This past month, looking over the shoulder of my youngest as she prepared for a fifty states map quiz, it became clear how far we had journeyed for our vacation in Abingdon, Virginia.
Call it every bit of five hours – first west on I-64, then south on I-81 waaaay over yonder, to southwestern Virginia. Now, nod your head if you have spent five hours stewing mercilessly in traffic sometime in the past year, attempting to transport your family to DC, Philadelphia, or New York City. Aha! Just as I had suspected.
Now stick with me, but here’s why I mention those rather substantial East Coast cities in the same breath with tiny historic Abingdon – the seat of Washington County, and one of Virginia’s most historic towns.
Abingdon has everything for families, just like those mammoth cities: the arts, recreation, history, and fine dining – only in manageable portions. I’ve always agreed with Jerry Seinfeld who said there’s no such thing as fun for the whole family. But I started to think Abingdon, of all places, might change my mind.
Mostly because of that travel time, we blocked five days for our visit. To work in a ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail, the quintessential 34-mile bike ride through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a show at Barter Theatre, one of the country’s oldest, nonprofit, professional theaters, at least three days for play are recommended.
Before you go, take a look at Barter Theatre’s slate of shows. We had pored over the Barter’s website in advance, and despite the plethora of choices available to Us across genres (twenty-six productions total in the 2013 season), we decided to see the musical we had already enjoyed a combined seven times on various stages and screens in the previous year: Les Misérables. Barter’s production was firstrate, comparable to what you might see at November Theater from Virginia Rep.
Barter Theatre’s story began in 1933 when an enterprising young actor had a novel idea: bartering produce from local farmers for admission to a play. It seems four out of five Depression-era arts lovers gained admission with vegetables, dairy products, or livestock. Eighty years later, we didn’t see anyone proffering eggs at the door, but Barter’s Historic Main Stage, a richly appointed venue that seats over five hundred patrons, was packed for our afternoon matinee.
Throughout the week at Barter, productions are staged daily and nightly on the Main Stage with a cast of resident actors that would give a Broadway touring company a run for its money. Across the street we enjoyed a second performance on Stage II, a smaller black-box space with stadium-style seating that’s perfect for newer works and edgier plays. There was nothing edgy, however, about the new version of Cinderella we caught here at a morning performance from the Barter Players, a group of professional actors that performs classic theater for young audiences. The Barter Café, adjacent to Stage II, is open every day including after late-evening performances, and serves sandwiches, informal entrées, and desserts.
In between shows, we set aside a day for our other marquis activity – what might be described as the ultimate family bike-ride on the Virginia Creeper Trail. Named for the way the old steam engines labored up mountain grades with heavy loads of lumber and iron ore, this public-access, multi-use trail connects the North Carolina border, about a mile east of Whitetop Station, Virginia, with Abingdon. In fact, the Creeper Trail ends a stone’s throw, depending on how good your arm is, from the Creeper’s End Lodging where we stayed. It’s hard to miss the restored locomotive on display at the trailhead on Green Spring Road.
Booking online to arrange our bike rental and transport service up the mountain to Whitetop was easy and convenient. The folks at Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop on Pecan Street in historic Abingdon took fantastic care of us. We considered bringing a few of our bikes along, but the reasonable prices convinced me otherwise: $26 per adult and $24 a kid for bike rental and a space on the shuttle. If you do bring your own bikes, purchasing the transport service by itself through this Abingdon shop is a good deal too: $15 for adults and $12 for kids. You can also investigate other outfitters in Damascus and along the Creeper Trail as keeping bikers, hikers, and horse-riders happy – even though we didn’t see any of the latter – is a big part of the local economy. During peak season and on weekends especially, the bike shop we used will schedule as many as five runs a day, starting at eight-thirty.
There are a variety of bikes to choose from in every size and ours were sturdy and built for the trail. Because I am absolutely militant when it comes to bike helmets, we brought ours from home. Shop owner Jerry Camper said he recommends helmets for everyone, but estimates that only about 40 percent of Creeper Trail riders wear them, a number that floored me. After we were fitted with our bikes, the staff loaded up our rides and we piled in the oversized van for about an hour-long scenic and winding drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our veteran driver said he’d had only one puker during his tenure, but a number of motion sickness complaints.
At 12, 14, and 16, my kids were the perfect age for this fairly easy downhill ride along well-maintained paths, over railroad trestles, and alongside sparkling mountain streams. We had agreed in advance to only bike the top-half of the Creeper Trail, but could have gone the distance. A friend and her son rode the entire trail and she did complain about an aching bottom. All told, we weren’t any worse for the wear after our 17-mile effort.
I was surprised at first to see kids who looked to be as young as five or six pedaling along, but obviously their parents felt they were up to the task. I also saw a number of bike trailers, which you can rent at the shop in Abingdon. One was particularly memorable as its cargo consisted of two preschoolers whose arms were crossed over their chests in an effort to look as disgruntled as possible. Their dad passed me once while we were taking in a scenic view and the next time I saw them on the trail, the kids were slumped against each other sound asleep in the trailer.
Biking is one of my favorite family activities because in essence, you’re alone together. For older kids especially, it’s good to be able to go at their own pace. That said, when we first took off from Whitetop Station, we had to convene for a family meeting less than a mile into the trip to remind one of our daughters that it wasn’t a race down the mountain. We did manage to stop a few times in various combinations (dad and two daughters, mom and two daughters, dad and three daughters) to read markers about plants and wildlife, take pictures, and go rock-hopping in a mountain stream.
As a family, we also gathered for a drink at the Creeper Trail Café, directly off the path. Later, when we reached Damascus, we took the advice of our shuttle driver and had lunch at In the Country, a local eatery and gift shop with the feel of a homegrown Cracker Barrel. Then we hopped back on our bikes and headed to our shuttle stop, which was clearly marked by a red caboose. With our ride set to pick the five of us up at two-thirty, we had a bit of time to backtrack on foot over a train trestle and watch a crew engaged in a pretty intense kudzu removal project. The huge city park here in Damascus would score high marks for families with younger kids.
In between the events we had booked in advance, we had time to explore the arts scene in Abingdon. Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway is a good place to start. My husband, who might have been a little cranky about the glaring absence of Starbucks in historic Abingdon, referred to this facility as a very fancy rest area. And in some ways he was right. Nonetheless, this relatively new 30,000-square foot building off I-81 serves as a showcase for the area’s music, crafts, and foods. Alongside informational culture and heritage exhibits, including one on musical instruments we found particularly interesting, are carefully selected arts and crafts for sale, plus a well-stocked gift shop with souvenirs from the area. We enjoyed Sunday brunch buffet here, one of the few places we had to drive to during our visit.At Heartwood, with no foresight or planning whatsoever on my part, we found ourselves in the middle of a bluegrass jam session While we enjoyed our custom-made omelets, with biscuits and gravy. I also got to embarrass my kids by shouting out a request for “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” an anthem to my home state of West Virginia.
If you do get a chance to peruse the galleries at Heartwood, there’s a chance you’ll fall in love with the work of a regional artist. It might be best to look, but not buy—and then proceed directly to Arts Depot on Depot Square, a working studio and sales gallery, or a shop like Holston Mountain Artisans on Park Street. Here you’ll find the work of roughly 150 artisans united in a mission to market their handiwork and promote the arts and crafts of the Appalachian region. This outfit is one of the country’s longest running artist co-ops and features everything from finely honed wooden bowls, to fabric masterpieces, to delicate filigree earrings, to landscapes recreated in seed beads. The good news is, this shop is open seven days a week, which meant we could go back as many times as we liked. And like almost everything we did, it was an easy stroll from our home away from home at Creeper’s End Lodging.
For more looking, we visited William King Museum. This brick structure’s footprint dates back to 1824 when it was first built as the Abingdon Male Academy. During the Civil War, the building was used to house troops, which didn’t bode well for the facility. It was rebuilt a number of times and used as a public high school and later an elementary school until 1973. In 1992, the William King Museum opened its doors.
With its exhibits in the three main galleries and sculpture garden on the grounds, we spent almost two hours here. As art museums go, it’s not the least bit overwhelming. They even have one of those nifty scavenger hunts for kids that my youngest completed, even though she’s “way too old for that stuff.” The Quilt National exhibit, a breathtaking collection of contemporary quilts from artists across the country, has since moved on, but it’s worth noting that it was in town while we were, if only to show the breadth of art you might find at William King Museum.
If you’re looking to squeeze in education disguised as historical points of interest – this is Virginia after all! – Abingdon’s got that too. Believe it or not, two out of three kids surveyed (granted, it was a small sample), said the Ghost Tour of Abingdon was the trip highlight. Donnamarie Emmert, a storyteller by trade, kept us captivated for over an hour as we walked along Main Street’s brick sidewalks listening to the Haint Mistress of Abingdon, as she is known, tell tales of haunts connected to the town’s most famous historic buildings. We stood in front of The Martha Washington, The Tavern, and the Greenway-Trigg house and heard a unique blend of history and suspense from a master. To schedule a walking tour with Donnamarie, call 276-706-6093. Barter is also offering her tour as part of a package this month.
Muster Grounds at Abingdon was a little hard for us to find as it was one of the other places we had to drive to. But once we did, the Keller Interpretive Center and the history lover working there made it worth the effort. The site of the northern trailhead of the 330-mile long Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, this historic stop revealed a story of fortitude and frontier courage we Central Virginians had never heard, that of the region’s Overmountain Men and their impact on the Revolutionary War.
Historic home lovers should pop into Fields-Penn House Museum on Main Street to see how the well-to-do lived in the late eighteen hundreds. We thought the master bedroom with its built-in sick room alcove for ailing children was a novel idea. It probably came in handy as each of the families who lived here had eight kids. It’s a self-guided tour, but the handout at the door is helpful and interesting. A volunteer was also available to answer questions. There’s no need to reserve a lot of time for this, but it is worth a peek.
After our somewhat limited historical tour of Abingdon that day, we took Donnamarie’s cue and went to Pop Ellis Soda Shop & Grill, which was a combination of twentieth-century pop culture history and good honest eats. The founding couple behind the original pharmacy spent fifty years assembling a personal collection of pharmacy and soda shop memorabilia. Their son, Doug Ellis, opened one of Abingdon’s best family restaurants to show it all off.
Other restaurants to put on your list while you’re in Abingdon include 128 Pecan for fantastic comfort food and equally endearing service, and Bonefire Smokehouse BBQ, which we quickly discovered had a lot more going for it than just being open on Monday. (Be warned, some finer restaurants will close a day to recuperate.) The cornbread fritters are not to be missed and the barbecue is available in chicken, pork, and turkey.
With one more night to dine out, and after getting feedback from just about everyone in Abingdon, we were still on the fence between The Martha and The Tavern, both within walking distance in the historic district. The Martha, a renowned hotel, spa, and dining establishment, received lots of kudos for the best steak in town, but with only two full-fledged carnivores in our family, we went with The Tavern. Widely considered the oldest building west of the Blue Ridge still used for business, it was built in 1779 and served as a hospital during the Civil War. The Tavern has seen its share of tragedies, but unsatisfied diners wasn’t one of them.
Perhaps it was listening to the ghost story of the Tavern Tart from Donnamarie that helped us decide. Or maybe it was the intrigue surrounding the secret table for two with the hidden drawer full of notes, messages, and young lovers’ correspondence. Or it could have been the signature stuffed filet with scrumptious cheesecake for dessert. It didn’t matter – our final meal in Abingdon was indeed the best.
And by the way, my oldest wrote a note and stashed it in that secret drawer. I’ll never read it, but I’ll just imagine it goes something like this: “Thanks, Mom and Dad for bringing us to this amazing place where we could do all the things we love to do, walk almost everywhere, and enjoy small-town America. Abingdon was a great place to spend time together, unplugged, and fully present. But next time, let’s do the whole Creeper Trail!”
Hanging Your Hat in Abingdon
Our set-up at Creeper’s End Lodging, within easy walking distance of the trailhead, the bike shop, Barter Theatre, Holston Mountain Artisans, and Martha Washington Spa (shoot!I knew I forgot something) was ideal for our family of five. Two brand new colonial-style cottages house five rentals total. The unit we stayed in featured a large great room with dining table and sofa bed, nicely stocked kitchenette with coffeemaker, bedroom with two queen-size beds, and a roomy bathroom. Linens and towels are supplied and Wi-Fi is free. Nightly rates range from $125 to $150, depending on the size of the unit.
Friends have recommended Summers Cottage on Main Street. Rates change based on availability and the time of year, but this is one unit, so book well in advance. Starting nightly rate ranges from $125 to $200 with an additional $25 per person each night for more than two guests. A major perk here is that Summers Cottage is closer to Zazzy’Z Coffee House if you have a Starbucks lover in the family you’re trying to indulge. It’s also a restored Queen Anne cottage built in the late nineteenth century and listed as a contributing structure on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Close family members say a night at the Martha Washington is memorable, but pricey, and probably not right for most families. We did manage to sneak into this elegant establishment, as well as stroll its grounds. We also took a boatload of pictures with the LOVE installation on The Martha’s front lawn, across the street from Barter Theatre. A Tailor’s Lodging, a B&B in the historic district, also came highly recommended.
A nice woman I spoke with near the town fountain in front of The Martha said she and her twins were staying at the Holiday Inn Express at exit 19. She added that they travel from Tennessee to see a children’s production on Barter’s Stage II every year to celebrate the kids’ birthday. The budget chain’s rates aren’t that much better than Creeper’s End, and I have to say, staying in Abingdon’s historic district made it worth the few extra bucks.