The observation point on top of Sharp Top Mountain overlooks Peaks of Otter Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway. (GEORGE OXFORD MILLER)
A FELLOW in our group from Ontario agrees that shrimp and grits are an unlikely menu combination for a winery, or any restaurant, even on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the heart of Virginia.
He plays it safe with a cheeseburger and I order soup and salad. Then the chef stops by and mentions that the combo is the most popular item on the menu. He volunteers to bring a bowl for the table.
Spicy sauteed shrimp circle the heaping mound of rich, yellow grits. Skeptically we spoon a sample onto the homemade grilled bread that accompanies the super-sized bowl.
One taste and we both dig in for more. "My friends won't believe this," the Canadian says. "They laughed when I told them how popular grits were in the South, but they've never tasted any as delicious as this."
The Blue Ridge Parkway winds 755 kilometres through the most beautiful, and the most rural and isolated, parts of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina.
It preserves the history, and we discover, the tastes, of a centuries-old cultural mix of English, Scots, and African-Americans. Fuse modern favorites with traditional dishes and you get surprises like shrimp and grits.
Gateway to the past and present
From the Hotel Roanoke in the historic downtown district, we have easy access to day trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park.
Besides vineyards with award-winning wines and gourmet restaurants, we hike trails that wind through pristine forests and summit mountain peaks, visit restored grist mills, and explore small towns that maintain a living legacy that emphasizes music, arts, and a friendliness that knows no strangers.
We enter the Parkway near the 30-metre illuminated star on Mill Mountain that overlooks Roanoke. Spring flowers fill meadows and orange flame azaleas and snowy mountain laurel bushes colour the roadsides.
The two-lane road winds lazily around mountainsides with scenic vistas of Roanoke and the river valley below and hazy ridges in the distance.
Today's loop stops at the Chateau Morrisette Winery with its grits and shrimp, the historic Mabry Grist Mill, and the vibrant music and art centre of Floyd. Chateau Morrisette Winery lost money for 17 years before introducing its signature series of dog wines, which include Black Dog, Blushing Dog, and Our Dog Blue, a semi-sweet white often paired with, you guessed it, shrimp and grits. Portions of sales benefit service dog organizations and canine disease research.
On another loop we visit the Peaks of Otter region with a lodge, trail complex, Peaks of Otter Winery that specializes in unorthodox chili pepper and sweet fruit wines, and nearby Bedford with the 3.6-hectare National D-Day Memorial.
With so many Blue Ridge attractions within an hour's drive, Roanoke makes the ideal hub to explore the area. "We have 145 miles of hike and bike trails within 15 minutes of downtown Roanoke and more than 900 kilometres of trails within an hour's drive," Landon Howard of the Roanoke Conventions and Visitors Bureau says.
"With outdoor adventure, farm-to-table restaurants, and four-star resorts with golf and spas, we have everything you could want except a ski slope."
Since its transformation from a Native American hunting camp named Big Lick to a railroad hub in 1882, Roanoke has been a crossroad that connects people, commerce, and cultures. Today, it's a gateway to Blue Ridge nature, arts and crafts, culinary flavors that blend past and present, and a legacy deeply rooted in the surrounding mountains.
Too Good to Sell
The historic downtown has been centered around a regional farmers market since 1882. Vendors sit behind tables with mounds of apples, tomatoes, greens, flowers, baked goods, and crafts.
The vendors, restaurants, bakeries, boutiques, and galleries thrive on business from local patrons, which gives the district a cultural authenticity missing in overdeveloped tourist centers. Kitschy souvenir shops are noticeably absent.
A display of peaches, the first of the season, catches my attention. Unlike supermarket fruit from distant hemispheres picked green and devoid of taste, these are tree-ripened.
"How much is one?" I ask Donny Thomas, the owner of Thomas Market. Danny and his son Tony have operated the storefront market since 1982. He weighs the peach and charges 25 cents.
The first juicy bite brings back memories of pick-your-own orchards and sweet flavors. I offer another quarter and say, "We still have a deal?" I pass by later and he's eating a peach, too.
The next day, his peaches are gone. "They were so good I took them all home," he says with a chuckle.
After a day touring the sites and viewpoints along the Parkway, we turn to the forest trails. Peaks of Otters, a 45-minute drive from Roanoke, offers a series of loop trails through the woods, around a small lake, and to the 3,900-foot summit of Sharp Top Mountain with a famous 360-degree vista of the surrounding valley.
A bus from the trailhead takes non-hikers to within 100 yards of the summit and its around-the-world views, but we choose the more aerobic 1.5-mile, uphill trail. Woodland birds serenade us and blooming azaleas, rhododendron, blueberry bushes, and wildflowers line much of the way.
At the top, stone stairs lead the last few yards to a porch-sized pinnacle that almost reaches the low-hanging clouds. Dark streaks of rain pound the ridges of the long valley but fortunately bypass us.
Rain or shine, the awesome view justifies the hike.
From shrimp and grits and peaches too good to sell to tranquil roads and great views, Roanoke provides a portal to the cultural flavors and natural wonders of the Blue Ridge country.
George Oxford Miller is a photojournalist and the author of several travel and landscaping books.