Charlottesville, Virginia

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Charlottesville, Virginia

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere

Population: 40,341: Albemarle County, 68,172
Gestalt: Confederate Princeton

Such sacred historic presences as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the University of Virginia's Collonade (which Jefferson designed), and TJ's supposed ghost haunting the colonial courthouse downtown can distract you from the big geophysical event. Piedmont horse country ends where the Blue Ridge rises. Just 30 miles west of Charlottesville, you face one of the world's toughest left-or-right choices: Right takes you north onto Skyline Drive, which immediately enters Shenandoah National Park; left takes you onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and a ridge-straddling section of George Washington National Forest.

Bellair Market--where you can pay for brie, a baguette, and a tank of unleaded at the same register--shows salient reasons to form an opinion, pro or con, about Charlottesville. Leslie, mistress of Bellair's espresso cart, makes small talk with a local winemaker from France. When it's my turn to order, Leslie switches from French back to English and says I just missed Jessica Lange. You might get the idea that Charlottesville is the personal fiefdom of movie stars, billionaire polo players, and UVa's 18,011 college snots, where the rest of us have to be serfs. But the high end is more of a decorating theme. Millionaire upgrades--quail at the supermarket, Junior League house tours--gild a town that is surprisingly welcoming and affordable, particularly by East Coast standards.

Out there: Whatever you like about the wild Southeast is close at hand. Road bikers bliss-out on smooth side roads in Albemarle County's rolling hills. Wintergreen Resort, 45 miles southwest of Charlottesville, has 1,000 vertical feet of alpine skiing runs. Sun Valley this isn't, but it's very respectable for the South. Those who hanker after the extreme--wilderness, roiling whitewater--make the two-hour drive to Monongahela National Forest, in West Virginia. When the need to play in salt water strikes, it's just 180 miles, practically all of it on the interstate, to Atlantic surf.

Paycheck: Making a local living gets ever more feasible as the city takes on an economic life of its own, independent of the university and estate owners with companies such as GE-Fanuc, Liberty Fabrics, Sperry, and State Farm Insurance employing thousands. But the best shot is still to nourish yourself with a career/money umbilical from Washington, D.C., 110 miles away.

Home: Small 35-year-old Cape Cod in leafy neighborhood off Park Street, within walking distance to downtown and UVa, is $160,000, somewhat less if you bargain-hunt. The same money buys a modest brick house with outrageous mountain views on a few acres about 20 minutes west of the city.

Neighbors: Modem gypsies from New York, who hike hard and take their birding seriously. Think-tanky execs across the back fence. At least one set has university connections--grads, current profs, or staffers.

Très Charlottesville: Say how Sissy Spacek, when you bump into her at the grocery store, is just people; mail-order from the J. Peterman catalog; own a Jack Russell terrier; strike literary poses unless you actually write.

Please, no more: Lawyers. Way too many freshly graduated UVa attorneys are rooted to the spot.

Price of paradise: Steam-bath summers. Social tone set by the ultrarich. For northerners, heavy presence of the Old South may bring out the inner General Sherman.

Kindred Spirits: Athens, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

See also: Find out what readers thought and how Mike Steere responded in our special online forum.

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