Travel Back Thursday: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

By the time you read this, I will have already left the office and been in a car for a few hours. My destination? Charlottesville, Virginia — home to plenty of history, both national and local. Such history includes Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, constructed in 1768. The home is now operated as a museum and educational institution.

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I Lost My Airbnb Virginity In Charlottesville, Virginia (And Paid Just $49 For The Privilege)

What kind of accommodation do you expect for $49 a night? Are you visualizing a place with 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress and free Perrier and gourmet coffee? Or for $49 bucks, would you expect a place where they rent by the hour, where you might be mingling with junkies and prostitutes and want to wear latex gloves before you touch anything?

If you’re a skeptic like me, you might have a hard time believing that it’s possible to rent a luxury apartment for $49 in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and a host of upper-crust types who have dogs worth more than my car, and horses worth more than my home. But I found out this week that it is indeed possible to stay in style in CVille for less than fifty bucks a night.I’ve never used Airbnb before, but when I noticed they had a listing for a “luxury” apartment in Charlottesville for just $49 per night, I was intrigued. The owner of the place described the apartment as “the intersection where chic luxury & modern cool meet Eco-responsibility.” Geoffrey, the apartment’s owner, advertises the following amenities in the apartment: stylish décor made from eco-friendly materials, vegan toiletries, a charging station for electric cars, 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress, a full kitchen, Direct TV with Netflix and Amazon Instant, Egyptian cotton towels, bathrobes, stocked kitchen, washer, dryer, laundry detergent and on and on.

My first thought was: bullshit. The apartment had no reviews and I figured that it was too good to be true. Perhaps it was a scam whereby someone would jump out of the bushes and carve us up like Thanksgiving turkeys. Or maybe it was trick photography or simply hyperbole. I had no idea but I booked the place for a total of $165 for three nights, including Airbnb’s service charge, and hoped for the best.

As a newbie, I found Airbnb’s booking process to be a little cumbersome and confusing. I didn’t mind verifying my identify and even enjoyed the step where I held up my driver’s license and watched in amazement as my cam scanned the thing. But after I paid for the apartment, I got an email telling me that my card wouldn’t be charged if my request was denied. But why would it be denied? The email went on to say that most hosts respond within four hours, but they have up to 24 hours to reply.

“In the meantime, please continue to contact other hosts,” the message said. “This will considerably improve your odds of a successful booking.”

But I was due to arrive in Cville in about 36 hours and Geoffrey’s apartment was the only one I saw that looked appealing in the budget category. After spending quite a bit of time making the booking, the last thing I wanted to do was continued to look. No, I wanted Geoffrey’s luxury apartment for 49 bucks. Luckily, Geoffrey responded promptly to confirm the booking, but if my request had been denied 24 hours later, I would have been stuck scrambling to find something at the last moment.

I also recently booked a vacation rental apartment via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey site in London and I think their booking process is more straightforward. In any event, when we pulled up to a newish looking apartment above a garage a few miles outside central Charlottesville on Tuesday night, my expectations were modest. So long as there was a bed for my wife and I, a sofa bed for my boys, and no one there to mug us, I’d be happy.

Geoffrey sent us a code to enter, so we were able to access the apartment at 105 Caty Lane without having to track him down or schedule an arrival time, which was very convenient. He even asked if we needed any toys for my kids. I was amazed to discover that the place was even better than I imagined. It’s a brand new apartment, and the word “luxurious” isn’t hyperbole. Geoffrey left us a dozen fresh bagels from Bodo’s, the best bagel place in Cville, along with cream cheese, a personalized note and a free tote bag.

Along with the bagels, the fridge was also completely stocked with complimentary bottled water, Perrier, two kinds of juice and organic milk! The kitchen was also fully equipped and there was a Keurig coffee maker and free gourmet coffee. The bed is just as comfortable as my Tempurpedic at home and Geoffrey’s shower has twice the water pressure I have in my apartment in Chicago. The place is so high-tech that even the garbage cans have “open” and “close” buttons.

I’ve stayed in plenty of rental apartments in a variety of countries, and usually these places are always lacking something – toiletries, adequate cooking utensils, cutlery or who knows what. But this place seemed to have everything – umbrellas, q-tips, cocktail mixing accouterments, a set of sharp knives, detergent and even to-go coffee cups! The moral of the story, for me, is don’t be afraid to try a place that has no reviews. The place might be brand new and the price could be lower.

The only downer is that we are due to check out and now we don’t want to leave. Alas, the place is booked for the next few days. And once word gets out about this place, we’ll probably never get to stay here again. Or, Geoffrey will increase his price. I sure hope not because the world needs more cheap but luxurious accommodation options like this one.

Free beer and a behind the scenes tour at Jefferson’s Monticello on President’s Day

President’s Day technically marks the observance of George Washington’s birthday, but the holiday is widely viewed as a catch-all day to reflect on the accomplishments of all the founding fathers. Historians can argue over which of our founding fathers was most instrumental in establishing American institutions, but it’s hard to find anyone who lived a more eventful life than Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was an architect, a statesman, a writer, a voracious reader, a linguist, a diplomat, a gardener, a meteorologist, a botanist, a foodie before the term existed, a vintner and a traveler, among other things. In an age when travel was an ordeal, Jefferson nourished his hungry intellect by traveling the world. He spoke six languages and used them on the road. In 1784, when he was named the U.S. Ambassador to France, he and his 12-year-old daughter, Martha, took a lengthy trip through 7 U.S. states before departing for Paris.

And during his five years in Paris, he traveled extensively on the continent. In 1787, he took a 3 ½ month trip around France and Italy on his own dime, and in 1791, as the U.S. Secretary of State, he took a month-long “botanizing excursion” through New England with James Madison.

Jefferson constructed his home at Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian, bit-by-bit over a forty year period (1768-1809) and his travels helped shape his vision for the grand estate. When Jefferson retired in 1809, at 66, he moved into Monticello and never left the state of Virginia again. But he continued to indulge passions and tastes he acquired overseas, including fine French wines and books in a variety of languages, which is probably why he spent most of his retirement deeply in debt.

I’d been to Monticello before and consider this remarkable place, which is dramatically situated high above the city of Charlottesville amidst a stunning landscape of rolling hills, horse farms and vineyards, an essential stop for any traveler with an interest in early American history. I returned to Monticello this year on President’s Day in order to check out their new “behind the scenes tour.” Last summer, the foundation that operates the site relocated some of their staff offices out of the second and third floors of the house in order to open up more of the site to visitors.
The result is that travelers can now see what’s long been off-limits at Monticello: the second and third floors. The standard tour lasts about 35 minutes and costs $24, but for an extra $18 you can also purchase an hour-long “behind the scenes” tour, which gives you access to three additional bedrooms and the spectacular “dome room.”

The bedrooms are sparsely furnished and aren’t staged for visitors in the same way that rooms on the first floor are. But the guides clue you in on some of the history there’s no time for on the standard tour. For example, I learned about Jefferson’s three indoor privies, and the fact that Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s oldest grandson, was the Confederacy’s Secretary of War.

I also learned about the Levys, a Jewish family that bought Monticello after Jefferson’s death and ultimately sold it to the foundation that runs the property for $500,000 in 1923. But the real show-stopping attraction of the behind the scenes tour is the so-called “dome room” (see video below) – a stunning sitting room with six huge circular windows.

I did the two tours back-to-back and would probably do them on separate visits in the future. Standing for an hour and thirty five minutes straight was a bit long for me, even though I found the guides to be engaging and well informed. Children seven and younger aren’t allowed on the behind the scenes tour, which is for small groups of 15 or fewer. By the mid-point of our tour, several weary members of our group were sitting sprawled on the floor, which I found understandable, if a big undignified, given the hallowed ground we were on.

The dark side to life at Monticello is the fact that some 600 enslaved African-Americans lived and worked there over the course of Jefferson’s lifetime, including his paramour, Sally Hemmings. (He freed just 7 of his slaves) My guide on the standard house tour mentioned her, briefly noting that most historians now agree that Jefferson probably fathered six children with Hemmings, who also accompanied him to Paris. At lunch, my wife and I overheard a fellow traveler lament the lack of gossipy details on Jefferson’s sex life on the tours.

“I wanted to know all the juicy details about Sally,” a woman said.

Starting in April, visitors will be able to avail themselves of a Slavery at Monticello tour, free with the purchase of a standard house tour. I don’t know if the tour will include much more on Ms. Hemmings, but it’ll no doubt give visitors an understanding of what life was like for Monticello’s slaves.

Before you leave Monticello, take the time to explore the grounds, spread out across 2,600 acres. If you’re fit, consider hiking up to or down from Monticello on the Saunders Trail, a beautiful two mile path, which begins near the intersection of Rt. 53 and Rt. 20 and winds up through the woods right to Monticello. And you should also make sure to visit Jefferson’s grave. (He died on the 4th of July, 1826, at 83, on the same day as John Adams, 90, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) Jefferson wrote his own epitaph and modestly mentioned only three of his many accomplishments: authoring the declaration of independence and the statute of Virginia for religious freedom and founding the University of Virginia.

If you visit Monticello on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, consider capping your outing with a visit to the nearby Star Hill Brewery, which offers free, yes free, tastings of their outstanding brews in their tasting room. Like everything else in Charlottesville, there’s a Jefferson connection too. Star Hill’s delicious Monticello Reserve Ale, an unfiltered wheat ale that is made using the same East Kent Golding hops and other ingredients grown right at Monticello that Jefferson and his wife, Martha used to brew their own beer.

If you prefer wine, drive right down the street to the Jefferson Vineyards, which also has a connection to the country’s third president and produces a mean Monticello Cabernet Franc. Aside from all of his other accomplishments, Jefferson knew how to produce and enjoy good beers and wines. In my book, that makes him worthy of his own national holiday.

Videos- Dave Seminara. Images via Flickr, Randy Pertiet, Tony the Misfit, Dave Seminara and Star Hill.

Jeffersonian dorm rooms in Charlottesville

What’s the hardest part about living in a dorm room designed by one America’s founding fathers in the early part of the 19th century? Braving the elements when nature calls in the middle of the night.

“But guys have it easier,” says Anne Allen, a fourth year student at the University of Virginia (UVA), who lives on The Lawn in Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia, along with 53 other students and several faculty members, in a dorm room with a sink but no toilet or shower. “They just pee in the sink.”

Allen and her neighbors are the only college students in the country whose dormitory rooms are a tourist attraction. I met her and several other “lawnies” recently and our conversation was interrupted three times by groups of tourists who saw that her door was half open and asked to come inside for a look around. Why the fascination surrounding some 12 * 13 dorm rooms?

The village retains its allure largely because it remains true to the ideals Jefferson had in mind when he designed it in the 1820’s. Each year hundreds of third-year students apply for the honor of securing one of 54 lawn rooms, which feature a fireplace, a rocking chair and a framed list of the room’s inhabitants over the last century but no A/C, and no nearby parking.

Students are given bathrobes and have to brave the elements to get to the showers and toilets. Interspersed among the 54 dorm rooms are nine beautifully appointed “pavilions,” which serve as the homes for deans and professors. According to Allen, there is never a dull moment living on the Lawn. Streaking across the Lawn stark naked is a UVA tradition, and “lawnies” have front row seats for the action.

The construction of the University was Jefferson’s obsession in his twilight years and most of the architectural flourishes, including Doric-style columns, triple-sash walkout windows, and Chinese trellis railings, were his ideas. “Lawnies” are extremely proud of this rich architectural heritage and some go to great lengths to make smart use of their small but unique spaces in this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Charlottesville is one of the best college towns in the country and the grounds at UVA are stunning. And if you walk the Lawn, Anne or one of her neighbors will be glad to show you around. Provided you have some clothes on.

Daily Pampering: Get away like a Real Housewife at Keswick Hall

Make like your favorite Real Housewife at one of Virginia’s most elegant resorts, Keswick Hall.

Set just minutes from Jefferson’s Monticello, this intimate 48-room boutique inn and resort at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is offering a special two-night retreat perfect for a girlfriend getaway or a romantic weekend away.

To detox and unwind after a season filled with intense moments (and plenty of Virginia wines), Keswick Hall provides the perfect getaway experience with their “Housewives of DC & Beyond” package.

In true housewife fashion, don the glitz and glam to sit down for a five-course gourmet meal at the Signature Table in a private setting, complete with wine pairings featuring top-quality Virginia wines. Continue the pampering with a trip to Keswick’s spa for a luxe seasonal Organic Brown Sugar Pumpkin Scrub treatment (for two), or for the golf-loving housewife, a spa treatment can be swapped out for one round of golf on the Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course. This two-night package is available November 1, 2010 through March 31, 2011 for $1,020* based on double occupancy.

*Rates do not include taxes or gratuities and are based on double occupancy. Offers are subject to availability and cannot be combined with any other packages. Blackout dates apply. Dinner in the Fossett’s excludes beverages and the treatment and the Spa at Keswick Hall are limited to the value of $120 each, or one spa treatment and one round of golf, per stay and must be used during your stay.

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.