Exploring Charlottesville, Virginia With The Elderly
I’ve just returned from a special trip that took me, my mom, and aunt to Charlottesville, Virginia. This was the first time we’ve taken a trip like this and the first time that my mom and her sister have traveled together in more than 40 years.
With one of them (my mother Darlena) requiring a walker and/or wheelchair the entire time, traveling became a lot more of a challenge. I wasn’t used to the time it takes older people to get from point A to point B. Still, we managed to have a wonderful time exploring history and culture in the beautiful city of Charlottesville and touring the homes of the Founding Fathers. Best of all, we walked away with beautiful photos, a brain full of presidential trivia, and memories to last a lifetime.
A Note About This Post: Though sharing my travel story of visiting Charlottesville, this article also tells the struggles we had with handicapped accessible attractions and restaurants. This was a new kind of travel for me, being responsible for getting my mother in and out of the car, wheelchair, and walker. It was also new for her, finally having favorable health to make a short trip. It is not my intention to portray any of these amazing historical spots as “unvisitable” or anything other than the magnificent holder of history that they are, but rather to let those who are handicapped know about the struggles that come with visiting them. -Melody
Touring the Historic Mall
The first thing my mother, aunt Melody, and I did when we arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia was visit the Downtown Mall, a large 8-block pedestrian-only area full of shopping, dining, and entertainment. We parked our car in the one parking garage that I saw in town and walked down to the mall. The downhill slope from the street to the mall was a bit difficult for my mom, as she was unsteady and using a walker.
At the historic mall, we immediately started snapping pictures of the blooming planters, cute coffee shops, and colorful decorations. Street musicians offered acoustic performances and folksy renditions of rock and roll songs as we strolled down the streets.
We popped in a local coffee and tea shop for drinks. I had a Lavender Italian Soda that was refreshing while they both enjoyed iced tea and coffee. We did some window shopping for antiques and jewelry and stopped in a few places with unique gifts and souvenirs. There are over 150 stores and restaurants in the area, as well as the Sprint Pavilion for outdoor musical events.
It only took about four blocks and my mom couldn’t walk another step. I went back to the parking garage to fetch the car and picked them up as close to the street as I could. They were exhausted!
After an hour at the mall, my mom, Melody, and I dediced to check into our hotel early for a quick rest. The hotel was in the town of Gordonville, about 45 minutes out of town. We arrived at BlueGreen’s Shenandoah Crossing where check-in was a breeze and the property was gorgeous. At the resort, we were given the keys to our yurt near the back of the property. Shenandoah Crossing offers typical hotel-style accommodations, yurts, and an RV park. The property also has a General Store, playgrounds, swimming pools, jacuzzis, and many other fun things to enjoy.
Our yurt (basically a glorified large teepee) was adorable. It was our first time staying in one. The yurt is circular in shape and had four entrances/exits to the outside. I was impressed at how upscale the furnishings were.
Inside, a room that served as a living room with a TV, kitchen, and dining room were combined into a totally functional space. Two bedrooms were in our yurt, one with a queen bed and one with a king. The bathroom was spacious and had a huge tile shower with a bench inside.
The yurt had fine fabrics and linens plus a fully stocked kitchen. Walking out of one door took us to the deck, complete with a sitting area, outdoor grill, dining table and chairs, and what appeared to be a wet bar. A woodsy setting was behind the yurt, making it a perfect place to drink coffee or watch the birds, one of which was a pesky woodpecker.
A Fantastic Fondue Dinner
The three of us went to the Melting Pot for dinner. My mom and I are big fans of this fondue restaurant, but it was my aunt’s first time. Due to the construction, I dropped my mom and aunt off at the door, then made my way to the closest parking garage.
We chose to share two four-course dinners, each with cheese fondue (Classic Alpine for us), a salad, entree (your choice of meats), and chocolate fondue. Our server was fantastic and we thoroughly enjoyed each course of the meal. My aunt called the experience “awesome” and we laughed over good conversation as we stuffed ourselves with a variety of meats, vegetables, and decadent melted chocolate.
If you’ve never been to The Melting Pot, check out our guide here.
A Noteworthy Lunch Experience in Charlottesville, Virginia
The next morning, the three of us headed to lunch at the iconic Michie Tavern. When we arrived, there were several shops and other buildings so we couldn’t figure out which was the restaurant.
We asked someone at the edge of the property and he showed us to the handicapped ramp. The ramp had a very steep incline and it was a difficult walk for my mom. When she finally reached the top, she was nearly spent.
Inside of Michie Tavern, circa 1784, we were given a choice of tables. We chose a spot near the buffet to save my mom some steps. At Michie Tavern, you make one trip through the buffet line. Your drink and any additional food that you want comes from your server, who also periodically bring warm biscuits by the tables. All of the staff members we encountered were very kind and helpful!
The buffet at Michie Tavern is made of period foods one might have seen in the 18th century. Having read restaurant reviews before arriving, I knew that the Michie Tavern had really good Southern fried chicken; my mom agreed!
Other items on the buffet included baked chicken, hickory-smoked pork barbecue, cole slaw (sweet and yummy), green beans, beets, mashed potatoes, gravy, buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, and stewed tomatoes, my favorite. For dessert, we all had warm Peach Cobbler à la mode. It was perfect in every way and not too sweet.
Guided tours are available of the rest of Michie Tavern’s main building which used to be an inn.
A Visit to Monticello, Take One
Next up, we visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, one of the most popular Presidential attractions in the country, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For those not familiar with US history, Jefferson was the third President and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
After dropping my mom and aunt off in front of the visitor’s center, I went to park the car. Though it was only a little after noon, the parking lot was full. I had to walk straight up the hillside for maybe 10 minutes before reaching the entrance. We got in line to purchase tour tickets.
Unfortunately, at 12:30 PM, the soonest tour we could get tickets for was not until 4:15. We sat in on the 20-minute movie and then left since we had hours to kill.
Tip: Arrive at Monticello as early as possible to get a good parking spot and early tour.
James Monroe’s Highland
Included in the Charlottesville’s neighborhood pass we used are discounted adult admissions to Monticello, Highland, and the Michie Tavern ca. 1784 tour tickets. Keep in mind, passes are cheaper by purchasing them online.
My mom, aunt, and I decided to drive the two and a half miles to James Monroe’s Highland. Monroe was the 5th US President and one of Jefferson’s closest friends. Luckily, we scored a handicap parking place in front of the entrance. I went inside to see if we could borrow a wheelchair and were given the only one. We then watched a short film telling about the Highlands.
Afterwards, we began the Highland guided tour. Broken and uneven cobblestones made it nearly impossible to push the heavy, dated wheelchair (even though my mom weighs less than 150 pounds). I was scared to death that the constant jarring of the wheelchair (as it got stuck in the spaces between the small bricks) would knock my mom out of the chair. Winded and totally exhausted, we arrived at the front door, where we had to physically carry the wheelchair up the stairs because there was no ramp.
Our tour guide gave us lots of information about the beautiful 18th-century working farm property. At the conclusion of the tour, we were encouraged to walk around a room of artifacts and then exit a different way than we entered. The stairs were deep and my mom was in misery after getting down them. Luckily for me, another person on the tour helped me carry the heavy wheelchair down the stairs.
Since the three of us were so tired, we didn’t explore any more of the grounds though the gardens looked beautiful. A strutting peacock showed off for us during our walk back to the entrance to return the wheelchair we borrowed.
Historic Monticello, Take Two
This time around, I was able to find a pretty close parking spot after dropping my mom and aunt off at the entrance to Monticello. We went directly to the visitor’s center to borrow a wheelchair. Although it was bulky and enormous, we were grateful. The three of us took the elevator to the next floor, where we were to meet the shuttle to take us to the main house.
Upstairs, we spotted a wheelchair that looked much easier to push and was not as wide or bulky. We switched my mom to it and waited in line for the bus. The bus arrived and we were asked if my mom could go up the stairs. As long as she has something to hold on to, yes, she can.
When the door opened, the stairs were 9 to 12 inches deep, each. There is no way someone of her age or medical condition could climb those stairs. Since she couldn’t get on the bus in this manner, the drivers used the lift to put her onboard in her wheelchair.
I felt bad holding everyone up for the bus ride, but the drivers were super helpful and didn’t make us feel one bit guilty. They ensured that my mom was safely locked in place before the shuttle bus began the drive to the main house.
Arriving at the Main House
We were helped off the bus at the main house of Monticello, or at least the driveway that you walk down to get there. Since we had some time to kill before the tour, I parked my mom so she and my aunt could visit with each other while I headed downstairs to see Jefferson’s beautiful Mulberry gardens. Gardens and Grounds and Slavery at Monticello tours are also included in the ticket but I opted to just see them on my own.
Jefferson’s property was incredible! I appreciated the signage outside of several structures explaining what you were seeing. The enormous gardens were the star of the property, with the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains behind them.
As we made our way to the porch of the main house for the tour, the sky turned black; it was only a short time before it would start raining. The tour guide on the porch asked if it was time for our tour. It was not, so she advised us to head back to the bus drop-off spot, which contradicted what the lady at the visitor’s entrance told us.
Already tired from the day’s events, we just waited by the front porch– for a long time. A weather contingy plan was activated which detoured the way the group tours typically run and we were not informed. After 30 or more minutes, a staff member came outside to see why we were sitting on the porch and brought us inside to join the current tour.
Finishing Up A Busy Day
While I am used to museums and historical attractions being stuffy and warm inside, Monticello was extremely uncomfortable. Moving from room to room, we were briefed about the home’s interior and how the family conducted their affairs in the house. We loved hearing about the Jeffersons and seeing their lovely home.
When the tour moved upstairs, it was impossible for us to stay with the group; there was no elevator or handicapped way to get upstairs, so we slipped out early.
The three of us had planned to dine at Brasserie Saison, an upscale bistro on the Historic Mall, but after the day’s events, we were too tired to sit through it or deal with the parking situation in downtown Charlottesville again. Instead, we popped into Raising Cane’s for chicken fingers, fries, and the yummy Cane sauce. This satisfied us all and we were glad to be finished so quickly. We couldn’t wait to get back to our yurt and crash for the evening.
My mom, aunt, and I woke up early the next morning to visit Montpelier, home of the 4th US President James Madison and his firecracker wife, Dolley. Since we were heading home that afternoon, we packed our bags, checked out of Shenandoah Crossing, and drove through the stunning countryside to our destination.
The entrance to Montpelier was a visual delight as the trees bent and swayed across the road in a most romantic way. Here, the parking lot was much less crowded and we immediately found a close space. We checked in and used one of Montpelier’s wheelchairs, which was much newer and easier to operate than those the day prior. Montpelier’s staff was friendly and helpful.
A 12-minute movie about the Madisons told us about the property and main house. We then set out on a five minute walk to the home itself. Though a gravel road, the path was much easier to navigate with a wheelchair than Monticello and the Highlands.
Upon reaching the home, we were shocked that there was no handicap way to get inside and my mom would have to climb the seven to eight high steps. It took quite awhile, but my mom managed to pull herself up them using the handrail. We parked the wheelchair on the side of the porch and waited for our tour to begin.
The Madison’s Home Tour
A darling young girl gathered our group on the porch and began telling us all about the Madison family. We were lead into the first room, where a few seats were available for handicapped people to sit. The guests on this tour were sweet and helpful, often ushering my mom to the vacant seats and helping her to get in and out of them.
I was ecstatic to be in the home of the Father of the Constitution and hear about Dolley’s fun dinner parties. She was the first to seat adversaries next to one another, encouraging talking, the difference of opinions, and hoping for an outcome of compromise. Dolley did it with flair and everyone wanted to attend the Madison’s weekly parties. Room after room, painting by painting, our tour guide rattled off trivia facts, historical data, and did a great job of keeping the story moving and interesting.
When the tour moved upstairs, which was impossible for us, we were given portable CD players to sit and listen to in the hallway. While I appreciated the kind gesture, the video was merely historians talking about political things other than the house we were touring. Our tour concluded and we made our way back to the visitors center.
A Lunch to Not Miss at the Exchange Cafe
We opted to eat lunch onsite at Montpelier’s Exchange Cafe, a local BBQ restaurant and catering business. Melody, my mom, and I ordered sandwiches, a bowl of Dolley Madison soup, and a Dolley Madison dessert bar to share.
Our food arrived looking delicious! I chose the Tuna Melt (buttery and grilled to perfection) while my mom and aunt had the Exchange Cafe’s award-winning BBQ sandwiches. Each of our meals came with a side salad, dressed in a flavorful vinaigrette, and a juicy pickle spear. Five different BBQ sauces were available to dress the sandwiches. We sampled several and each was impressive.
Dolley Madison knew what she was doing all those years ago when she came up with her well-known soup recipe, though it has been slightly tweaked. The bowl of chicken, white beans, macaroni, and vegetables was very satisfying and delicious. Actually, all of the food was superb!
To our surprise, the restaurant manager brought us a trio of desserts to sample. A local creamy Black Raspberry ice cream was my favorite! My mom loved the Dolley Madison bar, similar to what we know as a 7-Layer Cookie. The Exchange Cafe was a tasty and enjoyable restaurant and gave us a much needed break from sightseeing.
Saying Goodbye to Historic Virginia
As the three of us headed out of town, we oohed and aahed over the beautiful farms and perfectly manicured land we saw through the windows. Horses were grazing in the fields and black cows were frolicking on the hillsides along the roads we were driving. It was a gorgeous sight to behold.
Virginia is a magical state and the historic homes of the Founding Fathers proved to be a fantastic trip, in spite of the struggles we had with wheelchairs. I would recommend for everyone to see the well preserved testimonies to our country’s past that remain in Charlottesville.
Thanks to the Charlottesville-Albemarle CVB for tickets to the attractions. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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