We kept coming back to Charlottesville in 2016. We had spent some time there in the December drizzle, and had stopped off for dinner on our way back from Asheville. This roadtrip we decided to head there for brunch and visit Monticello in (we hoped) the sunshine.
It turned out that we were visiting on UVA’s graduation day, so things were busy, and parking was a challenge. Luckily we were there pretty early for brunch, and managed to get a table at the charming Pigeon Hole, on their porch in the early morning sunshine.
At the college itself all the chairs were set out ready for the outdoor ceremony. I hope the weather held for them, as it was about to turn on us…
Importantly, the sunshine held out for our visit to Monticello. This time we could see some of the views – and could even see the house from the end of the lawn.
It was then time to head to Shenandoah, and drive that familiar-to-us Skyline Drive to Big Meadows lodge, where we were staying that night. And here, just before the bend to the lodge, in our last month in the States, we finally saw a bear!
Before we headed home we went for a quick hike in Shenandoah. It was also my first chance to drive part of Skyline Drive, as it was the first time we’d been here since I’d learned to drive.
We had had pretty bad weather for the whole of our trip, and sadly this day was not much better. As we hiked up to a small summit, we walked into the cloud, and so there were no views to be had!
Back on the road down again we emerged from the cloud and we had some nice views to end our trip. Despite the weather it had been a great few days, full of good sights and good beer – a fitting way to end 2015.
We had heard that the countryside around Shenandoah, in Rappahannock county was full of nice B&Bs and good restaurants as well as the wineries that we had already explored. We couldn’t get into the Inn at Little Washington, which is by all accounts one of the best, so we headed for the nearby town of Sperryville instead, where our internet research had located a nice looking, yet still affordable B&B and what turned out to be a pretty nice restaurant: the Thornton River Grille.
Even better, Sperryville had another craft brewery(!) and, what’s more, a distillery – Wasamund’s. This was pretty interesting as, rather than making American-style whisky, they specialise in making Scottish-style whisky, and were inspired by a trip to Islay. They’re a family business and the whole place was warm, cosy and friendly – apart from the distillery cat, who apparently bites!
Wasamund’s (complete with distillery cat).
The tour introduced us to their methods of smoking the barley, and of using old bourbon barrels as they do in Scotland. Amazingly, there were no health and safety concerns preventing us from getting up close to the distilling equipment. It was just like visiting a craft brewery.
Then it was on to the tasting. Unfortunately, I think they’ve got some way to go before they’re producing anything as good as Islay malts. They’re very proud of how they can produce characterful malts without the need to mature for long periods. We thought that a bit more maturing probably wouldn’t hurt…
We moved on to Pen Druid Brewing Company. I’d had high hopes of this brewery, hoping it would have the Welsh background its name suggested (Pen means head in Welsh and is common in place names, plus Wales is known for druids). Sadly, the brothers who run the brewery knew of no Welsh connection, and had just named the brewery after their old family farm – they thought Pen probably referred to the female swan, which has inspired their logo, and didn’t think their family had any Welsh roots.
Nevertheless, the beer was very good, and the place had a great local atmosphere, another open fire, and friendly, bearded bartenders.
The nice-looking B&B – the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm – turned out to be rather strange… It was the home of John Clifford the 3rd (or 4th? I’m not sure!). Because he was actually at home, it made it all rather awkward – we didn’t feel we could really use the common areas, or help ourselves to wine as we had been told to by the housekeepers. The housekeepers in fact did a better job of hosting us and trying to make us feel comfortable. The old cook had clearly been in the family a long time – her ways made me think of an old retainer in novels. The breakfast she provided us with was really excellent – an egg casserole, great bacon and homemade blackberry pancakes. It was a strange place though…
Still, it was a nice experience to be staying in the countryside.
Even nicer, we were able to walk to the distillery, brewery and restaurant by crossing the river on a little swing bridge by the light of our phones!
Welcome to my first ever guest-post on 18 months in DC! This was written for me by my good friend Kate (who also writes a great blog about books, over at http://bloggingaroundmybookcase.com/) about her ‘vacation’ with us last autumn.
“I’ve got friends in low places, where the whisky drowns and the beer chases my blues away” the growling refrain came up on my iTunes recently and I was immediately transported to the back of a car on Skyline Drive with four grown adults giggling uncontrollably and trying to sing along.
But that is, perhaps, getting ahead of myself. Last autumn E and I were very excited to head to DC to visit R and A, two of our best friends, who have decamped from London to live in DC for a few years.
I was unexpectedly charmed by DC. In its own, low-key way it is quite lovely. R&A live in an area called Adams Morgan which is home to a classic American diner, a number of great restaurants and a degenerate bar called Madam’s Organ.
Our first encounter with Madam’s Organ involved a riotous night of karaoke of which one of the highlights was a performance of ‘Friends in Low Places’. I had first come across the piece during a summer spent working on a ranch in Wyoming so when I heard it again it was like rediscovering an old friend. If you aren’t familiar with the song, you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvCgSqPZ4EM and it would be excellent background music for the rest of this blog.
Other highlights of DC were canoeing on the Potomac in the autumn sunshine, watching the Washington Wizards in action, R’s informative and beautiful walking tour of the war memorials and hours spent in DC’s brilliant museums. Watching E scrambling through air ducts in the spy museum will stay with me for a long time.
However, that wasn’t the main point of our trip. After a few days in DC we headed off on a road trip taking in Virginia, Shenandoah and Skyline Drive. We visited the sites of the original English settlers, learnt a lot about Pocohontas and the civil war, talked to lots of people dressed up as settlers and gorged on the fascinating history of this new nation.
I also had grits for the first and last time; collared greens and catfish were much more to my taste.
Then we headed off to Shenandoah, which was the highlight of the trip for me.
Skyline Drive is a road that weaves along the mountaintops through the Shenandoah Forest. It is a stunning drive that we hit at sunset on the first day when the fading sun brought the autumn colours to life in a spectacular, fiery display. We were there on the last week in the season and it was the perfect cold, crisp, clear weather – perfect for hiking.
So we stayed the night in a log cabin and the next day tied up our hiking boots and set off on a spectacular walk that that involved some time on the Appalachian Trail, waterfalls, startled deer and more autumn colours than I’ve ever seen. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t do autumn in Shenandoah justice. It really is one for your bucket list.
Those of you who have taken my advice and listened to the suggested soundtrack to this blog will have noticed two things a) it is quite long and repetitive and b) that it is an earworm that you will be humming for the rest of the week.
It was after a week of us humming this song, singing snatches here and there and that some members of our merry band couldn’t take any more. So, when halfway up Skyline Drive, another rendition started up, one particular passenger turned the radio on in protest… only then to find that the song they were playing on that radio station at precisely that moment was…Friends in Low Places. At which point we all dissolved into giggles. There is no escape!