You can picture First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy coming down to this unspoiled horse country to get away from the White House and ride.
Visitors still do that, as the acres of woods and hills remain as beautifully unspoiled as when three early presidents and founding fathers of the United States-Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe-built their homes in this part of northern Virginia.
One home very close to Jefferson's Monticello has been turned into the Relais & Chateaux Clifton Inn, once owned by Jefferson himself. It's the typical white columned gracious Southern mansion you would expect the former President to present as a gift to his daughter, Martha, and her husband, Thomas Randolph Mann.
Built in 1799, the historic structure is also said to have been the hideaway of Colonel John Singleton Mosby, the "Grey Ghost of the Confederacy," during the Civil War. Now, the Clifton is one of the South's signature hotels.
It is a welcoming, elegant place with all the amenities you expect of a Relais & Chateaux property, beginning with a full afternoon tea to all its visitors. In summer it's served outside on the patio and in winter in front of a crackling fire; regardless of when, they always offer some of the most delicate, flaky pastries imaginable.
But that's just starters for the palate at the Clifton, which had the good sense last fall to hire Executive Chef Tucker Yoder to take over the kitchen. Yoder, who helped the Clifton earn its Relais & Chateaux standing when he was sous chef here, moved over to direct and execute the dining room of the Red Hen in nearby Lexington, Virginia. He eventually returned to begin an innovative menu at the Clifton whereby guests can choose servings from four different categories, which he labels Delicate, Light, Full Bodied and Robust.
A Delicate choice is house-made tofu with butternut squash, spice crumble and oranges. A Light selection, for example, is ribeye cap carpaccio with Brussel sprouts, brioche, shallots and brown butter vinaigrette. One of the Full Bodied selections that we chose was his olive-oil poached salmon with arugula, confit potato and citrus, and our Robust choice was roasted quail breast with cabbage Vandouvan and mustard greens. If you choose four courses the price is $58. Five courses are $74 and six are $89.
Yoder uses "thermal circulators" in the kitchen, and the French sous-vide method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath for many hours at a lower-than-usual temperature. It's an old method recently revived by several gourmet restaurant chefs including Charlie Trotter. It makes the food incredibly tender while keeping each flavor intact. His poached scallops, for example, were melt-in-your-mouth tender.
To work off some of Yoder's dinners, the inn offers croquet, tennis courts, walking trails and an outdoor infinity pool. There is a man-made lake on the property and 100 acres of woods for hiking and horseback riding. Rooms and suites at the Clifton range from $139 to $695.
1296 Clifton Inn Drive
Charlottesville, VA 22911