Museums, food, ridges, and aesthetic make this Virginia destination a family-appeasing vacation
Mark Woods may well be the first person you meet when you walk into the downtown Roanoke City Market. Flowers and bedding plants, fresh vegetables, and homemade candies are among the colorful items at the block-long farmers market - and Woods has the premier location.
He has earned his upfront spot as the fourth generation of his family to bring farm goods to Roanoke tables. He can tell you what is in his eight greenhouses and how many acres of various fruit trees he has. He might also be willing to tell you about his family.
"Will there be a fifth generation at the farmers market?" I asked him.
"Olivia is 7 years old," he said with pride and promise for his daughter's future. "And she likes to play in the dirt."
Woods hopes she will be the next generation to extend what is said to be the oldest continuously operating farmers market in all of Virginia. It is part of a busy city center of shops and restaurants serving the 1,200 downtown residents and the 14,000 people who work there. It is a delightful place to visit on an excursion to Virginia's Blue Ridge, located on Interstate 81.
Visitors quickly learn that it was by rail that Roanoke first arose. Highway ramp and airport runway came later. At the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located in the historic Norfolk & Western Freight Station, tour guide Charles Hardy can proudly take you right up to Engine #1218. Built in Roanoke in just two weeks during World War II, it's one of the most powerful steam locomotives ever built, burning four tons of coal per hour and capable of pulling 180 freight cars at 80 mph.
A few steps away is Engine #611, a steam locomotive built for passenger service, comfortable at 110 mph, "and 140 on occasion," Hardy adds.
Train lovers and photographers can deepen their appreciation for history and art at the O. Winston Link Museum, filled with photographs and audio recordings documenting the last days of the steam locomotive. Link once spent six days setting up and synchronizing flash bulbs to capture a single nighttime image of a locomotive crossing over a river as water rushed down a dam.
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, visitors may experience the morning mist rising and revealing a mountain vista beautiful enough to stop a conversation in mid-sentence.
It may be a surprise to find water sports in this mountain region, but there's room for houseboats and national bass fishing contests at Smith Mountain Lake, which at 40 miles long is the largest man-made lake in Virginia.
Breakfast at The Roanoker Restaurant is a must. Southern Living magazine dubbed it one of the five best places in Virginia for breakfast.
The Texas Tavern (where no alcohol is served) boasts that it can seat 1,000 people (but only 10 at a time). The featured Cheesy Western is a small hamburger on a bun, with cheese, a fried egg, and relish.
Along the Booker T. Washington Highway, the Homestead Creamery is a local business using milk from local farmers to make ice cream and other products.
At the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, peanut soup and spoonbread are always available at the popular buffet.
Locovores will love almost anything at Local Roots (my favorite), a farm-to-table restaurant in the Grandin Court neighborhood. The vegetables, meats, and beverages are sustainable, organic, local, and ethical. My first-course salad tasted fresh, almost wild, reminding me of foraging among the leafy vegetables and herbs in my parents' garden.
School children and visitors often stop at the Booker T. Washington National Monument to learn about the child born in slavery and grew up to be the man who shaped Tuskegee University. The site includes a reconstruction of the birthplace of this foremost black educator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Halflingers, dominickers, shorthorn oxen, and Ossabaw Island hogs can be seen at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum operated by Ferrum College. Halflingers are draft horses from colonial times - big and strong enough for farm work and too good to ride into town. Dominickers are chickens, the kind early settlers would have kept.
Sheep and goats also are among the heritage animals at the institute, a place to learn about spinning and weaving, folk architecture, and the past and present realities of producing "White Liquor" in the hills.
The institute is one of the stops on the Crooked Road, with samples of music from Virginia's recording legacy in the early half of the 20th century.
Blue Ridge Institute exhibitions have included textiles, toys, folk art, folk architecture, basketry, and banjos. The Blue Ridge Folklife Festival is Oct. 27.
Fine and Performing Arts
Lovers of roots music will want to follow the Crooked Road, Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, which takes visitors along a more than 300-mile route through the scenic terrain of the region and includes musical performances, outdoor recreational activities, museums, crafts, and historic and cultural programs.
Opera Roanoke, now in its 35th season, may offer visitors a surprise - as it did on a recent weekend, when two people from the opera company went to buy a birthday present at ChocolatePaper, a local shop in the Roanoke City Market, and put on an impromptu performance amid the candy counters for customers and staff.
The Taubman Museum of Art showcases American, modern, and contemporary artwork. The museum provides lectures, children's programs, and engaging art collections.
The Taubman has a gallery of purses designed by Judith Leiber, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers in 1994. Enthusiasts for her exhibitions find only a few displays elsewhere in the world, including permanent displays at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In addition to boating, fishing, hiking, and visiting the museums and historic sites, there are many opportunities to learn about local crafts while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Visit The Grainery in the nearby town of Rocky Mount to see glassblowing in a working glass studio environment, or stop by The Artisan Center along the Crooked Road.