B&B: Richard Johnston Inn, Fredericksburg, Va. -- about 43 miles from the Beltway.
BEST FOR: History and war buffs (Revolutionary or Civil).
DRIVE TIME FROM BELTWAY: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Fredericksburg should be an easy one-hour drive. Should be. But not at evening rush hour. We left on a Thursday via Shirley Highway and noted the time: 5:02 p.m. Beyond the Beltway, the driving would bring joy only to a clutch repairman's heart. Stop, start, speed up, slow down, curse the idiot in the next lane, wave thanks when he lets you merge -- all the way down I-95 to the Fredericksburg exit. We did not arrive until 6:22. (Fortunately, we had called ahead, as our B&B otherwise requires check-in by 6 p.m.)
THE INN: The Richard Johnston Inn was built as two row houses in 1770 and once was the home of the mayor of Fredericksburg, for whom it is named. It fell into disrepair, however, and was converted into a warehouse. It was rescued from demolition in the 1980s and transformed into a comfortable, elegant B&B.
We stayed in the "kitchen house," one of seven rooms and two suites. It was originally separated from the rest of the residence because of the threat of fire, and it still has its own entrance onto a courtyard behind the main house. Although the room has been updated for guests, the cooking fireplace remains. Baskets that would have held provisions hang among the ceiling beams, along with a smoke detector. The brick floor is covered with a thick rug that felt good on my bare feet.
We ate breakfast the next morning in a lavish, high-ceilinged dining room -- a continental buffet, including fresh fruit salad (with mango) and cherry sour cream coffee cake. Sam, the innkeeper's gregarious schnauzer, nuzzled against our legs under the table.
WE'D GO BACK FOR THE . . . tranquillity. Fredericksburg's historic streets do attract tourists, but the inn's grounds are nonetheless quiet.
WE COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT THE . . . squeaky wooden floor in the room above ours (a concession to historical accuracy, perhaps). Fortunately, our upstairs neighbor didn't walk around much.
THE EXPERIENCE: Given the nearby battlefields, Fredericksburg is a natural destination for Civil War buffs. In town, however, the attractions range from Revolutionary War scholarship to Eisenhower-era comfort food.
As I sat at the lunch counter at Goolrick's (901 Caroline St.), billed as the oldest continuously operating soda fountain and pharmacy in the country, I studied my walking tour map. Sellers of antiques competed for my attention with modern galleries, historic churches, a Confederate cemetery and significant sites from George Washington's life. But they all lost out to the chocolate malted milk in front of me, made from real ice cream, mixed and served 1950s-style in a metal canister. It's so thick you can't suck it through a straw without bursting a blood vessel.
As for the history, George Washington, it turns out, was not only the father of our country, but a darned good son as well. Amid rumors of war in 1772, he moved his mother, Mary, from their outlying farm to a more secure house that he had bought and remodeled for her.
On our visit to the Mary Washington House (1200 Charles St., 800-678-4748; $5), we saw Mary's bed-sitting room where, in 1789, she gave her deathbed blessing to George as he left for his inauguration. We also saw posted upstairs a copy of her will, and were brought up short to see among her bequests of bed linens and crockery other distributed property -- her slave "boys" and "wenches."
Three blocks away is the Hugh Mercer Apothecary (1020 Caroline St., 540-373-3362; $5), where a costumed guide recited the various purgatives and remedies (a mix to ease "tavern distress" made from powdered crab claw, for example) that the good doctor (and Revolutionary War general) might have used, and another graphically described the techniques of bloodletting. She pulled a live leech from a jar and explained that, even though it already filled her palm, it would grow by five times when filled with blood. She also showed us amputation tools of the period. (One says "Ewww" a lot in this room.)
We had to drive to get to Washington's Ferry Farm (Virginia Route 3, Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg; $3), just east of the Rappahannock River. If young George really did chop down a cherry tree, he did it here. Likewise, if he threw a rock (sorry, not a dollar) across the Rappahannock, that happened here, too. This is largely an archaeology site, as the original buildings are long gone. (There still are some cherry trees, though -- he didn't get them all.)
My final fit of scholarship was at the James Monroe Museum (908 Charles St., 540-654-1043; $5). Our fifth president practiced law in Fredericksburg after the war and before serving the new U.S. government in various capacities. As I examined displays of Monroe artifacts, a fiercely loyal docent complained that Monroe, not Jefferson, should get credit for the Louisiana Purchase.
WHERE TO EAT: We had dinner at Mr. Dee's fish stand (701 Lafayette Blvd.) on the south end. No one would call it fast food -- it takes a while to fry the fillets to order -- but they're golden, moist and authentically greasy. I washed mine down with good southern sweet tea. For dessert, we drove the length of town to Carl's (2200 Princess Anne St.), a soft ice cream stand that looks like it probably did when it opened 57 years ago. Three art deco machines produce frigid chocolate, vanilla and strawberry oozes, which are twisted into cones for the line of people who defy the hot sun and ice cream headache. For a fancier meal, we liked Claiborne's (200 Lafayette Blvd.; dinner entrees from about $16), in a converted train station a short walk from the B&B. We ate in the former ticket office, now decorated with golfing memorabilia. Our entrees were seared ahi tuna and a tangy, low-country smoked pork chop served with grits and collard greens. Even better, though, were the appetizers: homemade barbecue potato chips and two perfect crab cakes.
INFO: Richard Johnston Inn, 711 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, 877-557-0770, www.therichardjohnstoninn.com. Doubles range from $95 to $185 weekdays, $125 to $185 weekends.
-- Jerry V. Haines