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Outdoors in Historic Charleston

I had the chance to spend a few days in Charleston, West Virginia, last March and was reminded again how much the Kanawha River defines this historic capital city. It’s worth noting that West Virginia is a birthplace of rivers. While people commonly associate the state with mountains, most don’t realize that rivers are, in many ways, the lifeblood of this state. No fewer than five originate in nearby Pocahontas County alone.

That West Virginia’s capital city would straddle the state’s largest river makes perfect sense. When you are walking the historic downtown capital district, you are never far from its banks. In summer, it’s a frenzy of boating activity.


Eventful Charleston

Charleston holds numerous outdoor events in Haddad Riverfront Park. Others take place in the city’s sprawling capitol district nearby.

“You need to bring your wife and come back Memorial Day weekend for our Vandalia Gathering,” Alisa Bailey told me when I was there. Bailey returned to her roots when she became the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau’s CEO after spending several years heading Virginia’s state tourism corporation.

“The Vandalia Gathering showcases traditional music, heritage, art and glassworks,” said Bailey. “And then there’s my personal favorite, the Liar’s Contest.

“Charleston is a city that begs people to get outside. It’s very walkable, very visitor friendly. When the weather’s nice, Charleston revels in its outdoors.”

I checked back in with Bailey a few weeks ago to see how the year was shaping up for West Virginia’s cultural center and capital city.

“No. 1, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, we have something called Live on the Levee every Friday,” she said. “There is always music down on the river, and everyone comes out. Any group that’s in Charleston during that time is encouraged to stop by.

“The big kahuna for us is Festivall, which takes place every year at the end of June,” she said. “We have riverboat cruises on the Kanawha, chili cook-offs, wiener dog races, art exhibits and 10 days of outdoor activities right downtown. That’s a great time for a group to be here.”


Attractive Charleston

Of course, there are many outstanding venues in the city that are open year-round, whether a group can make an outdoor event or not. Last March, we visited the city’s state capitol complex, which includes the historic State Capitol building. Designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1932, the majestic dome is gilded in 23.5-karat gold. It remains the tallest structure in the state. Gilbert later emulated many of his concepts to design the United States Supreme Court Building a few years later.

Our group also enjoyed an evening at the Clay Center, perhaps the city’s most outstanding recent addition. Completed in 2003, the Clay Center showcases the state’s arts and sciences year-round and hosts national and international events regularly.

Another Charleston highlight that can be enjoyed all year is Capitol Market, an outdoor plaza along Smith and Capitol streets where restaurants, bars, coffee shops and art galleries create a wonderful urban outdoor atmosphere.

“We always say that Capitol Market is the place to start your tour of Charleston,” said Bailey. “We have a visitor center there to welcome guests to the city because everything moves out from there.”

For craft beer enthusiasts, Bailey is particularly happy that her legislature this year changed laws in the state to promote the brewing and sales of locally owned beers.

One caveat of that legislation is that brewers and brewpubs can now sell beer in “growlers,” refillable 32- to 64-ounce containers, allowing them to offer their products more easily to craft brew enthusiasts. Another allows for offering tours and samples to visitors, which will enhance their experiences in areas with craft breweries.

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Mac Lacy

Mac Lacy is president and publisher of The Group Travel Leader Inc. Mac has been traveling and writing professionally ever since a two-month backpacking trip through Europe upon his graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Evansville in 1978.