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Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Before we left for Ireland and Scotland last fall, we planned a special vacation with friends to visit the Massanutten Resort in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. We feared missing the beautiful autumn of the Hudson Valley, and we thought we could catch up with it on Skyline Drive, one of the most magnificent roads in the country.

Once again we called on our time share vacations and headed to Massanutten Resort, a four-season community Rob and I had already visited once in the early Spring. Here was a new season and a new experience. Massanutten is a comfortable six hour ride from home. It's located off Rt. 81 near Harrisonburg, VA., home of James Madison University.

Massanutten Resort is huge!! Whether you're there on a timeshare, a rental, or as a hotel guest, you never have to leave the grounds to find ways to amuse yourself. But if you're into sightseeing and American history as we and our friends are, you find yourself in a virtual treasure trove of possibilities.

We stay in a townhouse with separate suites on each floor. Our friends stay upstairs in the suite with the Jacuzzi and half kitchen. We stay downstairs in the suite with the full kitchen. Both suites have balconies and fireplaces, and with the separate suites, we are all comfortable and able to enjoy our privacy. We love the gas fireplaces, but I'll spare you the photos of the guys fast asleep in front of the fire.

We'd come not only to relax but also to take in some of the unique features of the region. First day trip: Luray Caverns. I'll refer you back to ( ) when we took our family there. These are the most popular caverns in the East, and if you've never been, try to find a time to do the tour. It will blow you away!

The following day our ambitious plan is to head to Thomas Jefferson's glorious Monticello, then on to at least one winery, and then to Staunton, Virginia and an evening performance at the Globe Theatre, the only true replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in the United States. I have to tell you we didn't quite make it

Oh, we get to Monticello, all right. But Monticello is not a site to see quickly. It’s a marvel that is meant to be thought about and slowly savored in the same way that Jefferson spent his life thinking, planning, building and re-building Monticello to make his dream come true. Although Rob and I had been there twice before, it is absolutely impossible to go through without marveling at the man and his fine mind. We respect him as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but that is only one part of Thomas Jefferson.

The clock over Monticello’s main entryway, for instance, tells us not only the time but also the day and the month. Maintaining its accuracy made it necessary for Jefferson, in order to include all twelve months of the year, to cut holes in the floor allowing the weights measuring the months to sink to the proper levels. It's amazing. Dumbwaiters transported food and drink from the lower levels of the kitchen and wine cellars up to the dining areas. In his office, he had a copier that allowed him to write with one pen while a second attached pen made an exact copy. His skill in design and architecture lead him to build a magnificent home, and his knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry allowed him to run a profitable and important plantation.

You cannot help but leave Monticello in awe of Thomas Jefferson.

Unfortunately our guidebooks did not indicate that the local wineries do not provide tours in the off-season, but we are allowed into one, Barbour, which Jefferson’s winemaster helped make into a premier Virginia winery. You remember that in its earliest days winemaking was not encouraged by the Virginia Company, and so until relatively recently, wine has been but a small part of Virginian agriculture. ( We do get to walk around the ruins of Barboursville, an historic landmark designed by Jefferson for Gov. Thomas Barbour. Built in 1814, it burned down on Christmas Day 1884.

As we try to find an even more accommodating winery, we drive through lovely rural farmland and find ourselves not far from Montpelier, James Madison's home.

Virginia is the home state of eight presidents, and three, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, were contemporaries and relatively close neighbors. When we found ourselves unexpectedly in Madison’s back yard, we decide to drop in.

None of us had ever visited Montpelier, but Rick and I had recently finished reading James Madison's biography. President Madison, if I remember my high school days correctly, was not taught as the major influence in our country's founding that he was. Reading about him, I learned he was really the major author of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and he was also one of three men who wrote the Federalist Papers which explains our Constitution and delineates the role of our government and its responsibility to us.

The visit to Montpelier far exceeds our wildest expectations. Madison's home is undergoing major renovation, and we are able to witness the ongoing work. Some rooms have been stripped to the original wood lathes upon which plaster would be applied. In another room, pencil marks trace the patterns of the original wall papers by following the marks they'd imprinted. The restoration is painstakingly done and extremely labor intensive, but without the dedication of the craftsmen, this piece of our American history would be lost forever.

Outdoors, landscapers work to re-create the roll of the lawns leading to the house. Those lawns had been planned by Madison with help from Jefferson to create a pleasing effect and an awesome view.

The work is expected to be completed in about a year, but the guide tells us that with a chuckle in her voice and a twinkle in her eye.

Do I have to tell you that it is too late to drive over to Staunton and Shakespeare? You know I must go back to that Shakespearean Theatre, so there will be at least one more visit to this area! Instead of faraway Staunton, we opt to do a leg of Skyline Drive and try to catch the sunset over the mountains and valleys.

Skyline Drive begins at Front Royal, Virginia and follows the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. It becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway and continues all the way to the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. We did a 15 mile leg. There are lookouts all along the way, and the views are magnificent. Many years ago when Rob and I used to camp in the South (before children), we kept missing the opportunity to drive Skyline Drive because of fog. It took three trips to hit it right! Boy, was it worth the wait! On this day, we take the drive slowly, stopping very often to take photos and gaze over the magnificent valleys and abundant vividly colored fall foliage. It makes one breathe deeply and marvel at nature's beneficence. Deer cross our paths, and they don't seem bothered at all by our presence. Those 15 miles as our world moves from daylight to dusk to night are not to be missed.

Back at Massanutten, we skip the evening show in favor of games of Phase 10, and on this trip we don't play golf or go horseback riding. We use the indoor pool, and Pam and Rick decide to hike, but they find the ridge trail was closed because of bear and hunting season. OMIGOSH.

We do have a wonderful game of miniature golf at the resort. It’s the best miniature golf course we’ve ever played. There are actually two 18 hole courses that break up the crowds (there were none when we played), and the courses are creative and fun. The course looks across the mountains, and the views are terrific. It’s a great experience, and although I didn’t win—Pam did—we had fun!

These are a great few days. The separate suites assured our privacy, and our friendship guaranteed a relaxing and enjoyable few days. Virginia is one of our most interesting and diverse states, and the area around Harrisonburg is burgeoning with interesting historical (we were themed presidential, but it's astounding for Civil War sites as well) and natural sites for everyone in any season.
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