Blue Ridge Mountains
Article & Photography by Cherie DeLory
Nothing but heavy fog is encircling our minivan and I doubt we’re travelling faster than 20 miles in a 45 mph limit. We’re on the famous Blue Ridge Parkway in Southwest Virginia, known for its scenic views along the Blue Ridge Mountain range. This National Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina. It’s 469 miles of winding, cliffside, convertible top-down worthy road trip terrain. “Have you driven this road before?” I ask our driver. I’m a little nervous when she says no.
We seem to be climbing higher, on route to Mabry Mill, one of the most photographed sites on the Parkway, a restored gristmill and blacksmith shop. Before reaching the mill we stop for photos at the 1,430 elevation mark. At first I am reluctant to pull out my camera, thinking the light rain and thick fog will ruin any chance of capturing an awesome shot. Though I’m inspired after a travelling companion and professional photographer says how some of his best nature shots have been taken in foggy conditions. The fog accentuates the fall colours of the leaves, he explains. He was right.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are to the Appalachians what the Alberta foothills are to the Rocky Mountains in Canada. The mountain range spans from Georgia to the south, to Pennsylvania to the north. This is my first visit to Virginia and the Blue Ridge region, and I quickly become acquainted with the reality of southern hospitality during my introduction to the inviting small towns, wineries, craft breweries, restaurants, and historic and cultural venues. This is a place where an exhuberbant “y’all” is a term of endearment, and buttery biscuits, deep fried green beans, and shrimp and grits is home cooking at its best.
We touch down at Blacksburg Regional Airport in Roanoke, a five-minute drive from the epicentre of the city, approximate population of 100,000. Located in the Roanoke Valley, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, there is a quiet calm protecting its relaxed ambiance.
Roanoke’s Rail Heritage:
The former Norfolk and Western Railway (now Norfolk Southern) was headquartered in Roanoke. Visit the Roanoke Hotel for a reminder of the glory days of luxury hotels and their proximity to rail travel. A travelling companion recommends the peanut soup (yes, as in peanut butter), served in the elegant Regency dining room. Built in 1882, this tudor-style accommodation is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Double Tree by Hilton hotel.
Five minutes from downtown Roanoke will land you in Mill Mountain Park, gateway to the foot trails leading to Mill Mountain, Roanoke’s highest peak at 1,703 feet. Reach the top and you’re that much closer to the Roanoke Star, the towering bright light overlooking the community. The world’s largest star was originally constructed as a Christmas decoration but endures year round.
In front of the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located in Roanoke’s historic Norfolk and Western Railway Freight Station, stands a whimsical metal sculpture depicting the word love in the image of a steam locomotive, appropriately anchored by a railway tie. The LOVEwork art, designed by local artist Eric Fitzpatrick, is a clever nod to the region’s rail heritage and the state’s tourism message, “Virginia is for lovers.” The museum holds the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, including the only Class J 611 locomotive still in existence, as well as a comprehensive collection of aviation, Greyhound, and automotive transportation.
O. Winston Link Museum, housed in the former passenger station of the Norfolk and Western Railway, is another must-see for insight into Roanoke’s rail history. It features a vast collection of American photographer and rail hobbyist, Ogle Winston Link’s photographs and sound recordings of steam locomotive transportation in the late 1950s.
Other museums worth visiting include the Taubman Museum of Art, which features a Norman Rockwell exhibit, Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and the Roanoke Pinball Museum.
Two miles from the city center is Historic Grandin Village. The 1920s era main street is lined with vintage shops, and a cycling depot should you wish to bike or hike in nearby Explore Park. Fans of DIY Network’s Salvage Dawgs can visit Black Dog Salvage. The warehouse and shop is a patinated hodgepodge of reclaimed stained glass, wrought iron, windows, door knobs, and custom designed furniture, too.
After a delicious steak dinner at Bootleggers Cafe, located in the old Coca Cola bottling plant in the small town of Rocky Mount, we walk across the street to the Harvester Performance Center, a live music venue that seats 475 people, to see country music star David Nail.
Flights of Fancy:
Back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we stop at Chateau Morrisette Winery and Restaurant, an hour’s drive from Roanoke in rural Floyd County. The sprawling river and mountain views are erased by the fog, but once inside we discover inviting, cozy spaces accented with stone, beams, and wood panelling, with a roaring wood-burning fireplace; the perfect ambiance to enjoy lunch and a wine tasting.
Additional stops where we wet our whistles are the Parkway Brewery Company in the town of Salem, where we’re served a beer flight to sample a few craft brews. The Flying Mouse Brewery in Troutville is minutes from the Appalachian Trail and directly on the TransAmerica 76 Bicycle Route. Wineries are Fincastle Vineyard & Winery (elegant B&B is attached in 1926 farmhouse), Ramulose Ridge Vineyards, and Hickory Hill Vineyards & Winery in Smith Mountain Lake.
ln the town of Bedford we visit The National D-Day Memorial. I’m reminded that the mist and rain accurately depict the conditions on Juno Beach in Normandy, France on June 6th, 1944. The Bedford community suffered the country’s largest per capita losses that day. This is the only D-Day memorial in the world that commemorates all allied soldiers who died in the invasion.
Before stopping for a fresh seafood lunch at Clam Diggers Market, Pub & Eatery, we visit Thomas Jefferson’s plantation and retreat property at Poplar Forest, in Bedford County. The first octagonal home in America is one of two homes the former president designed and lived in, and is the more modest of the two.
Sharp Top Summit:
The Peaks of Otter Lodge gets my vote for best room with a view. Every room brings the outdoors in with a huge picture window overlooking Abbott Lake, and a walkout balcony for breathing in the tranquility. Its namesake, the Peaks of Otter, are three mountain peaks overlooking the town of Bedford; Sharp Top (3,875 feet), Flat Top (3,994 feet) and Harkening Hill (3,372 feet). We conquer Sharp Top with some help from our shuttle bus driver who delivers us to the mid way point. We’re fortunate to have a clear day and optimal views that capture the characteristic blue tinge of the peaks.
Next we visit the historic town of Buchanan in Botetourt County. This town celebrates its Civil War heritage by including four landmark sites on the Civil War Trail. You’ll need time to explore, so an overnight stay at the unique Buchanan Rail Car Inn gives new meaning to the sleeping car. The converted vintage 1934 Hiawatha dining car is now an exclusive railcar with elegant bedroom, bathroom, living and dining room.
The following morning on the way to the airport, I spot a deer nudging out from the woods. It makes me wish I had more time to climb the Peaks of Otter and explore the trails surrounding Abbott Lake; a peaceful place for nature lovers, to be sure. It’s easy to linger in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains.
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