Despite possessing dazzling natural beauty, heaps of talent and a wealth of stories to tell, Southwest Virginia has a bit of an image problem when it comes to attracting tourists. It’s not on travelers’ radar as a destination like, say, Nashville, Tennessee, for music, or Colorado and even neighboring West Virginia for outdoor adventures. But that’s starting to change through initiatives like the Crooked Road Music Trail and the ’Round the Mountain artisan network.
The quickest route to Abingdon, which was the base for our visit, is probably via Interstates 64 and 81. (Taking U.S. 360 and 460 to Roanoke and then catching the interstate is also an option.) It takes about 4 1/2 hours, so while navigating among all the tractor-trailers, there’s plenty of time to watch the landscape transition to hilly pastures with horses and grazing cattle, weathered barns and mountain ranges.
Where to Stay
For atmosphere and charm, it’s hard to beat the Martha Washington Hotel and Spa in Abingdon. Built by Gen. Francis Preston as a family residence in 1832, it became a college for women, and was a training site and hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War before its transition to a hotel in 1935. Victorian and Jazz Age-era photos and memorabilia serve as reminders of the building’s history. We particularly enjoyed the saltwater swimming pool and outdoor whirlpools, and, if you’re so inclined, they offer a complimentary glass of port each evening in the library.
A good place to start is the Heartwood center. Right off Interstate 81 just south of town, the 3-year-old facility (built at a cost of $17 million) is a showcase for cultural assets from the 19-county region between Franklin County and the Cumberland Gap; you'll find brochures and videos along with locally made musical instruments, quilts, pottery, glassware, food and wine. Heartwood holds regular jam sessions and performances, as well as artisan demonstrations. The café offers a view of Virginia’s two highest mountain peaks. The center is also the headquarters for the ’Round the Mountain network of more than 550 artisan stops and the Crooked Road Music Trail, a 333-mile route through Southwest Virginia that includes nine major venues, more than 60 affiliated venues and festivals, and 25-plus wayside stops, where you can tune your radio to hear five-minute recordings about a site’s musical heritage.
For dinner, try the small, intimate 128 Pecan opened by chef Jack Barrow in 2012. After we raved about the fried oyster special, Barrow came out and chatted with us as we finished our chocolate baklava dessert with locally roasted coffee from Zazzy’Z Coffee House and Roastery, located just a few blocks away.
The Barter Theatre, right across the street from “The Martha,” allowed patrons to pay for tickets with vegetables, dairy products and livestock when it opened during the Great Depression in 1933. The theater happened to be closed for the week when we visited in the spring, but this summer, there are as many as five shows a day. Through early August, plays include The Wizard of Oz, Hollywood Confidential, Educating Rita, Welcome Back to Ivy Gap, A Facility for Living and Winnie-the-Pooh.
A Day in Bristol
Efforts to develop a “creative economy” in a region plagued by declines in mining, manufacturing and agriculture are bearing fruit in Bristol (about 16 miles south of Abingdon), where the downtown is far more lively than it was five to 10 years ago. There are new shops, loft apartments, restaurants and art galleries.
Among those is 606 State Street Gallery, a 4-year-old co-op run by about 20 artists in a restored 1890 building that once housed a dry-goods wholesaler. Photographer and frame-maker Michael Waddell was on site when we stopped by, and he talked about changes in Bristol while showing us some of his railroad-themed work. “All the famous artists had their period,” he says. “I’m in my train period right now.”
A self-guided walking tour map points out places of interest on and around State Street, the center of downtown Bristol, where you can travel between Virginia and Tennessee just by crossing the street. Among them are the location of the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions, as well as markers celebrating participants such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter and Stoneman families.
Legend has it that Hank Williams was last seen at the Burger Bar before he died in 1953, at age 29, from heart failure in the backseat of his Cadillac. Fittingly, there are tributes to the country music icon at the 1942 landmark on Piedmont Avenue, where we stopped for cheeseburgers and fries. It’s now owned by Joe and Kayla Deel, who bought the diner in 2013 and expanded it into the building next door.
Just for fun, we also stopped by the Bristol Motor Speedway to have a look at “the world’s fastest half-mile,” a track with room for about 160,000 fans, making it one of the country’s largest sports venues. You can experience the high-banked turns yourself by touring the track for $5. In addition to holding NASCAR races (the next race week is Aug. 20-23), the speedway will be converted temporarily to a football stadium for the Sept. 10, 2016, “Battle at Bristol” between Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee.
The Great Outdoors
Before heading back to Richmond, we checked out the view from Whitetop Mountain, the second-highest peak in Virginia at 5,520 feet, off U.S. 58 in Grayson County. It’s possible to drive to the top via a national forest road, but be warned: It’s a bumpy ride, best suited to a four-wheel drive vehicle. We also took a detour to Whitetop Station, a former railroad stop that serves as a rest area near the eastern end of the Virginia Creeper Trail — a 34-mile hiking, biking and horseback pathway between Abingdon and the Virginia-North Carolina state line. Bike rentals and shuttles are available in Abingdon and Damascus. Wanting to make the most of our last day in Southwest Virginia, we headed east on scenic, curvy U.S. 58 before picking up Interstate 77 and then I-81, arriving home around midnight — tired but soothed by old-time music and the memory of mountain vistas.