Exploring Virginia’s O.C.

We take the road less traveled and spend a weekend enjoying the scenic views, resonant history, and warm welcome of the foothill region near Orange.

The Annie duPont Formal Garden at Montpelier. Photography by Sera Petras

Until recently, the Virginia foothill region around the town of Orange has been something of a lesser known cousin to the more celebrated Charlottesville area. But now that we’d all prefer to stride down the paths a little less taken, this mid-state destination is an ideal place to explore.

The Inn at Willow Grove

On a warm afternoon last October, my husband and I settled into rocking chairs on a private balcony at The Inn at Willow Grove in Orange. As we sipped the complimentary Prosecco and soaked in the sun-kissed view, the worries and stresses of the week slipped away. Before the sun sank too low, we wandered the 40-acre property, which includes spring-fed creeks, boxwood gardens, and a wide assortment of beautiful trees, including hollies, magnolias, river birches, oaks, and dogwoods. The only crowd we saw was a flock of wild turkeys combing the grounds for tasty morsels. 

We were drawn to the highest point of the grounds, where we gazed over slanting green and gold fields to the deeper green forest beyond and the blue-gray undulations of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On nearly every path you stroll and around most bends you drive in the Virginia foothills, you’ll find eye-catching vistas.

“People are looking for something rural,” said Charlene Scibal, who owns the inn with her husband, David. “Our travelers have told us they feel safe here.” They offer 25 rooms and suites, many in private and historic buildings. Business, insofar as possible with the current restrictions, has been booming.

Scibal, who also owns the shop Objects on Main in Orange, and other local business owners have been working collaboratively to put this area on the map for tourists seeking rural relaxation, a dose of history, and delicious seasonal fare.

Cured salmon appetizer at Vintage Restaurant.

After a glass of wine at the inn’s outdoor firepits, my husband and I headed into the garden-level Vintage Restaurant & Pub, which consists of many private dining spaces that seem ideal for pandemic dining. Touches—like the bright stained-glass windows, engaging modern art, and a wall-mounted water feature—make the setting memorable, but the food itself will lure you back. 

Most restaurant-goers are inn guests, there to enjoy chef Andrew Eppley’s innovative twist on farm-to-table fare. With delight, I tucked into my exotic mushroom and sunchoke salad, followed by a spice-rubbed, bone-in pork served with “bloody butcher” grits and grilled apples. These comfort foods warmed me to my core and fortified me, body and soul, for the chilly days ahead.

Fresh beignets at The Inn at Willow Grove.

Mornings at the inn kick off with French-press coffee delivered to your room, along with the best beignets I’ve ever had. (Forgive me, New Orleans.) While I was tempted to find a cozy spot to sit and read, I headed to my tour at Montpelier, once home to James and Dolley Madison.

“If we want to understand the United States Constitution, we must understand James Madison,” said our guide, Kyle Stetz, the manager of student and family programs there, as we started our highly informative tour of the grounds. 

In all honesty, I’d known embarrassingly little about the brilliant Madison. According to Stetz, Madison desperately wanted the newly birthed country to function well and so asked his buddy Thomas Jefferson (in Paris at the time) to send him all the books he could find on confederacies, our initial form of government. In his research, Madison discovered that no confederacy in the history of the world had ever been successful, so he sent for more books on other forms of government, such as republics. Madison’s exhaustive research set the stage for him to write what is arguably one of the most important documents in human history.

“He wrote it right here,” Stetz said, pointing above our heads as we stood on the house’s portico. Although I wasn’t able to see the room on that visit, I felt a shiver of excitement. 

James Madison’s Temple at Montpelier.

In recent years, many historic destinations have begun telling the stories of the people who helped build and maintain these estates, in addition to those of the residents. At its peak, Montpelier was a 5,000-acre working plantation. The Montpelier Foundation recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support archeological research at the overseer’s house, with a goal of understanding the structures and activities at the site and the overseer’s relationship with the Madisons. Other sites to be examined include the blacksmith shop, stable, work areas, and barns.

Later, I wandered some of the pebbled pathways of the formal gardens built by the duPont family, who owned the site from 1901 until 1984. Along with adding the track for the popular Montpelier Hunt Races, the duPonts also put in a lush and quiet Oriental garden that’s off the beaten path, but worth a stroll. In all, Montpelier offers more than eight miles of trails to walk—through native meadows, by grazing horses, beneath the shade of an old-growth forest, and to both the Madison and slave cemeteries. 

Winemaker Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards.

This piedmont (French for foothills) region is widely celebrated for its vineyards and wineries, and Barboursville Vineyards is among the most revered and awarded. I met the resident winemaker, Luca Paschina, in Library 1821, a gorgeous dining area with French doors that open onto a terrace. With the European country décor, the views, and the company, I felt like I’d made a quick jaunt to Europe. Over a luscious lobster ravioli and several wines chosen by Paschina (their sparkling rose, the Vermentino, and the Nebbiolo), we relished the view of cabernet franc vines.

A native of Piedmont whose father and two brothers are also winemakers, Paschina has devoted his expertise and deep passion to this vineyard since 1991. “We are very dedicated and trying to be the best farmers we can,” said Paschina. They try to match the right parcels of their varied land to the right variety of grapes and seek to constantly improve their skills. Barboursville focuses on developing truly great wines—which takes time, experimentation, and dedication—along with serving delicious food, rather than catering to large parties or wedding guests.

Barboursville’s Octagon.

“There’s always drinkable wine around that will be a dollar less,” Paschina said. “People are becoming more discerning about what good food and what good beverages are.” Unlike many of the other 250-plus wineries in Virginia, Barboursville “retains a very large library of wines.” They’re still serving their wines from the late ’90s. Paschina is particularly proud of the Octagon label wine, their “most structured” red.

The vineyard has a large outdoor terrace with tables and umbrellas where you can enjoy mountain views while imbibing. Just below the terrace, the three-acre Allegrante native meadow was abuzz with bees, butterflies, and colorful moths when I sauntered through. The vineyard takes its name from the nearby Barboursville Ruins, a structure designed by Jefferson. Built in 1814, the home burned down on Christmas Day in 1884 and was never rebuilt. Its sturdy brick chimneys and solid columns still rise into the blue sky, but its rooms will be forever empty.

The Market at Grelen

Not far away, The Market at Grelen will similarly transport you to a European-style garden shop, complete with a sprawling terrace café. Set in the midst of the rolling Grelen Nursery, a tree farm since 1990, the market encompasses 1,000 acres and offers five miles of walking trails, including one that connects to Montpelier.

“We want people to come out here and escape and have old-fashioned fun,” said Leslie Gregg, owner of The Market at Grelen. She and her husband, Dan, “are both very into the land and sharing this beautiful property. Obviously, it’s a business, but we’re very into sustaining beautiful land and how you do that economically.” They welcome visitors to explore the trails during business hours, as well as to pick your own fruit (blueberries, blackberries, peaches, and apples) in season. 

At the café, the chef offers seasonal specialties like curried chicken and grilled kielbasa, along with Virginia-sourced beer, wine, and cider. For me, the apple cider sorbet stole the show with its intense flavor blast. 

Strolling the market itself, you’ll find a wide selection of both indoor plants and seasonal and native outdoor plants to brighten your domestic spaces, along with a cornucopia of gardening supplies and housewares. After lunch, I followed the red trail to an overlook with splendid views of the rolling tree farm, the hilltop market, and the waves of the Blue Ridge.

Downtown Gordonsville

The small town of Gordonsville offers visitors an impressive range of lovely shops to explore. Owned by the Gupton family, the town’s main drag has a brick sidewalk and abundant storefront charm. Fifteen years ago, the Guptons recruited blacksmith Steve Stokes and his wife, Alison, to help anchor the town’s shopping district. Stokes has crafted iron for everyone from royal families to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. At Stokes of England, their gallery shop, visitors can choose from iron benches, hinges, décor items, and light fixtures, to name a few.

Annette La Velle in her Gordonsville antique shop. 

On the same block, you can browse upscale European antiques and accent pieces at the beautifully curated Annette La Velle Antiques. At POSH, you can check out an original selection of both vintage and in-store crafted women’s clothing. And, just up the street, don’t miss the fun and sweet Raindrops In Virginia, with its hand-crafted body care items, garden and home art, scarves, and jewelry.

In Orange itself, you’ll find a few blocks of fun shops and restaurants to explore. Charlene Scibal’s Objects on Main is an eclectic collection that ranges from primitive antiques to modern art and funky accent pieces. I couldn’t resist a few items myself. Across the street at Leslie and Dan Gregg’s Grelen Downtown (open year-round), you’ll find home essentials, children’s toys, silk flowers, and the Market’s ice cream. If you’re looking for that special piece or antique carpet, stop by Melrose Antiques and Fine Interiors. Also nearby, Finders Keepers is a consignment shop specializing in treasures from estate sales, including jewelry, flatware, décor, and more.

In short, for an abundance of socially distanced fun and relaxation, head to the foothills. 

Make It A Weekend
  • The Inn at Willow Grove features butler service, morning coffee and beignets, tea, and an evening treat. Its Millhouse Spa offers facials, body wraps, and a variety of truly pampering massages. InnAtWillowGrove.com
  • On the grounds at Barboursville, the 1804 Inn has historic suites and private cottages to enjoy. BBVWine.com

Mayhurst Inn

  • Staying at the warm and elegant Italianate-style Mayhurst Inn is always a treat. The inn’s lovely 37 acres include a pond. MayhurstInn.com  
  • In Gordonsville, the acclaimed BBQ Exchange offers pick up dining in a tent. Choose from a tantalizing range of smoked pork products, chicken, tofu, and sides, including pumpkin muffins and collard greens. BBQEx.com 
  • Well Hung Vineyard’s Gordonsville restaurant has outdoor tables, tasting flights, and yummy pizza. WellHungVineyard.com 
  • Grab coffee, sweet treats, or a light lunch at Krecek Kakes. KrecekKakes.com 
  • If you can’t get a reservation, Vintage offers dinner and Sunday brunch curbside pickup items. InnAtWillowGrove.com
  • At Barboursville Vineyards, enjoy fine dining with an Italian flare at Palladio or have lunch and taste wine in Library 1821. BBVWine.com
  • In Orange, The Light Well (a café by day and tavern by night) serves snacks, sandwiches, and burgers for inside dining and pick up. TheLightWell.com 
  • Provisions Market Table has sandwiches, snacks, and beverages for takeout. ProvisionsMarketTable.com
  • Early Mountain Vineyards’ tasting room, which offers charcuterie, cheese boards, and other selections, is open by reservation only. EarlyMountain.com  

Annie Gould Gallery

  • You can take a tour of the grounds and three select rooms inside the house at Montpelier, but many inside exhibitions are closed. (Private house tours for six or fewer are available for $350; advance reservation is required.) Loop trails on the site range from .2 miles to 3.55 miles. The gift shop carries locally sourced products, including household items made by local woodworkers from trees that fell on the property. Montpelier.org 
  • Hike between the sites on the 3.9-mile Montpelier-Grelen trail during business hours. The Market at Grelen is closed during January and February, but you can still hike there during the Grelen Nursery hours. TheMarketAtGrelen.com 
  • The Exchange Hotel Civil War Museum in Gordonsville tells the site’s history from its early days as a grand hotel to becoming a Freedmen’s Bureau. It also offers paranormal tours. TheExchangeHotelMuseum.org

This article originally appeared as “Fun in the Foothills” in the February 2021 issue.

Edited 5/10/21: Provisions Deli & Bottle Shop is in Orange, Calif.; updated to cite Provisions Market Table, in Orange, Virginia.

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