I just spent this past week driving down from Toronto towards the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and along our route, we decided to make several stops in Virginia. I was blown away. I walked in with no expectations, little knowledge of American history, but an appetite for learning and adventure. Virginia over delivered in every way.
My specific focus was on a few stops along the Shenandoah Valley, a cultural region that borders the iconic Blue Ridge Mountains. My time there was limited, which was unfortunate with all the activities available in the surrounding area; I will happily return again sometime and experience what I missed. Here are my suggestions on things to do while in this part of Virginia.
A perfect spot
Winchester is a postcard-ready attractive town. It is exactly what you envision when you think of old America in the new world. When walking around, look out for the informative plaques stating the significance of buildings or locations, the numerous monuments, and the hard to miss American themed architecture.
Speaking of impressive American architecture, we stayed at The George Washington A Wyndham Grand Hotel, which has been around since the 1920s. This glamorous hotel is oozing with character from its Roman-inspired pool, the magnificent ballroom, and the post office suction tubes by the elevators. I would encourage you to take a look at the lobby or have a drink on the outdoor patio. If you choose to stay the night, the rooms are indeed massive, decorated tastefully and filled with lots of character. More importantly, the location was right on point with being only steps away from the pedestrian walking mall, lots of artesian shops and numerous restaurants. I would recommend looking up this hotel for your stay at Winchester.
Another interesting stop in Winchester are some of the notorious hipster coffee shops, such as Steamy’s Café, which is home to freshly baked swirly bagels, fruit smoothies, and run by Lenny who knows everyone by name! Just remember the “rules” and you can sip your coffee on mismatched comfortable furniture, surrounded by an eclectic-cool vibe. Each table is prepped for your next coffee meeting with a large cup of pens and a whole roll of paper towel. He is also a forward thinker offering spaghetti noodles as stir sticks, instead of using plastic!
It was at Steamy’s where we met with Justin Kerns, Executive Director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention & Visitors Bureau, who was so incredibly passionate about the importance and relevance of Winchester. Knowing interesting facts such as where and how George Washington got his start in politics, lost his first campaign, as he wasn’t as well liked at the time, and then won his next using the power of persuasion (or bribing) – of the liquid kind – all of this in Winchester! Who knew?!
The Virginia Museum of the Civil War
Lieutenant Colonel Troy, the Site Director at The Virginia Museum of the Civil War and Virginia Military Institute, gave us a personal tour of the collection and grounds. Going in with absolutely no knowledge of the battle of New Market (which previously took place on the museum grounds on May 15, 1864), I walked out with a whole new understanding and appreciation of the American Civil War. His passion for history was contagious as he shared important historical facts, inserted with details that would typically go unnoticed by the average museum-goer; he even showcased his personal favourites and under-appreciated works.
Oddly enough, my favourite part was the civil war firearms display. This is one of the largest Civil War gun collections, and some of the items are the only known variations left in existence. It is also interesting to see how the technology, intended use, and manufacturing of the weapons changed throughout the war. I would suggest allotting 90 minutes to go through the entire grounds. While there, take a careful look at the stained-glass window! Notice anything? Perhaps a spelling mistake that was covered up? If you have the time to see only one museum in the area, this is the museum to visit.
If you follow my blog or YouTube channel, you know I have a thing for cave exploration. I tend to visit one on most of my trips. I find these multimillion-year-old caverns fascinating. Luray Caverns were discovered in August 1878 and turned into a tourist attraction over the years. Fun fact on the caves: it was believed the cool air from the caves had healing power, so a house-sized Sanitarium (akin to a hospital) with custom venting was built to capture this magical healing air, and in turn, created the first air-conditioned house. There are multiple signs throughout the property that state Luray Caverns as three times bigger than any other cave in the surrounding area, and after the walking tour, it is evident this place is a labyrinth of stalagmites, mirrored pools (that create an illusion of being 12 feet deep, when they are actually only 2 feet deep) and even human remains from 500 years ago. They also boast the largest instrument in the world; an organ crafted in the large cave ballroom, where actuators vibrate the stalagmites to produce musical notes, and the best part, you get to hear it as part of the guided tour! In all the caves that I have explored, hands down Luray Caverns is simply one of the most impressive that I have seen. The sheer amount of decorations, size of the cave itself, and the guide providing interesting facts along the way made this a great experience to enjoy.
I can only imagine how exciting the opening of Dinosaur Land would have been 50 years ago. Colossal statues carefully handcrafted in so much detail giving the illusion that dinosaurs still exist and were just frozen in time. Though now some of the epic giants are showing their years, with a tad bit wear and tear, we can still look at this amusement attraction in awe as an iconic salute to history. This stop is a great way to stretch your legs on your road trip journey, especially with little ones in the car. The kid inside of me was super excited for this stop, and it did not disappoint. Enter the Mesozoic era and step into Virginia’s version of Jurassic Park.
As much as I could stay a few more weeks here, we did not have the time. This leg of the trip was full of surprises, notable historic reminders, friendly people and oversized American portions of food. The weather was perfect, the view from the passenger window picturesque and the hospitality incredible. If we had more time, we would have visited the highly recommended Shenandoah Caverns, Grand Caverns, Skyline Caverns (are you not surprised by how many caves we wanted to fit in?!), and the Town of Front Royal. At Front Royal, they also have Shenandoah River State Park, which includes zip lining and water sports (for the adventurers out there), such as canoeing, kayaking, and tubing on the world-famous Shenandoah River!