ROANOKE, Va. — Its heritage is tied to the railroad. Yet even before Norfolk and Western Railway’s steam locomotives rolled into the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, this picturesque little town was a happening place.
A hub along the long and bumpy Great Wagon Road that brought 18th-century settlers from Philadelphia to central North Carolina, Big Lick, as the town originally was known, bustled with three hotels, five tobacco factories, a cigar factory and five churches. It also boasted a shoemaker, harness maker, undertaker, four doctors and — keeping everyone in line — two lawyers.
Renamed Roanoke in 1881, the city still bustles. Although today, cars, bikes and feet carry visitors into town instead of trains or Conestoga wagons.
I discovered Roanoke last month by way of my Mizunos — running the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Half Marathon, a grueling but exhilarating footrace that had me and 1,700 others climbing thousands of feet up Mill Mountain (and you thought Pittsburgh’s hills were hard!). Relatively new on the running scene, the race is billed as America’s “toughest road marathon” and is drawing more and more competitors each year. Still, competing is only half the fun.
Poised in a valley surrounded by mountains, Roanoke offers vacationers all kinds of activities. Outdoor types can spend the day hiking or biking its long network of greenway and mountain trails or traipsing through caves (Dixie Caverns are in nearby Salem). There’s also fishing, boating and horseback riding at Carvins Cove, which borders 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and camping and picnicking at Smith Mountain Lake. Forming the headwaters of the Roanoke River, the 4-mile scenic trail at Bottom Creek Gorge features the second highest waterfall in Virginia. More sedentary folks will have fun exploring its vibrant downtown district, which includes boutique shopping, decent restaurants and nightclubs, a hip coffeehouse and the oldest continuously operating open-air market in the state. (The first “hucksters” set up shop there in 1882.)
Silly as it sounds (and yes, more than one person asked when I told them I was headed there), the city is not to be confused with the “other” Roanoke — Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But like that famous lost colony, there’s a strong association with Native Americans: Its name comes from the Indian word “Rawrenock,” the shell beads local tribes used as trade goods.
Thanks to its location just a few miles off the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America’s most scenic stretches of road, Roanoke is touted as the “Capital of the Blue Ridge.” But I prefer the nickname “Star City,” a nod to the giant star perched on Mill Mountain’s summit.
Constructed in 1949, the 88 1/2-foot, 10,000-pound illuminated star is the first thing you see when you head into town, especially if you arrive like we did after dark; juiced by 17,500 watts of power, its 2,000 feet of neon tubing is so bright that you can see it from an airplane 60 miles above. There’s no more iconic place from which to post pictures to Facebook. Unless, of course, you walk a few feet to the overlook just beyond the star’s base. Its panoramic views of the city below and the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in the distance are pretty Instagram-worthy, too.
So is the historic Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke, which was built by the Norfolk and Western Railroad in 1882 and magnificently restored in 1995. The place in town for special occasions (kids were posing for prom pictures in its spectacular Palm Court lounge the weekend we were in town), it’s grand in a way new hotels never can be. Even if you don’t stay there (rates start at $129), pop inside to see the four historic murals of Colonial and Victorian Virginians dancing. Better yet, enjoy a pint of Roanoke Railhouse Track 1 in the knotty Pine Room Pub or the peanut soup and spoon bread in the elegant Regency Room. Both are classics.
My idea of the perfect getaway usually involves lots of eating. (More on that later.) But there’s plenty to see and do in Roanoke, especially if you’re into art. One of the newest, and shiniest, is the Taubman Museum of Art, located in a stunning, 80,000-square-foot contemporary building just off the restored Market Square. With a focus on American art history, its 2,000-plus paintings, photographs and folk and graphic arts displays include some famous names — Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol, to name a few — and there’s also an entire gallery displaying dozens of Judith Leiber’s exquisite crystal-studded handbags. And it’s free (10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tues.-Sat.).
Displayed in the O. Winston Link Museum ($5 adults, $4 ages 3 to 11) is the photography of O. Winston Link, who made a name for himself by capturing the last days of steam operation on the Norfolk &Western in the late 1950s. Many of his black-and-white images of trains and the people who rode and watched them were taken at night, and serve as an eerie but mesmerizing history lesson; you also can listen to sound recordings of the giant steam engines.
Also new is Center in the Square in the heart of downtown. Nearly two years in the making, the 200,000-square-foot cultural complex gathers four independent cultural attractions under one seven-story roof: Science Museum of Western Virginia, History Museum of Western Virginia, Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and Mill Mountain Theatre, a year-round regional theater. (Prices vary.) It also boasts rooftop dining, a butterfly habitat and, for fish lovers, a 6,000-gallon living coral reef.
Museums and memorials
Or maybe history’s more your thing. The country’s largest collection of diesel and steam locomotives, plus a Jupiter rocket, is showcased at the Virginia Museum of Transportation ($8 adults/$6 kids ages 3-11), where visitors also can climb aboard some classic railcars. In nearby Hardy, you can explore the reconstructed 1850s plantation where America’s most prominent African-American educator and orator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Booker T. Washington, was born in 1856 and lived until age 9. The Booker T. Washington National Monument takes about an hour to tour, and has garden and farm areas. (Free; open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, about 30 miles northeast of Roanoke on Route 221, commemorates the Allied forces that participated in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, during World War II. Dedicated in 2001, the memorial guides visitors through the entire D-Day experience, from planning to victory, and includes three plazas and a formal English garden that paints the embroidered SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) patch in flowers ($8 adults, $5 children 6 to 18, plus $2 for a guided tour; open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Like to pick through junk for bargains or antiques? One of the country’s premier architectural-salvage operations, Black Dog Salvage, is about five minutes from downtown. You can spend several happy hours here searching for lost treasures (many have been featured on the DIY Network series “Salvage Dawgs,” which starts its new season June 1). The complex also has a 14,000-square-foot marketplace chock-full of home and garden accessories. Oddly enough, this is where you can rent a bike to explore Roanoke and neighboring Salem’s 25.6 miles of greenways (prices start at $12/2 hours).
My husband and I? We hit Roanoke’s dining scene pretty hard, squeezing in more than a half-dozen meals over the weekend. We started on Friday morning with breakfast at Thelma’s Chicken & Waffles on Market Street, and by Saturday night we’d also sampled the peanut soup at the Roanoke Hotel, wood-fired pizza at Corned Beef & Co., fried-green-tomato BLT’s at Billy’s and incredible sushi at Formosa Lounge (served in glowing martini glasses). Helping to wash it all down were some top-notch mojitos at Habana Cafe, a Cuban restaurant on Market Square, and local craft brews at Blue 5. (All the running makes me hungry! At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)
Roanoke also has gourmet bakeries, sandwich and ice cream shops and restaurants focused on sustainable cuisine. On Sunday, I had one of the best brunches of my life at Local Roots, a farm-to-table restaurant in charming Grandin Village, a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two miles from downtown, it also has a restored 1930s theater, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and vintage shops.
Back in town, the heart beats loudest in the historic city market, where on Saturdays through Sept. 29 you’ll find cooking demos, music and children’s activities in addition to the farmers market, shops and restaurants.
Love music? Roanoke Party in the Park on Jefferson Street, next to Elmwood Park and the library, runs every Thursday through Sept. 12 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., with local, regional and nationally recognized beach bands.
Driving home after vacation is always a total drag, but we had at least two adventures planned after checking out of our hotel. The first was to load up on $1.30 burgers at the landmark red-and-white Texas Tavern on Church Avenue.
A total slice of Americana that’s dished up some 20 million bowls of chile since 1930, Texas Tavern is Roanoke’s version of Primanti’s: You have to eat there, even if you don’t necessarily want to. Just don’t expect to sit while you do it, as the tiny 24-hour diner seats only about 10 people at the counter. The short-order cook sweet-talked us into taking out a bag of Cheesy Westerns — cheeseburgers topped with fried egg, onion, pickles and the tavern’s signature relish. Even though we weren’t hungry, we polished them off before we hit our next destination, The Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County.
Thirty years ago, my husband and I visited the 215-foot-high limestone arch on our budget honeymoon. We wanted to see if the historic landmark, created when a cavern collapsed a very long time ago, still held its charms. I’m happy to report it did, though the 137 steps greeting us at the head of Cedar Creek Trail were a little tougher on middle-aged knees ($20.99 adults/$11.99 children age 5 to 12, or $28.99/$16.99 with admission to the adjoining Natural Bridge Caverns).
But the real fun was yet to come.
Heading back to the highway, we happened past a sign for Foamhenge, a full-scale replica of England’s ancient Stonehedge. Who could drive past that?
Especially when it was free?
In 2004, as an April Fool’s joke, Mark Cline of Enchanted Castle Studios carved this manmade wonder out of Styrofoam rather than stone and placed it on a bluff above Route 11. There it stands to this day, a little worse for wear, covered with teenagers’ initials and pocked with holes created by birds and local varmints. Foamhenge even does the original one better, with a life-sized sculpture of the wizard Merlin, his face taken from the death mask (I’m not making this up) of the artist’s friend Jamie Jordan, who died in 2007.
You’ll definitely want to spend a few minutes snapping pictures. Don’t touch anything, though. In a handwritten sign on the site, Mr. Cline warns he might be hiding in the bushes watching you.
If you go
Getting there: Roanoke, Va., is off Interstate 81 and the Blue Ridge Parkway at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley. From Pittsburgh, the 409-mile drive — which takes you through pretty and pretty mountainous terrain — takes about six hours.
Where to stay: The biggest game in town is the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center at 110 Shenandoah Ave., Downtown ($129 and up, hotelroanoke.com) but there’s no shortage of less grand lodging in and around town. Options include all the big chain names (Sheraton, Marriott, Holiday Inn, etc.) and there’s also two lovely bed-and-breakfasts within walking distance of Market Square: King George Inn ($135 and up, kinggeorgeinnbandb.com) and The Inn on Campbell ($189 and up, theinnoncampbell.com). If you’re the type who likes to camp, there’s that, too; visit www.nps.gov/blri.
Where to eat: What are you in the mood for? Every major ethnic cuisine is represented here, from Mexican, Japanese and Italian to Indian and American. And don’t forget Southern BBQ, seafood or Cajun/Creole.
What to do: The Roanoke Valley truly has something for everyone, whether it’s outdoor recreation, shopping, history, the arts or museums and galleries. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who recognized the area’s fertile ground and mild climate as ideal for growing grapes (in 1774, he established vineyards at Monticello), there are a few wineries offering tours and tastings, too (www.virginiawine.org/regions/blue-ridge).
More info: visitroanokeva.com or 1-800-635-5535.