The best part about Virginia is that there’s always something new to learn, to see and to do. We’ve brought you stories about
great hikes, historic sites, unique places to visit and must-do road trips and day trips. And what always happens is that no matter how many ideas I find, my readers always have more for me!
Here are just a few of the places that my amazing readers have mentioned – there are outdoor wonderlands, astonishingly beautiful theatres, awesome music venues and remarkable historic homes. And what I love most about these places is that they’re not necessarily on the front page of every guidebook. Some are well known, but some are out of the way or tucked away in small towns. But that’s what makes them even more incredible – they’re like treasures just waiting to be discovered.
1.“The Grand Canyon of the South”: Breaks Interstate Park, Breaks
Hailed as the “Grand Canyon of the South”, Breaks Canyon is the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi and is, without a doubt, the highlight of Breaks Interstate Park in southwest Virginia. Located within the Jefferson National Forest, the canyon ranges from 830-1,600-feet in depth and stretches 5-miles in length. With hiking and walking trails, a water park, ample cabin and camping accommodations, Breaks Interstate Park is a must-see for anyone who loves the great outdoors. And while it shares land with neighboring Kentucky, it is truly a gem of the Virginia landscape.
2. Mayan Influenced Décor and Amazing Performances: Lincoln Theatre, Marion
An art deco “Mayan Revival” style performing arts center may not be what you expect from quaint town of Marion in Smyth County. But The Lincoln Theatre in the heart of historic Marion has been a community treasure since 1929. The theatre, which is only 1 of 3 remaining Mayan Revival buildings in the U.S., features décor modeled after an ancient Mayan temple including 6 large murals depicting national and local history. Although it closed briefly in the late 1970s, renovations in the 90s brought it back and The Lincoln re-opened in 2004 as a community performing arts venue. Today, The Lincoln hosts an eclectic array of stage and music performances, including the nationally syndicated bluegrass show, “Song of the Mountains.” Marion may be off-the-beaten path, but this gem is definitely worth the trip. Visit www.thelincoln.org for upcoming shows.
3. Birthplace of Robert E. Lee: Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County
Robert E. Lee is like the Alec Baldwin of his family. He might be the name you know best, but there are many, many more where he came from. Colonel Thomas Lee, a colonial Governor and key player in Virginia’s development, built Stratford Hall in the 1730s. Four generations of the Lee family went on to live and thrive at Stratford Hall, producing two signers of the Declaration of Independence, a President of Congress, Revolutionary War heroes (including Lee’s father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee), diplomats, women’s rights advocates and finally, the leader of the Confederate Army, General Robert E. Lee. Once a thriving plantation, called “a towne in itself” by a Stratford guest, Stratford Hall now offers tours, dining (including some of the best pan-fried chicken and she-crab bisque anywhere) and lodging. Stratford may not be as well known as Mt. Vernon or Monticello, but it is every bit worth the visit. Check out upcoming events at www.stratfordhall.org.
4. Living History and Archaeological Digs: Gunston Hall, Mason Neck
Also located on Virginia’s Northern Neck along the Potomac River, Gunston Hall was built only a few years after Stratford Hall in the 1750s by U.S. Founding Father, George Mason. Like Stratford, Gunston is a Georgian mansion surrounded by plantation land. But what sets Gunston Hall apart is its ornate Gothic woodwork and elaborate carvings, features that were highly unusual in colonial times. William Buckland, an indentured servant to the Mason family, designed much of the house and its intricate details. After serving his indenture, Buckland went on to design several more notable homes in Virginia and Maryland. George Mason lived at Gunston until his death in 1792. Today, the home is a museum and offers tours, as well as hands-on archaeology digs, living history programs (e.g., learn the arts of “hearth cooking”) and many other special events. More is available at www.gunstonhall.org.
5. World-Class Theatre and One Heck of a History: Barter Theatre , Abingdon
This amazing secret in Abingdon is not really so secret. Since it opened its doors in 1933 until today, The Barter Theatre has been an ongoing source of incredible stage talent, making it one of the longest-running professional theatres in the country and one of the only year-round professional resident repertory theatres left. When Robert Porterfield founded the theatre during the Great Depression, anyone who couldn’t pay the 40-cent admission price could barter with vegetables, dairy and livestock – hence the name “Barter Theatre.” It wasn’t unusual for actors to be disrupted by the sounds of “admission” livestock, as well as the sounds of the town’s jail, which was located in the basement. The building itself housed theatre productions as early as 1876, before serving as a town hall, a fire hall, and finally the theatre we know today. Many famous actors have come through the Barter, including Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, David Birney, Larry Linville, Wayne Knight and many others. Stage productions can be seen year-round at the Main Stage or in the Barter II, a smaller theatre just across from the main building. Southwest Virginia is a gem in and of itself, but with world-class theatre added in the mix, you’ll want Abingdon to be part of your next road trip without question. Visit www.bartertheatre.com to see a complete show schedule.
6. Rock Climbing: Mather Gorge, Great Falls National Park
Mather Gorge is a river gorge located at the lowest part of the Potomac River directly on the border of Virginia and Maryland. While the river itself falls on the Maryland side, Mather Gorge offers beautiful hiking trails on the Virginia side, as well as some of the best steep-face rock climbing in Virginia. Many climbers have used Mather Gorge to train for much larger, high-intensity climbs around the world. The gorge is located in Great Falls National Park, which does not allow camping, but given its convenient location only 15 miles out of D.C., accommodations are easy to find.
7. Amazing Music in an Intimate Setting: Jammin’ Java, Vienna
Virginia’s music scene is one of the best around. With world-class arenas, auditoriums and amphitheaters throughout the state, you can always find a great show. But if sometimes you want a smaller, more intimate musical experience without giving up the quality of performers, then Jammin’ Java is the place to get it. Located in an inauspicious strip mall in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Jammin’ Java showcases local, national and international artists and has been named one of the Top 100 clubs in the world by Pollstar Magazine, not once, but twice. The business is owned and operated by the Brindley brothers, who are musicians themselves and put their passion for music into everything they do. In addition to regular club shows, Jammin’ Java features TotRock, one of the country’s best children’s show series most weekdays. Food and drinks are available at all shows, with a kids’ menu just for the little ones. Don’t miss your chance to be part of this one-of-a-kind musical experience. Find a show at www.jamminjava.com.
8. Coffeehouse Crooners: Ashland Coffee and Tea, Ashland
Like Jammin’ Java, Ashland Coffee and Tea just outside of Richmond doesn’t scream “amazing music venue” from the exterior. But come inside this cozy little coffeehouse by the railroad tracks in Ashland and you’ll be amazed at the incredible talent on stage. Featuring a “blend your own tea” bar, food served daily and a selection of wines and beer, Ashland Coffee and Tea serves up an eclectic blend of local and national bluegrass, country, pop and folk artists every week. Special events include the “Songwriter’s Showdown” on Tuesdays and “Homegrown Wednesdays” especially for local Virginia artists. If you can’t make a show, stop by any day of the week (except Mondays) for some coffee, tea or company. Participate in the coffeehouse book exchange or just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. Learn more at www.ashlandcoffeeandtea.com.
9. A Vintage Vineyard: Chateau Morissette, Floyd
“Old” is all about perspective when it comes to Virginia wines. While Virginia wines may be gaining international attention now, when David Morissette opened Chateau Morissette in the 1980s, the art of winemaking was still relatively new to the Commonwealth. His father, William, had been experimenting with vines since the 1970s, so when they began official production, they were among the first, and today the oldest, working wineries in Virginia. The winery now produces approximately 70,000 cases of their signature red, white and blush wines, which are known as much for the dogs on the label as the delicious wines inside. The winery features a dining room, as well as music festivals, summer music series and many more special events. Located in the heart of the Virginia countryside, Chateau Morissette is a trip you won’t be sorry you took. See more about the winery and its unique history at www.thedogs.com.
10. The Devil’s Bathtub, Fort Blackmore
No pain, no gain, right? Well, if you’re willing to hike 1.5 miles of the Devil’s Fork Loop Trail in the Jefferson National Forest, you’ll be more than rewarded. Along the trail, which follows Devil’s Fork Creek, you’ll cross streams and slippery rocks before arriving at the Devil’s Bathtub – a pool of nearly clear aqua water at the base of a stone Mother-Nature-made waterslide. The Devil’s Fork waters hit the stone decline at full-speed before dropping off into the pool below to create the ultimate swimming hole for hikers and locals. The trail itself is a tough one involving pretty significant elevation change, but if you’re up for the challenge, then the pay-off will be well worth it.
I can’t thank all of my readers enough for their knowledge and love of Virginia. I’ve lived here most of my life and I still love learning from all of you. Please keep the comments coming and let me know what you want to hear about. Who knows, you might just inspire a story!