Moms and graduations -- the season is upon is and we greet it with mixed feelings. After four years of making Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, and my home away from home, it's time to pass on her special delights to the next generation of womentravelers who trek to college towns to visit their students. Wherever your college town, it can be a terrific place to visit as a destination in itself, while checking in with your kid. Returning as a womantraveler from time to time, you can experience why students and faculty love these places. The restaurants are varied and top-notch, reaching out for a worldly clientele, the entertainment options are dynamic and contemporary and the shopping is much more fun, idiosyncratic and cheeky, catering to students who are on the cusp and faculty and parents who are reliving their youth.
Quintessential college towns -- the ones in which the institutions inspire the overall personality of the community -- are precious little secrets. I particularly like Charlottesville, which lies at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in summer when the student population is way down. Unless you plan way ahead, it can be really difficult (and extra expensive) to get hotel reservations because these towns double and triple in size on popular college weekends.
My optimal destination choice is the Boar's Head Inn, where I wake to the misty cooling moisture of a Virginia summer morning. The low blanket of fog will deliver rain or break away for sunshine later in the day. In defiance of air conditioning, I open my to hear breezes rustling across the rolling hillsides, crossing the lake, and landing on my veranda like a breaking wave on the shore. The birds and ducks entertain, trusting as they have become to visitors.
Reminiscent of a vintage Virginia country club, the inn lies on more than 500 acres at the edge of town, fashioned from a grist mill before the Civil War, but with today's amenities -- a city-size sports club, spa, tennis courts, and golf course. It's a perfect base for a visit to the Albemarle County
The architectural intent of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia -- the "academical village" -- set the tone for future American collegiate settings. Free guided tours of the Lawn, the Rotunda, and other parts of the Grounds are available daily, except certain holidays.
The sophisticated small city of Charlottesville intertwines colonial history with a thriving Central Virginia commercial center a little more than two hours from Washington, DC. It's an intimate community, with UVA as the hub. Places to watch -- the Corner (student-oriented shops next to the university), the Downtown Mall (seven blocks of historic buildings and funky, electic shopping), the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, and Jefferson's Monticello. The Miami City Ballet made a recent stop for a gala performance here.
You expect intellectual depth in a university town, but Charlottesville offers the added attraction of the many working writers who've migrated there, including Ann Beattie, Rita Mae Brown, and John Grisham. The result is a casual bookish appeal that's made the bookstores even more inviting. The vibrant cultural life extends also to the Virginia Film Festival every fall.
- Ivy Inn, 2244 Old Ivy Rd., 434.977.1222, 18th-century house and garden patio known for exceptional American cuisine.
- The Virginian, 1521 University Ave., 434.984.4667, 80-year-old tradition as a college hang-out.
- West Main, 333 W. Main St. (434.293.2605), the newest offering from The Virginian group, with regional specialities in casually upscale dining.
- The Hardware Store, 316 E. Main St. (Downtown Mall), 434.977.1518 (huge, fun, old-fashioned all-American menu).
- Blue Light Grill, 120 E. Main (Downtown Mall), 434.295.1223 (raw bar, seafood, microbrews, and extensive wine list). This is where we'll have our graduation dinner.
- OXO, 215 W. Water St. (Downtown), 434.977.8111 (upscale nouvelle French with global flourishes and worldwide wine list).