Travel: Drive along Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway
The country was still in the grip of the Great Depression, and the government wanted to put people to work. Those who could afford to were buying their first automobiles, and America's car culture was being born. The country ride in a horse and buggy was giving way to a modern pleasure: the road trip.
And so, 75 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the order to build one of the world's great scenic drives. The Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles of smooth turns, panoramic views and lush forest in the mountains of western Virginia and North Carolina. It's still a pleasure to drive, and there are pleasant places anywhere you choose to stop and rest.
The road itself is well-maintained by the National Park Service, unblemished by commercial development. As a driving experience -- or a cycling experience, if you can handle the hills -- it can't be beat. It will test your patience if you're stuck behind a slow driver, and there's not much of a shoulder on long stretches. As the park rangers tell people, "Enjoy the view, but watch the road."
The Parkway stretches from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Asheville, N.C., at the southern end to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia at the north end -- where you can pick up Skyline Drive, which continues another 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A sign at one of the visitor centers says you can drive the length of the BRP in 16 hours -- but don't. Take Interstate 81 if you just want to get from one place to another quickly.
You want to experience the place, not just watch it roll by. And just off the Parkway are some fantastic places to experience: picture-postcard terrain, charming farms and villages, funky diners and gourmet restaurants. Where moonshine was once the local specialty, wineries, breweries and even a new distillery are drawing visitors. It's an area rich in music and history, art and natural wonders.
On a recent trip through the Virginia section, I was able to sample a selection of stops along the Parkway that shows the variety of Blue Ridge attractions:
Near the Parkway's northern end in Waynesboro, Va., Wintergreen is a year-round resort on 11,000 mountainous acres. In the winter, its management boasts, you can ski in the morning and play golf in the afternoon. Wintergreen offers miles of trails, several fine restaurants, a large health center and spa, and lots of activities for the kids. Lodging is mostly condo rentals.
A perennial contender on those "America's most wonderful towns" lists, this Shenandoah Valley gem is historic, charming, friendly and sophisticated. It's a college town, home to Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute, top schools with rich histories whose handsome campuses sit side-by-side. Gen. Robert E. Lee, one of American history's most fascinating men, found his final rest here as the pioneering president of what was then Washington College. Stonewall Jackson, Lee's strong right arm, is buried here as well.
This geologic wonder is a real bridge, with U.S. Highway 11 crossing over a deep chasm. Thomas Jefferson once owned what was even then a tourist attraction, and it remains in private hands, which means it will cost you $18 ($10 for children) to check it out. The bridge itself is tastefully preserved, and an authentic reproduction Monacan Indian Village adds educational value. Nearby are other entertainments the kids might like: Natural Bridge Caverns, a zoo, a dragstrip and a wax museum. And "Foamhendge," a full-size replica of Stonehenge, made of Styrofoam.
A slick little city in the heart of the country, Roanoke is bouncing back nicely from the loss of its major employer, the Norfolk & Western Railroad. The Hotel Roanoke, built in grand railroad style by the N&W, has been expanded and re-energized since being taken over by Virginia Tech. Railroad properties downtown have been turned into housing, college classrooms, a transportation museum and the gleaming, modern, Taubman Museum of Art.
Downtown Roanoke is a lively place, with an outdoor farmers market every day, a lively bar and music scene pouring out to the streets at night, and restaurants that range from classic roadside diners like the Roanoker to the Metro, which has the fare and flavor of Manhattan.
While Roanoke aspires to sophistication, Floyd is building on its rustic roots. This small county seat, discovered by hippies in the '70s, has seen a new wave of environmentally oriented immigrants intent on developing sustainable lifestyles. They have built a community of artists, artisans and musicians that is embracing tourism carefully, to avoid letting it smother its authenticity.
Floyd is a popular stop along Virginia's "Crooked Road," a recently created tourist route designed to guide visitors in search of the history and heritage of old-time mountain music. If you can, hit Floyd on a Friday night, when fiddlers and banjo-pickers from near and far descend on the Floyd Country Store's Friday Jamboree, filling the streets with authentic mountain music.
With 18 million visitors a year, the Blue Ridge Parkway can hardly be considered undiscovered. But if you haven't discovered it yet, Parkway planners have cooked up a year's worth of 75th birthday events to make a road trip especially attractive.
On the Web
For more information, visit blueridgeparkway75.org.
MetroWest Daily News