HAVE YOU EVER played "plan the perfect family outing"? Take one Saturday or Sunday, mix in several adults and kids with different ideas of what to do. Discuss, vote, determine the winner. If complaints outnumber cheers, vote again.
On a recent trip we discovered a real winner: Maymont, a 100-acre historic estate in Richmond, 100 miles south of Washington. We found something entertaining, even educational, for each member of my family, including two grandparents, two parents and three children ages 5, 6 and 10. We could pick and choose: opulent mansion, serene gardens, playful otters, pettable goats, huge park dotted with trees from six continents -- and a tram ride thrown in for the weary. Maymont also hosts frequent family events, with nature activities, Victorian entertaining and etiquette programs as well as an outdoor concert series in summer and fall.
A lot has changed since 1893, when railroad millionaire James Dooley and his wife, Sallie May, completed their elegant country home in the rolling hills outside downtown Richmond. We've moved from their ornate Gilded Age to the streamlined look of today's Information Age. The kids in our group were fascinated by their peek at lifestyles of the 19th-century rich and famous. They got a big kick out of a fainting couch, elaborate swan-shaped bed and liberal use of the colors gold and pink in draperies, furnishings and bric-a-brac. But Maymont also recognizes that "below stairs" is just as important to its history as the elegant drawing and dining rooms. Parts of the house are under cover now as the site renovates and prepares for a 3,000-square-foot domestic-service exhibit. In early 2005, visitors will be able to glimpse into the lives and workplaces of the maids, cooks, butlers, chauffeurs and laundresses who actually ran the luxurious house.
Those days -- gilded for some, grueling for others -- are long gone, and Maymont is now maintained by a private foundation. It still maintains the extensive gardens created by the Dooleys while boasting new exhibits and buildings that feature Virginia's flora and fauna. While the kids in our party happily viewed the grounds by tram with their grandmother, the remaining adults strolled the Japanese Garden, where a waterfall made constant, tinkling music and large koi occasionally broke the surface of a pond. We also enjoyed the fragrant boxwood hedges and formal herb garden -- lush with rosemary, cilantro and lavender -- close to the 1904 carriage house, which displays the horse-drawn modes of transport used by families before minivans and SUVs.
Ever seen bison grazing in a meadow or a black bear contemplating a swim? Maymont's wildlife exhibits house animals in large, outdoor habitats through which many roam freely (but can't escape). As we wandered down shady, paved paths and past a stream, we learned about animals native to or once found in Virginia, including the gray fox, elk and red-tailed hawk. And at the nearby children's farm, we could actually pet some domestic creatures. The kids made a beeline for the pellets used to feed the goats and giggled at their "slobbery tongues." An iridescent peacock and his humble peahen earned a surprised glance, and several rabbits elicited coos. But a barn cat in a leg cast became the hands-down favorite. The plant kingdom, too, was well represented. I loved the way space was ingeniously used in a 52-square-foot garden bursting with eggplant, radishes, beets, lettuce and pole beans.
Critters also abounded at the Robins Nature and Visitor Center. Huge tanks of sunfish, catfish, striped bass and snapping turtles showcase the life of the nearby James River. A touchable display of rocks emphasized that sandstone, quartz, granite and feldspar "have shaped the course of the James River as it makes its way through Virginia." Around us, kids were acquiring knowledge of the workings of the long-defunct Kanawha Canal by turning cranks to get water uphill. And some gazed long at the flood-rubble display and the news footage of damage wrought by hurricanes Camille (1969), Agnes (1972) and Juan (1985), when the swollen river spilled over its banks and swirled through the Richmond area.
The nature center clearly saved the best for last, judging by the number of people and length of stay at the large indoor-outdoor exhibit in the final section. Here two otters dived, flipped and frolicked through the water. The smaller otter often swam close to the glass and twirled as if inviting the children on the other side to come in and play. And the smiling kids all looked as if they wished they could comply.
MAYMONT -- 1700 Hampton St., Richmond. 804-358-7166. www.maymont.org. Located 100 miles from Washington and a few miles west of downtown Richmond. To reach Robins Nature and Visitor Center entrance (2201 Shields Lake Dr.) from Interstates 64 and 95, take Boulevard Exit 78 (Route 161). Go south three miles to Shirley Road, take a left and go one block, bearing left into Byrd Park. Go one block and turn right on Shields Lake Drive. Grounds, gardens and visitors center open daily 10 to 5; free. Exhibits and tram rides open Tuesday through Sunday noon to 5, including children's farm barn ($2 suggested donation), carriage collection, Maymont House ($4 suggested donation), nature center ($4 suggested donation) and trams ($3 adults, $2 children). Cafe open Tuesday through Sunday 11 to 3. Carriage rides take place on Sundays, April through October, from noon to 4, and by appointment ($3 adults, $2 children). Hayrides take place weekends, June through August, from noon to 4 ($2 adults, $1 children).
Family programs include:
Monday Outdoor Concerts -- Through Aug. 30 from 5:30 to 8:30. Include carriage rides and craft activities on the carriage house lawn. Free, with fees for food and rides.
Victorian Manners for Kids -- Aug. 17 at 9:30 a.m. Teaches manners and lets kids practice at formal lunch (included in price) at garden hall. Ages 8 to 11. $45. Advance registration required by Aug. 16 by calling 804-358-7166, Ext. 329.
Nature Center Activities -- Aug. 20 at 7:30 (bats), Aug. 26 at 3 (birds), Aug. 27 at 10 (worms) and Sept. 25 at 10 (turtles) and 1 (behind-the-scenes). Activities are for ages 5 and up (with accompanying adult). Price varies. Call to register at least one week before program at 804-358-7166, Ext. 333.