The Washington Times - June 10, 2008, 11:32PM

By Cyndi Paxton Johnson

Writer, Donne Tempo Magazine

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All Photos by Johnson Pixels


Historical Abingdon, Virginia may be the perfect vacation retreat.

Close your eyes and imagine gently sloping hills, dotted with sheep, cows, goats and the occasional llama. A small stream gurgles at the base of the hills, running beside an historic mill that made flour for families as early as 1790.


The rolling hills of Abingdon, VA

See yourself drinking that first cup of morning coffee on the porch of a restored cabin, reveling in the laughter of the birds. The early morning mist settles below the peaks of the mountains and the calf’s frolic on the adjacent hill, racing each other across the green valley.

Later, when you’ve drunk your fill of beauty, serenity and coffee, you meander the four miles to the town that was originally named Wolf Hills, after wolves attacked Daniel Boone’s dogs when he camped there on his first expedition to Kentucky in 1760.

In 1778 the town was incorporated as Abingdon, after Martha Washington’s ancestral home in England.  Today the town of Abingdon, Virginia offers us history, ghosts, theatre, music, art, shopping, dining, and the great outdoors – the perfect place to unwind, play, and rediscover the joy of living.  I’m smiling as I type, remembering the three blissful days spent in the foothills of Appalachia.

Abingdon is about six hours southwest of Washington DC, just off of Interstate 81.  Once you’re away from the city the drive is pleasurable, with postcard towns dotted amidst the rolling hills and Blue Ridge Mountains.

There are enough towns along the highway to offer a selection of chain restaurants, stores and gas stations.  If you’re a book lover (like ME) you’ll want to plan your trip to coincide with the Green Valley Book Fair dates (www.gvbookfair.com) to peruse the 30,000 titles at 60%-90% off retail price.  Located just south of Harrisonburg, VA, the fair is only open two out of every six weeks.

Trust me – it’s worth the two mile detour!

Once you’ve arrived in Abingdon, you’re in for a treat! The town has much to offer.  Here we found unparallel relaxation, fantastic countryside views, great food, eclectic art and maybe a ghost or two?  We found ourselves inundated with choices and opportunities!

Prior to our trip, I called the Abingdon Visitors Bureau and requested brochures. Several arrived within a few days – but many of the more interesting activities were not represented in my package.

Allow me to whet your appetite for the delight that is Abingdon!

Abingdon History


Abingdon, VA Main Street

Abingdon is our country’s oldest town west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and many of the original expeditions west traveled through there.  Countless pioneers, already weary with travel and enchanted by the lush hillsides and green valleys, decided they were home.  And so the town began. She (for the town is very much a lady) was quite a distance from the Revolutionary War – but her men traveled east and fought for their new country just the same.

Abingdon continued to grow following the War of Independence, and her people needed a mill. By 1790 White’s Mill was providing meal and flour for local farms, and the general store provided store-bought essentials for the home – as well as a gathering place.

In the early 1800’s Abingdon was flourishing, and by 1830 had attracted people such as politician/lawyer Francis Preston, who immediately began constructing his mansion-like home.  Eventually the home evolved into a finishing school for young ladies, and later a hospital during the civil war. After the war the building became a women’s college and today she exists as an elegant hotel, The Martha Washington Inn.  According to legend – and witnesses – the inn houses several Civil War era ghosts, including a young girl crying for her dead soldier.

Indeed, the Civil War wrecked havoc throughout Abingdon, and ghost tales flourish throughout the town (and the owners of the historic buildings are more than happy to tell you their building’s story).  After the war, the partly burned town settled into the reconstruction years, much like the rest of the country.


The Barter Theater, Abingdon, VA


The Great Depression brought Abingdon one of her greatest treasures – the Barter Theatre. So named because the group of playwrights that assembled there (such as Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and Thornton Wilder) would accept “Ham for Hamlet” – or food in lieu of hard cash for tickets. George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, is remembered for bartering the rights to his plays for spinach! Throughout the years, many well known thespians have traveled through her doors, including Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Gregory Peck, and Ned Beatty. Today actors and playwrights still find love and fame at the Barter Theatre!

Abingdon is proud of her history and heritage – and loves nothing more than to share her stories and treasures with eager travelers.

Abingdon Arts

Abingdon is well known for her support of artists and their talents, and was named one of the 100 best small towns for the arts! In addition to the Barter Theatre, you can visit the William King Regional Arts Center for their rotating schedule of regional and national exhibits.

Visit The Arts Depot, a community-based arts center. Many artists have studios at the depot, and are always willing to share their vision and talents with visitors.  I was entranced by resident artist Joyce Samuel’s poured watercolors. She literally pours brilliant colors over her paper, and then looks to see what definition emerges.

Weaver Nancy Garretson shared not only her incredible three dimensional wall art, but also her passion for looms and weaving.  Did you know that during Revolutionary times, Great Britain would not allow Americans to weave cloth, making them that more dependent on the British empire?

Colonial American women – being a tad defiant and fiercely independent - quickly made their own looms and began weaving cloth for their soldiers. George Washington later took the oath of office proudly wearing homespun clothes.

 


Sculptor Sara Reese

Clay artist Sara Reese is surrounded by cats, fish, and other eclectic creations.  Some of these playful critters are made by her students in the children’s art class she leads, sharing her lifelong love of clay with the next generation.

It seems like everyone in town has gotten in touch with their artistic side. Painters, sculptors, weavers, musicians, thespians and writers all proudly call the Abingdon area home.  I can certainly understand why – I could have stayed there forever, too.

For more information about the Arts in Abingdon, go to www.aame.info, the Arts Alliance Mountain Empire.

Shop Abingdon

Shopping, anyone?  Do you love to meander through antique stores – or does your heart prefer homemade arts and crafts? Looking for beads? Clothing or lingerie? A limitless assortment of gifts and sundries? Abingdon has it all – or at least an impressive collection!

The Cave House has been spotlighting the work of local artists and crafters since 1971.  This lovely 1858 Victorian home is directly above the cavernous limestone grotto that once appealed to Daniel Boone – until wolves attacked his dogs!

The Mercantile Store at White’s Mill is still a haven for locals and an attraction for tourists.  The rooms are chock-filled with one-of-a-kind gifts and collectibles. I bought myself an amazing hand made broom, complete with gnarled handle and a carving of The Green Man, for only $30.


Seamstress Edith Jackson


Over 140 local artist and craftspeople have their wares on consignment at the mercantile, with a percentage of sales going directly to the restoration fund for White’s Mill. We met seamstress Edith Jackson (born in 1918) when she delivered another assortment of old-fashioned bonnets and aprons to the store.  She also brought her grandmother’s black bonnet to add to the store’s unique gift collection. 

On Saturday mornings the local Farmer’s Market is hopping with activity, even in less than ideal weather! The wind had turned bitter our final morning and everyone was huddled under blankets, trying to stay warm. The cold didn’t deter the crowds or the friendliness of the farmers and crafters. I even saw my first coffee tree! Did you know that there is actually a fruit on these trees? We just roast, grind and savor the seeds, however.

Food glorious food

Speaking of coffee, take a break at Zazzy Z coffee house and bookstore! WIFI friendly, it’s the perfect place to relax, check email, drink coffee and have a snack or sandwich.

Also downtown is Wines of Distinction. They have an impressive assortment of wine and beer, coffee beans, unusual gifts items and imported cheeses. I discovered that authentic parmesan cheese is only made from Tuscany red cows.  I’m still not sure about the difference – but I’d love to spend a few days tasting my way to an opinion!

Take a break from shopping and sightseeing at Camella’s Remember When Teahouse [276-676-0089].  Located in Abingdon’s third oldest remaining structure, built in 1792, the home was once a Civil War command center.

Today the home reflects the elegance of days past, as visitors relax and indulge in warm scones served with Devonshire cream, lemon curd or jam. Afternoon tea is served between 11 and 4, and offers a selection of teas and finger sandwiches and canapés. The adjoining gift store offers many unique items, including Victorian niceties for brides and new mothers!

We indulged in sweet fragrant lavender iced tea and fluffy, lavender chocolate scones while we chatted with co-owner Carrie about her resident ghosts. I wanted nothing more than to collapse into her front parlor and be resuscitated with tea and sandwiches. Next time!

The Tavern Restaurant is a popular tourist destination. Built in 1779 as a tavern and overnight inn for stagecoach travelers, the building has sheltered guests such as President Andrew Jackson and the King of France, Louise Philippe.  Despite this, it remains unpretentious with rough wooden tables and uneven floors.  The menu is impressive and apparently time consuming – signs on the door warn that meals usually take at least two hours!

For a real treat, drive a few miles to Meadowview and dine at the Harvest Table Restaurant, which serves the best of local foods. They have formed the Meadowview Farmers’ Guild and partner with local farmers to promote organic vegetables and pasture fed meats.

These foods are not only bursting with flavor, as they haven’t traveled halfway around the globe, but they promote the community and give new life and support to local farmers! Feast on precious morel mushrooms, fresh asparagus, just picked strawberries and Blue Ridge trout! Trust me – you’ve never truly dined until you’ve feasted on fresh local foods prepared by culinary artists! [read more about the Harvest Table in the review at the bottom of this article]

A place to call home for the night - Back Country at Abingdon’s Cabins


Back Country cabin porch


Abingdon offers a wide selection of lodging choices – just decide what best suits your needs! Choose from high end campsites, hotel chains, quaint bed and breakfasts, solitary cabins or luxury suites.

One of the most famous is the aforementioned Martha Washington Inn. The Inn is large and luxurious, and offers three distinct restaurants and indoor spa.  The price includes breakfast and afternoon tea. Reviewers have raved about the quality of the mattresses, pillows and towels!

I passed a multitude of lovely Bed and Breakfast dwellings - but none that were anxious to accommodate multiple children.  In retrospect, we were much better off in our stand alone cabin.

Our “bit of perfection” was the  BackCountry@Abingdon’s Whites Mill for two glorious nights. The ideal spot for families as it gives everyone room to spread out AND the kids can run around outside, enjoying the countryside.  The secluded, beautiful cabin with breathtaking views is also perfect for a girlfriend’s retreat or a romantic getaway vacation.

The views from the cabin’s front porch will forever linger in my memories.  My husband and I raced out to the porch every morning with our pot of coffee, listening to the call of the birds and calves as the mist settled into distant valleys. It was perfection.

No one wanted to leave.  [read more about the cabin at Whites Mill at the bottom of this article] BackCountry also offers several luxury yurt type tents near Damascus, as well as campsites.

The Great Outdoors

Speaking of lush countryside and amazing views – make sure you spend part of your vacation playing in the great outdoors! There are many trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding, but the most famous is the Virginia Creeper Trail.

A 34.3-mile public access trail connecting Abingdon with Damascus, VA, the route began as a Native American footpath. Pioneers and early explorer Daniel Boone also followed the trail.  Around 1900 the Virginia-Carolina Railroad laid track and used the route to haul lumber, iron ore, supplies and passengers. The nickname, Virginia Creeper, was given to early steam locomotives as they slowly struggled up the steep path. The Creeper ran its last train on March 31, 1977, and a portion of the route was returned to the US Forest Service for a recreation trail.


Back Country cabin porch view of Whites Mill

So pack your hiking shoes, bicycles and water bottles – adventure awaits! It is possible to rent bikes while you’re in the area – and one shuttle service drops you and your bike off at the top of a mountain and picks you up at the bottom!  Talk about a luxury vacation.

The views from the cabin’s front porch will forever linger in my memories.  My husband and I raced out to the porch every morning with our pot of coffee, listening to the call of the birds and calves as the mist settled into distant valleys. It was perfection.

No one wanted to leave.  [read more about the BackCountry Cabin at Whites Mill here] BackCountry also offers several luxury yurt type tents near Damascus, as well as campsites.

Abingdon, Virginia offers her visitors a plethora of vacation choices. Between the arts, shopping, trail riding and ghost hunting – you’ll have to make time just to sit, drink coffee, and enjoy the view! One thing is for certain – you’ll be anxious to return to the foothills of Appalachia and the friendly, artistic people who call Abingdon home!

Cyndi Paxton Johnson is a writer for Donne Tempo Magazine. Watch these pages for her review of The Harvest Table restaurant, Abindon, Virgnia coming soon.