For many snowbirds driving to the southern U.S. from Ontario, or heading back home after a holiday, it’s great to take a break from the driving and exit I-95 for a good night’s rest, and Virginia — about half-way along — offers up two great stops.
You’ll know you’ve arrived when, on the way south, the miles of pine trees and hardwoods like sugar maples transition to stately flowering dogwoods and magnolias. And heading north, you’re there when the palms start disappearing.
Each of the rest stops in Virginia are very different, yet hugely rewarding. One is more urban, providing a city beat with architectural marvels and blasts from the past, while the other stop is rural, scenic and peaceful, complete with lakes, wildlife, and forest hikes.
One stop is Richmond, Virginia, the State Capital, which offers lots of night life, some great boutique hotels, restaurants and shopping, and plenty of history, from a great civil war museum to tours of the State Capital building — dubbed the “first” White House.
The other stop in the State is the rugged and natural Blue Ridge tourism area, centred in Roanoke, called the “star” city because of an 88 ft. illuminated star on a nearby mountain top that was erected in 1949 as a holiday decoration, and is lit nightly.
Running through this rolling countryside is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a winding, scenic, 469-mile drive that stretches all the way to North Carolina and is popular with bikers and hikers. This southern Appalachian region reaches elevations of 6,000 ft. and is bordered by the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks.
Along the parkway are lakes, bridges, tunnels, lookouts, and small towns and villages in which to stay over. There’s eateries on the way where you can grab a bite, and opportunities to get out of the vehicle and sample some of the 1,000 miles of trails (some are part of the Appalachian trail), making an immersion in nature only a few steps away.
The city of Roanoke (pronounced row-an-oak), along the scenic parkway drive offers some culture in the middle of all the natural splendour, and lots of hotels like Marriott’s Springhill Suites (www.marriott.com/roash) a short exit off the highway.
Richmond features plenty of history, including one of earliest stately buildings, the State Capital, which during the civil war served as the “White House of the Confederacy” where the politicians from Confederate States met during the war years in the 1860s.
About the same age and style as the U.S. president’s residence in Washington, D.C., the State Capital in Richmond was designed in 1785 by self-taught architect and founding father Thomas Jefferson, who was ambassador to France at the time.
Jefferson wanted to turn away from other architectural designs popular at the time in England, including the Georgian style, and instead looked way back in history and based the design for a new State Capital building on a classical Roman temple.
This neoclassic-designed building is made of brick and covered in white stucco, with giant while columns that contain huge pine trees used as supports.
It was chosen one of “10 buildings which changed America,” and this building style became known as “Federal” and copied over the centuries. Tours are offered daily.
Richmond is home to lots of history, including a civil war museum on the banks of the James River, where Pocahontas is said to have met colonist Captain John Smith. He arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s and established a fort along the riverbank.
The city features a canal walk, lots of great historic architecture, and a safe and vibrant downtown. There are some boutique hotels, as well, like the Linden Row Inn (www.lindenrowinn.com) that sprang from a row of ten houses built in the 1850s.
The “parlour” suites in the inn are huge, with 12 ft. ceilings floor-to-ceiling windows, and are nicely decorated with 1850s-era antiques. There are also “main house” and “garden” rooms, with big balconies looking out over a courtyard with a decent restaurant.
Before the houses were built, poet Edgar Allan Poe was said to have cavorted through lush gardens (with roses, jasmine and linden trees) on the site as a kid, after his mother, an actress, died while performing in a travelling company at the Richmond Theatre.
He was raised by the Allan family who lived across the street from the inn, and who gave the poet his middle name. His poem “To Helen” is said to mention the gardens where the inn now stands, and he first courted his love, Elmira Royster, there as well.