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Maymont features delightful experiences for everyone
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Maymont features delightful experiences for everyone

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Just an hour’s drive from Culpeper lies an enchanted realm that, for many, is an undiscovered treasure—Maymont.

The Richmond home of philanthropist–millionaires James and Sallie Dooley from 1893 to the 1920s, the beautiful 100-acre estate was intended to be a showcase, featuring a Gilded Age mansion and Italian and Japanese gardens with a cascade, pond, waterfall and fountains. It was also once the site of a gathering for the governors of 46 states.

Since 1975, the estate has been under the care and management of the Maymont Foundation, which has preserved and replenished key original elements, while adding and augmenting other features.

Robins Nature Center

A highlight of the site that delights, educates and engages visitors of all ages is The Robins Nature Center, which reopened this July. Through a spectrum of exhibits and interactive displays, the center showcases the remarkable ecosystem of the James River, located along Maymont’s southern border.

A spectacular feature of the nature center is River Reach, a towering 34-foot climbable sculpture offering a series of netted organically shaped rising platforms that are patterned with micro-organisms of the river environs. Visitors can sign up to engage in the River Reach at the center.

In one area of the 29,000-square-foot display room are 13 aquariums, featuring fish and aquatic creatures that inhabit the James River at its fall line. Related features include a multimedia interactive animation replicating interactions with animals and water in a river environment, and virtual shallow-pool touch stations revealing wildlife and native plants of the ecosystem.

A star of the nature center’s live displays is Louis the otter, who is currently featured on Maymont’s live webcam.

Another section, “Run of the River,” invites visitors for physical activity and fun-filled recreation in a simulated environment where they can climb on rocks, visit a beaver dam and even hop in a kayak. In addition, the Robins Nature Center offers colorful and informative giant river murals, short videos and interactive fish-identification stations.

Maymont Farm

Another special feature of the estate today is the Maymont Farm, home to goats, sheep, chickens, domestic rabbits, donkeys, cows, pigs and horses. Guests can purchase food for the animals at machines on-site and have an opportunity to feel a sheep’s wool or the nudge of a hungry goat.

Wildlife Habitat

Visitors can take a walk on the wild side, as they stroll by fenced wildlife environments that are the habitats for a variety of Virginia native species—both of the past and present—including bison, black bears, bald eagles, bobcats, elk, red fox and sika deer.

“We are not really a zoo, but a sanctuary for animals that could not survive on their own in the wild because they had been injured, orphaned or socialized to the point that they could not fend for themselves in the wild,” said Carla Murray, director of communications. “Our bobcat is an example of that. A family found him on the side of the road and thought he was just a regular little kitten. But it just kept growing! We work with wildlife rehabilitators and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who connect us with the animals that we can provide a home to.”

Visitors are welcome to bring a picnic basket and blanket or chair to lunch on the grounds. A popular spot is Picnic Hill, featuring a life-sized sculpture of children crossing a log. Guests can also purchase a snack or a bottle of water at vending machines, positioned throughout the grounds.

Mutts at Maymont

For the first time this year, Maymont is inviting all well-behaved, leashed pups to enjoy an exclusive night where they can walk a designated Pup Path through the grounds, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 29. Visitors must preregister and admission is $10 per dog, who can bring their humans free of charge. There will be food trucks for people and pooches, and beverages and live music will add to the festive environment.

“Our mission is to delight and educate and inspire, and I hope that is what we do. There is something to appeal to anyone of any interest of any age,” Murray said. “We feature six enchanting gardens and it’s so much fun to watch the animals, whether it’s the bears goofing off in their pond or the goats jumping around. It is really something special and I don’t think there is any place like it.”

Online offerings

In addition to its on-site experiences, the folks at Maymont have developed a spectrum of online offerings. These include an information-packed introduction to the residents of the estate’s farm and wildlife habitats.

Online highlights also include Toddler Time videos, which feature a story read by Maymont’s staff and related craft creations. Other video presentations include “What’s New” highlights, Animal Encounters, Bird Watching, Tree of the Month, and the delightful series “Owl Betcha Didn’t Know,” hosted by Maymont’s resident owl, Jiminy.

Families can also find at-home activities online, such as printable coloring pages, and instructions for crafts including creating a flying squirrel, a spotted snake and an alligator bag puppet.

“I often say there is always something new to discover at Maymont. It doesn’t matter how many times you come. There’s always a new flower in bloom or a new animal to see. You notice things you didn’t notice before. This place has been very special. It’s not only a sanctuary for animals. It’s a refuge for humans, too,” Murray said.

“At a time when we haven’t been able to get out and do the things we might have typically been doing, it’s a safe place to relax and explore. We have 100 acres here, so there is space to spread out. Sometimes you feel like you have the whole place to yourself,” she added. “We have the pond and a waterfall and fountains. Around every corner there is a new sound, whether it’s a fountain splashing or a bird chirping or a rooster crowing at the farm.”

Collette Caprara is a Fredericksburg-area writer and artist.

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