NICOLA ADAM travels to the laid-back and romantic state of Virginia, USA, ahead of Valentine’s Day.
With the strap line ‘Virginia is for lovers’, this is an American state that sees itself with a laid-back romantic vibe, which runs through everything it does.
If people want to visit, fine. If not, their loss.
You can understand why.
This is not one of the flashier states in terms of international tourism. How often do you hear someone say they are travelling to Virginia on holiday? British travellers in particular flock like insects to New York, California and Florida.
But Virginia, a huge South Atlantic state, has a magnitude of things to offer – from mountains and lakes to shopping and entertainment. To a Brit, every new scene is a film location – and for the true romantics, Dirty Dancing was filmed here...
I travelled to small but perfectly formed Roanoke airport, Virginia, from Manchester via a layover in Philadelphia with US airways. In January, flights are less frequent, others times of year multiple flights are available. My flights, the whole round trip obtained online via the helpful Preston-based Netflights, cost less than £500 . Not much for a cross-Atlantic adventure involving four flights.
I was visiting friends in nearby Salem (not the one with the witches, that is Massachusetts). This is a small and serene US city with a small-town feel surrounded by the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, which give the everyday US sights of malls, schools and homes a slightly surreal edge.
If you ever feel at all stifled by the normal, all you really need to do is look up.
Salem itself is a friendly place. During a relaxing afternoon wander, I was welcomed into the nearby Mill Mountain coffee shop with the effusive friendliness usually reserved for the royal family (maybe they thought I was related to Kate.)
But this is the real America, not tourist-focused or an episode of Glee. I looked up from a brief car journey to see a huge sign ‘ GUNS’ – a bit disconcerting in a city just a hop and a skip from Virginia Tech in Blacksberg which was the scene of an horrific shooting where 32 students and staff died at the hands of one rogue shooter.
A sign outside the Andrew Lewis Middle school in Salem reads ‘Drug-free, gang-free, gun-free’, then amusingly ‘no skateboards allowed’. Personally I don’t feel that worried about the skateboards...
We travelled to visit Blacksberg, a quaint and buzzing city with an historic feel – yet totally dominated by the sprawling and affluent Virginia Tech university. This is education on a scale not replicated in the UK. The influence of US college sports is felt – a huge stadium for the football (American football) dominates. Known as the ‘Hokies’ after the omnipresent grey Hokie stone which the stadium and entire town is built of, it is testament to the huge amount of money generated by sports in the US.
The enormous spread-out campus is immaculate with a huge central green area known as the Drillfield, along the edge of which lies the April 16 memorial to the fallen 32, each with a personal memorial made out of Hokie stone.
We took the 30-minute scenic drive out to Bedford to visit the national D-Day memorial, a thoughtful tribute to more than 9,000 Allied forces who lost their lives on the beaches of Northern France on June 6, 1944.
Bedford was chosen for this memorial because the community suffered the highest per capita losses in the US. Remarkably, this is a private concern and receives no federal or state funding. Run by volunteers – mainly ex-forces – they are forced to charge for entry as a result.
The Blue Ridge mountains were calling so we took the trip from Salem up on to the ‘Blue Ridge Parkway’ – a road that runs for almost 500 miles through several states and is renowned for astonishing scenery. Part of the Appalachian range, the mountains are beautiful and accessible (apart from in the snow of winter) but they are wild. This is bear country so caution and preparation for any trip is vital. We visited the ‘Star of Roanoke’, a man-made feature which gazes down on the city, while conscious of a reports of impending winter snowfall.
The city of Roanoke itself has a more buzzy city feel. It prides itself on having more eating destinations per head than nearby cities and food is always on the brink of a Virginian conversation. I ate out repeatedly and well, also taking the fast-food options on board including Chick fil-A, a chain ubiquitous in the southern states which offers fried chicken with grill fries and home-made lemonade. But Roanoke offers much more than fast food. We ate on Friday night at Montano’s, near the Tanglewood Mall, a fantastic independent eatery with full deli. Booking a table is essential to enjoy a vibrant waiter-served menu of Italian, Mexican and steak delights in a bustling, yet intimate, environment.
It was ‘restaurant week’ in Roanoke with many offering meal deals – Billy’s in Roanoke was an upmarket choice offering perfectly-cooked tuna, steaks and desserts to die for. We also checked out Shakers sports bar near Valley View Mall for melt-in-the- mouth fried chicken, the hill-top family-run Carlos for Brazilian and my favourite, Cafe Asia for Thai/Chinese fusion dishes with a kick.
And it is not just food the Virginians take pride in. My favourite bar was Jack Browns, a tiny and quirky place offering interesting decor (multiple bras hanging off a light fitting and tabled adorned with bottle tops), food and a remarkably globe-spanning menu of beer.Flying away from Roanoke airport on a tiny propeller plane Philadelphia-bound, I realised I had barely touched the surface of this giant state – the rest is there for the discovering. I’ll be back.