There’s something really magical about multigenerational travel. Kids get special time with grandparents, parents get a break thanks to extra helping hands, and everyone gets to experience the joy of leaving schedules and routines behind. Having a better adult-to-kid ratio also means you can divide and conquer, taking turns doing kid-friendly activities and pursuing adult interests. A recent trip to Virginia’s Roanoke Valley area, nestled in and around the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, made me realize it's a great getaway for kids, parents and grandparents alike. I can't wait to go back.
There are loads of reasons why a trip to Virginia’s Roanoke Valley just might be the ideal destination for your next multigenerational trip. It’s a four-season playground where you’ll find activities to suit every taste and energy level, including hiking, historical sites, paddling, pinball, cycling, art galleries, fishing, an amazing transportation museum and so much more. Equally impressive is the region’s famous Southern hospitality, with a wide range of delicious food and drink all served up with homespun charm. It’s an easy ten hour drive from Toronto to Roanoke - if you have multiple drivers, it'd be a breeze. As a bonus, not only are there tons of great activities; the area is also filled with more natural beauty than you can imagine. Considered one of the most stunning parts of the eastern American landscape, the neighbouring mountains are home to the Blue Ridge Parkway, known as America's Favorite Drive, and a portion of the Appalachian Trail, one of the most visited footpaths in the world.
Here are just a few ideas to get you started on planning your getaway. As a bonus, note that you can visit or experience many of the suggestions below for free!
Center in the Square – this downtown Roanoke building houses an excellent aquarium, a theatre, and five museums including the incredibly fun Roanoke Pinball Museum - an old-school arcade offering hours of entertainment for all ages. The facility also has a tranquil, two-floor green rooftop terrace that’s worth a visit, especially at sunset.
Roanoke Rail Walk – this pedestrian pathway cleverly shares stories of Roanoke’s rail history, with loads of interactive features. Platforms, signals and whistles share the stage with informative plaques. A highlight is the radio scanner which allows you to hear conversations between dispatchers and engineers.
Virginia Museum of Transportation – housed in a former freight station adjacent to the still-operational railroad tracks, this the kind of place that just might stir some fond memories among grandparents and provoke great storytelling. Featuring automotive, aviation and rail galleries, among its highlights is the recently refurbished Norfolk and Western J611 streamlined steam locomotive. For a special treat, you can even book an excursion on the J611.
Star City Motor Madness – this annual event, taking place at the end of June, draws over 50,000 automotive enthusiasts from all over the world.
Mill Mountain Zoo and Discovery Centre – just minutes from downtown and accessible by foot or by car, the zoo is open year round. Wander along pathways through a carefully tended wildflower garden and be sure to visit the fun, hands-on Discovery Centre and take a ride on the ZooChoo.
There are tons of great local restaurants serving up everything from authentic barbeque to chicken ‘n waffles, to organic and vegan fare. I loved the Roanoker’s legendary biscuits, the pulled pork at Three Li’l Pigs Barbeque, the salads, soups and smoothies at Firefly Fare and all the tasty things, especially the desserts at the Wildflour Restaurant and Bakery.
Farm Fresh Fare – grab some locally-grown and produced goodies at the downtown Roanoke or historic Salem Farmers’ markets, both of which are centrally located and close to myriad cafes, shops and restaurants so you can make a morning of visiting the market areas.
Homestead Creamery – as you explore the outskirts of Roanoke, be sure to stop at this local favourite for incredible house-made sandwiches and ice cream. The candy selection's pretty impressive too, with lots of old-fashioned favourites.
Black Dog Salvage - Just south of downtown Roanoke, the sprawling treasure chest that is home to Black Dog Salvage is delightfully overwhelming. DIYers and upcyclers will love meeting the store’s friendly masters of chic salvage, partners Mike Whiteside and Robert Kulp who also star in the popular TV show Salvage Dawgs.
Appalachia Press – a charming shop crammed with cards and curiosities, it’s a celebration of craftsmanship, especially the vintage letterpress. Ask printmaker and owner John Reburn for a demonstration – he’ll be happy to oblige!
Boutique bonanza - downtown Roanoke, Salem and other neighbouring towns are walkable and full of great boutiques including the fun Candy Store near the City Market building.
The Roanoke Star - you can hike or drive up Mill Mountain to the world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star, and the reason why Roanoke is called the “Star City of the South." It's visible for 60 miles from the air and it sits 1,045 feet above the city of Roanoke; the views from the outlook are amazing.
Explore Park – with hundreds of acres of rolling hills, untouched woodlands, hiking trails, river frontage, historical buildings and a visitor information center, you can enjoy all kinds of activities including biking, hiking, canoeing, picnicking and more.
Cycling – known as one of the most bike-friendly areas in the whole U.S., possibilities range from rugged mountain trails to gentle pathways. If you don’t feel like lugging bikes from home, there are several reputable rental shops too.
Blue Ridge Parkway – as one of the most scenic roadways anywhere, the Blue Ridge Parkway is well-travelled all year long. I suggest planning for a meandering journey, taking advantage of the many worthwhile stops along the way in the Roanoke area. If you’re so inclined, there’s some fantastic camping spots available too.
Hiking – there are hiking trails to suit all ages and abilities throughout the area. One popular, somewhat strenuous one is the route to McAfee Knob, the most photographed site on the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail.
Water sports – from April through October, you can visit Twin River Outfitters to enjoy excursions by kayak, canoe, raft or tube on the scenic, tranquil James River. The 6 km trip takes about a half a day and includes just enough gentle (Class 1 and 2) rapids to keep it exciting. Early morning is a particularly lovely time to enjoy the river and all equipment is provided. Also, Smith Mountain Lake, a huge reservoir southeast of Roanoke, is a popular destination for boaters, swimmers and sport fishers.
Taubman Museum of Art – located in downtown Roanoke, it houses an impressive, eclectic art collection in a family friendly atmosphere. The museum’s twelve roof lines provide some great multi-dimensional spaces including a soaring atrium. Admission is free except for modestly-priced blockbusters such as the upcoming Norman Rockwell show. Be sure to check out the rooftop terrace offering unparalleled views of the city’s iconic Coffee Pot and Dr. Pepper’s signs as well as the Roanoke Star, the Hotel Roanoke, the train yards and more.
O. Winston Link Museum - located in the former downtown Roanoke train station, adjacent to the Visitor's Bureau, it houses an incredible collection of photographs documenting the last days of the steam locomotive era. The museum offers tremendous detail regarding the methods this innovative, talented photographer used to capture striking, iconic images that became very valuable and famous.
Elmwood Park Art Walk – grab some ice cream and wander through this outdoor sculpture gallery filled with intriguing, accessible works, ideal for sketching if your family travels with art supplies like mine does.
Booker T. Washington National Monument – located on the site of the birthplace of one of America’s most noted educators, advisors, orators and authors, the former Burroughs family plantation is now run by the National Park Service as a historical learning centre offering various special events with expert animators throughout the year.
The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum – offering fascinating insights into the folkways and folk music of the people living in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains, you can check out great interactive exhibitions as well as a charming Farm Museum. There are special hands-on activities and festivals throughout the year designed to help visitors appreciate the region’s unique and pervasive cultural landscape.
Craft Beer – There are over 100 micro-breweries in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including a number in the Roanoke area, spawning the creation of the Blue Ridge Beerway. I can recommend Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers’ Switchback IPA and Trailhead Nut Brown Ale, Parkway Brewing Company’s Get Bent IPA and Four Damn Fights To A Pint Double IPA as well as the highly session-able choices at the steampunk-inspired Flying Mouse Brewery. If you’re visiting in August, check out Microfestivus featuring over 50 regional micro-breweries.
Local wineries – there is a growing collection of local wineries, too, including the Peaks of Otter, Blue Ridge Vineyard and Virginia Mountain Vineyards; check out the area’s Wine Trail for more information.
There are loads of chain hotels in a wide range of prices; many of them also offer family-friendly pools. For a special experience, check out the centrally-located, historic Hotel Roanoke or the Peaks of Otter Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers a gorgeous natural setting and exceptional food.
To find out more, visit the region's comprehensive website.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, however, all opinions expressed are my own.
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