Best Places to Live
Sweet Home Northern Virginia: Six families tell us why they love the places they call home. And to that we add 44 more—GREATS that RATE.
By Lucinda Michell
You don’t need to be told that Loudoun County is one of the fastest growing in the nation. You realize it the minute you venture into this county. Chances are you’re behind a construction truck. Growth is everywhere and neighborhoods are going up as fast as they can pour cement. Some neighborhoods are charming, like Memorial Drive in the heart of Old Town Leesburg. Others have the personality of a cardboard box. Ahh, and then there’s Brambleton.
This dynamic new neighborhood is leading the pack in innovation. It’s the first community of its kind to have an advanced technology infrastructure. That was certainly appealing to Phil and Debbie Harris, but there was a whole lot more that sparked their interest. “For the last ten years we lived in Kincaid Forest. That was a terrific little neighborhood in Leesburg,” says Debbie. “We had no intentions of moving.” But the husband-and-wife realty team decided it was time to make an investment; in real estate, of course. Because of their line of work, they knew all about the popular Brambleton section of Ashburn. “We considered buying a townhouse or condo to rent out,” says Phil, “Then we discovered the Sky Meadows neighborhood and decided we wanted to live in our investment.”
The first thing that caught Debbie’s eye was Brambleton’s Town Center. “I’ve always loved the energy of Reston Town Center, so when I found out Brambleton was going to have one too, I was hooked. It makes me feel so cosmopolitan walking to stores and doing other errands,” says Debbie. “Yet I still have the beauty of living in the country.”
Another focal point is the 15-acre Legacy Park, with miles of athletic trails spread throughout the neighborhood. Builders were careful to preserve many of the natural resources like wetlands, ponds and cedar hedgerows. “We feel like we’ve found the best neighborhood here, but we like to check out the new sections to see the different architectural styles,” says Phil. Still in the early stages of development, it will take Brambleton another 10 years before the build-out is complete. “I don’t care about the dust,” Debbie says. “To see a new community unfold is inspiring.”
Although the Harris’ commute is an easy one, up one flight of stairs to their home office, they still enjoy easy access to major roads like the Greenway, Loudoun County Parkway and Route 7. “We’re in a great spot,” says Phil. “Whenever we can, Debbie and I jump on my Harley and head out on the back roads.” Debbie adds with a smile, “Makes us feel ‘one with the world.’”
Brambleton’s Claim to Fame
Fasten your seatbelts because this neighborhood is wired for speed. Every home comes with a telecommunication package provided by Verizon’s fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) technology, offering “triple play” of voice, video and data services. The Verizon FiOS Internet Service has an incredible connection speed of up to 15 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. Nine e-mail accounts, 10MB of web space, 89 standard and 4 HDTV video channels are provided. There’s also a community wide Intranet where residents connect through message boards, calendar of events, classifieds, newsletters and more. Live technical help is available 24/7. And the real treat? All of this, plus pools, tennis, maintenance fees, recycle, trash and snow removal are included in ONE association fee. Sweet!
Hands down, it’s the brand new Town Center, which is being built is phases and will cover 30-acres when complete. Residents are thrilled to already have their own Harris Teeter Grocery Store, along with banks, cleaners and other necessity stores like a drive-through Caribou Coffee and Cold Stone Creamery. The second phase is called the “Lifestyle Center” and will feature Ashburn’s first movie theater, fine dining restaurants, upscale retail, an outdoor ice rink and water features. Fun City!
(Price William County)
When you hear the name “Manassas,” what comes to mind? Civil War battlefields, antiques and history? Well, you’re about to meet one of the original families from this area, but they’re not a hundred years old. They live in Lake Manassas, which is actually in Gainesville, approximately 10 miles northwest of Manassas.
Meet the Nelsons, one of the first families to live in Lake Manassas. About eight years ago, Eric and Eileen Nelson were looking for a unique lot to build their first home. They discovered Lake Manassas and fell in love with the beauty and serenity of the area. “There are three stocked ponds for fishing, miles of walking and jogging trails, and to keep my husband happy there’s not one, but two golf courses,” says Eileen. This breathtaking neighborhood has already earned a long list of awards in its short life – “1995 Southern Living Showcase Home,” 1998 Northern Virginia Builders Association’s “Finest for Family Living” and “Southern Living Select Custom Builder Program,” to name a few.
“Because it’s a gated community, I feel like it’s a safe and comfortable place to raise children,” says Eileen. “We’re in our second home in Lake Manassas and we bought a lot for a third home in the future. That’s how much we believe in this neighborhood.”
Another perk for the Nelsons is the tremendous community involvement. “My children and I play tennis and there’s also an active swim team,” Eileen says. Additional clubs include everything from knitting groups to financial and book clubs. “We have an energetic social committee that plans activities for kids, families and even ‘adults only,’” adds Eileen. The Lake Manassas Connection newsletter is helpful in keeping everyone informed.
Considered to be one big neighborhood, 80 percent of the Lake Manassas Development is finished, and will cover 640-acres when complete. “It’s exciting to be part of a new community,” Eileen says. “My kids will have wonderful memories of growing up in this neighborhood.”
Lake Manassas’ Claim to Fame
The pride and joy of this neighborhood are the two spectacular golf courses. Stonewall Golf Club was recently named to the “America’s Best Public Access Course” list by GolfWeek and as one of the “Top 50 Courses for Women” by Golf for Women. Civil War history is a running theme. Named after [Confederate] General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, many golf holes run along the famous “Carolina Trail” where some of the old ruts can still be seen. Other highlights include a Patriot Club membership and excellent golf instruction to help locate that elusive “perfect swing.”
The prestigious Robert Trent Jones Golf Club is a private golf course also located on the striking shores of Lake Manassas. Host of the PGA’s famous 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2005 Presidents Cup, this neighborhood had front row seats to view 24 of the world’s best golf players.
Sprawling Fairfax County has thousands of neighborhoods, but according to Sam and Pamela Karam, there’s only one that is perfect. When they began their search for the best neighborhood, they had three criteria: One, the schools had to be excellent for their young sons. Two, the house had to be charming but still fit within their budget. And three, the area needed to be culturally diverse. Because Sam owns a produce company in Washington D.C., they knew they needed to stay as close to the city as possible.
After a year of searching on their own and with a realtor, the Karam family finally found their ideal haven in Chatham Square, on the border of Dunn Loring and Vienna. “It was a struggle and sometimes frustrating,” says Pamela, “But we found everything we were hoping for, and more.”
“I feel passionate about the education my kids are receiving here,” Pamela explains. “My youngest son attends Holly Brook Montessori School where they celebrate International Day on Halloween. All the children dress up in ethnic costumes, then point to the country that they represent. What a great way to learn about the world!” Her older son attends the neighborhood public school, where she is the monthly “mystery” reader for his class. Pamela points out another important aspect in choosing their neighborhood. “I work, but I wanted to be physically close to my kids. I have a wonderful boss so I’m able to zip over and have lunch with my kids on a regular basis.”
Although Vienna is located in one of the most affluent counties in the nation, residents say you won’t feel a hard, cold reception here. Instead, Vienna prides itself on their small town warmth. Neighbors mingle and stay involved with a busy calendar of events. The Community Center’s active Phoenix Teen Center is so successful that other areas are using it as a model.
“We love to explore,” says Sam. “There are so many ethnic possibilities in Vienna. It’s fun to expose the kids to different types of food. And we’ve met some wonderful people here.” During the last five years, the Karams have seen an explosion of growth. “It’s a mixed bag,” says Pamela. “There’s more traffic, but there’s also more shops, theaters and restaurants. And that means that we have everything we need right here in our neighborhood.”
Vienna’s Claim to Fame
“We are honored to have been chosen as the ‘4th Best Place to Live in America’ by Money Magazine,” Mayor M. Jane Seeman says about her town. “The Town of Vienna is an authentic small town of about 15,000 residents. There are many family oriented festivals and events throughout the year including ViVa!Vienna!, July 4th and the Halloween Parade. We pride ourselves in maintaining our residential character and providing the best possible service to our citizens. The Town of Vienna has character, traditions and a rich history.”
For shopping, the favorite spot used to be Tysons Corner Center. Then they built Tysons Galleria, and now… it’s back to the new wing of Tysons Corner Center. With valet parking and hip new stores like Ruehl, Urban Outfitters, and Arhaus for home décor, it’s easy to be extravagant. There’s also a 16-screen megaplex movie theater with comfy stadium seating. Once shopping is complete, the reward is a trip to Coastal Flats for an exotic Key Lime Pie Martini. Delicious!
Vienna locals (and anyone else passing through) rave about the tiny but terrific Skorpios Maggio’s Family Restaurant. Tucked away in a mini strip mall on Maple Ave, this family owned Greek restaurant serves the best rotisserie chicken you’ve ever tasted. Generous in portions and spirit, affable owner Chris Maggio and his wife Sherry will make sure you have plenty of tzatziki sauce, pita and baklava. Just like in the old days, all advertising is done by word of mouth.
(City of Alexandria)
Just outside our nation’s capital is the intimate neighborhood of Jefferson Park. Older, more established, yet full of character were just the features Bart and Pam Farrell were looking for in a neighborhood 14 years ago. During their newlywed years they lived in a condominium in Old Town Alexandria. Once the honeymoon wore off, they decided it was time for more space, for themselves and for their beloved black Lab. But not just any neighborhood would do.
Bart is the director of purchasing for Clyde’s Restaurant in Georgetown and Pam is an arts education specialist in Arlington, so every weekend the Farrells drive through different sections of Arlington and Alexandria. “Jefferson Park kept drawing us back,” says Pam. “My niece and nephew went to the local school so I knew a little about this section of North Ridge.” Pam had heard about the annual Labor Day party where the streets are closed off and a few hundred neighbors attend, all bearing side dishes. Even the fire department shows up. “This has been going on for over 30 years,” says Pam. “Now that is community spirit!”
Bart was attracted to the huge old trees, larger lots and the variety of house styles. “It reminds me of where I grew up in Long Island, New York.” Both enjoy the mix of ages from young couples to families with kids to empty-nesters. The added bonus is the dog-friendly neighborhood. “On our street alone, there are six Labs,” says Pam.
Houses were built around the 1940s and plots were sold individually. Through the years, the majority of homeowners have done some type of renovation, leaving the neighborhood with a creative mix of elegant and inviting homes. At one point the Farrells thought they might want to move to a larger house. After looking around, they decided to stay put and add on. “Our house is old but solid, and our quality of life is wonderful here,” says Bart. “Plus our dog would never forgive us if we moved away from his buddies.”
Jefferson Park’s Favorites
If you’ve ever been invited to a shindig in this neighborhood, chances are that gorgeous (and more importantly, delicious) cake came from Alexandria Pastry Shop and Cafe in the Bradley Shopping Center. Locals love the veggie wraps and tarragon chicken salad, plus all the neighborhood friends they’ve made at this café. “We’ve been here 17 years,” says owner Tom Lally. “It’s been fun to watch all the friendships develop. There’s even been a few love interests spring up.” Did we mention that Lally has a short walk to work? He happens to live in Jefferson Park, too.
Reunion is one of those rare neighborhood shops where the owner, Anne Donohoe, has gotten to know her customers and buys with their tastes in mind. She’s been in business for 18 years and fills her store with classic gifts like fine linens, antiques and even a few special consignments. More trendy items like Vera Bradley bags and fabulous jewelry are always in stock.
This urban village has been described as “quirky, vibrant and wonderful!” Arlington County board member Jay Fisette explains, “Sitting at a sidewalk café in this neighborhood is reminiscent of being in Paris. Imagine folks just strolling about with an ice cream cone or on their way to a club.” He adds, “The mix of residential, commercial and retail helps nurture an energetic pulse. It’s fun and exciting. That’s why so many people love living here.”
Long-time residents Lisa and Aaron Nisenson, along with son Nate, agree. “We’ve lived in three different houses, all in this neighborhood,” says Lisa. “Even though it’s an urban setting, the people that live and work here make it feel like Mayberry.”
As a Smart Growth specialist for the EPA, Lisa was looking for a neighborhood where she could bike (as in pedal) to work. “It takes me 20 minutes to bike to Crystal City, but in bad weather, I have to take metro. That takes about 25 minutes,” smiles Lisa. “My good friend Maria Zimmerman is also a biker, but her husband is even luckier. He gets to walk to his job at George Mason University.”
All that energy is put to good use. This community loves to throw a party with celebrations like Clarendon Day, one big street party featuring local restaurants and bands and the festive Clarendon Courthouse Mardi Gras with colorful and whacky floats built by the locos… I mean, locals. The Clarendon Antiques & Collectibles Market is held every Saturday. For the last couple of years, Nate has run a very lucrative lemonade stand at the famous Clarendon Farmer’s Market.
Unfortunately, due to a job transfer, the Nisenson family will soon be moving to Florida. “But we are so devoted to this neighborhood that we‘re still keeping our house here. We’ll just have to see where the future takes us.”
Voted washingtonpost.com’s 2005 BestBets Neighborhood Bar, Whitlow’s on Wilson is everybody’s favorite. The personalities of the bartenders keep the place giggling. On Monday’s they serve half-price (good and juicy) burgers and their Sunday brunch buffet is a winner. In the evening, live bands play the gamut—classic and soulful rock, reggae and funky. The minimal cover charge (about $4) is well worth the entertainment Thursday through Saturday, and no charge other nights.
What was once an empty parking lot is now a central shopping area—Market Common Clarendon. The developer made a conscious effort to blend the modern shops of Market Common, like Crate & Barrel, Barnes & Noble and South Moon Under, with the existing eclectic, smaller shops. Contrasting the old and the new so creatively makes this a neighborhood shopping hot spot.
Clarendon’s Claim to Fame
Showing great wisdom, a partnership was created in 1986, “to promote the health and vitality of Clarendon,” according to their website, and the Clarendon Alliance was born. Residents, business property owners and retailers work together on common issues like parking, traffic and future development. Executive Director Roni Freeman says, “This is the perfect organization for people who harbor dreams of being a shop owner, but alas, are only residents.” Residents are part of the dream by supporting the shop owners. In turn, the shop owners learn what residents want. “My son has grown up with many of the small business owners knowing him by name,” says Freeman. “They’re thinking, ‘Soon, a bus boy.’ Actually, most of the kids are known by the shop owners. It’s that integration of commercial and residential, and the pervasive sense of commitment and responsibility to taking care of each other. I really think the Alliance helps to pave the way for this.”
Located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, Warrenton is no longer your grandmother’s sleepy little town. Your grandmother may live here, but she wears cowboy boots, skydives and line dances.
As far as Evan and Marisha Young were concerned, this rockin’ rural town had all the traits to make them both happy. Evan loved the great outdoors, while Marisha preferred a downtown feel. Unfortunately, homes were expensive and snatched up quickly in their favorite Old Town neighborhood. Then they got a lucky break. A friend mentioned that she was moving. Her current address? The Leeds Square neighborhood, two blocks from Main Street in Old Town Warrenton. The Youngs begged her not to put the house on the market, but to sell to them directly. Although she’d already had several inquires about her highly sought-after townhouse, friends are friends and a deal was made.
Three years, two daughters and one cat later, the Youngs couldn’t be happier. “I love walking to town for a bite to eat or a little shopping,” says Marisha. “All the shop owners know us by name. Everybody drops in at Dharma and Leopold’s Chic Boutique and it turns into one big play date.” Evan is in alpha-male heaven. Rhodes Drugstore (also a fabulous gift shop and fly shop) is within walking distance, Clarks Gun Shop is down the road, and now he is a proud member of the Culpeper Hunt Club.
Like most Northern Virginia neighborhoods, Warrenton is growing and changing. New houses were recently built on Main Street, but they still maintain historic appeal with wrap-around porches and other architectural features. Turn-of-the-century street lights, brick sidewalks, parades and a farmer’s market are some of the traditional characteristics that appeal to the Youngs. “But then on the more modern side, we have unique and funky shops and lively restaurants and clubs,” adds Marisha. “This neighborhood does a beautiful job of blending the old with the new.”
Unlike other small towns, when the sun sets in the evening, this old town neighborhood is young at heart. Live theater, music, dancing, and stand-up comedy are a few of the choices. “All the locals go to Molly’s Irish Pub,” grins Evan. “They have Guinness on tap. After downing a couple of those, everybody has talent on Open Mike Night.” Slainte! (Cheers, in Irish.)
When folks from Warrenton want to calm their nerves, they head a few miles outside of town to the luxurious Poplar Springs Inn. First stop is the heated outdoor hot tub. Next is a Native American Hot Lava Rock Massage for relaxation. Last stop is a pampered lunch in front of a roaring fire at their manor house. No worries!
When these same folks want to get their hearts racing, they head a few miles in the other direction to the Marriott Ranch. This working cattle ranch offers a number of different riding experiences like river and moonlight rides, but the favorite is the cattle drive. Pack the BenGay ointment.
Warrenton’s Claim to Fame
Acting Chief-of-Police Connie Novak puts it this way: “If you want to get back to small town where everyone knows each other, the pace is a little bit slower and the porch lights are left on, then come to Warrenton. People that were born and raised here are still here; running businesses and even policing their town. People here want to keep the big city problems away and hang on to the ideal that agreements can still be made with a handshake and a smile.”