Fall is a great time to squeeze in one last long weekend at the beach or schedule a week-long road trip to the mountains to take in autumn’s color. What’s it like to travel these days? You’ll likely encounter businesses that are adhering to CDC and government guidelines. Additionally, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be treated as treasured guests by the hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions you visit.
At the end of 2019, I arranged an extensive road trip through Virginia for the spring of 2020, taking me on assignment for several weeks. There were grandiose plans to visit important historical sights, fine restaurants and new breweries. I planned to stay at some of the most wonderful accommodations the Old Dominion could offer. But, Covid happened … and the plans crumbled away.
As the spring warmed its way into June and towns on the western edge of Virginia moved into their reopening stages, I realized I could salvage a bit of the trip and reached out to the folks at the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association for guidance on how to navigate the area amidst these pandemic conditions. What I found was welcoming and thankful communities and businesses happy to see a family of travelers now more than ever.
Our miniature adventure began in Staunton, a city of 24,000 in the shadow of the mighty Appalachian Mountains. We weren’t here for long, but we did manage to grab cheeseburgers and ice cream at Wright’s Dairy-Rite – a throwback drive-in diner screaming of the 1950s – and a tour the Frontier Culture Museum.
Wright’s was our first experience with how COVID-19 was forcing restaurants to limit seating, as indoor dining had just been given the green light the week before we arrived. (The western half of Virginia seemed to run about two weeks ahead of Lancaster County when it came to the lifting of stay-at-home orders.) But, the biggest impact from Covid we saw was the sheer lack of a crowd at the Frontier Culture Museum. I would safely bet we were the only family to tour the facility that day. We were alone to enjoy the facility by ourselves and relished the luxury of the undivided attention from our tour guides.
The Frontier Culture Museum presents Old World colonial settlers left behind through a living history. The buildings on the museum’s grounds represent a 1700’s West African farm, 1600’s English farm, 1700’s Irish Forge and Farmhouse and 1700’s German farm structures. All were relocated across the Atlantic to this museum just outside of downtown Staunton.
The museum tells the story of the thousands of people who migrated, some unwillingly, to colonial America and shows how they became farmers and rural craftsmen in the drastic and changing conditions of the wild colonial west. Three American farmhouses represent the 1740s, 1820s and 1850s and contrast the lives of native people of North America. The still-functioning Mount Tabor Log Church on the museum grounds is one of the oldest Black churches in the country, dating back to 1850. Frontiermuseum.org.
After leaving Staunton, we traveled north on Skyline Drive, a well-paved, 105-mile stretch of roadway with postcard views running along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Shenandoah National Park. It is slower than taking Route 81, but is worth it because of the scenery. Exiting Skyline Drive in Luray, our next destination was easy to find.
Billboards for Luray Caverns line Route 81, both north and southbound, and the attraction cannot be missed, especially now that Covid has dealt them a new way to do things. We got to the caverns only a few days after reopening and I could tell by the size of the parking lot and the space to queue visitors that the sparse attendance was an anomaly.
“The one major change we made was how we used to have 40 to 50 people go through with a tour guide. The new way is quite a success. We’ve rebranded it as a nature walk through one of the largest cavern systems in the world,” said John Shaffer, Director of Marketing and Sales at Luray Caverns, who I recently caught up with by phone. “It was a pretty dramatic change for us, but the public has received it well.”
Lighted, paved walkways lead visitors through the caverns, billed as Geology’s Hall of Fame, and numbered stops coincide with a newly printed pamphlet describing the features inside some of the cathedral-sized rooms with 10-story high ceilings.
Luray Caverns, like many attractions, restaurants, and shopping spaces I encountered on my trip, has gone beyond adhering to state and federal guidelines. The attraction has implemented contact-free ticketing and special employee training. I felt completely safe and comfortable touring the caverns masked and at my own pace. Luraycaverns.com.
After spending the better part of a day exploring and traveling, we were ready to check into a hotel, so we headed down Route 81 to Harrisonburg, where we would spend the remainder of our time discovering shops, many great restaurants and a lavender farm.
There is something to be said about a brand-new hotel to make a traveler feel completely at ease and at home, especially in a pandemic. The Hotel Madison had barely been open when Covid forced it to close. Like everywhere else, the hotel implemented heightened care for safety and health standards to reopen in the spring. We were happy to be one of its “first” occupants. It was a little bizarre being one of only a few people walking around a beautiful hotel built for hundreds, but we were treated like royalty. Our room at the Hotel Madison was well-appointed, clean, modern and gave us downtown views. Hotelmadison.com.
The highways, hotels and attractions are not as empty today as they were in June. It was all a bit magical. We felt appreciated, empathetic and respectful of our presence in a place other people call home. Covid will not destroy travel but it will change how many – including me – experience it with a heightened sense of personal responsibility. While we are eager for things to get “back to normal,” I also hope the appreciation, humility and kindness we have learned over this unique time are never forgotten.
Off-The-Radar “Must-Stop” Travel Spots in The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
Spelunker’s: This little burger and frozen custard joint at the head of Skyline Drive in Front Royal is unassuming, but it has the best burgers – no exaggeration! We make this place a stop every time we are even close. Spelunker’s, 116 South St., Front Royal, VA.
Jon Henry General Store: Let the handwritten signs draw you into the old stone building in New Market and feast on their eclectic selection of everything from brooms, CBD and vintage license plates to puzzles. Jon Henry General Store, 9383 N. Congress St., New Market, VA.
Kathy’s: A trip to Staunton is not complete without a trip to Kathy’s for breakfast. I always get the pancakes. If you are looking for scrapple on the menu, they call it “pon hoss” down here. Kathy’s, 705 Greenville Ave., Staunton, VA.