You can't leave northern Virginia without visiting George and Martha Washington's magnificent home overlooking the Potomac River. Indeed, Mount Vernon has been one of America's most-visited shrines since 1858, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased the estate from Washington's great-grandnephew, John Augustine Washington, Jr. The association continues to own and maintain the mansion and its grounds, and it has an ongoing effort to locate and return the estate's scattered contents and memorabilia, thus enhancing its authentic appearance (ca. 1799). About 30% of its contents belonged to the Washingtons, including a key to the Paris Bastille, which Lafayette presented to Washington in 1790 via messenger Thomas Paine; the English harpsichord of Martha Washington's granddaughter, Nelly Custis; Martha's china tea service; and Washington's original globe, desk, and dressing table.
You will see more before reaching the mansion, thanks to the Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which opened in 2006 at the estate's main gate. The latter is mostly underground, thus leaving the view of the mansion relatively undisturbed. Together their 25 galleries and theaters tell Washington's story from beginning to end. Life-size bronze statues of George, Martha, and her two grandchildren, Nelly and Washy Custis, welcome you to the orientation center, which features an 18-minute Hollywood-produced movie in which actors re-create important events in Washington's life. Likewise, the museum features lifelike wax models of Washington at three different ages; they were created with the help of forensic experts.
Before departing the orientation center, rent a receiver for the guided audio tour, which is broadcast throughout the estate.
Constructed of beveled pine painted to look like stone, the house is an outstanding example of Georgian architecture. You'll enter by way of the Large Dining Room, which contains many of the original chairs, Hepplewhite mahogany sideboards, and paintings. Step outside on the long front porch and enjoy the view that prompted Washington to declare, "No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this." Upstairs are five bedchambers, including the Lafayette Room, named for the Marquis, and George and Martha's bedroom, in which Washington died.
After leaving the house, tour the kitchen, smokehouse, overseer's and slave quarters, the Washingtons' graves, and the slave burial ground marked by two monuments to the African Americans who lived, worked, and died at the plantation. Down by the river, a 4-acre exhibition area focuses on Washington's accomplishments as an innovative farmer. He was far ahead of his time in soil conservation and crop rotation, and he switched from tobacco to wheat, which could be planted twice a year, had a more reliable market, and did not deplete the soil as quickly as the Golden Leaf.
He ground the wheat into flour at George Washington's Gristmill, a 1933 reconstruction 3 miles west of the plantation on Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway (Va. 235). He put the mill's byproduct to use making whiskey in a distillery. Costumed interpreters give 20-minute tours explaining how the mill operated, and they actually grind cornmeal for sale in the gift shop. They also make whiskey at the adjacent George Washington's Distillery, an exact reproduction of a still built in 1797-98 and burned in 1814. Note that the mill and still are near the intersection of Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway and U.S. 1, not in Gristmill Park, a county facility you'll pass on the way to Washington's mill.
There's an ongoing schedule of special activities at Mount Vernon, especially in summer, running the gamut from special garden tours to treasure hunts for children. Call or check the website to find out what's going on during your visit. Admission is free on Washington's Birthday (the federal holiday, not the actual date), when a wreath-laying ceremony is held at his tomb.
Don't Come Early in Spring, Summer, or Any Weekend -- You will need at least a half a day to see Mount Vernon and the nearby gristmill and distillery. Many people show up at 8am in spring, summer, or any weekend with the idea of beating the crowds, which they inadvertently create. So I would plan to tour the mansion later in the day during these periods.
- © Frommer's 2013
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- Very Highly Recommended 2010