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On the Tee in Eden

Top-tier golf, fine wine and a living museum of Jeffersonian history are among the delights of Charlottesville, Virginia

By: Dale Leatherman

Appeared in April 2006 LINKS

Parting the drapes over the French doors of my Keswick Hall guest room, I beheld a lush landscape through the dim filter of a driving rain. My tee time a washout, I proceeded to Plan B. Fortunately, options abound in Charlottesville, Virginia—like discovering why Thomas Jefferson described this city of 40,000 as the “Eden of the United States.” Presidents James Monroe and James Madison also lived here, and recent arbiters are equally charmed—among other accolades, Charlottesville has made Money’s “100 Best Places to Live” list four years running.

My exploration of Mr. Jefferson’s neighborhood began at his home, Monticello, the hilltop estate that reflects his passion for architecture, agriculture and horticulture. The neo-classical mansion he designed is a marvel of open-air living spaces, skylights and expanses of glass. Thanks to sensitive restoration of the house, outbuildings and gardens, it’s as if the master still lives here and just happens to be out for his morning ride.

A half-mile from Monticello, I lunched at Michie Tavern ca. 1784, the sort of place where Jefferson might have met with neighbors like Monroe and Meriwether Lewis to discuss farming and affairs of state over a hearty midday meal.

At the University of Virginia campus, which Jefferson designed in his 70s after retiring from public service, his “Academical Village” lies at the heart of a vibrant space known by locals simply as “The Grounds.” The white-domed Rotunda, patterned after Rome’s Pantheon, faces a terraced lawn bordered by rows of Federal-style faculty housing, connected by colonnaded walkways and tiny “Lawn Rooms,” where exemplary fourth-year students live.

Chilled and hungry, I hustled back to Keswick Hall, a massive Italianate building constructed as a private home in 1912. Since acquiring the property in 1999, Orient-Express Hotels has renovated the 48 guest rooms and added a restaurant, bar and swimming pool. Seated next to a crackling fire in the hotel’s elegant restaurant, Fossett’s, I enjoyed beef tartare, foie gras, seared sea scallops and cannoli, each course served with a perfectly paired wine.

Sunshine prevailed the next morning as I played the Keswick Club’s 1939 layout, redesigned by Arnold Palmer in 1990. Rambling through hilly terrain spiced with lakes, streams, wetlands and big oak trees, the course is replete with views of the rounded peaks of the Blue Ridge in the distance. Palmer added new back tees last year, stretching the course to 6,717 yards, and it plays longer, thanks to a number of subtly uphill holes and elevated greens.

That afternoon I checked into 200 South Street Inn, a pair of restored late-19th century homes furnished with English and Belgian antiques. Many rooms have fireplaces, and there’s a cozy common area for continental breakfasts and afternoon wine-and-cheese parties. I walked two blocks to the Downtown Mall, a bustling promenade lined with shops, galleries, restaurants and bookstores. Charlottesville is a town of bibliophiles: Thousands attend the Festival of the Book each March, and several authors, including John Grisham, Tami Hoag and Rita Mae Brown, live in Albemarle County.

Another local is actress Sissy Spacek, whom I spied at Bizou, a comfortable bistro with old movie posters and a menu featuring dishes like cornmeal-crusted catfish quesadillas and grilled quail salad. I browsed the Mall, lingering in several galleries. Most, like the Sage Moon, feature works by local artists with national reputations.

The next day I moved to the Boar’s Head Inn, a AAA Four Diamond property two miles from downtown. This historic 170-room, country estate-style hotel has a full-service spa and fine dining in the Old Mill Room. It’s a companion to the adjacent Birdwood Golf Course, owned by the university and home to the Cavalier golf teams.

The area’s premier stay-and-play spot is Wintergreen Resort, an environmentally conscious community with two diverse golf challenges. Located 3,850 feet above sea level, the Ellis Maples-designed Devil’s Knob is the highest course in the state, and one of the tightest. Down in the valley is the Rees Jones-designed Stoney Creek, home to three diverse nines intertwined with the namesake stream, 20-acre Lake Monocan and vast tracts of wilderness

My last stop was Poplar Grove, which debuted in May 2004, the last design in which Sam Snead participated before his death in 2002. Well versed in his father’s philosophy, Jack Snead continued to consult with course architect Ed Carton, formerly of the Tom Fazio design team.

In all, my time provided only a taste of Charlottesville’s history, scenery, golf, shopping, dining and winemaking. If copious natural blessings and earthly pleasures qualify a place as “Eden,” Mr. Jefferson was surely right in this assessment of his beloved city.

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