The Blue Ridge Mountains offer an array of terrific sites to see, places to explore and adventures to enjoy. One such trip worth making is to Charlottesville, Virginia.
As a history buff, my own interest in the area — associated with Thomas Jefferson — goes back a long way. In fact, shortly after buying my first BMW motorcycle as a college student, Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway became the target for a long-range solo adventure. The Monza Blue BMW R60/5 “toaster tank” performed admirably on a journey from my home in Central New Jersey to Monticello and beyond. The memories from that adventure have never faded, even if some of the pictures have. That trip led to a lifetime of other touring adventures which created their own memories, many leveraging the original blueprint.
Forty-five years after that initial sortie, I realized it was time for a return to the area, with a much broader target map in mind. And so began the planning for a new set of adventures. Now living in North Carolina, this trip is both easier and prettier than the one taken decades ago, which involved long stretches of highways to get me to Front Royal, Virginia.
For the current edition of the trip, the chosen mount was a now venerable BMW from 1994, an R1100 RSL. Rapidly closing in on the point where historic vehicle plates are an option, this remains a remarkably competent bike that is a brilliant tourer. This was among the first Beemers to arrive stateside with the new “oilhead” engine, the dramatically improved tele-lever suspension, and what were considered state of the art electronics back in the day. That roughly translates into fuel injections and ABS brakes, complementing an actual fuel gauge. Compared to modern kit, it seems a bit crude, but in reality there’s very little that a more modern machine can do that this one can’t in style. It remains the ideal vehicle for a cross-border incursion to Virginia.
Charlottesville became the focal point for this adventure, offering the perfect, central, location from which to launch a series of explorations over a long weekend which was conveniently scheduled just ahead of graduation from the University of Virginia.
UVA, as it has for centuries, provides a critical cultural and economic foundation to a town laid down in the colonial era. Coming in from the south provides a stunningly pretty view of wide-open farm country and increasingly beautiful vistas as the rolling hills become steeper, signifying arrival in the Appalachian foothills. The changes in altitude, combined with well-manicured straightaways make this an outstanding area to both stretch the BMW’s legs and hunt for apexes in equal measure.
As it turns out, Virginia Route 20 is a remarkable stretch of road known as the Constitution Highway, which runs to Jefferson’s Monticello and the homes of other founding fathers.
As we approached Charlottesville, Route 20 really makes its presence felt. It is a remarkable ribbon of asphalt that almost feels as if it was laid out in such a way as to minimize the need to cut and carve much of anything through the amazing scenery in the area. It seems at times that the original intent was to provide the experience of riding through a park and, if that was the goal, it is a clear mission accomplished. Horseback riding in the area would no doubt be fun, but aluminum-and-steel ponies are both better and faster.
Adding to the visual delights in this region, wineries have sprung up in the past 250 years. While Jefferson was known to be a vintner in his own right, the quality of product available today has no doubt dramatically improved. Exploring the wine options was a situation that would require more investigation as the weekend progressed. The area has the look and feel of certain parts of Sonoma and Napa in northern California.
Arriving in what the locals call C’ville, we quickly found our designated bed and breakfast, the South Street Inn, parked the wheels, dropped the keys, and began a walkabout in town. This is, it turns out, an epic place for a fun-filled weekend. Our tour of downtown revealed a main street that was closed off years ago, creating a sort of urban mecca with a wide walkway graced with coffee shops, restaurants, shops of wide ranges, and music. Lots and lots of street music.
After a long day on the road, it seemed appropriate that our first dinner adventure in town would land us in a French experience at the appropriately named “C&O,” presumably for the old Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. The food and the wine were wonderful, and this proved to be a prelude of what would become a routine adventure for our long weekend in Virginia: a post dinner experience on the porch or by the fireplace, regaling each other with stories of the day’s adventures, or another day’s experiences. This also proved to be a great place to enjoy some fine wine, some wonderful cheeses, and some truly impressive chocolate from a local shop.
Also, nice to meet other travelers passing through the area who are always, it seems, more open to conversation than when staying in a sterile, national chain hotel where you might be hard pressed to tell if you were in Charlottesville or Chicago without significant exploration.
In what became a regular experience, we were awakened at 5 a.m. when the heavy freight train rolled through town with horns blaring and plenty of clickity-clackity noises on the rails. No need for an alarm clock here. It would be impossible to sleep through an episode of Casey Jones watching his speed as he heads out of town with a full load of who knows what.
On our first day out, we began the presidential tour at what is perhaps the least famous home, Monroe’s Highlands. This is a stunningly beautiful property that he described as a “cabin castle.” It turns out that this was a summer escape for the father of the Monroe Doctrine, who kept his main residence closer to Washington, D.C. Relatively few visitors here meant that we had a deeply fascinating conversation with the docent who noted that of the three, this was the only one who didn’t depart this world in a financially destitute condition. Apparently, the value of portfolio diversification wasn’t lost on Monroe.
Jefferson’s Monticello is the exact opposite. It is a spectacular gateway to tourists now, with a visitor center that appears to be directly lifted from a Walt Disney World property. It is a wonderful place to be sure, but with parking that gets swamped early with eager holidaymakers. They also sport a wonderful staff that keeps both the crowd and the storyline moving at a good pace.
Furthest from downtown Charlottesville is Madison’s stunning Montpelier, about a 45-minute hop on the Constitution Route. A nice road, this byway passes wineries and more traditional crops of wheat and corn that offer a visual feast. The route also requires that you pay close attention to the details but rewards you with wonderful curves that invite proper downshifting and apex hunting with aggressive throttle application on the exits. This is a great ride for getting some very effective hand and foot exercise to support the nearly constant elevation and trajectory changes. This is value-added on a vintage Beemer where the sounds from the engine room are pretty magical in their own right.
Madison’s home remains a remarkable place to contemplate both the creative genius which helped to frame the U.S. Constitution and our early history as a nation, as well as some of the inherent contradictions. At both Montpelier and Monticello, the historians provide a thoughtful exploration of enslaved people who were crucial to the economic vitality of the area in the antebellum era and our culture as a people ever since. It is a truly engaging discussion around what some have referred to as America’s original sin. The honesty of the presentations was refreshing and thought provoking in equal measure.
Once away from our trips down memory lane, we also had a chance to check in on an array of local vineyards. Jefferson clearly recognized the potential of the area for producing one of his favorite beverages and he was quoted as saying, “I find friendship to be like wine, raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.”
To check the quality of the local products, we landed at Blenheim Vineyards, a property owned by Dave Matthews. Yes, that Dave Matthews of music fame. It was stunning to sit on the deck, feel the cool breeze blowing down the valley, watch the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains in the not-far-off distance, and enjoy a charcuterie board that conveniently made its presence felt. And yes, the wine sampler was magnificent. Sampler, because of course we had to make our way back to the B&B. A bottle or three to enjoy at the next evening’s fireplace outing somehow made it into the BMW storage area.
We had several other outstanding food adventures, including an evening at a lovely Italian restaurant named Orzo and a Turkish spot named Sultan Kabab. Every dish was better than the last.
Sunday morning came far too soon. The weather, which had been forecast to be rainy at times, stayed surprisingly good. The one time we had monsoon conditions turned out to coincide with a lunch visit we had to the Barboursville Vineyard. It can truly be better to be lucky than good.
For our hop home, we were greeted with bright sun, temps in the 70s and the Carolina Blue. We managed to make the whole four-hour trip home without doing a single mile on an Interstate highway, a clear sign of a successful adventure.
Life, as always, is better on a Beemer.