(This article was originally published on 04/13/11)
Roanoke, Virginia is town of about 100,000 in the center of Virginia. It lies in a valley immediately next to the Blue Ridge Mountains and serves as the hub for the greater Roanoke Valley area. Roanoke was founded in the mid 1800s and became successful as it was the crossroads for many roads as well as a stop on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad system.
The Virginian Railway was added in the early 1900s, and Roanoke’s future as a railroad town was sealed. Roanoke is home to the Virginia Museum of Transportation (www.vmt.org) which houses some fantastic exhibits on the history of the railroad in Virginia as well as a large collection of locomotives on display. If you have kids that like trains, then they will be blown away by the huge train cars that you can walk right up to, and even go inside of some of them. With business picking up from the railroad industry, the Norfolk and Western Railway needed a hotel for guests, and thus the Hotel Roanoke (www.hotelroanoke.com) was born in 1882. It operated for over 100 years until 1989 when the railway sold the hotel to nearby Virginia Tech University for $65,000.
The hotel’s contents were sold at auction, and the hotel remained unused until Virginia Tech raised several million dollars in the early 90s to renovate the hotel and reopen it. Locals who had purchased items from the hotel at auction either donated or sold them back to the hotel, so even today you can see many original light fixtures, mirrors and even artwork that is original to the hotel. Virginia Tech added a conference center in 1995 and it’s modern upgrades were completed. The hotel is currently operated by Doubletree and is simply a must see if you are in Roanoke. It’s central location to downtown makes it a great starting point and all of the downtown attractions are no more than a five or six minute walk away.
Downtown attractions include two or three dozen restaurants and bars as well as a great downtown farmer’s market that has daily sellers with most selling on the weekend. Not only were farmers there, but locals who make arts, crafts, handbags and whatever else you could want. While walking around the market, duck into the fun locally owned stores like chocolatepaper (www.chocolatepaperroanoke.com) which offers some of the most beautiful and delicious chocolates I’ve ever experienced.
Downtown Roanoke offers more than just food and shopping, they have an incredible shared museum space called Center in the Square (www.centerinthesquare.org). You would never expect to find such a wonderful center of learning and fun in a town of only 100,000, but I was blown away by the facilities. In the actual Center in the Square building, there is a working artist’s studio called the Art Beyond Center, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the History Museum of Western Virginia, the Mill Mountain Theatre, Opera Roanoke, the Roanoke Ballet Theatre, and the Science Museum of Western Virginia. A huge five story building contains all of this, and as you can see is a one-stop afternoon of excitement for the whole family.
I spent the most time in the Science Museum of Western Virginia because of the dozens of interactive science displays that lets you get hands on while learning about science. The Center in the Square is actually planning a full renovation by the end of 2012. Several of the museum are going to be temporarily displaced at alternate locations between Sept. 2011 and Sept. 2012, so call ahead and plan accordingly. The other museum affiliated with the Center in the Square is the O. Winston Link Museum (www.linkmuseum.org) which is located along the railroad tracks that run through town. It features wonderful photography exhibits on the history of the railroad in the area. There is one more major museum that you will recognize as soon as you get to Roanoke because it is an extremely modern building built in 2008. The Taubman Museum of Art (www.taubmuseum.org) looks like a swirling mass of shiny metal and glass and features some incredible exhibitions that span all forms of art from sculpture to contemporary art to a focus on regional art.
Taubman is the kind of museum that would impress museum-goers from anywhere in the world. The museum itself is a wonderful piece of art, much less the works within. Admission was recently lowered to only $7 for adults, which provides a fantastic return on your money for the quality of the facility that you get to enjoy. The Roanoke Valley is not just about downtown Roanoke, it’s about the natural beauty of being on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mill Mountain is immediately next to the downtown area and features the Roanoke Star as well as the Mill Mountain Zoo and Discovery Center. It would be a significant hike up the mountain, so a car is recommended. However, if you are into hiking, then the Appalachian Trail runs along the mountain ridge next to the Roanoke Valley.
The Appalachian is a full 2181 mile trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia, and one of the most beautiful and most photographed points is on the edge of the Roanoke Valley. McAfee’s Knob is an outcropping of rocks that sticks out of the top of the mountain horizontally that allows hikers to take a photo of themselves hanging out over the side of the mountain. It’s 3.5 miles each way with 1,200 feet of elevation game making it a moderate difficult hike. It’s definitely conquerable by most if you have the time, as we actually passed a senior citizens group coming back down on our way up. The trail is very clearly marked, but there are no railings at the top of the cliff, so it’s important to be careful. The cliff provides not only a great photo opportunity for yourself, but provides panoramic views of the city of Roanoke. Several lakes stretch across the area, including an easement named Carvin’s Cove.
The Roanoke Parks & Recreation department (www.roanokeva.gov) maintains the public recreation aspects of the lake which include hiking, fishing, light boating and equestrian use. It’s an 800 acre lake, and it’s unique because it’s actually in the middle of the 2nd largest municipal park in the country. This means that there isn’t a single house surrounding this serene body of water. It’s only 8 miles from downtown Roanoke, and with boats limited to 10hp or less, you want find any fisherman or jet-skis flying by at 50mph. After a serene morning canoe trip, why not hop over to the Roanoker (www.theroanokerrestaurant.com), where the locals eat. They do breakfast, lunch and dinner and they are cooking up a storm making family favorites like biscuits and gravy, pancakes, club sandwiches, steaks and casseroles. There is truly something for everyone. I was also able to visit a little bit more of a traditional sportsman’s lake, Smith Mountain Lake.
Smith Mountain Lake is roughly comparable to Lake Conroe (which means quite large if you haven’t been) with more than 30 square miles of surface area. Plenty of hotels, restaurants and marinas line the lake and provide all sorts of options for travelers. I stayed in a 2 bedroom condo overlooking the lake at Mariners Landing (www.marinerslanding.com). They provide several different housing options between condos and hotel-style rentals that you can pair up with a spa or golf package to save money. They have an excellent restaurant on site called Benjamin’s at The Pointe. Their hours vary depending on the season, so just check the Mariner’s Landing website. Smith Mountain Lake is only 35 miles from Roanoke, and would definitely be worth your time to check out. The central Virginia area offers lots to do in the region as well, with the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a curvy 469 miles road that stretches from North Carolina to Virginia and offers some spectacular nature site-seeing. The trees that line the road experience the extreme color change that the northeast region of the US is known for, and it can be quite mesmerizing to drive for miles through it with your favorite tunes on the radio. Virginia also has a burgeoning wine industry, and there are numerous vineyards to tour and try some wine.
We stopped at Peaks of Otter Winery & Orchard (www.peaksofotterwinery.com) and enjoyed the fruit wines that they produce. Fruit wines typically notate that the base of the wine is not grapes, but a different fruit, which in this case is primarily apples. They were originally an orchard that produced a small amount of wine to get some prominent state-issued winery signs placed around the area. That was years and years ago, and now they produce 31 different blends of wine that vary from peach wine (Peach of Otter) to Blueberry Muffin (apple and blueberry) to Strawberry Reserves (apple and strawberry). They unfortunately don’t ship to Texas at this time if you wanted to try some without visiting, but give them a call and let them know they have some expectant customers down here in the Lone Star State.
I was truly impressed by the beauty of the central Virginia area and the hospitality that the Virginians provided. A family can easily be entertained for a week and still have lots to do left over, and that’s without even leaving the Roanoke Valley area. Roanoke has a wonderful convention & visitors bureau (www.visitroanokeva.com / 540-342-6025) that is extremely willing to help you plan a trip to the area and can recommend seasonal activities for your vacation. The Roanoke Valley’s natural beauty will relax you, the city’s amenities will entertain and educate you and the local restaurants will stuff you with great food.