There's Always Something New to Discover in the Old Dominion
"On the whole, I find nothing anywhere else. . .which Virginia need envy." --Thomas Jefferson
Introduced more than 40 years ago, the popular tourism slogan "Virginia is for Lovers" can have many meanings to travelers. There's certainly a lot to love in the Old Dominion: the southern charm of the people and places; the history; the mountains; the water; the big cities; the small towns; and so much more.
Virginia's excellent interstate system allows explorers to get to the state's varying regions quickly and smaller scenic roads make it enjoyable once there. That means more time to pursue recommendations and make new discoveries.
Many of the regional roads are part of the Virginia Byways system. Visitors will see lots of blue "Virginia Byways" signs, indicated by a red cardinal, the state bird. The byways program recognizes certain roads for their historic or scenic interest and Virginia certainly has lots of history and scenery to love.
The state is steeped in history and much can be learned from more than 2,200 black-and-white historical markers found on roads throughout the state. These signs have been going up since 1926 and there's an excellent book called A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers from the University Press of Virginia that can help avoid the temptation to pull over and read every single sign.
There are also hundreds of "Civil War Trails" interpretative markers as well (500+ and counting). The 150th anniversary of the start of America's Civil War makes it an ideal time to be in Virginia--a hotbed of Civil War activity.
In addition, the state park system and several national parks are also popular options throughout the state. The state and the National Park System have done an excellent job in promoting and preserving the variety of parks throughout the Virginia.
The same marketing folks that came up with the catchy slogan have divided the state into nine unique regions that all reveal the heart of Virginia in their own ways. Once on the road, it's easy to see why "Virginia is for Lovers."
From the capital city of Richmond right on the James River to historic plantations to Thomas Jefferson's beloved Monticello and much more, Central Virginia provides a microcosm of all that there is to love about the state. Along with the city proper, several interesting drives head out of Richmond, making it easy to explore the state's hub.
Richmond is well worth a stay of several days. The expanded (and still free) Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is better than ever and the fascinating Virginia Historical Society Museum next door is also free. Other greater Richmond area highlights might include Agecroft Hall (a 15th century manor house), the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond International Raceway, and The Museum and White House of the Confederacy.
Two Central Virginia outings are also easy to pursue: Route 5 to many plantations and Routes 6 and 20 to Jefferson's Charlottesville.
In less than 60 miles, the drive on Route 5 winds through more than 300 years of Virginia (and U.S.) history--ending up at the "Historic Triangle" of Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown (all destinations in their own rights). Possible plantation stops along the way include: Shirley Plantation (founded in 1613); Berkeley Plantation (the mansion was built in 1726); Westover Plantation (situated right on the James River); and Sherwood Forest Plantation (home of President John Tyler). The grounds of Westover and Sherwood Forest are the only parts open to the public.
Heading in the opposite direction out of Richmond, Route 6 heads west into "Jefferson Country." Thomas Jefferson loved the rolling countryside of central Virginia and roamed the region in search of beautiful scenery, architectural possibilities, and farmland and vineyard sites (he was once again ahead of his time...Virginia now features world-class wines).
Route 20 then takes the "Constitution Route" to Charlottesville--four U.S. presidents and 11 Virginia governors were either born or built their private estates along this stretch. This part of the drive also features several wineries well worth a stop and ends at the university town of Charlottesville. Route 20 and the Constitution Road continues to Fredericksburg and is a great extension of this regional exploration.
Roanoke is the largest city in the Valley and a great place to start. Downtown highlights have to include: Center in the Square (including the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts, Roanoke Valley History Museum, and Mill Mountain Theatre); the Historic Farmers Market in the recently renovated City Market Building; the Virginia Museum of Transportation; the contemporary Taubman Museum of Art; and the historic Hotel Roanoke. Up on nearby Mill Mountain, the huge lighted star can be seen from a 60-mile radius on a clear night. The zoo there is also well worth a visit and the famed Blue Ridge Parkway is nearby.
The college town of Lexington is next. Home of the Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University, Lexington options can include a parade or cadet-led tour of VMI, a stroll through W&L's quaint campus (including Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is interred), and a carriage ride around historic downtown.
Staunton also has a bustling downtown area that features the Red Brick district, with many art galleries, two historic movie theaters, and lots of shops and restaurants. The town is also the home of the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Presidential Library, The American Shakespeare Theater, and the renovated Stonewall Jackson Hotel.
Sprawling James Madison University is in Harrisonburg. It's also the headquarters for George Washington National Forest--the mountainous western boundary of the Shenandoah Valley.
In New Market, the New Market Battlefield Historical Park memorializes the brave charge of cadets from VMI on May 15, 1864. Many exhibits and an outdoor walking tour bring the battle alive. Further north, Shenandoah Caverns provides an opportunity to head into the stunning underbelly of the Valley.
Situated just off Route 11 near Mount Jackson, Route 11 Potato Chips is quite simply a must-stop. This Shenandoah Valley success story produces renowned potato chips found at Cracker Barrel and many Mid-Atlantic stores, as well as at the modern production facility.
Strasburg, "The Antique Capital of the Blue Ridge," features huge Strasburg Emporium (antiques and more) and the Valley-oriented Strasburg Museum. Shenandoah Valley explorers shouldn't pass through Middletown without stopping for a meal at the Wayside Inn (be sure to order the peanut soup). Seasonal productions next door at the Wayside Theatre make it well worth checking their schedule in advance.
Up in Winchester, which changed hands about 70 times during the Civil War, highlights have to include: George Washington's Office and Headquarters; Stonewall Jackson's Winter Headquarters; Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Battlefield; the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley; and the recently-opened childhood home of Winchester native Patsy Cline.
Blue Ridge Highlands
This mountainous rural part of Virginia has many highlights. Whether it's mountain music along The Crooked Road (Virginia's Heritage Music Trail) or mountain views from the Blue Ridge Parkway and many other overlooks, the Blue Ridge Highlands give a natural high to visitors.
The town of Abingdon provides a great base for exploring the region, including Barter Theatre, The State Theatre of Virginia, and Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway (a great place to find original crafts, regionally produced foods, and mountain music). Bristol, "The Birthplace of Country Music," is another possibility-including the Pickin' Porch's bluegrass music every Thursday night.
Featured in Trailblazer in 2010, the Blue Ridge Parkway runs through the heart of the Blue Ridge Highlands-as well as along the eastern edge of the Shenandoah Valley. From the North Carolina state line heading north, Parkway highlights can include: Puckett Cabin, once the home of a busy local midwife; Mabry Mill (an oft-photographed water-powered mill from the early-1900s); Peaks of Otter (historic lodge and dining); and Humpback Rocks (including a reconstructed mountain homestead). The northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway also marks the southern terminus of the 105-mile Skyline Drive--another great Virginia scenic drive.
Heart of Appalachia
This southwestern region provides the mountainous heartbeat of Virginia, thanks to a wide variety of state parks and attractions high and low. The southwestern part of the state features quaint small towns where residents are proud of their mountain heritage.
Some small towns with big attractions include: Clintwood (Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center); Big Stone Gap ("The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," a long-running outdoor drama); Appalachia (Appalachia Cultural Arts Center); Hiltons (A.P. Carter Museum and Carter Family Fold); Pocahontas (Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine & Museum); and many more big-time small town options.
State parks highlight Virginia's natural and historical attractions throughout the Heart of Appalachia. Among many possibilities, state parks well worth a visit include Natural Tunnel State Park, Wilderness Road State Park, and Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park. In addition, the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park preserves the famed Daniel Boone Wilderness Road.
Known as "Virginia's Racing Region," Southern Virginia features the classic Martinsville Speedway, Alton's high-speed Virginia International Raceway motorsports resort near Danville, South Boston Speedway, and Sugar Tree Motorsports Park (also in Martinsville) --as well as a great road for everyday driving (Route 58) that traverses the area (though with speed limits, of course). Small towns, lots of outdoor options, and historical draws are among many other highlights.
Along with all of the revved-up Southern Virginia options, quieter small town possibilities might include: South Boston's Berry Hill Plantation, welcoming guests since 1728; Clarksville (with a charming Main Street and fishing in the state's only lakeside town); Chase City's MacCallum More Museum & Gardens; Emporia's Village View Mansion; South Hill's Tobacco Farm Life Museum of Virginia; Martinsville's Virginia Museum of Natural History; and Danville's Sutherlin Mansion, the last Capitol of the Confederacy, which also houses the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.
Nothing says Virginia quite like driving the Colonial Parkway between Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown Battlefield. This trio of American originals signifies the beginning struggles, the classic middle, and the dramatic ending to the nation's Colonial era.
There's also much more to the Hampton Roads region than Colonial history. Other historic, modern, and natural pursuits can be found just south of the famed "Historic Triangle."
In Hampton, historic Fort Monroe National Monument and the Hampton History Museum bring the area's military heritage and much more to life. That's also true for Newport News, thanks to Fort Eustis, several Civil War battle sites, the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, the Virginia War Museum, and The Mariners' Museum. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, Lightship Portsmouth Museum, and Portsmouth's Virginia Sports Hall of Fame are also well worth stops.
The city of Norfolk features Nauticus (showcasing global maritime commerce and the world's largest navy), Hampton Roads Naval Museum, The MacArthur Memorial, and lots of outings by boat. Over in Virginia Beach, the oceanfront city features the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science center, miles of wide beachfront, and a classic boardwalk. Plus, Chesapeake is the gateway to the Great Dismal Swamp, which includes Lake Drummond (the state's largest lake), the 4.5-mile Washington Ditch walking trail, boating, and more.
A drive up or down Virginia's Eastern Shore provides a peak into a totally different part of the Old Dominion. The people, places, and food make this land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean a truly unique experience.
Virginia's Eastern Shore is steeped in history and modern times are slow to change it. From the Indians (many towns have Indian names) to centuries-old fishing villages where several towns have names from the sea, the Eastern Shore has evolved into one of the state's most interesting destinations.
Cape Charles provides a great introduction to the Eastern Shore and is now experiencing a rebirth, as many people renovate the beautiful buildings left over from boom times. A drive around town reveals many beautiful houses and stores. Further afield, little fishing towns like Oyster and Cherrystone are great for a look at Eastern Shore life.
Quiet Pungoteague features many beautiful old homes, St. George's Episcopal Church, and the site of the first drama performed in the New World. Busier Wachapreague is popular with fishermen from near and far.
Onancock is great for a half-day or more of exploration. Pretty Market Street leads to the quiet Wharf, where it's hard to miss the Hopkins & Brothers Store, which opened in 1842 and is now a Virginia Historic Landmark.
The Wharf is also the embarkation point for ferries to Tangier Island. This small and unique island has remained relatively unchanged for decades. The proud residents welcome visitors to the quiet, narrow streets and a different way of life.
Back in Onancock, head for Kerr Place, a beautiful old brick home that serves as the offices and museum of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. The rest of US 13 serves as a commercial prelude to one of the best areas on the Eastern Shore: Chincoteague and Assateague.
The town of Chincoteague features an island community based on the water and tourism. Quaint Main Street and many side streets are great for dining, shopping, spending the night, and world-famous annual events.
The wild ponies of Assateague Island were made famous in Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague. Each year, many of these wild ponies are herded into a corral on the south end of Assateague. On Wednesday of the last week in July, local fireman herd the ponies across the channel to Chincoteague. The next day, they are driven down Main Street for an annual auction.
Just across another bridge is a great example of good government. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge sits on the southern end of Assateague Island. This pristine seashore environment is much like it has been for centuries. Assateague Island also encompasses Maryland's equally beautiful Assateague State Park.
Using Chincoteague as a base, there is much to explore on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It was established in 1943 as a wintering area for migratory wildfowl, but it has become much more. It's a haven for beach lovers, hikers, bikers, birdwatchers, wild pony watching, and many excellent nature programs.
Bordering the beautiful Chesapeake Bay on the west like the Eastern Shore does to the east, the Chesapeake Bay region is also heavily influenced by life on the water. Whether it's the Bay proper or one of many rivers and resulting peninsulas, this area welcomes those who love the water.
Waterfront or water-leaning towns and attractions worthy of exploration include Mathews (a great fishing base), Reedville (Reedville Fishermen's Museum), Gloucester (including a great lake at Beaverdam Park), Urbanna (featuring the famed Urbanna Oyster Festival), Deltaville's Holly Point Nature Park and Deltaville Maritime Museum, Irvington (The Tides Inn), Kilmarnock, King George, King William, Gloucester, and Colonial Beach. It's also easy to find a restaurant specializing in fresh seafood--including famed local blue crabs and oysters.
Big city wonders, lots of history, and small town and country charm all await visitors to Northern Virginia. Plus, of course, it's an easy base for exploring our nation's capital.
Mount Vernon, George Washington's Estate and Garden, is on everyone's must-visit list. But, the region has much more history to offer, including Arlington National Cemetery, the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Manassas National Battlefield Park and many other Civil War sites, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and practically all of historic Alexandria, Leesburg, and Fredericksburg.
Small towns out in horse (and wine) country also await exploration. Middleburg, Warrenton, Washington, and Culpepper all show the love to small town visitors.
Thus, from the center of it all in the capital city of Richmond to historic and natural wonders in all directions, Virginia is truly for lovers...of everything.