ARLINGTON HOUSE, THE ROBERT E. LEE MEMORIAL _ If the story of Robert E. Lee were not true, it would make transparently trite romantic fiction.

The handsome, brilliant, softspoken scion of a proud old Virginia family, son of a famous Revolutionary War officer, husband of an heir of George Washington. A hero of the Mexican War. A devout and gentle family man. A stainless, selfless, tireless, inspiring officer who has dedicated his life to the service of the United States, than which he loves only his native Virginia more.

In the autumn of his years, as his health is failing, the shadow of civil war descends upon the land. His country calls upon him to take command of the army he has so long and loyally served. But the Old Dominion calls him also, and home ties prove stronger.

Standing moist-eyed in the portico of his white-columned mansion, looking sadly across the Potomac to the federal capital, the gray-haired patriot slowly unbuckles the sword he had taken up on The Plain at West Point so many years before. He sighs, squares his shoulders and turns away, striding resolutely southward, never to see his home again. The plantation, siezed by a vengeful government, soon will be covered with soldiers' graves . . . .

It wouldn't wash even as a soap opera script. But it's as true as it is tragic. The National Park Service is slowly and meticulously restoring the mansion to just this moment in 1861, and the spirit of Marse Robert is almost palpable around the place.

Open 9:30 to 6 daily; free. 557-0614. Use Metro's Arlington Cemetery station or, by car, park at the national cemetery visitor center. Shuttle buses are available, but anyone who's not seriously handicapped will profit from hiking straight up toward the mansion. This will take you past the graves of more war heroes than you can count, from more wars than perhaps you have heard of, and past the Kennedy graves, and past the single crypt holding the bones of 2,111 Confederate soldiers.HUME SCHOOL MUSEUM -- The District of Columbia is shaped funny because what's now called Arlington -- it used to be "Alexandria County" -- dropped out of the 10-mile square. It was "retroceded" to Virginia before the Civil War because, what the heck, Washington already had so much vacant land it would never need. Until the explosive expansion of the federal government as the New Deal segued into World War II, Arlington was way out in the country, with many farms, a few great estates and lots of summer homes whence civil servants fled from the heat of the city. Rosslyn was a den of -- well, let's just say it was more exciting than it is now, and it also was the home of The Original Cherry Smash, the best soft drink you never tasted.

The rich and sometimes rapscallion history of the community is the stuff of the Arlington Historical Society collection at the 1891 Hume School. There is a commendable emphasis on things rather than themes, including a faithfully recreated schoolroom and much memorabilia from the early 20th century.

At 1805 S. Arlington Ridge Road, just off I-95. Open 11 to 3 Friday and Saturday, 2 to 5 Sunday; free. 528-1548. ALEXANDRIA RAMSAY HOUSE VISITOR CENTER -- This is the place to start an Alexandria tour. The mid-18th-century home of William Ramsay, the city's first Lord Mayor, has permanent and special exhibitions on city history and events, and everything you could possibly want to know about Historick Olde Towne. At 221 King St. Open 9 to 5 daily; free. 549-0205. CARLYLE HOUSE -- This 1752 Georgian manse is such a pleasant surprise to the eyes in downtown Alexandria that it almost amounts to a shock. Although surrounded by rather uniformly ugly architecture, it remains serene and supreme, proving that a great building can live anywhere it likes. Beside its superb period furnishings and historical exhibits, the museum is memorable as the place where General Braddock met with colonial governors in 1755 to plan the opening campaign of the French and Indian War. Like many committee efforts, it led to disaster. At 121 N. Fairfax St. Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, 12 to 5 Sunday; adults $2, children $1. 549-2997. GADSBY'S TAVERN MUSEUM -- As well as being a major historic building (built in 1770, patronized by no end of great men), Gadsby's is a living museum of colonial tavern fare and furnishings.

At 134 N. Royal St. For tours, the building's open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday; admission is $2 adults, $1 children. 838-4242. To make reservations for lunch or dinner at the restaurant next door, which a restaurant staffer described as "pretty authentic colonial food, only better," call 548-1288. GEORGE WASHINGTON MASONIC NATIONAL MEMORIAL -- A towering landmark for drivers, boaters and pilots alike, the memorial evokes a time when Masonry held powerful sway in American society and politics. Washington was a dedicated Mason from age 20 on, and his family Bible is among the relics on display. But the main attraction is the building and its heroic murals.

At King Street and Callahan Drive. Open 9 to 5 daily; free. 683-2007. LEE-FENDALL HOUSE -- Built in 1785 by Light Horse Harry Lee's stepfather-in-law, the house displays an important collection of Lee family memorabilia and heirlooms, and also evokes the era of labor leader John L. Lewis, who lived out his life here.

At 614 N. Oronoco St. Open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday, 12 to 4 Sunday; adults $2, children $1. 548-1789. ROBERT E. LEE BOYHOOD HOME -- A shrine to Marse Robert, maintained by the Lee-Jackson Foundation, that goes a long way toward explaining the Virginia roots that, when push came to shove, forced the Union-loving Lee to turn down command of the Federal forces and devote himself to the Lost Cause.

At 607 N. Oronoco St. Open 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday, 12 to 4 Sunday; adults $2, children $1. 548-8454.STABLER-LEADBEATER APOTHECARY SHOP -- They could get it for you wholesale, in the 1790s, and there's something like a thousand apothecary bottles here to prove it. Said to be the earliest surviving American pharmaceutical supply house. Not only is it a real antique, they sell real antiques, which is why they don't have to charge admission.

At 105-107 S. Fairfax St. Open 10 to 4 Monday through Saturday. 836-3713. TORPEDO FACTORY -- First-time visitors, especially those born after World War II, are often surprised to learn that it isn't just a cute name, this really was a torpedo factory. Well, hey. Now it's an art factory: There are a couple of hundred artists and craftspersons working in 90 studios and cooperative galleries, and the joint is always jumping.

At 105 N. Union St. Open 10 to 5 daily; free. 838-4565. FAIRFAX COUNTY GREAT FALLS MUSEUM & VISITOR CENTER -- The great falls of the Potomac have been a principal regional landmark since long before they turned back Captain John Smith's longboat. The dramatic granite gorge marked the boundary between the Iroquois and Algonquin peoples, serving as a battleground or trading center according to the state of intertribal relations. George Washington was drawn there by dreams of wealth, organizing a canal company to bypass the head of navigation and open the way to commerce with the west, which in those days meant the Ohio country.

Always one of the top tourist attractions in the Washington area, Great Falls until 1935 was served by a trolley that carried families on picnics and gay blades and their ladies on excursions to the rustic dance pavilion (torn down when the park went public). The human and natural histories of Great Falls are equally rich, and the park museum does its best to illustrate both. Park rangers offer frequent guided tours of the remnants of the canal and the rich variety of natural habitats within the 800-acre park.

At the intersection of Georgetown Pike (Virginia Route 193) and Old Dominion Drive. Open dawn to dusk year round; museum open 9 to 5 daily; free. 759-2169. SULLY PLANTATION -- This gem of a Fedral Amerindian art, and "European and American Art in the Age of Jefferson." It all seems a little hit-or-miss sometimes, but quite Jeffersonian: The university's founder was, after all, as eclectic as they come.

In the Thomas H. Bayly Memorial Building on Rugby Road near University Avenue. Open 1 to 5 Tuesday through Sunday; voluntary admission donation. 804/924-3592. CASTLE HILL -- This 1764 estate of Dr. Thomas Walker, Jefferson's guardian, was stripped of much of its furnishings when the sale of the place to singer Wayne Newton was being negotiated. But the deal fell through, and there's plenty left to see in a mansion that has hosted, besides Jefferson, presidents Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler and Buchanan, along with such other notables as Patrick Henry and Robert E. Lee.

Castle Hill was the first land grant in Albemarle County, and is surprisingly little-known for a major estate that has always been associated with Virginia's movers and shakers.

At Shadwell, on Virginia Route 231, 13 miles east of Charlottesville. Open 10 to 5 daily from March 1 through November 30; $3 adults, $2.50 seniors, $1 children six to 11. Grounds tour only, $1 (year round). 804/293-7297. WINCHESTER ABRAM'S DELIGHT -- When Abraham Hollingsworth arrived in Winchester in the early 1700s he came upon a sylvan setting with a sweet spring where there was an encampment of Shawnee Indians. It was "a delight to behold," he announced, and pretty soon the gentle Quaker had hold of it and the picturesque Shawnees were gone.

Hollingsworth built a log cabin and a grist mill and the family so prospered that in 1754 his son Isaac built an imposing limestone house suitable to members of the Valley of Virginia squirearchy. The family's fortunes declined after the Civil War, and in 1941 the city purchased the remnant of the estate for a water treatment plant. The long-abandoned house, virtually a ruin, was meticulously restored and refurnished in the '50s by the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, which later salvaged a contemporary log cabin from downtown and re-erected it on the grounds. Now Abram's is everybody's delight, and never mind what became of the middle of his name.

At 1340 Pleasant Valley Road. Open 10 to 5 daily, April through October; $3 adults, $1.50 children over 6. 703/662-6519 or 662-6550. GEORGE WASHINGTON'S OFFICE MUSEUM -- Young George Washington used this modest cabin as his office while surveying Lord Fairfax's humongous Virginia grant and again in 1755-56, during the French and Indian War, while commanding Virginia's troops and supervising the construction of Fort Loudoun on what was then the remote and bloody western frontier. The exhibits include a fine model of the fort, which was surprisingly large and elaborate.

The central part of the building is believed to be entirely original, including the loft where wounded Confederate soldiers hid during the periodic Yankee sweeps of the town. At Cork and Braddock streets. Open 10 to 5 daily, April through October. Adults $1.50, children 5 to 12 75 cents. 703/662-4412.

MONTICELLO -- One of the most reassuring things about this magnificent estate is that the great Tom Jefferson, architect of the ages, made mistakes that had to be plastered over, and changed his mind so that things had to be torn out and redone. In the end, of course, he got it just right.

Monticello's always in ferment, with research on the buildings and grounds turning up new tidbits and sidelights on the man and his manse. Altogether fitting for the estate of the Great Gardener is the newly established national Historic Plant Center, which by the fall of 1987 will have for sale many old-fashioned garden plants that Jefferson and his contemporaries prized but that are no longer commercially available, such as "Marseilles" figs, "Carnation" cherries, and that incomparable apple, the "Albemarle (or Newtown) Pippin."

Monticello is off Virginia Route 20 south from I-64. Open 8 to 5 daily, March 1 through October 31, otherwise 9 to 4:30. Admission $5 adults, $1 children 6 to 11. 804/295-8181. MICHIE TAVERN -- At the turn of the 19th century, if you needed a place to sup and sleep when traveling south from Charlottesville and were reluctant to intrude on Mr. Jefferson or Mr. Monroe, not to worry. On the way to their digs was the delightful 1784 Michie (pronounced Mickey) Tavern, where Virginia gentlemen and their ladies often stopped and frequently held balls.

There no longer are rooms to let, but you're still invited to dinner, which is to say lunch, from 11 to 3. Served buffet style, the dishes are authentically colonial and lamentably caloric, but who's counting? If you dunno about stewed tomatoes, and/or blackeyed peas, or think you don't like them, try these and be converted.

Michie Tavern (which includes the reconstructed Meadow Run Grist Mill) is on Virginia Route 20 south from I-64. Open 9 to 5 daily; $3 adults, $2.50 seniors and students, $1 children six to 11. Lunch is $6.95. 804/977-1234. SWANNANOA -- They knocked down half of Afton Mountain to get I-64 across the Blue Ridge, but fortunately they left the half on which stands this turn-of-the-century Italianate villa, built for his bride by a rich Richmond romantic.

The rather run-down but still marvelous marble pile now houses the "University of Science and Philosophy," which offers mail-order study courses in which one may learn why negative magnetic poles have been banished from the sexed-electric universe. The tour guides, while always personable, are sometimes a little uncertain about university doctrine, but books by founder Lao Russell are available for sale.

After Swannanoa's builders, Richmond Mayor and Mrs. James Dooley died -- she didn't like Swannanoa, and never spent even a single night there -- the place was put to quaint and curious uses and was open to vandals for some years, yet the enormous Tiffany stained-glass portrait of Mrs. Dooley survived. It alone is worth the trip.

If you have an hour to spare and yet pass up the Afton exit of I-64 (about 18 miles west of Charlottesville), you will miss the sort of engaging eccentricities they just don't make anymore. Open 9 to 5 in winter, 8 to 6 in summer. House and grounds tour, $3 adults and $1 children; grounds only, $1. 703/942-5161.UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA ART MUSEUM -- While a wide range of contemporary works will be found in the museum's temporary exhibitions, the core collections are of 19th-century American, pre-Columbian, African sculpture, Asian and Period (1794) plantation house, once home to Richard Bland Lee (a member of the first U.S. Congress, a judge of the District of Columbia Orphans Court, and brother of Revolutionary war hero "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee), makes one wonder why most builders of the period were so concerned about symmetry, which Sully doesn't have or need. Sully is authentically furnished and staffed by costumed docents who sometimes get so deep into their roles that, one said, "When it's time to go home, sometimes I look at my car and wonder for a moment what it is." There are also living history programs at Christmas and on other holidays.

Sully is on Virginia Route 28, between U.S. 50 and the Dulles Toll Road. Open 11 to 5 every day but Tuesday. Adults $2, children and Fairfax County seniors $1. 437-1794. COLVIN RUN MILL -- Before the bulk shipping of grain by railroad to great steam-powered milling centers, the water-driven grist mill was vital to the local economy and rivaled the courthouse and tavern as a gathering place for the exchange of news and views. The turn-of-the century Colvin Run Mill, an award-winning restoration by the Fairfax County Park Authority, is hard at work again. The ponderous millstones, driven smoothly by great wooden gears, produce flour and meal that the kids can take right home and bake. On most weekends, craftsmen demonstrate trades from spinning to blacksmithing at the mill and the nearby miller's house, and there are many special events year round.

The mill stands beside Virginia Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) five miles west of Tysons Corner. Open 11 to 5 every day but Tuesday. Adults $2, children and Fairfax County seniors $1. 759-2771. GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION -- The 1758 home of George Mason, author of the Bill of Rights, has been saved for us by the Society of Colonial Dames. Perhaps because of the remoteness of its setting -- it's way off the beaten track, and the old boat landing on Gunston Cove silted in long ago -- Gunston Hall preserves perhaps more than any other of the great colonial river houses a sense of the isolation of the individual fiefdoms of our (therefore fiercely independent?) founding fathers. The place has the elegance of minimalism, and wonderful boxwood gardens.

On Gunston Hall Road off I-95 and U.S. 1 south of Fort Belvoir. Open 9:30 to 5 daily; $3, $2.50 seniors, $1 children six to 15. 703/550-9220. MOUNT VERNON -- If it has been a while since you visted Gen'l Washington's place, you may be pleasantly surprised. The groundskeeping has become rather more aggressive in recent years, necessarily so because of the increasing hordes of visitors, and the plantation looks much less "tired" than it used to.

Inside, the colors are now authentic, which is just peachy and creamy, sort of, and makes one wonder why our colonials chose such shades, particularly for homes whose only light came from windows and candles. Two tourguides gave different reasons on the same day: "It was the taste of the times," and, "These were the pigments most readily available then." Maybe both are right.

The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union has preserved and/or reconstructed the whole range of outbuildings, from kitchens and cobbler shops to slave quarters, to recreate the small town that such a large plantation amounted to. Plan to spend several hours doing Mount Vernon, because there's lots to see and lots of other people trying to see it at the same time.

At the southern terminus of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Open 9 to 5 daily from March to October, otherwise 9 to 4 daily; $4 adults, $3.50 seniors, $2 children six to 11 and students. 780-2000.WOODLAWN PLANTATION & POPE-LEIGHEY HOUSE -- Mr. and Mrs. Washington didn't stint when it came to giving family wedding gifts. Woodlawn was presented to Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington's granddaughter, upon her marriage to Lawrence Lewis, General Washington's nephew. The 1805 manse was designed by William Thornton, first architect of the Capitol.

Curiously contrasting the great and the small on the same grounds is the Pope-Leighey House, designed in 1940 by Frank Lloyd Wright and moved to Woodlawn in 1964. The "Usonian" bungalow was the 20th century's most opinionated American architect's opinion of what was suitable for middle Americans. Its furnishings are also Wright-designed, and Frankly, while it may not be everyman's idea of home sweet home, it's a nice place to have visited.

Woodlawn is at 9000 Richmond Highway, just north of Fort Belvoir. Open 9:30 to 4:30 daily. The Pope-Leighey House is open the same hours, but on Saturday and Sunday only, March through October. The admission for each is $4 adults, $3 senior citizens and children; combined admission to both is $7 and $5.50. 557-7881. PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY MANASSAS CITY MUSEUM -- Now that they've got the signs up, it's hard to overlook one of Northern Virginia's hardest-working museums. The emphasis here is on early railroading and the Civil War, but the MCM also serves as Prince William County's museum. Most of the exhibits are well-designed and choice, and some of the others are endearing. The centerpiece of the Civil War items is the battle flag of the Prince William Cavalry (Co. A, 4th Virginia Cavalry). The museum is launching an ambitious expansion program.

At 9406 Main Street, Manassas. Open 10 to 5 daily except Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving; free. 703/368-1873. LEESBURG/LOUDOUN COUNTY THE LOUDOUN MUSEUM & VISITOR CENTER -- They call it Leesburg now, but before 1759 it was known as George Town, after King George II. Because of Indians and whatever, the town got a late start (1725), but soon boomed as the commercial center and county seat of Loudoun. While the museum's still in the development phase, the small displays are choice, the programs are active, and the staff's more than willing. The visitor center is a must for newcomers and even old-timers are likely to be surprised by the wealth of things to see and do in the county.

At 16 West Loudoun St. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday; free. 703/777-7427. OATLANDS -- Built in 1804 by George Carter, great-grandson of Tidewater tycoon Robert "King" Carter, Oatlands is one of the treasure houses of Virginia. Exquisitely remodeled, decorated and furnished by William Corcoran Eustis, grandson of the Corcoran Gallery's founder, and Edith Morton Eustis, the house and 261 acres were presented to the National Trust for Historic Preservation by their daughters in 1965. It is an arresting blend of formal splendor and livability.

Off U.S. 15, 7 miles south of Leesburg. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday from April through December 21; $4 adults, $3 seniors and children 7-18. 703/777-3174. MORVEN PARK -- Once home to a Maryland and then to a Virginia governor, Morven Park is operated by the Westmoreland Davis Memorial Foundation Inc. The place is principally the home of an international equestrian institute and medical center, but the 1,200-acre grounds include not only an eclectic and richly furnished mansion but the Museum of Hounds and Hunting and the Carriage House Museum. The great house has the air of being lived in, by active people with undisciplined dogs.

Morven Park is off Virginia Route 7 at the western end of Leesburg. The season runs from May through October. Open weekends only before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. Between those dates, open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday. Admission $3.50 adults, $1.75 children. 703/777-2414. SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY MUSEUM & LIBRARY -- This small and charming museum is housed in the former Berea Christian Church (1856), around which some ungodly work was done at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. But the collection embraces more of local history than just the Civil War, from Indian artifacts to genealogy.

Off Virginia Route 208 at Spotsylvania Court House. Open 10 to 3 Monday through Friday; free. 703/582-5672. WESTMORELAND COUNTY STRATFORD HALL -- It is a quirk of history that George Washington, the man who did the most to bind the colonies into states, and Robert E. Lee, the man who most nearly cut those ties, were born a few miles apart on the shores of the lower Potomac.

Stratford Hall's great H-shaped main house was built in the 1720s by Thomas Lee, great-great uncle of the general. It is also the birthplace of Thomas Lee's sons, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the only pair of brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence. The place is furnished with 18th and early 19th century furniture, china, silver and glass, and the grounds include gardens, a working farm and a mill. A dining room, open from 11 to 3 April through October, offers a "plantation luncheon" starring country ham and candied yams.

Off Virginia Route 3 southeast of Fredericksburg. Open 9 to 4:30 daily; $3 adults, $1 children 6 through high school. 804/493-8038. GEORGE WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL MONUMENT -- Popes Creek Plantation was renamed Wakefield after the Father of Our Country was born there. The place burned down, but a house believed to be the sort that stood there was built as a memorial to Washington. It's a surprisingly modest -- and naturally beautiful -- setting for the launching of The Man Who, and all the more interesting because Wakefield is a working model of an early Tidewater plantation.

Off Virginia Route 3 southeast of Fredericksburg. Open 9 to 5 daily; free. 804/224-1732. THUNDERBIRD MUSEUM & ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK -- Indians came early to the Shenandoah Valley, and lived handsomely on berries, bass and buffalo until you-know-who-all came along and did you-know-what to the wilderness and all that dwelt therein.

Delicately and patiently, that prehistoric time is being uncovered at Thunderbird, whose exhibits include not only what has been dug up but what's still being dug up; the continuing excavations are part of the tour. Taking shape this summer, based on interpretation of post-mold patterns (soil stains left by ancient timbers) and hearth remnants excavated on the site, is a reconstruction of "the earliest known wood-frame structure in the Western Hemisphere."

On U.S. 340 seven miles south of Front Royal. Open 10 to 5 daily from mid-March to mid-November; $2 adults, $1.50 seniors and children 8 to 12. 703/635-7337. OCCOQUAN MILL HOUSE MUSEUM -- This handsomely restored 18th-century millhouse (the mill itself washed away) anchors the upstream end of Occoquan's main street, which in recent years has become virtually wall-to-wall boutiques. Open 11 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday from mid-April through October; free. DUMFRIES WEEMS-BOTTS MUSEUM -- Tobacco built and then buried the colonial village of Dumfries, which early on had showed promise of developing into a major port and commercial center on the Potomac. That dream was washed out with the soil that eroded from the farms and filled in Quantico Creek, once deep enough for London's merchant ships to come right up to what's now U.S. 1 and load hogsheads of the fragrant weed.

The melancholy details, along with much other local history, are spelled out in exhibits in the museum, which takes the first part of its name from the fact that Mason Locke Weems, better known as Parson Weems, bought it in 1798. It was from the bookshop he maintained here that he launched his infamous Life of Washington, a best-selling tract so full of patriotic hyperbole and simpering claptrap about the first president that generations of schoolchildren wondered how a wimp who didn't even have the nerve to fib to his father about who chopped down the stupid cherry tree could possibly have become a great soldier.

The second part of the museum's name comes from Benjamin Botts, one of the lawyers who helped Aaron Burr beat the treason rap.

The building was restored and is maintained by Historic Dumfries Inc., and can't be missed if you follow the signs from U.S. 1 in the town (which you reach by taking the Dumfries exit from I-95 south of Woodbridge). If you should go astray, you'll probably be gathered in by town historian Lee C. Lansing Jr., who is just one of the nice people who make Dumfries such a nice place to visit. Starting June 2 and through summer, hours are 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday; free. 703/221-3346. FREDERICKSBURG

Although it was cruelly ravaged during the Civil War, Fredericksburg still boasts more pre-Revolution buildings than Williamsburg. Lying midway between Washington and Richmond, it has become something of a suburb of both, yet retains a solid sense of itself. FREDERICKSBURG VISITOR CENTER -- The place to go first, whether you're in town for the afternoon or the weekend. The staff's outstanding, and will set up any sort of tour you like. If there's anything about Fredericksburg that they don't know, they know who to call who does know. Open 9 to 5 daily (and usually later, in summer). Better yet, call ahead (703/373-1776) or write (Box FB, 706 Caroline St., Fredericksburg VA 22401). HUGH MERCER APOTHECARY SHOP -- Hugh Mercer is one of the lasting American heroes, yes, but somehow his fame has faded. He was a Scot who served on the losing side at the Battle of Culloden and fled to the Colonies. He won fame in the French and Indian War when, separated from the shattered British-American army after Braddock's Defeat, Captain Mercer made his way alone through hostile territory for 14 days, subsisting on "two dried clams and a rattlesnake."

After practicing medicine in Fredericksburg for 15 years, he went to war with his good friend George Washington and became General Mercer of the Continental Army. At Trenton he secured the Delaware River bridgehead that let Genl. Washington cross standing up in the boat. Mercer was mortally wounded at the Battle of Princeton.

The restored shop is redolent of the herbs and spices used in the genteel voodoo that passed for the practice of medicine in those days, and the hostess bubbles over with fascinating details, including perhaps more than the weak-stomached may want to know about Dr. Mercer's surgical techniques.

At the corner of Caroline and Amelia streets. Open 9 to 5 daily; admission $1.50 adults, 50 cents for children 6-18. 703/373-3362. RISING SUN TAVERN -- George Washington's little brother Charles built so well when he created this popular hostelry around 1760 that very little has been changed since, except for preservation and safety. A notorious center of intrigue against the Crown, the Rising Sun often echoed to the traitorous sentiments of such rascals as Washington, Jefferson, Mason, Marshall, that rabble-rousing Pat Henry and those loudmouth Lees.

The ambiance is more muted now, and they pour only hot spiced cider in the taproom, but the serving wench who shows you round knows her stuff, including why we call a place where booze is served a bar, and what minding our Ps and Qs originally meant.

At 1304 Caroline St. Open 9 to 5 daily; admission $2 adults, 50 cents students. 703/371-1494. GEORGE WASHINGTON MASONIC MUSEUM -- Mrs. Carrie Caple retires soon, after 26 years as hostess of the Lodge No. 4 Museum, and her cheerful dedication to Masonry will be a tough act to follow. She explains such of the craft's mysteries as nonmembers may properly know, and is so enthusiastic over the safe-mounted Stuart portrait of Washington and the altar left bullet-riddled by the Battle of Fredericksburg, that you'd think you were her first visitor instead of the zillionth.

Corner of Princess Anne and Hanover streets. Open 9 to 4 Monday through Saturday, 9 to 1 Sunday; admission $2 adults, 50 cents students, 45 cents 12 and under 703/373-5885. JAMES MONROE MUSEUM AND MEMORIAL LIBRARY -- Monroe practiced law here from 1786 to 1789, before embarking on a career as a senator, ambassador, governor, cabinet officer and chief executive -- a lifelong devotion to public service that left him destitute and dependent upon his daughter. The museum collection includes outstanding Monroe memorabilia, including some of the First Lady's gowns and jewels and the Louis XVI desk where the First Gentleman wrote the Monroe Doctrine.

The Memorial Library is attempting to reconstruct Monroe's collection of books, and invites visitors to make endowments; for $10 you get to sign a bookplate that goes into "your" volume forever.

At 908 Charles St. Open 9 to 5 daily; admission $1.50 adults, 50 cents children. 703/373-8426. MARY WASHINGTON HOUSE -- The Father of Our Country bought this little white house for his mother, Mary Ball Washington, who spent her last two decades there. She wasn't much impressed by her son's accomplishments, and complained to Congress that he neglected her cruelly.

Mrs. Washington's "best dressing glass" is the pride of the place, along with a number of other personal possessions of the first First Mother; boxwoods she is said to have planted separate the kitchen and flower gardens, which is where the Marquis de La Fayette found her when he came by to pay his respects.

At 1200 Charles St. Open 9 to 5 daily; admission $2 adults, 50 cents children. 703/373-1569. KENMORE -- This 1752 house, built by Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, George's only sister, is a museum of architecture as well as of colonial life, because of the unusual elaboration of its Georgian design. Restored and authentically furnished, the mansion is the equal of any of the James River plantations, and besides, they serve tea and gingerbread.

On Washington Avenue at Fauquier Street. Open 9 to 5 daily; admission $3 adults, $1.50 children. 703/373-3381. BELMONT -- This 18th century estate is maintained as a memorial to artist Gari Melchers (1860-1932), but you don't have to know or like his work to appreciate the magnificent mansion and 27 acres of grounds on the heights above the Rappahannock River.

On Virginia Route 1001 just off U.S. 17 Business, between U.S. 1 and I-95. Open 10 to 5 Monday-Saturday (but Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment only), Sunday 1 to 5; admission $2 adults, $1.35 seniors, 50 cents children. 703/373-3634.BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE -- Lots more, according to Elsie Belman of Confederate Tour & Limousine Service, who has twoscore more places to show you in and around Fredericksburg. "This is the most historic city in America," she says. "You'll never know what a great town it is if you don't take our tour, and I don't say that just because I'm in the tour business." The irresistible Belman's tours ($9) leave the visitor center on the half-hour from 9:30 to 3:30, or you can go by limousine at $30 an hour. 703/371-6131. HANOVER COUNTY SCOTCHTOWN -- It's hard to get to Patrick Henry's plantation if you have kids in the car, because you have to take the Kings Dominion exit from I-95. Then you turn south on U.S. 1 to Gum Tree, where you turn right on Virginia 738 to Church Quarter, where you turn left on Virginia 685, and bear right at the fork, and turn right on Virginia 671 and you're there. If you come to Virginia 54, you're past there. It's not as much trouble as it sounds like, because there are Scotchtown signs at every turning, and it's a delightful drive in the country after the hurly-burly of I-95. And there is a treat at the end of the road: Scotchtown (1719) is a terrific house, and the people who look after it know their stuff and don't sound like they've repeated it ten times a day for ten years.

We all remember Patrick Henry for his "liberty or death" speech, the rest of his very considerable career having been put in the shade by the even more considerable careers of other founding fathers. It's diverting to learn so much that is new about a person you thought you knew about.

Scotchtown's open April through October from 9 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday and 1:30 to 4:30 Sunday. Adults $3, students $1. 804/227-3500. KING WILLIAM COUNTY PAMUNKEY INDIAN MUSEUM -- Before the European invasion of Virginia in 1607, the great Powhatan Confederacy held sway over the entire coastal plain from what's now called Washington to what's now called North Carolina. Of those thirty tribes, which fielded thousands of warriors, only proud remnants of the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi remain, on small reservations northeast of Richmond.

The Pamunkey Museum is densely packed with displays and artifacts that reflect the results of recent research as well as tribal tradition. The visitor who watches the brief videotape and reads all the labels of all the displays will have completed a short but intensive course in Pamunkey history from the prehistoric to the present.

The museum is on the reservation, which is off -- way off -- Virginia Route 30 on Route 633, keep going, you'll get there. The official hours are 9 to 4 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday, but if you find you're running a little late, press on: When Morning Star, the museum manager, sees you peering in the windows after hours, she'll come over from her house and open the place up, and wait patiently till you've seen your fill.

Morning Star makes a visitor feel as welcome as warm sun and gentle rain, and sad to learn that fewer than fourscore Pamunkeys remain on this ground that the tribe has held for time out of mind.

The museum shop offers pottery of clay from the banks of the Pamunkey River, and other tribal crafts, including jewelry and toys. Admission is $1 adults, 50 cents children over 5. 804/843-4792 or 843-2851. MATTAPONI INDIAN MUSEUM -- It is not easy to describe the contents of the Mattaponi (or Mattapony) Museum, which is packed to the very rafters with dusty marvels and memorabilia. To quote the late Chief Tecumseh (O.T. Custalow), the principal founder: See the historical collection of the Stone Age, used by the Mattapony Indians while under Chieftain King Powhatan. See tomahawk once wielded by the GREAT CHIEF OPECANCANOUGH in the Massacres of 1622 and 1644. See the necklace worn by Princess Pocahontas in 1607 . . . .

The displays also include what is said to be the very war club with which Captain John Smith would have been brained if Pocahontas had not intervened, which would make the club perhaps the most melancholy of all Native American relics. All of these items "were handed down from father to son, so we're sure they're the real thing," said Mattaponi Minnehaha, who operates both the museum and the reservation trading post.

The hours are 9 to 5 weekends, daily by appointment only. But if you arrive a little late and/or find the place locked, just wait a few minutes and some member of the Mattaponi will come along and make you welcome. Admission is 50 cents. 804/769-2194. RICHMOND

The Capital of the Confederacy no longer lives in the past, but Richmond's respect for history is evident in such things as its regard for old neighborhoods and adherence to quaint customs, including treating customers courteously and allowing pedestrians to cross the street. Richmond also has the world's best ribs (at either of the Commercial Cafes), never mind what Calvin Trillin says about Kansas City. And where else would a casual question to a museum guard expand into a delightful argument over post-Modernism? METRO RICHMOND VISITORS CENTER -- All about Richmond, served up by folks who seem genuinely glad you came. At 1700 Robin Hood Road (exit 14 off I-64). Open 9 to 7 daily, starting June 1.804/358-5511. AGECROFT HALL -- Outrage echoed through the British Parliament when a Richmonder crated up this 15th-century Tudor manor house and shipped it home from Lancashire during the Roaring Twenties. But they got over it, and we got a chance to see how a pre-Elizabethan swell lived, which was pretty swell, except when he had to put on his armor.

At 4305 Sulgrave Rd. Open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday, 2 to 5 Saturday and Sunday. $2 adults, $1.50 seniors, $1 children. 804/353-4241. EDGAR ALLAN POE MUSEUM -- Once upon a midday weary, when the town seemed stark and bleary, a sightseeing traveler knocked upon the Poe House door. Opened it upon a lady; just a moment stopped and stayed she, then rejoined an earlier tour.

"Step in here and see the slide show; I will meet you just outside, though if perchance I am delayed, be patient and I'll show you more." So she spoke and so I acted, but when came the time contracted, there was neither hide nor hair of her whose step I listened for.

Whilst I waited, breath abated, I decided to explore. Found myself in young Poe's chamber, ventured through another door, pondered many a quaint and curious artifact of author's lore. Thought I heard the lady speaking, found it only was the squeaking of the boards upon the floor. Fled from thence into the garden; saw the lady nevermore.

At 1914-16 East Main St. The house, said to be the oldest building in the original city, is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 4, Sunday and Monday 1:30 to 4; admission $2 adults, $1 children. 804/648-5523. JOHN MARSHALL HOUSE -- Our first Chief Justice built this house around 1790 and lived here nearly half a century. Recently restored and furnished with a number of original and family pieces, the place seems somehow to reflect Marshall's austere but passionate personality. It's the last 18th-century brick house left in town.

At 818 East Marshall St. Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday 1 to 5; adults $2.50, senior citizens $2, students $1, under 6 free. 804/648-7998. MAYMONT -- If Maymont didn't exist it would be impossible to invent it, because they just don't build 'em like this anymore. The incredibly ornate, 33-room Victorian- Edwardian mansion was built in the 1890s as a monument to the wealth, inventiveness, energy and sheer brass of "Major" James H. Dooley, son of Irish immigrants, and his wife Sallie May, who was one of the chief ornaments of the Gilded Age.

You wouldn't believe what we tell you, ya gotta go see it yourself, especially her boudoir (these are the same people who built Swannanoa Castle on Afton Mountain above Waynesboro). And the house isn't all: This is a home where the buffalo roam, along with other exotics and a hundred species native to the Old Dominion, on the 105 landscaped and lavishly planted acres the Dooleys gave the city along with the mansion. There's a children's farm, and a carriage museum, and an ecology museum . . . Many Richmonders come for the whole day, and so may y'all.

At 1700 Hampton St. Grounds open 10 to 7 daily; exhibits open 12 to 5 Tuesday through Sunday; free. 804/358-7166. SCIENCE MUSEUM OF VIRGINIA -- This state-owned, hands-on center is designed to turn kids on to science. It's housed in the magnificent old Broad Street railroad station, worth a visit by itself, and there's an associated planetarium and super-screen theater. But the museum's funding problems show in the short staff and the overdue maintenance on many of the imaginative exhibits.

In desuetude lies verisimilitude, however: A youngster will come away with the precisely correct impression that science is partly glittery and partly grubby, and sometimes doesn't work.

At 2500 West Broad St. Open 11:30 to 8 daily; admissions $2 to $4, depending on the combination of exhibits and shows chosen. 804/257-1013. VALENTINE MUSEUM -- Housed in a splendid block of joined townmanses, this is the place where Richmond examines itself from the bedrock up. From its geology through its ecology and sociology, the history unfolds in fascinating detail.

The most revealing exhibit is the last one, dealing with the civil rights movement that dragged the city and state so deeply into the 20th century that a black lieutenant governor and a woman attorney general were inaugurated simultaneously this year. The choice of the items included -- or not included -- in the exhibit, and what is said -- or not said -- about them, speak volumes about the contemporary conflict and confusion over goals in the uneasy minority/women's rights coalitions. The Valentine is a truly remarkable institution; probably no other museum in the region covers so much ground with such unity and coherence.

At 1015 East Clay St. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday; $2.50 adults, $2 seniors, $1.50 children (7 to 12), $6 family. 804/649-0711. VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY -- Primarily a research institution, with vast collections of books, manuscripts, maps, prints, sculptures and firearms amassed since its founding in 1831. But there are two public exhibition galleries, with rotating selections from the collection that may make you sorry you don't live in Richmond and don't have time to explore more.

In Battle Abbey, Boulevard at Kensington Avenue. Open 9 to 4:45 Monday through Saturday; free. 804/358-4901. VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS -- While our National Gallery was adding an East Building, Virginia's state arts museum was adding a West Wing. The 90,000 additional square feet of exhibition space house primarily the collections of 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts and contemporary painting and sculpture donated by Sydney and Frances Lewis of Richmond; and the collection of collections donated by the Paul Mellons of Upperville, which includes 18th- through 20th-century American, French and British paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and jeweled objets.

Think how much poorer we would all be if the Mellons et al weren't so rich, acquisitive and tax-shy that they have to keep building public museums to house their stuff. The original building, built in 1936, already was plenty of reason to plan a weekend in Richmond, and now the addition makes it imperative. Do this now.

On Boulevard at Grove Avenue. Open 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday (till 10 Thursday), 1 to 5 Sunday; $2 adults (voluntary), children and seniors free. 804/257-0844. ANDERSON GALLERY -- Virginia Commonwealth University's gallery is always jumping: It mounts three dozen exhibitions a year, and keeps the fires stoked under Richmond's contemporary arts scene. Part of the game is grantsmanship, and in a recent competition, the Institute of Museum Services ranked the Anderson first among more than a thousand applicants, including such Big Apple heavies as the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium and the Museum of Modern Art. Anderson veterans have gone on to launch studios and galleries of their own all over town, contributing no little to Richmond's renaissance.

You have to look sharp for the Anderson, which is in the interior of the block at 907 1/2 West Franklin St. Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday 1 to 5; free. 804/257-1522. HOLLYWOOD CEMETERY -- It isn't a museum, exactly, but no visitor has seen Richmond who hasn't seen Hollywood. Here lie two U.S. presidents, the C.S. president, the flower of Southern chivalry cut down in the Civil War, the social register of Richmond and a large fraction of the old planter aristocracy. The families of many of the 60,000 people buried in these 135 acres overlooking the James have spared no expense to erect and maintain markers, statuary and mausoleums, which range from simple and moving to grotesque, and the day just melts away as one wanders here.

It's such a marvel there's even a Hollywood Cemetery tour book, sold in most of the city's museum shops. Visiting the cemetery has long been a popular custom in Richmond, and Hollywood Cemetery is where the movement began that culminated in the adoption of Memorial Day as a national holiday. At Cherry and Albemarle streets. Open 8 to 6 daily. 804/648-8501. CHARLOTTESVILLE ASH LAWN-HIGHLAND -- The plantation of President James Monroe is something of a jolt to someone who's used to the magnificent homes of most of the Founding Fathers. The 1799 house looks like the compact, comfortable and undistinguished residence of a prosperous farmer who thought little and cared less about style and setting. It's all the more surprising because much of the work was supervised by Thomas Jefferson, who thought longer and cared more about style and setting than any other American of his era.