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History Across the River

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Northern Virginia Blends Old World Charm with New World Comfort

Sometimes the best vacations are close to home. Across the Potomac River and just a short drive from the District are the historic hotels, attractions and cultural landmarks that pepper Northern Virginia.

In particular, the area’s endless array of historic homes offers visitors a great chance to peek into America’s past. Alexandria boasts George Washington’s famed Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens—which includes a working distillery and gristmill—as well as the early 1800s Woodlawn Plantation, built on the Mount Vernon grounds for Major Lawrence and Eleanor “Nelly” Custis Lewis, Washington’s nephew and Martha Washington’s granddaughter, respectively.

Nearby Arlington, Va., is synonymous with the Arlington National Cemetery, which attracts some 4 million visitors annually to walk the sacred grounds, though not everyone knows that it’s also the site of Arlington House, a 19th-century mansion belonging to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Fairfax County, meanwhile, is home to Gunston Hall Plantation, the 1750s residence of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as the framework for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.But the hub of historical activity in Northern Virginia is undoubtedly Old Town Alexandria, once a Colonial seaport that has now been transformed into a modern-day urban destination.

Named one of AAA’s “10 Most Walkable Cities,” Old Town Alexandria has preserved much of its early American charm. Less than 10 miles from D.C., Old Town boasts more than 4,000 historic buildings, showcasing its early Colonial architecture and roots that date back to 1749.

The city’s roster of historic sites includes the Carlyle House, home of successful Scottish-born landowner John Carlyle’s family in the mid 18th century; Gadsby’s Tavern, where Thomas Jefferson entertained; and historic Christ Church, the oldest Episcopal congregation in Alexandria, where Robert E. Lee worshipped.

The newest fixture in the heart of Old Town—and a far cry from the dwellings of mid-18th-century America—is the Hotel Monaco Alexandria, a joint partnership of San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels and ING Clarion.

Located at 480 King Street, the Hotel Monaco sits on the site of the former Marshall Inn. The story goes that on May 24, 1861, an altercation broke out at the inn between the innkeeper, secessionist James W. Jackson, and Col. Elmer Ellsworth, leader of the 11th New York Infantry “Fire Zouaves.” In the ensuing melee, Jackson and Ellsworth became the first martyrs of the American Civil War.

Hotel owners ING and Kimpton have spruced up the building’s federal-style façade, adding heaps of sleek luxury and contemporary sophistication within the 241-room hotel, while maintaining some of the historical touches of the surrounding landscape.

Specialty rooms and suites include the Monte Carlo Terrace Rooms, offering patio views of a private courtyard below, as well as the two-level Monaco Loft Suites. The Mediterranean Suites average a respectable 800 square feet and feature a glass-enclosed private shower next to an extra-deep Fuji soaking tub. The best part? There’s actually a marble step to reach the bathtub.

The Monaco’s rich rooms play up the colors and details inspired by Union soldiers’ uniforms with a palette of charcoal, blue and cream against vibrant red and orange. In addition, each room comes loaded with 21st-century amenities, including Wi-Fi access, the Monaco’s signature Frette linens, animal print bathrobes, 37-inch flat-screen televisions, iPod docking stations and L’Occitane toiletries. Rooms are worth every penny, ranging in price from 9 to class="import-text">2008April.History Across The River.txt,599. To complete the Hotel Monaco experience, guests can dine at Jackson 20, a 92-seat modern bistro-style restaurant next to the hotel (see dining review in the March 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Just five blocks from the Hotel Monaco Alexandria is another Kimpton/ING classic: the 45-room Morrison House. The intimate boutique hotel at 116 South Alfred St. is a striking reproduction of an 18th-century federal manor house.James Adamson, general manager of the Morrison House, says the best part of his job is the warmth he receives from the local community. “Everyone I meet in the city of Alexandria, after I tell them what I do, they always say, ‘I love that place,’ and they tell me about an experience they had here,” Adamson told The Washington Diplomat. “They always have a story about it.”

The Morrison House recently wrapped up a multimillion-dollar renovation to its public areas and guest rooms. Rooms retained their classic four-poster beds but were revamped with sleek, textured wallpaper, new carpeting, reupholstered furniture, window treatments and luxurious Italian marble baths. Each comfortable room also comes with a 32-inch flat-panel television, and nine of the rooms are outfitted with fireplaces for added warmth.

The hotel’s stately restaurant, the Grille, offers French-American cuisine with a seasonal menu focusing on fish, meats and produce from local farms. If you’re looking for a special drink in the evening, ask the bartender to fix you up a whiskey pineapple julep. It’s priceless.

The Morrison House carries a steady 60 percent business traveler following—mostly repeat guests looking for a home away from home—and it was named one of the 50 “Top Hotels” in America by Condé Nast Traveler’s 2006 Readers Choice Awards.

Down the road about 15 miles from Wash_ington and 20 miles from Old Town Alexandria, more historic ambience awaits at the Bailiwick Inn in Old Town Fairfax.

The inn, located at 4023 Chain Bridge Road, was built in 1800 and renovated in 1989. It has 14 guest chambers filled with antiques and reproduction furniture. Every room also comes with gourmet breakfast and afternoon tea, and features a fireplace and whirlpool tub.

Another property of note in Fairfax is the Stafford House Bed and Breakfast, also located along Chain Bridge Road, which provides a luxurious retreat for business travelers, complete with king-size sleeping accommodations in your own private suite.

Leesburg, too, is a Virginia showcase of history that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Norris House Inn, circa 1760, is a bed and breakfast overseen by innkeepers Carol and Roger Healey. The inn’s six bedrooms are filled with antiques, including a variety of canopy, brass and feather beds, as well as modern-day amenities such as wireless internet.But for a real throwback to another era, if you’re looking for a place to park your horse—that’s right, horse, not car—visit the Idyll Time Farm Bed and Barn at 43470 Evans Pond Road in Leesburg.

Idyll Time Farm provides a unique lodging option for horse-show and foxhunt enthusiasts, featuring a 200-year-old log house as its centerpiece. Visiting horses are free to enjoy 15 acres of rolling pastures and a newly renovated 11-stall barn. Horse owners, meanwhile, can enjoy the log home, which was restored by innkeepers Regina Blake and Ted Bullerdick with an eye to its Colonial details, saving most of the original features while updating the bath and kitchen. The property comes with a loft, two bedrooms, and a private, separate residence with fully stocked kitchen.

About the Author

Christine Cub

Last Edited on November 29, 1999