Take a summer trip around the commonwealth

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Early this summer, I was in Davidsons, a men’s clothing store in downtown Roanoke.  The sales clerk warned me that the parking patrol was about to write a ticket for my car, which was parked outside the front door. 

I rushed out and got a sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw a yellow slip already under the wiper blade.  I asked the ticket writer if he could give me a break as I was buying something and just about to finish.  He said, “Don’t worry, it’s just a warning ticket.”

How about that?  For starters, Roanoke doesn’t even have parking meters.  When you exceed the two-hour time limit, the ticker writers check your plate license number against a database and issue warnings for first-time offenders.

The warning lists locations of municipal parking decks so you will know where to park when you need more than a couple of hours to shop or conduct business downtown.  Could Roanoke be the friendliest city in Virginia?

A couple weeks later I was in downtown Norfolk and had a chance to see “The Plot.”  This recently opened “temporary” park was developed by volunteers on the corner of Granby and Main streets. The Plot is on a site intended for the development of a new Westin Hotel, but it had lain dormant since the project was cancelled during the economic downturn.
The Plot is designed to be a community gathering place in the heart of downtown.  It is constructed largely of reclaimed materials from the existing site and other city sources.  The city dedicated only a very small budget for the project. 

In addition to volunteer labor, the project was assisted by a broad coalition of civic groups, architects and design firms.  Could Norfolk be the most smartly designed city in Virginia?
There are a lot of hidden gems in the commonwealth’s array of independent cities, and summertime is a great time to explore them.  In addition to Roanoke and Norfolk, think about a trip to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton or sampling the burgeoning independent restaurant scene in Richmond, with popular new places like The Roosevelt in Church Hill or 525 at the Berry-Burk building downtown.

Go gallery hopping at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town Alexandria and then head west for shopping at the Leesburg Outlets.  Spend an evening at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna.

Heading south or southwest?  Check out The Prizery in South Boston, the Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg, the Barter Theatre in Abingdon or even The Lays Hardware Center for the Arts in Coeburn. 

Virginia has long been known for its historical destinations such as Jamestown and Williamsburg, as well as for popular scenic destinations like the Shenandoah National Park.  However, its cities and towns also have much to offer to even the most casual visitor.

As someone who regularly crisscrosses the state, here are a few tips I can offer: 

Traveling north on Interstate 95 is more predictable than traveling south.  Heading north, beating the traffic is all about timing.  Don’t try to get to Northern Virginia before 10:30 in the morning. 

On the return trip, head south before the HOV lanes close at 3:30 p.m.  Construction on the southbound lanes makes traffic unpredictable.  There’s a Starbucks about a mile west of the Route 3 exit north of Fredericksburg.  If you are looking for something to eat, get off the highway and take the time to go into Fredericksburg. Kybecca Wine Bar & Shop is a favorite.
Traveling east also is a matter of timing.  Avoid the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel before 9 a.m.  On your return, leave Norfolk by midafternoon, taking the Midtown Tunnel and then I-664, avoiding the HRBT altogether.  Pierce’s Bar-B-Que at the Lightfoot exit is a popular stop.

Heading west, I-64 is almost always easy driving and, despite heavy truck traffic, I-81 is one of the most scenic interstate highways in Virginia.  The Bellair Market in the Exxon station on Route 250 just west of the 29-bypass has the best sandwiches in Charlottesville.  There’s a Starbucks just north of I-64 in Waynesboro and, just north of Roanoke, Mill Mountain Coffee near the Troutdale Exit on I-81 is another great place for a jolt of caffeine.

The most enjoyable thing about a trip in Virginia isn’t necessarily the scenery or the history; it might well be the people you meet along the way.  Stop for a bite to eat; ask someone what their favorite thing is on the menu.  All across the state you can expect to find the friendliness of Roanoke and the creative civic-mindedness of Norfolk.  After all, the commonwealth belongs to all of us.  Enjoy! 

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