In my previous post, I talked about my trip last week to the Roanoke, Virginia, area, and what I regard are the smart marketing techniques of the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau by hosting travel writers and photographers from around the U.S. and Canada to experience an area they might otherwise not visit.
The trip was organized by the Florida-based public relations firm Geiger & Associates, who work out every activity down to the minute and somehow manage not to lose any writers — who rank right up there with cats in the “herding difficulty” scale — along the way.
Now I want to detail some things I learned about Roanoke and surroundings — well branded as “Virginia’s Blue Ridge” — that might be of interest to baby boomer travelers.
So in no particular order, here are ten things I learned during my four-day visit to the heart of southwestern Virginia (which, by the way, wasn’t nearly enough time to cover everything I would have liked to):
* Roanoke has the world’s largest man-made illuminated standing star, which shines more than 1,000 feet atop Mill Mountain within the city limits. Constructed in 1949 for Christmas festivities, the nearly 100-foot-high neon-lit concrete-and-steel star provides Roanoke the nickname of “Star City of the South.” Just below it is a lookout offering splendid views of the city below; a municipal zoo is nearby.
* Roanoke grew up as a railway hub, and it has an entire museum dedicated to a brilliant photographer named O. Winston Link, who specialized in taking painstaking, artistic black and white images of steam locomotives from the old Norfolk & Western Railway. After touring the museum, you can visit Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation, which houses some of the mammoth locomotives that Link photographed. The museum is located within an historic train station and also includes exhibits on aviation and automobiles.
* Before acquiring the name Roanoke in the 1880s, the city was known as “Big Lick,” after a salt lick in the region. “Roanoke” itself was derived from a native American word meaning shell beads, which were used as money.
* Speaking of money, it goes a lot farther here than in many other parts of the country. The Homeplace Restaurant in nearby Catawba, for instance, serves family-style platters of fried chicken, roast beef and Virginia ham, along with potatoes, gravy, cole slaw, various vegetables, biscuits, dessert and pitchers of lemonade and ice tea for all of $15 per adult. And its southern-style cooking is good, too.
* Just about everyone in Roanoke and surroundings seems to either have gone to Virginia Tech, which is located in Blacksburg, about 40 miles west, or at least drops everything on fall football afternoons to root for the Hokies, as Virginia Tech’s sports teams are known. What’s a “Hokie?” The standard response here is: “I’m a Hokie.” And that’s about as close to a definition as you’re going to get.
* In adjacent Botetourt County, the little hamlet of Fincastle, with a population circa 350, boasts a remarkable history. At one time it was the seat of government for a huge swath of land in frontier America that covered parts of seven states all the way into what is now Wisconsin. Western-heading settlers picked up supplies in Fincastle, which at the time was on the edge of the frontier, and Lewis and Clark began their expedition of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase here. In 1970, many irreplaceable historic documents dating from those days survived a fire that destroyed the courthouse; a fireproof vault saved the day.
* The section of the Appalachian Trail that runs near Roanoke is considered the most heavily used portion — and most photographed — of the entire 2,200-mile route, which runs from Maine to Georgia. The hike up to McAfee Knob, a rock ledge that affords commanding views of the valley 3,000 feet below, is 3.9 miles one way and is labeled moderate to strenuous, depending on what kind of hiking shape you’re in. Several days after climbing it my calves were still sore, but it’s well worth the effort. Just don’t get too close to the edge of the ledge.
* Virginia wines are quite good — which surprised me, after having spent more than 20 years living near the Napa Valley and becoming a California wine devotee. I sampled wines from three Roanoke region wineries: Fincastle, Blue Ridge, and Virginia Mountain, and while they varied in quality, several were very drinkable, and the wineries themselves, nestled among rolling hills, were a delight to visit — with none of the commercialism that you find in, well, the Napa Valley. I even discovered a white wine that was new to me, called Traminette.
* The 476-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is administered by the National Park Service and is the most visited unit in the entire national park system. A lodge along the route near Roanoke, in a mountainous area called the Peaks of Otter, was forced to close for 10 days during the recent federal government shutdown, though the road itself remained open.
* For those who are considering retirement havens, Money magazine has named Roanoke one of the top 25 places to retire in the U.S., citing its reasonable prices, wealth of outdoor activities and eating places, relatively mild climate and “vibrant, walkable” downtown, among other attributes. The city has also become a major medical center for the region; a local hospital is the city’s top employer.
Next up: More on the food and wine of the Roanoke Valley.
What do you think, readers? Are there some great spots I still haven’t heard about in the Roanoke Valley? I’d love to hear about them.
i am a History lover. My Peter Brickey family owned land on McAfee’s knob in the 1790’s early1800’s.James McAfee had a fort on McAfee’s Knob for protection from the Indians. He stayed in Botetourt County but his sons went to Kentucky. Fincastle Court House has wonderful records that have been a great source of information and allowed me to trace my family tree through deeds ,military and marriage records. — Alice Brickey Bryant
Reply: Thanks for your input, Alice. Hooray for that fire-proof vault in Fincastle!
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