In the Shadows of the Blue Ridge Parkway


A bluegrass quartet performs in the parlor of the Homeplace_Restaurant. (photos by Pamela O’Meara/Review)

The Mabry Mill, south of Roanoke, started life as a blacksmith’s shop in 1905; later, water from the river powered gristmill and sawmill operations. Now, the mill draws tourists and photographers year-round, and in peak seasons the National Park Service hosts crafting and food-preservation demonstrations.

Not only does Center in the Square house historical and cultural exhibits, it offers a state-of-the-art science museum with collections from all over the world -- and beyond. We were fortunate enough to visit during the government shutdown, when Roanoke’s Butterfly House was caring for the Smithsonian’s collection, including this swallowtail.

A new view of Roanoke

As the largest Virginia city along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Roanoke is the gateway to the sights along the way as well has being a good destination on its own merits.

Whatever direction you go from Roanoke, you can find beautiful mountain views, woods, wineries, outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and camping, historic sites, and in Roanoke, interesting museums and good food.

On a recent trip, friends and I ate lunch at Texas Tavern, open 24/7 since 1930. Sitting at one of 10 stools at the counter of this small restaurant, we ate its famous chile (that’s how the tavern spells it) for $1.70 and a “cheesy western,” a small burger topped with a fried egg, cheese, fried onions and pickles for $2.45.

Owner Matt Bullington said the restaurant has sold 22 million bowls of chile from his great-grandfather’s recipe.

Afterwards, we stopped for a sweet, thick Cuban coffee at the Havana Café, whose owner emigrated from Cuba 18 years ago.

Nearby, the Center in the Square houses eight different museums/art organizations, including the Science Museum of Western Virginia, which has hands-on activities for all ages. I found the jellyfish fascinating as they swirled around and changed shape in their tank. Colorful fish swam around live coral in the fish tank, and the butterfly garden held the Smithsonian collection during the government shutdown. A piece of lunar rock from Apollo 15 is on display.

The History Museum of Western Virginia tells how the salt licks drew animals that made paths through the mountains, and how, eventually, native peoples followed and then settlers.

Roanoke was once called the Big Lick for the ancient salt mines, and salt was traded. The museum also covered the Civil War from all points of view, while the Harrison Museum of African Culture tells the story of African-Americans from slavery to modern times.

One morning after breakfast at the popular Roanoker Restaurant, which has served made-from-scratch meals for over 65 years, we went up Mill Mountain overlooking Roanoke and saw the 30-foot star touted as the world’s largest manmade star. It can be seen for miles away after dark.

At the Mill Mountain Zoo, snow leopards were playing together, and the nearby Discovery Center offers many acres of forest for hiking within Roanoke city limits.

The O. Winston Link Museum, named after the most famous photographer of steam locomotives, features hundreds of Link’s photos of the old 1950s steam locomotives at railroad stations, behind people’s houses and through their windows.

Lunch at the newly renovated 1882 railroad hotel, Hotel Roanoke, listed on the National Historic Register, featured its signature peanut soup and spoon bread.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation displays the last remaining steam locomotives of a certain model and has the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South. Roanoke was a railroad town where steam locomotives were manufactured and coal from local mines was transported to the Midwest and the East Coast. The Goode Railwalk offers a hands-on experience of the railroad.

Also nearby, the Taubman Museum of Art featured a traveling display of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s art.

We attended the opera, too. The opening night of Opera Roanoke’s season featured Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” a lavish production with rousing music.

Downtown Roanoke has reinvented itself with interesting restaurants, locally owned shops, museums, entertainment and housing for people who enjoy the city vibe.

Heading north

One day, we drove north from Roanoke through the colorful trees on the Blue Ridge Highway, stopping at the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest for a hike on the Streamside Trail up to the 30-foot cascade of white water of Roaring Run Falls. On our return, we stopped at Roaring Run Furnace, which from 1847 to the 1850s produced the low-grade pig iron for making tools, munitions or railroad tracks for the Civil War.

Farther north, we drove through the clouds to Peaks of Otter, a lodge on a lake surrounded by colorful trees. From there, visitors can take a shuttle to the peaks for a spectacular view.

On the eastern edge of Roanoke, the 1,100-acre Explore Park Visitor Center offers kayaking, canoeing or boat rides at Smith Mountain Lake.

Boutetourt County

Historic Boutetourt County, just northwest of Roanoke off the Blue Ridge Parkway, includes part of the Appalachian Trail and is home to the headwaters of the James River. The mighty river, which is known for good canoeing and kayaking, begins in the area and winds its way through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains to Chesapeake Bay.

The county includes the small towns of Fincastle, Troutville and Buchanan.

Established in 1772, Fincastle was one of the first settlements west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lewis and Clark set out on their famous Corps of Discovery Expedition from here. After returning from the journey, Clark married a local resident.

The area is also notable for apples and good food. Ikenberry Apple Orchards near Fincastle has been family-operated for over a century while Pomegranate Restaurant, housed in an abandoned wine warehouse in Troutville, offers unique food and weekend jazz and bluegrass bands.

The Wine Trail of Botetourt County features the Blue Ridge Winery, Fincastle Winery and Virginia Mountain Winery. All three welcome visitors for wine tasting and offer different views of the mountains.

Virginia is the fifth largest wine-producing state in the nation, and was named one of the top 10 wine travel destinations for 2012 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

South of Roanoke

Chateau Morriesette Winery, an hour south of Roanoke, is the largest winery in Virginia. We toured the winemaking facilities and sampled 10 different wines ranging from dry to sweet, and enjoyed lunch in the dining room overlooking the mountains.

Nearby, the picturesque Mabry Mill, dating back to 1905, features exhibits of life in rural Virginia, and during peak seasons, National Park Service volunteers do craft demonstrations.

The small town of Floyd, which is on Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, has interesting craft shops, including the Floyd Country Store, which features bluegrass music at its Friday Night Jamboree on a stage in the back.

We ended our day and our trip with dinner at the popular Homeplace Restaurant, which is set in a country farmhouse out in the rolling hills in Catawba just west of Roanoke. While waiting to be called for dinner, we sat in the parlor listening to some rousing bluegrass music. Then our traditional Southern dinner of fried chicken, Virginia ham and all the fixings was served family-style.

Roanoke offers a host of activities as well as being the gateway in every direction to the Blue Ridge Highway with its small towns, forests and rivers that offer variety of outdoor activities.

For more information on outdoor activities, attractions, musuems, shops, restaurants and accommodations, go to www.visitroanokeva.com.
 

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