"I'm not from Roanoke, but I got here as fast as I could," quipped Bart Wilner, longtime local who founded Entre Computer Center in this Virginia valley in 1983.
While it's true that Wilner is the new volunteer president of Roanoke's convention and visitors bureau, his sentiment is what we heard from just about everybody in town.
"In a 10- to 20-minute drive, you can be anywhere you want to be," said Pete Eshelman of Roanoke Outside. "We have the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachia, farm-to-table restaurants, four-star hotels, canoeing, caves and lots of live music."
About 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail wind through here.
"Within 15 minutes of downtown Roanoke are 145 miles of hiking trails," Eshelman said. "There are over 600 miles of trails in the region; within a hour, there are 1,000 miles."
The largest freshwater lake in Virginia, Smith Mountain Lake, is here, and boating and fishing are especially popular during summer. Add Roanoke River, James River, New River and Lake Moomaw, and some of the finest lake and river fishing on the East Coast are really close to this urban hub. Small wonder Roanoke calls itself the best outdoor town on the East Coast.
I joined a few friends to explore this historic valley and found a gorgeously green place where people are welcoming, historic sites bring the past to life and the only difficulty is choosing among all those outdoor activities and restaurants.
We based ourselves in the Hotel Roanoke, "the grand old lady" in town that dates back to 1882, when Roanoke was still called Big Lick for the salt licks in the valley that made this a gathering place for buffalo, elk, deer and the American Indians who hunted them.
Lots of lip-licking still goes on here since there are more restaurants per capita than any other city in Virginia. The state's oldest farmers market remains the centerpiece downtown, and the farm-to-table locavore movement is alive and well.
Visitors savor locally homemade pastries at Cups, a coffee shop in the historic neighborhood of Grandin Village, where owner and should-be stand-up Michele Bennett keeps her customers in stitches.
"Every cup is poured with love, and we know your name," she says. "I moved here 22 years ago and can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be."
Just down the street from Cups is the 1932 Grandin Theatre, a four-screen movie theater that's a testament to its neighbors' commitment with its recent restoration. At the end of the block is Viva la Cupcake, another locals' favorite.
One of Roanoke's 13 farmers markets is in Grandin, too.
"We're all locavores," said Bennett.
She had her booths and counters made by Black Dog Salvage, an amazing collection of architectural finds and consignment treasures where Sally, the black dog, greets visitors. Robert Kulp and Mike Whiteside founded this home for architectural castoffs in 1999. Their finds and their creations - such as a bar made from a 1951 Buick bumper or coffee tables made from old doors and gates - now are known everywhere, thanks to the Internet.
One day my friends and I rented bicycles and rode along the Roanoke River from Wasena Park to Black Dog Salvage, browsing with Sally yet again. This flat bike ride travels part of the Roanoke River Greenway, part of 20 miles of greenways for walking and biking in Roanoke, making a delightful commute for many locals.
"One of the things I love about Roanoke is the accessibility of getting from one place to another," Kelly Burd-Adams told us. She has worked for Roanoke's ConVis for more than 20 years. "And with 250,000 people, it's large enough so you're not under a microscope but small enough to connect with people."
At Wildflour, a terrific restaurant and bar in the Old Southwest historic neighborhood, we polished off Doug and Evie Robison's unique dishes made with whole foods and original recipes, including tomato cheddar soup, Dragon's Tooth sandwich and carrot cake, all local legends.
But the most legendary of lip-licking dishes surely are the peanut soup and spoon bread made for more than 100 years at the Hotel Roanoke; macaroni and cheese with crab and Appalachian trout also make for culinary memories.
The Hotel Roanoke is an excellent base for its central location. Just across the Skybridge is the Virginia Museum of Transportation that showcases the railroad heritage that put Roanoke on modern-day maps and changed its name from Big Lick to Roanoke around 1882. The new name came from the Indian word, "Rawrenock," for the shell beads the local Tutelo and Saponi Indians used as currency.
Just down the tracks is the O. Winston Link Museum, where vintage photographs of those glorious steam locomotives were the life's passion of photographer Winston Link. Around the bend is the soaring modern building of the Taubman Museum of Art, a collection of important American, modern, design, folk and regional art in a building that opened in 2008.
The historic farmers market - in business since 1882 - is just two blocks away, with 42 permanent stalls open 363 days a year. Surrounding the market are art galleries, eclectic boutiques and outdoor cafes. Gallery 108 on Market Street is a local artists' cooperative where paintings, photographs, stained glass, ceramics, quilts and more show lots of regional love.
We wanted to experience Smith Mountain Lake, so we rented a houseboat and cruised around thisbeautiful reservoir that is a beloved locals' playground. With 500 miles of shoreline, it would take months to explore.
Two sites just out of town beckoned for some beautiful country road drives. The Booker T. Washington National Monument commemorates the birthplace of the famed black educator who was born here a slave in 1856, and the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum showcases folk-life heritage. Both prove a personal experience with history.
Washington's autobiography, "Up From Slavery," recalls his childhood here on a tobacco farm where hismother was the cook. To see the re-creation of the kitchen - which was also the home of Booker, his three siblings and his mother - is an eye-opening experience. With emancipation in 1865, when Booker was just 9, his family moved to West Virginia, where he finally could attend school. He eventually founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama that remains important today.
Every weekend spring through fall, volunteers don 1803 costumes at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum to share the way of life then among the German Baptists who settled here. Farm animals are tended in the old ways, and crops are still planted each year. The museum also mounts exhibitions on various folkway traditions, from dulcimers to moonshine to walking sticks. Its annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival draws hundreds of musicians, artists and storytellers.
But we had to get back to Roanoke with one more stop to make: the Roanoker, celebrating its 70th year in July 2011. Recently voted one of the five best restaurants for breakfast in Virginia by Southern Living magazine, The Roanoker is especially loved for its biscuits, light and fluffy wonders that were also featured on the "Today" show the very day we were there.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Delta, United and US Airways fly into Roanoke Regional Airport. Avis rents cars at the airport.
Staying there: The Hotel Roanoke, www.hotelroanoke.com; 540-985-5900
Sheraton Roanoke, www.sheratonroanoke.com; 800-325-3535
On Smith Mountain Lake: Mariners Landing Resort Community, www.marinerslanding.com; 800-851-4988
For houseboat rentals: Parrot Cove Boat Rentals, Smith Mountain Lake, Va., www.parrotcove.com; 800-488-4516
What to do: For bike rentals, Roanoke River Greenway Bike Rentals in Wasena Park, www.roanokeoutside.com/rivergreenwaybicyclerental
For all other information, including restaurants and activities, visit www.visitroanokeva.com, the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau site.
Priscilla Lister is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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