VIRGINIA is the oldest American colony: its recorded history began at Jamestown, just off the Chesapeake Bay, with the establishment in 1607 of the first successful British colony in North America. Though the first colonists hoped to find gold, it was tobacco that made their fortunes – as Native Americans were driven off their land and slaves were imported from Africa to work the plantations. Many of the wealthy Virginian planters had an enormous impact on the foundation of the United States: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison among them. Later, as the confrontation between North and South over slavery and related issues grew more divisive, Virginia was caught in the middle, but joined the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out, providing the Confederate capital, Richmond, and its military leader, General Robert E. Lee. Four long years later, Virginia was ravaged, its towns and cities wrecked, its farmlands ruined and most of its youth dead.
Richmond itself was largely destroyed in the war; today it’s a small city with some good museums, the best ones historical in nature. The bulk of the colonial sites are concentrated just east, in what is known as the Historic Triangle, where Jamestown, the original colony, Williamsburg, the restored colonial capital, and Yorktown, site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War, lie within half an hour’s drive of each other on the Colonial Parkway. Another historic centre, Charlottesville – famously home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – sits at the foot of the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, an hour west of Richmond. It’s also within easy reach of the natural splendour of Shenandoah National Park and the little towns of the western valleys. Northern Virginia, a short hop from Washington DC, holds well-preserved estates, cottages, churches, barns and taverns tucked away along the quiet backroads, in addition to the antique architecture of Alexandria, Manassas, the scene of two important Civil War battles, and the very popular longtime home of George Washington, Mount Vernon.