TRAVEL: Washington ... setting a president!
The early evening air chimes with the clinking of glasses and clattering of cutlery.
I’m strolling down the main drag in Alexandria’s Old Town, where the restaurants are doing a brisk trade. And while it’s a world away from the Virginia home the region’s most famous son, George Washington, once knew, this picturesque spot on the Potomac River has been pretty well-preserved.
The Americans do heritage in a big way, proudly celebrating almost every old home, tavern, building and landmark from coast to coast. Here on the eastern seaboard, where I’m on the trail of the country’s founding fathers, they have plenty to work with.
After flying into Washington’s Dulles Airport and heading south towards Virginia, Alexandria was the first stop on our tour. I wandered the cobbled Old Town streets, trying to picture the place as it was back then.
The 18th and 19th century buildings have a chocolate box perfection, and as the sun starts to set, little old-fashioned lamps above the doors of houses glow a warm, dim amber.
The pretty buildings along King Street, the heart of the neighbourhood, are mostly occupied by smart restaurants, independent arty boutiques and gift shops - but refreshingly, chain stories have not been allowed to run riot.
Hotel Monaco, the plush boutique hotel I’m staying in, lies along this street, and as a light rain starts to fall, I duck into its excellent Jackson 20 restaurant, named after America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson.
The food here deliciously reflects Virginia’s ambivalence about where it belongs geographically.
Lying beneath the Mason-Dixon line that symbolically divides the north and south, it is technically part of Dixie, its place in the south formalized when it seceded from the Union on May 24, 1861.
Now, 150 years after the Civil War, it retains something of this affiliation, although not everyone here sees themselves as southern.
Tucking into a dinner of fried catfish with gumbo sauce, the south is present on my plate at least.
The next morning, continuing to follow in the footsteps of the early presidents, I pay a visit to the nearby Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.
In its day, this late 18th century inn hosted dancing assemblies, theatrical and musical performances, and meetings of local organizations.
Washington was among the punters, and twice attended the annual Birthnight Ball held here in his honour.
His successor, John Adams, was also a customer, as well as the next three presidents after him, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. It’s hard to imagine these great men sitting down to dine and talk shop in the tavern’s simple rooms, which are still kitted out with the small wooden furniture of the era.
Next up is Mount Vernon, the vast home of the United States’ first president perched less than 10 miles away on a grassy hill above the river.
Here I join hordes of American school kids on field trips and tourists following the guided walk through what is said to be the country’s most visited historic home.
Heading through the carefully manicured grounds towards the mansion itself, I pass a man and woman in period costume, idling on a footpath.
Inside, the rooms have also been kept in period style, behind cords to keep the visitors from straying.
I learn that Washington dined in the middle of the afternoon every day and that tardy dinner guests would not be waited for. And, we are told, he used a fan powered by a foot-pedal to keep himself cool as he worked in his study.
Such nuggets are fed to us by well-versed docents as we’re chaperoned around the house, before moving on to the estate’s outbuildings.
“These were the slaves’ quarters”, the tour guide tells us, a barely detectable note of apology creeping into her voice.
“Yes,” she adds, preempting the question. “George Washington had slaves.”
The shed-like building filled with rows of bunk beds offers a glimpse of the daily life endured by the people who kept the place running.
Later I move on Fredericksburg, another Virginia city steeped in Revolutionary history. Washington’s mother Mary lived here and her home is open to the public, complete with some of her original furniture.
This sits just a short distance from the James Monroe Museum, where history buffs can peruse a collection of artifacts and documents related to the fifth US president.
The Virginians really know how to cram their historical attractions in, but Fredericksburg does have a life beyond dusty museums.
It is found in the centre, around the handful of restaurants and bars where, even midweek, a small crowd of locals and tourists are out to enjoy themselves.
After working my way through a large plate of pasta at the packed Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen, I repair to Caroline House bed and breakfast for the night.
This spacious townhouse is the perfect antidote for anyone suffering large chain hotel fatigue. Every room is luxurious in its own original way, exuding a kind of homely opulence that makes you feel like a guest at the house of a well-to-do friend. The beds and bathtubs are impossibly high and the breakfast’s home-cooked and served at the dining table.
Fuelled by meat pasties and eggs doused in chipotle sauce, I hit the road and head for Richmond, Virginia’s state capital.
The capitol building itself is a commanding neo-classical number perched on a hill overlooking the city. After a slow amble around it in the blazing sun, I pay a visit to the nearby St John’s Church.
At a glance, this is a simple white chapel on a little hill, backing on to an old graveyard. But it’s also where the great Revolutionary orator and founding father Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775, calling for the formation of a militia against the encroaching British forces.
Such a claim to fame could not go unmarked in the US, and the church is now famous as a memorial to American liberty.
If I have been walking through a living history book during my visit to Virginia, there are still hundreds of pages to turn - too many for one trip perhaps.
But for now, I’m content to flick on the flat screen TV, tune into the present day with some CNN for company, and drop back into my lush pile of pillows.
It’s what Jefferson would have wanted, I tell myself.
Key facts - Virginia & Maryland
:: Best for: 18th century American history.
:: Time to go: May to October. Virginia’s winters can be chilly.
:: Don’t miss: Mount Vernon, for everything you ever wanted to know about George Washington.
:: Need to know: If you’re flying into Washington DC, build some extra time into your schedule to look around.:: Don’t forget: There is more here than museums and historic homes, so hop off the tourist trail occasionally for a better insight into modern-day Virginia.
:: Rosa Silverman flew with Virgin Atlantic into Washington Dulles Airport and toured Virginia and Maryland as a guest of Capital Region USA.
:: Operators providing fly-drives in the region include Purely Capital Region USA, which offers a seven-night ‘Taste Of Capital Region USA’ self-drive tour based on midweek travel in September/October 2011 from £869 (two sharing), including return Virgin Atlantic flights into Washington (IAD) ex-Heathrow and an economy two-door car with all insurances. Regional departures include ex-Manchester or Glasgow (via Heathrow) both with British Airways, from £939.
:: Purely Capital Region USA reservations: 0844 804 4480 and www.purelycapitalregionUSA.co.uk.
:: For destination information, visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk or call 020 8339 6048.