The Mall is a feast, and you may find yourself regretting, as I did, that you have but one stomach to give to the cause. I heard raves about restaurants like C&O (515 E. Water St., 434/971-7044)), Oxo (215 Water St., 434/977-8111), Bizou (110 W. Main St., 434/977-7044) and the pizza at Sylvia's (310 E. Main St., 434/977-0162), and I can personally attest to the great diner fare at the Nook (415 E. Main St., 434/295-6665), the roasted veggie and romesco sauce sandwich at tiny takeout Bashir's (414 E. Main St., 434/923-0927) and the pizza at Christian's (118 W. Main St., 434/977-9688): "Their crust-making is close to a religion," I was told by one enthusiastic fan.
For lunch, however, I headed to Higher Grounds (112 W. Main St., 434/971-8743), a small coffee shop/cafe, and took my mixed greens salad and thick slices of grill-toasted bread outdoors to sit in the sunshine and read my copy of C-ville, the free local weekly (www.c-ville.com) packed with the hometown lowdown.
The Downtown Mall in Charlottesville.
(Richard Robinson - for The Washington Post)
The day was hotting up, so next stop was the blessedly cool, and virtually deserted, Ice Park (230 W. Main St., 434/817-1423). According to the friendly young guy working the rental and concession counter, spring and summer are usually quiet seasons. Happily, this reduces the chances of painful run-ins with out-of-control 8-year-old boys hurtling toward you across the ice like the asteroid that did in the dinosaurs. The ticket was a steal at this hour and the ice smooth and glossy.
Once more on the Mall, I stopped by Innisfree World Artisans (108 E. Main St., 434/979-0600), where shelves beckoned with a colorful array of objects, from richly subtle pottery to brightly colored woven fabrics. The store is part of the North American "alternative trade" retail chain Ten Thousand Villages, selling "fairly traded handicrafts from around the world" and gets its name and a number of its products from Innisfree Village, a unique Albemarle County residential community for adults with mental disabilities.
Next I wandered up to the McGuffey Art Center (201 Second St. NW, 434/295-7973). Once McGuffey Elementary School, the building has the tall-windowed, boxy brick shape of a classic American mid-century school building. Now, however, it is leased by the city to a nonprofit cooperative of visual and performing artists who rent studios within the building -- and welcome visitors to stop in and see art in the making.
"If your door is open, anyone is welcome to come in and talk with you," stained glass artist Vee Osvalds, whose door was open, explained to me. For visitors, that means "you can see the process rather than just the finished product."
Osvalds, who does original commissioned and restoration work as well as decorative stained glass in a studio shimmering with translucent colors, has been located in the building for 20 years. Still, he actually seemed to enjoy answering all my no-doubt familiar questions (Do they really make glass out of sand? Answer: yes.)
After a long day of ambling and eating and browsing, one's thoughts turn to warm baths and soft pillows, and in downtown there is a nice range of lodging choices. If you're in search of the familiar, local chain hotels include the Omni (on the Mall at 235 W. Main Street, 804/971-5500), or a nearly new Hampton Inn and Suites (900 W. Main, 804/923-8600; the two-room suites with fully equipped kitchens are a great bargain for families) or Courtyard by Marriott (1201 W. Main, 804/977-1700), both located less than a mile away, near the university campus.
However, within walking (what else?) distance of the Downtown Mall are two personable bed & breakfast inns: the Inn at Court Square and 200 South Street Inn.
200 South Street, whose name is also its address (800/964-7008; its Web site at www.southstreetinn.com is also a good source of information on area restaurants and activities), offers 20 rooms in two neighboring buildings and a sumptuous continental breakfast in the morning. Sunny and appealingly furnished with European antiques, including some truly massive armoires, South Street also features modern amenities like cable TV and data ports in every room. Comfortably low-key, the inn, says owner Brendan Clancy, "is not a grandmotherly, quilty sort of place," but it does harbor a colorful history. Built as a private residence in the early 1850s, over the years it has been a girls' school, a brothel and a boarding house, as well as an inn.
If you're staying over on a Friday night in the summertime, you can step across the street on Saturday morning to the city's Farmer's Market to pick up fresh organic vegetables, blooming plants, baked goods and a taste of the C-ville scene (the Market, everyone assured me, is a summer season social hub).
At 410 E. Jefferson St. is the Inn at Court Square (866/466-2877), where purely in the selfless interest of journalistic inquiry I enjoyed a night of sybaritic luxury. The Inn at Court Square is located in the oldest house downtown (circa 1785), and yet not much more than a year ago the place was a drab law office with acoustic-tile ceilings and all the glamour of a liverwurst sandwich. Its astounding transformation into an elegantly intimate inn was in large part the inspired work of antiques dealer, interior designer and inn owner Candace DeLoach.
DeLoach is warm, utterly unpretentious and quite obviously a hands-on owner who is equally at home welcoming her guests or tackling a leaking faucet. Her inn is also the operating showroom for DeLoach Antiques, and many of the antique and reproduction pieces ("an eclectic mix of neoclassical, French, English, American and painted") in the rooms are available for sale. DeLoach doesn't seem to mind that her guests are forever carting off the furniture, insisting that she enjoys the challenge of constantly re-imagining the decor of each room.
My room was perfectly appointed and invitingly luxurious, with its crowning glory The Bed. A splendorous, four-postered island of pale linens rearing up magnificently from the smooth wood floor, it was the kind of bed you need steps to climb into, and who could resist that? I surrendered like a romance-novel heroine, and it was perfectly clear to me why Candace DeLoach's guests wake up in the morning and promptly buy their beds.