The first whiff of warm weather had arrived, and with it, the urge to travel somewhere greener than home. We packed our bags and headed south to Charlottesville, VA, for three days of R&R in Thomas Jefferson's old neighborhood.
In C'ville, as it's known, my husband and I toured the new earth-friendly visitor center at Monticello. (Jefferson, a horticulturalist, would have liked it, I think.) We dined like college students. We snacked like Parisians. We hiked. We window-shopped and trolley-hopped.
We traveled nearly 300 miles round trip. And with gas prices quite low (about two bucks a gallon), my little Honda managed to burn only 44 cents worth of gas. Yep, cents. As in nine Jefferson nickels with a penny to spare. Fact is, we needed it only to reach the public transit nearest our house. Commuter rail, Amtrak, trolleys, buses, and sturdy shoes took us everywhere else.
The trip was our experiment in "going" green. Even the use of public transportation carries environmental consequences, but where travel is concerned, it's a commendable low-impact start. I'd forgotten how comfortable rail travel can be, and how restorative. It provides passengers with a soothing, meditative perspective on the world without all the beckoning highway signs.
Discovering your inner hobo is just one way to go green this summer. Green travel can mean all sorts of eco-ventures—like retreating to the West Virginia mountains to commune with nature (and sleep in a treehouse) at a Quaker-run wilderness preserve or burning carbs instead of carbon while you pedal the Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail, which follows the peninsula's scenic rural roads for more than 2,000 miles.
It takes about three hours to drive from Baltimore to Charlottesville. Riding the faster of the two Amtrak routes that make the trip, the Crescent (the other is the Cardinal), will require at most 30 minutes more and may even save time if you're caught mid-rush hour in Baltimore or D.C.
We didn't especially care how quickly we could reach Charlottesville, just how carbon freely. I had assumed rail travel is more eco-friendly than flying but wondered if I was correct. I wanted to discover, too, whether the home of Jefferson's beloved University of Virginia was green enough to accommodate those who arrive without cars.
We had barely settled into our roomy coach seats on the Cardinal (which takes about 4½ hours to get to C'ville) when my first question was answered on page eight of the rail service's Arrive magazine. "Rail travel is about 17 percent more efficient than airline travel and 21 percent more efficient than automobiles on a per-passenger-mile basis," wrote Amtrak's CEO. (Coincidentally, the copy I'd picked up was the "Special Green Issue.")
We were off to a green start. When we reached our destination, we had little trouble getting around Charlottesville—although it helped that we enjoy walking. Using foot power, wheeled luggage, and the Transit Authority's free trolleys and inexpensive buses (75 cents per one-way ride), we never had to hail a taxi. The result: a virtually auto-less green getaway.
Destination: Charlottesville, VA, 150 miles southwest of Baltimore, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Getting There: Amtrak (amtrak.com) offers service to Charlottesville from Penn Station on the Crescent (evenings daily) and the Cardinal (Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings). South of Washington, both trains roll through small central Virginia towns, past serpentine streams, wooded hills, a Civil War graveyard, bucolic horse farms, and as they near Charlottesville, the distant pewter peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
What to Do: Tour Monticello (931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., 434-984-9822), Jefferson's magnificent hilltop estate, and its new green visitor facilities. Designed by Ayers/Saint/Gross of Baltimore, the naturally landscaped, wood, and fieldstone Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center is Grand Central Jefferson—a pleasant place to buy tickets, eat, shop, learn, and wait (beside a life-size statue of Monticello's master) for the mini-bus that takes you to his stunning home and gardens. Monticello is four miles from downtown, but that didn't deter us. We took the 1B bus from the Downtown Transit Station (615 E. Water St.) to Piedmont Virginia Community College (get off at the bottom of the hill before you reach campus). Cross Route 20 to the Jefferson Parkway parking lot, where a 2.4-mile uphill trail leads through the woods to the visitor center.
For shorter hiking, stroll Charlottesville's eight-block-long Downtown Pedestrian Mall, the dining/shopping/entertainment mainspring that keeps the city ticking day and night. Don't miss the restored 1930s-vintage Paramount Theater (215 E. Main St., 434-979-1333), a classic venue for concerts, films, and theater performances.
Where to Stay: For comfort and downtown accessibility, try the luxurious Inn at Court Square (410 E. Jefferson St., 434-295-2800), offering seven antiques-filled guestrooms in an 18th century house near the old county courthouse, or the relaxed 200 South Street Inn (200 South St., 434-979-0200, 800-964-7008), two 19th century dwellings containing three suites and 16 guestrooms.
Where to Eat: UVA students know good, on-the-go grub. Savor a slice of roasted-vegetable, pesto-sauce ricotta, or 20-some other varieties of hot-from-the-oven pies at Christian's Pizza (118 W. Main St., 434-977-9688). Revolutionary Soup (108 Second St. SW, 434-296-7687) also enjoys near-cult status for soup combos like spicy peanut tofu and turnip bacon (salads and sandwiches, too). I loved The Flat (111-A E. Water St., 434-978-3528), a walk-up creperie in a funky little brick building. My two-fisted, crispy-edged, apple-and-brie crepe oozed warm cheese swimming with chunks of Granny Smith apple. "This must be really bad for you," a fellow diner noted happily as she munched.
Virginia farms and other local providers supply the ingredients found on many upscale restaurant menus: the rainbow trout wrapped in grape leaves at C&O (515 E. Water St., 434-971-7044); the house-cured sausage with local orange-blossom honey at L'etoile (817 W. Main St., 434-979-7957); and the stone-ground grits with shrimp at Maya (633 W. Main St., 434-979-6292).
Who Should Go: train buffs, Jeffersonians, foodies.
IN THE TREETOPS
When visitors come to Niles Cabin at the Friends Wilderness Center for a silent retreat, general manager Sheila Bach honors their quietude. She doesn't need to say a word; at this Quaker-run facility, nature does the talking.
Nestled on a forested slope south of Harper's Ferry, WV, the center appeals nondenominationally. Anyone who wants to escape life's stresses to commune with nature is welcome to hike, camp, stargaze, meditate, attend a poetry reading, or simply listen to the wilderness preserve's resident symphony of birds, insects, woodland creatures, and burbling creeks.
A Quaker couple from Baltimore, Henry and Mary Cushing Niles, began buying land here in the 1950s, eventually assembling a tract that extended from the top of Rolling Ridge to the Shenandoah River below. Today, the Rolling Ridge Foundation manages the couple's legacy—1,400 pristine acres—by preserving indigenous plants and animals, and inviting others to share the land's spirituality. The Friends Center is one of three nonprofits that uses the grounds for such purposes. The small cabin in which the Nileses lived now serves as the center's retreat house.
About 10 of us joined Bach at Niles Cabin—which she has imbued with her love of the natural world and lighthouses—for the center's semiannual work day this spring. Volunteers chopped firewood, mended porch screens, cleaned windows, and spruced up other facilities in preparation for summer, the center's prime season.
"Usually, people just want to come out and get away," explained Bach, a white-haired, part-time accountant, as she prepared our lunch in the 40-year-old cabin's homey kitchen. Overnight visitors can lodge here, pitch their own tents, or unroll a sleeping bag in the center's yurt or treehouse. Day users come to hike, contemplate, or attend scheduled programs, like the nature poetry readings, held about once a month.
Destination: Friends Wilderness Center, located east of Charles Town, WV, about 90 miles southwest of Baltimore via Interstate 70 and U.S. 340.
Getting There: Driving is your only option. Be mindful of the center's mission, though, and leave the gas guzzler at home. Forget using MapQuest or Google Map directions, says Bach; they may lead you astray on local roads and aren't helpful navigating the preserve's mile-long, dirt/gravel drive. Instead, contact her in advance (304-728-4820, firstname.lastname@example.org) for reliable directions.
What to Do: Whatever your spirit desires. Hike the preserve's miles of trails, which lead to scenic overlooks, waterfalls, the remnants of early mountain communities, the banks of the Shenandoah, and to the Appalachian Trail atop the ridge. Attend one of the center's special programs, including popular stargazing sessions and nature poetry readings, "Poetry in the Trees" and "Poetry by the Fire," (visit friendswilderness.org for upcoming events). Get away on your own, with your family, or on a small group retreat.
Where to Stay: The cozy, rustic Niles Cabin has two guest bedrooms (shared bath), a TV-less great room ideal for reading and relaxing, and a tree-shaded, screened porch overlooking a small pond. Overnight rates ($80) include healthy, home-cooked breakfasts and dinners prepared by Bach (shrimp with garlic one night, for example; venison steaks the next). Nearby, you can bed down in the woods at primitive campsites, in a carpeted yurt that sleeps six, and a covered, grown-up treehouse with room for 15 to 20. Campers can prepare meals over the fire pits or arrange (in advance) for meals at the cabin.
Who Should Go: nature lovers, urban refugees, spiritual seekers.
Whether you're "beaching" it at the ocean, getting away to a B&B by the Chesapeake Bay, or birding in a wildlife refuge, consider downgrading from four wheels to two when you get there. Leaving the car parked and exploring by bicycle will give the beleaguered ozone layer a break, save you gas money, and make your getaway more "carb neutral." (About 30 minutes of moderately-paced pedaling will burn off the funnel cake you succumbed to the night before.)
The Delmarva Peninsula's flat, lightly traveled back roads lend themselves to relaxed, scenic cycling. Every county here makes cycling part of its tourism promotion by offering mapped bike trails, many of which have suggested itineraries that highlight the tri-state region's cycling appeal.
"We still have lots of open space," says Jim Rapp, executive director of DLITE (Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experiences). "And if you're a fan of exploring local history and nature, you couldn't do better." DLITE publishes the "Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail," a map that suggests routes in 14 counties that offer the safest, most scenic distance cycling.
If you're hopelessly map challenged, outfitters and touring companies lead guided bike trips through the shore's landscape of saltwater marshes, loblolly pine groves, cornfields, farm villages, and seaside towns.
Country roads are the best way to explore. Had I not taken an eco-tourism excursion some years ago, I never would have discovered a favorite off-the-beaten-path eatery in tiny Willis Wharf, VA. We stopped at a waterfront restaurant/general store then called E.L. Willis & Co. (it's now Stella's at Willis Wharf), whose crunchy clam strips washed down with iced tea were a taste of pure Eastern Shore.
You say the last bicycle you owned was during Jimmy Carter's presidency? That's no excuse. Many B&Bs offer guests free use of inn bicycles, beach resorts abound with rental shops, and outfitters cater to visitors.
Getting Around: The "Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail" outlines a 2,000-mile network of pedaling paths that stretches from the C&D Canal in Delaware to the southern tip of the peninsula near Cape Charles, VA. Maps of the trail can be purchased from DLITE (delmarvalite.org) and county tourism offices. Local visitor centers offer detailed maps of county bike trails. If you're making a day of it, reasonably fit cyclists should be able to cover 30 to 50 miles on a six-hour ride, Rapp says.
Where to Bike Seaside: If you're at the beach, the Junction and Breakwater Trail winds five miles through coastal forests and marshes between Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, DE. Located on the southwestern side of Cape Henlopen State Park (42 Cape Henlopen Dr., Lewes, 302-645-8983), the trail follows one of the rail lines that carried passengers from city to shore in centuries past (alas, a mass-transit option is not available to today's vacationers). For a longer ride, Rapp suggests following Route 12 southward along the eastern side of the peninsula, where it parallels Assateague and Chincoteague islands. Beginning at the Pocomoke River in Snow Hill, you'll skirt cypress swamps and coastal marshes, cross creeks, pass through quaint towns like Girdletree and end up, some 14 miles later, in Greenbackville, the optimistically named terminus of a 19th century railroad line that transported Chincoteague's famous oysters.
Where to Bike Inland: The Great Delmarva Bicycling Trail connects more than 70 wildlife havens, including Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge, 410-228-2677). By following Bucktown and Greenbriar roads southward from Cambridge for 16 miles, you'll be rewarded with a backdoor view of the hauntingly beautiful refuge. During the fall migratory season, Dorchester County's rural roads offer prime eagle viewing as the birds congregate in greater numbers. "I've counted as many as 60 bald eagles in a six-hour ride," Rapp says.
Who Should Go: pedal-pushers, fitness fanatics, lovers of wildlife.