Going west (Virginia)
It was a slightly surreal experience to be sipping the quintessentially British drink of gin in a small West Virginian distillery whilst being told how the spirit had been made with 85% of the grains grown by a farmer located less than 30 miles away and local mountain water. And that’s not forgetting the ‘friendly folks’ who are also a key part of the recipe.
But when in this relatively undiscovered corner of America, which is about as diametrically opposed as you can get to Disney and the big hitting cities loved by the Brits, expecting the unexpected is one of the great pleasures.
Situated in the Greenbrier Valley just outside Lewisburg, a recent holder of the title Coolest Small Town in the US, is Smooth Ambler Spirits - the name comes from an American breed of horse) run by John Little and John Foster (AKA The Johns) who could easily have stuck to bourbon but wanted to introduce their countrymen to the delights of a grain-to-glass gin at the distillery that’s open for tours and tastings. I had a G&G rather than a G&T as different mixers helped convert whiskey stalwarts who were convinced they didn’t like gin. In fact the slogan on one of their T-shirts read: “Yeah, we didn’t used to drink gin either”.
Maybe I should have sampled some more as Dutch Courage would have come in handy for next day’s ‘only in West Virginia’ experience. The state’s ultimate thrill is a walk along the 1,700ft New River Gorge Bridge, the western hemisphere’s longest steel arch bridge. Standing on the edge of the catwalk, with traffic rumbling overhead, taking the first few steps was pretty scary stuff. But with the aid of an unfailingly chirpy guide we shuffled forward and by the time we reached the centre, 876ft above the river, another high spot was seeing a magnificent peregrine falcon perched a few feet away. We unhooked cameras from our harness to take photos and that showed how far we’d come in every sense of the word as at the outset we steadfastly held on to the side rails.
Whether you like your adventures extreme or more down to earth, 2013 is a great time to discover the diverse delights of West Virginia as the state is commemorating its 150th anniversary. It parted company with neighbouring Virginia to become the only American state to be born out of the civil war. The eastern corner of West Virginia is only an hour’s drive from Washington DC so anyone who wants to combine city living with the stunning scenery and small towns of West Virginia can easily take in both.
Culture vultures will be able to immerse themselves in the past at meticulously preserved sites such as Harpers Ferry, which played a prominent role in the war and will be staging a host of special events. That said, these are not dry and boring attractions and even the most reluctant history enthusiast, or younger visitor, will find plenty of entertaining distractions including fun places to eat and shop.
Whether your therapy of choice is in a spa or a shop, you can seamlessly combine the two in Berkeley Springs which was our port of call the next day. Typical of the free-thinking and individual towns that pepper this part of the world, we watched a group of locals demonstrating against fracking gas production before strolling down the streets lined with day spas, crystal shops and galleries showcasing the work of local artists. We wished we’d had time to take in a show at the Star Theatre, an atmospheric old movie house saved from closure.
Also celebrating a significant anniversary this year is the Cass Scenic Railroad, built in 1901 to haul timber to the old logging mill in the town of the same name and given a new lease of life as a tourist attraction 50 years ago. At the half-way point we get out to admire the gently steaming loco and chat to jolly Amy McGrew, the railroad’s first female fireman whose daily shift involves shovelling tons of coal into the glowing firebox.
She typified many of the ground-breaking characters we met during our fly-drive tour. In the town of Thomas we have dinner at Tip Top, one of the many individually owned restaurants we discovered en route that resolutely avoid all-American fast food and passionately embrace organic and locally sourced produce. These places invariably attract a refreshingly inclusive crowd from young families through to retirees looking for good grub and maybe the chance to listen to the region’s distinctive Appalachian music which draws on the harmonious heritage of Europeans, Africans and other early settlers.
Similarly eclectic is the state’s accommodation and our week took us from the amazingly plush and eccentric surroundings of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, with clashing interiors inspired by 1920s designer Dorothy Draper, to fantastic leisure and sporting complexes such as the Resort at Glade Springs and small and very individual B&Bs including Thomas Shepherd Inn, Shepherdstown, where the owners served apple soup and other conversation piece goodies for breakfast.
One of West Virginia’s marketing tags is ‘wild and wonderful’ and after a week that took in the heady extremes of a bridge walk, local ‘happy juice’ gin, distinctive towns and innovative individuals I’ll certainly drink to that.
Need to know
Vacations to America’s seven-night self-guided fly-drive holiday to West Virginia is priced from £1,245 per person, including accommodation, car hire and Virgin Atlantic or British Airways flights. T: 01682 469777.
North America Travel Service offers an eight-night twin-centre holiday in Washington DC and West Virginia from £1,995 per person, including United Airlines’ flights, car hire and internal flight to West Virginia. T: 0113 246 1466.
For more information on West Virginia visit www.wvtourism.com