If you’re a lover of travel like me, being grounded by this pandemic has added another level of discomfort to an already enormously stressful time. I have taken social distancing seriously, and in the past 5 months, my outings have been overwhelmingly limited to the grocery store, post office, and walking outside. Like many of you, travel plans have been canceled or postponed, including a trip to Europe, a visit home to New England, and work travel. In normal times my husband travels for his job at least monthly, and between the two of us, one of us is usually headed someplace for at least a quick overnight trip. We can’t remember ever being together so many months without at least a few days apart! Add in the togetherness of our stressed-out teenagers who miss their friends and school, and I was antsy for a day or two outside of town!
So when I realized we’d have no children for a weekend in part due to camp, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit someplace new and “date” my husband. Our state had been in Phase 3 for about a month, but it was important for us to choose a destination where we’d spend the majority of our time outdoors. We wanted to stay in-state both due to COVID and to keep our travel dollars in Virginia, but avoid anywhere crowded which took the beaches and cities off the table. After some digging, we found Abingdon, which proved to be a great choice- it offers history, charm, and the great outdoors and is less than 2 hours away by car!
We started by looking at where to stay. I try and support local businesses where I can, and hotels are no different. The Martha Washington Inn is a historic hotel that dates back to the early 1800s. No cookie-cutter accommodations here- each of the elegant 63 rooms and the common areas are filled with unique art and artifacts with much of it related to Virginia history, Martha Washington College and the suffragette movement. History and art buffs alike will enjoy exploring the corridors and grounds. The library was especially gorgeous and bibliophiles will want to plan to spend some time browsing and reading in overstuffed chairs.
The Martha is extraordinary enough for a honeymoon yet is family-friendly. It’s walkable to shops and restaurants but offers plenty to do on the premises. The resort boasts ample amenities for guests to enjoy, including tennis and pickleball courts, a 19 hole mini-golf course, indoor pool, 2 -story outdoor hot tub, a playground, a gym, and even a spa which was closed at the time of my visit due to COVID but I peeked in and was happy to see Aveda products being featured- a favorite brand of mine. There are many places to sit with a book and relax, both in and outside.
The Martha is home to the Sisters American Grill we enjoyed a dinner and breakfast here. Diners can choose from multiple seating areas in and outdoors, we chose a cozy brick courtyard which was lovely and romantic. Sisters feature an award-winning wine list and a farm-to-table menu that changes seasonally and is full of local fare. Both meals were excellent, but a few selections stood out. We enjoyed an heirloom tomato platter that tasted like summer on a plate, and my filet of beef was cooked perfectly and almost melted in my mouth. Joe chose butter chicken in a rich curry sauce, which was flavorful yet not overpowering. A flourless chocolate torte was outstanding and a wine our server helped us pick was so good we purchased a second bottle to enjoy on the front porch, which is full of comfortable places to sit and slow down a spell. I enjoyed my morning coffee on the porch, which is complimentary along with homemade muffins. You need not be a guest at the hotel to enjoy the restaurant, which also caters and hosts private events and our server told me in normal times they host many wedding receptions. I can see why- this hotel really is something special and was surprdinging affordable.
Abingdon is ideal for the outdoor enthusiast and is home to the Virginia Creeper Trail. This was our first time biking the trail, and I was happy to find it’s true that you don’t even need to pedal much of it! Even with Joe’s bum knee, he was able to enjoy the ride. This trail connects to the Appalachian Trail and welcomes bikers, hikers, and horses. The area is home to a number of shuttle services that will drop you off at the top of the trail and even provide bike rentals, and you can coast your way down most of the 35-mile trail or be picked up mid-way in Damascus. The top half of the trail is largely shaded and runs along a river with multiple areas to fish, swim or wade in the water. One can’t help but think about the many journeys that have taken place on that same path over the years. It’s thought that parts of the trail likely started as Native American footpaths before its expanded use by European and early American explorers, and it’s rumored Davy Crockett is among them. It was home to a railroad that transported lumber, goods and passengers for 70+ years, but was never profitable and closed in 1977. You’ll still ride over 47 trestles and bridges from the railroad, and there are a variety of places to stop and grab a snack or meal, but many of these along with the bathrooms were closed due to COVID on our ride.
Train enthusiasts will want to see the engine on display at the trailhead and tour the Creeper Trail Info Center. We saw some families with kids as young as 6-ish biking the trail, but they looked frustrated and I’d suggest this is best left for tweens on up.
Another Abingdon gem we enjoyed was seeing The Wizard of Oz at Barter At The Moonlite Drive-In from our car! This is the Barter Theatre‘s genius solution to help keep the arts alive and the Barter Theatre Players working during this pandemic. They’ve adapted to a stage created at the Moonlite Drive-In, reviving it in the process. The town rallied to make it happen with numerous partners and volunteers and the results are impressive. The drive-in has been restored and looks great, and guests can buy tickets online that can be scanned through your window for a completely contactless experience. I appreciated the ample volunteers directing you to your “space” that you select when you buy the ticket- no need to line up early for a “good” spot! They held signs that told you exactly what to do, made the program and everything you might want to know available online they text you when you purchase tickets and you literally need not even roll down your window! It was all so efficient and well done, from ticketing to the show itself which was well-lit, sounded great and was fun to see.
The next stop on our visit was the William King Museum of Art. This fine arts museum offers three rotating galleries, making it a great stop to pop in whenever you’re in Abingdon as it is constantly changing! Appalachia is the central theme here, and even the building is noteworthy, as it’s a 100+ year old schoolhouse! Several of the classrooms are now working art studios and visitors might catch an artist at work. The museum is free to visit but accepts donations, and we were the only guests at the time of our visit.
The SWVA Cultural Center and Marketplace offers visitors a look at all things Appalachia. Music, crafts, food, and culture of Southwest VA are examined in a variety of exhibits including films and performances during normal times. Browse work for sale by local artists of literally all mediums including leather, glass, fiber, jewelry, wood, and more- it might best be described as a Southwest Virginia Etsy shop! They gave guests gloves to wear if you wanted to touch anything, and we left with a locally written book and a felted pillow. At the time of our visit, there was only one other couple in the huge building.
Shop online at https://shop.swvaculturalcenter.com.
We found the town of Abingdon to be charming and the historic district is brimming with character. We enjoyed walking downtown and looking at houses that date back hundreds of years, and there is a self-guided walking tour you can take with a map available at the Abington Visitor Center.
Abingdon was named in USA Today’s Best Small Town Food Scene in 2019 and 2020, and you’ll have no shortage of finding a good meal. We enjoyed brunch at The Tavern– Abdindon’s oldest restaurant which dates back to 1779! You’ll find outdoor seating here on two stories and I’m told reservations are recommended during normal times.
Abingdon is also home to a handful of local breweries and vineyards, and we visited one that served outdoors but we left disappointed because they were not enforcing the number of guests at the tasting counter or the use of masks. This was the single venue that we did not feel was doing everything they could to enforce social distancing and adhere to pandemic safety measures. The other venues including the hotel, museum, and cultural center were limiting guests, required masks and asked guests to use hand sanitizer at the entrance and were immaculate and offering distancing guidelines on the floors to help guests stay apart. We were able to spend the overwhelming majority of our time outside either on the trail, at the hotel or poking around the town alone and we felt safe.
Even though this was a quick weekend trip just a short drive from our house, we still felt that sense of enjoyment of discovering a new area. It was great to connect as a couple and spend time on bikes, walking around looking at cobblestones and sitting on a porch simply slowing down. These are all activities we never do, and even dining out was a treat as it has been months. I was able to relieve my itchy feet, and we both wonder why we have not visited Abingdon before.
If you’re thinking of planning a visit to Abingdon, the Abingdon Visitor Center (above) can help you plan a trip and you can learn more at www.visitabingdonvirginia.com.