Old School Virginia
Exploring Virginia's Shenandoah Valley: Western Virginia Is An Adventure You Can't Miss
By Dan Peltier
As I drove up Interstate 81 through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I was amazed at the rolling green hills that I found following me on both sides of the interstate.
If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought I was in a place like New Zealand, with endless green expanse and cattle nodding their heads as you weave in and out of their pastures.
Colonial Williamsburg and Virginia Beach probably come to mind if you’re thinking of places to visit in the Old Dominion state. But those aren’t the only notable attractions to see as you venture through the gateway to the south. A trip to the western part of the state is an adventure waiting to happen. The Shenandoah Valley is where the Blue Ridge Mountains majestically unfold and time seems to slow down ever so slightly. It’s home to college towns, scenic drives and some of the best hiking on the east coast.
My “Old School” trip to the valley opened my eyes to the other side of Virginia that most people forget to consider when planning their itineraries, and for the beauty I saw every time I blinked I realized its a place not to be overlooked.
Pronounced “Stanton,” this city is known for its red brick district and boutique shops that sit along the main street that is the focal point for this charming town. Historians will tell you that its known as the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, but its the cultural heartbeat of this town that puts it on the map.
There creation of the Blackfriars Theater, is a must see when visiting Staunton. Stepping inside of the theater transports you back to the seventeenth century and you begin to understand how people of the era enjoyed theatrical performances. I watched a very humorous production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and loved how the actors felt close to the audience and even interacted with them at times.
Sunspots Studios is also an experience to take in if you’ve never indulged in the art of glass-making. There are live demonstrations of glass blowing each day and visitors can even make their own with whatever color scheme they wish. Watching the glass form before your eyes and feeling the intense heat (several thousands degrees worth) is something most people have never seen.
In Staunton, you can’t get anymore “Old School” than Wright’s Dairy Rite, an original drive-in restaurant serving homemade food and ice cream treats in a 1950s atmosphere. I had a vanilla milkshake when I visited and it filled up about every empty hole I had in my stomach. The Wright family still owns and operates the restaurant and antique car lovers will have a field day each year with the annual antique car show that lines the avenue in front of Wright’s.
If you’re feeling less nostalgic and more modern, head to Zynodoa’s on Beverly Street in the center of town. It’s an independently owned restaurant featuring southern cuisine and its a proud supporter of local farms and producers. Arguably one of America’s most famous farmers, Joel Salatin of nearby Polyface Farm also grows fresh produce for the restaurant. If you’re fascinated by the “farm to table” movement, Zynodoa’s is an opportunity you cannot pass up.
I also stayed in the Stonewall Jackson Hotel for one night in Staunton and with its southern charm, elegant foyer and comfortable rooms it was everything I needed. Plus, it’s located in the heart of Staunton, making it an ideal base to enjoy everything the town has to offer.
Natural Bridge and Safari Park
Western Virginia’s natural beauty never fails to disappoint, no matter where you go you can see a scene that you wish could be frozen in time. One of those places is the Natural Bridge, one of America’s most visited natural wonders and one of the natural wonders of the modern world. The Monacan Indians worshipped this behemoth rock formation and Thomas Jefferson purchased it, and legend holds that George Washington even surveyed it.
The bridge is strong enough to support a highway that runs over it, and its becoming a popular wedding destination with a backdrop that can’t be replicated anywhere else. The state park includes miles of hiking trails and the Monacan Indian Living History Village, where school children and adults alike can learn how the area’s original residents lived.
The Monacan Living History Village at the Natural Bridge
The park also provides easy access to canoeing, kayaking, fishing and ATV trails to name a few. I regret never learning about this natural gem and feel fortunate enough to have seen it in person, everyone needs to experience this landmark that is the natural crux of the Shenandoah Valley.
And if the Natural Bridge is something you can’t miss for its history and serenity, the Virginia Safari Park is something you can’t bypass for its laughs and odd encounters! The park is Virginia’s only drive-through safari park and is the state’s largest zoo. It features over 1000 animals and three miles of safari road, which is probably enough to get your heart racing. You can get up close and personal with animals that you’d never get the chance to see otherwise, like a bull elk, watusi, or bison.
Visitors are given buckets of feed that you hold out of your window to feed to the animals. The zoo’s main attractions will walk up to your car, sometimes aggressively, so hold on to the buckets tight and prepared to get covered in slob!
Depending on how gentle your feeding friends are, your car may exit the zoo just as clean as you entered it, or you could have a real mess on your hands, as was the case with my car! This is a way to see the animals that can’t be compared to traditional zoos, I definitely made memories I won’t soon forget. And some advice: the camels spit, so approach them with caution!
History buffs have a playground of sorts in Lexington, the county seat of Rockbridge County and recently named one of America’s “Best College Towns” by Travel + Leisure Magazine.
There is so much to do in Lexington that I only got a small sample while I was there. Natural Bridge and the Safari Park are short drives outside of town and make for perfect day trips, and in town there is an equal amount of excitement.
The town’s colleges, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Washington and Lee University, each boast postcard beauty and are the cultural backbone of Lexington. While VMI students are disciplined, Washington and Lee is a traditional liberal arts campus with Greek life and students who help foster a friendly rivalry between the two schools. A famous VMI alumni is George C. Marshall, who organized the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover after WWII. The George C. Marshall Museum is located on the VMI campus and is worth your time to learn about what kind of leaders this school produces.
Downtown Lexington is loaded with history, including why this story has no stoop!I took a lovely carriage tour historic Lexington that shows visitors all of the points of interest in downtown Lexington, such as the Lee Chapel, the two campuses, and the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was one of the best known Confederate commanders during the Civil War and is treated like a saint in this part of Virginia, with hotels, statues and even his own holiday named after him. He’s buried in Lexington and you can learn about his legacy and other notable Civil War generals throughout the town.
After a day of sightseeing, stopping into the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company isn’t a bad idea. It’s won many awards for its brews, most recently being named both the Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival. Their website also lists the other myriad of awards the brewery has taken home in recent years.
Every trip I go on, there’s also one place that I hope to go back to someday. For the “Old School” trip, it was The Homestead. I have never been to a resort as massive and elegant as this, and I felt my jaw dropping with every corner I turned in this wondrous labyrinth of a resort.
Owned by Omni Hotels & Resorts, The Homestead is nestled in the Allegheny Mountains in Hot Springs, VA, only a few miles east of the West. This National Historic Landmark welcomed its first guests a decade before the American Revolution, and twenty-two U.S. Presidents and many princes have stayed here.
That’s right, half of America’s presidents have come here to vacation, meaning there’s something almost magical about the vast resort that lures the rich and famous and regular families alike to its doors. And its not difficult to understand why, stepping into the foyer at the hotel’s entrance is like stepping into a royal palace with plenty of staff eager to tend to your every need.
Here’s a list of everything you can do at the resort that is no where near exhaustive: golfing, tennis, shooting, horseback riding, hiking, fly fishing, archery, falconry, mountain biking and taking in the Jefferson Pools and carriage rides. In the winter, guests can enjoy skiing, tubing, ice skating, snowboarding and snowmobile tours.
In the Spring of 2013, the Spa at the Omni Homestead was renovated, now including the Aqua Thermal Suites and an exclusive adults-only spa garden. There’s also a two-acre, family-friendly water area which features two 100 foot water slides, a 400 foot lazy river, family pool, whirlpool and a water play zone.
The Humpback Bridge in Covington, VAA miniature golf course is now open for the young and young at heart as well. It’s needless to say that families will find something to enjoy together in this place that strikes the perfect balance of never-ending fun and relaxation.
There’s multiple options for dining on the resort, including several bars and restaurants that offer both formal and casual atmospheres. Eating breakfast in the ballroom is a must, trying a delicious omelette will not disappoint. I heard Mothers and Fathers Day brunches are legendary here, so if you find yourself at the resort on either of these days, clear your schedule for a hearty southern breakfast.
Make sure to check out the nearby natural hot springs as well, that’s what this area is known for and the health benefits in the waters have drawn people from around the world to this part of Virginia.
Archeologists estimate that the Jefferson Pools have been used by humans for over 9,000 years, and Thomas Jefferson himself frequented the waters to help sooth the rheumatism he suffered from.
On route to Roanoke, the unofficial capital of the Shenandoah Valley, I stopped by the Humpback Bridge in Covington, VA. Built in 1857, it’s the oldest of Virginia's remaining covered bridges. The 100-foot long, single span structure is four feet higher at the center than it is at either end, thus the name, “Humpback.” It makes for a fantastic photo op with the “LOVE” sign appropriately placed in front of the bridge.
Roanoke is located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the southern tail end of the valley, and its outdoor activities are widely known to be some of the east coast’s best. It’s not to be confused with the Lost Colony of Roanoke, which is located off the North Carolina coast.
The annual marathon on the Blue Ridge Parkway draws thousands to the area, along with events like the Strawberry Festival, Kite Festival, Salem Fair and Dickens of a Christmas.
The city is perhaps the cultural hub of the valley, and a visit to the Roanoke City Market will tell you why. It’s the oldest continuously operated open-air market in Virginia and features all kinds of fresh produce and clothing.
The Center in the Square sits adjacent to the market and is a seven-story regional non-profit cultural center. It reopened in May 2013 after a major renovation and includes new additions such as the rooftop deck with stunning views, a butterfly garden and atrium with a 6,000 gallon living coral-reef aquarium. The views from the rooftop are nothing short of spectacular, you can see the entire city and looming mountains which will inspire you to want to get closer to them.
The Grandin Village area of the city holds some treasures many of us don’t get to experience anymore. I toured the Grandin Theatre, which opened in 1932 as Roanoke’s first movie house. It operated continuously through 2001, when it closed its doors due to deterioration.
Luckily, the Grandin Theatre Foundation raised enough money to renovate and reopen the theatre in October 2002, and today it survives as the only historic movie theatre in the Roanoke valley. It runs first run, independent and classic movies. When I visited, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” had just opened and was the most popular movie. It was interesting to see the main theater perfectly restored and because of the stage that the screen sits on you feel as if you’re watching a performance rather than a movie.
Nearby Black Dog Salvage is simply a jackpot for antique-lovers, and their motto is “treasure hunting without the digging.” The hit DIY Network show “Salvage Dawgs” just wrapped up filming season 3 and has put the salvage on the map. Visiting the salvage let’s you meet much of the show’s cast and see some of the antiques used in the show.
In true salvage fashion, Sally the Salvage Dog, the successor to the store’s namesake, Molly, greets visitors as they enter the fascinating maze of antiques. There’s 40,000 square feet of treasures from around the world, from stained glass to patio sets, so take your time discovering what the salvage has brought in.
For food in Grandin, check out Local Roots, a farm-to-table restaurant serving sustainable, organic, local and ethical food-the burgers are Next door, Viva La Cupcake offers an array of gourmet cupcakes and while only a few years old, it’s already becoming the talk of the town’s dessert lovers.
Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar, which always has lines out the door on a hot day, serves up gluten free desserts and locally made ice cream from Homestead Creamery. It’s even been featured in Esquire Magazine for it’s famous grilled cheese sandwiches.
Eating at all three was the perfect way to end my “Old School” trip by showing me how serious the local food movement is becoming in Virginia. The state is starting to brand itself as a food destination, and combining its award-winning food with its eye-popping natural grandeur is a recipe for a memorable trip filled with southern hospitality.
Daniel Peltier is a staff reporter for the travel news site Skift, in New York City. He began his travel writing after studying abroad, and then as an intern for GoNOMAD.com Travel. He got his journalism degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.