Virginia’s Monticello Wine Trail
Charlottesville is well-known for Jefferson’s famed Monticello, the esteemed University of Virginia, and classic hunt country. But the real reason for visiting—for wine lovers, anyway—is to explore the Monticello Wine Trail. The “trail,” which consists of 13 different wineries offering a rather breathtaking selection of blends and varietals, might surprise even the most cynical oenophiles. In particular, we really liked many of the wineries’ sauvignon blanc, viognier, chardonnay, and cabernet franc wines. Among the standouts we discovered are Barboursville (the area’s first and perhaps best known winery), White Hall, Jefferson Vineyards, and Horton.
Now, we’re not saying you’re necessarily going to confuse Virginia with Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, or Tuscany. But for atmosphere (and close-to-home convenience), and with the right kind of adventurous spirit (Virginia’s only been serious about wine making since the 1970s, so give these folks time), wine tasting along the Monticello trail is a blast. One big surprise to this veteran Napa/Sonoma taster: the relative sophistication of the tasting experience (not to mention the California-style crowds at each winery we visited).
And another plus: the region itself is gorgeous. Beyond Charlottesville, it’s all farm and horse country, with winding two lane roadways, set against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Overall, with only a moderate suspension of belief, it’s easy to feel like you are touring the more storied wine valleys of California.
Why Go Now: Fall is harvest season. There’s extra activity in the vineyards (picking) and in the wineries (crushing). Beyond that, this is the premier season for fabulous wine-related festivals, most hosted by the wineries themselves.
Plot Your Strategy: When wine tasting, it’s crucial to strategize. Aim to visit two or three wineries a day (after that your palate’s shot and it all starts to taste the same, anyway). So choose carefully.
Best Place for Snacking-While-Tasting: For a picnic, stop by Brix Marketplace (corner of routes 732 and 53, 804-295-7000) on the way to Jefferson Vineyards, then head to the winery there. It’s got the most gorgeous outdoor setting (and tables set out under trees). For a sophisticated restaurant experience, the best choice is Barboursville’s Palladio (lunch Wednesday-Sunday from noon to 3 p.m., 540-832-3824, www.barboursvillewine.com).
Beyond the Vines: For history buffs there’s Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and James Monroe’s Ashlawn-Highland. Charlottesville is funky and arty with great shopping—particularly in its historic downtown mall, where antique stores, home furnishing boutiques, and art galleries abound. The University of Virginia offers free guided tours.
Where To Stay: Ultra sophisticated Keswick Hall is offering a two-night Virginia Wine Package ($445 per night), which includes an on-site wine class with the resort’s sommelier, special meetings with winemakers, a gourmet picnic, and dinners at the resort. Keswick has also incorporated some of the best area wines on its wine list; these range from a White Hall Pinot Gris to a Barboursville Cabernet Franc. Another option is High Meadows Vineyards, an historic inn set amongst vines of pinot noir.
More Information: Charlottesville Albemarle County Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, 877-386-1102, www.charlottesvilletourism.org. For maps and winery information, www.monticellowinetrail.org. For lodging: Keswick Hall, 800-274-5391, www.keswick.com. High Meadows Vineyard Inn, 800-232-1832, www.highmeadows.com.
America’s Switzerland: Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Nestled in a deep gorge in the Lehigh Valley, Jim Thorpe may be part of Pennsylvania’s Poconos, but you can forget about any of those clichéd images that typically come with that territory. In this former coal mining town, there’s nary a champagne-glass bathtub to be found: It’s the rushing whitewater rapids of the Lehigh River which draw the crowds.
Originally known as Mauch Chunk (a Leni Lenape tribe phrase for “Bear Mountain”), the town is now named after the Native American athlete who won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics. Though Thorpe never lived here, he is buried just outside the town’s limits.
Tourism boosters like to call Jim Thorpe “America’s Switzerland.” And before you groan at the obvious overhype, know this: the slogan actually originated in the mid-19th century, when the area’s natural beauty—mountains and rushing rapids, coupled with attractions like a scenic switchback railroad ride and resort hotels—made it a magnet for elite travelers. In fact, in popularity, it was second only to Niagara Falls. Alas, the town began a decades-long economic decline after 1923, when its other major industry, the mining of anthracite coal, began to lose steam.
These days, Jim Thorpe appeals to active-minded folk who flock to the area from all over the world (we heard Dutch, Irish, and English accents on our recent trip) for whitewater rafting and kayaking and the autumnal mainstay of fall foliage float-trips.
As much as Jim Thorpe has evolved into a new destination for visiting adventure-seekers, the town itself has curious charm. There’s a dichotomy that intrigues, a blend of past and present. Many historic buildings from Jim Thorpe’s boom-days are still standing—some are beautifully restored, others look forlorn and musty. There are a handful of empty storefronts in the heart of downtown’s tourist district, the equivalent of a smile with missing teeth. Strangely, though, the blend of the two evokes a historic ambiance amidst a genuine small-town setting.
Why Go Now: There is no more gorgeous time to visit the Lehigh Valley than during leaf-peeping season.
The Big Event: As noted, the Lehigh River is the main attraction, particularly for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Beyond actual on-the-water experiences, the Lehigh River Valley, via the Switchback Gravity Railroad and Lehigh Gorge State Park, is also a terrific place for cycling and hiking.
Beyond Adventure: Jim Thorpe has a handful of genuinely interesting historic attractions. The Asa Packer Mansion made a museum out of the home of a successful industrialist. Other sites include the Old Jail Museum, the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center, and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. In town, there are numerous boutiques and art galleries.
Where To Stay: The 34-room Inn at Jim Thorpe (800-329-2599) is a restored, 1840s hotel and is the centerpiece of the town. Otherwise, bed and breakfast inns are the only option; The four-room Parsonage (570-325-4462) is a cozy, traditional-style B&B. One word of advice: The lack of any type of big hotels or in-town motels means rooms can be hard to find during fall weekends; best advice is to plan (and book) ahead.
Where to Eat: At this point, Jim Thorpe is not exactly a major culinary destination and options are limited. The Emerald Isle at the Inn at Jim Thorpe serves dependable American stalwarts (steaks, chicken, and pasta). The 1950s-esque Sunrise Diner serves breakfast all day (and lunch, as well) and is open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday.
For More Information: Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau, Inc., 800-Poconos, www.800poconos.com.
Autumn Cruising on the Chesapeake
On an otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning, after motoring across the water for about 40 minutes, it feels as if we’ve anchored in a foreign country, one where forested hillsides and placid waterways offer barely a hint of the suburban world just beyond. Exotic places like Norway or Finland come to mind. And yet, we’re in Clement Creek, tucked between Anne Arundel County’s Epping Forest and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods, in one of the offbeat coves we’ve discovered on our cruising holiday.
That’s right, cruising. This getaway is a boating trip aboard a power catamaran—a cross between a yacht and a houseboat—and our destination is anyplace that strikes our fancy. Provided, of course, it’s on or near the Chesapeake Bay.
The concept of yacht-sized power catamarans—a boat that has two hulls and, as such, is known for its stability—is a new one. Most catamarans are either sailing vessels or of larger stature, such as ferries. This year Sunsail, an Annapolis-based charter operator which has long specialized in offering getaways on sailboats and yachts, commissioned the construction of a fleet of three identical vessels. Each two-bedroom catamaran offers most of home’s comforts, including a well-designed galley kitchen, a head-with-shower, television with DVD and VCR, CD stereo, a living room and dining area, and air conditioning. The power cats all have two double bedrooms; two more can sleep on the fold-out settees in the dining area, notching capacity up to six passengers.
Within sane geographical parameters, you can make the outing (which can range from an overnight to a week or longer) as exotic or familiar as you like. According to Herve Burnel, Sunsail’s Annapolis base manager, the most popular destinations are places like St. Michaels, Rock Hall, and Oxford. “These are the standards,” he says. “But there are lots of hideaways, too.” Where? You’ll have to discover them yourself.
What Do You Need To Know: Sunsail offers two options. You can pilot the boat yourself or hire, through the company, a skipper. For those who want to self-navigate, it’s not as complicated as it might seem. Those planning to operate the power cat will be asked to fax a skipper’s resume documenting water experience. Regardless of level of experience, Sunsail requires all customers to undergo training sessions prior to setting off.
Best Feature: Flexibility. Sunsail’s power catamarans offer charters from a weekend to a week. And because a power cat skips along at a pretty rapid 12-15 knots, you can cover a lot of ground; St. Michaels is just a two hour trip from Annapolis.
In Port: In boating-established places like Annapolis, St. Michaels and Oxford, water taxis actually offer boat-to-shore service. You can also tie up at marinas for an additional charge. The power cats all come with motorless dinghies; a motor can be added for an extra fee.
Biggest Surprise: It’s not that hard. “Most people are surprised that they can do it,” says Sunsail’s Christine DeSimone. “It really is not that difficult to get the hang of it.”
Downside: While the main living area is very comfortable, the two sleeping cabins—each is outfitted with a double bed—can be somewhat dark and claustrophobic.
Info: Rates from April – November (the power cats will head to Florida for the winter) are $1,600 per weekend (Friday from 6 p.m. to Sunday at 11 a.m.) and $3,200 per week. There’s a discounted midweek special that’s $2,200. Hiring a skipper is an additional $200 per day. Call Sunsail at 888-294-3505, www.sunsail.com.
The Brandywine of the duPonts
For most of us who grew up in or near Baltimore, Brandywine country—named after the river which straddles Pennsylvania and Delaware—may forever remain a destination most commonly associated with a school field trip. You remember: the de rigueur outing to Winterthur, or Longwood Gardens, or even to the Hagley Museum to learn about gunpowder.
Forget the gunpowder. What’s most enjoyable about the Hagley Museum is strolling along its attendant riverbank, sipping tea at the picturesque café, wandering through the gardens, and admiring the oddly-displaced Hudson River Valley scenes on the hand-painted mural in the manse’s dining room. And at Winterthur? Take time to wander along the expansive grounds (the gazebo on a hilltop is particularly romantic). Spending a few days in the land of the duPonts—that historic American family who spawned entire industries, not to mention tourist destinations—is potentially one of the most romantic, idyllic, and other-worldly travel experiences you can enjoy without boarding a plane.
The first duPont, Eleuthere Irenee duPont, emigrated to the U.S. from France in 1802 and became a gunpowder magnate: Hence the creation of the Industrial Revolution-era Hagley estate. Succeeding generations of duPonts inspired unforgettable estates like Longwood Gardens (just over the border in Pennsylvania), Winterthur, and Nemours Mansion.
Nemours is a French chateau-styled home and gardens—dubbed America’s Versailles—and was created and designed by Alfred I. duPont at the turn of the 20th century. It’s less a museum than a living home. Visitors (tour groups are limited to just seven) are welcomed with a fresh cut flower and sent off with a glass of orange juice. It’s almost easy, then, to feel as if you belong.
Why Go Now: This lush, forested country is gorgeous in fall. Also, for those who visit places like Hagley, which attract a lot of school kids, it’s not field-trip season.
Beyond the Historic Stuff: Head over to Valley Garden Park, with its Japanese-style gazebo. The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts features exhibits and artist studios. Wilmington’s Trolley Square neighborhood has interesting boutiques and restaurants. Downtown, the city has invested much in opening up its waterfront on the Christina River.
Beware of: Over-ambitious sightseeing. Built on a grand scale, attractions like Winterthur, Hagley Museum, and Nemours will take at least a half-day apiece. Also, book your tour at Nemours before you arrive as they frequently fill up, particularly on weekends.
Where To Stay: A collection of worker-cottages that housed duPont staffers, the Inn at Montchanin occupies the same beautiful rural terrain as Nemours, Winterthur and Hagley, it’s owned by an actual duPont descendant. Another option is the Hotel Dupont, which occupies a full city block in Wilmington. Additionally, the region is offering a “Chateau Country” package (participating hotels range from the Best Western Brandywine Valley Inn to those aforementioned); packages include accommodations and attraction tickets.
Where to Eat: Krazy Kat’s at the Inn at Montchanin, is elegantly quirky and housed in a one-time blacksmith’s quarters. The Green Room at the Hotel DuPont is considered the city’s formal height-of-elegance. For the best pizza this side of Naples, try Pizza by Elizabeth’s.
For More Information: Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-422-1181, www.visitwilmingtonde.com, Chateau Country Package, 800-448-3883, www.chateaucountry.org.
Spring Lake, New Jersey
Spring Lake—an oceanfront resort town in northern New Jersey, tucked between Belmar and Sea Girt, and just down the road from Asbury Park—is the best kept secret in the mid-Atlantic. And its residents, most of whom live here year-round, absolutely want to keep it that way. It evokes comparisons to Nantucket; to Baltimoreans, it may feel more like Roland Park-by-the-Sea.
Spring Lake dates back to the 19th century, when it was developed as a resort community for Catholics. The town’s most distinctive icons include its sprawling Victorian mansions with broad lawns and wrap-around porches; the namesake lake, located in the center of town amidst lush gardens; and its two miles of completely pristine beachfront.
Next to those, what sets Spring Lake apart from other beach towns is what it doesn’t have: Its boardwalk offers nary a commercial establishment. There are no motels; in the past couple of decades, Spring Lake’s traditional grand old hotels have largely given way to upscale bed and breakfast inns. Third Street, Spring Lake’s commercial heart, is located blocks from the ocean and dominated primarily by real-world establishments: real estate agencies, pharmacies, a barber shop, a bookseller, antiques dealers, and a handful of fabulous clothing and home furnishings boutiques.
Beyond that, there’s not much to do—and that’s part of the charm. My most precious memories there are simple ones: Riding a one-speed bicycle through Spring Lake’s flat streets at sunset. Sitting on a broad, awning-covered porch in a rocking chair, sipping wine. Strolling complacently along the boardwalk, near-empty at any time of the day. Romantic evening walks through the park. Oh, and sometimes I even head to the beach. But not always.
Why Go Now: Slumbering Spring Lake is even more peaceful when summer visitors are gone. Plus, rates at its otherwise pricey bed and breakfast inns drop in the fall.
Curiosities: The Rules. You can’t park your car on the street at night (B&Bs have private parking lots). There’s no snacking (not to mention imbibing) allowed, ever, on the beach. Many restaurants do not have liquor licenses (pop into one of the two wine stores on Third Street to pick up a bottle).
Where To Stay: Spring Lake is the quintessential B&B experience. Seacrest by the Sea is a gorgeous Victorian manse that manages to offer both a charming other-era atmosphere along with contemporary conveniences like whirlpool tubs and TV/VCRs. Ashling Cottage also exudes appeal. One “olde style” hotel left in Spring Lake these days is The Ocean House Bed and Breakfast Hotel: It’s charming and cheaper than the B&Bs, but a bit less cozy.
Where to Eat: Sisters’ Cafe (bring your own bottle) is where locals go for a good meal, and it was so fine I went twice. Whispers is the town’s “special occasion” restaurant. For lunch fare try Who’s On Third Deli. Another good bet—though you have to cross over into Sea Girt—is Rod’s Olde Irish Tavern. It’s got a full bar and terrific pub grub.
Beyond the Borders: One nearby town worth checking out is Ocean Grove: Like Spring Lake, it got its start as a church-oriented resort town (and still is to some extent), but also a lot of character and a bustling downtown with eccentric boutiques.
For More Information: www.springlake.net. Lodging: Seacrest by the Sea, 800-803-9031, www.seacrestbythesea.com, Ashling Cottage, 888-Ashling, www.ashlingcottage.com, Ocean House, 732-449-9090, www.theoceanhouse.net.