Back to the Land in Lewisburg
If the Greenbrier is the state’s vintage resort, nearby Lewisburg is its vintage village.
“Lewisburg was voted ‘coolest small town in America’ by Budget Travel magazine in 2011,” said our host, Kara Dense, of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s about an hour and 45 minutes for people coming from Charleston for the weekend, and a lot of them do. It’s home to one of four Carnegie Halls still in operation, and the state theater of West Virginia is here, the Greenbrier Valley Theatre.”
I asked Dense how Lewisburg became so well known.
“Much of its charm began when back-to-the-landers began settling here in the 1970s and took over vacant homes and shops,” she said. “We have many locally owned restaurants, like the Livery Tavern and Stella’s Teahouse. We also have the Stardust Café, Food and Friends, and the Irish Pub on Washington Street. That’s where the locals go for music.”
Historic structures in Lewisburg include the Old Stone Presbyterian Church, built in 1796, and the General Lewis Inn, a gorgeous small white inn built in the early 1800s that greets visitors driving into town from Interstate 64.
We enjoyed a tasting at a locally owned boutique distillery, Smooth Ambler, in nearby Maxwelton. We toured its production rooms and then enjoyed a tasting of several small-batch bourbons and whiskeys.
“An amble’s not quite a walk and not quite a run,” said our host, distiller John Little. “It’s a gait a horse uses. We think it describes how we live here in West Virginia: not quite a walk and not quite a run. Many of us have made a conscious choice to live here.”
“That’s not a bad way to start the day: from the Greenbrier to whiskey,” said Annette Thompson afterward. Thompson is a former travel editor for Southern Living and is president of the Society of American Travel Writers.
Soldiers and Singers
We made our way through the mountains to Beverly, where we toured the Beverly Heritage Center. That Randolph County town was a strategic site during the Civil War and became a Union stronghold. Its heritage center includes a period printing press and artifacts from the Battle of Rich Mountain, which took place in 1861. The center comprises several structures dating as far back as 1808.
Up the road a few miles in Elkins, groups have been making stops for years. Elkins is true West Virginia train country. Home to both the American Mountain Theater and the Gandy Dancer Theater, Elkins is also the cultural center for activities in the Monongahela National Forest.
We hit both theaters in one evening. We enjoyed the Gandy Dancer’s family-style music and comedy revue while we had dinner, before heading to the American Mountain Theater in Elkins’ historic railroad district. The theater is a spacious complex that hosts national bluegrass acts like Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, and Dailey and Vincent, and also produces its own shows.
Romance of the Rails
Our evening ended with a reception hosted by the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad in a historic dining car. No fewer than five different train experiences are offered in that region of West Virginia. Among them are the Castaway Caboose, which drops small groups into the forest with camping facilities for a weekend, and the Polar Express, which takes families up into the highlands on cold winter nights.
The Mountain Explorer Dinner Train offers a scenic train ride with an elegant meal. There are murder mystery trips, wine-tasting trips, even stargazing trips from the Cheat Bridge, which is 2,000 feet higher than Elkins and 10 miles from any ambient light. The railroad is the highest mainline east of the Mississippi. Spruce is the community at the top. You have to love a town called Spruce.
Robert Van Camp, who created the PBS series “Great Scenic Rail Journeys” and goes to Elkins often, took a moment to address the group.
“This is the most requested train out of Washington, D.C., by our viewers,” Van Camp said. “Where else can you go through a 1,700-foot tunnel through the mountain?
“Train travel is exploding because people and families are looking for adventure,” he said. “These trains are time capsules. You don’t need a shrink — just get on a train. Ninety percent of the people who pledge to PBS in order to get a train ride have never been on a train. There is a universal longing to ride a train.”
There is also a universal longing to enjoy authentic places and voices wherever they remain. I’d recommend looking in West Virginia.
West Virginia Division of Tourism