Triathlons are a pretty big deal around southwestern Virginia. Almost every month of the year, in fact, extreme athletes can find some sort of event in this part of the state where running, cycling and a watersport are all involved. If you don’t believe us, check out the event calendar—the New River Trail Challenge takes place on September 20—around the Shenandoah Valley.
When you take the time to scout this part of the country for yourself, though, you see what all the fitness fuss is about—the Blue Ridge Mountains are absolutely stunning. Creeks and rivers meander through it all, almost like a colorful backdrop to a Dr. Ralph Stanley song. It’s a truly inspiring setting for a good run or a grueling swim, especially in foliage-filled autumn.
But all of this natural wonderment isn’t just for folks who can run 10Ks in their sleep. On the contrary, there’s another type of triple threat who’s right at home here, too; we’re talking about the traveler who appreciates dining, doing and having some downtime. Should you fit in that category of sightseer, follow this guide, and you’ll be able to muscle through as much of the region as possible within a 48-hour span.
Actually, it’s pretty ironic that running would be such a big deal in Roanoke when so much of the city’s essence lies in taking things slowly. Have a look around and you’ll feel as if you’ve taken a DeLorean ride back to another time. You’ll see a massive Dr Pepper sign from the 1950s (as one of the soda’s many origin stories goes, the name came as a heartfelt gesture from one of the drink’s innovators to a local doctor who granted permission for his daughter to wed); the Texas Tavern selling cheeseburgers for the bygone price of $1.45; and enchanting buildings erected during the 19th century.
One of these endearing edifices is the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, a DoubleTree by Hilton, your sleeping quarters for the first night. The 296-room Tudorian property that opened in 1882 is proud of its history. Interestingly enough, though, for every piece of vintage crown molding and Czech-made chandelier found in public spaces, you’ll see contemporary takes in the rooms — flat-screen TVs, ergonomic chairs at the work station, complimentary Wi-Fi — that today’s traveler will appreciate.
Another great quality about the hotel is its proximity to many of the city’s top sights. Just a couple minutes walk from your room, in fact, is the Roanoke Valley Visitor Information Center. Stop here for attraction brochures and directions toward the Market Street Walkway. This bridge crosses over railroad tracks that were once the central arteries of the economy and leads to a now-bustling section of downtown where you’ll find Market Square Plaza and Center in the Square.
Grab a quick bite at one of the farmers market stalls — vendors peddle fresh vegetables, natural soaps and other items here every day of the week — and make your way to the Center, a multilevel learning facility that will certainly captivate for a few hours. History buffs will be in awe of the stories told at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture and History Museum of Western Virginia. Folks will ohhh and ahhh at the expanded Science Museum of Western Virginia’s new Butterfly Garden. If you’re traveling with others who still aren’t impressed, show them the 6,000-gallon lobby aquarium or the green rooftop deck with a living wall, koi-filled ponds and spectacular views of the skyline. Should none of that work, make the five-minute walk over to the gorgeous Taubman Museum of Art. This 16,000-square-foot masterpiece offers complimentary entry because of the continued generosity of Advance Auto Parts and Nicholas Taubman, its former chairman and Roanoke native.
After all of the walking, even a world-class Olympian would need some downtime. Relax and refresh back at The Hotel Roanoke. When dinnertime arrives, head toward the South Roanoke area for The River and Rail. Though a self-proclaimed Southern bistro—heartfelt “y’all” salutations, a delicious jar of pickles and some remarkable deviled eggs certainly help in that declaration — the modern feel of the place could work most anywhere — and that’s saying something seeing as how the building used to be a pharmacy. The kitchen effortlessly goes from scrumptious openers to more intricate mains (New Bedford scallops with corn pudding and green beans), all coming together for a meal your tummy will remember for days.
Another memory of the city that you’ll be sure to keep with you is found a few miles away and 1,045 feet high on Mill Mountain. One of the area’s most beloved attractions, Roanoke Star, an 88.5 foot decoration that was originally meant for Christmas when it was erected in 1949, is one of those kitschy items that has somehow come to symbolize the city throughout the year. (The star shines white most nights, but goes red, white and blue on Memorial Day, Flag Day, July 4, September 11 and Veterans Day.) Make sure you let your friends know when you’re heading up to see it, too, because there’s a real-time camera at the site that live streams 24 hours a day.
Rise and shine, superstar, because it’s time to hit the road again. But unlike participants in North Garden’s Wisdom Oak Winery Olympic & Sprint Triathlon on September 13, you won’t be lacing up for any race; instead, you’re hopping back in the car to head toward Lexington. Before getting on I-81, however, stop by local haunt Bread Craft in downtown Roanoke for a French press and cinnamon roll—hey, even athletes need their morning carbs.
The drive from Roanoke to Lexington is under an hour, and with so many auburn oaks and brown maples to ogle over when fall comes, the time will fly by. When you arrive in Lexington, you’ll have an initial feeling much like the one you had entering Roanoke. You’ll feel the neighborliness. You’ll imagine being back in an era when local artisans and unabashed smiles ruled the day. Heck, you’ll even see horses in the street—but that’s mostly because of the Lexington Carriage Company, a tour agency that gives you an informative, four-legged look around a town with two prominent schools (Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute) and two unmistakable marks on American history (grave sites of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson).
While not as widely known as those interesting tidbits, the culinary scene around this town of about 7,000 residents is pretty impressive. Southern Inn Restaurant, a Lexington tradition since the 1930s, is a favorite lunch stop for anyone who appreciates golden fried chicken, meatloaf and other Dixie delicacies. Sweet Things might not be on the National Register of Historic Places like Lexington Presbyterian Church, but its Cookies & Cream ice cream on a hand-rolled waffle cone is tastiness of historic proportions. Between licks, take a peek inside the Artists in Cahoots gallery, find eclectic gifts at Mia and peruse the other quaint shops.
Your next stop, Staunton, is about 40 minutes away. Keeping with the throwback theme, Staunton (the “u” is silent) is the kind of peaceful pocket where a new stoplight is a discussion-worthy occurrence. But the warm hamlet is also the kind of place where you’ll meet wholesome folk like Evy and Joe Harman, owners of the Frederick House, a 25-room boutique property in the center of town that couldn’t be more charming if it tried. You won’t so much check-in with Joe as you will pull up a chair and chat. Trust us, somewhere in the light-hearted conversation keys will be exchanged. He’ll also give you a map of the surroundings, point to which building (of the six) your room is in and circle a few must-see highlights of the city.
Pay particular attention to where Zynodoa is in relation to the hotel; that’s where you’ll be dining around 6 p.m. The décor — ultra-sleek bar, striking blue lights, leather-backed booths — feels a bit mod for a town with less than 24,000, but once your server comes over with a gentle, but professional greeting, you feel right at home. Our gastro guide was a jolly fellow named Bill, and he did a thorough job explaining the intricacies of a smart, inspired Southern menu where maple-glazed shrimp and Wade’s Mill grits, and Buffalo Creek braised short ribs were the highlights. Should those items not be two of the seasonal selections when you stop by, your team member will happily suggest another of-the-moment dish that executive chef James Harris is proud of.
Where you go after dinner all depends on how much energy you have left in your tank. Still have that map from Joe? Good, because if you’re ready to call it a night, the only other thing you have to do is walk a few blocks over to The Split Banana Co. for a few scoops of the best gelato in a 10-county radius. Should you have a little more pep in your step, mosey over a block in the other direction to the American Shakespeare Center for a polished production — The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac are all showing through late November — inside a 300-seat playhouse believed to be the world’s only re-creation of the Bard’s indoor theater.
Now, if you’re looking to have your last night in the Shen Valley ring with the most authenticity, you’ll make the 30-minute drive to the outskirts of Lexington for a turn-back-the-clock outing at Hull’s Drive-In, the nation’s first community-owned, non-profit drive-in theater. You can’t help but smell the nostalgia in between whiffs of the real melted butter going atop the popcorn.
The one other observation you’ll make is that everybody in southwestern Virginia has a touch of triathlete in them. How else can you explain how people in the congested concession stand line are able to scurry back to their cars before the 8:30 p.m. movie begins?