Halfway through the peanut soup and spoon bread at the genteel Hotel Roanoke, I realize I'm in love. Not with the gracious surroundings of the 1882 hotel or the endangered Southern specialties I'm consuming or even the thought of exploring the city's renowned Taubman Museum of Art.
Roanoke's collective understated enthusiasm for its treasures and pleasures is sweeping me off my feet.
An absolute thrill of domestic travel is discovering surprising destinations. Towns and cities that make no apologies for lacking a cosmopolitan bustle, instead offering unexpected wow factors, visitor-friendly attitudes, a front-row seat to the local scene and a spiffed-up welcome mat.
Roanoke is one of those irresistible off-the-beaten path locales. Nestled in the lush Roanoke Valley, the city is the largest metropolitan center in Western Virginia and boasts a vibrant and diverse tapestry of culture, arts, history, regional cuisine, eclectic shopping and a natural beauty long considered one of its richest assets. But Roanoke doesn't deliver a flag-waving, in-your-face kind of sales pitch. Roanoke just knows it's likable, and is pretty certain that, once you get to the land of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail, you're going to like it, too.
The freestanding, neon-illuminated man-made star perched 1,045 feet above Roanoke was originally constructed in 1949 as a seasonal decoration to shine over the city during the holiday shopping frenzy. The structure on Mill Mountain was to be dismantled at the season's conclusion, but its presence struck a chord and citizens decided the notion of a brilliantly lit star hovering high above the landscape was a good idea. Today the star watches over Roanoke like a silent sentinel, a tribute to a city that embraced and identified with a bright and powerful symbol, earning the area the nickname "Star City of the South."
It's the art of attraction in Roanoke-and once you're there, you'll wonder what took you so long.
The 81,000-square-foot Taubman Museum of Art is a stunning steel, glass and zinc Frank Gehry-inspired structure. It's a punctuation mark of massive proportions in a revitalized and thriving downtown area dominated by simple industrial-style brick buildings. Once you've finished exploring the museum's permanent collection of more than 2,000 pieces, spend time in the soaring atrium admiring the dramatic, ultramodern design.
Off the Rails
Roanoke is a proud railroad city and has preserved its heritage in several ways. Meander along the Railwalk, an interactive outdoor museum detailing past and present railroad history, which connects the city's Market District to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. This assortment of 2,500 pieces of railway memorabilia includes the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, including the internationally known Norfolk & Western Class-J611 and Class-A128 steam locomotives-the most modern ever built. The O. Winston Link Museum is owned and operated by the Historical Society of Western Virginia and is home to photographer Link's artful and evocative chronicling of steam locomotives in the 1950s.
Roanoke is proud of its food, and there is a crop of restaurateurs, chefs and entrepreneurs keeping the cuisine scene on track. Thelma's Chicken and Waffles in downtown Roanoke dishes up Southern-style cooking in an atmosphere that is equal parts entertainment and downhome dishes like fried green tomatoes and corned beef hash. On the Rise Bakery specializes in artisan breads and homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and sweets. In Roanoke's quaint Old Southwest Historic District, crowds flock to Wildflour Market & Bakery for from-scratch food that showcases local ingredients. Pause and refresh on the outdoor patio with a glass of wine and a Dragon's Tooth sandwich (eggplant medallions topped with veggies and provolone) and soak in the neighborhood's funky ambiance. Local Roots bills itself as a farm-to-table restaurant, and the chef doesn't disappoint with locally sourced and creative preparations of produce and beef, lamb and pork.
Shop This Way
Downtown Roanoke is chock full of unique retailers. Check out Appalachia Press, beside the Taubman, for an interesting selection of handmade cards, quirky gifts and art. One of only 100 letter presses left in the country, proprietor/artist John Reburn represents Roanoke's fresh young face. Chocolate Paper carries artisan chocolates and gift items and La De Da is a fashionable women's boutique. Spend a day browsing bookstores, galleries, jewelry and food markets. And don't leave Roanoke without purchasing a star souvenir-most shopkeepers feature some interpretation of the famous Mill Mountain Star.
Outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, fishing and scenic drives along ancient ridges, valleys and pastures, are plentiful in this geared-for-play area. The Roanoke Valley offers immediate proximity to the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, known as America's favorite drive. Hoof it on a portion of the Appalachian Trail, the country's premier continuous long-distance footpath, or explore some of the other 600 miles of hiking available in the area.
For more information on the Roanoke Valley, go to visitroanokeva.com.