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Shuckers serve oysters to spectators at St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival Photo courtesy visitstmarysmd.com
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The National D-Day Memorial Photo courtesy Wiki-media Commons/RebelAt
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Polo at the King Family Vineyards Photo courtesy King Family Vineyards
Clockwise from top: Shuckers serve oysters to spectators at St. Mary's County Oyster Festival; polo at the King Family Vineyards; the National D-Day Memorial
What if you were to take a compass and draw a circle around Richmond with a radius of 100 miles? You'd find a bounty of intriguing experiences. Here are five fun-filled destinations, all within that circle — or slightly farther, because I'm a writer, not a math whiz.
To the southeast, there's Smithfield, home of the famous cured hams and much, much more. The town of 8,000 in Isle of Wight County is walkable and as quaint as can be. Much of its history, which dates back to 1634 and the era of Capt. John Smith, is evident in its buildings, both public and residential. Simply taking a walk through Smithfield's historic district is entertaining.
Ham and peanuts, as you might expect, are pretty much inescapable in Smithfield, and two local institutions are your best bets for sampling these delicacies: Taste of Smithfield and the Smithfield Inn, both in the historic district. Opened in 1752, the Smithfield Inn (112 Main St.,  357-1752 or smithfieldinn.com ) offers crab cakes and the über-ham biscuit, baked daily by Mozell Brown for decades. The Taste of Smithfield (217 Main St.,  357-8950) is a combination restaurant and gourmet food store.
Smithfield holds a farmers market on Saturdays from May through October, with some special markets in the off-season, and the Olden Days Festival in late June, including a children's parade and water activities, is a popular event for families. Mostly, though, it's a total change of scenery. You're in a small, beautiful town that clearly values its history. For more information, go to visitsmithfieldisleofwight.com .
Forest and Bedford
In the southwesterly direction are Forest and Bedford, where you'll find history of a different stripe: the stunning National D-Day Memorial, erected in Bedford, which lost 19 soldiers on the day of the Normandy Beach campaign, the highest number per capita in the United States. In Forest, Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest retreat is a smaller, more intimate version of Monticello, featuring many architectural similarities.
The D-Day Memorial (106 E. Main St., Bedford,  586-3329 or dday.org ) will mark the 70th anniversary of the battle on June 6 with the laying of wreaths and other ceremonial activities. The monument is quite affecting, even for younger people who may never have met a World War II veteran; it extends across a wide swath of land, punctuated by busts of significant military figures and examples of weapons used that day. When I visited, the only sounds were splashes of water replicating blasts. Plan to spend at least an hour there.
Poplar Forest (1542 Bateman Bridge Road, Forest,  525-1806 or poplarforest.org ) is serene too, as the place where Thomas Jefferson escaped from crowds of visitors at Monticello. It is open daily from March 15 to Dec. 30 and on weekends from then through March 9. Guided tours of the home take place all year, but I want to clue you in on a fun event in mid-November: the Poplar Forest wine festival. Under heated tents, wineries have tasting stations, and the crowds (so far) have not been overwhelming, particularly compared with the events around Charlottesville and Nelson County.
Crozet and Greenwood
Speaking of Virginia's wine country, Crozet and Greenwood, a hop-skip-and-jump west of Charlottesville, are prime places to taste the grape, as well as the peach and apple. Crozet is home to the famous Chiles Peach Orchard (1351 Greenwood Road, (434) 823-1583 or chilespeachorchard.com ), where you can pick peaches in the summer (late July is prime time), and in the fall, apples from Carter Mountain Orchard are for sale there. Down the road is the King Family Vineyards (6550 Roseland Farm,  823-7800 or kingfamilyvineyards.com ), which has tastings all year and polo matches on Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day weekend through October. In the same general area is the Greenwood Gourmet Grocery (6701 Rockfish Gap Turnpike,  456-6431), offering delicious cheeses, fresh-brewed coffee, a broad wine selection and inventive sandwiches.
A highlight of the year in Crozet is the Mother's Day weekend Arts & Crafts Festival, which takes a full day to absorb. More than 100 artists with serious skills (no airbrushed canvases here) display their wares at Claudius Crozet Park. For more information, see crozetfestival.com . If you know you're coming ahead of time, Crozet Pizza (5794 Three Notch'd Road,  823-2132 or crozetpizza.net ) allows you to reserve a pie, which is the best way to get into this hot spot. Even Southern Living and Food Network magazines highlighted Crozet Pizza. It's that good.
Heading northwest, we hit Madison County, specifically Syria. That's the home of Graves Mountain Lodge (Route 670,  923-4231), whose apple butter you may recognize. This article is swiftly turning into a food tour of Virginia, but Graves offers more than just the deliciously sweet spread. On the last weekend of May, the old-time lodge opens its grounds to one of the country's premier bluegrass and roots festivals. Don't expect to find space to sleep at the inn for this year's festival, but you may want to make a day visit. The 2014 lineup includes reigning International Bluegrass Music Association vocalists of the year Junior Sisk and Claire Lynch, as well as the Steep Canyon Rangers (who sometimes tour with Steve Martin) and the Lonesome River Band. For more, visit gravesmountain.com/2014-festival-of-music-line-up .
St. Mary's County, Md.
Finally, to the northeast, we arrive in St. Mary's County, Md. What's that? Maryland? Yes, indeed. It's not so far, just east of Fredericksburg. This is the place for water and history enthusiasts, as it sits on the Chesapeake Bay and is home to the first capital of Maryland, St. Mary's City. As you'd expect, there are numerous historic sites in town, and a close relationship with St. Mary's College of Maryland maintains the vitality of a decades-old archaeological dig, where students and professionals have uncovered artifacts from as far back as the 17th century. For more information, visit stmaryscity.org .
Scheduled for Oct. 14 this year, the county holds an annual oyster festival, which features the U.S. national shucking competition. This is serious business, folks! Also delicious business. If you're more of a blue crab fan, Leonardtown, the county seat, has a festival featuring your favorite crustacean in June; not too far away, in Waldorf, the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs independent baseball team plays.
Another point of interest is Loveville, home to a community of Amish and Mennonite families. Produce auctions, as well as handmade quilts and furniture, are just some of the attractions, and these communities represent the county's long-held tradition of religious freedom. For more information, go to visit stmarysmd.com .
And there you have it — a few good reasons to get out of town