As much as I appreciate Virginia wines, I do recommend giving your palate a break from time to time and visiting some of the state’s potently historic plantation homes. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is easily the most famous of these, its Palladian-style façade decorating the back of the nickel. Touring this well-restored mansion and gardens, the home of one of America’s greatest political minds, can’t help but induce a shiver of emotion.
Nearby stands Montpelier, the grand home of James Madison, architect of the Constitution and later president. This neoclassical manor has also been thoughtfully restored, and the room where Madison penned the Virginia Plan, the blueprint for the Constitution, even retains its original floorboards. The gardens, which include an immense Cedar of Lebanon presented to Madison in 1824 by the Marquis de Lafayette, make for a most pleasant stroll.
Farther afield, we had a marvelous time touring Stratford Hall, the plantation home of Robert E. Lee. Our quirky guide seemed to regard the plantation’s inhabitants — dating to the 18th century — as old friends. “You see those chimneys?” she asked, pointing at the roofline. “Phillip — he was so crazy. You know what he did? He built a deck between those chimneys. You know what for? Dancing! Oh my.” She continued in a more conspiratorial tone: “Once, there was this fiddler named Henry … Oh! I shouldn’t go on.” And unfortunately, she didn’t, keeping this juicy bit of 250-year-old gossip to herself.