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Visiting Mount Vernon in spring

There's no such thing as a bad time to visit George Washington's Mount Vernon, the historic estate of our first president.

Still, spring seems to be a natural fit, as the expansive gardens begin to show signs of renewed life, new lambs frolic in the paddock and stable area, and a host of special events prepare for launch.

"We have 50 acres for our visitors to explore," said Melissa Wood, media relations manager for George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens. "There really couldn't be a better time of year to be outside and experience George Washington's home than spring. I think visitors are most surprised by all there is to see and do here."

Located 16 miles from the nation's capital, Mount Vernon is serving up new ways to take in the historic site in addition to the longtime favorites.

We took a look around and found our favorites, both old and new, plus a must-do event we couldn't leave out.

What's new

The Upper Garden George Washington's Upper Garden is open after a three-year study and extensive excavation. The new design more accurately reflects its 1799 appearance, the result of work by archeologists who unearthed how the garden evolved since Washington first tended to it.

Bike and Boat The Bike and Boat experience offers a new way to experience Mount Vernon. Visitors start the day by picking up a bike, a lock, helmet and trail map in Old Town Alexandria at Bike and Roll. Then get going on a 9-mile ride along the Mount Vernon Trail to the estate.

Spend the day exploring the estate before locking up the bike and heading out aboard the Miss Christin for a narrated boat cruise back to Old Town. The cost is $53 per adult, $36 per child ages 6-12 and $20 for children ages 2-5. The fee includes bike rental, bike pickup at Mount Vernon, admission to Mount Vernon and the return boat trip. For more information, visit http://www.bikethesites.com.

Civil War walk To mark the anniversary of the start of the Civil War, visitors can experience a new walking tour, "Mount Vernon in the Civil War," beginning Saturday. The one-hour tour explores historic locations and dramatic Civil War stories.

"Mount Vernon was considered one of the few neutral areas during the Civil War," said Wood. "We can't say for sure we were the only one, but we're the only neutral site we're aware of."

What's tried and true

The distillery George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill, features costumed distillers who take visitors through the process of whiskey-making in the reconstructed 18th-century distillery. Located 3 miles from the estate, the distillery does not offer tastings, but visitors can get a glimpse of what it was like to distill whiskey during Colonial times.

"Most people don't know George Washington was the largest whiskey producer of his time that we know of," said Wood. "So that's often a surprising fact of George Washington's life.

River cruises The Potomac River sightseeing cruises explore Mount Vernon from a refreshing angle with a 40-minute narrated cruise aboard the Spirit of Mount Vernon or Miss Christin. Tickets are $9 for adults, $5 for children 6-11 and children under 5 are free; tickets are in addition to estate admission.

Down on the farm Visitors can tour the George Washington Pioneer Farm, a 4-acre site with animals and cultivated fields illustrating Washington's farming practices. (Included in estate admission.)

Wine fest Spring's must-do event is the Mount Vernon Wine Festival and Sunset Tour, May 13-15. Visitors can bring a blanket, relax on the lawn and sample wines from 16 Virginia wineries. The event features live jazz overlooking the Potomac River and evening candlelit tours of the mansion and cellar where historic interpreters discuss Washington's attempts at creating a vineyard and offer a peek at the basement's brick vaults where he stored his wine. Tickets are $35 per person and go on sale April 15. (The event is popular, so early ticket purchases are recommended.)

If you go

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Va., about 16 miles south of Washington. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., April-August. For more information, visit http://www.mountvernon.org.

Admission packages

Regular admission to the estate is $15 for adults; $7 for children ages 6-11; and free for children five and younger. Three money-saving admission packages are available beginning in April:

The Farmer Package includes admission to the estate and George Washington's Distillery & Gristmill ($21 per adult or $12 per child ages 6-11);

The Commander Package includes admission to the estate, Distillery & Gristmill, and an audio tour ($17 per adult, $8.50 per child);

The President Package, available Tuesday through Sunday only, includes admission to the estate, Distillery & Gristmill, audio tour, sightseeing cruise and 10 percent off items at The Shops at Mount Vernon. ($28 per adult or $16 per child)

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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