Something New for Families Visiting Old Dominion
Back in 1969, Robin McLaughlin, a $100-a-week copywriter working on the tourism account for the Commonwealth of Virginia, was struck with a moment of genius when he came up with the tagline “Virginia is for history lovers”—an homage to the state’s historic importance as England’s first colony in the New World and where much of early American history transpired.
Although McLaughlin’s bosses at the Richmond-based advertising agency Martin & Woltz liked his angle, they feared the inclusion of the term ‘history’ in the catchphrase might prove too limiting—after all, Virginia also had beaches, mountains, and a nearly endless number of other non-history related tourist attractions. So, as the story goes, it was decided that the shortened “Virginia is for Lovers” would work better as a slogan.
That the phrase is still in use to this day and proves that the slogan has become as enduring as it is adaptive. Today, the Virginia Tourism Corporation branding leans on its identity as the state for hiking lovers, golf lovers, wine lovers, and so on.
Well now, some fifty years on, perhaps we can add another to append the famous slogan: ‘Virginia is for luxury family tourism lovers with an eco-twist.’
It’s kind of a mouthful, so we’ll have to see if it sticks.
My trip to Virginia came about in the midst of a conversation with Rita McClenny, the longtime President and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC), the state entity responsible for marketing the Commonwealth to the world. I was lamenting that, when it came to luxury experiences, there seemed to be a sizeable gap around family-oriented high-end travel; so much of the luxury leisure and tourism market struck me as over-indexed either for singles, the young 20-somethings married with no kids set, or empty-nesters, with not much in the middle for those raising a family.
McClenny took my conjecturing as a challenge and promptly put the VTC on the task of proving me wrong. But this would not be easy, as I told McClenny that I would be bringing along not only my wife, Gilda, but our three kiddos Isabella, Haakon, and Gabriella, ages six, eight, and seventeen—a broad age swath and not exactly the easiest target demos to appease with the same programming. Yet within a few days, her team had whipped up a spirited five-day whirlwind tour that was equal parts luxury and kid-friendly with a splash of eco-friendly activities.
The VTC scripted out a wonderful itinerary, starting in Old Town Alexandria near Washington, passing through the state’s capital in Richmond, down through wine country along the James River, and finally to Williamsburg and then back to Northern Virginia. Of course, all this travel meant my family of five needed a way to get around and I decided that this might be the ideal opportunity to test out the new Bentley Flying Spur Hybrid that I had been eyeing for some time.
After flying into Dulles Airport just outside of DC, we took an Uber to the Lorien Hotel in Old Town Alexandria where my Bentley, painted in British Racing Green, was waiting under the careful gaze of the hotel’s staff. After settling down in our quarters at this lovely hotel with its quaint courtyard entrance, we began exploring Alexandria by foot—the best way to get the kids to release some pent-up energy after a long flight.
Old Town Alexandria is a charming matrix of cobblestone streets, lined with Georgian and Victorian row houses. Eventually, the kids got hungry, so we pulled into O’Connell’s on the centrally located King’s Street for a quick lunch. Although this location wasn’t on the VTC’s official itinerary, what it lacked in luxe experience it made up for in charm and, most importantly, it was a hit with the kids.
Later that night we settled down for a light supper at Brabo Brasserie, an unassuming but delightful eatery offering Belgian-French fare located on the street level of the Lorien.
We were up early the next morning and, after some coffee and crêpes at Café du Soleil on Union Street near the waterfront, we packed into the Bentley and headed off on a lovely two-hour drive south to Richmond. For those unfamiliar with Northern Virginia, the scenery along the way from Alexandria to the state’s capital offers much to take in, alternating from gently rolling hills to swaths of Virginia Pine.
Our immediate destination was the historic Jefferson Hotel, a true architectural gem of the South. Opened in 1895, the hotel is designed in the Spanish Baroque Style, but a fire in 1901 gutted the interior of the hotel leading to a multi-year renovation, the vestiges of which are still featured quite prominently throughout the edifice.
As you pull up into the opulent entrance to this five-star hotel, one is immediately confronted with its famous life-size bronze alligators—an homage to a time when live alligators freely swam in the hotel’s pools and marveled the Jefferson’s guests up until the late 1940s.
After a quick bite at Lemaire, the Jefferson’s flagship restaurant, we were off to hit some museums. My wife took our littlest ones to the Science Museum of Virginia while my older daughter and I ventured over to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which was holding a special exhibition on the history of guitar design. After a few hours, we all met up in Richmond’s bohemian Carytown district where we were able to roam the shops and see the historic sites. Music lovers will especially enjoy Plan 9, the neighborhood’s iconic vinyl record store. Haakon and Gabriella loved Worth of Mirth, a toy store for kids of all ages.
Before heading to dinner, we had made a reservation at Reservoir, an up-and-coming micro-distillery in the Scott’s Addition industrial district and an emblem of Richmond’s bustling whiskey scene. One unexpected bonus was that the staff at Reservoir knew we were coming with young kids, and they had plenty of coloring and other age-appropriate activities to entertain the little ones while the adults toured the facility and tasted an array of their elixirs. My wife and I, who are otherwise partial to bourbons, were impressed by their Holland’s Milkman Hunter, a wheat, rye, and corn mash bill that presented itself as spicy upfront with notes of cinnamon, clove, and southern sweet tea.
After the tasting, we all went one block over to Brenner Pass, a culinary must for any foodie passing through Richmond. With kid-friendly items like burgers and fries, the kids will be happy to tag along. Gilda and I ordered the octopus with cannellini and cranberry for a starter. As a main course, I tried the whole-roasted rainbow trout while Gilda opted for the duck breast in pevereda sauce. Isabella, my eldest, ordered the mushroom risotto with black truffles. All of us were surprised to find such exquisite fare in such an unassuming section of Richmond.
The next morning, we sensed we had been pushing the little kids a bit too hard. After heading out and sampling some croissants from the Sub Rosa Bakery in the leafy Church Hill neighborhood, we were off on a guided bike tour of downtown Richmond, thanks to Basket & Bike.
Greeted by founder Anne Poarch, she led us on a lovely hour-long tour. Poarch’s knack for storytelling made it a truly enjoyable, educational experience. After crossing a bike and pedestrian-only wooden bridge that spans the James River—taking in the rapids of the river below was one of the more memorable aspects of the entire trip—Anne led us back around the many historical markers that dot the North bank of the city, including the Governor’s Mansion.
Something both kids and adults who are fans of history will especially enjoy on the downtown bike tour is the stop at the Virginia Women’s Monument, only steps from the State Capitol, which commemorates the contributions of famous Virginia women to the Commonwealth. These 11 life-size bronze statues celebrate a diverse array of women from the Commonwealth from across different eras.
After the bike tour wrapped up, we hit the road en route to the Upper Shirley Vineyards where we had planned to grab a late lunch. Nestled along a windy portion of the James, this environmentally friendly winery is a must for families looking for a lazy afternoon of wine and relaxation. We settled into some outdoor couches that gave up a perfect view of the river as Gilda and I enjoyed a pitcher of sangria and later a few flights of reds, whites, and rosés while the kids sipped on fresh-squeezed lemonade. As the Haakon and Gabriella made quick use of the ample lawn to play freeze tag, we ordered an array of snacks and hors d’oeuvres to nibble on as we watched the sunset.
From the tasting flight, we ended up ordering a case of Upper Shirley’s 2018 Petit Verdot, full-bodied wine with notes of black cherry and herbs, to be shipped and enjoyed at home. But as the afternoon sun gave way to dusk, we knew we needed to be on our way to Williamsburg which was about an hour away due east.
It was already dark by the time we arrived at the Williamsburg Inn, the crown jewel of the town’s many hospitality options and the height of luxury. The sprawling campus and golf resort sits across the street from the main entrance to Colonial Williamsburg. But unbeknownst to us, VTA had a surprise waiting for us – they had reserved the iconic Moody House for us to stay in, a 1940 reconstruction an original dwelling that had occupied that same parcel since the late 18th century. The kids loved exploring the maze-like floorplan of a house that was clearly built well before the idea of “open concept’ became a thing. The furnishings were elegant for the period, but certainly not comfortable by 21st century standards – but I think that is part of the point. Even being extremely wealthy in the colonial period was tough by today’s standards – a point I attempted rather unsuccessfully to convey to my six and eight year-olds.
For breakfast the next morning we headed to the Blue Talon Bistro, just steps from the gorgeous campus of William & Mary where everyone indulged on some of the best beignets I have every had outside of Café Du Monde in New Orleans’ French Quarter. After exploring the shops around Merchant’s Square—my wife and Isabella spent far too much money in Scotland House as they channeled their inner Outlander—we headed to Colonial Williamsburg and spent a few hours walking the streets of the world’s largest living museum.
The 301-acre historic area of Colonial Williamsburg includes several hundred restored or recreated buildings from the 18th century, when the city was the capital of the Colony of Virginia. Four taverns have been reconstructed for use as restaurants and two for inns, but the best part of the experience are the stores and craftsmen’s workshops for period trades, including a cooperage, cobbler, blacksmith, gunsmith, and much more. These locales are staffed with interpreters who are dressed in period costumes who are experts in the history of their trades. They are able to both indulge the seemingly unending curiosity of a certain 51-year-old as well as have the patience to explain these entirely foreign crafts to a six-year-old.
The kids loved the hedge maze that sits just behind the Governor’s Palace as well as the horse-drawn carriage ride that took us all around the town to see some of the more distant exhibits on the campus. Gilda and I really enjoyed taking in “Faith, Love, and Hope” in the outdoor theatre. It’s an original play that challenges its audience members to imagine the costs of love and freedom in 18th century enslaved society.
It had been a whirlwind of a couple of days and the kids were tired. But after some R&R back at Moody House were ready to cap off our final night in Virginia with a visit to the famed Opus 9 Steakhouse, a truly exceptional culinary experience. The restaurant projects a certain modern elegance but is still welcoming for families who come to dine with smaller children. The wine list has over 150 selections to choose from, which ranks among the most impressive I had seen during the trip.
Driving back to the airport the next day, we managed to squeeze in a short visit to the famed Udvar-Hazy Center which is located in Chantilly and is literally connected to Dulles airport. Technically called the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, this massive 760,000-square-foot exhibit contains over 150 aircrafts from around the world including the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Enola Gay, the B-29 Bomber that dropped the famous “Little Boy” nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Our tight timetable didn’t allow us to spend the time this exhibition deserved, but it certainly offered something for everyone.
Virginia is a lot of things, and this jam-packed five-day tour was just a taste of what Old Dominion has to offer. But what impressed my wife and I the most was how easy it was to both navigate the state with kids in toe and still be able to enjoy many of the finer things that the state has to offer. At no point did we feel we had to compromise on quality or elegance for the sake of the kids. And they likely would have thought this was a vacation tailor-made for them.