Deep roots in cool boots: A guide to Virginia, USA
By Helen Wright
From a quick online search, the state of Virginia seemed to be one of firsts. Birthplace of the first ever President of the United States (George Washington), the first permanent English settlement founded by John Smith and the first state to celebrate Thanksgiving – although there is a small internal dispute about that with Plymouth, Massachusetts, but we’ll gloss over that for now. Certainly, for me, having spent the week exploring Virginia, it was the first time I came away really thinking that for all the big, brash states of America I have been to, this surprising southern charmer is a true hidden gem – at least for Brits, anyway. This guide to Virginia, USA covers the highlights of a diverse state that has a tale to tell and lots to shout about
A guide to Virginia, USA
If you are at all interested in America and its story, Virginia is steeped in history. Just stepping out onto the cobbled streets of its capital, Richmond, tells you that this place goes way back. That’s not to say the narrative isn’t a dark one. Richmond, Virginia was the origin of slavery in the USA with the now household phrase, ‘sold down the river’, originating from the practice of selling slaves in the city and sending them by boat on the James River to the mercy of wealthy plantation owners in the south. You can follow the Richmond Slave Trail, a self-guided walking tour that chronicles the history of the slave trade with informative placards at 17 key stops. Despite the glum backstory, the three-mile walk is also beautiful in parts with spots along the river to kayak, fish and cycle.
A key spot for history buffs is The White House of the Confederacy – the centre of political goings-on during the civil war. This elegant antebellum house has been carefully restored to its wartime appearance and tours are given throughout the day. The Black History and Cultural Center is another place to follow the plight of slaves in the USA and their journey to emancipation.
Local charm is a recipe for success
I often think one of the best ways to get the feel of somewhere new is to lace up your walking shoes and set about it on foot. Handily, since pounding the pavements also makes you hungry – step forward the Real Richmond Food Tour – which came highly recommended. Maureen Egan, a Richmond local and resident foodie, hosts informal tours which are packed with personality (and calories) and tells the history of the area in digestible, bite-sized portions (see what I did there?)
We joined her tour in the area of Church Hill, starting with a panoramic view of the James River, which defied its mean history by glowing serenely in the sun and looking like the opening scene from a Nicholas Sparks’ adaptation. Maureen is quirky, personable and we soon realised that with her wealth of knowledge on Richmond this wasn’t just a tour about food. From pop-ups to presidents, she really knows her stuff.
Over the course of an afternoon we covered The Roosevelt, a tiny but insanely popular restaurant that celebrates local Virginia wine as well as being home to the celebrated ‘Tuesday fried chicken’, carb loaded at Dutch & Company, Sub Rosa Bakery and the Proper Pie Co. followed by ample opportunities to satisfy a sugar craving with a visit to WPA Bakery and Chocolates By Kelly. Our favourite stops were probably scoffing meatballs at Anthony’s on the Hill and hipster joint, The Dog & Pig Show, which managed to serve the first Shrimp and Grits I have ever enjoyed (Virginia really is a state of firsts!). Astonishingly, the tour only covered a 1.5-mile area but local anecdotes, historical references and a delicious tapas of treats gave us plenty to digest.
The Church Hill district is also home to an Edgar Allan Poe Museum which is a delight for literary geeks like me. Plus, the museum itself is housed within Richmond’s oldest building. The area is picture perfect for a wander around and one of the sweetest things we saw on our tour were the little community book exchanges called ‘The Little Free Library’ hidden around the neighbourhood.
If foodie is your thing, I have to say the choice here of farm-to-table restaurants, independent eateries and cool pop-ups by young chefs with fresh ideas blew me away. I have never been so simultaneously full and yet still hungry for more.
If you still have room for a snack, my other favourite culinary stop was The Daily Kitchen and Bar in Carytown. When we stepped in, the bi-fold doors were swung open, the sun was shining and the patio was buzzing with atmosphere. This cool restaurant, which is mostly popular with locals, is proudly environmentally friendly, using organic, local and sustainable ingredients as much as possible. There is also a generous selection of vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and paleo menu items. For me, the tuna burrito bowl was the winning dish.
The colourful streets of Carytown made for a perfect afternoon wandering around quirky shops and vintage stores. The support of local, homegrown talent is admirable with over 300 local businesses in residence including an eclectic mix of shops, independent restaurants, bars and cafes. The strip – which can’t be any longer than a mile – is decorated by rainbow buildings, street vendors, buskers and friendly locals. We even made friends with this guy, who was out and about with his human, while we were having an alfresco beer.
If you have time (and the weather is a bit iffy), aim to see a movie for $4 at the Byrd Theatre, which has been standing for 90 years this year. The cinema is kitsch 20s architecture at its most beautiful and largely unchanged since it opened in 1928. Marbled walls, gold leaf arches and an 18-foot crystal chandelier suspended over the atrium will take you back to a decedent age. Grab a bag of retro popcorn and enjoy the opportunity to experience a part of Richmond history first hand.
A guide to Virginia, USA
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The coastal city of Norfolk had a more residential feel about it. Virginia Beach, around a 30 minute drive from the city, is fantastically wide, uncrowded and family-friendly. From what we saw it was more sandcastles and ice cream cones than parties ‘til dawn, but along the oceanfront there were more than a few places to grab a pint and some quality seafood. Think craft beer and fish houses with a flip-flop vibe rather than the pretentious ‘seaview’ restaurants you often find in popular tourist destinations. The Virginia Zoo is also a fab family attraction. The 53-acre grounds are home to tigers, kangaroos, red pandas and giraffes to name a few.
You can’t beat the southern states of the USA for their food, which always seems to have a little bit of love stirred in. Like Richmond, Norfolk was also ticking all the culinary boxes but our favourite finds here tended to be a lot more spread out so having a car to get from place to place is a huge bonus.
Top marks went to an unassuming lunch joint called Green House Kitchen, which we stumbled into by chance, got the last table and were served a surprise contender for the best meal of our trip! Fresh foods, hearty soup and imaginative salads are the house specials. At this point we had consumed our fair share of gluttonous delights so a colourful layered salad with yellow courgette, goats cheese, butternut squash, carrots, and cranberries served with grilled greens was like healthy heaven on a plate.
For dinner, we hit the No Frill Bar and Grill, a really cute local joint in the Ghent area of Norfolk. It was packed and we had to wait for a table (I recommend making a reservation) but it was worth it. Plus, it gave us time to build up an appetite and we needed it! Diet firmly out of the window now, it had to be the (self-titled) Famous Meatloaf, followed by an ice-cream cookie sandwich you really had to see to believe…and devastatingly no, I couldn’t finish the whole thing.
For breakfast, the absolutely tiny Handsome Biscuit (which is more car park than restaurant) came highly recommended and gave a taste of my first ever sweet-potato biscuit sandwich. Sounds weird; looked amazing; tasted even better. And, I mean, just the name ‘brisket biscuit’ still makes my mouth water.
The river is this city’s big tourist trade and the water’s edge is a great place to walk and cycle. Take a cruise on the American Rover, named after it’s instagrammable sails. The boat trip departs from Waterside Marina on the Downtown Norfolk Waterfront and provides a great view of the city as well as the USS naval ships and destroyers docked in the harbor, plus an interesting commentary about the history of Norfolk.
Finally, I couldn’t miss this piece of pop culture from my guide to Virginia. One of my favourite films – Dirty Dancing – was filmed at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, Virginia, which doubled as the fictional Kellerman’s resort. Even now, superfans can opt for the “Dirty Dancing Package” which includes a weekend of activities, ranging from group dance lessons to 50s karaoke. ‘Be My Baby’ anyone? Be still my beating heart, as the lodge also has a Patrick Swayze memorial to remember the film’s lead hunk who died from pancreatic cancer in 2009. I should have opened with that, huh?
Heading home I reflected on how this state willingly shines a light on its dark history yet is proud to celebrate its bright future. Richmond in particular is no carbon-copy city, unidentifiable from the rest. Here, they know the real appeal lies in the people – past and present – and investing in it’s own homegrown soul has paid off. More importantly, it’s a reason to go (and for me a reason to go back). When looking for somewhere different to visit in the USA, Virgina stands out for all the right reasons. The official slogan is, somewhat oddly, ‘Virginia is for lovers’ but they were right – I did love it. I think anyone would.
For more information on Virginia and the Capital Region visit capitalregionusa.co.uk
WHERE WE STAYED:
Courtyard by Marriott
1320 E Cary Street
Richmond, VA 23219