Photo courtesy of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Autumn’s Aura

Adventure Awaits in Virginia’s Blue Ridge

By Michael J. Solender

With its striking seasonal colors, fall is an optimal time to load up the car and head for Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Exploring the city of Roanoke, the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway and the Primland resort offer everything from the perfect romantic weekend getaway to an easy-to-orchestrate multigenerational excursion.

Towering above the city on Mill Mountain is the city’s storied landmark, the Roanoke Star.
Roanoke Valley Greenway Trails are multiuse paths that attract walkers, runners and cyclists.

‘Star City’

A 3.5-hour drive from Ballantyne, Mill Mountain Park provides the Roanoke region’s best views and reveals how the city earned its sparkly nickname, “Star City of the South.” At Mill Mountain Park, more than 560 acres provide miles of accessible hiking trails just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, less than 20 minutes from downtown Roanoke.

Towering above the city on Mill Mountain is the city’s storied landmark, the Roanoke Star. Erected in 1949 as a temporary Christmas decoration, the massive structure is the largest free-standing, human-made, illuminated star in the world, according to Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Nearly 90-feet tall, the star shines nightly, lit by 2,000 feet of neon tubing. An overlook area affords views of the Roanoke Valley and close-by peaks such as McAfee Knob.

A short walk from the overlook leads to Mill Mountain Zoo, a small park with special appeal for youngsters. They can climb aboard the “Zoo-Choo” miniature train that loops around the park and provides views of snow leopards, red pandas, Indian crested porcupines and other critters.

Cyclists enjoy the Roanoke Valley Greenway Trails, an interconnected series of multiuse paths that run along the Roanoke River and throughout architecturally intriguing neighborhoods such as Grandin Village. Grandin is home to acclaimed Black

Dog Salvage, whose “Salvage Dawgs” television show appears on the DIY Network and showcases reclaimed architectural and industrial fixtures, antique furnishings and what-nots. Black Dog Salvage’s 44,000-square-foot location is one giant treasure hunt and an inspired place to browse.

Cyclists, meanwhile, can take their bikes on tour or let Roanoke Mountain Adventures provide the wheels. In addition to bicycles and mountain bikes, the outfitters can supply kayaks, canoes and paddleboards for water adventures.

Historic Downtown

Urban adventurers find Roanoke’s historic downtown an explorer’s paradise. Shoppers love to stroll the City Market, one of the oldest farmers markets in the country. A host of specialty shops ringing the compact district include Eli’s Provisions, a Virginia-focused purveyor of gourmet foods, and chocolatepaper, which sells stationery, gifts and chocolates.

Tucked within 12,000 acres of forested nature preserve is a remarkable resort, Primland.
Shopping venues are popular in downtown Roanoke.
Hotel Roanoke was originally built in 1892.
The design of the Taubman Museum of Art evokes Roanoke's natural surroundings.

Center in the Square houses several regional arts and educational organizations under one roof. Kids of all ages enjoy the buzzy Pinball Museum, one of the finest collections of vintage pinball machines in the country. More than 60 machines, some dating back to the 1930s, stand waiting to be conquered. Upstairs, the Science Museum of Western Virginia has interactive exhibits — such as a touch-tank tide pool and green-screen broadcast station — that offer hands-on learning for kids.

Projected to open by the end of 2017, the Don and Barbara Smith Children’s Museum of Western Virginia — nicknamed “Kids Square”— will be the most recent addition to Center in the Square. Geared for the entire family, exhibits will encourage exercise, “imagination” play, dexterity development, socialization and creativity.

Downtown Roanoke’s crown jewel, the Taubman Museum of Art is a world-class architectural gem showcasing outstanding American works. The building is as much a piece of art as the John Singer Sargent, Romare Bearden and Judith Leiber works within it. Designed by Randall Stout, the museum opened in 2008. Its sharply rising angled atrium and uneven rooftop suggest the mountains near the city, and the sweeping curves of the exterior represent the rushing river nearby.

City’s Backstory

Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett spent his elementary-school years in Roanoke when his father was on the faculty at nearby Hollins University. “Roanoke is a beautiful old industrial city tied to the development of the Norfolk & Western Railway,” he says. “I get back occasionally and love that the city is so accessible and easy to walk around.”

He particularly enjoys the Virginia Museum of Transportation downtown, saying it’s “fun to visit and provides a great backstory to the city’s development.”

Another notable site is the Hotel Roanoke, originally built in 1892 by Norfolk & Western. The hotel played such a significant role in the city’s history that the citizenry insisted on its reopening through a “Renew Roanoke” campaign in 1992. Today, the hotel is owned by Virginia Tech and restored to its former glory — and once again “the place to stay,” according to Hanchett.

Dining Diversity

From comfort breakfasts at Scratch Biscuit Company in Grandin Village to Bohemian-American pub-grub at Billy’s in historic downtown, Roanoke eateries please a wide variety of palates.

Traditionalists love the elegance, style and nuanced menu at Hotel Roanoke’s Regency Room. Peanut soup, old-fashioned spoon bread and rich crab cakes are among the regionally inspired stalwarts.

The Pinball Museum is in Roanoke's Center in the Square.

Authentic Indian specialties like masala dosa and gobi manchurian are on the menu at Taaza Indian Cuisine in Grandin. “Taaza,” which means “fresh” in the Urdu language spoken in parts of India, more than lives up to its name.

Chef Aaron Deal brings farm to fork at River and Rail, one of the hottest restaurants in Roanoke. Dishes like Crispy Virginia Oyster Lettuce Wraps show just how good simple, well-executed selections can be. A spicy remoulade accents a perfectly fried oyster wrapped with just-picked lettuce, creating heaven on the plate at this relaxed bistro.



One of the most scenic stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the 71 miles from Roanoke to Meadows of the Dan, Virginia, to the southwest. Tucked within 12,000 acres of forested nature preserve is a remarkable resort, Primland.

Initially developed as a hunting preserve, Primland has evolved into an outstanding adventure destination, replete with spa, fine dining and mountain-chic accommodations. That Primland offers so many recreational opportunities on its own property makes it unusual. Golf, fly-fishing, archery, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and equestrian pursuits are available for guests and the public to enjoy.

Black Dog Salvage is an impressive 44,000 square feet.
The lunch buffet is but one of the delights at Taaza Indian Cuisine.
The lunch buffet is but one of the delights at Taaza Indian Cuisine. Photo courtesy of Taaza

Star gazers thrill at Primland’s Observatory Dome featuring a Celestron CGE Pro 1400 telescope, which provides views of objects beyond Earth’s solar system. Dine at the casual 19th Pub or enjoy brunch, lunch or dinner at Elements, Primland’s fine-dining restaurant.

Throughout the region, with spectacular autumn hues matched only by discovery at every turn, special vacation memories are waiting to be made in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.