Do you like your nature with a little luxury on the side? I do. A decadent dinner tastes all the better after a hike, and a day chasing waterfalls gives you extra appreciation for the charms of city life. Virginia’s Blue Ridge, with its breweries, boutiques and backyard mountains, is just that kind of destination. And it’s even prettier in autumn when the leaves change. Now’s the time to start planning your trip.
Set up camp in Roanoke. Well, not “camp” exactly. Choose a full-service hotel where you can unwind in comfort. I recommend the Hampton Inn & Suites Roanoke Airport for value and amenities like an indoor saltwater pool, free breakfast, fitness center and airport shuttle. The mini fridges and microwaves in the rooms are handy when it comes to prepping for picnics.
Out and about
Once you’re settled in, set off for the great outdoors. To really hobnob with Mother Nature, there’s beautiful Carvins Cove, a protected reserve with over 40 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Or get on the water at Explore Park off the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 115) for fishing and paddling.
And that backyard mountain I mentioned? Mill Mountain Park is your family-friendly, easy to drive and easy to hike city peak, capped with the famous 100-foot-tall Roanoke Star. Sure, take a photo of it, but it’s taking a photo — livestream, actually — of you, too, via the StarCam. Be sure to wave.
In the city
Take a break from scenic views and take in a different kind of scene. This one is just as vibrant, but it’s filled with shops, restaurants and museums.
Head to downtown Roanoke in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. The cute stores seem made for window shopping and the several breweries guarantee you have options for refreshment. There’s the Deschutes Tasting Room, Big Lick Brewing Company, Three Notch’d Brewing Company and others, all within walking distance.
Browse the year-round Historic Roanoke City Market, open daily, for seasonal produce and artisanal finds. The “historic” in the name isn’t an exaggeration, either — it dates back to 1882. If you visit early in the fall, be sure to catch the free Harvest Festival at the market to kick off the season.
In general, you should check the events calendar before you go. The day I visited, I stumbled upon a free festival that just happened to be going on downtown.
Go at your own pace. Stop into the Taubman Museum of Art with its fabulous free admission. Hit up Center in the Square, an entertainment powerhouse that includes aquariums, a theater, rooftop overlook and museums ranging from science to African American culture. If you stumble into the Roanoke Pinball Museum, you may spend over an hour playing nostalgic games. That’s OK.
Where to eat
Even if you’re not putting in the kind of miles you trek out on the trails, exploring downtown will definitely work up an appetite. For lunch, consider Jack Brown’s Beer and Burger Joint or Texas Tavern for some seriously hearty fare. If it’s Sunday, though, you need to indulge in brunch at Billy’s. Order something healthy, like a salad and top it with a crab cake that’s 98% crab, or go all in and get yourself a platter of housemade banana nut French toast dusted with powdered sugar.
Like many buildings downtown, Billy’s has a story, too. It was built in 1912, its name from the owner of a beloved local saloon that eventually closed down. Just one of the things you might find out over brunch.
If you’re still hungry as you head west toward Grandin Village, another fun neighborhood to explore, stop at Wildflour Restaurant & Bakery for dinner. It’s been an institution in the city since 1996 for good reason. Their sandwiches and wraps are packed with the freshest ingredients — snow crab, avocado, turkey, tomatoes. Many of the entrees are healthy, so you can splurge on dessert. This is a bakery, after all, and their cakes are so popular (and moist!) they often sell out. Split one with a friend, though, or take half to go. They’re pretty rich.
The thing about Virginia’s Blue Ridge is that it’s more than one town or one park, and when you’re there, you can connect to so much more. So why not take a fall road trip?
Natural Bridge State Park is less than an hour north of the Roanoke Valley. It’s famous for a massive 215-foot bridge, but it also has a cave, Monacan Indian village and even a waterfall at the end of the trail that you don’t want to miss.
And after that? Reward your hike in the best and most luxurious way possible: high tea. It’s just 45 minutes from the park in small-town Staunton, Virginia. There, the Anne Hathaway Cottage Tea Room, run by a chef from Manchester, England, serves Devonshire scones, imported clotted cream and a range of high-end teas.
You can order from their menu, but a Victorian high tea is the ultimate experience. It’s a three tiered platter filled with jams, pastries, tea sandwiches and other delights, accompanied by a bottomless pot of tea. The cottage itself, modeled after the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife, creates a romantic ambiance. Placards explain the tradition of scones, how ladies ate them sliced in half and spread with jam and cream. Dainty china lines the shelves. It’s magical. Just be sure to call ahead to make a reservation.
And if you drive south from Roanoke instead of north? You’ll be heading toward more mountain overlooks and even a winery. More places to indulge and explore in Virginia’s Blue Ridge this fall.
Note: Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge assisted with my visit, and some items were complimentary. All opinions are my own.