During the 1960 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson delivered a parting cry as the train pulled out of the first station: “What did Dick Nixon ever do for Culpeper?” In truth, LBJ didn’t do much for this Piedmont town either, but the past decade has seen a civic revival: Culpeper is now home to the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, and an emerging drink scene, highlighted by Belmont Farm, the only distillery in the state that makes legal moonshine.
The Inn at Willow Grove
A 1778 Federal-style mansion that once belonged to a cousin of explorer William Clark, this 25-room hotel, set in the rolling hills between Culpeper and Orange, offers the quintessential weekend in the Virginia countryside. Start each morn- ing with French- pressed coffee and beignets on the porch of the Butler’s Cottage, one of seven behind the main house, as birdsong floats over from the boxwood garden.That red barn is actually the new spa with a heated pool out back, the perfect prelude to lunch at the inn’s excellent restaurant, Vintage. Rooms from $265, innatwillowgrove.com.
The irony of Montpelier—the plantation where James Madison drafted the Constitution—is unpacked in “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” an exhibition in the house’s cellar in which visitors can hear stories of the property’s slaves as told by their living descendents. Across the road stands the country’s first freedman’s house, built in 1873 by emancipated slave George Gilmore, restored and now open to the public, as is the 1910 train depot preserved in its Jim Crow–era state. montpelier.org
When Outer Banks native Craig Hartman launched his Gordonsville restaurant nine years ago, he brought one of the best barbecue pork sandwiches north of Winston-Salem. You’ll also want to get the BLT “chewy”; it’s their house-made red-eye bacon—pork belly cured with spices and Shenandoah Joe coffee. bbqex.com
The mansion Thomas Jefferson designed for Virginia governor James Barbour burned in 1884, but its fortunes were restored by Italian wine baron Gianni Zonin, who bought the property in 1976, establishing the vineyard Jefferson always wanted. Savor the vermentino, a dry white often grown on Sardinia, with the gnocchi at the vineyard’s restaurant, Palladio. For a day of tastings at the Foothills’ many vineyards, book a driver from Central Virginia Wine Tours. bbvwine.com
The Market at Grelen
Stretching across 600 panoramic hilltop acres out- side the town of Somerset, Grelen has long been one of Virginia’s best-respected nurseries. Now it’s something more: a market brimming with every imaginable shrub and succulent; a cafe serving produce from the gardens (try the homemade strawberry ice cream); peach, berry, and apple orchards; and a network of hiking and riding trails that take you to Montpelier. themarketatgrelen.com
The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
At the beginning of Edward P. Jones’s Pulitzer-winning 2003 novel, Henry Townsend lies dying at his Virginia plantation. It’s 1840. The catch: He’s black himself. As his widow, Caldonia, takes charge of the estate, she grapples with her late husband’s legacy and an ever-more fraught community. Although Jones set his story in the fictional county of Manchester, his world is an entirely familiar one, yet drawn with a nuance that makes us see it with newfound depth.