alloy wheels and 18-inch alloy wheels on the Sport. At the rear, the liftgate features wraparound glass and a rear spoiler.  Available LED tail lights and split dual outlet exhaust further support Elantra GT’s fun-to-drive positioning.

Model Engine Transmission MSRP
Elantra GT 2.0L 4-cylinder 6-speed Manual Transmission $19,350
Elantra GT 2.0L 4-cylinder 6-speed Automatic Transmission w/ SHIFTRONIC® $20,350
Elantra GT Sport 1.6L Turbo GDI 4-cylinder 6-speed Manual Transmission $23,250

 

2.4L (SE) 25 MPG 36 MPG 29 MPG
2.4L (SEL, Sport & Limited) 25 MPG 35 MPG 28 MPG
2.0T (Sport) 23 MPG 32 MPG 26 MPG
2.0T (Limited) 23 MPG 32 MPG 26 MPG
1.6T (Eco) 28 MPG 37 MPG 31 MPG

The Sonata’s ABS braking system comes in 4-wheel, 4-channel and 4-sensor with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and ESC.

Extensive features on the Sonata include, a standard seven-inch color display audio touchscreen with both Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto® integration. Models equipped with Blue Link Telematics get three years of complimentary Connected Care and Remote services; including the ability to activate many of the features using the Amazon Echo and Google Home virtual assistants. The available navigation system is enhanced with a bird’s-eye-view feature and HERE HD real-time traffic flow data. Furthermore, the inconvenience of outdated map software is now a thing of the past as owners now have three years of complimentary Guidance Package services, which include downloads to maintain up-to-date navigation programming.

Keeping on-trend with today’s connected passengers, smartphones can now be charged without a plug using the available wireless charging pad (Qi standard) while a second-row USB charge port provides additional charging flexibility.

The Sonata is equally impressive.  Distinctive new exterior styling transforms Sonata’s visual signature. The dramatic new appearance is highlighted by Hyundai’s bold new “cascading grille” in front and an all-new rear with more prominent branding and relocation of the license plate in the bumper in this category.

Every 2018 Sonata is equipped with Blind Spot Detection (BSD) with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA).  It’s the only mainstream mid-size car sold with this safety technology as standard equipment. And with its 18.5 gallon tank, the mileage is impressive too.

Pricing throughout the Sonata’s lineup gives consumers a compelling choice.

Model Engine Transmission MSRP
SE 2.4L GDI 4-cyl 6-Speed Automatic with SHIFTRONIC® $22,050
Eco 1.6L Turbo GDI 4-cyl 7-Speed EcoShift® Dual Clutch Transmission

with SHIFTRONIC®

$22,650
SEL 2.4L GDI 4-cyl 6-Speed Automatic with SHIFTRONIC® $23,700
Limited 2.4L GDI 4-cyl 6-Speed Automatic with SHIFTRONIC® $27,400
Sport 2.4L GDI 4-cyl 6-Speed Automatic with SHIFTRONIC® $25,200
Sport 2.0T 2.0L Turbo GDI 4-cyl 8-Speed Automatic with SHIFTRONIC® $27,600
Limited 2.0T 2.0L Turbo GDI 4-cyl 8-Speed Automatic with SHIFTRONIC® $32,450

Whichever you choose, driving will be an awesome adventure.

Weekend in Charleston

Jordan Wright
October 9, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Photo credit: Jordan Wright

Historic Charleston

Historic Charleston

Visiting a historic destination naturally brings comparison to our own beloved port of Alexandria, and a few of those thoughts rose idly like bubbles to the surface as I arrived in another beautiful waterfront city.  I was curious to see what had changed since I’d visited two decades earlier, when, during a tour of a stately Southern mansion, a tiny octogenarian docent told our group the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.  It was the South’s right to keep the North out of their business affairs, she quaintly insisted.  Stunned at this declaration, I’m certain my eyes rolled back into my head, but the cat had a firm grip on my tongue and I remained silent amid the small group of visitors.  I still regret I didn’t lean in to challenge her version of history.

The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston’s historic French Quarter

The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston’s historic French Quarter

Since then, things have shifted somewhat.  South Carolina’s governor has removed the confederate flag from the State House, and local African American artists, artisans and chefs are treasured for their unique contributions.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy no longer hold sway in a city whose rich cultural history is driven by some 30,000 college students and a more inclusive vision.  Thankfully, the city’s charm and joie de vivre remains firmly intact.

The lobby at the Belmond Charleston Place

The lobby at the Belmond Charleston Place

The Belmond Charleston Place is a magnificent property in the tradition of America’s grandest hotels.  A recent $30 million renovation, affords it the distinguished cachet of a world-class property.  And with its central location and the city’s ubiquitous pedicabs, sightseeing is a breeze.

Pedicabs are a convenient way to get around

Pedicabs are a convenient way to get around

To up your game, book a suite on the exclusive Club Level.  Complimentary perks include hot buffet breakfasts; a recharge of afternoon tea, sandwiches and pastries; early evening cocktails and hors d’oeuvres; nightcaps and sweet treats; and flutes of champagne all the live-long day.  On the main concourse, amid posh shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, there are three restaurants to choose from.  Be sure to book in advance for the full-service spa with rooftop pool.

Club Level luxury suite at the Belmond Charleston Place

Club Level luxury suite at the Belmond Charleston Place

Within a five-minute walk is the Charleston City Market on Meeting Street.  Rebuilt from the original after a fire in 1841, this National Historic Landmark houses dozens of indoor stalls and is open from 9:30 till 6pm.

Callie’s Biscuits at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit

Callie’s Biscuits at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit

Grab a cat’s head-sized buttermilk biscuit with all the fixins’ at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and shop the stalls for Gullah made sweetgrass baskets, benne wafers, sacks of Carolina Rice, local art, and handmade souvenirs.  Refresh at Lowcountry Lemonade where quaffs are made with seasonal muddled fruit.  Mine boasted sweet local peaches.

Horse-drawn wagons take sightseers around the old city

Horse-drawn wagons take sightseers around the old city

Spanning four city blocks the market leads down to East Bay Street and Waterfront Park with its stately Southern mansions.  Take in sweeping views of the harbor from White Point Gardens, a five-and-a-half-acre park that’s home to a protected Night Heron rookery set amid old oaks.  From there you’re a hop, skip and a jump to the Gibbes Museum, a breathtaking Beaux Arts structure that houses an outstanding collection of American art – both old master and contemporary.

The Gibbes Museum’s magnificent Beaux Arts interior

The Gibbes Museum’s magnificent Beaux Arts interior

Of all the mansions and plantations to tour (book through your concierge to tour Magnolia Gardens, Middleton Place, Boone Hall and Drayton Hall), I discovered what must be the most unusual.  The Italianate-influenced Calhoun Mansion and Gardens borders on the bizarre with its eye-popping floor–to-ceiling collection of fine art, rare antiques and silver collection, and Orientalia.

Calhoun Mansion

Calhoun Mansion

The extraordinarily ornate 1876 mansion is currently owned by a Washington, DC lobbyist.  Our docent was respectfully tight-lipped as to whom, but a bit of sleuthing uncovered DC attorney, Howard H. Stahl, who lovingly restored the once-dilapidated 35-room manor house.

(l-r) Black-eyed pea and rice salad ~ Low country shrimp topped succotash at the Belmond

(l-r) Black-eyed pea and rice salad ~ Low country shrimp topped succotash at the Belmond

In a city renowned for great Southern cooking and countless restaurants, where to eat?  You really can’t go wrong with soulful barbeque, low country cooking or the exceptional local seafood.  But I have a fondness for a certain chef and the particularly stylish way he approaches ingredients.  Circa 1886 is situated within the gardens of the Wentworth Mansion.  Chosen by prestigious Southern Living magazine this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary, it boasts an intimate, intrinsically Southern, candlelit setting that enhances fine dining.  Helmed by Executive Chef Marc Collins, whose talent is playing sweet and savory elements against one another, expect to find unique combinations paired with top drawer wines.

Dishes from Executive Chef Marc Collins at Circa 1886

Dishes from Executive Chef Marc Collins at Circa 1886

Our meal began with a trio of delicate crabmeat concoctions, artichoke pudding with sunflower seeds and espelette pepper, a cold soup of turnip greens with a silken peanut cream, followed by gnudi with truffles and loin of antelope with foie gras and blackberry sauce.  For an unforgettable taste of the South opt for Collins’ signature dessert – honeysuckle ice cream.

An artistically designed dessert featuring honeysuckle ice cream at Circa 1886

An artistically designed dessert featuring honeysuckle ice cream at Circa 1886

Weekends are perfect for brunching at the Marion Square Saturday farmer’s market.

Marion Square Saturday’s farmers market

Marion Square Saturday’s farmers market

Plan ahead for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival (February 28 – March 4 2018).

Jet Blue flies direct to Charleston from Reagan National Airport.

For a pedicab call Bike Taxi – 843 532.8663.

The Wonders of Nelson County Revealed

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2016
All photo credit – Jordan Wright

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

The view from 20-Minute Cliff

Usually a trip through Nelson County has us making a beeline to Charlottesville.  And though Thomas Jefferson’s university town has beauty, history and terrific restaurants, there are tons of other attractions in this bucolic county worthy of a visit – and a few night’s stay.  Let Route 151 be your guiding star.  For our adventure we allowed five days and four nights, and only scratched the surface, vowing to return to the places we discovered and those we’d heard about and missed.  And although this is piece is entirely subjective, feel free to design your own trip by cherry-picking from our favorites.

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Farms dot the landscape on the Blue Ridge

Once past the Manassas exit on Route 66, the road opens up to spectacular vistas, rolling countryside and the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Bill Coffee’s family-owned Buckland Farm Market outside of Warrenton on Route 29, is always our first stop.  The large farm store has a dizzying array of homemade cheeses, fresh fruits and veggies, plants and preserves, and more importantly, a wide array of mouth-watering baked goods.  In autumn there are pumpkin turnovers and pumpkin whoopee pies along with Southern pecan and apple pies.  You’ll also find the widest selection of Bob’s Red Mill products.  If you’re on an overnight stay, bring a cooler and stop on the way home for farm-raised beef and eggs.  The haunted corn field will open weekends throughout October and pick-your-own pumpkins are in the field now.

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

The Spa at Wintergreen Resort

After purchasing a few jars of local honey and the prerequisite snacks, we proceeded up the mountains to check in at Wintergreen Resort, heading post haste to the serenity of The Spa for massages.  The full-service spa offers a variety of options and we chose a combination of Swedish, deep tissue and reflexology.  The ‘Green Tea and Lemongrass’ stress-shedder includes a salt scrub, hot stones and Vichy shower for the ultimate in relaxation.  From now till November the treatment switches over to the autumn-inspired ‘Pumpkin Chai’ sugar scrub.  Afterwards don plush terry robes and relax with a cup of herbal tea in the lounge overlooking the woods, or a swim in the indoor pool.  Finish your hydrotherapy in the steam room or sauna before heading off to dinner.

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Fresh cut bouquet from Pharsalia

Wintergreen has several dining options and the Copper Mine Bistro in the heart of Blackrock Village is the homiest of all.  Have breakfast here if you are planning on morning activities at the resort.  Golf, tennis, mountain biking and skiing are the most vigorous activities, but for less of a workout there’s yoga, trail walking and swimming.  Visit the Nature Center to learn about the flora and fauna and archeological history of the area.  Guided walks leave from here or you can venture out on your own using their free trail maps.

Devil’s Grill is the resort’s fine dining restaurant.  And as with the other four restaurants, guests can go casual, though here tables are dressed up with candles, flowers and white linens signaling a fancier repast.  A new chef has arrived since we dined there in late June, but expect locally-sourced seasonal food with a gourmet flair.

The morning brought rain and mist and the fern-bordered path to the Copper Mine Bistro was dense with fog.  Weather in the mountains has a habit of improving after a few hours and by the time breakfast was over the sun had broken through the clouds and we took off for the mountain course to make an early tee time.

Devil's Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob golf course

Devil’s Knob is the most challenging of the two courses (18 holes at Devil’s Knob and 27 holes at Stoney Creek), and I’m afraid in our zeal we didn’t do it justice.  But it was worth every scenic moment.  Sitting at an elevation of 3,800 feet and cooler than its sister course, Stoney Creek (designed by Rees Jones), we found wildflowers and wildlife our chief distractions.  This beautifully laid out Ellis Maples designed course takes advantage of the spectacular mountain views and rushing streams cascading down from the mountain tops.

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

The cottage gardens at Basic Necessities

Lunch brought us off the mountain to a small cottage surrounded by a lush perennial garden where we met Kay Pfaltz, an avowed Francophile with a joie de vivre that’s indelibly contagious.

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Let Kay Pfaltz choose your wine

Kay is the author of the charming memoir Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris and co-owner of Basic Necessities with Sallie Justice and Rosie Gantt.  Together they helm this restaurant and retail store.  The enchanting spot reflects a distinctly French flair drawn from Pfaltz’s years as a writer living out her dream in Paris with her adored beagle, Lauren.

The shop at Basic Necessities

The shop at Basic Necessities

In the front section the shop is filled with a wide array of cheeses, freshly baked baguettes, patés and sausages – perfect for pairing with wines from Pfaltz’s expertly selected collection.

Pfaltz, who pens a local wine column, makes her selections based on taste, style and affordability and I homed in on a few sumptuous, well-priced burgundies and a number of carefully curated Virginia wines from the Commonwealth’s better winemakers.  Her clientele certainly benefits from her discriminating, Gallic-honed palate to guide them.

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

Chocolate cake at Basic Necessities

The dining area is in the back and overlooks more gardens.  Provencal patterned tablecloths echo the French theme while floral print china and sprays of wildflowers in stone crocks adorn the tables.  Lunches are served Tuesday through Sunday, with dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights only.

Thanks to Justice and Nelson County cook, Mae Collins Tyree, we were able to partake of a lovely French-inspired luncheon.

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

Charcuterie platter at Basic Necessities

I was particularly taken by the delicacy of a watermelon + tomato gazpacho, a classic Croque Madame and a lavish charcuterie platter with all the accoutrements.  Pfaltz’s choice of a nice French rosé put us in mind of the French Riviera on a summer’s day.  We capped off our French feast with a slice of richly dense and multi-layered chocolate cake.

Nelson County boasts ten wineries, three craft breweries, two cideries, one meadery and two distilleries.  You will most assuredly not get to visit them all in one trip.  We gave it our best shot and epically failed.  However you choose to approach this tempting dilemma, it is ultimately more satisfying to focus on a few, all the better to savor the experience.  In this way you’ll be able to spend quality time with folks eager to share their passion for the land and their commitment to their products.

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Tony and Elizabeth Smith at Afton Mountain Vineyards

At Afton Mountain Vineyards winemakers Tony and Elizabeth Smith are proud owners of their upscale winery whose vines were planted in the 1970’s.  Formerly known as Bacchanal Vineyards, the Charlottesville couple bought the vineyard in 2009, and doubled the acreage under vine.  They expect their annual production of 2,200 bottles to increase to 5,000 in the next few years under the care and watchful eye of winemaker Damien Blanchon who hails from the South of France.

Currently the winery produces 15 varieties – something for everyone’s palate.  Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Petit Verdot recently won gold at the 2016 Monticello Cup Wine Competition and they are exceedingly proud of being the area’s only producer of Pinot Noir.

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

Enjoying a glass of Petit Verdot Reserve at Afton Mountain

From the elevated tasting room on a drizzly afternoon you might see a group of horseback riders make their way across the vineyard.

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Riders tour the vineyards at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Rebel’s Run at Afton Mountain is a nearby stable providing guided tours of the vineyard and the scenic countryside.  Riders stop in to relax with a glass of wine beside the lake before heading back to the stables.  ‘Sip and Saddle’ packages can be booked through the stables or local B&B’s who pack box lunches for the riders.

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

Christine and Denver Riggleman beside casks of their aged bourbon

A stop at the wildly successful upstart Silverback Distillery introduced us to Virginia-born owners Christine and Denver Riggleman.  After years of living the transient military life and raising their three daughters, Denver offered his wife Christine the chance to choose their next path.  To his utter surprise, she told him she wanted to start a distillery.  Their daughters, who are very much hands on in the endeavor, voted on the nickname they had given their father, “Silverback”, after the massive gorilla – their term of endearment in reference to his large build.  (He has since shed the excess pounds and it’s difficult to picture him as inspiration for the simian moniker.)

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

The tasting lounge at Silverback Distillery

Silverback Distillery opened for business less than two years ago and has already been the recipient of eight international awards.  Combining a blend of Virginia grains with American craftsmanship, they currently offer Beringei Vodka, Strange Monkey Gin (winner of Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition), Blackback White Grain Spirit and Blackback Rye Whiskey.  An aged bourbon is coming soon.  Stop in for mini cocktails – the London Mule with gin, ginger beer and lime juice was our favorite quaff.  They have limited distribution and most sales are here at the Tasting Room, so be sure to pick up a bottle or two to take home.

Bold Rock's Tasting Room

Bold Rock’s Tasting Room

Close by you’ll find two local craft cideries – Bold Rock Hard Cider uses 100% apples from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, while Blue Toad Hard Cider gets 100% of their apples from New York state.  No concentrate bases whatsoever like the larger cideries.  Farm to Tap.

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

A worker checks the hoses on the tanks at Bold Rock Hard Cider

Bold Rock is a massive operation with three locations in Virginia and one in North Carolina, while Blue Toad is a tiny speck on the map.  Try them both and judge for yourself.

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

The Tasting Room at Blue Toad Hard Cider

If you’re looking for an active bar scene, Devils Backbone Brewing Company is nearby.  This large craft brewery, recently purchased by Anheuser-Busch, is set on 100-acres of farmland with plenty of outdoor seating in its naturalistic gardens.  Families congregate at the covered outdoor bar as children explore the paths.

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

Barbecue at Devils Backbone

The restaurant features sixteen beers on tap to pair with simple pub food.

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

The restaurant at Devils Backbone Brewing Company

If you’re lucky enough to be in Nelson County on a Saturday, head for the farmer’s market.  Along with pretty flowers, fresh fruits, cheeses and veggies, you’ll find some unusual vendors like local bladesmith, T. Hipps, whose line of heirloom quality handmade cutlery called Karma Blades, will set you apart from the run-of-the-mill chef or hunter.  Or Lynne Ross of La Sunflower who makes her beauty products with comfrey and other natural home grown herbs.

Purple cauliflower from the season's bounty

Purple cauliflower from the season’s bounty

Stop by Barefoot Bucha’s stand to try their organic kombucha made locally with organic ingredients and served on draft and pick up a homemade lemon meringue pie from The Hungry Fox.

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

The James River Cut-ups entertain the crowd at the Nelson County Farmers Market

Hopefully you brought a cooler to take home John and Jade Sonne’s organic pork, eggs and berries from Spruce Creek Farms and some kimchi and fermented drinks from Farmstead Ferments.

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads

Where else can you find okra hot dogs and cider brats? Why from The Rock Barn, of course.  Other unique finds are fermented vegetables from Gathered Threads, who offer wide range of products from tsukemono, gingered carrots and apple & juniper sauerkraut.

Essences from Primal Wisdom

Essences from Primal Wisdom

My personal favorite from Virginia Vinegar Works is ‘Blackberry Cabaret’.  Not too sweet, not too tart – it’s the perfect addition to any kind of salad.

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

Sandy Beebe shows her artwork

And, if you want to know why painter and printmaker Sandy Beebe, whose works are reminiscent of Grandma Moses, moved to Nelson County, she’s at the market every Saturday and is delighted to chat about its charms.

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

Mary Wolf owner of Wild Wolf Brewing Company

All this food and no stove to cook it, was making us hungry.  So turning back onto the Brew Ridge Trail we headed for lunch at Wild Wolf Brewing Company to meet owner Mary Wolf whose son Danny Wolf is the Master Brewer.

Wild Wolf's restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

Wild Wolf’s restaurant is housed in a restored schoolhouse

This unique, eco-friendly, family-owned brewery, offers a wide array of beers and a restaurant housed in a former 1910 high school with wrap-around porches.  Stroll around the 10-acre former garden center to enjoy ponds, a water wheel, a biergarten and rustic outbuildings.

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The Gazebo gardens at Wild Wolf

The restaurant has an exceptional Head Chef in Chris Jack, and a talented Pastry Chef and Baker in Higgins Stewart, both of whom create truly memorable food.  According to Mary two years ago she and Danny decided to go farm-to-fork.  Now they send spent grain from their hops to a local farmer to feed his cattle in trade for beef.

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Herbed gazpacho ~ Shrimp and grits

Eggs come from the chickens that live beneath their hops vines, and there’s a vegetable garden for much of the produce and summer herbs tucked into Jack’s dishes.

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

Chickens feed on insects beneath the hops vines at Wild Wolf

In the kitchen heritage breed Autumn Olive pigs are butchered for sausages and the ground pork is added to burgers.  Grits are prepared using stone ground corn from the nearby Woodson’s Mill in Nelson County.  The craveable, crisp-crusted cornbread brought steaming hot to the table in wire baskets, is made with Ula Tortilla’s organic, locally grown, non-GMO corn flour.  This rustic restaurant retreat is a must stop for excellent, chef-driven local cuisine and hoppy IPAs made with Cascade hops used in their “Primal Instinct” IPA.  We loved knowing Wild Wolf was selected as the Virginia Green Brewery of the Year.

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

The Tasting Room at Democracy Vineyards

Was it the wine or the beer?  But somehow we missed the turnoff to Del Fosse Winery leading us to a scrappy little vineyard that hadn’t been on our radar.  Democracy Vineyards may not be on many people’s list, but we loved its quirky theme and amazing collection of political memorabilia that lines the walls of the ultra-modern tasting room.  Started by Susan Prokop and Jim Turpin on an old apple farm, Democracy now features eleven wines with such startling names as ‘Suffrage’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Velvet Revolution’.  Be sure to taste their ‘Parliament’ 100% Petit Verdot dessert wine, and ‘Freedom’ a ‘Pinotage’ varietal.

A short drive away is the Virginia Distillery Company, where the elegantly furnished Visitor’s Center signals this luxury brand.  This summer the company launched ‘The Virginia Whisky Experience’, a one-of-a-kind guided interactive tour and museum experience for its visitors.  It includes a tour of the state-of-the-art distillery and the Cask House ending in a tasting of their Virginia Highland Malt and a sampling of their craft cocktails either in the Visitors’ Center or on a 2,000-foot patio replete with water and fire features.

Inside the distillery

Inside the distillery

Fed by seven converging springs, the distillery was the dream of George G. Moore, an American visionary who was determined to see Virginia whisky come back to an area once better known for its Prohibition Era stills.  Moore died three years ago and the project was taken up by his son, Gareth Moore and wife, Maggie, who have shown the same pioneering determination.  While VDC’s whisky was aging in used bourbon casks for a minimum of three years, they began distilling and aging their Virginia Scotch Whisky in the Scottish Highlands and shipping it back to Lovingston, finishing here in port-style wine casks where it will age for six to twelve months.  Not all the malted barley will come from Virginia, as there are not enough local farmers able to fulfill their needs, so most will be sourced from Scotland’s famed Boby malt mill.

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Guests settle in for a tasting of Virginia Highland Malt

Until their on-site product has aged completely, the tasting room offers the Scottish-distilled Virginia Highland Malt in a number of specialty cocktails.  We particularly enjoyed the ‘South of Manhattan’ which we paired with their specialty Gearhart’s Chocolates Whisky Truffle made with their Highland Malt and sold in the gift shop.

Carol mixes the 'South of Manhattan'

Carol mixes the ‘South of Manhattan’

‘South of Manhattan’ Cocktail from Virginia Distillery

  • 4 ounces Virginia Sparkling Cider
  • 1/2 ounce Luxardo cherry juice
  • 2 dashes cardamom bitters
  • 2 ounces Virginia Highland Malt Whisky
  • Orange peel
  • Luxardo cherry, for garnish
South of Manhattan

South of Manhattan

In a shaker, mix together cider, cherry juice and bitters. Add two ice cubes and the Virginia Highland Malt Whisky.  Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Rub the rim of the coupe glass with the orange peel and garnish with the Luxardo cherry and the orange peel.

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Fourth generation owner Jim Saunders

Jim Saunders is the fourth-generation owner of Saunders Brothers founded in 1915.  The affable farmer took time to drive us in his bright red truck through hundreds of acres of peach, apple and Asian pear orchards plus 36 varieties of boxwoods.  (You’ve probably seen their boxwoods in the White House gardens, planted during the Kennedy administration.)

Bouncing along the rutted farm roads, Jim regaled us with tales of the 1200-acre Nelson County farm.  Jim’s father, Paul Saunders, is the family genealogist and successful author, penning two wonderful books, “Heartbeats of Nelson”, a fascinating 634-page photo-filled anthology on the history of the county and its people, beginning in pre-Civil War times to the present day.  His second book, “Down on the Farm”, tells the history of the Saunders’ family life and the business of running the farm.  You can get pleasantly lost in these emotionally-connected stories of life and times by the Piney River.

Author Paul Saunders - Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

Author Paul Saunders – Heartbeat of Nelson & Down on the Farm

We finished the tour in the farm store with Homestead Creamery’s delicious homemade peach ice cream from their Farm Market and left toting a basket of early yellow Sentry peaches destined for our cobblers.  Look for Saunders peaches, apples and pears at Whole Foods.  Their Albemarle Pippin was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple and is great for baking as well as cider.

Early season Sentry peaches

Early season Sentry peaches

The Rock-n-Creek Cabin is the most unique accommodation I have ever come across.  A rustic two-level A-frame cabin with wraparound porches, it is set in the woods and encircled by a series of ponds.  And though I was not particularly keen on the unidentifiable insects flitting around the bathroom floor, it’s more luxurious than camping out.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Amid his oak baskets Christy gets to work on a new decoy.

Host and owner Richard Christy is a renaissance man.  He is an accomplished chef, caterer, self-taught decoy and shorebird carver, and basket weaver.  His Buck Island Bay Decoys and Mountain Man Basketry studio is adjacent to the cabin.  I tell you this because you will be interacting with him as he prepares your dinner.  He is a font of information about the area’s wonders and a fascinating conversationalist.  As a former chef to Gerald Ford, he has helmed many restaurant kitchens around the country and continues to consult on new food products for major producers.

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Richard Christy Chef/Owner of Rock-n-Creek Cabin with the first course

Back to the experience.  When booking your reservation, Christy will ask what style of cuisine you would like him to prepare.  In my case I left it to him, and after he had checked out this website, he decided he would do something un-restaurant-like and totally out of the ordinary, choosing to prepare a “wildcrafted” dinner sourced entirely from wild edibles – with the exception of the vanilla, flour and sugar used in the dessert.

Our dinner was entitled ‘WILD THING – I Think I Love You’ and Christy presented us with a beautifully printed menu of our three-course dinner.

As we sipped our wine from barstools looking through to the open kitchen, the pony-tailed chef tossed freshly foraged salad greens – creek lettuce, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, chicory and cattail hearts – topping them with grated pickled duck egg, toasted pumpkin seeds and buttermilk dressing.  Our palate refresher was “Apple Pie Moonshine”, his signature concoction of homemade moonshine, cinnamon and apple cider.  Strong medicine meant for those who spend the day foraging and hunting in the woods as opposed to tooling around country roads in an air-conditioned SUV.

Blue catfish entree

Blue catfish entree

We took our seats in candlelight while Christy prepared our next course – blue catfish filets in brown butter on creamed ramps and nettles, finished with preserved fig.  A side of savory sweet potato and caramelized onion puree added sweetness and extra complexity.  It was divine!

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Pound cake with wild blackberries, honeysuckle crema and spruce tip ice cream

Dessert was a harmonious medley of foraged ingredients.  Dense pound cake served with stewed wild blackberries and enhanced with honeysuckle crema and hand-churned spruce tip ice cream.  I can assert without equivocation that I have never enjoyed a meal more uniquely delectable.

The cabin with its full-sized kitchen has all the amenities you’ll need whether your bringing the whole family or looking for a romantic getaway for two.

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

A small group of visitors await a tour of Swannanoa Palace

High atop the Blue Ridge Mountains sits Swannanoa Palace – one of those intriguing places, you never knew existed.

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

A view from the mountaintop at Swannanoa

Built in 1912 to replicate the style of the Villa Medici in Italy’s famed Borghese Gardens, millionaire philanthropist and railroad magnate James H. Dooley and his wife Sallie May used the 22,000-square foot Italian Renaissance Revival villa as their summer mountaintop retreat.  (You may be more familiar with the Dooleys’ better known Maymont home and gardens set beside the James River in Richmond.)  It is divinely lavish with exquisite frescoes, carvings and massive fireplaces of Sienna and Carrara marble.  Hidden doors and a secret elevator are revealed to the curious visitor, and the incongruous ‘Persian Smoking Room’ features teakwood carvings, mosaics and a mosque fresco above the fireplace.  An exquisite Moorish lantern, bejeweled with sapphires, rubies, amber and opals, hangs above the exotic decor.

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace - A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the 'Persian Smoking Room'

Architectural details abound in the decaying palace – A bejeweled Moorish lantern lights up the ‘Persian Smoking Room’

The 52-room Afton mansion appears to be haunted and one group claims evidence of the ghost of Sallie May.  A few years ago a team of ghost hunters from the Twisted Paranormal Society set up night beams and recording equipment in the mansion claiming to have recorded spirits within.  One year later they returned under the auspices of another paranormal show called The R. I. P. Files attempting to identify the ghosts who reside there.

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The expansive pergola depicted in the Tiffany window has fallen into disrepair

The white marble palace is mostly abandoned, but guided tours of the ground floor and gardens are given seasonally from May through November on Saturdays and Sundays.

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

A Tiffany window at the top of the grand stairway portrays Sallie May Dooley in her gardens at Swannanoa

On our tour Victoria Airisun Wonderli, author of Swannanoa Palace – A Pictorial History of the Past and People, was busy signing her fascinating book on the history of the mansion.  There is currently no website for the property.  For information on visiting hours call 540 942.5201.

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderlii signs her book on Swannanoa

Author Victoria Airisun Wonderli signs her book on Swannanoa

It was high time to shed any notions of ghosts and spirits and things that go bump in the night.  And what better way to exorcise the demons than a glass of wine and a spot of lunch?

Cardinal Point's grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

Cardinal Point’s grounds provide stunning views of the mountains

When we arrived for lunch on Sunday two musicians were playing mellow tunes on the deck at Cardinal Point Winery.  Overlooking gardens abloom with roses and daylilies, we settled into a spacious sofa feeling carefree and peaceful.

As the duo took requests, we gobbled up a delicious box lunch of salad and sandwich while alternating between Vinho Verde-styled, ‘Green’ and a lively estate-grown Cab Franc rosé.  Ginger and Maya chocolate bars from Gearhart, the Richmond-based artisanal chocolatier, were the sweet finish.

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

Lunch on the covered deck at Cardinal Point Winery

During lunch, Sarah Gorman, sister of owner Tim Gorman, spoke with us about the evolution of her brother’s vineyard which currently has 15 acres under vine.

She told us how Tim, one of a smattering of Virginia owners who is also a grower, came to be a winemaker.  Tim is known for his fresh and innovative takes on classic vinifera, and naturally is very passionate about the growing side of things.  Gorman got into winemaking as a result of being frustrated by how the grapes he was growing for other vineyards were not being honored.  A creative winemaker, he prefers to ‘read’ the grapes when they are ready.  This tells him what kind of wine to make as opposed to having to force a grape to become something other than what it should be.

In a small winery such as this, he can come up with innovations, and he does.  His ‘Clay Hill’ Cabernet Franc, made with grapes from a neighboring vineyard, was a 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup Gold Medal winner.  A classic Loire Valley style, it has also done well in international competition.  Be sure to sample some of these unique wines unknown to other Virginia wineries – like the 2014 ‘Quattro’ made from Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier and Traminette grapes for an off-dry wine with notes of candied apple and pear.

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Wine and chocolates at Cardinal Point Winery

Interpreting how each fruit has evolved in a season allows Tim to inform his winemaking decisions.  For his 2015 ‘Frai Chardonnay’, a wine with peach, pear and tropical notes, he stopped the ferment short of dry, leaving it with only 2% of residual sugar.  Sarah mentioned that the 2015 unoaked ‘Hopped Chardonnay’ is flying out of the tasting room with buyers surprised at how differently a chardonnay grape can be expressed.

The winery also features a five-bedroom 19th century farmhouse for overnight stays.  Check the website for upcoming events.

After doing a bit of shopping at Tuckahoe Antique Mall, we pressed on to Veritas Winery where we would spend our final night.  No, not in a vat of grapes, but at the bespoke Farmhouse at Veritas.

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

The flower filled pergola greets visitors to Veritas Winery

What we came upon was a breathtaking winery with vast expanses of green lawns, acres and acres of vines and a production facility that sustains a wine-drinking clientele of over 3,000 club members and boasts a grand ballroom for weddings and large events.

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

The busy tasting room at Veritas Winery

Founded by Andrew and Patricia Hodson, a British couple who moved to the county to lead a quieter life, they thought they’d put a few acres under vine.  In a short time, their flight of fancy became one of the most successful, and stunning, wineries in Virginia with many of their family members filling the roles of winemaker and managers.  We took a lengthy tour of the production facilities which are vast.  And though I took reams of notes, most are cryptically abbreviated.  Here’s what I can be sure of.  All their grapes are grown in the Monticello AVA, which consists of four counties including Nelson, and they bottled and sold their first wines, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, in 2002.  Their philosophy is to exclusively use estate or local grapes and they are most excited about a merlot they are testing using grape pomace (the skins, pulp and seeds from grapes).

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

Sheep graze alongside the vines at Veritas

As for the technical stuff, they employ a reverse osmosis machine and a state-of-the-art gyro cube for riddling and they are very proud of their gravity-fed vineyard.  I felt myself going into shutdown mode, either from too much technical stuff, or the fact that we had come inside to refrigerated cellars from 98-degree heat.

The tasting went swiftly as I passed over some too young reds to get to the best of the lot.  The 2014 ‘Vinter’s Reserve’ Red is their most promising wine right now, as the 2013 cuvee won the Gold Medal at the Governor’s Cup and I found the 2013 Petit Verdot to be coming along nicely.  I had a particular affinity for the 2015 Viognier which is touted as cellaring well, and a more delicate than expected version of ice wine called ‘Kenmar’.

The Farmhouse at Veritas

The Farmhouse at Veritas

We checked into The Farmhouse at Veritas, more of a bespoke estate home, elegantly appointed with walls of books, an old-fashioned billiard table in the Gathering Room and fine antiques.  High-end decorator touches grace the eight suites that are outfitted with high-quality linens and premium amenities.  Not your typical roadside B&B, the 1839 home was where the Hodson family lived when they first took ownership of the former horse and cattle farm.  Guests can also opt for ‘The Barn Cottage’, a charming two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a fireplace in the living room and a full-size kitchen available for guests.

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

Outdoor dining at Blue Mountain Brewery

As much as I preferred to luxuriate in such splendor and sneak off with a book to the second-story front porch, we took off down the road for dinner at the Blue Mountain Brewery where we arrived in time to watch the sun set.  The award-winning brewery is proud of its 20 varieties of craft beers made with their own hops, Simcoe, Cascade and Centennial, and using deep well water as well as brewing exclusively in Nelson County since 2007.

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Combo pizza at Blue Mountain Brewery

Char-grilled pizzas and burgers including plenty of vegan options are made from scratch and designed to pair well with a myriad of beers. (Local wines and even kombucha are available too.) We sat on the outdoor terrace watching kids run around the lawn while a lively group played cornhole.  Check the website for upcoming Oktoberfest events.

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

The potager garden and dining gazebo at The Farmhouse at Veritas

Morning at The Farmhouse brought a champagne breakfast of fresh fruits, croissants and omelets prepared to your liking by the estate’s chef.  We eschewed the screened-in porch to enjoy the pleasures of a large brick-floor gazebo.  Surrounded by the raised beds of the kitchen garden and row upon row of Chardonnay vines we whiled away the hour sipping the aforementioned Mousseux while butterflies and honeybees flit about the roses and coneflowers.  A very civilized way to begin the day before returning homeward.  Check the website for upcoming yoga and hiking retreats.

Visiting Annapolis – Maryland’s Capital Deserves More Than a Daytrip

Jordan Wright
August 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Annapolis Harbor

Annapolis Harbor

Although Annapolis is a hop, skip and a jump away, I thought it would be fun to give it more than a cursory visit and include some nightlife, wine life and a bit of water-centric fun.  To that end we booked a few nights at the recently newly redecorated Annapolis Waterfront Hotel.

The newly redecorated rooms at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel

The newly redecorated rooms at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel

Now part of Marriott International’s prestigious Autograph Collection brand, known for its spectacular portfolio of luxury hotels around the world, the hotel reflects a decidedly contemporary nautical air with stunning rooms overlooking the town’s main harbor.  As the only hotel overlooking the waterfront, its central location allows visitors to walk to shops, restaurants and historical attractions.  Travelers will be pleased to know they still provide all of the benefits of Marriott Rewards program.  Boaters will love that it has its own dockage.

Harbor view from the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel

Harbor view from the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel

In the past we have enjoyed Sunday brunch at the hotel’s Pusser’s Caribbean Grille with its waterfront dining and lively bar.  Named for the 350-year old West Indian rum brand, their rum-based drinks are delicious and potent.  Be sure to snag a bottle of their newest release called Gunpowder Proof from the onsite Pusser’s Company Store.  You’ll be among the first to try it.  This 109-proof dark rum has only been available stateside for one month.

  • Hot Tip: When booking your accommodations be sure to inquire about the hotel’s special partnership with the Naval Academy.  The “Exactly Like Nothing Else” package, allows overnight guests an opportunity to dine at the Alley Restaurant in the historic wood-paneled Officer’s Club.  Dining in the club is an exclusive privilege normally reserved for Navy families. 

Sightseeing

No visit to Annapolis is complete without a trip to the Naval Academy located in the heart of town.  Our lively guide was Mike Zitzman who regaled us with curious backstories and little known facts on the history of the 338-acre property as well as the program for midshipmen (women are called midshipmen too).  Did you know that during their training each cadet must wear a water-filled fanny pack?  This new regulation was implemented to ensure cadets are not dehydrated while practicing their drills.

Cadets rest between drills at Halsey Field House

Cadets rest between drills at Halsey Field House

On the day we visited the temperature rose to a brutal 98 degrees.  Thankfully we weren’t the ones sporting heavy cotton uniforms and rifles over our shoulders.  Another fascinating factoid: The Navy has more pilots than the Air Force.  (Hint: Pilots, not aircraft.)  And the Army has more boats than the Navy. (Hint: The Navy calls them “ships”.)

The domed ceiling in the Naval Chapel

The domed ceiling in the Naval Chapel

On campus many of the buildings, including the dormitories housing over 4,000 students, are open to the public.  Check out the museum at Preble Hall for paintings, antique model ships and fascinating salvaged artifacts, and the awe-inspiring Main Chapel to see the largest pipe organ in America and marvel at its massive Tiffany stained glass windows.

A Tiffany window in the Naval Chapel

A Tiffany window in the Naval Chapel

Beneath the chapel you’ll view the crypt and marble sarcophagus of Commodore John Paul Jones, the most celebrated Revolutionary War naval hero.  There is also the Levy Center, a place of worship for midshipmen of the Jewish and Muslim faiths.  Book this special guided tour through the hotel or drop in at the Armel-Leftwish Visitor Center.

The marble sarcophagus of John Paul Joned

The marble sarcophagus of John Paul Jones

A 3-mile drive from town is Great Frogs Winery, a 100-year old former tobacco farm with placid views of the rolling countryside.  Located on the Chesapeake Bay, its rustic tasting room is housed in a former tobacco drying barn.

The converted tobacco barn at Great Frogs winery

The converted tobacco barn at Great Frogs winery

Arriving at the height of a summer downpour proved to be a cozy complement to our tasting as we relaxed to the sound of the rain hitting the tin roof.

Let the tasting begin at Great Frogs

Let the tasting begin at Great Frogs

The winery is run by Californians, Nathaniel O’Shea and Andrea O’Shea, who have planted a wide variety of grapes in this sandy Maryland soil.  We especially liked their 2014 Vintner’s White and an exceptional aged port straight from the barrel.

The delicious cheese and charcuterie platter

The delicious cheese and charcuterie platter

It is a fine place to while away an afternoon over delicious locally-sourced cheese and charcuterie.  As the rain subsided and the sun glistened over the vines, we were treated to a double rainbow.  How lucky can you get?

A double rainbow seen from Great Frogs

A double rainbow seen from Great Frogs

Getting out on the water is part of the adventure and there are a number of options to choose from.  If you’re a fan of standup paddleboarding (SUP), the latest form of exercise is yoga sessions on SUPs.  Head over to Capital SUP to see professional paddleboard racer Brian Meyer.  His boathouse is in town on Spa Creek beside his stepfather Barry Levinson’s beautiful grey-shingled home.

Paddleboarders gather for morning yoga on Spa Creek

Paddleboarders gather for morning yoga on Spa Creek

If you prefer a captain at the helm of your ship, go big – as in a 74-foot double masted wooden schooner rigged with four sails.  From the hotel’s docks catch the breeze on The Woodwind and sail the Chesapeake Bay on a two-hour cruise.  Book the special “Wine in the Wind” tour on August 28th.  This French Burgundy tasting with hors d’oeuvres is a three-hour cruise.  If you’re staying at the Annapolis Waterfront Hotel where the ship docks, be sure to ask for the special room + sail rate.

The Temptations perform at the Ram's Head

The Temptations perform at the Ram’s Head

When the sun goes down there’s plenty of entertainment nearby.  Plan ahead for the hottest musical acts at the Ram’s Head Tavern (we caught The Temptations in their sold-out show).  Or head to the Infinity Theatre Company.  A 15-minute drive from town, it features New York theatre and children’s shows.  Another option is the award-winning Colonial Players who will feature Martin McDonagh’s dark, Irish comedy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, beginning September 9th and running through October 1st.   Not to be ignored are the Compass Rose Theatre, Annapolis Opera, Ballet Theatre of Maryland and the Annapolis Shakespeare Company.  For tickets and more info on these venues visit www.InfinityTheatre.com

 Dining

Annapolis has always been tops in seafood restaurants, and frankly, a lot of us come here for the sweet Maryland blue crabs, the famed rockfish and the oysters, many of which are harvested from the world’s largest man-made oyster reef.

Many visitors go for fish and chips at the laidback Galway Bay Irish Pub or seafood-centric Carrol’s Creek Café for fine dining (reserve ahead for a waterside table) and Blackwall Hitch, whose latest outpost is on the harbor in Alexandria, Virginia.  But if you’ve visited before, you may want to explore.

Michelle and Jeremy Hoffman of Preserve restaurant

Michelle and Jeremy Hoffman of Preserve restaurant

Thanks to some insider tips, we made our way to Preserve, a rustic modern outpost for canned, pickled and fermented vegetable dishes from Restaurant Eve alums, Jeremy Hoffman and Michelle Hoffman.  Jeremy informs his cooking from his Pennsylvania Dutch background, elevating homey small plates to a modern sensibility.

The bar at Preserve

The bar at Preserve

Start with a few of his tangy-sweet pickled offerings.  The relish dish features Old Bay Turnips, Bread and Butter Green Tomatoes, BBQ Carrots, Bloody Mary Celery, Soy Ginger Daikon and Beets lavished with dill weed.  I was imagining how nicely they’d pair with wintertime fare when fresh vegetables are out of season and hearty meat dishes can be enhanced with a touch of acidity.

Minced Pork Lettuce Wraps at Preserve

Minced Pork Lettuce Wraps at Preserve

Next set your sights on some tweaked out starters like Kimchi or Minced Pork Lettuce Wraps with peanuts, cilantro and red onion.  The servings are small, so you’ll want to order a few things.

An assortment of "ferments" at Preserve

An assortment of “ferments” at Preserve

The menu lists a number of meat dishes to choose from (the house made liverwurst called to me).  Vegans will delight in discovering the Oyster Mushroom Po’boy.  I savored the Pennsylvania Dutch Chicken Pot Pie with its golden crust.

Jeremy’s Cabbage Alley line of raw, vegan and gluten-free “ferments” – sauerkraut, kimchi and curtido – are available by the jar.

Breakfast at Chick & Ruth's Delly

Breakfast at Chick & Ruth’s Delly

Another unique spot is the iconic Chick & Ruth’s Delly, which is not spelled “deli”, though it certainly is.  This beloved four-generation establishment is the be-all, end-all of Jewish delis.  Unfortunately, many of these wonderful outposts of traditional Jewish cookery have gone out of business, yet this stalwart is still going strong.  Why?  Well, I’d say it’s because they don’t stint on friendliness, food or quality.  The waitresses are cheery, the platters are heroic and the homemade pies are legendary.  With twenty-four flavors to choose from, the pie menu alone is testament to Chick and Ruth’s patriotic commitment to freedom of choice.

The Governor's Table

The Governor’s Table

As a popular hangout for the capital’s lawmakers, politicians’ photos line the walls going back to the 60’s.  There’s even a specially reserved table for the Governor’s Office, be they Republican or Democrat.  Townsfolk will tell you that every newly elected governor has come here and stood beside both locals and out-of-towners to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance on their first day in office.  You too can participate in this unique observance every weekday morning at 8:30am.

Classic Smoked Salmon on an ET bagel

Classic Smoked Salmon on an ET bagel

Though featured on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food for 6-pound milkshakes and a 3-pound “Super-Duper Colossal” cheeseburger, we nonetheless settled for something far less challenging.  After all it was breakfast and, though you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner all day, a cheeseburger in the morning wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.

Owner Ted Levitt inspects the morning's bread. All pastries, breads, bagels, pies and cookies are baked on premises

Owner Ted Levitt inspects the morning’s bread. All pastries, breads, bagels, pies and cookies are baked on premises

My advice?  Go for the Belgian waffles with homemade fruit toppings, the smoked salmon with all the accoutrements served on an epic in-house made bagel, or the Maryland lump crabmeat omelets.

Settle in with Pork Chops, Grits and Scrambled Eggs at Chick & Ruth's

Settle in with Pork Chops, Grits and Scrambled Eggs at Chick & Ruth’s

A particularly ravenous member of our group bit the bullet and happily chowed down on a duet of pork chops with creamy grits and hash brown potatoes.  Savvy travelers will take home at least one of those splendid pies and a dozen bagels.

Heads Up for the Labor Day Sailboat Races 

For sailing enthusiasts, the 2016 Annapolis Labor Day Sailing Regatta is a great opportunity to see sailboat racing in action.  Hosted by the Annapolis Yacht Club, the Eastport Yacht Club and the Gibson Island Squadron, the races will be held on Saturday, September 3rd and Sunday, September 4th.  For more information call Kathy Parks at 443 386-9057 or visit www.AnnapolisYC.com/racing

Photo credit ~ Jordan Wright