by Clay Barbour and Ben Swenson
It’s been a rough year, no one can argue with that. But we all hope 2021 brings sunnier skies and more chances to enjoy this great country. With that in mind – and fingers very much crossed – we present to you the 2021 Distinction Road Trip, a guide to 11 getaways guaranteed to cure cabin fever, each a modest drive from Tidewater.
Remember, many places are reopening on their own schedule or offering modified services because of the coronavirus pandemic. Be sure to double-check websites and social media for COVID-19 related updates and regulations.
A town of artists, outdoor wonders and food
Visitors wander around Abingdon in spandex or their Sunday best, ready to roll a smooth 34 miles downhill on the Virginia Creeper Trail or to spend an evening mesmerized by a stage show at Barter Theatre. Whether by chance or design, this little mountain town of 8,000, nestled in the southwest corner of the state, has become a center of Appalachian culture, with crafts and farm-to-table food, historic museums and mountain music.
IF YOU GO:
Visit the Barter Theatre. The venue, which draws 165,000 a year, was conceived during the Depression as a place where people could “barter ham for Hamlet” and is now a must-see on any trip to the region.
Stay in history at The Martha Washington Inn & Spa. Built as a grand manse by a general from the War of 1812, it became a pricey finishing school for girls, then a Civil War hospital, then a space that housed actors from the Barter. It is now a luxury hotel.
Eat at The Tavern, with its moss-covered roof and low, wood-beamed ceilings, where martinis are served in a chalice. French King Louis Philippe stopped here, as did President Andrew Jackson. A good 80 percent of the furnishings are original, so it’s possible that today’s guests are gracing the same bar stools as those historic figures.
Venture out to nearby wonders like the eroded limestone of the Channels Natural Area Preserve, the wild ponies of Grayson Highlands State Park, and Hidden Valley Lake, high up at 3,500 feet.
Educate yourself at the William King Museum of Art, a climate-controlled, secure museum with three galleries, one devoted to traveling shows from all over the country, one to contemporary regional artists, and one to traditional Appalachian art.
Drive from Norfolk: 6 hours
For more info: VisitAbingdonVirginia.com
A Victorian marvel in the Blue Ridge
Staunton is an architectural gem, with Victorian flourishes next to Spanish tiles next to Italianate archways. Back before West Virginia split off during the Civil War, it was a bustling town at a curve on the rail line. These days, it is a gorgeous foothill destination that offers everything from fine dining to outdoor adventures to classical music and theater.
IF YOU GO:
Check out the American Shakespeare Center, where a professional troupe performs year-round in a re-creation of the original Blackfriars Playhouse.
Hungry? Good, because this is a foodie town, with restaurants offering inventive tacos, traditional Thai, Salvadoran pupusas, Vietnamese phô and Indian vindaloos. But you have to try The Shack, helmed by James Beard-nominated chef Ian Boden, and LUNdCH, the tiny storefront eatery led by chef Mike Lund, who honed his skills at the five-star Inn at Little Washington.
Thirsty? Wineries, distilleries and breweries are all in close proximity. The visitors bureau has even created a beer passport.
Spending the night? Half a mile from downtown is The Blackburn Inn and Conference Center, designed by Thomas Blackburn, who trained under Thomas Jefferson.
Want to sightsee? It’s a short drive to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park, with trails and waterfalls, wildlife and scenic overlooks.
Drive from Norfolk: 4 hours
For more info: VisitStaunton.com
Star City of the South
At one point in its history, Roanoke was expected to become a big city. Instead, it has matured into a pleasantly middle-sized town with a bounty of offerings for anyone looking to get away. The adventurous eater can find everything here, but the city is also a place of art, leisure and escape. Looking for live music and a strong cocktail? Roanoke has it. Looking for a hike and a view? It has that, too. No wonder the city is a star.
IF YOU GO:
Indulge yourself at the Texas Tavern, an iconic local restaurant that is best known for its bowls of chili and onions and its hot dogs slathered in chili and cheese.
Get fancy at Lucky, a friendly upscale restaurant where you can order The Cube, a glass of Evan Williams small-batch bourbon with a perfect two-inch cube of frozen clove, gingerroot and magic spices. As the ice melts, the flavor morphs.
Take in some culture at the O. Winston Link Museum, where you can find the eponymous
photographer’s famous mid-century photos, which captured the demise of the steam rail era – the faces gritty, the eyes earnest.
Have fun at the Center in the Square, home to six museums and the Mill Mountain Theatre.
Stay at the historic Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, a Tudor Revival structure built with railway money in 1882. It is now part of the Hilton family of hotels, and it is still the preferred lodging of the well-heeled.
Visit Explore Park, with its yurts and tiny-house cabins; primitive camping and river tubing; and a tree-top ropes course of ziplining and tight-rope walking, tunnel clambering and giant, branch-high net trampoline full of beach balls bouncing. Throw in a couple of kids and you have instant glee.
Drive from Norfolk: 4.5 hours
For more info: VisitRoanoke.com
The hills are alive with culture
Charlottesville is not just a gateway to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s a destination in its own right. It’s both historic, as the hometown of two U.S. presidents, and thoroughly modern, with all the attractions and amenities that active and well-educated residents demand. Best of all, they welcome visitors to share in the culture and food that make Charlottesville so hip.
IF YOU GO:
Immerse yourself in all things Thomas Jefferson with a trip up the mountain to his home, Monticello. If you’re pressed for time, you can at least get an appreciation for his passion for architecture at the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
Be sure to hit the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian, outdoor mall in the heart of the city, which includes more than a hundred shops and restaurants.
Thirsty? Grab a drink at Three Notch’d Craft Kitchen & Brewery or look around for quirky little spots, like The Alley Light, a speakeasy-inspired joint just off the Downtown Mall.
The countryside surrounding Charlottesville is home to some of the commonwealth’s premier vineyards and wineries, and there are several companies based in town that will gladly guide you on a wine-fueled tour of the best.
Distance from Norfolk: 3 hours
More information: VisitCharlottesville.org
Think happy and scrappy, not tourist-trappy
History may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love, but it’s not the only thing you’ll encounter in Pennsylvania’s largest city. That’s because waves of immigrants and innovators have transformed Philly into a culinary, cultural and creative mecca.
IF YOU GO:
In Downtown Philly you’ll find the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution came to life. Nearby are other heritage attractions, such as the Museum of the American Revolution and the U.S. Mint, which makes those coins that jangle in your pockets.
If you’d rather save the civics lesson for another time, there’s ample culture waiting in numerous other institutions, such as the Rodin Museum, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you can run up the stairs like Rocky and pose beside his statue.
If the outdoors is your thing, Philly’s got you covered. The Schuylkill River Trail, a 30-mile paved pedestrian and bicycling path, is part of a network of some 300 miles of connected trails around Greater Philadelphia.
Philly has a vibrant culinary scene – Travel + Leisure magazine called it the best food city on the East Coast. Restaurants draw on worldwide influences, among them Italian, Vietnamese and Cuban. Of course, with all that global fare at your disposal, don’t forget to try the venerable, old Philly cheesesteak.
Distance from Norfolk: 5 hours
More info: VisitPhilly.com
More than just the National Mall
There are a hundred different ways to frame a visit to the nation’s capital. But let us offer a suggestion that is a little less stodgy. Because, while D.C. has long been a destination of school field trips and historic tours, it is now also a place of art, music, food and surprise.
IF YOU GO:
Visit ARTECHOUSE, D.C.’s first interactive digital art gallery, showcasing experiential and immersive large-scale art installations. In other words, the art responds to you as you respond to the art.
Experience Anderson House. The Society of the Cincinnati’s Florentine villa drips with opulence. It’s hard not to wander with mouth agape.
Eat at Succotash. Chef Edward Lee’s Korean-American South restaurant, located in a renovated bank, offers a menu that includes ribs, catfish and buttermilk biscuits, all with a slight Korean twist.
Grab a drink and a bite at Station Kitchen & Cocktails at The Embassy Row Hotel. The hotel’s own restaurant, boisterous and busy, offers upscale bar food with names like Street Tacos and Damn Good Shrimp.
Drive from Norfolk: 3.5 hours
For more info: Washington.org
No longer a hidden gem
Yeah, we know, we know, Virginia’s capital city is not exactly new to you. But, really, isn’t it? In the past decade, Richmond has transformed into a culturally diverse city with a rich offering of history, art, exclusive retail and high-end restaurants. There’s far too much to discover in just a few days, so plan for a three-day weekend and have some fun.
IF YOU GO:
Get a drink at The Jasper. Stationed squarely in the middle of Carytown, the bar has grown famous for its incredible tipples, cocktail competitions and whiskey events.
Eat at Longoven, a high-end restaurant where the food is elevated to near-art.
Understandably lauded by publications like Bon Appetit, Longoven has become a must-stop for East Coast foodies.
Hang out in the emerging Jackson Ward fashion district, where you can get handmade leather boots from Rider Boot Shop or buy a new, nicely fitted, men’s wardrobe from Ledbury.
Stay at The Quirk, one of Virginia’s most popular boutique hotels. There is a reason the hotel has rocketed to the top of a dozen travel lists, like Travel + Leisure’s “Best Places to Travel in 2016” and Conde Nast’s “Top 60 Best New Hotels and Resorts in the World.”
Carve out some time to hang out in Carytown and Shockoe Bottom. Each neighborhood has a long list of restaurants and stores ripe for exploration and enjoyment.
Appreciate the talent on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, including Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War sculpture.
Drive from Norfolk: 1.5 hours
For more info: VisitRichmond.com
Raleigh, North Carolina
More than basketball and BBQ
When you think about the City of Oaks, chances are basketball comes to mind. It’s
understandable. With the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke University all within a 30-minute drive of each other, the city probably offers the best hoops watching in the country. But these days, a visit to Raleigh offers a lot of entertainment bang for your buck. From professional sports to world-class museums to James Beard-winning restaurants, the capital city has a lot to offer.
IF YOU GO:
Grab a beer at one of the more than 20 breweries. There is a reason Raleigh makes a lot of top 10 lists for beer towns. Standouts include Trophy Brewing Company, Big Boss Brewing Company and Cotton House Craft Brewers. Don’t miss Brewery Bhavana, where you can eat dim sum at a restaurant that has made “Best of” lists in Bon Appetit and Forbes, drink incredible Belgian style beer and buy books and flowers to boot.
Get some culture. Raleigh honestly could be called the City of Museums, so do some studying before you come. But three you can’t miss are the North Carolina Museum of Art, CAM Raleigh (Contemporary Art Museum) and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design.
Buy handmade denim jeans at Raleigh Denim Workshop + Curatory. The market for locally made, high-quality products is exploding and few companies in the country have the reputation of Raleigh Denim.
Have cocktails at The Green Light. This little speakeasy is literally tucked behind a bookcase at The Architect, a downtown bar and nightclub. It’s small, so you have to stop by to see if there’s room for you. Or, if you’re lucky and you know someone, you can text in a reservation.
Eat at one of the James Beard award-winning Ashley Christensen restaurants in town, like Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes or Beasley’s Chicken.
Distance from Norfolk: 3 hours
More info: VisitRaleigh.com
On The Water
A capital idea
Even though the gears of democracy turn in its statehouse, Annapolis has retained its small-town feel, with less than a tenth of the population of Baltimore just 30 minutes to north. Visitors to this hub of Chesapeake Bay life are drawn by the unhurried pace of this maritime town and ample opportunities to enjoy nature, culture and fine cuisine.
IF YOU GO:
Start at City Dock, the soul of downtown Annapolis where for centuries, traders have been exchanging goods. All the schooners have long since sailed into the sunset, and now numerous waterfront shops, restaurants and galleries fill the sails of local commerce.
Enjoy the bounty of the sea at restaurants like Carrol’s Creek Cafe, a short walk from downtown, and Forward Brewing, the city’s only independent craft brewery and pub.
Experience the U.S. Naval Academy, which offers guided tours of the grounds where midshipmen become Navy and Marine Corps officers. If the gridiron is your thing, time your trip in autumn to take in a football game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Get your feet wet chartering a sailboat, taking a cruise or mounting a kayak or stand-up paddleboard. There are numerous well-regarded companies available to accommodate you.
Attend the arts. A short drive from downtown is the Annapolis Arts District, where galleries, theaters and street performances speak to the creative culture that sustains the capital city.
Distance from Norfolk: 4 hours
More information: VisitAnnapolis.org
If you think baseball is all Baltimore has to offer, you don’t know Charm City. Baltimore can keep visitors well occupied with stirring attractions available nowhere else and distinctive culinary options. But, yeah, the baseball experience is pretty good, too.
IF YOU GO:
Start at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The city landmark underwent a widely acclaimed redevelopment in the late 20th century and now offers a full complement of eateries, shops, museums and historic ships, including the World War II-era submarine Torsk.
Don’t miss the National Aquarium, which contains upwards of 2 million gallons of water and 750 species of aquatic creatures.
O say can you see yourself heading over to Fort McHenry? Because you should. Sure, the fort’s ramparts are the ones that Francis Scott Key observed while penning the poem that became our national anthem. But as a free-of-charge national park with ample green space on Baltimore’s waterfront, it’s also a great spot to enjoy the scenery and outdoor space.
If there are three meals you should have in Baltimore, make them crabs, crabs and crabs. The ubiquitous and delectable blue crab is what Baltimore is famous for. You’ll find them steamed, in crabcakes or she-crab soup and many other ways, in easily findable restaurants both humble and haughty.
Edgar Allan Poe had Virginia connections – he was stationed at Fort Monroe and lived in Richmond – but his legacy looms in Baltimore, and not just in the name of the city’s NFL franchise. The father of both horror and detective fiction lived and died in
Baltimore, and his home and grave are just two of many places in the city where visitors can walk in his footsteps.
Distance from Norfolk: 4 hours
More info: Baltimore.org
Charleston, South Carolina
Holy City? More like wholly enjoyable!
What can we say about Charleston that hasn’t already been said by nearly every travel magazine in the world? The city that sits in the confluence of the Cooper and Ashely rivers was named top city for travel in the U.S. the past two years by Travel + Leisure, the top small city by Conde Nast Traveler for the past eight years and the best city in the South by Southern Living in 2018.
IF YOU GO:
There are few places as historic and beautiful as Charleston, so make sure you set aside time to explore. There are carriage rides with knowledgeable guides and all sorts of walking tours, including nighttime ghost tours of the haunted, holy city.
This city offers a selection of incredible food and drink that stands up to any city in America. You want comfort food? Try Rodney Scott’s BBQ and Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop. Prefer high-end eats from James Beard winners? Check out eateries Husk and Fig? And those are just a few of the many, many options.
Want a cocktail? Charleston has a slew of bars waiting for you. Our favorites are The Belmont, The Gin Joint and The Living Room at The Dewberry hotel. Speaking of The Dewberry, there are too many incredible hotels in town to name them all, but we do recommend this mid-century beauty with its Irish linens, hand-painted wallpaper and marble bathrooms.
Distance from Norfolk: 6.5 hours
More info: Charleston.com