ROANOKE, Va. — Roanoke, metro center of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, is an ideal getaway today and even better as the future catches up with its pleasures.
I’m not certain when this insight came into my head. Before we arrived, I knew about the region’s emergence as an outdoor adventure center — America’s East Coast Mountain Biking Capital.
Once we arrived and spent time exploring the city, we knew it was not the architecture. Except for the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke lives comfortably and most attractively in its past. Its defining visual is the Roanoke Star, the world’s largest freestanding man-made illuminated star at 88 1/2 feet.
It is perched on the peak of Mill Mountain, which is visible everywhere and has been in place since 1949. But it’s cool and transcends generational tastes. Day and night, the park around the star is filled with folks of all ages gazing out at the Roanoke River Valley.
We stopped by the Blue Cow, an ice cream shop perched overlooking the popular bike and hiking system known as the Greenway, which tracks the Roanoke River through town. There, we got a serious clue as to the future.This ice cream shop has a chef. And he whips up flavors like goat cheese with blueberry swirl and chocolate cayenne. Fortunately for me, the strawberry balsamic was close enough to my traditional favorite that I could appreciate how the taste was enhanced. The waffle cones are made on the spot for each order.
So it’s the food that appeals to youngsters and oldsters alike. According to Roanoke promoters, its square mile of downtown has more restaurants than anywhere of comparable size in Virginia. And, not just any restaurants. You could take a world tour of eateries from burgers and burritos to Thai, Lebanese and Caribbean as well, as what could be termed trendy American.
In the traditional quirky category, there is the Texas Tavern, which sounds enormous in the telling but really is only 10 barstools in a tiny building feeding people since 1930 and spelling their signature dish “chile.” This is true fast-food where you can barely finish a glass of water between ordering, eating and getting the check. Even the menu is fast — burger with chili, hot dog with chili, and chili in a bowl. The price is truly startling — $10 could come close to feeding the whole place.
Texas Tavern is open on a downtown main street 24/7 and caters to the bar trade when they close at 2 a.m. The state of most patrons at those hours probably contributes to the story of fights being stopped by the jumbo cook spraying mustard on all involved.
The other traditional eatery, although less colorful, is the Roanoker Restaurant. You could happily take Grandma here and she’d be thrilled to find dressing and gravy on the menu as a stand-alone side. Our enduring memory will be of the woman at the check-out desk who stayed on the phone and patiently guided us through detours to get to the location. Now that’s service.
My husband Jack’s favorite was Scrambled, not so much for the food — which is delicious breakfast all day — but for the ambiance. We sat outside, under a roof, on a gorgeous early fall day with downtown humming around us. Inside, Scrambled is part of a substantial food court housed in the meticulously restored City Market.
My favorite was Athens Corner Grill, where the feta cheese in the salad is hand-ground and the best mac and cheese ever was disguised under an inch thick bechamel crust as the traditional Greek pastichio. The dish is so popular and hard to make that the owner, Dimos Tripodianos, is prevented from ordering it for himself by his brother the chef. Fortunately, as customers, we could have it.
Recipes were handed down from Dimos’ great-grandparents in Greece. Go hungry, the servings are substantial. The service and presence of the owner was dripping in charm; I was ready to eat all my meals there for the rest of the trip.
We topped off our eating binge with breakfast at Scratch, home of what surely must be the biggest, tastiest biscuits ever. It’s located in Grandin Village, the city’s first suburb. Just down the road is Black Dog Salvage, home of the TV show “Salvage Dawgs” and filled with reclaimed and repurposed elements and fixtures.
Fortunately for visitors, there are food tours every weekend.
Wineries, craft breweries and distilleries are abundant throughout the Virginia Blue Ridge. All 31 can be explored over several days along the Cheers Trail, as well as other tours specializing in each category of spirits. Included is Franklin County, once dubbed Moonshine Capital of the World during the early 1920s.No one should visit a place without exploring its museums — and Roanoke has an abundance of them. The quirky side is firmly anchored downtown by the Pinball Museum located in the Center in the Square forming up one side to the historic Market Square.
The City Market food court marks another side. Not only does the Pinball Museum have more than 60 machines — vintage and current — available for free play with admission to the museum, but there’s a resident pinball wizard, Nic Schell, with a magical story of traveling the country for many months looking for the right place until he landed in Roanoke, where a declining Pinball Museum was desperate for a wizard to save them. A perfect match.
Trains are historically significant for Roanoke which developed as a hub for the Norfolk and Western. Not only did the trains run here, but manufacturing locomotives was a major business. The Virginia Museum of Transportation is a gem filled with cars, planes, trains and even a Washington, D.C., trolley car. Jack was astounded.“I used to ride that trolley every day,” he exclaimed. The outdoor Railyard exhibit boasts more than a dozen locomotives as well as other specialized railcars.
There is more train history in the Visitor Center’s Historic Museum that features the incredible photographic history of Winston O. Link. As remarkable as his photos is his story of how a young wife stole all his negatives worth millions. Although she served prison time, the photos have never been recovered. The galleries of photos are filled with railroad sounds and a documentary outlines Link’s compelling story.
The Taubman Museum of Art is currently focused on transportation also with a breathtaking exhibit of two dozen iconic cars that has even aficionados amazed by the splendor and design. Many are one-of-a-kind prototypes and all definitely belong in an art museum. DRIVE! is on display through early February.
One afternoon we set out to explore outside beginning with the 40-mile-long Smith Mountain Lake with more than 500 miles of lacy shoreline supporting a long list of water adventures ranging from jet skis and paddleboards to kayaks and inflatables. For fishermen, the prize is striped bass. At its deepest, Smith Mountain Lake is 250 feet.Around its extensive shoreline are a state park with cabins and camping, two public beaches, even a boardwalk with a mountain look; Bridgewater Plaza boasts shops, eateries and outdoor fun. Halesford Bridge is the only way across the lake from Bedford to Franklin counties.
Nearby is the beginning of the 330-mile famed Crooked Road Music Trail, as well as the impressive Booker T. Washington National Monument with an interpretive museum. Among his many other achievements, Washington was founder of Tuskegee Institute and assisted in founding the NAACP.
Carvin’s Cove is the true center of the mountain biking culture, with nearly 60 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty on more than 12,000 mountain acres of natural reserve less than 10 miles from Roanoke and with access to the Appalachian Trail. There’s even a large reservoir that arcs through the Reserve.
For lodging, we chose to go contemporary, staying at the Hampton Inn and Suites near the airport and on the edge of sprawling Valley View Mall containing literally hundreds of name-brand stores. In addition to comfort, the hotel lets you make your own waffles for breakfast. Like virtually everyone else we encountered, staff was both helpful and remarkably friendly. Hopefully, these traits are part of the future that spotlights attractions both inside and out.
Virginia’s Blue Ridge tracks both I-81 and its scenic counterpoint, the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is crossed by the Appalachian Trail and contains nearly a dozen towns and cities all bursting with cool stuff that makes it Virginia’s ultimate mountain playground.
For more information check VisitVBR.com or call 800-635-5535.