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Virginia Travel Guide

For visitors, Virginia is in many ways a travel back in time to old colonial days. That is the major appeal and allure of this “Old Dominion”. Every town has its historic homes, buildings, plantations, old monuments, gravestones, and local history museums. And its more than 50,000 miles of roads are dotted with over 1,500 historical markers directing travelers to the state’s myriad historic landmarks.

But Virginia has more to offer than living displays of old Elizabethan traditions and architecture or sites of historic battlegrounds of the American Revolution or the Civil War. Rather, every region of Virginia, from the mountains to the Atlantic coast, has a beauty about it that elicits sheer joy when wandered through. Seashore and mountain recreational fun awaits every corner – from scenic drives and hikes through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah, to hunting and fishing in the southeast marshes of the Dismal Swamp, to adventurous explorations of the eerie caverns of Cumberland Gap in the west. Virginia also boasts increasingly popular wineries and vineyards in the Northern Neck region, and of course the crown jewel of its attraction, the Chesapeake Bay, which is the largest estuary in the U.S. that is admired for its beaches, cliffs, and abundant marine life. With such present and historical riches, Virginia while distinguished for its historical appeal is in no way one-dimensional.

History has played a fundamental role in shaping present-day Virginia. The state was first home to the Native Indians, in particular Algonquians in the east along the rivers and the Sioux in the west where they hunted buffalo. Spanish explorers arrived, however, in the 16th century. They captured the son of a chief and returned him to Spain, renaming him Don Luis and educating him in Madrid. They brought him back a decade later to act as a guide and translator. Upon returning, Don Luis abandoned the Spanish and returned to his tribe. This marked the end of the Spanish attempt to colonize Virginia.

About 30 years later, an English expedition sent by the London Virginia Company which was granted a land charter from Queen Elizabeth I set out from the Thames River to find a route to the Orient. The adventurers landed in Virginia and established the first English colony in America in 1607, calling it Jamestown. The founders were Captain Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith, who was featured as a character in the movie Pocahontas. Jamestown became the capital of the Virginia Colony. The colony established the first legislative assembly in 1619 in the New World and held the first Thanksgiving on the site of the present-day Berkeley Plantation on December 4, 1619.

In 1676, Virginians staged the first armed rebellion against the British government, specifically King Charles II’s governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. Nathaniel Bacon, upset with the governor’s failure to organize a force against the Indians, led a rebellion against Berkeley’s forces. In the end, Bacon and his rebels were all killed, but the seeds of colonial unrest and desire for independence were planted.

In 1752, war broke out between the Virginia colonists and the French and Indians from the west. The colony emerged victorious thanks to a young commander-in-chief of the militia, Virginia’s very own George Washington. Only a decade after the colonists supplied the British with men and equipment for the war, Parliament imposed a new tax on them, the infamous Stamp Act. Along with the other colonies, Virginia decried the British taxes and what they perceived as British tyranny. In 1775, the colonists gathered forces under George Washington’s command and started a revolution. A year later, Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson drafted the “Declaration of Independence”. Much of the battles took place in Virginia including the turning point of the war when Washington defeated Cornwallis’ forces at the Virginia port of Yorktown near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The American Revolution would end in 1783 in a victory for Virginia and the colonies.

Virginia also played an important role in the civil war. Part of the state seceded from the Union in 1861 to join the Confederates, whereas the other half, now known as the State of West Virginia, remained with the Union. Most of the Civil War battles took place in Virginia including the First and Second Battles of Manassas, the Seven Days Battles, and the Battles of Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville. The war would not have lasted as long without Virginia’s General Robert E. Lee directing the Confederate forces; he is considered by many to be one of the greatest commanders in U.S. history.

Today, Virginia remains an important U.S. state, ranked by many as the top state for business. It is certainly the wealthiest of the southern states and its economy is well-balanced, hosting high-tech software and communications companies and relying on agricultural production, defense-related industries, and professional and government sectors.

Virginia is made up of several tourist regions with Coastal Virginia (or Tidewater Virginia) being the most popular. This area encompasses the vast Chesapeake Bay, which features quaint harbor towns and some of the best seafood restaurants around. The main destination of the region is Hampton Roads, the country’s greatest naval base.

The Colonial Heartland of Virginia, on the other hand, sits between the James and York rivers and features the most significant historic sites in colonial American history. It is also home of the first European settlement in North America, Jamestown, the decisive battleground of the American Revolutionary war in Yorktown, and Williamsburg – the old colonial capital. Around the James River, you’ll also find a number of historic plantations, including the Shirley and Berkeley Plantations as well as the ancestral home of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

In Northern Virginia, many of the towns lie along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. The region features the old homes of General Robert E. Lee in Arlington and of George Washington in Mount Vernon. Within the region, you’ll find the Manassas National Battlefield Park, which has been designated to commemorate two great battles of the Civil War.

The Piedmont region is further inland and consists of rolling hills stretching across central Virginia and leading towards Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and the current capital of Virginia. The highlight of Richmond is Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the original architecture of University of Virginia’s buildings.

West of Piedmont is the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Mountains of the Shenandoah. It is a must for visitors to ride along the scenic Skyline Drive through the lush Shenandoah Valley and its national park, an ordeal rewarded by views of mountain peaks and a serene countryside where many Civil War battles took place.

Finally, the southwest corner of Virginia consists of the Blue Ridge Highlands, which are great for hiking and the Cumberland Gap, which is renowned for its caverns and mineral pools of Hot Springs. In this area, you’ll find many picturesque, small bed-and-breakfast towns.

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