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Photo by Brian M. Powell
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Photo courtesy Joshu Wilton House
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Photo courtesy The Little Grill
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Photo courtesy Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
Nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg offers visitors the simple charms of a small city accompanied by the scholarly air that comes from being the home to James Madison and Eastern Mennonite universities. Located just west of Richmond, about an hour past the Afton Mountain summit, the college town is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, a short drive from George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park, and a treasure for travelers seeking an escape from city life.
Take a peek at the local scene at The Little Grill ( 540-434-3594 or littlegrillcollective.com ), a worker-owned collective restaurant in Harrisonburg's North End. What the 600-square-foot seating area lacks in space, it makes up for in character — a cruiser bicycle, a hula hoop and a portrait of John F. Kennedy are just a few of the decorations scattered throughout the eatery. The vegetarian-friendly menu offers meals made from scratch with sustainable, locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant is also a popular spot for traveling acoustic acts, hosting live music most Friday nights and an open-mic night on Thursdays where many local bands, including Old Crow Medicine Show, got their start. Saturday and Sunday mornings are always bustling, with diners ordering the tofu scrambler, "groovy gravy" or the pancake of the month with real maple syrup.
Down the street at Union Station Restaurant and Bar ( 540-437-0042 or unionstationdowntown.com ), meals come with a side of history. The former railway stop opened as a bar and restaurant in 2010. Historic photos from downtown Harrisonburg abound; once seated, diners receive a printed brochure that shares the history of the building captured in the picture at their booth, from the original Rockingham Memorial Hospital to a small airport that once operated seven blocks from downtown in the '40s.
Book a room at the Joshua Wilton House ( 540-434-4464 or joshuawilton.com ), the elegantly restored Victorian that's walking distance to Harrisonburg's downtown attractions and which features a top-notch restaurant. A portrait of the bed-and-breakfast's namesake greets guests upon arrival in the front foyer. Wilton hired craftsmen from all over the country to construct his family's home in 1888, not sparing any detail, from hand-carved mantels to faux-marble slate fireplaces. Today, three close friends from JMU own the inn — Ann Marie Coe, Mark Newsome and Sean Pugh. For a cozy winter stay, ask for Room Two, the only guest room with a wood-burning fireplace. Room Four, sometimes called the honeymoon suite, features a lace-draped canopy bed and a turret sitting area with a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains shrouding the Main Street skyline. Included in the room rate is a seasonal gourmet breakfast made with ingredients from local farms.
For a taste of home, head downtown to Capital Ale House ( 540-564-2537 or capitalalehouse.com ). The Richmond-based restaurant chain recently opened its newest location in the middle of Harrisonburg's court square.
On Sunday afternoons, you'll find locals gathered at the bar and on the patio of the Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine ( 540-432-6453 or bluenileva.com ) for all-day dollar-drink deals. The specials include Bloody Marys made with Wat sauce, a spicy Ethiopian marinara, and sparkling cocktail drinks such as mimosas and Bellinis. The owners, Engdawork Arefaine and Hamelmal Shiferaw, emigrated to the Shenandoah Valley in 1982, after fleeing a civil war. The basement of the restaurant, opened in 2008, hosts live music most nights of the week.
A 30-minute drive east of town is the Massanutten Resort ( 540-289-9441 or massresort.com ), a four-season mountain getaway offering 70 acres for skiing and snowboarding, an indoor/outdoor water park, an 18-hole golf course, and more. After an active afternoon on the slopes, relax at the spa with a Massanutten Signature Massage, during which the most requested techniques, Swedish and deep tissue, are combined into an hour-long relaxation session that features aromatherapy, heated towels and an olive-oil body balm.
If you prefer a quiet mountaintop, drive west to Reddish Knob, one of the highest peaks in Virginia, rising 4,397 feet. At the top, you'll enjoy a spectacular 360-degree view looking out into West Virginia and east into Virginia. In the winter months, temperatures typically dip into the 40s, so if you go, wear layers.
Photo courtesy Green Valley Book Fair
An outlet bookstore housed in an airplane hangar, the Green Valley Book Fair ( 540-434-0309 or gvbookfair.com ) features 500,000 new books discounted 60 percent to 90 percent off publisher's retail and has an extensive range of offerings, including cookbooks, audio, large print and much more. In the winter, it's open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Nov. 25 through Dec. 17.