As dusk was approaching one evening, I visited what is probably the most famous of all the homes in the area, Westover. Closed to the public, except by group appointment or on certain days during special events (such as April's Historic Garden Week or Westover Church's Autumn Pilgrimage in September), Westover does open its elegant gardens, which guests can roam for a modest $2. Tulip poplars shade the house, built in 1730. A massive wrought iron gate is supported by columns topped with lead eagles. Stone finials in the shape of acorns, a pineapple, a Greek key, urns, a beehive, and cornucopias top the fenceposts. Few places I've been seem more tranquil.
Worship at Westover Church, and you'll follow in the footsteps of historical figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. The Anglican parish hit hard times after the Revolutionary War. (Westover was, after all, associated with the church of English royalty.) It languished off and on as a barn until 1867. Ever since, services have been held regularly, but visitors who don't come during worship hours can nonetheless explore the church and adjacent graveyard.
Berkeley Plantation cannot be missed. Site of the first official Thanksgiving in 1619, Berkeley was also the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and President William Henry Harrison, "Old Tippecanoe." The country's first bourbon was brewed here, and "Taps" was composed on the grounds in 1862. Ten Presidents have visited the 1726 Georgian mansion, and guests can stroll 10 acres of formal boxwood gardens as well as go through the house.
North Bend Plantation: (804) 829-5176.
Shirley Plantation: 1-800-232-1613.
Westover: (804) 829-2882.
Westover Church: (804) 829-2488.
Berkeley Plantation: (804) 829-6018 or 1-888-466-6018.
For more information on visiting the many other historic homes along the James River (and maybe even be mistaken as the kin of a former President), visit www.jamesriverplantations.com.
This article is from the August 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.