Winter Weekend Getaway: ‘Taking to the Waters’

In my quest to complete my Cville Bucket List in our second and final year at Darden, my husband Michal and I have discovered a few spots in Central Virginia that are a fun alternative to the typical Jacuzzi, whirpool or hot tub in a ski lodge: the Omni Homestead and Jefferson Pools.

Less than two hours away from Charlottesville, these two facilities have the same owner (Omni) but drastically different feels – swanky vs. rustic. The following is recap of a Saturday-Sunday trip that Michal and I took last month when we decided to “take to the waters,” in Thomas Jefferson’s words.

Back to the Basics

After a long day of hiking in the Hidden Valley and Cobbler Mountain trails, we were beat. (And yes, hiking in the winter is somewhat common in the area, especially during this year’s overall mild winter.)

This hike is known for the views on its long walking bridges. The weather and scenery that day make this photo seem like it was during the fall season!

This hike is known for the views on its long walking bridges. The weather and scenery that day make this photo seem like it was during the fall season!

Our legs were ready for some relaxation, so we checked into the Warm Springs Inn. The inn was cozy and had a lot of character with the main building’s beautiful architectural details, as it used to be a courthouse and jail in 1802. Bonus: The inn was lot more affordable of $96/night instead of $180/night or more at the Omni Homestead down the road.

The most advantageous part about staying at the inn was the location – It’s right across from the historic Jefferson Pools. According to the website, “the pools are named for Thomas Jefferson, who sojourned here in 1818 to spend three weeks relaxing within our Virginia mountain spa.”

It felt like we time traveled to Thomas Jefferson's era - except for the neon-colored noodle floaties.

It felt like we time traveled to Thomas Jefferson’s era – except for the floating neon-colored noodles we used.

Although the Jefferson Pools were charming with its history, it seems they haven’t renovated since that time period.

The surrounding walkways and parking lot were muddy after melted snow and rain and no pavement, and the building itself was a rickety wood dome with a “skylight” that looked like a clear plastic tarp that had a rip in it. Not to mention, there were no working public bathrooms or insulation for the dressing rooms. Expert advice: Based on suggestions from the innkeeper across the street, I planned ahead and wore bathing suit underneath my clothes to minimize the amount of time it took to get into the water.

The water was just above body temperature, so they’re not as hot as the springs at the Homestead but the co-ed pool was much bigger so I didn’t feel claustrophobic. Plus, they provided noodles to help with floating and it was deep and wide enough that I could swim or tread water a bit when it wasn’t busy.

For $17 to soak as long as you want, it wasn’t too expensive, but it really should have had a discount as the more upscale Homestead was similarly priced at the time we went.

After freshening up at the inn across the street (again – I must emphasize the convenient location because you’ll then limit the amount of time you’re out of the pools in an unheated environment!) we were starving and ready for dinner at The Waterwheel. We loved this place for the combination of big city-standard gourmet food with the hospitality and modesty of the countryside. My fav dishes were the savory Oyster-Stuffed Mushrooms, fresh Highland County Mountain Trout (sourced only a few minutes away) and the fluffy Sour Cream Maple Syrup Cake.

Best part of dinner: Checking out the wine cellar in lieu of ordering off of a wine menu, where you can take your time to select your own bottle! We scored one for $27 – an incredible steal for a good quality red.

Enjoying our dinner and the bottle of wine we found in the cellar!

We both got fish for dinner – salmon and trout. Both were yummy but I’ll never forget that bottle of wine!

Serenity in the Springs

After church the following day, Michal and I enjoyed the Homestead Spa for its luxurious and plentiful amenities with the indoor Aqua Thermal Suite and the outdoor Spa Garden.

Panoramic view of the Spa Garden that includes the natural warm and hot springs.

Pano view of the Spa Garden that includes the natural warm and hot springs – early on a Sunday before the crowds.

The Aqua Thermal Suite was separated between the males and females so we each took some time on our own to explore these saunas and showers. And the bright tile colors, rushing water sounds and floating scents of lavender or eucalyptus appealed to all my senses.

After some quality alone time, we met in the co-ed, very family friendly indoor pool for a few laps (needed to get our workout in for the day). And then we rested in the co-ed lounge while filling up on some complimentary tea and fruit, along with some yummy turkey croissant sandwiches we purchased at the cafe. After this sustenance and some magazine reading while snuggled up in blankets, we ventured outdoors.

There were two springs – hot and warm. The warm one was a little murky for my liking, but it at least felt very natural/authentic. The hot one was the perfect temp for me, but was a bit small so it got crowded at points. Out here, the majority of people were our age or slightly older and mostly seemed to be couples. Expert advice: There was a co-ed sauna nearby that employees recommended we leave our towels and robes so that they stayed warm.

Overall

This trip was the perfect weekend getaway, as the drive wasn’t too far from Charlottesville but far enough that we got to experience something adventurous. Going to the springs is the best recovery activity after hitting the ski slopes or trekking through mountainous terrain. Not to mention, the overall price tag (especially during the winter season) makes the trip affordable for grad students on a budget looking for a little adventure.

Cashing in

Go during the winter season to maximize discounts.

The Homestead’s pricing in January (not sure how long specials last so call first):

  • Sunday – Thursday: One-day pass: $40 -> $20
  • Friday and Saturday: One-day pass: $55 -> $30

Similar saunas and springs

Michal and I have actually checked out a range of spas and saunas from Korean King Spa & Sauna when we lived in Chicago suburbs to the historic baths of Budapest and thermal springs of Costa Rica during our summer vacations.

Are there any natural spas in the world that you recommend we visit?

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Looking back at London during a Darden GFE

One of the best pieces of advice that I could pass on to incoming Darden partners:

When your significant other/student goes on a “Study Abroad” type of experience through Darden, (Global Business Experience, Global Field Experience, a club-sponsored conference, an exchange program, etc.), consider taking the opportunity (if your schedule and finances align) to join him or her for a time – either before it starts, after it ends, and/or during part of the time the trip takes place if possible.

I joined my husband Michal during his GFE last semester, and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

At the end of spring semester of Michal’s first year at Darden, back in May, I couldn’t join Michal during his Israel GBE because it would have been too expensive for both of us to travel there, and his overall schedule did not allow much free time for us to be together anyway. It should be noted that the Israel GBE was an incredible opportunity for Michal, as it included a mix of cultural, business and classroom settings. Read more about Michal’s Israel GBE class here.

At the beginning of fall semester of Michal’s second year at Darden, back in August, Michal applied to more of these types of courses. One in particular stood out: a GFE in London and South Africa that was a consulting project for a Nigerian-based company. The trip occurred partially during Thanksgiving Break, and the company provided a travel stipend for Darden students in exchange for their work. With the ease of some of the financial burden of the trip and the timing during a period I would have been given holiday off of work any way, I couldn’t help but join Michal on his second global experience with Darden.

Michal and I decided to arrive a few days in the UK before he started working in London so that we could spend some time with mutual friends in Cambridge. We found an incredible Airbnb deal that included daily homemade breakfast with a friendly French expat family, and a location on the same block as some of the most popular pubs in town. (We frequented the Elm Tree, for its wide selection of rare Belgian beers.)

Michal and I enjoyed being able to walk everywhere: We toured all the well-known colleges of Cambridge – Trinity, St. John’s and King’s College. We punted down the River Cam so we could get a view of the Backs, and we even attended a choir concert at King’s College Chapel. Almost every moment felt like I was on the set of a Harry Potter movie.

Cambridge

After our jaunt in this quaint university town, we jumped into big city life in London with zest. We stayed at a little townhome-turned-hotel in the South Kensington neighborhood near Imperial College, where Michal would spend his time during office hours on his consulting project. While he worked all day, I visited nearby museums.

Our British friends, who we met back at Darden, recommended all the best restaurants and nightlife in London, along with provided some tips on how to maneuver through all the tourist traps. Of course, we ended up in the rain in front of Buckingham Palace and saw the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.

However, out of all the historic and famous places we visited in the city, my favorite memory with Michal in London was at the end of a long day of sightseeing. At night, we shared a bottle of wine in a dark cavern of London’s oldest wine bar, Gordon’s. Afterward, we walked nearby Embankment Bridge and took in the city and Christmas lights. (Side note: I absolutely adored London’s festive approach to Advent! We went to tons of Christmas markets/festivals, where I found the best Christmas jumper with Olaf from Frozen on it.)

London

Michal ended up going on to the South Africa leg of the trip without me, while I spent a little more time on London on my own before making my way back to the U.S., as it was cheaper to do a round ticket for me. Until that point, I had never explored a foreign city or traveled that much on my own. In total, I spent about a week in London, with the majority of the time by myself.

I’m so glad I took the chance of joining Michal on this experience because this adventure was like the Study Abroad that I ended up never doing while I was in undergrad.

Three’s a Charm: Our anniversary in Detroit

Detroit Anniversary Date

Michal and I celebrated our three-year wedding anniversary while I was in town last month. In honor of the big occasion, along with the fact that Michal is interning this summer in our hometown area, we decided to do it big in Detroit.

There happened to be two restaurants opening on the same day we went out on the town, so we just had to try both – drinks and an app at one, and then a more developed dinner at the other. Both Wright & Co. and Antietam treated us well. We especially enjoyed our multiple-course meal at Antietam, with our (bonus!) complimentary champagne. These restaurants definitely represent the resurgence of Detroit’s bygone era, as they were set in restored buildings that were once left abandoned. Check out more details of what we thought of each restaurant on my Yelp review page.

Afterward, we revisited the Detroit Riverfront, an area I remember fondly from childhood, most vividly during the fireworks show of the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival (now non-existent, as it has split into two different events). Michal recently was there when his mother’s artwork was on display during River Days, but it felt all new to me, as much renovation has taken place in the past few years. We giddily ran through the water fountain with all the kiddies and then strolled lazily through the garden and marsh area of Milliken State Park.

All in all, the evening was truly a celebration both of our marriage and of the revitalized city that we will (hopefully) return to after graduation from Darden.

(Summer) Separation Anxiety

Before Michal left for the summer last week, we spent our last weekend in Cville together enjoying everything we love about the area: gourmet food, local craft beer and the outdoors. I wanted some quality time because we were about to embark on one of the two hardest times during B-School for couples.

These times are:
1) Recruiting season during the first year (while balancing academics and social life)
2) Spending the summer apart (including classes abroad like the Global Business Experience, GBE, and internships in another state).

Side note: Check out this hilarious blog featuring gifs illustrating life as a partner of someone in B-school. This is not a Darden blog, but I did find it through an older Darden partner.

As soon as Michal’s spring semester ended, he began a class to prepare for his GBE in Israel. When he returns from traveling abroad, he will go directly to Detroit to begin working and will stay there pretty much until fall semester starts. In our eight years as a couple (three years married), we’ve never done long-distance. (I don’t count my student teaching year in Detroit while Michal was a senior at Michigan State in Lansing because that was only an hour and half apart.)  So you can imagine the trepidation I felt.

I tried to ignore the looming absence by making the best of the unexpected free time we had due to a rare weekend void of Darden-related activities by staying outdoors in the gorgeous weather and visiting places we’ve wanted to try: Charlottesville City Market, Know Good Beer Festival and Jones Run/Doyles River in Shenandoah National Park. Below are the highlights of each adventure:

Top row from left to right: Michal and I near the Starr Hill tent at the beer fest, tacos at the farmer’s market, popsicle stand nearby. Bottom row from left to right: Waterfalls in Shenandoah, Michal and Stephen admiring art at the McGuffey Art Center during the fest, Michal hiking

On Saturday morning, strolling through all the stalls and tents, we had to taste a little bit of everything at the farmer’s market from chorizo and steak tacos with freshly made tortillas to a Thai-style strawberry and coconut milk Popsicle. Everything we tried was yummy, but my all-time fav dish from our walking “brunch” was the hearty crab cake at only $8.

Later in the afternoon, we met up another friend at Darden who loves beer as much as we do, as he also brewed for the Three Notch’d competition that Michal participated in last month. We all agreed that this inaugural beer fest was one of the better we’ve attended as it focused on local brews – many that we had not tried or even heard of. Of the new ones I tried, I particularly enjoyed the smooth Wit at up and coming James River Brewing Company, the light 3 at the hip Flying Mouse Brewing Company and the refreshing Blonde Hunny at the slightly more established Wild Wolf Brewing Company. I prefer Belgian-style ales that are slightly sour, or session citrusy wheat beers that are perfect to sip and savor on a hot, sunny day. Bonus: Another unique aspect to this beer fest was the fact that it was at an art gallery.

The following day, we spent some time driving through scenic Skyline Drive and hiking through an incredible waterfall wonderland. The views, especially of the various falls throughout our hike, were breathtaking and reminded me our travels in Costa Rica and Thailand. It was a relaxing and peaceful hike, as we ran into other people sparingly. And on certain points in the mountains, we’d get respite from the heat with a cool breeze or dipping into ice water.

 

Charlottesville offers nearby hiking, biking options

Hiking (or biking) doesn’t have to be a hassle.

When the weather is way too gorgeous to pass up, but we don’t feel like making an hour-drive to Shenandoah, Michal and I find some nearby nature preserves, parks and trails that serve as a quick, outdoor workout or a convenient date. Below are the three best options for us – all within a 20-minute drive of Darden/Charlottesville.

Side note: Personally, I prefer the relaxed mode of hiking over intense mountain biking!

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Rivanna Trails <5 minutes of a drive from Darden

Located all throughout the city of Charlottesville, we found one entrance across the street from our apartment complex. We’ve tried walking as well as biking. It can actually pretty tough terrain for biking with some steep inclines. The scenery varies depending on where you start, but these are a few fav views near the river where it’s a little more flat.

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Walnut Creek Park ~20 minutes of a drive from Darden

Trails surround a huge lake with lots of people kayaking, canoeing and fishing on a warm day. Michal and I have only done mountain biking out here, which I found a bit easier than Rivanna Trails as there were longer runs that were not so steep and winding. (I am definitely not an expert biker!)

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Ivy Creek Natural Area ~10 minutes of a drive from Darden

This is my highlight as it earns points for close location and scenic views. It’s really unique in the fact that beavers used to overpopulate the area, as evidenced by trees with missing chunks of trunk. I appreciated how there were placards that we could take with us to help us note interesting flora, fauna and wildlife.

What are your favorite Charlottesville area hikes or outdoor workouts? 

Bidding farewell to the ‘Bird’

Although students will no longer be taking classes with their sections after they return from Spring Break on March 17, it’s hard to drop the identity. As a partner of a student in Section B, I inevitably started proclaiming myself as “one of the birds,” becoming friends with students and partners alike in the group.

The experience of “being in a section” reminded me a lot of my cohort from my senior year and student teaching year at Michigan State University in the College of Education, or of the transition period when I went into my first year of teaching with a group of fellow novices.During an extremely stressful time, it helps to have the camaraderie, as well as the commiseration.

Paying homage to a couple of my favorite Section B traditions:

*Bird is the Word

As my husband likes to make funny comments in class, he tends to be in the running fairly often to take the responsibility of carting around the mascot for a week. Coincidentally that little, stuffed Big Bird seemed to find his way into our home on special occasions like my birthday during first semester and Valentine’s Day during second semester. Can we say #thirdwheel?

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The Bird on adventures with us on date night celebrations and gatherings with friends around town.

Thankfully, no one gave us a hard time when taking photos of the Bird at the Top of the Hops Beer Fest in downtown Charlottesville on my birthday, as many others were lining up to take photos with a gnome any way.

However, it was a bit more difficult to snap a pic when the Bird made an appearance while we sampled sweets from a local bakery paired with wine at Keswick Vineyard. At a slightly less casual atmosphere in the roped-off area behind the wine barrels reserved for Valentine’s Day couples, we didn’t leave him out in the open too long… 

*Dinner of 8

Bonding with fellow birds took on a variety of forms, including get-togethers like FY/SY mixers, themed events (e.g. costumes starting w/a letter B, ugly sweater), local adventures (e.g. apple picking at Carter Mountain Orchard), post-Darden Cup celebrations and simply hanging out in smaller settings.

My favorite was the dinner party each semester that consisted of eight students in the section and was hosted at a volunteer’s home, with all randomly assigned to the group. Each semester was a different set of people. Of course, students could bring partners, so an introvert (disguised as an extrovert, most often) like me really looked forward to chatting in a comfortable environment.

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For the first dinner, the organizer ordered yummy Italian takeout from Bella’s. For the second, we did a potluck style meal. It was fun to get a taste of varying cooking styles and ethnic cuisine!

Finding the Fun in Fall

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These are photos of our favorite fall moments in Michigan and Illinois over the years.

SYs warned us about the difficult months of October and November during the first year of B-school. The combination of a rigorous class load, competitive recruiting and a busy social calendar does not leave much time for anything else.

However, the fall season has also been synonymous with outdoor adventures, yummy treats and celebrations for me and Michal.

Michal and I started our relationship seven years ago this October back when we were in undergrad at Michigan State University, so we have marked each anniversary with our favorite fall activities such as tail gating, apple picking, hiking, finding our way through corn mazes and carving pumpkins.

So in the midst of keeping up with the all-nighters, networking dinners and theme parties, Michal and I have tried to reserve some time each week for a good, old-fashioned date. Below are photos and reviews of our favorite fall-themed outings in and around Charlottesville.

Old Rag Mountain

While we scaled the mountainside, we paused several times for photos because of the vibrant, freshly fallen leaves and panoramic views. Not to mention, we were forced to stop when lines began to form to accommodate the incredible crowd of people who scrambled across rocky points.

If possible, do the hike very early in the morning or during the week because the Saturday afternoon rush was a bit much for us. (Who’s ever seen lines as long as the ones waiting for roller coaster rides while hiking?) Also, if you want to do a hike that is shorter both in the duration and the drive there, try out another local favorite, Humpback Mountain.

This was one of the most intense yet scenic hikes we’ve ever done.

Liberty Mills Farm – corn maze

Deemed “the largest corn maze in Virginia,” this was a unique experience for corn maze aficionados such as Michal and me. We were surprised to get a map (never happened in the Illinois and Michigan corn mazes we’ve visited), but it helped to have five different options ranging from elementary level to master’s. Of course, we went for the option of the map-less “Mystery Maze” because we wanted to test our sense of direction. Thank goodness Michal doesn’t depend on a GPS as much as I do because we found our way out in record time!

Also I loved how there was a definite incline to the maze ground, as opposed to all the ones we’ve visited in the Midwest where it’s flat land. It made for a bit more of a workout! Check online or in the mail for coupons before you go to save a little cash.

Liberty Mills Farm – pumpkin patch

A fellow Darden couple had a pumpkin carving party that night so we wanted to find the perfect pumpkin for the event. I had always just bought pumpkins at a stand or while grocery shopping, so I was happy to take advantage of an actual pumpkin patch. Set behind the maze, we took a free hay ride over to the hill.

The patch was a bit picked over because Michal and I had gone later in the season, so I recommend going in early October instead of late in the month. After some searching, we found a beauty for a decent deal of 50 cents per lb. which totaled about $5 for our pumpkin.

We saved some more money that night by printing a template off of Google images and using thumb tacks to hold it in place. Using our teamwork efforts of him carving with kitchen knives and me emptying out the pumpkin with a serving spoon, we were able to create a spooky owl.

Highlights of the corn maze and pumpkin patch day and night activities.

Carter Mountain – apple orchard and wine tasting

Despite our late summer visit to Carter Mountain, I thought it was worth mentioning the experience here because it fits with the theme. Michal and I actually picked apples much earlier than most during a Darden Partner’s Association event in August. We had the intention of picking peaches, but it was actually too cold for the fruit so we got apples instead so pay attention to temperatures before you go.

The tradition of apple picking is ingrained in us because of our childhoods in Michigan. I used to go every fall with my family, and Michal even had his first date as freshman in high school at an apple orchard. Again, this experience differed from our times in the Midwest because of  the mountain setting.

Because it was a sponsored event, Michal and I were able to each get $7 worth of apples or other produce and food paid for by the DPA. This went a long way because we ended up taking home a huge bag of apples and a bag of already picked peaches from earlier in the summer, along with some froyo.

If possible, we recommend doing the wine tasting, which conveniently offers a set of sweet vs. dry choices. After the tasting, our group picked out a favorite from the bunch and bought a bottle to share on the adjoining deck outside to enjoy another spectacular view.

Enjoying the apples and the views.