Virginia's Slopes and Shores

 
 

Molly Phillips
Published April 01, 2014

California often gets praised for being “the best of both worlds” due to the fact that you can hit the beach in the morning and hike the Sierra Nevadas in the afternoon. While doing both in a day may be a stretch in Virginia, this East Coast state is equally competitive when it comes to offering a contrast of travel experiences for groups.

The cities of Smithfield, Norfolk and Virginia Beach on the coastline boast opportunities to play in the sand or sail on the sea. Conversely, mountain towns such as Bristol, Wytheville, and Blacksburg offer a slice of Appalachian culture and outdoor activities that only a mountainous state can.

Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic location makes it a perfect destination to tack on to a D.C. trip or a north-to-south — or vice versa — voyage on the road. Coming from the Midwest is a great option as well. No matter how you get there, your group will be delighted with the hospitality, scenery and activities of Virginia.

 

Bristol on the Border

Take things from the top, in terms of elevation at least, and begin your Virginia trip in the farthest west of these cities, the Appalachian paradise of Bristol, a Virginia city that spans two states: Virginia and Tennessee. Though legally separate towns, the two have always considered themselves part of a bigger partnership that transcends state lines.

One of the largest attractions in the area is the Bristol Motor Speedway; this historic NASCAR racetrack is located on the Tennessee side of the city, but visitors from both states and all over the country flock to it, more than a million every year. At the track you can take a tour that makes a complete loop around the famously high sidewalls. If you plan your visit during March and August, you’ll want to be sure to catch an actual race. Just buy your tickets early, as most events sell out.

For thrill-seekers, above-ground attractions may not be enough. If so, you’ll want to bring your crew to one of the two major caverns in the Bristol area: Appalachian Caverns or Bristol Caverns. It’s smart to make spelunking a full-day stop on your trip, as the caverns also have picnic areas and gift shops to keep you entertained before and after your hike below ground.

 

Historic Wytheville

After your Bristol adventures, make your way east to the town of Wytheville. As you snake through the Blue Ridge Mountains into the heart of the city, you’ll feel like you’re weaving your way back in time; the town is packed with pieces of important American history. Don’t let the small-town vibe fool you; Wytheville offers amenities and attractions that will have you occupied for days.

There are three pieces of history in particular not to be missed. In the morning, begin your journey with a walking tour of Wytheville’s historic houses, which are each marked with a sign telling the story of the house’s history and occupants. Those grand antebellum mansions are breathtaking and remain protected by the town.

Break for lunch at the Log House 1776 Restaurant, where you can sample traditional fare such as “fried grits” and “Confederate beef stew.” Groups are especially welcome at the Log House, a large eclectically decorated structure that seems to have grown up out of the very mountain ground it sits on.

In the afternoon, explore the two Wytheville museums of note. The first is the Thomas J. Boyd museum. Inside are artifacts of Civil War history, as well as an exhibit dedicated to the famous polio outbreak in Wytheville in 1950. You can see a real mechanical iron lung, which helped victims of the disease breathe, and view archived news coverage from the period of the epidemic.

Second, you’ll want to visit the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Foundation and Museum, located in the very building in which the former first lady was raised. Spend your afternoon there watching a live re-enactment of the famous first lady and discover why she is often called the “secret president” of the United States. Tours are free and guides are on hand to assist with groups as well.

Wytheville also has some smaller, offbeat offerings, including a minizoo, the Fort Chiswell Animal Park. Unlike most animal attractions, there you are encouraged to touch, feed and take photos of the animals.

If you still have some time to kill, get ready to go to the theater. The Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theater is one of Wytheville’s most visited attractions. With a professional acting staff that rotates in residence, the venue offers performances of Broadway hits and musical favorites, as well as locally relevant acts such as the recently performed “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming.” Enjoy a four-course meal in the German lodge-style theater and dining room, and see what all the fuss is about for yourself.

 

Get ‘Dirty’

After packing up from Wytheville, head farther east to the city of Blacksburg, home to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Surrounded by the lush wilderness of the New River Valley, Blacksburg and its neighboring towns are an outdoor-lover’s paradise.

Begin your day with a blood-pumping hike to the famous Cascades waterfalls. Standing at 69 feet tall, the falls are one of the most visited attractions in the area, drawing more than 150,000 visitors each year. The trailhead has ample room for large vans or tour buses to drop off hikers and turn around.

If your group wants to experience the great outdoors with a bit more modern comfort, book a stay or a day of activities at Mountain Lake Lodge, just up the road from the Cascades. You may recognize the setting once you arrive; this resort is where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed in 1986. Much has changed since the sultry days of the movie, however.

Today, groups can organize team-building activities on the lodge’s extensive treetop obstacle course, go on a nature walk around the property or do water activities in the rehabilitated natural lake that sits at the property’s center. There are even culinary team-building events available where your group can learn from the hotel’s farm-to-table chefs.

Suppose your group wants to ditch the outdoors theme altogether. Downtown Blacksburg offers a quilt of cultural, shopping and dining locations that will satisfy your group’s urbanites. Start your downtown day off at the Artful Lawyer, a tastefully curated collection of the works of local artisans housed inside a law office on Main Street.

For lunch, check out Macado’s, a sandwich shop that is a staple in any Virginia Tech student’s diet. Make sure to order a French Twist for dessert; it’s a modified ice cream sandwich served on two croissants.

 

Ham on the Coast

Virginia boasts some of the most beautiful mountains on the East Coast, but the coastline is another of its most excellent features. The towns of Smithfield, Norfolk and Virginia Beach will be more than enough proof of that.

“Hams, history, hospitality and heart” is the slogan of Smithfield’s convention and visitors bureau. It well describes what makes this coastal town of Virginia a destination city: a historical and cultural attractiveness that goes beyond being able to sink your toes in the sand.

Instead of the sand, let’s start with hams. Smithfield is known as the Ham Capital of the World. The English monarchy would order its hams from Smithfield dating back to before the American Revolution, and today, Smithfield is home to a Fortune 500 company that still produces the tasty meat.

Enjoy that unique feature of the town by dining at Taste of Smithfield restaurant, where you can order pig-themed entrees such as Hamtown Eggs Benedict and classic Country Ham. After lunch or breakfast, have your group head downtown to see the Porcine Parade, a collection of pig sculptures created by local artists.

While you’re downtown, meet with a guide from the Smithfield Visitor’s Center to tour the historic landmarks of Smithfield. The center is happy to coordinate tours for groups of 10 or more with advance notice. Some of the things you might see are the Schoolhouse Museum — a preservation of African American Public Education in the 1930s — and the Commonwealth Gin, a working cotton gin preserved from the cash-crop era.

 

Wine on the Waterfront

For a different taste of Virginia coastal life, travel south 27 miles to the bay-front town of Norfolk, nicknamed the Heart of the Virginia Waterfront. While Norfolk has its own important place in American history, it may be the modern attractions there that steal your group’s hearts.

Take for instance Mermaid Winery in the historic neighborhood of Ghent, considered Virginia’s first “urban winery.” Your group can take time there observing the winemaking process in the tasting bar or enjoy a full-course meal from the well-appointed in-house menu.

For another modern experience, visit d’Art Center at the Selden Arcade. The structure provides a space where working artists can collaborate as part of a community of creators  and where you can observe them in action. The best part is that admission is free and the space is open to the public six days a week; it is closed on Mondays.

Any visit to Norfolk should also include a look at the area’s military history and culture. Norfolk is home to the United States’ largest naval base, and the nearby ships make a prominent mark on the city’s skyline and culture. The best way to experience the naval base up close is to take a Victory Rover naval base cruise. Not only will you be getting out onto the water, you’ll also have a two-hour narrated tour, which of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and other vessels. Group rates are available for this tour that embarks seven days a week from the Norfolk waterfront.

 

Beachfront Beauty

Virginia Beach, the coastal town just south of Norfolk, is famous for its surf and sand. There, you would be mistaken not to make a beeline for the beach as your first stop. Let your group soak up some sun or maybe spot dolphins playing in the surf just a few dozen feet from shore. The oceanfront strip features plenty of parking near public beach accesses and a fabulous boardwalk that serves as an escape from the sun to dine or shop.

There are plenty of landmarks to explore on Virginia Beach’s sandy shores, such as the Cape Henry Lighthouses. These two structures stand guard over the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, and the older of the two is open to the public. Groups can climb to the top for a panoramic view of the Virginia Beach coast. Remind your group to bring their photo I.D.s with them on this excursion, as the lighthouses are located on a military base, and all visitors must pass through a security checkpoint.

For a full-fledged nautical experience, bring your group to the Dockside. The local establishment is a restaurant, fish market and boat launch all in one. Whether you are a clan of amateur fishing enthusiasts or seasoned anglers, dockside can organize an ocean fishing excursion for you. If you’d rather leave the bait and tackle on land, head out on a dolphin-watching tour. Sample local fresh seafood afterward in the company’s award-winning restaurant.

So you’ve done it. You’ve tackled Virginia from mountains to coastline and taken in the natural wonders, fabulous attractions and historic landmarks that keep bringing groups back to the state year after year. We know California will still claim to be the “best of both worlds” on the West Coast, but your group will have discovered the East’s own version of the double-threat state.

 

Virginia Tourism Corporation

800-847-4882

—  www.virginia.org   —