Rambling up and down the hilly streets of Lexington, I was quickly absorbed by its charm. The city combines history — most buildings carry an element of Civil War lore — with a modern vibe derived from art galleries and chic boutiques. Together, they combine to form a stylish small-town experience, which, for me, turned unexpectedly romantic as well. This month during the holidays, the streets will be decorated with wreaths, and in the evenings, they'll glow with lights, beckoning guests to warm themselves with a drink or a bowl of piping-hot soup in one of Lexington's many cozy, locally owned eateries.
For many, part of Lexington's intrinsic appeal is that it carries them back to their college days — as it did for my boyfriend, Jared, who took me to see his old haunts at the 140-acre Virginia Military Institute (540-464-7313 or vmi.edu). The best time to see VMI, built into a hill northeast of Lexington, is on Friday afternoon, when the entire corps of 1,555 cadets parades in full dress uniform at 3:30 p.m.
From VMI, we walked through Washington & Lee University (540-458-8400 or wlu.edu), a rolling campus of stately brick buildings. My favorite stop was Lee Chapel, the 1868 brick structure where Robert E. Lee is buried. The centerpiece inside is the "recumbent Lee" sculpture, designed by Edward Valentine. On the way out, you can fling a few pennies at the grave of Lee's horse, Traveler. The legend is that if students put money on Traveler's grave, good luck will accompany their studies.
Jared's favorite place for a snazzy dinner, The Red Hen (540-464-4401 or redhenlex.com) uses only local ingredients to devise creative entrées that change daily. Sadly, the Ren Hen was closed for renovations and in preparation for its new chef, Collin Donnelly. So we stepped into Jared's mainstay escape from VMI barracks food — The Bistro on Main (540-464-4888 or bistro-lexington.com). We began our dinner with a bowl of creamy squash soup and a tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella salad. With mustard walls, small wood tables and food served on white plates of varying shapes, the Bistro's stylish vibe is somewhat European. The highlight of our meal was a center-cut filet mignon, served atop mashed potatoes and asparagus, then served with a rich shallot- cognac cream sauce.
Just a few blocks from downtown, a hospitable woman who adopts VMI cadets each semester opened her spacious home to us for the weekend. But for future trips, we discovered Brierley Hill (800-422-4925 or brierleyhill.com), a charming inn just four minutes from downtown Lexington, run by husband-and-wife team Ken and Joyce Hawkins. Tucked away in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley, the inn has spectacular views, especially from the Magnolia Cottage ($379 per night), which has a private balcony. The inn's full breakfast includes a homemade entrée, bread and meat, as well as Joyce's specialty, a hot breakfast soup that mixes fresh and dried fruits with an edge of cinnamon.
I love that so much in Lexington is locally made — from our slice of rich chocolate cake, created by Dawn and Shane Gonsalves at their playfully decorated Sweet Treats Bakery (540-463-3611 or sweettreatsbakery.net), to the photographs I bought at Artists in Cahoots (540-464-1147 or artistsincahoots.com), which were taken by Lexington artist Gail MacLeod. We happened upon P.S. Pumpkinseeds (540-464-5007), a clothing and accessories boutique with a seemingly endless supply of plaid coats that I craved, as well as eclectic jewelry made in the area. The nearby Cocoa Mill Chocolate Company (540-464-8400 or cocoamill.com) makes fresh sweets daily. The shop's semisweet dark-chocolate truffle has an intensely chocolate edge, but it wasn't bitter, and the milk-chocolate raspberry truffle consists of a dense chocolate center bursting with fresh raspberry.
When the afternoon turned crisp, Jared decided we should grab views of Lexington from House Mountain (hikingupward.com). The base of the hiking path is 10 minutes from town, and then the trail weaves upward into the mountains, providing tantalizing glimpses of the Shenandoah Valley below. About an hour and a half later, we reached the Saddle, a flat piece of land between Big House Mountain to the west and Little House Mountain to the east. We decided to head east for what turned out to be an extremely strenuous hike to the ridge. I didn't realize it was going to be so steep, so halfway there, I found myself laughing at the situation as I pulled myself over rocks, looking for the bright-blue trail markings on trees. But the hike was worth it — and not only because of the spectacular views. From the ridge overlooking the fields and rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, Jared asked me to be his wife. I said yes — amused that he'd made me work for my sparkling ring.
On the way back to Richmond, there's a great place for gourmet pizza just off Interstate 81 when you hit Staunton. Shenandoah Pizza (540-213-0008 or shenandoahpizza.com) has cozy booths and walls decorated with the creations of local artists. It offers 25 pizza varieties; there are various sauces (among them red, sesame, white and pesto) on three kinds of homemade crust (regular, wheat and sunflower wheat). We tried the Umbau, which burst with flavor, mixing artichoke hearts, garlic, red onion, roasted red peppers, black olives, and mozzarella and feta cheeses.