DAY 6: Quick trips take dip into history and fun »
Nothing says "vacation" quite like a road trip. The freedom to hop in a car and head to parts unknown, the wind in your hair, the highway stretching to the wild blue yonder - that's the stuff vacations are made of.
Nothing says "vacation" quite like a road trip.
The freedom to hop in a car and head to parts unknown, the wind in your hair, the highway stretching to the wild blue yonder - that's the stuff vacations are made of.
And you don't have to leave the greater Richmond area to enjoy one.
The counties surrounding Richmond are so vast, there are hundreds of miles of roads and activities to explore while remaining close to home. There are wineries, museums, historic sites and several places where children will have a great time.
So grab your keys, pick a direction - perhaps even rent a convertible, for an authentic road-trip experience - and let's hit the road.
Just up Interstate 95 from Richmond are the perfect places to revel in a small-town atmosphere, soak up some history and sip some wine: Ashland and Hanover County.
The best place to start is the Ashland/Hanover Visitors Center, on North Railroad Avenue in Ashland. The building is a railroad station that was built in 1923 and retains vestiges of segregation, with "White" and "Colored" signs hanging over doors to separate waiting areas.
There's not a lot to do in Ashland, but that's part of its charm. The pace here is slower, encouraging meandering instead of walking. The goal is to enjoy the trip as much as the destination.
While you're meandering, follow the self-guided walking tour of the town's historic houses and buildings. (You can pick up the brochure at the visitors' center.)
The walk, which takes about an hour depending on your speed, spotlights homes built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and several buildings at Randolph-Macon College, which moved to Ashland in 1868.
End the walk at the Whistle Stop ice-cream shop on Railroad Avenue, where Richmond's own Gelati Celesti premium ice cream is sold. Grab a cone or sundae, then eat it outside while watching the trains roll through town.
Patrick Henry's home
Next, head to Scotchtown, Patrick Henry's home from 1771 to 1778. Even without the Henry connection, the house is notable for being one of the oldest plantation homes in the state, built in 1719.
The house is full of 18th-century antiques, although only a few of them belonged to Henry. Most of the floors and the doors are original, which is remarkable considering their age.
My tour guide told stories about Henry's political career and family life. Tragically, Henry's first wife, Sarah Shelton Henry, fell ill while living at Scotchtown and died, although no one quite knows how. It's rumored that she was mentally ill.
For more Henry-connected history, drive over to the county's Courthouse area to see Hanover Tavern and the historic courthouse complex.
Historic Hanover buildings
Henry and Sarah lived at the Hanover Tavern before they moved to Scotchtown. The tavern, established in 1733, was a stagecoach stop for those traveling between Washington and Richmond, and famous guests include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall.
Across the street from the tavern are the Hanover Courthouse, built in 1735, and the Old Stone Jail, built in the 1830s and used until the mid-1950s.
It's easy enough to examine the exteriors of these three buildings, as I did, but getting inside takes a bit more planning.
The Hanover Tavern is open for tours on the third Sunday of the month, according to its Web site, www.hanovertavern.org. Tours of the courthouse and jail are available by appointment only; call 537-5815.
For a smooth finish to the day, stop by a Hanover County winery for some wine tasting.
Given its proximity to Richmond, it makes sense to end the day at the James River Winery. Just north of the Virginia Center Commons mall on Route 1, this is primarily a tasting spot, with the majority of the winery's grapes grown elsewhere in Hanover.
Make sure to have a designated driver when stopping here, because James River offers seven or eight wines for tasting. (There were so many that I lost track.) During the tasting, I learned about the different types of flavors I could expect from each wine, and I was quite surprised when I could identify them.
It made for a satisfying end to a long day's road trip.
This trip is for anyone with even a passing interest in the Civil War.
The area around Petersburg and northeastern Dinwiddie County was the site of a 9?-month-long Civil War siege. From June 1864 to April 1865, the Union and Confederate armies fought for control of the rail lines here, which would ultimately lead to the control of Richmond.
The siege left its mark here, most notably on the landscape. Soldiers fought from behind miles of earthworks, or long walls made of dirt, and some of them remain today.
On those remains are two parks worth visiting: Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in Dinwiddie, and the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. In a change from Richmond's museums and monuments, both place equal emphasis on the two armies.
Start off at Pamplin Park, part of which includes the earthworks where Federal troops broke through Confederate lines on April 2, 1865, leading to the falls of Petersburg and Richmond.
Soldiers tell the story
With several buildings, walking trails and costumed re-enactors "living" in camps, leading artillery demonstrations and teaching military drills, there is enough at Pamplin to easily fill an entire day. And it's as much fun for children as it is for adults.
One whole building, the Battlefield Center, is devoted to the Petersburg siege and the breakthrough battle.
In addition to displays of artifacts and interactive computer quizzes, the center features a four-minute map presentation that succinctly explains the basics of the Petersburg siege. There's also a 10-minute movie that covers the same ground, so to speak, but with more detail.
Just outside the center are the earthworks where the battle occurred. There are three trails of differing lengths that circle the earthworks, and along the trails, signs and audio lectures highlight different parts of the battle.
I had the most fun visiting with a re-enactor who was trying to build a fire at the re-created military encampment, not far from the Battlefield Center. The soldier was a font of knowledge about war tactics, camp life and how information reached the soldiers.
Pamplin is also home to the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier; the restored Tudor Hall Plantation; the Field Quarter, where an exhibit discusses the many views of slavery; and the Banks house, which served as headquarters for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 2-3, 1865.
Everything here is fun, educational and interactive. It's worth spending the whole day, but doing so would mean missing the Crater in Petersburg.
Don't miss the Crater
The Petersburg National Battlefield Park is actually a series of parks that requires several days to visit. The piece that shouldn't be missed is the main park, called the Eastern Front, which includes the site of the Battle of the Crater.
During the early days of the Petersburg siege, Union soldiers who had been Pennsylvania coal miners got the bright idea of tunneling under the Confederate lines and blasting a hole through the earthworks.
It took a month to dig the 511-foot-long tunnel and pack the area under the Confederates with four tons of explosives. When it exploded, it created a hole that was 170 feet long, 80 feet wide and 30 feet deep.
The hole that remains isn't quite that big; in fact, it's more like an uneven field than a hole. But given the drama of the story, it's worth a visit.
The Crater is the last stop on an eight-stop driving tour of the Eastern Front portion of the park. Some of the stops have interpretive trails that are worth stopping to walk, while others just mark the sites of significant events.
Stop to see Tiffany's windows
The drive through the Eastern Front ends on Crater Road, where signs point toward Blandford Church and Cemetery. The last stop for the day is the most beautiful site of them all.
The church, which dates back to 1735, had been empty for years when restored and turned into a memorial for Confederate soldiers in the early 20th century.
The memorial was created by the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg, which asked 13 Southern states with soldiers that died at the siege to donate money to buy a Tiffany window in the soldiers' honor.
Their work made Blandford what it is today: one of six churches in the country with all of its windows made of Tiffany stained glass. The windows' colors and details are more than worth a visit.
The South was full of ladies' groups that worked to create memorials to Confederate soldiers, because the federal government wouldn't bury them in military cemeteries. In the case of Blandford Church, that policy was a blessing, leading to the creation of something that is still a thing of beauty today.
This may not be news to Richmond natives, but it was the most surprising thing this Yankee learned touring three plantations along Route 5 and the James River in Charles City County.
Shirley Plantation is the first one on the road that connects Richmond to Williamsburg. In addition to touring the house, visitors can walk through several outbuildings on their own.
The house tour takes visitors through four rooms on the first floor, as the rest of the house is occupied by members of the family that's owned it for 11 generations.
The house, designed with the Queen Anne and Georgian styles in mind when it was started in 1723, isn't particularly elaborate. But it does have interesting features such as a flying staircase and woodwork that was added in the 1770s.
Costumed guides, antiques
Shirley definitely acts as a warm-up for the next stop, the Berkeley Plantation. Of the three plantations I visited, this was the one with the most history.
The house was built in 1726 in the Georgian style and modified over the centuries. Today, costumed guides lead tours through the first floor of the house, which is loaded with antiques dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
The tour starts in the basement, with a 12-minute video that gives an overview of Berkeley's 350-year history. Two presidents were born here, the first bourbon whiskey was created here, and Abraham Lincoln visited Gen. George McClellan here, as McClellan had made the plantation into his headquarters in 1862.
The house tour shows off four rooms of antiques, plus the main hallway on the first floor. I learned just as much about the house as I did about the Harrisons, the family that built it and birthed two presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison.
After the tour, take the time to wander the grounds. (And wear bug spray down by the river.) There are boxwood gardens, a gazebo and a memorial for the first Thanksgiving, celebrated here in 1619 when the site was first settled.
Also, this is a good time to stop for lunch. There aren't many places to eat nearby, so take advantage of the plantation's Coach House Tavern. The food was excellent, and the scenery included some great birdwatching behind the restaurant.
Enjoy the garden
The last stop of the day is Evelynton Plantation, the newest of the three homes.
The plantation dates back to the 19th century, but the original house was destroyed by McClellan in 1862. The house that stands today was built during the 1930s.
This tour is notable for the antiques that fill its first-floor rooms. I have never seen so many Sheridan, Hepplewhite and Chippendale pieces in the same place - and the tour guide touched them all! Until now, the watchwords at every historic house I visited were, "Don't touch the antiques."
Like Berkeley, Evelynton has several gardens to stroll through (again, take your bug spray). Visitors can also stroll down to the marsh that precedes the river's edge and walk out on a dock.
These plantation tours may not appeal to all children - Berkeley was the only plantation where I saw children ages 12 and younger on the tours - but for adults, these three locations make for a relaxed day of sightseeing.
Lions and tigers and giraffes - oh my!
There aren't any bears at the Metro Richmond Zoo in southwestern Chesterfield County, but visitors will never miss them. There are more than 500 animals to see, including bats, camels, kangaroos, lots of giraffes and so many species of monkeys, apes and birds that I saw them every time I turned around.
A visit to the zoo is one-half of this day trip planned with youngsters (and the kids in all of us) in mind. Just 20 minutes down the road from the zoo is the Morefield Gem Mine, where visitors sift through the red dirt in search of minerals and gems.
It's best to start the day at the zoo, as the mine experience leaves visitors wet and mud-covered. Both locations require sturdy shoes, for walking at the zoo and braving the mud at the mine.
Wander along paths
At the zoo, paved pathways wind through the 40-plus acres, taking visitors by the ponds, islands, cages and fenced-in habitats where the animals live. There's something new to see around each bend, and the sounds of lions roaring, apes talking and birds squawking are all the encouragement needed to keep going.
Visitors who wish to get personal with the animals can feed the giraffes, cows and goats by hand. All of them were well-mannered - if a bit slobbery while being fed - and it was an amazing experience to have the giraffes' velvety tongues sweep over my hand.
Most of the animal enclosures are labeled with plaques that list the animals' names and some information about the species. Keep your eyes peeled for them, though, because some of the plaques aren't where you'd expect to see them. (For example, the kangaroos are visible close to the zoo's entrance, but the plaques are mounted on a path that visitors won't encounter until the end of their trek.)
A quick walk through the zoo takes about an hour, but there's no rush. Take some time to sit on the benches along the paths and watch the monkeys climbing, the cheetah pacing and the warthogs wallowing in the mud.
Wallow in the dirt
Then prepare to wallow in the mud at the Morefield Mine, off Rt. 360 in Amelia County.
The mine's walkways glitter in the sunlight, as a gleaming example of the 80-plus varieties of minerals located there. Morefield is known for its amazonite, a green-colored stone that's abundant there, but visitors can also find garnet, mica, quartz, and many others.
Start your trip in the gift shop, where employees explain the rules and show examples of the different minerals here. Then head down the hill, pick up a bucket and shovel, and stake out your mining territory.
Digging here is easier than it sounds. The ground has more rocks than soil, and the big rocks make it difficult to push shovels into the ground.
Search at random or dig
Rock-hunting methods seemed to differ from person to person, with some people filling their buckets at random and others poking through the dirt to find choice stones. Either way, it's easiest to sit on the wet ground to dig, although it leaves you covered in mud.
Once the bucket is full of dirt and stones, head to the sluice to wash off the rocks by pouring them into a screen and shaking them in the running water. (You will become wet and muddy in the process.)
Sluicing is like gold mining - each panful of dirt could hold something valuable. I didn't find anything unusual, but the teenager I sat next to at the sluice found a fairly rare stone.
The lure of striking it rich, even with the minerals commonly found here, makes the mine an attraction worth visiting again and again.