In Late July, my husband and I took off for a weekend away – just the two of us – to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. When I’m planning a trip I always check the web for reviews of places to stay, things to do and places to eat. Invariably, the reviews that are the most prominent and abundant are from that very large, well-known travel website. I do read and appreciate those reviews, but I much prefer it when I can find a blog post from a regular wife and mom like me. So that’s what I’m here to offer you today – a travel report from a regular person. Notice I did not say a normal person 🙂 . I hope you find it helpful as you plan your future trips or at least find it a pleasant diversion as you sit reading this while avoiding cleaning your house.
I live in the piedmont region of North Carolina. This location has lots of benefits, not the least of which for my family is the proximity to the mountains and the beach. We can drive 2-3 hours and be in either of those places, which is a huge gift and one we do not take for granted.
Whereas I have not traveled extensively, domestically or internationally, I am pretty well traveled as far as the East coast is concerned. But just north of us here in North Carolina is the famed Shenendoah Valley and Skyline Drive and until this weekend I’m discussing here, I had never visited.
I spent my childhood vacationing in Williamsburg, Virginia, a place I still love today, but I had never spent anytime in the central part of the state. Last year, my husband and I escaped for a weekend to the Virginia Creeper Trail which is in the southwestern corner of Virginia. You can read my review of that weekend here.
The problem I have with these travels is that I love almost every place we visit and I want to go back over and over again. This is where my husband comes in. He loves to explore and even though he loves these places as much as I do, he really wants to discover new places. He makes me branch out. This is a good thing.
See how beautiful the trail along the Virginia Creeper is? Can you understand why I’d want to go back? We will go back someday (hear that honey? we will!), but probably in the fall and we’ll probably take the kids.
Even though I would have gone to the Virginia Creeper again this year, Chris encouraged me to try something new and so we chose the Shenandoah Valley. This is a pretty expansive area about four hours north of our home. If you plan to visit yourself someday, I’d highly recommend these maps. We had the full set of maps printed out and referred to them constantly. There are around 500 miles of hiking trails off of Skyline Drive, so the little snippets of descriptions on these maps are certainly not complete, but they do hit the highlights. If hiking is your thing, I’d also recommend visiting Alltrails.com for reviews of specific trails. Recent reviews can save you time and heartache. (I know we live in the digital age and we could have saved some trees by not printing these maps, but our experience is that in the mountains of NC, we often have very little cell coverage, so we were being good Boy Scouts and being prepared. Surprisingly, we did have cell service on Skyline Drive, but as soon as we crossed onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, out it went.)
Here’s how our weekend went down:
We left Raleigh around 10:00 AM on Friday after dropping the kids with their grandparents. They were headed off on their own fun adventure!
Quick aside: A few years ago, we took a big history tour through the Northeast and after one harrowing night on I-95, I vowed to stay off that blasted highway for the rest of the trip. We managed to stay true to that goal and saw some beautiful countryside and the trip was much less stressful from that point forward. Ever since that time, we have made it our goal to stay off the major highways whenever possible.
For this particular trip, we headed due north from our home, with Charlottesville, Virginia as our destination. The reason for Charlottesville was that I’d never been there (aside from Monticello) and I’ve always heard it’s a pretty college town so I wanted to explore. Also, I found what appeared to be a restaurant with a really extensive gluten free menu: Burton’s Grill.
This place did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, we’re already plotting how we can fit in a visit to one of their other locations. Near-ish to us, they have a restaurant in Charlotte, NC and also Mt. Pleasant, SC, where we have family.
Take a look at this menu (and this is only part of it):
Yes, that’s right, they have a paleo menu! Granted, there are only a few options, but still. An actual paleo section of the menu!! I was amazed. When our waiter first approached our table, he introduced himself and then said they take food allergies very seriously and asked if we had any allergies. From this moment on, we felt very well cared for with zero thought of getting glutened during our meal.
We started with unsweetened iced tea and some gluten free rolls. These rolls were brown, but were not whole wheat (obviously) so I’m guessing they contained some molasses. They were slightly sweet and ok once slathered with butter, but after reviewing the menu, I knew I did not want to fill up on bread. I could have easily ordered five or six entrees. I just wish I could eat that much!
When I saw calamari on the menu, I knew we had to have it. Last summer, we spent a weekend in Hilton Head and found one restaurant that prepared gluten free fried seafood really, really well and honestly, we never thought we’d find it again off of that island. But lo and behold, here it was. I’m telling you, I would eat this every single day if I could. Along with the calamari pieces, there were some pepperoncini peppers, also battered and fried, served with a delicious tartar sauce. We just about licked the plate. It was so amazing, we really haven’t stopped talking about it since. Our kids also love calamari and are very angry that we keep mentioning it. To that I say, tough noogies. They can get a job and buy their own calamari some day. 🙂
Usually, in a fancy place like this, we will share an appetizer, entree and dessert, but because we were really hungry and there were just so many options that looked appealing, we each ordered our own entree:
I had the crab cake, which came with french fries and a cole slaw that contained more vegetables than cabbage. I got broccoli and carrots in there, but I’m not sure what else was mixed in. The crab cake, which is tiny, was packed full of meat. There was actually no filler at all. Divine.
My husband ordered the crab crusted haddock. It was sitting on a bed of what looked like the same veggie mix that my slaw was made of, but it wasn’t mayonnaised, just the veggies lightly sautéed. There was also a little bed of rice and some sort of lemon butter sauce. He offered me a bite, but only begrudgingly. 🙂
Thankfully, the entree portions were not humongous and we still had room for dessert. They had a couple specials and we wanted them all, but we restrained ourselves. One choice was a peach blueberry cobbler. The other was a white chocolate pudding. The pudding came alone or as part of a trio of other pudding like desserts. We went with the trio. Of course. The other two were a marscapone cheesecake with berry topping and a dark chocolate pudding cake with whipped cream topping. These were all really, really tasty, but the white chocolate stole the show. Usually white chocolate anything is way too sweet and kind of bland, but this pudding was just right. The flavor was perfect.
We were stuffed, but knew we had some hiking ahead of us so didn’t feel one bit guilty about it. Those little dessert jars were not quite as big as they appear in these pictures. Really.
After lunch, we drove through the University of Virginia portion of Charlottesville and were really disappointed. I could tell that this town has the potential to be charming, but there was a lot of construction and a lot of traffic, so basically we just scooted on through toward Skyline Drive.
Just a short drive later, we were entering Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
We’ve driven on the Blue Ridge Parkway a lot, mostly around the Boone, NC to Asheville, NC area. We found it pretty cool that these two scenic highways are connected.
Upon entering Skyline Drive, we had to go through an entrance station and pay $25 for a week’s worth of access.
Interestingly, we hadn’t read anything about these fees in our preparations for the weekend. So now you know more than we did going in. There were other prices, like if you’re driving an RV, or just wanted one day of access, but we were just in a car and planned to be there three days, so that’s the only price I paid attention to. I do remember the ranger telling us we could buy the one year National Park Pass for $80. Since we’re planning a big trip to the National Parks out west next year, we considered this, but ultimately decided against it since those plans are definitely not yet set in stone. (If you have any tips for traveling to the western part of the US, please, please share in the comments. I am OVERWHELMED with planning that trip.)
After traveling along Skyline Drive a little while, we consulted our maps and took off for our first hike: Lewis Falls Trail in the Big Meadows Area. This first excursion was about a 2 1/2 mile round trip hike to view an 80 foot waterfall. The skies were looking a little ominous at this point, but we thought we could make it without getting drenched. My husband and I have a reputation for hiking, biking and camping in torrential downpours so if we were to get caught in a storm, it would simply be par for the course.
This hike was pretty and private, for sure. We passed two kids hiking the Appalachian Trail (the AT and the National Park trails intersect A LOT in this area) and one man coming back from where we were headed, but that was it. And we soon learned why. This 80 foot waterfall was almost entirely obscured by trees and other vegetation. Big bummer. This is why I recommend looking at Alltrails.com or another trail review site.
We did enjoy the hike and there were a couple pretty views. Plus, we needed to work off some of that lunch, but it was a little disappointing. You see that little bit of water over my right shoulder? That’s all we could see of the waterfall.
Following our hike, we enjoyed a leisurely drive, looking at the views (there are a lot of overlooks so plenty of opportunities for chilling out and gazing at the wonder of God’s creation). There are exactly three places to get on/off the 105 mile long Skyline Drive. We got on at the southern end and needed to get off around mile 33 to get to the town where we were staying, so we didn’t stop too often. And the rains did come, pretty heavy for about 15 minutes, but we were not in a hurry so just hung out at one of the visitor’s areas and waited.
The rains stopped, we drove on, dusk settled in, and we saw a couple different groups of cars stopped right on the road with their hazard lights on. We asked if they needed help and learned that they were watching bears. This was very exciting! Neither my husband nor I had ever seen a bear in real life, outside of a zoo, so we were thrilled about this prospect. Of course, seeing a bear from the comfort and safety of your car is a different story than seeing one from your hike in the woods. I was hoping for the former.
These bear peepers insisted they were watching a bear, but we never saw what they saw. But from that point on, our bear radar was on full alert. As my husband drove, I scanned the woods. It was definitely dusk, with lots of shadows, making it pretty difficult to spot a black bear, but before too long, I said I thought I saw one moving right along the shoulder. My driver slowed and sure enough, that dark shadow was a bear! We stopped, put on our hazard lights and stalked this bear for about five minutes. He was clearly out in search of his dinner. We even saw him very casually lift a pretty large rock to look underneath for some tasty bugs. So cool! Here he is…
We didn’t get great pictures from the car and didn’t want to get out and get closer so this will have to suffice.
Following our bear sighting, we drove on to the nearest exit and headed to dinner. It was already around 8:00 at night and we were finally ready for dinner.
The thing about traveling without kids is that our schedule is so much more flexible. Event though my kids are 10 and 13, they still need to eat on a pretty regular schedule with snacks in-between. And we try not to keep them up until midnight. So having the flexibility to eat when we want to eat and sleep when we want to sleep is one of the best things about going away without them. Sorry kids.
I had selected a spot for dinner in Luray, Virginia called The Speakeasy at the Mimslyn Inn. This is an historic inn with an interesting history and it was beautiful sitting up on the hill rising out of the sleepy valley of Luray. It’s important to note, that with food allergies/restrictions, it’s so important to do your research ahead of time. Even in this day of gluten free everything, many restaurants are not on board and even those that might offer gluten free foods don’t find preventing cross-contamination important. Read reviews, call ahead, check menus, basically do whatever you can to ensure you will have a safe place to eat during your vacation. Our days of winging it, in terms of eating out, are most assuredly over.
Back to dinner: Apparently, on Friday nights, there is always live music at The Speakeasy and this evening we enjoyed some pleasant, soothing jazz that was really just right for accompanying our dinner. This wasn’t the best meal we’ve ever had, but it was acceptable and they had a couple clearly marked gluten free items on the menu.
Chris ordered the meatloaf with green beans and mashed potatoes. Again, he shared a bite and it was very good.
I ordered the other gluten free entree, shrimp and grits. I was really in the mood for a salad so I ordered a side salad before my entree. It was basic, but good and of course, I forgot to take a picture. I don’t know why, but I keep forgetting that grits are corn and my body does not like corn. I guess I had vacation brain. Since coming home from this trip, I’ve been working on some paleo grits and will have that recipe for you soon.
After dinner, it was late and we were tired so we headed off to find our cabin. We stayed at A Perfect Escape cabins in Stanley, Virginia, which is a neighboring town to Luray. We rented this place sight unseen and without a personal review, but all the reviews I read online were very positive and it seemed to fit the bill of what we want for a weekend away. We were given cabin 8, which I think was probably the best. It was situated with a beautiful view and felt very private. Here are a few pictures of the cabin:
We enjoyed a nice, long soak in the hot tube with the jets soothing our tired muscles and enjoying the vast array of stars in the sky. And also marveling at all the plane traffic. Turns out we were very close to Washington, DC so figured that was the reason for all the plane traffic.
To keep this trip report from being too long, I’m going to cut it here, at the end of day one. I’ll post days two and three separately. I’ll leave you with a pretty view: