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DAY 4: Here's today's task: Just relax to the max ยป

Gazing out the window, watching the James River flow by, I was finally able to breathe deeply and relax. During the next two hours, I was going to be entertained, fed and educated about the river - and I wouldn't do anything more strenuous than laugh and lift a fork.

Gazing out the window, watching the James River flow by, I was finally able to breathe deeply and relax.

During the next two hours, I was going to be entertained, fed and educated about the river - and I wouldn't do anything more strenuous than laugh and lift a fork.

After weeks of running around Richmond, a lunchtime cruise on the Annabel Lee was exactly what I needed.

Whether vacationing in the Bahamas or your own back yard, the idea of relaxing can be lost amid plans to see and do as much as possible.

The good news is that relaxing in Richmond doesn't have to mean spending time on the couch. Instead, indulge in activities that move as slowly as the James during a drought.

To the rivah

Start with the aforementioned cruise on "Richmond's Showboat on the James." Midday cruises on the Annabel Lee, a paddle-wheel showboat, are casual, with excellent food and a singing wait staff. And what a trip!

While the boat headed toward Hopewell, Landon, our host for the afternoon, worked the room like a comedian. He sang, he danced, he spun stories about the James and he kept us laughing.

Landon told us about the wildlife we might see, then acted surprised when we spotted two bald eagles.

"We never see those. We just tell you that to make you look out the window," he deadpanned as passengers craned their necks for a glimpse of the birds.

Between Landon's monologues and the cruise-closing games of Steamboat Bingo, we were served a Southern buffet lunch that had most of us going back for seconds.

Pulled pork barbecue, Magnolia chicken, corn bread, an array of salads and a mouthwatering dessert of fruit trifle made me glad that all I had to do after lunch was bask in the sun.

The only complaint I had was that the cruise ended much too soon.

Peek at antiques

The upside of disembarking around 1 p.m. is that it leaves plenty of time for the next activity: shopping. Or, more precisely, window shopping.

I admit that many people, women included, consider an afternoon of shopping to be a female activity. Instead of heading to a traditional mall, though, try an afternoon of browsing through antiques, which both sexes can enjoy.

Choices include strolling through stores in one area, like Carytown, or traveling through Henrico and Hanover counties to visit the 21 stores listed in a guide to antique shops north of Richmond. (To get this guide, call Antique Village in Mechanicsville, 730-0698.)

Booths and rooms

For one-stop shopping, however, the West End Antiques Mall is the way to go. Made up of more booths and rooms of antiques than I could count, the mall fills two buildings and 53,000 square feet in the Crossroads Shopping Center, 2004 Staples Mill Road.

I am a die-hard shopper, and I have to say that this mall did me in fairly quickly. To get the most out of the experience, I recommend tackling each building on a separate day. Otherwise, be prepared for visual overload.

Window shopping here is like visiting an art museum where you can touch the displays and take home your favorite pieces (after paying for them, of course).

The furniture, ranging from French to early American to 20th-century pieces and more, was beautiful. Each booth presented different styles and finishes, making it easy for an antiques novice like me to decide what suited my tastes.

I also found everything from gargoyles to glassware, along with books, photographs and old advertisements. The sheer variety of items is mind-boggling.

The best part was that I felt no pressure to purchase anything. Sellers seemed to be located in a few central areas, but I didn't feel as though I was getting anyone's hopes up by looking around. That's my kind of shopping.

Be pampered

To end this strenuous day, rest your weary head at a posh hotel and let someone else do the cooking and cleaning.

The most posh place in Richmond, of course, is The Jefferson Hotel. The castle-like building at 101 W. Franklin St. is one of just 23 hotels nationwide to hold both of the industry's top rankings, the Mobil Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond ratings.

The Jefferson offers a combination of Richmond history, luxurious surroundings and incredible service, providing for a guest's every need.

The hotel was built in 1895 by Maj. Lewis Ginter, who named it for his idol, Thomas Jefferson. While it still holds touches of the original - like the Tiffany windows, and the statue of Jefferson that was created by local sculptor Edward V. Valentine - today's Jefferson Hotel has been enlarged and restored several times during its history.

The beauty of the building cannot be denied. And the royal treatment for guests begins at the moment they pull up to the valet parking and walk through the grand, automatic double doors into the Palm Court lobby.

All the many perks

There are 264 guestrooms in the hotel, furnished with antique reproductions. The feather beds are covered with Italian sheets, and the rooms feature everything from CD players to Playstations to high-class toiletries and Italian waffle-weave robes.

Everything is first class, and nothing is farther away than a phone call. Room service is available 24 hours a day, and the concierge has a selection of video games, CDs, VCRs and movies for entertainment. There are even books and board games for kids.

"Our staff really goes all-out," said Jennifer Crisp, director of sales and marketing. One day, she saw a clerk working without a tie, breaking the dress code. It turned out that he had loaned his tie to a guest who forgot to pack one, discovering his mistake minutes before leaving for a wedding.

If staying overnight at The Jefferson is too rich for your blood, enjoy its beauty by eating at its five-diamond restaurant, Lemaire, or getting a drink at the more casual TJ's Restaurant and sip it while sitting in the opulent Rotunda.

There's also afternoon tea, available Thursday through Sunday, in the Palm Court lobby, where a harpist enhances the atmosphere on Friday afternoons.

On the track

For a more intimate hotel experience, drive up to Ashland and stay at the Henry Clay Inn. The 14-room country inn also features antique reproduction furniture in its rooms, and it boasts an unusual view from its huge front porch and second-floor balcony.

"People like to sit on the porch and watch the trains go by," said owner and innkeeper Carol Martin.

The inn is located on Railroad Avenue, along the train tracks that cut through the heart of Ashland. If trains aren't your thing, though, you can head to the second-floor parlor, grab a book from the shelves and curl up in a comfy chair.

It's easy to relax here. The inn is cozy, with a peace that pervades every room. Five minutes in one of the lobby's rocking chairs will harmonize your internal clock with the inn's small-town, laid-back pace.

"We have a lot of guests from the Richmond area," said Martin, who runs the inn with her daughter, Ann-Carol Houston. "You do have the feeling of being away. It makes you feel decadent - you could be home, but you're not."

Resort for Richmonders

The town of Ashland was created as a resort for Richmonders, so it's not surprising that the present-day inn has the same feel. And like The Jefferson, the Henry Clay Inn has roots that stretch back to the 19th century.

The inspiration for the inn came from the Ashland Hotel, which was built in 1858 and was destroyed by fire in 1905. The first Henry Clay Inn was built on the site of the hotel in 1906 and burned down in 1946. The current inn, a reproduction built from old photos of the first two, opened in 1992 about half a block from the site of its predecessors.

In addition to relaxing, take a few minutes to peruse the inn's gift shop. Its offerings go beyond souvenirs to include whimsical handmade jewelry, photography, artwork and baskets. The inn also has an art gallery that features work by local artists.

On the waterfront

There's one more hotel option, and this one is for people who are ready to leave the past behind and swim in the present.

The Brandermill Inn Resort and Marina, located on Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County, offers a great spot for people who like to relax on the water.

All 60 guestrooms are laid out as suites with two floors, and every room has a view of the reservoir from either a patio or a balcony.

Guests can rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, hydrobikes, beach cruisers or Duffy boats, and use them to go fishing, get some exercise or admire the area wildlife.

"It's kind of like having a condo at the beach," said Jim Moyler, who owns the hotel with his wife, Charlotte.

"We've had so many people who live in the area spend two or three nights here. You can be close to your family and not deal with the beach traffic."

While guests can't swim in the reservoir, there is an outdoor pool with a reservoir view. Next to it is a large deck, where there's live entertainment in the summer.

If you fall in love with the Brandermill Inn, you can reserve a room on an annual basis by buying a timeshare. The inn will continue to operate as a hotel and resort as well, Moyler said, but it is hoped that the timeshare option will make more people aware that Richmond is a great place for a vacation.

"There's so much to do in Richmond, it's amazing," he said.

I have to say that I agree with him.

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