Wineries abound in both Texas Hill Country and Virginia's Roanoke Valley. (Photo by Irv Green)
by Andrea Gross
I find a patch of green and begin to unpack our picnic basket. "Wine?" asks my husband. I nod happily. I'm surrounded by wildflowers, fixed with food and wine, and within shouting distance of places waiting to be explored. I'm hard put to think of a nicer way to spend the day.
Now we've found a way to have not one, but two spring breaks. First we go to the Hill Country of central Texas, where spring begins early. Later we explore the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, where flowers don't reach their peak ‘til May or June.
Bluebonnets cover the hills near Fredericksburg, peaking in mid-April. (Photo: Al Rendon).
Texas Hill Country
It's mid-April in Fredericksburg, and the bluebonnets are in full bloom. Friends point us to Willow City Loop, 15 miles to the northeast, and soon we're on a winding road that takes us over cliffs, through meadows and across bridges. We drive slowly, admiring the scenic glory, in no hurry to get back to town.
But we need to prepare for our picnic, which is scheduled for the following day. Fredericksburg is at the center of the Texas Hill Country Viticultural Area, a 15,000 square mile area that is the second most visited wine region in the United States, topped only by Napa. Therefore we head out along Highway 290, locally known as "Wine Road 290," which bisects the town.
Fredericksburg has a vital downtown filled with specialty stores of all kinds. (Photos: Irv Green)
Here the land resembles the grape-growing regions of Italy and southern France, leading Brian Heath, owner of Grape Creek Vineyards, to refer to the area as "Tuscany in Texas." We go into a tasting room that is styled like an Italian villa with heavy timbers and a tile roof and sample their award-winning wines, finally settling on a bottle of Pinot Grigio for $16.95.
Afterwards, because we're in splurge mode and can't resist, we pick up a pie from Tootie Pie Company Gourmet Café, recognized by Yahoo Travel as one of the top ten pie shops in America. Exercising zero self-control, we eat the pie on the spot, then buy another for our picnic basket. After all, this is a vacation, right?
The next morning we wander through the downtown area, which is quietly becoming one of the country's leading art centers. Collectors often arrive in private planes to visit galleries like Whistle Pik, where they can acquire paintings and sculptures by nationally acclaimed artists. Nearby, Artisans at Rocky Hill showcases outstanding work by top regional craftsmen and women, while The Grasshopper and Wild Honey features an eclectic collection of local handicrafts and European imports.
Finally we stop in Rustlin' Rob's Texas Gourmet Foods, where we indulge in a sampling of sauces and dips. We end up with a packet of Rattlesnake Dust (a mix of herbs, garlic and exotic peppers) and a jar of Texas Hot Wild Fire Pickles. We put the Dust in our suitcase but as for the pickles... they go into the picnic basket.
Flame azaleas south of Roanoke. (photo: William A. Blake)
Virginia's Blue Ridge
A month later we're in Roanoke. Here, near the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway and just south of Shenandoah Valley, flowers begin blooming in April and color the hills through October. First come the delicate wildflowers; later, the flame azaleas and rhododendrons.
The city, which is already the cultural and business hub of southwestern Virginia, is cementing its reputation as the northern terminus of the Parkway, offering visitors an experience similar to that of Asheville, 250 miles to the south. To that end, the revitalized downtown has become a regional art center, filled with markets and galleries.
Mountains form a perfect backdrop to a picnic in the hills near Roanoke. (Photo: Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau)
We poke in the shops and then, to prepare for our picnic, we hit the wine trail. Wine has been produced in Virginia since the Europeans settled the region in the 1600s, and Wine Enthusiast Magazine has named Virginia one of 2012's ten best travel destinations in the world. (The two other U.S. wine regions that made the list are in California.)
We visit Virginia Mountain Vineyards and Fincastle Vineyard & Winery, where we taste-test their Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. Delicious. Then, on a whim, we drive through orchards and down a country road to Peaks of Otter Winery & Orchard in nearby Bedford.
There the atmosphere is more homespun, and we're offered samples of wines labeled Blackberry Cobbler, Pumpkin Pie and Blueberry Muffin, which, we're told, was Mark Twain's favorite. These make me feel virtuous. I'm not really drinking; I'm just imbibing my grandmother's home cooking.
We buy a bottle of each and set off to find the perfect picnic spot.