Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is one of the absolute jewels of the American East Coast. Nowhere else in the region does one discover the confluence of country charm, sophisticated dining options, luscious scenery, and accessibility from a major international transportation hub—Washington, D.C. While I believe the region’s food, people, and history are a primary draw, the first topic for any sensible discussion of what attracts visitors and emigres alike to this area is its natural beauty.
Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is one of the absolute jewels of the American East Coast
To the east runs the Skyline Drive, a national park centered around a road that straddles the ridge of a worn mountain range that formerly served as the divider of the settled American colonies and the rugged, wild frontier. The drive curves and climbs for hundreds of miles of dramatic scenery. In the autumn you can stop at dozens of scenic overlooks to admire the bright reds, yellows, and ambers of the foliage, particularly at its peak in November.
The stunning Dark Hollow Falls, a cascade of icy mountain water running down a basalt rock face
In the spring, Mountain Laurel, Lily of the Valley, Dogwood, and all manner of pleasant flowers bloom in the forest understory. Rock climbing and exploring the park’s many trails are also popular pastimes, with one trail in particular in the park leading to the stunning Dark Hollow Falls, a cascade of icy mountain water running down a basalt rock face.
To the west of town is the Shenandoah River’s South Fork, a popular spot for fishing, boating, and rustic yet well-equipped log cabins that are rented out by local hoteliers such as Foggy River Cabins. Beyond that are the Massanutten Ridge and Storybook Trail with its unique cliffside overlook of the valley where eagles soar beneath the cliff face among wind-gnarled pines.
Near to the cliff face, but well hidden, is a waterfall that only the very intrepid and explorative hiker will discover. Beneath the Valley’s mountains and rolling hills are networks of fascinating caves carved through the limestone beneath, Luray Caverns being one of the most famous and easily accessible. The caverns offer guided tours of massive stalagmites and underground pools, as well as a stalacpipe organ constructed as the world’s largest musical instrument from the cave’s natural features, created over millions of years as water-deposited layers of sediments.
The smaller country road winds through some of the very best of Virginia’s wine country
A local recommends: Take Route 211 East to town rather than the interstate. The smaller country road winds through some of the very best of Virginia’s wine country where vineyard tours are regularly offered to enjoy Virginia’s best vintages—Cabernet Franc, Traminette, Norton, and many other varietals thrive in the Piedmont.
This road also runs past one of America’s finest and most exclusive restaurants—The Inn at Little Washington, where one competes for reservations with senators and congressman from all over the nation.
With a bottle of wine from any of the establishments along the road to town, one’s next concern is naturally dinner, or supper as some locals might say. At Gathering Grounds, Patisserie travelers might be surprised to discover a menu of sandwiches, soups, and pastries heavily inspired by the cuisine of Western Europe, where their chef traveled in his youth.The building itself sports an open design and is studded with throwbacks to the area’s history, from the tin ceiling tiles adorning the bar to an antique hardwood phone booth in a corner.
Danika, one of the hostesses there, was kind enough to discuss the menu with me over a mocha latte served in a sturdy, heavy ceramic mug that added to the café’s country charm. She recommended visiting in the fall when the Valley’s apples are in season and their apple pie, done in the Dutch style with a crumb topping, is most likely to be in stock, though even then it’s a challenge keeping them on the shelves as popular as they are! Apples are a point of pride in the Valley, and everyone has their favorite variety. They also serve both hard and non-alcoholic apple ciders, including a hot cider that is amazing on a blustery fall day.
With its vintage wallpaper, swirled glass pop bottles, and other classic Americana decorations, it seems to have been in the town forever
The area’s rustic appeal is on display nowhere more than at Uncle Buck’s, the town’s most popular local dining spot. While I sat enjoying their roast beef with au jus sauce and horseradish, a steady stream of locals poured in, even on a Wednesday night when the temperature was hovering around 0 degrees Celsius. Many headed toward the bar, made of lacquered pine and fronted with weathered wood and corrugated tin surely harvested from an ancient local barn. There’s no better place to enjoy a beer or a shot of Bourbon! With its vintage wallpaper, swirled glass pop bottles, and other classic Americana decorations, it seems to have been in the town forever.
Even their cookware is made to last, such as the seasoned cast-iron skillets they use to make their variety of country hash brown potatoes, which are slow-cooked with butter and onions in a method passed down from German settlers in frontier days. Visitors from abroad are often surprised by the rich, velvety gravies the restaurant produces, or by their sausage gravy and biscuits, a creamy, filling Southern breakfast staple. Another and very pleasant local flavor that every visitor should try is apple butter, a smoothly caramelized reduction of local apples that glides over biscuits, homemade corn muffins, or pancakes—the restaurant serves breakfast all day so there’s no reason to miss it!
Further up Main Street is Moonshadows Restaurant, a fine-dining destination where one can experience the delicate flavor of rainbow trout, a popular local fish that thrives in the area’s fast-flowing cold-water streams. Moonshadows menu changes seasonally—in the spring, it might just be possible to find dishes featuring an even more exclusive local delicacy—morel mushrooms. They have an earthy but delicate flavor, owing to their habitat in the forested valleys and hollows of the area’s mountains.
Almost directly across the street from Moonshadows is another dining destination that’s not to be missed. Main Street Bakery is the haunt of Charles Arnaud, a classically trained pastry chef and an extraordinarily pleasant person to chat about food with. His shop is always stocked with homemade scones, tarts, breads, and cookies to tempt anyone with a sweet tooth. His pies and tarts use local apples and peaches along with classic French techniques. Says Arnaud, “I learned from the European tradition to have a great respect for food, the people who grow it, and the land it comes from. It’s the job of a chef to honor that, and convey it to people, to nourish the mind and the body.”
This is evident in his quiche, which compares favorably to the finest in France with its savory, custard-like filling. His breads are also not to be missed, and run the gamut from a rosemary and olive focaccia to a Russian black bread which he delights in using as a contrast for lighter-colored toppings to produce visually impressive tea sandwiches. Like any great French chef, he keeps a bottle of Cognac on hand for flambéing but often turns to River Hill Bourbon, which is distilled near town, for a warm Southern flavoring in other dishes. Chef Arnaud says of his attention to detail in the kitchen, “We go through a lot of tasting spoons.” You’ll want to go through a great deal of tastings as well!
With fine wine and a good meal, the focus naturally turns to lodging, and there are hundreds of fine rooms throughout the area. The Woodruff House, South Court Inn, and Mayneview Bed and Breakfast are local standouts, restored Victorian homes that now welcome guests from all over the world, but a sure standout for local lodging, as well as an imposing local landmark, is the Mimslyn Inn.
It sits atop a hill in the middle of town, its white columns evocative of 19th-century landmarks like Monticello or the White House. Their reception area is awash in the splendor of the roaring 20s when the large hotel was constructed, and near the front desk stands a winding grand staircase that leads upstairs to the lodging. The rooms here, which let for between $150 and $200 per night, are wonderfully appointed with high ceilings and wood furniture that offer an elegant yet cozy charm that is at once opulent and extremely welcoming, with each room offering a different view of the town.
The hotel also boasts a fine restaurant serving fare such as their braised beef short ribs, and a vintage-style speakeasy bar in the basement that offers a charming atmosphere stoked by black and white images of 1920s celebrities and socialites. It’s easy to picture visitors to the area arriving at the town’s train station almost a hundred years ago and making their way to the Mimslyn to rest before taking in the sights. Happily, those sights, and the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the town, have changed little since those times.