LONG TOM JEFFERSON loved the central Virginia highlands around Charlottesville, and it doesn't take a visitor long to see why. The red clay of the rolling Piedmont hills is too poor to grow much more than trees and cattle, but it grows fine trees and fat cattle; and lately, grapevines planted on the stony hillocks have begun to produce the fine wines that Mr. Jefferson always insisted they could.
So why do we bring this up in frosty February? Well, why not? There's no better cure for cabin fever than to go take a look at somebody else's cabin, and after a fine brisk day of touring you'll be even more appreciative of Charlottesville's role as a gustatory oasis in a region of Virginia that is generally hard traveling, bellywise. And, convenient as it is to several Blue Ridge resorts, the town offers relief for ski-slope burnout.
Charlottesville was a village in the semiwilderness until the opening of "The University" -- locals think it unnecessary to add "of Virginia" -- opened in 1825, and only fairly recently has grown into what can properly be called a city: some 35,000 residents plus perhaps twice that many in surrounding Albemarle County.
Urban renewal cleaned up the downtown historic district in the '70s, but while the heart of the city looks a lot better, it can't be said to be pulsing with life: Charlottesville still centers on the university. But with new hotels sprouting up and businesses moving in or expanding at such a rate that Money magazine calls Charlottesville one of America's five hottest "pockets of prosperity," the city may develop an identity of its own.
The boom's a mixed blessing, because to get from the lovely countryside to beautiful downtown Charlottesville, most visitors have to endure mile after mile of hideous U.S. 29 North, along which the authorities have permitted just about anyone to build just about any damned thing.
But let's skirt the schlock, take the U.S. 29 bypass south to I-64, and head for the five outlying attractions no visitor should miss: Monticello, Michie Tavern, Ash Lawn, Castle Hill and Swannanoa.
First-time visitors to Mr. Jefferson's beloved Monticello tend to hold their breaths for fear it can't possibly meet the expectations raised by the raving adoration the mountaintop manse has always received. But it can and does, which is no surprise considering that for more than 40 years the finest mind this country has ever produced was preoccupied with the design and improvement of the place.
Unlike many a Virginia gentleman's seat, Monticello was not designed to impress people but to impress the eye and stimulate the mind with possibilities of line, proportion and repose. But the house was mainly a machine for living in, and the continuing delight of wandering the place is seeing the ingenuity by which Jefferson made the practical esthetic. The university he founded is the monument of his mind, but Monticello holds his heart.
Tours are led by docents who love the place and are deeply knowledgeable about the manse and master builder. And, bless 'em, if asked a question to which they do not know the answer, they don't fudge but suggest sources. Restoration work and the continuing archeological investigation of the grounds keep turning up new tidbits of Jeffersoniana; you can't step into the same Monticello twice.
If you're physically able, skip the jitney bus from the parking lot and walk up the woods trail as the owner might have; it will help you understand why he chose this mountain.
MONTICELLO -- Take the Route 20 south exit from I-64 and follow the signs. Open 9 to 4:30 daily (8 to 4:30 from Memorial Day to Labor Day). Admission $4 adults, $1 children; group discounts. 804/295-8181.
If you find Monticello, you've already found Michie Tavern, having passed it while driving along Route 53. If the time is somewhere between 11 and 3, you're in luck, because that's when this 1784 tavern serves a buffet dinner (lunch) of such Colonial delicacies as fried chicken, blackeye peas, stewed tomatoes, cole slaw, potato salad, green bean salad, beets, biscuits, cornbread and apple cobbler, all for $6.45 plus extra for however many glasses of the (often excellent) local wines you need to wash it down.
You're in luck anyway, so long as it's between 9 and 5, because Michie (pronounced Mickey) Tavern is fascinating. And, especially on a wintertime weekday, you're likely to be sent off to tour it by yourself (with recorded commentary available in each room). Much of the furniture and many of the fixtures are original, and most of the rest are authentic period pieces, so it's surprising and a little scary when the lady who takes your ticket just turns you loose to wander among 'em at your own pace. There may be no such experience available anywhere else in the country.
MICHIE TAVERN -- Take Route 20 south exit from I-64 and follow the signs. Open 9 to 5 daily. Admission $3 adults, $2.50 senior citizens and students, $1 children six to 11. Buffet ($6.45 plus beverages and desserts) from 11 to 3 daily. Admission also covers adjacent Meadow Run Grist Mill. 804/977-1234.
Press on a couple of miles past Monticello and you come to Ash Lawn, the home of President James Monroe, which bears about the relation to Jefferson's mansion as does a cottage to a country club. The word Ash Lawn brings to mind is homey, and it suggests the trend away from aristocratic chief executives toward the rougher-hewn line inaugurated by Andy Jackson.
Sheep and peacocks wander the grounds as they did in Monroe's day (the house was built in 1799), and if one of the great bossy birds sounds off close by, it may lift you out of your shoes. The docents who lead the tours, and others who assume the (highly skilled) roles of house servants and workmen, give the place an air of being lived in, as though the owner were expected back from Washington any day. They're plainly fascinated by the place and its past, and they'll infect you, too.
ASH LAWN -- Off Virginia Route 53, 21/2 miles beyond Monticello. Admission $3 adults, $1 children six to 11; group rates available. 804/293-9539.
George Washington never slept at Castle Hill, the 1764 mansion of Dr. Thomas Walker, the guardian of young Tom Jefferson. But six presidents besides Jefferson did: Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler and Buchanan. Not to mention Patrick Henry and Robert E. Lee. The property was the first land grant (by George II) in Albemarle County, and is intimately associated with virtually all the FFV (First Families of Virginia).
The place has been beautifully restored and is gorgeous inside and out; unfortunately only the outside may be visited before March 1. However, the outside embraces magnificent grounds and gardens containing ancient boxwoods said to be perhaps the tallest in the world. Grounds-only admission is 50 cents, but "a lot of people don't see the sign, and we don't go chasing after them," a Castle Hill spokesman said. But be a sport and drop a dollar in the box, it's a bargain.
CASTLE HILL -- At Shadwell, 13 miles east of Charlottesville. Take U.S. 250 east to Shadwell; bear left on Route 22 east to Route 231 at Cismont; Castle Hill is two miles north. Admission $2.50 adults, 50 cents for children, 50 cents for grounds only. 804/293-7297.
Very different from all of the above, and probably unlike anything else in the world, is Swannanoa, an Italian Renaissance villa, or maybe castle, on Afton Mountain 18 miles west of Charlottesville. It houses the "University of Science and Philosophy," which offers home-study courses in such mysteries as "the sexed electric universe."
Lao Russell, the elderly widow of sculptor-writer-mystic Walter Rsell, has banished the negative pole of magnetism as a downer, and expounds other unconventional scientific views. These are lightly touched on by your guide as you tour the magnificent if fading public rooms, dominated by an enormous Tiffany window-portrait of Mrs. James Dooley of Richmond, whose husband built the turn-of-the-century palace as a summer place for her (she never stayed in it).
If you want to delve deeper into the Russell theories, there is literature on sale or you can sign up for the study course; but no pressure is applied. Touching isn't the word for Swannanoa: The air of the place is what the French call triste, and it is unforgettable.
SWANNANOA -- At the Afton Mountain exit of I-64, 18 miles west of Charlottesville. Open 9 to 5 in winter, 8 to 5 in summer. Admission to palace and gardens $2 adults, $1 children; gardens only, $1.
As you travel back and forth among these attractions you'll keep passing the Thomas Jefferson Visitors Bureau at the Route 20 exit of I-64. Stop passing it, because the friendly and efficient folks in there have just about any information you could want about things to do and see in and around Charlottesville. Also there's a museum with a bunch of neat stuff, especially some genuine Hessian boots. One look at those boots will tell you why Gen'l Washington scored such a thundering success at Trenton: Half the Hessians couldn't get their boots on, and those who could, couldn't walk in them.
THE THOMAS JEFFERSON VISITORS BUREAU -- Off I-64 at the Route 20 exit. 804/293-6789.