Pairing top eats and drinks along with the excitement of bikes, hikes, ropes swings and river sports in Roanoke Valley
While most summertime travelers flock to the beach, I opted to venture west to explore Virginia’s Blue Ridge. The mountain region is the largest metropolitan area along the Blue Ridge Parkway and is comprised of five jurisdictions including the counties of Botetourt, Franklin and Roanoke and cities of Roanoke and Salem. The district has experienced a revitalization unlike any other in its centuries-old history. Downtown Roanoke alone has transformed from a once-flourishing railroad town into a budding metropolis for art, food and business. The region as a whole has also earned its spot on the map as America’s East Coast Mountain Biking Capital, complementing 300-plus miles of biking trails with breathtaking scenic beauty, thrilling outdoor adventures, mouthwatering cuisine, inspiring arts and culture and luxurious, affordable accommodations.
My mid-July, four-day itinerary was jam packed with the best the Blue Ridge has to offer. I lucked out weather-wise too, experiencing only one afternoon shower, and reveled in the moderate temperatures the mountains pride themselves on. And while a beach girl at heart, Virginia’s Blue Ridge impressed upon me an appreciation for the Commonwealth’s staggering ridgeline and the region’s gentility, beauty and innovation.
Day 1: Eat, Drink, Repeat
I rise early for my four-and-a-half-hour drive to Roanoke and arrive just in time for lunch (because my day is, of course, scheduled around food). Roanoke’s culinary scene is unique in that it is nearly entirely void of chain restaurants. The city’s humble storefronts are instead adorned with the names of beloved mom-and-pop cafes and bistros passed down for generations. I figure the best way to get a taste for the city’s homegrown cooking is to sample not one, but four local restaurants by way of Tour Roanoke. The guided service offers a Historic Downtown Food & Cultural Tour that is equally rich in celebrated anecdotes as it is big, Southwest Virginia flavor.
My tour commences at Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, an iconic landmark in the so-called Star City. The construction of the 19th-century, Tudor-style hotel was spearheaded by the nearby Norfolk and Western Railway in response to the railroad industry boom and consequential need for visitor accommodations. During the city’s heyday, thousands of workers and rail executives traveled to Roanoke, formerly recognized as the town of Big Lick, to oversee Norfolk and Western operations, locomotive construction and more. The sprawling inn opened on Dec. 25, 1882 with just 34 guest rooms. Despite having experienced a devastating fire and bouts of temporary closings, Hotel Roanoke now stands proudly with 330 renovated guest rooms, more than 60,000 square feet of conference space, a spa and three onsite eateries.
Amelia Glaser, my gracious hostess and guide for the day, greets me in the lobby before we make our way to the distinguished Regency Room. Introduced in 1938, dining in the Regency Room has remained a longstanding tradition for many Blue Ridge locals, as is the bistro’s Peanut Soup. The creamy heirloom recipe was designed by a Hotel Roanoke chef in 1940 after the manager requested a timeless, signature dish. The soup was a success, as it is now served daily in the Regency Room.
A quick jaunt across the pedestrian bridge from Hotel Roanoke to downtown landed us at Cedars Restaurant, a delectable Lebanese eatery featuring tabbouleh, meat pies and stuffed grape leaves. Like many of the international diners that line Roanoke’s downtown district, Cedars marks the beginning of a United States journey for owner and Lebanese migrant Gaby Saliba.
We then pop over to Billy’s, another Roanoke staple, for stone-ground shrimp and grits embellished with Virginia ham, tomato, green onion and a bite of habanero. Glaser draws attention to the dining room’s expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, claiming that for decades they have allowed Billy’s visitors to witness the myriad of iterations of Downtown Roanoke since the building first opened in 1912 as The Ritz Hotel. The inn-turned-restaurant remained throughout Prohibition, withstood Salem Avenue’s spell as a red-light district in the 1980s and is now self-proclaimed as The Place to Be in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Nearly full, I find room to indulge in decadent samples from Chocolatepaper, a one-of-a-kind chocolatier and gift shop on Market Street. Glaser and I then exchange goodbyes as I hop in the car for my own tour of Black Dog Salvage.
Featured on DIY Network’s Salvage Dawgs, the Roanoke salvage yard is a must-see spot while in the valley. The rambling showroom is chock-full of architectural salvage, home décor, furniture, neon signs and other unique goods hand-selected by Black Dog pickers Robert Kulp and Michael Whiteside. Trust me, this place isn’t your ordinary antique mall either. Right in the parking lot is a recovered airplane, amusement park relics and a giant frying pan.
After an hour of rifling through Black Dog’s collection, I meander over to the neighboring city of Salem. Salem is much smaller than Downtown Roanoke in scale but is a rising star in the region’s culinary and craft beverage scene. I imbibe a flight of pre-dinner brews at Olde Salem Brewing Company, a craft establishment introduced to the city in 2017. It is a now the watering hole for Salem locals, especially on Wednesday nights for trivia.
Even more recent to the city is the four-month-old West Salem Barbecue. The swanky barbecue and bourbon joint is decked out in natural woods, deep blues and golds and is a partner eatery to the attached taco and tequila joint El Jefe Taqueria. In true Southwest Virginia style, all chicken, brisket, pork and other meats at West Salem are cured and smoked in house, infusing each bite with freshly charred and juicy savors. According to the chef, even the beans and Brussels sprouts are ’cued up too.
For those with a sweet tooth, Blue Cow Ice Cream comes highly recommended when traveling from Salem to Roanoke. The family-owned creamery is celebrated for its out-of-the-box flavors and house-made waffle cones.
Day 2: All Roads and Rivers Lead to a Brewery
With a full day of eating and drinking behind me, a morning hike is much needed. Well-known to Roanoke natives and visitors alike is the hulking Roanoke Star. The statue perched atop Mill Mountain is the largest, free-standing, man-made illuminated star in the world and has floodlit the valley proudly every night since 1949.
The star is positioned at the brink of an overlook that spans the entirety of Downtown Roanoke and its surrounding valley. It was initially constructed and installed on Mill Mountain as a seasonal decoration but has remained as the mascot of the city. The Roanoke Star is not only a destination accessible by foot or by car, but by bike as well.
Appalachia is home to hundreds of miles of winding mountain bike trails, many of which lead to stunning overlooks and regional icons such as the star. Having such recreational and entertainment amenities linked to the multi-level trails are what prompted the International Mountain Bicycling Association to designate Virginia’s Blue Ridge as a Silver-Level Ride Center in 2018. The region is now one of only 15 Silver-Level centers in the world.
For those who prefer water to land activities, the Blue Ridge is also home to a wealth of rivers and lakes. Fancying water sports myself, I travel north to Botetourt County to kayak the Upper James River. Situated in Buchanan is the family-operated Twin River Outfitters. The canoe, kayak, tubing and camping outfitter has proudly served the mountain region since 1978 and is a great resource for travelers seeking rental equipment, multi-day trips, guided tours and overnight stays in the Blue Ridge.
I elect a guided, two-hour paddle with Twin River owner John Mays. Ironically, Mays is a twin himself. He and his brother, Dan, purchased the former James River Basin Canoe Livery outfitter in 2005, established its new moniker and swapped corporate life for river living.
As we make our way to the launch point at Horseshoe Bend, Mays flaunts Twin River’s newest glamping sites. The private platforms are outfitted with wall tents with cots, a picnic table, camp chairs, firepit and outdoor kitchen equipped with complimentary necessities like firewood, a camp stove, pots and plates.
The paddle down the river is smooth and serene. We negotiate a handful of Class I and Class II rapids that lead us to a hidden cove flanked by a humble waterfall. Mays explains that the four miles we traverse are just a small portion of the terrain visitors can navigate with Twin River.
I follow the kayaking expedition with a pitstop at Daleville Town Center for lunch, then head back to Roanoke to prep for dinner and a tour at Ballast Point. The San Diego-based brewing company launched in 1996 and has grown every year since, leading to the addition of a hulking production facility in Daleville in 2017. The Virginia Ballast Point Tasting Room & Kitchen is the largest craft brewery on the East Coast, boasting more than 120 taps, a 200-person dining room, outdoor patio and sweeping mountain views.
A tour through the production facility reveals a host of barrel systems and hops refrigerators used to craft Ballast Point’s most popular brews like their award-winning Sculpin IPA. The quality of their beers is easily matched by the brewery’s exceptional mountainside cuisine. I pair my flight of IPAs, sours and ales with bites of blistered shishito peppers; grilled bread with house-made, Southern-style pimento cheese; and a flavorful Beyond “Veggie” Burger. Tack on the immaculate sunset views from the second-floor dining room and Ballast Point becomes a can’t-miss destination on your tour through Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Day 3: Markets, Moonshine and Mozzarella
I’m roused from sleep at 7 a.m. by what sounds like a long, drawn-out whistle. Some quick research reveals yet another railway relic preserved by the Star City. In 1883, a steam whistle dubbed Old Gabriel was erected to signify important hours of the work day for rail laborers. Its wail can still be heard today at 7 a.m., noon, 12:30 and 3 p.m. or, as locals call it, quittin’ time.
Old Gabriel forced me out of bed just in time to peruse the Historic Roanoke City Market, which during the summer months is lush with fresh berries, peaches, greenery and handmade goods crafted by local vendors. A stroll through the market is the perfect way to stretch the legs before making the 45-minute drive south to Smith Mountain Lake.
Spanning Franklin, Bedford and Pittsylvania counties, the Commonwealth’s largest manmade lake is the ultimate destination for boating and paddle boarding. Its body encompasses 40 miles bordered by 500 miles of shoreline, much of which is privately owned. Luckily, Ryan Waters, son of longtime Bridgewater Marina owner Ed Waters, knows of some public access beaches.
We hop on one of the marina’s pontoon boats and set sail on the lake. Waters tours us through some of the lake’s most iconic spots, landing us at Smith Mountain Lake Park. There, we disembark to enjoy an afternoon of paddle boarding just off of the park’s sandy shores. The park offers amenities for all types of lake visitors including a slide, marked swimming section, boat launch, docking station and scenic waterfront trails for hiking and biking.
Once back at the marina, I set off to the famous Homestead Creamery Farm Market in Burnt Chimney. Easily one of the best kept secrets at the lake, the small-town creamery churns arguably the best ice cream in the state. Filling their freezers are thick and creamy scoops of Key Lime Pie, Peanut Butter, Maple Bacon, Black Raspberry and more. The market also features a made-to-order café crafting everything from salads to paninis.
Rose Jeter, Homestead’s sales and marketing manager, also prepares our group a makeshift milk flight showcasing the creamery’s fresh flavors fashioned at the neighboring production facility. On the docket are a rich chocolate, fresh strawberry, saccharine creamsicle, creamy Cowpuccino and the unexpected Golden Milk, which comes with a bright yellow turmeric pour. Though out-of-the-box, Homestead’s Golden Milk won Best New Beverage at the 2018 Virginia Agriculture’s Food & Beverage Expo. Jeter explains that all of the sampled flavors, in addition to an A2 milk, whole milk, eggnog, custard and array of ice creams and butters, are available at grocers throughout the coast.
After Homestead, I leave milk for moonshine and pay a visit to Franklin County Distilleries to sample a flight of their locally crafted spirits. The Boones Mill facility is the first legal distillery in Franklin County since Prohibition and is led by longtime moonshine enthusiast and head distiller Andy Lumsden. The Franklin County native gets creative with his liquor-laced pours as he crafts moonshine slushies, fruit infusions, jolly shots and a host of cocktails like a Bloody Moonshine, Andy’s Apple Pie and Franklin Sweet Tea.
The setting sun sends me back to Roanoke for a delicious, four-course spread at Fortunato. The swanky Italian eatery specializes in wood-fired pizzas, cheese-filled pastas and traditional Italian desserts.
Day 4: Learning the Ropes
My final day in Virginia’s Blue Ridge is filled with cultural exploration. The day kicks off with breakfast at one of the region’s oldest and most beloved diners, The Roanoker Restaurant, and is followed by tours of downtown’s Taubman Museum of Art and bustling Center in the Square. The Taubman is rich in regional and international art, featuring upwards of 15 rotating exhibits. Center in the Square is the go-to entertainment space for families as its multi-level facility hosts five nonprofit organizations including museums, a theater and an interactive STARCADE.
The latter half of the day is spent at the recently opened Explore Park. A must for adrenaline junkies, the space, operated by Roanoke County Parks, Recreation and Tourism, is home to an 18-hole disc golf course, hiking trails, primitive campsites, horseback riding and the popular Treetop Quest, a challenging obstacle and zipline course with four distinct experience levels. The prominent outdoor attraction expanded with the addition of Twin Creeks Brewery Company and an onsite restaurant. (I highly recommend visiting in autumn to witness the region’s stunning fall foliage—leaf peeping is, after all, a long-standing Blue Ridge tradition.)
Before I draw the curtain on my mountain getaway, I search for one more taste of the region. I find this in flaky crabcakes and buttery mashed potatoes at Billy’s and a colorful flight at Big Lick Brewing Company, a premier nightlife destination in Roanoke’s West Station neighborhood.
Virginia’s Blue Ridge surprised me in more ways than one. It’s a region, that despite boasting some of the most striking landscapes, diverse cuisine and exceptional outdoor adventures on the coast, presents itself with humility and authenticity. Four days in the mountains, and I feel as though I’ve just scratched the surface of this flourishing community. Until next time, Blue Ridge!
Even More Blue Ridge Ideas
Day 1 alternative—Grab a bike and visit Starr Hill Pilot Brewery and Side Stage by way of Roanoke Valley Greenway Trail
Day 2 alternative—Marvel at the cascading waterfall at Roaring Run in George Washington & Thomas Jefferson National Forests
Day 3 alternative—Explore the seven miles of trails at Waid Recreation Area
Day 4 alternative—Enjoy a scenic drive along the esteemed Blue Ridge Parkway