August 2006 Issue
West Virginia residents share their favorite Mountain State destinations.
From haute cuisine to high elevations, history lessons to highbrow arts and culture, West Virginia offers an experience for every traveler. Natives of the state recommend their favorites to guests from across the border.
Two for the road
Sports enthusiasts who love the great outdoors flock to West Virginia to pursue their favorite pastimes amid the panoramic vistas the state is known for. For Mary and Bill Shultz, the terrain has also brought a touch of romance. Seven years ago, the avid bikers met while on a December cycling trip to Snowshoe Mountain with the Mountain State Wheelers Bicycle Club (www.mountainstatewheelers.org), a 200-plus-member group comprised of cyclists of all skill levels.
â€œOriginally, the group had planned to go skiing, but because of unseasonably warm temperatures, we decided to take our bikes,â€ Mary recalls. â€œI knew Bill slightly, but on that trip sparks began to fly and we both had twinkles in our eyes. Weâ€™ve been together ever since.â€
The Charleston couple share the same sense of wanderlust and appreciation of their surroundings.
â€œItâ€™s no wonder West Virginia has the nickname Little Colorado,â€ Bill says. â€œThe state doesnâ€™t have the elevations the Rocky Mountains do, but because we have the Appalachians, there is a lot of varied terrain.â€
â€œIf you donâ€™t live here, you need to at least come and spend some time here in the out of doors,â€ Mary adds. â€œWeâ€™ve seen more from our bicycles than is possible from a vehicle.â€
Just outside the Shultzesâ€™ doorstep, the 9,300-acre Kanawha State Forest beckons with hiking, biking and picnicking opportunities.
Mountain bikers can choose from nine trails ranging from 3/4 mile to 2 miles in length. Upcoming special events include a wildflower walk on September 9 and a mountain-bike race on September 24. During the winter, the couple enjoy participating in naturalist-led winter night hikes in the forest. â€œItâ€™s a really neat feeling to be out there on a moonlit night,â€ Bill says. â€œSo much so that we hate to see daylight-saving time start.â€
For views of fall foliage, Mary says the Monongahela National Forest is the picture-perfect spot to visit, particularly the Highland Scenic Highway, which features four breathtaking overlooks. In addition to mountainous terrain, hardwood forests and dark spruce, the area is a treasure trove of natural gems, including three waterfalls cascading over rock layers of sandstone and shale.
Bikers are invited to test their mettle at the second-annual Cheat Mountain Challenge on September 24 (877/441-4FUN). The route climbs 10,000 vertical feet, spread across 105 miles of back roads, including a 22-mile stretch of the Highland Scenic Highway, the highest elevated road east of the Mississippi.
â€œItâ€™s a tough ride,â€ Mary admits, â€œbut itâ€™s beautiful.â€ Since the ride begins and ends at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, bikers can come early to enjoy paddle-boating, fly-fishing and golf.
Flat-water kayaking is also a favorite pursuit for the Shultzes, especially in portions of the 53-mile New River Gorge National River, which winds through the Appalachian Mountains from Hinton to the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville. During the third Saturday in October, the steel-arch bridge is open to pedestrians who congregate to parachute or rappel off it or stroll across it.
â€œOn Bridge Day, most people see the festivities from the bridge. But we kayak about five miles upstream to watch from below. It offers a unique perspective,â€ Bill says. â€œThe spot is our little secret."
â€œUntil now,â€ Mary adds with a laugh.
For more information about outdoor activities call the West Virginia Division of Tourism 800/225-5982 or visit www.wvtourism.com.
Bluegrass music and folk art will always be indelibly linked with West Virginia. However, Sue Sergi is quick to point out, thatâ€™s not the total picture. Sergi was faced with the challenge of defining the stateâ€™s artistic parameters 10 years ago when she spearheaded fund-raising for Charlestonâ€™s Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences (One Clay Square, 304/561-3500, www.theclay center.org). Unlike popular perception, she says, the boundaries are endless.
â€œWe have wonderful talent here of all ages that could compete nationally if they didnâ€™t just love West Virginia and want to stay here,â€ says Sergi, former president and CEO of the Clay Center.
Noteworthy performances resonate through the center. The West Virginia Symphony Orchestraâ€™s season features a potpourri of pops, symphonic and family-oriented selections. Upcoming concerts include two nights of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Brahms September 15 and 16, Halloween-themed music and mime October 14 and a program of holiday favorites December 8 and 9 (call 304/561-3570 or visit www.wvsymphony.org for tickets).
â€œWeâ€™re proud of the fact that the symphony is a nationally known regional orchestra,â€ Sergi says.
Broadway comes to Charleston and the Clay Center with productions of â€œCamelotâ€ October 17, â€œMan of La Manchaâ€ November 1 and â€œCatsâ€ December 5. Star-studded shows include country music sensation Trisha Yearwood September 23; jazz vocalist Rachael Price November 17; and â€œI Dream of Jeannieâ€ TV legends Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, who will present A.R. Gurneyâ€™s â€œLove Lettersâ€ on December 3 (call 304/561-3570 or visit www.theclaycenter.org for tickets).
The Clay Center is also home to the Avampato Discovery Museum, featuring two floors of interactive science exhibits, an art gallery and the ElectricSky Theater with a giant screen and planetarium. Through September 3, â€œThe Classic Automobileâ€ is celebrated with designs from the 1930s and â€™40s. â€œSpooktacular,â€ on October 21, is filled with storytelling, scary costumes and pumpkin bowling. Avampatoâ€™s film schedule includes â€œCoral Reef Adventureâ€ through December and â€œAfrica: the Serengetiâ€ January through June 2007.
No trip to West Virginia is complete, Sergi says, without a trip to the Huntington Museum of Art. The institution is known for its exceptional collection of Ohio Valley glass, Appalachian folk art, 19th- and 20th-century European paintings, American furniture and firearms and Islamic prayer rugs. Through September 24, the museum spotlights The Daywood Collection of American paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and glass by artists including John Steuart Curry, George Luks and Reginald Marsh. â€œThe Light of Day: Contemporary Prints and Studio Glass from the Permanent Collection,â€ on exhibit through October 1, showcases works by noted artists such as Andy Warhol, Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein. (Huntington Museum of Art, 2033 McCoy Road, Huntington, 304/529-2701, www.hmoa.org)
For more than 40 years, summer outdoor dramas have mixed spectacular surroundings with riveting history lessons: â€œHoney in the Rockâ€ recounts the story of the creation of West Virginia during Civil War times, and â€œHatfields & McCoysâ€ chronicles the truths and myths surrounding this famous family feud. Both shows are staged alternately through August. (Theatre West Virginia, Grandview National Park, Interstate 64 at exit 129, 304/256-6800, www.theatrewestvirginia.com)
â€œItâ€™s no wonder arts lovers love it here,â€ Sergi says.
Maureen Crockett admits the move she made to West Virginia more than 30 years ago with her parents was not one she was in favor of. In fact, the transplanted New Yorker spent her first year weeping, running up phone bills and flying back East to see her friends.
â€œThen I took a look around,â€ she says. â€œI discovered that if I stopped crying and stepped outside, I was in the most beautiful state in the whole country. That there were waterfalls, cliffs and places to hike â€“â€“ that there are 47 shades of green here.â€
A self-described city girl at heart, Crockett also says the variety of foods sheâ€™s found will satisfy even the most discriminating palate.
â€œThereâ€™s this misconception many people have about West Virginia cuisine,â€ Crockett says. â€œThe fact is we just donâ€™t eat fatback and pinto beans and corn pone. Since people from all over the world have come to live and work here, we are sophisticated in our tastes and have haute cuisine all over the state.â€
The restaurant reviewer for the Charleston Gazette, Crockett travels to more than a dozen dining spots a year, giving a thumbs-up â€“â€“ or not â€“â€“ on each. Her hands-down favorite is LuiLui (1510 Grand Central Ave., Vienna; 304/295-8028), which specializes in European dishes with an Asian flair.
â€œMany German, Chinese and Mexican restaurants water down their cuisine for the American palate,â€ says Crockett. â€œWhat I love about [Chef] Lui is the fact that I can place myself in his hands. I ask him what he wants to fix me tonight and he gets this big grin on his face and rushes back to the kitchen and comes out with these delectable flavors I have never smelled or tasted before.â€ One night, the menu could include thinly-sliced ahi tuna with greens and citrus ponzu made with sake, soy, lemon and a Japanese sweet wine. Another evening might feature succulent seared filet of beef with a red wine reduction sauce and a touch of Belgian chocolate.
Another of Crockettâ€™s favorite hot spots is Stillwaters at Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park in Roanoke (940 Resort Dr., 304/269-8880). She praises executive chef Dale Hawkinsâ€™ skill at marrying Appalachian foods with continental preparation.
â€œHe has a wonderful way of French-ifying food â€“â€“ encrusting rainbow trout with corn and glazing it with balsamic butter or adding tomato to grits,â€ Crockett says.
Sushi lovers will want to make a stop at Savannahâ€™s (1208 Sixth Ave., Huntington, 304/529-0919), where fresh fish dishes are prepared tableside in, says Crockett, â€œthe flash of a knife.â€
No matter where you decide to dine, Crockett recommends visitors sample foods with her favorite ingredient, prevalent in West Virginia during the spring. Sometimes called a wild leek and resembling a scallion, the ramp is celebrated throughout the state.
â€œA ramp is a wild cross between an onion and garlic, so powerful that if you eat too many and breathe on someone, they will faint,â€ Crockett says with a laugh.
However, she adds, one or two mixed with potatoes and bacon grease yields a taste sensation like no other. â€œItâ€™s truly a dish fit for the gods,â€ Crockett rhapsodizes. â€œIf youâ€™ve been good and go to heaven, God will give you that for lunch.â€
Paths to the past
After talking with Fred Barkey, itâ€™s easy to see why the phrase â€œalmost heavenâ€ is often applied to the Mountain State. Although he was born in Pennsylvania 72 years ago, Barkey was quick to adopt West Virginia as his home half a century ago when he moved here with his parents.
â€œTwo things captivated me about the state as a boy,â€ says Barkey, a retired professor who taught history at Marshall University and the University of Charleston. â€œThe first was the James Fenimore Cooper youth I could live â€“â€“ the fact that 10 minutes from my home in St. Albans, I could be walking along the ridge of the Appalachians and be confronted by creeks and other surprises along every turn.
â€œIt was nirvana.â€
It is that sense of adventure that makes the state a mecca for history buffs. First stop for first-timers, Barkey says, is Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park and museum in Parkersburg (137 Juliana St., (304/420-4800, www.blenner- hassettislandstatepark.com) named for Irish aristocrat Harman Blennerhassett, who settled on the island in 1798 and built a Palladian-style mansion filled with oriental carpets, furniture from London and Parisian porcelain. Fire destroyed the home in 1811, but in the 1980s it was painstakingly recreated in the opulent style of its day.
â€œThe boat ride along the Ohio River is almost worth the trip alone,â€ Barkey says. â€œBlennerhassettâ€™s story, which includes a possible conspiracy to help [statesman] Aaron Burr form a republic in the Southwest, is a fascinating one.â€
Barkey also recommends a stop at the 117-year-old Blennerhassett hotel, which mixes old-world European elegance with modern amenities. (320 Market St., 304/422-3131, www.blennerhas-setthotel.com).
History of a more chilling nature can be experienced in Moundsville in the dungeon-like edifice that served as the West Virginia Penitentiary from 1866 to 1995. (818 Jefferson Ave., 304/845-6200, www.wvpentours.com)
â€œI required my social-science students to make a field trip here,â€ Barkey says. â€œItâ€™s a grim reminder of what overcrowded prison life was like in the 19th and 20th centuries.â€ Included in the tour is the electric chair that killed nine men before it was retired in 1965; the gift shop is filled with an eclectic assortment of items ranging from tin cups to handcuffs.
Moundsville is also the home of The Official Marx Toy Museum (915 Second St., 304/845-6022, www.marxtoymuseum.com), which displays thousands of beloved playthings â€“â€“ from Big Wheels to Johnny West figures â€“â€“ manufactured between 1920 and 1980.
â€œItâ€™s truly a collectorâ€™s paradise,â€ Barkey says.
Wheelingâ€™s Independence Hall, another of Barkeyâ€™s favorite places, was once a customs house. Now, it takes visitors back in time to 1863 â€“â€“ the year West Virginia became a state â€“â€“ with interpretive programs and audio tours of the building. (1528 Market St., 304/238-1300, www.wvculture.org) While in Wheeling, plan on making a stop at Oglebay Resort (900 National Rd., 304/243-4000, www.oglebay-resort.com), which features a zoo and planetarium, along with an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course.
And what else captivated Barkey about the state so long ago? It was â€“â€“ and still is â€“â€“ the hospitality of its people.
â€œTo some extent, you never meet a stranger in West Virginia,â€ Barkey muses.