Catoctin Mountain rises in the distance on my right as I cruise down Route 15 past wheat-colored meadows and pastures dotted with sleek, long-legged horses.
I've left Frederick and crossed the Potomac River, the line between Maryland and Virginia, on my way south to Leesburg.
My husband's schedule didn't permit a winter getaway and friends weren't available, so I'm on my own. But after a long holiday season spent catering to my nearest and dearest, I'm primed for a selfish couple of days away.
I had stumbled on an old Leesburg brochure while cleaning out a drawer, and it seemed like a good destination choice. The brochure promised history, antiques, art galleries, food, vineyards and charming accommodations.
Normally, I'm a comparison shopper, but when I phoned the Norris House Inn and Roger Healey, the cheery English owner, informed me they had bargain rates through the end of February ($80 including a "sumptuous breakfast"), I jumped at it.
Nearing Leesburg, I felt a niggling fiscal guilt at my hastiness. But when I pulled up to the 1760 brick inn in the heart of the historic district, its greenery festooned in tiny white lights and its side and back garden starkly beautiful even in the dead of winter, I knew I'd made the right choice.
Roger welcomed me into a cozily elegant drawing room where a fire burned in the grate. The only other guest that Monday was an architect from New York. My room on the third floor was attractively outfitted with a quilt-covered brass double bed, and there was a lovely rooftop view out both the back and front windows.
I dropped my bag and scurried back downstairs to warm myself by the fire. Then I quick-marched down the block through an arctic wind to the dapper Loudoun County Museum.
Housed in two 19th-century buildings, the museum offers an overview of the area's history from prehistoric tools to 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century artifacts. It also makes much of the town's late resident, Gen. George C. Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. A long, glass case protects photos, memorabilia and Marshall's uniforms. The museum's big focus, though, is on the Civil War, inextricably knit into the community's consciousness.
Treasures include some marvelous 19th-century rifles and other weaponry as well as a lovely collection of antique patchwork quilts and samplers.
You can almost see those Southern belles stitching away while their men marched along Route 15 with Gen. Robert E. Lee, a descendant of Thomas Lee, for whom the town was named.
The museum also honors the lives and struggles of Loudoun County's African-Americans. A coming exhibit on local opposition to slavery includes letters -- striking for their grace -- from Mars Lucas, a former slave who emigrated to Liberia in 1830, to his former master, Townsend Heaton.
"I have been blest with very good health from the time I left home to this present date excepting a little seasickness, but nothing of consequence," Lucas writes in elegantly flowing script.
A museum walking tour includes nearby Leesburg Training School, one of nine black schools operated in the county in 1883 and the focus of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's challenge to the notion of "separate but equal" education.
"We have a rich history here," says Marybeth Mohr, director of the Loudoun County Museum. "And the county has grown so fast in the last 30 years -- we've gone from about 20,000 to about 220,000 -- that it's important to hang on to it."
Much of that history is compelling. Glenfiddich House in particular, a Lee family property, is worth a visit. It was here that Robert E. Lee planned his invasion of Maryland, which ended at Antietam.
It was also at Glenfiddich House where Col. Erasmus Burt bled to death after being shot during the Confederate victory at Ball's Bluff, and where, 118 years later, James Dickey's violence-filled novel Deliverance was written. Not surprisingly, there are said to be a fair number of ghosts floating around.
"The Lady in White, who haunts the Lynch House across the street from us, is the most documented ghost in Virginia," says Mohr. "And Colonel Burt is reputed to haunt the Glenfiddich House."
"Two lady guests claimed to have had a visitation here one night by two hairy gentlemen," adds Roger Healey. "But they had each had a bottle of wine with dinner that night, so who knows what they saw."
The Virginia Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society investigates potential ectoplasmic episodes by request. And while such spectral events usually occur near Halloween, there is plenty of year-round action to keep visitors entertained.
Puppet shows, community theater, concerts, antiques fairs and First Friday -- a candlelight art gallery crawl with wine and cheese held the first Friday of the month -- are only a sampling. Nearby Oatlands Plantation showcases gorgeous gardens on a 260-acre estate just south of town.
Leesburg also has a small, first-run movie theater, shopping in town and at the upscale Leesburg Corner Outlets a mile away, horseback riding, bike trails, walking paths, wine tastings and Ida Lee Park, which boasts an indoor pool.
But I'm not looking for something to do so much as scouting possibilities. I wander, admiring the dormant gardens, the 18th- and 19th-century brick, stone and log buildings (by charter, frame homes were forbidden inside town limits).
I'm not much on shopping but enjoy poking around antiques shops -- a peek into other lives and times -- and Leesburg has some nice ones. Among them are Rendezvous Gallery, Antique Emporium and Black Shutter Antique Shoppes, in which 42 dealers sell their goods.
Meandering through Leesburg is pleasant because everyone is unfailingly welcoming. As I was cutting through Ball's Bluff Tavern for a bit of warmth, a woman at the bar invited me to chat. Elsewhere, two other women offered to make room for me and my vanilla latte at their table at Market Street Coffee, also known as Leesburg's "living room."
In Catheran C. Johnston Antiques on King Street, Catheran, slim and urban-elegant in patterned tights and heels, did "friendly" one better. When her phone rang, she snatched up the cordless receiver and handed it to me.
"Here," she said. "You answer it. It's bound to be a telemarketer and I'm tired of talking to them."
Farther down King Street, the Coffee Bean, which smells heavenly thanks to a Victorian coffee roaster, is another great place for serious java aficionados.
I couldn't decide where to eat for dinner. The Leesburg Restaurant, a homey place that began to fill at around 5 p.m. with families, wouldn't do it. The Eiffel Tower Cafe, an upscale bistro across from the Norris Inn, was closed.
The Lightfoot Restaurant was a possibility. Located in the refurbished Peoples Bank building, it's art deco elegant with an eclectic menu and a lifelike wax figure at the front desk of Alfred, Batman's butler.
I finally settled on Tuscarora, known as "Tuskies," which occupies two floors in an old mill in Market Square. The restaurant is a Leesburg favorite with three dining areas from casual to formal.
I ordered a moist lemon sole stuffed with crab, spinach and ricotta surrounded by minced grilled veggies. Good, though not terrific. But the dessert, a berry Napoleon with warm zabaglione, was to die for.
By the time I got back to the empty Norris House Inn, Vivaldi played softly in the background. (Roger Healey, not the ghost, had turned on the music.) I poured an after-dinner drink from the tray in the parlor, stirred up the fire and settled in with a book. Lovely.
In the morning, Roger's wife, Carol, made a fabulous breakfast of French toast drizzled with warm syrup, sliced melon, strawberries and kiwi, and a bottomless pot of coffee.
As I headed back up the road, I made a mental note to come back here with my husband. He would love Leesburg. The place, the pace and the people all feel a little like family -- some quirky, mostly friendly, easy to spend time with. I felt recouped.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Driving from Baltimore, take I-70 west to Frederick, then take Route 340/Route 15 south toward Charles Town. Route 15 soon bears to the left and becomes a two-lane road. Continue about 15 miles to Leesburg.
Norris House Inn, 108 Loudoun St., Leesburg, VA 20175
Lovely 1760 inn that's convenient to downtown attractions. Rates from $115, but less expensive packages are available.
Loudoun County Museum, 16 Loudoun St., Leesburg, VA 20175
A cozy museum in two Victorian buildings whose exhibits run from prehistory to the present. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $2 for adults, $1 for seniors, teachers and students.
Ida Lee Park Recreation Center, 60 Ida Lee Drive, Leesburg VA 20175
Indoor Olympic pool, fitness room and other exercise facilities. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for children ages 15 and under (free for Norris House Inn guests).
Wine lovers can taste their way through several wineries and breweries that surround Leesburg along the Loudoun Wine Trail. For more information, contact the Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association: 800-752-6118; www.visitloudoun.org.
For more information about visiting Leesburg and Loudon County, contact the county's visitor center: 800-752-6118; www.leesburgva.com