From Russia with Love

Apr. 6th 2014

I don’t generally talk about our guests that come and stay at the plantation, but I am making an acceptation in this case. Back in November, 2013, we received three very interesting visitors. These gentlemen stopped by after finding us by chance on their way through. They were from Moscow, Russia and were doing a quick tour through the United States, stopping at all the Presidential birthplaces and homes. One gentleman is a university professor and also owns several hotels in Russia. Their tour of the mansion was very brief and at times challenging because they didn’t speak or understand very much English. Brett did the best that he could explaining the history. As they left they told us that they would like to return.

Last Wednesday evening, I returned from Chesapeake after taking the day off to visit with our kids and pets. I was tired from driving and decided to retire for the evening around 9:30pm. At 10pm, I received a call from our Russian friends. He asked me if I remembered them. How could I forget! They were so charming and delightful, even kissing my hand several times before leaving. He said, “We would like to stay with you.” I was delighted that they would be returning. “Sure, what day would you like to come?”, I asked. “Now”, he replied. To my surprise, they were here and outside waiting to get in. So I jumped up, threw on some clothes and rushed out to greet them. No make up and my hair down. I must have been a mess to see.

They greeted me and asked if they could stay. “Of course!”, I replied. He asked for three rooms for one night and I walked them around to each so they could pick out which ones they wanted. The professor took the Madison Suite and his friends took the Hipkins-Bernard and Turner Suites. When the professor walked into our library, he was in heaven. He told me that he was going to look through it after dinner, to which he asked me where they could go.

Okay, 10:30pm on a Wednesday night in King George. The choices were a little limited. So I had only one place that was still open to send them . . . Hornes Diner. This place is a great place to get a hamburger or even a quick breakfast. When they returned, I made sure they were settled down and didn’t need anything. That is when the professor told me that they would like to stay two days instead of one. No problem. The professor also asked to change from the Madison Suite to the Conway Suite on the second night. No problem. So I said my good-nights and headed to bed around 12:30am. Breakfast was to be served at 9am.

The next morning after I finished preparing breakfast, I walked back into the library to check on them. The friend in the Hipkins-Bernard Suite was up and moving. He was the one among them who understood and spoke English the best. During the night, I had decided to look on Google Apps to see if I could find a translator, which I did. Thankful, it came in handy through the rest of the visit.

The gentlemen slowly made their way to the table and seemed to enjoy the breakfast. After breakfast, the professor walked me back to the library. There on the table were about 30 books he had pulled from shelves. He asked me if he could pay me for the books, take them to Russia and then return them in two years. I explained to him that they were all donations to the library (through my neat little app) and he shook his head, he understood. He then narrowed it down to 10 books and asked again. I told him that I would write down the titles and allow him to borrow them and would like them to be returned in two years. He agreed. After agreeing, he handed me three gifts. One box held a special chocolate dessert, which the writing is in Russian so I don’t know what it is. The second box was a bottle of “Chance” by Chanel. And I am not talking about a small bottle. Like 1.7 floz to be exact. And two bags of Russian chocolate candy bars in a Russian bag, which Brett and I are about to finish off today. They are wonderful!



chocolate dessert


chocolate dessert

(can anyone tell me what it is?)


Russian chocolate candy bars

You see, the professor is on a mission. He is working on research for a book he is writing about the American Presidents. He has been seen almost all the birthplaces and homes of every one of the American Presidents. How many of us can say we have seen more than one or two? And here is a gentleman from another country who is just thrilled at seeing these places.

I asked them where they were headed for the day because we like to help our guests find places to see and things to do while visiting Belle Grove Plantation. Through maps and broken English, I found out that they were planning on heading to Charlottesville to see Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highlands, then to Lynchburg to see Poplar Forest and then back to Richmond to see Tuckahoe Plantation. When I tried to explain that it was a lot of driving, they told me not to worry. I asked them if they wouldn’t prefer finding a place to stay closer to Richmond so they didn’t have so far to drive back to Belle Grove. The professor looked at me with kind eyes and said in his sweet broken English, “No, we stay here. Michelle is a great woman.” Just minutes later they were off on their adventure.

Brett arrived later that evening (Thursday) as did our daughter, Alexa. We went to dinner after I explained where they were going and that I didn’t expect them until late that night, if not early morning. They had a key to the door so I knew they could get back in. I was right, they arrived a little after midnight.

The next morning after preparing breakfast, I stepped into the grand hall to see them packing up. I asked how their trip was and found out that they had not made it to Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highlands or Tuckahoe. They had headed to Poplar Forest in Lynchburg and because they had been so close to West Virginia, they decided to make a detour there for the rest of the day. By the time they arrived back at Belle Grove, they had traveled over 600 miles!

After breakfast and while his friends finished packing, the professor took me to the library again. He started taking out books that he had purchased the day before. I said, “Oh how wonderful! You have some really great books to take home!” He smiled and said, “No, I have copies in the car. These are for you.” I was floored! There were over 17 books! He had wanted to add to our library too.

unnamed (1)


I started clearing the breakfast table and Brett spoke with the professor as he settled up their accounts. We also had an opportunity to introduce them to our daughter. The professor asked about our daughter and asked if we had others. We explained that we had a son too.

It was finally time to say good-bye and through my app we wished them a good journey. Inside, I was so jealous! To be able to take the time to see these places would be such a dream! They bid us good-bye and promised to return.

After they pulled away, Brett shared part of the conversation I had not heard. The professor told Brett that in Russia, they have hotels that are “5” (meaning 5 star). He said Belle Grove Plantation, “not 5, you 500! ” Brett then pulled out of his pocket a “tip” that the professor had left for us. Let’s just say, it was extremely generous.

While we have only been open now for seven and a half months, we have had some of the most wonderful guests! And while we hope that we offer them a place to rest and relax and enjoy our surroundings, it is really Brett and I that are so blessed. Each of them have touched our lives in more ways than we can begin to say. And with less than a year under our belts, I can’t wait to see what the future will hold for Belle Grove Plantation and for us.

One thing I know . . . we will never be the same again.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 3 Comments »

Just a little chocolate…

May. 1st 2013


After my wonderful day running around Norfolk Botanical Gardens, I decided to spend some time with our daughter, Alexa on Monday. She has been in college working on a degree in psychology and was in bad need of some stress relief before one of her finals. So true to form we decided to take a break in one of our favorite day trip locations… Colonial Williamsburg.

After a quick lunch of sushi and catching up, we headed up from Chesapeake. She had been just the weekend before and had seen a hoodie at the William and Mary Bookstore she really wanted. The traffic wasn’t too bad on the way, but the rain didn’t seem to want to let up. I was getting concerned that our trip would mostly have to be inside the stores at Merchant Square. Not that that is a bad thing per say, but it can be hard our budget. But when we arrived, the rain seems to know and just stopped.

After purchasing her hoodie, she did a little arm twisting and “forced” me to go to the Wythe Candy Store. This is one of our favorite stops in Merchant Square. Coming in the door, you gain five pounds just breathing in all the sugar in the air. I am surprise they don’t hand out napkins at the door because by the time you leave, your month is watering.

Cheese Shop Merchant Square

Cheese Shop
Merchant Square

Before we got to the Candy Store,  we stopped at the Cheese Shop next door to the “Fat Canary” Restaurant. If you have never had a chance to eat at the “Fat Canary”, when you are in Williamsburg, you must stop! It is a little pricey, but well worth the cost! After looking over the cheeses they had and not finding any that jumped out at me, we headed to the Candy Store.


As we walked in, we were greeted by a staff member dipping carmel apples. Just in front of him were cupcakes with so much frosting on it, you would have died from a sugar coma! There were tons of different types of fudge and then we saw them. The chocolate covered candy apples! Oh my….


As we made our way around the display case, we saw clusters, chews, jelly beans, sours, licorice and endless confections! We rounded the back of the display where we were greeted by truffles of every shape and size. There were truffles that looked like cupcakes, egg shaped truffles, small “pop in your month” truffles and tons and tons of different favors.


20130429_152650 1



Alexa knew quickly what she wanted and had it boxes up before I knew it. She picked out a blueberry truffle and an Irish Creme truffle. I knew that I couldn’t go home without brings some back to Brett and our son Tyler. So I picked out four truffles for them to pick from. They had a choice of peanut butter, key lime, Irish Creme or raspberry.

The top right is a blueberry egg-shaped truffle

The top right is a blueberry egg-shaped truffle

I picked out some chocolate almond bark that was sugar-free for me. One was milk chocolate and the other was white chocolate. I know what you are think! Sugar-Free at a Candy Store, but yes! They make some of the best sugar-free chocolates I have ever tasted! And I don’t feel so guilty for eating it!

Once we finished purchasing our choices and heading out just in time to miss a large crowd of teenagers, I asked Alexa to allow me to find out if the “Young James Madison” was working today at Colonial Williamsburg. Bryan, who is the historic interpreter that plays “the Young James Madison” has been following us on our Belle Grove Facebook Fan page for several months. When he first contacted us, he was just studying for his part as James Madison. He had told me that he was given our page and blog information by the librarian in Williamsburg. So I knew I wanted to meet him if I could since I was there.

I stopped at the ticket booth there at Merchant Square, but she didn’t have any information on him. She sent me to the Visitor Center. So Alexa and I drove over to the Visitor Center. There I talked to the ticket supervisor who placed a couple of calls to find out for us. She ended up with his manager on the phone. When I told him who we were and what we were looking for, he told us that Bryan was there today and that he was at “Revolutionary City” doing a program. His manager then gave us the cell number of his direct supervisor there and asked us to call him in about five minutes because they were in the middle of program change. This gave us just enough time to jump back into the car and head back to the parking lot at Merchant Square.

When we parked, I tried to call the supervisor. No answer…

I looked at Alexa and said, “Well do we pack up and go home? Or do we hike down to the Revolutionary City Capital and hope that we might get the supervisor on the phone or see if we can meet him through someone there?” Now when I say it’s a hike, I am not joking. It’s seven large blocks down. For Alexa that wouldn’t be much of a hike, but for me… well…

Alexa said to me, “Mom, what do we have to lose? If we don’t go, you could have missed your one chance to see him.”

So you guessed it, off we went….

Now the walk isn’t really bad when you can stop and catch your breath on one of the many benches along the way. But because it had been raining most of the day, all the benches were wet! And I don’t know if you know this, but most Colonial Homes didn’t have front porches! So most of the steps were wet too! Just before we reach our final stop, I did manage to find one dry spot to catch my breath. It was here that I started noticing historic interpreters walking pass as if they were leaving.

We quickly go up and stopped a lovely Colonial woman who was pushing cart filled with baskets. She informed us that the programs were done and that all the interpreters were heading home! I asked her if she knew if the Young James Madison had already left and she told me that she thought he had just walked by! But she asked me to follow her and she would see if he was still there. As we reached the next block, she pointed to another Colonial young man that she said would know where he was. I thanked her and headed over to him.

This kind young man did indeed know the “Young Mr. Madison” and asked me to stand by at the corner as he went inside to see if he was still there. We stood there for what felt like a long time even though I am sure it wasn’t. I started to think at first that we had missed him. Then I started to think the young man had forgotten us! Then I looked up to see “Young James Madison” coming out of a doorway.


Bryan was wonderful. I introduced him to Alexa and we discussed his studies and programs. He is working on a new script for a new program he will be doing soon. In the middle of our conversation, Bryan mentioned that we looked familiar to him. I thought maybe he just knew our faces from the blog or Facebook. But was we spoke, he mentioned that he lived in Chesapeake. A couple quick inquires and we found out that we attended the same church for many years together. Bryan was a couple years older than Alexa and several years older than Tyler, but we have known his family as members. Fun how we both had to travel to Williamsburg to find someone we knew from home.

We thanked Bryan for taking time to talk with us and promised to return to see him in his programs soon. As we headed back to the car, the rain started lightly coming down. It wasn’t too heavy to get us really wet and the trees offered some shelter from the mist.

We decided to end our outing to Williamsburg with a drive down Colonial Parkway between Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown. This is a beautiful drive and with the rain on the new leaves, the greens were just so bright and wonderful! We took our time as cars rushing home from daily jobs passed us. It was nice to just drive to see what you can see and not to worry about when you are going to get there. Rushing around, we miss so much in our lives.


To see more photos from our past trips to Williamsburg

Facebook Link

Please visit our Facebook Fan Page!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History, Food and Recipes | 14 Comments »

Another day at the plantation and Hint #7

Jun. 4th 2012

Another great day at the plantation! We headed up on Saturday, this time with my sister Catherine, who is here from Alabama. Hurley, our plantation dog, decided to stay home with our son for a day of swimming. Catherine’s husband, Andrew is a video producer. He is working on an introduction video of the plantation for us. Catherine was helping us on Saturday with the reshoots.

Catherine working on the reshoot

When we arrived, the sun was out and it was a beautiful day. Not too hot and perfect for filming. While she looked around and figured what she wanted to shoot and the time we needed to do it, I hung back around the front portico of the house, exploring the ground around the base of the house. Since we have been working on this project, I have made it a point to keep my eyes open for artifacts that might be just lying around. We have a caretaker that lives there now and he has told us that artifacts show up all the time. He has found items such as bottles and Indian arrowheads and tools. In the short time I have been there, I have found a broken perfume bottle from Germany that dated to 1860, two blue and white plate shards and lots of coal. This Saturday was no exception.


The house was restored from 1997 to 2003. During the restoration, they pulled out several old nails and just discarded them. I found a pile of them around the horse hitching post in the front and along the base of the house.

Green and White Plate Shards

White Dish Shards

Blue and White Plate Shards

I also found two more plate shards, this time green and white. As I was walking between the outbuildings and the old barn site, I found three more white dish shards. And of course more coal. What is so amazing is that it is just sitting on the surface of the ground. No digging involved. I have to admit I love finding the plate shards. It’s like having a connection to those that came before. Maybe one day we can find a whole piece! Wouldn’t that be grand!

Once we got the video we needed for that time of day, we headed out to allow the sun to set. The sun sets on the Riverside of the house and baths the house in a golden warm glow. We wanted to capture that on the video. So we spent our time visiting some of the local attractions. One of our stops was back at Ingleside Winery. There we did a wonderful tasting! We even got lucky. They had opened one of the Virginia Gold bottles and allowed us to taste it as well. This one is not on the tasting list. It was one of the best wines from Ingleside that we have had and it has the awards to prove it. After the tastings, we received a free private tour of the winery with one of the funniest tour guides we have ever met. It has long been a dream of Catherine’s to have a vineyard and winery so this was up her alley. Who knows maybe one day she and Andrew can move up and run a vineyard on our plantation!

Once we completed the tour, we head out to one of the best cakery and candy stores we have ever been to. It’s called Mary’s Cakery & Candy Kitchen. When you walk into this store, you immediately go into a diabetic coma. The chocolate smell is so thick in the air that I think I gain at least five pounds on the smell alone!

Mary has been making cakes and candy for years. She learned her craft from a 75 year old man who worked in Hersey, Pennsylvania. I have to tell you, her creations would have Willie Wonka asking questions.

Chocolate “Rocks”

She also creates some of the most decadent cakes you have ever tasted.

One of Mary’s biggest weapons is her husband, Jim or as everyone knows him, “Mr. Mary”.  Jim works the store while Mary and her staff create the masterpieces you will find there. Jim makes sure that each and every customer is greeted and has at least two or three samples before they go. In our case, Brett ended up with about ten candy samples and two cupcakes before we left the first time!

Mary’s Chocolate Truffles

By the time we finished at the candy store, we rolled ourselves back out to the car to head back to the plantation, just in time for sunset. We allowed Catherine to do her video work while Brett and I walked the plantation again. Most of the time we spent sitting on the rivers bluff looking out at the river and watched our resident osprey.




We have a mating couple of osprey that we are told return each year from April to September. The only issue is that they have chosen to nest on one of the main chimneys. In doing some research, we have discovered that once they have left the nest for the season, we can put up a new nesting site on a pole stand close to the house, using their last nest to encourage them to move. We will then have to place something on the chimneys to keep them from nesting there next year. From what we understand, these two ospreys had to defend this nest at the beginning of the season from two eagles. I hear it was a great sky battle that would have been a sight to see. But the osprey won the day and was able to nest again for another season. We have named them as well. We affectionately call them “James” and “Dolley”. We hope to have them return for many years to come. We also hope to see the bald eagles in the area from time to time. It is such a grand sight to see!

New Hint!

Hint One:

Captain John Smith sailed up the river that runs by this plantation in 1608 and noted the Indian settlements along the river banks.

Hint Two:

George Washington was a frequent visitor to this plantation.

Hint Three:

It’s not Williamsburg or the area around Williamsburg.

Hint Four:

Two famous Virginians were born on this plantation. Both were very good with words.

Hint Five: 

The town located across the river from this plantation once was under consideration for Nation’s Capital.

Hint Six:

An assassin passed through this plantation on the way to his death.

Hint Seven:

Name the birds.

Advice – Read other’s comments. If someone guesses correctly, I do tell them. We have had one person name the plantation. If you name it, there is a special treat for you!

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 94 Comments »

A day at the Plantation and Hint #5

May. 28th 2012

Today we headed up to the plantation for a day trip with our Plantation Dog, Hurley. As we crossed the bridge and saw the house sitting on the bluff, I felt it hard to catch my breath. We have been working on this for almost one year (July, 2011) and I still get the electric feel when we see it again. I can’t wait to come home for good.

Entry driveway

When we arrived, we allowed Hurley to jump out and walk around the front yard while I walked down to let the caretakers know we were there. We then stepped into the front hall. As I stepped in, I realized that the air had not been turned on, so it was a little warm in the house. The second thing I noticed was how Hurley was reacting to the house. Now you have to understand Hurley is a very easy going dog. Nothing really affects him. He just goes with the flow. We have taken him to other places and homes and every time he was just himself, excited to be somewhere new. But this time, it was different. As he came in, he started to appear kind of skittish. His body was lower to the floor and he was walking as if he was afraid the floor would drop out from under him. I don’t think it was the floor, which is hardwood. We have hardwood at our current house and he grew up on them. But as we walked through the house, you could see he just wasn’t sure about it. And he had to look at every space in the house. When we went upstairs, he even nosed his way into a closet where the door was slightly ajar.

We decided to take him outside for water and to walk around outside. He ran as normal, nothing seems out of place. He loved the front circle and yard until he saw the back and the bluff overlooking the river.

Riverview from the balcony of the house

After being outside for a short time, we realized that he was getting over heated so we decided to take him up to the balcony for the breeze to try and cool him off. It didn’t work. So we walked back in and he walked to the other side of the upstairs hall and laid down on the landing. My husband and I agreed we need to cut it short to get him out of the heat, so I called for him to come. This is where it gets weird. He got up and started towards me and took a step off the landing. But he stopped half off the landing and just stood there. Now I have seen him do this before at our current house. My daughter who lives with us also has a cat that Hurley grew up with. If he is walking somewhere in the house and she is in the way, he will stop and wait for her to move. That is almost what he did. It was like he was waiting for someone or something to move. So I walked over to him and told him to come on. He moved around me, but walked to the far side of the wall opposite of the staircase and then made his way around to the top to head down. All I can say is weird.

Magnolias from the plantation

Brett and Hurley on the front portico

After we got back in the car and got some air on Hurley, we head to a local winery. There are two that are very close to the plantation and they are both really good! (I will post a blog about the winery soon) As we headed over to the winery, we came across (you guessed it) an antique store! I have been to this one before, but I talked my husband into stopping on the way back from the winery. Score again!! This time I found 5 new tea cups and a tea pot set. Once we reveal the plantation, I can tell you the name of this place. But I can tell you it is in a barn that belongs to an 85 year old man who has to be one of the coolest people to talk with. His favorite thing to say is, “Buy something so I don’t have to eat hot dogs tonight.” I love it!

After my last antique purchases of the long weekend (glad it wasn’t a week, I would be broke!) we headed over to a local candy store to see if they were open. This candy store (which I will reveal once we make the announcement) is one to die for! When you walk into this store, you immediately go into a diabetic coma! The aroma of chocolate is so thick here; you almost have to cut it with a knife! The owner has been in business for years. She makes chocolate confections that Willie Wonka would envy! She also makes cakes and pies people come five hours to get. She used to make wedding cakes, but her orders got to be so overwhelming she had to stop. But! We have come to an agreement that she will be making wedding cakes exclusively for our plantation. She won’t make any wedding cakes for anyone else!

However, when we arrived, we were greeted with a closed sign for her store. That’s okay; we will be back on Saturday!

New Hint!

Hint One:

Captain John Smith sailed up the river that runs by this plantation in 1608 and noted the Indian settlements along the river banks.

Hint Two:

George Washington was a frequent visitor to this plantation.

Hint Three:

It’s not Williamsburg or the area around Williamsburg.

Hint Four:

Two famous Virginians were born on this plantation. Both were very good with words.

Hint Five:  NEW!

The town located across the river from this plantation once was under consideration for Nation’s Capital.

Advice – Read other’s comments. If someone guesses correctly, I do tell them. The first hint has been answered correctly.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 85 Comments »