The first weekend of November, I packed up my car and headed out to discover the “Old School” side of Virginia.
Found all over the state — from the largest city to the smallest town– Old School Virginia shares glimpses of a simpler time. A nostalgic blast from the past where the traditions of years gone by are carried forward within the modern pace of today.
Old School is found in the places you can visit, like quirky roadside attractions, country stores and historic town centers. It’s in the tastes of the region’s soda fountains, breweries and restaurants dishing up down-home comfort food. It’s the music of old-timey strummers and fiddlers whose teachings and tunes have been passed down through the generations, as well as the friends you meet along the way, happy to share a smile and a bit of local history before you even know their name.
But more than all that, I discovered that for a road-tripper just passing through, Old School Virginia is as welcoming as home.
For this trip, I focused on previously unexplored (for me) territory: south-western Virginia, where the drawl is often thick and the old school gems aplenty. I spent three days, two nights driving through Roanoke (a big city with a small town feel), Floyd (a small musical town that’s home to the only stoplight in the entire county) and the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway that spans between them. (For more ideas, check out Virginia Tourism’s Old School site.)
Here are my favorite stops along the way. (Detailed map shown below and here)
DAY 1 – ROANOKE:
1.) Roanoke Star
The 100-foot Roanoke Star, perched high above the city atop Mill Mountain, has looked down upon the Roanoke Valley for nearly 70 years. A tribute to the city’s nickname, “Star City of the South,” this landmark was initiated by local merchants in 1949 as a way to kick off the Christmas shopping season… and has been shining down over the city every since. It’s the largest free-standing man-made star in the world and its perch — an easy 15-minute drive from downtown — offers one of the best views of Roanoke. At night, the star lights up brilliantly with all-American hues of red, white and blue neon and is visible all throughout the surrounding Valley.
2.) The Roanoker Restaurant
Is there anything more comforting than hot-out-of-the-oven buttermilk biscuits on a cool fall day? The Roanoker Restaurant has been baking up its famous biscuits since 1941 and everyone from Southern Living to NBC’s Today Show has claimed to be fans. I was eager to try them for myself and for what it’s worth, I ate 3 (one of which was smothered with their also-popular sausage gravy). I, too, am now a fan for life after finding them to have all of the rich denseness you’d expect of a biscuit, while also being delicately light and flaky. The rest of the menu looked tasty (and affordable) but for me, it was all about the biscuits.
3.) Black Dog Salvage
Who would ever guess that an old salvage shop could be so much fun?! Visiting the 40,000 square foot warehouse at Black Dog Salvage is like a glimpse into the region’s architectural past. As a non-shopper, I was fascinated by the sheer volume of eclectic savaged items — think rooms filled with row after row of doors, overflowing boxes of antique doorknobs and handles, and antique toilets(!). If new items are more your style, you’ll enjoy the sizable “Memorial Bridge Market Place” which had a mix of artistic and high-end “boutique” booths. Tip: Don’t forget to look up. The treasures extend all the way up the high ceiling, with vintage signs and giant stained glass windows.
4.) Parkway Brewing Co.
For generations, beer was brewed in small batches by local folks with a passion for hops. Nowadays, craft breweries are popping up all over the state and reviving the Old School tradition once again. In Roanoke, I stopped by Parkway Brewing and found it to be a neighborhood gathering place with really good craft beer. Many of their brews have a tie to the region’s history and traditions, including my favorite, the Bridge Builder Blonde, named after the immigrants who constructed the unique arched stone bridges all along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
5.) Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar
When I think of “Old School” in the simplest sense, places like Pop’s Ice Cream and Soda Bar instantly come to mind. With an iconic counter and 50’s music adding ambiance, Pop’s is a retro-fabulous soda fountain that’s been dishing up handcrafted shakes, sodas and 14 kinds of grilled cheese since 2005. On this visit, I opted for the traditional: “Three Cheese” grilled cheese (with cheddar, provolone and swiss), a cup of creamy tomato soup, home-brewed ginger ale and a scoop of Homestead Creamery pumpkin ice cream, but my eyes couldn’t help but wander at some of the more creative options including the “Sharply Sweet” grilled cheese (with cinnamon cream cheese, cheddar and fresh sliced apples), and the Lime Rickey Float. Next time!
6.) Hotel Roanoke
After all this eating, drinking and Old School road-tripping, you’ll be wanting a nice place to lay down your head for the night. The 331-room Hotel Roanoke fits with the theme… it’s a historic property that was first built by the Norfolk and Western Railway in 1882 to provide refuge for weary rail travelers passing through. Today, the Tudor-style hotel is owned by Virginia Tech and operated by the DoubleTree hotel group and is super convenient to the bustling downtown district. (The hotel has a pedestrian bridge that goes over the train tracks and drops you right into the heart of downtown.) The hotel’s as impressive on the inside as it is on the exterior, and I found it to have all the charm of an independent hotel with the perks of a chain (including warm DoubleTree cookies!)
Day 2: BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY & FLOYD
7.) Start the day by driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway
A drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway is easy on the eyes and good for the soul. Early November is typically past prime leave-spotting season on this part of the Parkway, which spans nearly 470 picturesque miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains. But this year’s late fall warmth kept the leaves vivid just long enough for us to enjoy them. Sure, you could take the faster Route 211 to get to Floyd from Roanoke, but what’s the fun in that?
For a detailed account of my drive — and lots of photos — check out my recent post: Fall Colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
8.) Mabry Mill
Mabry Mill is located just about 20 miles south of Floyd at mile post 176. This revered local landmark is a restored watermill and the most photographed spot on the entire parkway. During the season (May 1 – October 31) there’s a gift shop as well as a popular restaurant featuring dishes like buckwheat pancakes and biscuits topped with with moonshine honey butter, but if you visit off-season like me, you’ll be treated to serene moments and unobstructed views of the watermill.
9.) Poor Farmer’s Market
During the course of the trip, I met Bill Lohmann, columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and co-author of the recently published (and incredibly awesome) book Back Roads: People, Places and Pie from Around Virginia. He said, “If you take the parkway past Meadows of Dan, you have got to stop by the Poor Farmer’s Market.” Who am I to argue with a published expert? The Poor Farmer’s Market is part produce stand, part country store and part sandwich shop– all featuring the best tastes and wares of Virginia and Appalachia. My favorites were the creative baked items (Possum Pie, anyone?), the impressive array of cast iron skillets and the rows and rows of canned goods ranging from pickles to more kinds of jam you could imagine.
10.) Floyd Country Store
Once you make your way to Floyd, you’ll find yourself at the one of the major hubs of Virginia’s Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail: the Floyd Country Store. Known throughout the region as a venue for authentic Appalachian music and dancing, their year-round Friday Night Jamboree often becomes a night-long affair where the after-party sprawls into the street with fiddlers and banjo players strumming outdoors into the wee hours of the night. On Sundays, it’s home to the more subdued — yet still awesome… and FREE! — Old Time Jam, where musicians come together and put on a 2-hour show of either Blue Grass or Old-Timey tunes. I was in the audience for the Sunday show, and I loved every minute. Stay tuned for a post all about the experience in the coming weeks.
A brief video of the performance:
11.) Hotel Floyd
Walking into our suite at the Hotel Floyd, I was transported to a cozy log cabin. Beds topped with quilted comforters, wood paneling, a comfy living room with arm chairs, foot stools and a side table featuring a painted-on checkers board… It may seem a bit simple, but under the country aesthetic is a seriously sophisticated green philosophy. The hotel is built featuring earth-friendly products like renewable bamboo flooring, eco-friendly plaint, sustainable fabrics, low water toilets and more. It’s also super conveniently located… it’s less than 5 minutes to get from your room to downtown! Heads Up: The hotel’s undergoing some major construction through Spring 2014, which will double the size of the hotel.
Driving back the next day, the back roads slowly began to widen, and the traffic seemed to grow steadily with each passing mile. I loved my glimpse into Old School Virginia and my introduction to the area and returned from my trip with a deep appreciation for this part of Virginia. From the tips of many people I met along the way, my #TravelLocal must-visit list has grown considerably, and I’m sure I’ll be back in south western Virginia soon to visit other supposed gems like like Abingdon, the Floyd Country Store on a Saturday, Tazewell, Natural Bridge and countless others. For now, I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to visit such special and nostalgic places.
**DISCLAIMER: Many of my meals, accommodations and activities for this trip were provided by Virginia Tourism. I worked closely with them to customize an itinerary that best fit my travel perspective and all opinions are my own.**