VIRGINIA is the oldest American colony and its recorded history famously 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, Robert E. Lee. Four long years later, Virginia was ravaged, its towns and cities wrecked, its farmlands ruined and most of its youth dead.
The splendid re-creation of Colonial Williamsburg is an essential tourist experience for anyone with a flair for American history. While you have to buy a pricey ticket to look inside the restored buildings, the grounds are open all the time, and you can wander freely down the cobblestone streets and across the green commons.
One of America’s most familiar buildings – it graces the back of the nickel – Monticello, three miles southeast of Charlottesville on Hwy-53, was the home of Thomas Jefferson for most of his life. Its symmetrical brick facade, cantered upon a white Doric portico, is surrounded by acres of beautiful hilltop grounds, which once made up an enormous plantation, with fine views out over the Virginia countryside.
You can see Monticello on one of several guided tours (daily: March–Nov 9am–5pm; Dec–Feb 10am–4pm; t 434/984-9822, w www.monticello.org), each of which covers a different aspect of the site, though taking in more than one can get quite expensive. Options include the furnishings and gadgets of the “House” tour (30min; March–Oct $22, Nov–Feb $17), the more in-depth “Architecture” tour (1hr 15min; $27), and the kid-oriented “Family” tour (30min; $22). Evening “Signature” tours (1hr; May to early Sept $45) provide a broad overview with fewer people in tow. Each tour requires a timed ticket, for which you must reserve ahead.
From the outside, Monticello looks like an elegant, Palladian-style country estate, but as soon as you enter the domed entrance hall, with its animal hides, native craftworks, and fossilized bones and elk antlers (from Lewis and Clark’s epic 1804 journey across North America, which Jefferson sponsored as president), you begin to see a different side of Jefferson. His love of gadgets is evidenced by an elaborate dual-pen device he used to make automatic copies of all his letters, and a weather vane over the front porch, connected to a dial so he could measure wind direction without stepping outside. In his private chambers, he slept in a cramped alcove that linked his dressing room and his study, and would get up on the right side of the bed if he wanted to make some late-night notes, on the left if he wanted to get dressed.
With the price of a tour ticket you can also visit the gardens, in which extensive flower and vegetable gardens spread to the south and west, and other parts of the plantation site focus on the remains of Mulberry Row, Monticello’s slave quarters. Despite calling slavery an “abominable crime”, he owned almost two hundred slaves and recent research indicates he probably had one or more children with one of them, Sally Hemings. At the south end of Mulberry Row, a grove of ancient hardwood trees surrounds Jefferson’s gravesite, marked by a simple stone obelisk; the epitaph, which lists his major accomplishments, does not mention his having been president.