Our apartment complex, which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, was an experience – to say the least. We lived above a part-time pot dealer who sold to the movers who unpacked our household goods. Our other neighbors spoke no English and were constantly almost burning down the apartment while cooking but were tremendously friendly. Words like buggy (shopping cart), coke (any soft drink whatsoever, not just Coca-Cola), and sweet tea (liquid sugar) made their way into my verbal repertoire. And did you know that the adage, “well bless your heart” has precious little to do with blessings? Well let me tell you, it does not. The whole experience seemed so unlike everything I was used to.
I often look back at our time in Fort Lee with a twinge of regret. I wish we had had the wherewithal to travel more and the hindsight to appreciate the friendships we formed there. Because in the end, that’s what matters most about a place – not what’s there, but who’s there.
So if you find yourself at Ft. Lee in the near future, grab your spouse, bestie, or battle buddy and make some memories as you enjoy a few of the things on my top 10 list. I hope you love them as much as I did! And if you don’t, well bless your little heart! 😉
- The Seasons/Temperate Climate
I grew up in a place with four distinct seasons, so Virginia was a great first foray into differing climates. Summers there are hot and melt-your-mascara-off-muggy, with an average high of 90 in July. Winters are generally mild, and snow is a rarity, though it does dip below freezing in December, January, and February. We were lucky enough to get three inches of snow our first winter, and they literally closed down the entire area – the base, the schools, everything. Take advantage of the lovely weather in the spring and fall by enjoying my number nine spot …
- Evening walks with wraparound porches
If you’re from the north, you need to take some leisurely strolls through a wealthy Virginia neighborhood. The houses y’all! They’re grand and regal in a way I hadn’t experienced before. You’ll find nice places almost anywhere, but in Virginia you can feel the history emanating from the gorgeous porches of the statuesque and well-seasoned homes. They have stories to tell if you’ll let them, and I highly recommend taking a holiday historical homes tour as part of your exploration into my number eight endorsement.
- Local History
History buffs, you just hit the jackpot! Petersburg, VA, played host to some of the Civil War’s most pivotal and intense battles, and its rich historical offerings don’t end there. You’ll find no shortage of museums and tours to satiate your historical appetite, including African American history tours, the Centre Hill Mansion Museum, and even a historical-facts-packed ghost walk for those brave enough!
- Petersburg National Battlefield
Petersburg National Battlefield combines my favorite things about the picturesque seasons in Virginia and the local history of Petersburg. It’s just minutes from post, has beautiful stroller friendly walking paths, plenty of informative plaques throughout the grounds, as well as a nice visitors center with bathrooms. I can’t recommend it enough!
- Short Pump, WaWa, and Sheetz
No, this isn’t the opening of a bad joke … Short Pump, WaWa, and Sheetz may sound funny, but you’ll want to remember those names! If all of this historical and outdoorsy business isn’t your thang, head up to Short Pump Town Center for some shopping. Short Pump is a beautiful open air shopping mall with a nice variety of stores, which is a good thing, because while Petersburg does have a mall, it’s on the smaller side. Make Short Pump mall one of your day trip destinations the next time you venture out, and don’t forget to stop at a Sheetz or WaWa convenience store to fuel up both your vehicle and yourself. Seriously, these are some next level “gas stations,” offering freshly made (and seriously decent) food, terrific coffee, and a wide variety of other convenience items.
- Proximity to Washington D.C.
Our nation’s capital is a two and a half hour drive from Ft. Lee, which is technically doable as a day trip, though I highly recommend spending a long weekend there so that you’re able to enjoy the city at your leisure. You could spend weeks in D.C. and barely scratch the surface of what it has to offer, so please don’t rush yourself. Among the must see sites of Washington D.C. are its dozens of world class museums and the many monuments and memorials which may have particular significance for military members and their families. Spring time is especially beautiful when the cherry trees are in bloom. **
- Edgar Allan Poe Museum
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum is located in Richmond – Virginia’s capital city and Poe’s hometown. It’s about a thirty minute drive from post, and a “can’t miss” for literary nerds like me. There are multiple buildings to explore, an available audio tour to complement your explorations, and a beautiful garden modeled after Poe’s To One In Paradise. Although the website states that the site is wheelchair/stroller accessible, I would suggest skipping the stroller if possible as the buildings and grounds are nearly a hundred years old. If you’re able, plan to go during one of the museum’s special events as an added treat.
- Virginia Beach
One of my favorite memories from our time at Ft. Lee actually took place at Virginia Beach. At the time, we were still young and childless and decided on a whim to drive to the beach and share a hotel room with a small group of friends, as the young and childless are wont to do. The hotel was right on the beach and the waves beckoned, so we all waded out the water, only to be greeted moments later by a not-too-happy police officer … on a horse. It turns out you’re not allowed to swim in the water after dark (fair warning!), and in the midst of explaining this, the officer became exasperated with a member of our group who was standing at parade rest. He told said friend that he could stop embarrassing himself, and basically told us all to scram. Told you we were young. As long as you don’t swim after dark, I can promise you you’ll enjoy your time at Virginia Beach.
- Maymont Mansion and Gardens
The breathtaking Maymont estate accounts for over 100 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens and is located in the heart of Richmond, Virginia. Tours of the mansion itself are available and well worth your time, but the gardens, please tell me you’ll go see the gardens! They’re absolutely stunning and transportive in a way you can’t fully appreciate until you’re there. Plan to go on a mild sunny day, bring a picnic lunch, and linger in the Japanese Garden long enough to bring a little tranquility home with you. You can check Maymont’s website to find out what’s in bloom during the time you plan to visit.
- Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg is well known for its fascinating portrayal of life during the Colonial Era. What people may not know is that one time per year, active duty military members and up to three of their dependents are allowed FREE admission. That means more money for sampling fare from the more than 40 shops and restaurants located in the Merchant’s Square and extra cash for souvenirs from the Historic Area. There are demonstrations and reenactments galore, including a very hands-on exploration of life as a Virginia State Garrison soldier, a scandalous court trial, and incredible exhibitions from blacksmiths, firefighters, and apothecary practitioners. Lodging is available on the grounds, but Williamsburg is an easy hour drive from Ft. Lee, and very doable as a day trip. There’s something for everyone in Colonial Williamsburg, don’t miss it!
Ft. Lee, Virginia was my very first duty station. It was the first place I lived away from home, the place where I had my first baby, and the place where I cut my teeth on Army life. It’s not a large impressive base like Ft. Hood, and it’s not a top duty station destination like Schofield or Stuttgart. I’m not even really sure where to classify it regionally!
What it did turn out to be, though, was the location of my first military life lesson – that one’s own perceptions and attitudes can make or break a duty station – and for that lesson, I will always be grateful to it.
So dig in, reach out, explore, and leave me a picture of your adventures in the comments section!
** I have two words of caution about making the trip from Ft. Lee to the Capital. One is to not underestimate the traffic. If there’s a festival, holiday, or just a plain ol’ traffic accident, you’re going to experience some significant delays. I’m talking double the amount of travel time. Bring snacks, drinks, and a travel potty for the kiddos (no seriously, you’ll thank me)! My second word of caution pertains to mobility. More than likely you will be parking in a parking garage, or at your hotel, and then walking the rest of the day. Not all monuments, memorials, and museums allow strollers, so please check the website of each place you plan to visit beforehand. I highly recommend bringing a baby carrier for your littlest darlings and being patient and realistic about the number of destinations you’ll be able to experience each day with kids in tow. Also, if you’re traveling with a wounded warrior or other family member who requires a wheelchair, walker, or cane, please check each site for accessibility. With that being said, enjoy the city and all it has to offer often and with an adventurous spirit!