Orange County, Virginia

 Over the next few weeks I will be providing you with several posts about the wonderful area that Brenda and I call home, the Madison and Orange counties of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It is truly a wonderful place to live, full of history, adventure, outdoor activities, and wonderful places to dine.  Enjoy the blog and we hope to see you soon.  And, now on with the show:

The first stop for anyone visiting Orange County, Virginia  should be Montpelier, home of James and Dolly Madison.  It was here that President Madison drafted the Constitution that we still enjoy to this day, a document that has guided us with little change for over 200 years.  The mansion, having undergone a complete deconstruction in recent years, is now fully restored to the original structure of the time of President and Dolly Madison.  The grounds cover over 2,600 acres of pasture, rolling hills, trails, gardens, and forests.  Easily you can spend a whole day at the estate.  And, if you are so inclined, you can return for some of the wonderful events held throughout the year such as the Garden & Grounds tours, Constitution Day (September 19th), or the Montpelier Hunt Races (November 7th).  Montpelier is truly a national treasure which should not be missed by anyone.  Below is the introduction from the Montpelier website (

“Home of the Father of the Constitution, Architect of the Bill of Rights, & America’s 1st “First Lady”

MONTPELIER was home to President James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Architect of the Bill of Rights, and Dolley Madison, America’s first “First Lady.”

It was here at Montpelier where James Madison shaped the ideas that would become the U.S. Constitution. For six months Madison sat in his upstairs library, where he meticulously studied past forms of governments and organized his thoughts into what he believed were the ideal principles for a representative democracy. Madison’s ideas would become the “Virginia Plan,” and later the framework for the Constitution.

The Montpelier estate features the mansion, garden, historic buildings, exhibits, archaeological sites, and forests trails. Spend an hour or two—or a full day with family and friends—strolling the grounds, picnicking, and learning more about the Constitution, James Madison, and Montpelier.”


James and Dolley with Friends

While you are at Montpelier, you can enjoy extensive hiking trails, one of which will lead you to Grelen Nursery and the Market at Grelen.  Here you can enjoy a 9 mile RT adventure with woodland discoveries and meadow vistas.  Oh, and don’t forget, you can take a picnic or enjoy food prepared by either the Exchange Cafe’ at Montpelier or the Market at Grelen, both excellent choices, and both will prepare a picnic for you to enjoy on the grounds.


Vistas from the Grelen Property.



So now, for those who know me well, I’ll get to the meat, – or fish, vegetable, soup, salad – of the matter – eating.  But of course it cannot be just a quickie.  No, no, no.  It must be wonderful food, great atmosphere, welcoming hosts.  And, Orange County boasts that in abundance.  So that I do not appear biased I will start with the restaurant closest to me in Orange – Vintage at the Inn at Willow Grove (  Having dined here numerous times, I can honestly say the food is outstanding.  The focus is on locally grown produce and products prepared in a creative manner. But I must admit that my favorite item on the menu has always been the Vintage Spinach Salad composed of baby spinach, orzo, pine nuts, capers, Holland tomatoes, and blond balsamic vinegar.  So with that as your starter, you can imagine what the main course will be.


The patio, whimsy

The Restaurant in the Evening

One of the dining rooms, chic

And, then in the town of Orange, there are two places that I highly recommend – Elmwood at Sparks and The Light Well. These are two very different establishments.  Elmwood ( is our go to place for really, really good food.  Chef Randy Cooper has been in serving customers for over 14 years throughout the US.  While all of his dishes are quite creative, his favorite would be charcuterie.  And, if you come on the Wednesday evenings, he and Laura are tempting you with new wines to discover, you will get to partake of his take on a good charcuterie platter.  But do come on other evenings as well because then you get to see Randy in full swing, “Melding quality Virginia products with innovative dishes, offering a distinctive local dining experience.” Again, having dined at Elmwood numerous times I am not sure what menu item I prefer, but I know my wife Brenda usually gets the Pecan dusted Rag Mountain trout when it is on the menu.  That is worth the price of admission folks.

A sample of Randy’s craft

The Light Well, also in Orange, is more of a casual place for dining.  It serves breakfast (great coffee by the way – Orange County Roasters), brunch, lunch, dinner, and pub fare.  But that is not all, there is music on occasion, and art on the walls for crying out loud.  Here is a quote from the Light Well website:

“The new gathering place in historic downtown for locals and visitors alike. We have revived the tradition of the neighborhood spot where people come and let their hair down. Casual fare… good value beer, wine, and cocktails, local art and now, live music! Showcasing the best musicians of the Virginia Piedmont, the Shenandoah Valley, and beyond. Acoustic, Jazz, Traditional, Singer-Songwriter, Rock, and Country.”



A little closer to Orange you will find The Inn at Willow Grove.  Nestled on a private 40-acre estate in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, The Inn at Willow Grove is a boutique hotel unlike any other. Our historic 18th century plantation house and surrounding cottages feature a unique blend of chic and elegant “urban meets plantation” style, exceptional world-class amenities and gracious Southern hospitality.  And a recent new addition, The Smokehouse Spa, offers massages, quietude, and relaxation.


The Grounds


The “Butler”

And if you cannot get into the Inn at Willow Grove, Chestnut Hill Bed & Breakfast, located in the town of Orange is a gem.  The Inn at Chestnut Hill was built in 1860 by a local tanner named Alexander Daley, who was one of the founding members of the Town Council here in Orange, Virginia. The name Chestnut Hill came from the abundant Chestnut trees located on the property. Unfortunately, those trees were destroyed during the blight of 1910.  It is now listed on Virginia’s Registry of Historic Places.

Oh, and there is one more place you can enjoy if you wish, Dragonfly Ridge, but it is located in Madison County, just up the road.  There you enjoy wonderful homemade breakfasts to your specifications, a dip in the hot tub, a swim in the pool, relaxing in the hammock, a stroll trough the woods, and wonderfully prepared gourmet food for our guests.  Call for reservations.

The Town of Orange

While you are here, you can also explore the Town of Orange which is home to the Orange Arts Center, numerous antique shops, a custom apothecary, and much, much more.


So I hope you have enjoyed this edition of Russell’s Travels.  Orange is a special place in the US and I am sure you will not be disappointed when you visit.  So much to do, and so little time.

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Having decided to "retire", I am embarking on a new venture focused on travel, trips, history, wonderful food and wine, and fun. Hopefully you will be entertained, enlightened, and enriched with my posts from the mid-atlantic to overseas.

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