There's oh so much more than you would think to precious and sometimes annoyingly perfect Charlottesville. How could our little sister to the west eclipse us so often on the cool-o-meter? Lucky for us, we can experience this little gem of a town after only about an hour's worth of driving, and sometimes just a few shops are reason enough to take a scenic drive west. Add a winery stop, and you might want to stay over at a historic inn. Either way, for proximity and scenery or even design-store browsing, you can't beat this great recession-friendly trip.
Stay at the Clifton Inn (888-971-1800 or cliftoninn.net , $195-$765) designed by Richmond interior designer Janie Molster. This is her second time designing the inn (which was damaged in a fire a few years ago), and the latest incarnation is a lighter take on graciousness: white slipcovers, blond wood, pinks and golds. The lack of traditional, dark-stained Colonial furniture gives this inn a comfortable, unstuffy air. And with just 18 rooms, you'll feel like you're staying with old friends. The grounds and nearby hiking offer plenty of leisurely activities, not to mention the well-respected dining room with an option to dine at the open-to-the-kitchen chef's table. Book one of Chef Dean Maupin's mid-week cooking classes, followed by a three-course, $38 menu that comes out of the demonstration.
To be closer to the Downtown Mall, and for more of a four-poster-bed experience, try 200 South Street Inn (800-964-7008 or southstreetinn.com , $160-$295) a former girls' school-turned-bed-and-breakfast made up of 20 rooms and suites in two restored town houses, the older of which was built in 1856.
Head to the funky, residential Belmont neighborhood southeast of downtown, a burgeoning dining destination. The talk of Charlottesville is Tavola (826 Hinton Ave., 434-972-9463 or tavolavino.com ), opened in May by Michael Keaveny, who has had his hands in virtually every hot restaurant in Charlottesville. Until recently, he ran the restaurant empire started by Dave Matthews' manager, Coran Capshaw (including Blue Light Grill and Mas). The 41-seat Tavola offers down-to-earth local/seasonal fare in the spirit of a neighborhood Italian trattoria with a menu divided into courses and entrées under $20.
If Travola is full, try one of two other wildly popular Belmont spots. The Local (824 Hinton Ave., 434-984-9749 or thelocal-cville.com ) also opened this spring. It cleverly speaks the language of the recession with local farm-raised chicken and beef dishes, a warm, exposed brick interior, a generous porch and reasonable prices (entrées under $16). Or head across the street to the Belmont dining scene's original catalyst, Mas (501 Monticello Road, 434-979-0990 or mastapas.com ), a bustling Spanish tapas bar with an open kitchen that stays sizzling till 1 a.m. Try the pomegranate margarita and mouth-watering carne asada with smoked tomato aïoli.
You'll swoon over the gorgeously soft tones at mother-daughter shop And George (3465 Ivy Road, 434-244-2800 or andgeorge.com ). Try to resist their line of custom tables crafted by local artisans, plus tasteful accessories like botanical prints and horn-handled silver platters.
In the Ivy Square Shopping Center, Kenny Ball Antiques (2521 Ivy Road, No. 7, 434-293-1361 or kennyballantiques.com ) is a trusted spot for 18th- and 19th-century English, Italian and French antiques including toile boxes, mahogany sideboards and an extensive selection of lighting.
For budget finds, wander the 10,000-square-feet of warehouses that make up Circa Inc., (1700 Allied St., 434-295-5760 or circainc.com ). A vintage shop with some surprising goods — a Saarinen table, a Victorian school desk, an Elvis bust — all falling haphazardly along the farmhouse/mid-century/kitsch continuum.