It’s a strange thing to return to one’s hometown as a tourist. We all have strong emotions tied in to those places where we have lived and even grown up. In all likelihood, we ignored some of those aspects that draw tourists to visit, it’s just human nature to overlook that which is closest to us. We tend not to look at these places with a fresh set of eyes, instead we view them through the haze of time and memories. That was the situation in which I found myself as I made the easy drive down to Roanoke in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Although I’ve called many cities around the country home, I consider Roanoke to be my spiritual base, even if it had been many years since my last visit. When I disregarded my own complicated feelings regarding the region, I found a part of Virginia that is incredibly fascinating and certainly a lot of fun. If you’re thinking of taking your own trip to Virginia’s Blue Ridge, here are a few of the experiences that I think are not to be missed.
The Hotel Roanoke
This historic property has long been the preeminent hotel in the city, an accolade it maintains even today thanks to recent refurbishments and enhancements. Built in the 1880s, it was in the 1930s when the hotel went through a massive remodel creating the unique Tudor look that still exists today. If you drive around town actually, you’ll notice many old homes that are done in a Tudor revival look; that’s thanks entirely to the inspiration provided by the Hotel Roanoke. The great challenge of any historic hotel though is how to balance that commitment to the past while still serving the needs of the modern traveler. It’s not easy, but thanks to some refurbishments at the Hotel Roanoke, it’s very much a modern hotel just as it is one with an incredible pedigree. Today the large hotel and conference center has 330 rooms, including 18 suites, with both luxurious and modern touches added, as well as those mountain views that first attracted guests more than a century ago. My time at the Hotel Roanoke was as comfortable and relaxing as I could have hoped for, what any great hotel should aspire to provide its guests.
Getting Closer to Nature
Virginia’s Blue Ridge is one of the great outdoor adventure centers of the country, and if you love exploring nature there are any number of incredible experiences to enjoy. I opted for something I always love to do, spending some time hiking on one of the most popular trails in the region. The Appalachian Trail winds its way through the Blue Ridge, and one of the most picturesque sections is the 8 mile round-trip hike to McAfee Knob. Located in Catawba, the views at the end of the hike are amongst the most photographed on the Appalachian Trail, but the entire hike is a fun way to better experience the outdoorsy side of the region. In addition to other sections of the Trail to hike, there are plenty of opportunities for mountain biking, rafting and just about anything you’d ever want to do outside.
Eating all the Food
The food culture is perhaps what surprised me the most about returning to Roanoke and the entire Blue Ridge region. Like many other spots around the world, Roanoke has also enjoyed a renaissance in the foodie scene, perhaps best experienced on a Roanoke Food Tour. Like all great food tours, it’s a great mix of classic and new, and the tour also incorporates the history of the city into the walk. One of my favorite traditional Roanoke food stops though is the famous Texas Tavern. A slip of a building with just 10 stools inside, very little (if anything) has changed since they first opened their doors back in 1930. What’s so special about the Tavern? Well, the bedrock of the menu is their “World Famous Chile” which originally came from a hotel in San Antonio, Texas. But what must be their most popular, and delicious, dish is the Cheesy Western. Powerfully simple, it’s a burger with fried egg along with onions, pickles, sweet relish and melted cheese. That, along with the other items on the menu, have been satisfying generations of customers thanks to their consistency and commitment to the city. Spots like the Texas Tavern aren’t just novelties, they’re important to the communities they serve. They’ve always been there to provide good food at a fair price, through good times and bad, and to even be a meeting spot for locals throughout the years. There exists a Texas Tavern in many American cities, each offering something different, but with a core current of civic pride running through them.
Although Roanoke is by far the largest city in Southwestern Virginia, there are many other communities that comprise the Blue Ridge and all deserve some time visiting and exploring. One of my favorites is a former haunt, Salem. Although I lived in Roanoke, I actually went to high school in Salem, and it was with a whole lot of nostalgia that I went back to just walk around and explore. Admittedly, Salem hasn’t changed as much as Roanoke, but I think it’s a lovely little community to spend some time getting to know. When you’re in downtown Salem, be sure to stop by the rolled ice cream shop Champloo Desserts. Launched in 2016, Champloo now has locations in both Roanoke and Salem serving the very unique handcrafted rolled ice cream, as well as delicious bubble tea. When I was in high school in Salem, I never thought there’d be a Southeast Asian inspired dessert shop, but it’s clearly thriving and was equally delicious. The craft beer movement has also arrived in force throughout Virginia’s Blue Ridge, and in Salem that means a stop at Parkway Brewing Company is in order. Since opening in 2013 on Kessler Mill Road in tiny Salem, Virginia, Parkway Brewing Company has not only created some of the state’s tastiest brews, but they have created a place that has brought together a community of like-minded, free-spirited beer lovers with a penchant for the great outdoors. It’s a fun place to visit and relax listening to local musicians and enjoying some light bites from the food trucks that are regularly invited to the brewery.
Choose Your Own Adventure
The greatest aspect of visiting Virginia’s Blue Ridge I think is the depth of experiences available throughout the area. If you love history, there are a number of spots in Roanoke to visit as well as the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. I’ve mentioned the food, but it bears repeating whether you decide to try local sourced foods at Local Roots, a burger at Texas Tavern or the Hotel Roanoke’s peanut soup. Outdoor lovers are in for a special treat, especially in the fall as the Blue Ridge Parkway explodes in a frenzy of color as the leaves change. Throughout the year though there are many great experiences to enjoy from hiking and biking to rafting, kayaking and more. My point, I suppose, is that Virginia’s Blue Ridge is not a one-note destination. It’s shockingly dynamic, full of energy and vim and is just a really fun place to explore.