Named after Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III, Charlottesville is perhaps best known as the home of Thomas Jefferson and for one of his greatest legacies, the University of Virginia. More recently, however, the city’s flourishing restaurant scene, supported by local wines and artisan food from nearby farms, has added to its attraction.
Blessed with a mild climate, Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle county have long been favourites of the “bounce-back” crowd – “people from New York state or Michigan or somewhere north who move to Florida and then realise it’s too hot,” says Michael Guthrie of Roy Wheeler Realty. “They bounce back to the Virginias where there are four seasons, some snow and the changing of the leaves, but where it’s only cold two months of the year.”
A more recent trend, however, has been an influx of people fleeing America’s biggest urban areas for this small city and the surrounding countryside. Some are former University of Virginia students, others are wealthy professionals eager to exchange an urban existence for a pastoral idyll. But whether they’re from New York, Boston, St Louis or Austin, they “did their research and said they wanted something different”.
“The highly educated population, excellent schools, the university hospital, and the feeling of being part of a college town” is what lures newcomers to Charlottesville, says Sally Du Bose of Virginia Real Estate Partners.
Du Bose says that many of her clients are families with children or active retirees. The former are often newly hired medical school or university faculty or hedge fund managers, many of whom want properties close to the university or the Rugby Road area, an area of wooded hills with large but tasteful houses. One Du Bose property, 1835 University Circle, a five-bedroom Georgian home whose interior is influenced by the campus architecture, is selling for $1.97m.
Deep-pocketed clients sometimes look at Farmington, an area known for its eponymous country and hunt clubs. Another Du Bose listing, 260 Farmington Drive, overlooks the country club’s golf course and the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Priced at $3.49m, the four-bedroom home sits on 2.6 acres.
Charlottesville’s small size – population 43,000 – means you’re never far from restaurants or popular outdoor music venues. Similarly, the countryside surrounding the city is rarely more than a 15-minute drive away. Double your journey time and scores of vineyards fall within reach.
Though Albemarle county’s grape-growing history stretches back to Thomas Jefferson’s ill-fated efforts to produce wine at his Monticello estate, the history of many local vineyards is more recent.
“When we talk about the extraordinary properties, the farms and estates, we see people who have been successful in business wanting to become gentleman farmers,” says Guthrie. “But the other interesting trend is the huge draw to the area because of the vineyards. People fall in love with the area, end up buying a farm, and decide to create their own vineyard and wine.”
For someone wishing to do the same, an easy option would be to acquire Glendower. Fifteen miles south of Charlottesville, the 579-acre estate includes one of Albemarle county’s oldest vineyards, where 11 acres of Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and other varieties are grown. The 8,500 sq ft estate-home dates back to 1745, and is being sold at $5.25m.
A more ambitious route would be that of Andrew Hodson, a British paediatric neurologist, and his wife Patricia. Not long after the couple visited Charlottesville, they bought a 250-acre cattle farm on the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I was disillusioned with medicine in the US and we were both working flat out, so we said to hell with it and decided to do something else,” says Hodson. Beginning with a 20-acre planting, the couple have transformed the farm into Veritas Vineyard and Winery, now an area favourite. Still, not everyone who buys a Charlottesville farm or estate is out to emulate the efforts of the energetic Hodsons.
“Today these farms are lifestyle acquisitions rather than return-based investments, and the typical buyer is usually in their 40s, successful on Wall Street, and looking for a place to raise the family,” says Frank Hardy, who sells estates that range from 25 to 5,500 acres, including several in the Keswick area to the east of Charlottesville.
Hardy’s current portfolio includes several estates of about 500 acres, one of which, Clover Hill Farm, rises to more than 1,000ft, affording unbroken views towards Richmond. The $13m estate comes with three guest houses, cattle and a historic barn, reportedly one of the oldest in the region.
Another Hardy property, Old Keswick Farm, has been a thoroughbred breeding estate for years. Built in 1736 and believed to have been partially designed by Thomas Jefferson, the $13.5m, 547-acre estate includes yearling, broodmare and racing barns. Owned by only three families in its near 300-year history, the main home includes several bedrooms, a library and other trappings one would expect in a substantial Virginia estate.
Still, Hardy cautions that not all gentleman farmers last on these estates. Running costs and the management efforts required can sap even the most dedicated, he says. Some owners eventually trade their estate for a life back in the city. In all likelihood, they won’t be disappointed.
“I like the academic setting and, while there’s wealth here, it’s not flaunted,” says Bob Kreps, who moved to Charlottesville with his wife. “Charlottesville has a casual sophistication.”
● Numerous wineries
● Shenandoah National Park
● No luxury retailers
● Small airport
What you can buy for …
$100,000 A one-bedroom condominium
$1m A five-bedroom home in the Rugby Road area