Taking a teen on vacation is always a gamble. If you’re lucky and your teen is in a good mood, you just might be able to relax and enjoy yourself. On the other hand, if your teen is not happy and would rather be doing something else somewhere else, an unpleasant experience is sure to ensue.
The worst part is you can never predict your teen’s reaction to a proposed activity. He might say, “Cool,” yet when he arrives at the destination, his mood swings, and suddenly the potential pleasure quotient of your outing is bleak. Likewise, your teen may complain mercilessly when you drag him somewhere he thinks is decidedly uncool, only to arrive and say, “Hey, this place is awesome!”
Recently Ross, my fifteen-year-old, and I planned a mother-son weekend in the mountains. Our destination was Shenandoah County, which stretches about 35 miles along I-81 north of Harrisonburg. Thankfully, the happy times far outweighed the unhappy ones during our getaway adventure. That’s because I planned plenty of outdoor activities for us to enjoy, knowing that Ross is happiest when he’s on the go.
Shenandoah County proved to be a perfect destination with a great mix of experiences—Civil War history, family attractions, outdoor adventure, eclectic shopping, cozy B & Bs, and diverse dining options—all of which combine to create an ideal mountain getaway, one that even passes the teen test.
Our first stop was Shenandoah Caverns, one of those “I’ll stop there some day” attractions you speed by on the highway. Well, next time make sure you turn off I-81 at Exit 268 and pay a visit. Open since 1922, this iconic roadside attraction offers a breathtaking look at Virginia’s underground caverns. Formed around 450 million years ago by underwater rivers and an earthquake, the caverns were discovered in 1884 by—who else?—two curious brothers who saw vapors rising up from a hole in the ground. With a long rope and two candles in tow, they descended over 200 feet into the earth, where they discovered this geological playground.
Instead of rope, we took an elevator down into the caverns and emerged into a soaring cathedral-like space. Our guide, Patty, led us along a pathway through a variety of “rooms” and “halls,” pointing out unusual crystalline formations, such as “bacon strips” hanging from the ceiling, miniature castles rising from limestone ridges, even a dome resembling the nation’s capitol. Ross liked the Diamond Cascade, which resembled a frozen waterfall made up of calcite crystals that glimmered in a rainbow of colors. Thanks to a recent spate of rain, the caverns were dripping wet, and shallow puddles lined the path. Patty said the drops are called cave kisses and bring you luck all day long. I think we got a year’s worth of good luck during our hour tour.
Shenandoah Caverns offers other attractions as well, such as American Celebration on Parade, a collection of parade floats; Main Street of Yesteryear, vintage window displays; the Yellow Barn, a live music venue that doubles as an antique museum. There’s also a gift shop with souvenirs aplenty and a 50s-era soda fountain, open seasonally, which offers drinks and snacks. Make sure you try the Cavern Coolers, bottles of pop in refreshing flavors like apple and black cherry.
Ross and I dined that evening at Southern Kitchen in nearby New Market, a retro diner with Formica tabletops, vinyl booths, plastic flowers, and a jukebox belting out the Beach Boys. Ross wanted to try the mac-n-cheese bites, deep-fried bits of oozing goodness. Someone recommended the fried chicken, which was crunchy and flavorful, but get extra napkins. The cole slaw, according to Ross, was “ridiculously amazing.” That means he liked it, in case you wondered.
The Widow Kip’s Country Inn also in New Market provided cozy accommodations our first night. Conveniently located near I-81, the inn, circa 1830, features five rooms in the main house and two courtyard cottages, each furnished in period antiques. Our cottage, Silk Purse, had a separate sitting room with a trundle bed, perfect for Ross. All the details in the room—from lace curtains and crocheted doilies to the Victorian-style bed, graced with a locally crafted quilt—harked back to times gone by and made me miss my grandmother, whose house this reminded me of. Breakfast the next morning, served by innkeepers Betty and Bob Luse, was hearty and flavorful: a decadent waffle with homemade syrup—the perfect way to begin a busy day.
Our next destination was Fort Valley Stables, where a morning horseback ride was on the agenda. We found our way to the stables and took a leisurely trail ride on the ranch’s wooded acreage, climbing up and down hills and plodding through a few muddy areas. The horses were sure-footed, however, so Ross and I relaxed and enjoyed the stunning landscape. Once we surprised a doe and her fawn contentedly grazing in a grassy patch. As the sunlight streamed through the trees and the leaves rustled in the spring breeze, I felt a similar contentment. Sometimes getting away from daily distractions is just the antidote we need to combat our stressful lives.
A few miles up the interstate brought us to Woodstock, a lively little town where we lunched at Woodstock Café and Shoppes. There we met owner Coe Sherrard, who lived in Virginia Beach before migrating to the mountains and opening this café with his wife, Jean. Coe showed us around the eclectic shop on Main Street, which features wine, antiques, books, and local crafts, as well as a tempting array of sandwiches, salads, and wraps. We sampled the Cuban, a grilled sandwich of hand-pulled pork, Swiss cheese, and an herbed cream cheese spread, and the Jeremy Smithfield: pulled pork, provolone, and Bavarian mustard. Woodstock Café is a tasty place to dine with friendly service and a cozy atmosphere.
Ross grudgingly let me do a bit of window-shopping along Main Street before we headed to Woodstock Tower, an old fire observation tower east of town. A short hike brings you to the tower where three flights of stairs lead up to an amazing views of the surrounding skylines. To the west you can follow the curvy path of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River as it meanders through the countryside. In the distance the tall mountains of West Virginia beckon. Ross loved being up so high and feeling the mountain breeze whoosh by. It was all I could do to keep him from sliding on the railings on the way down.
Further north the cozy town of Strasburg offers more shopping, dining, and lodging options. We chose to stay at the A.C. Stickley B & B a couple blocks from the historic district. The circa-1892 home has been lovingly restored by owners Donna and John Huntsberger, and Ross and I loved the large, well-appointed guest rooms with private baths and every modern amenity you can think of. Coffee, tea, and snacks are available at all hours, and complimentary wine is provided in the afternoon. While Ross chilled for a while in his room, surfing channels on the flat-screen TV, I relaxed on the inviting front porch with a glass of lovely red wine and a magazine.
Soon it was time for dinner, and we made our way to a popular hangout on Main Street called Cristina’s, where a crowd had gathered for an evening of live acoustic music. Ross and I sat at a corner table near the door and watched the people coming and going. As in most small towns, it seemed everyone knew each other, and we were happy to be part of the jovial crowd, listening to the mellow music and sampling some of Cristina’s specialties: lamb sliders with roasted lemon aioli; an asparagus, bacon, and Fontina quesadilla; and a salad of baby greens with Cristina’s famous cilantro-sunflower dressing. The menu was upscale, but the prices were very affordable, so it wasn’t surprising that the place was packed.
TRANQUILITY OF THE MOMENT
After an amazing night’s sleep, Ross and I were treated to an exquisite breakfast prepared by our innkeeper, Donna. Fresh flowers, candles, classical music, a lace tablecloth, and lovely china set the stage for a breakfast to remember: fresh fruit topped with a luscious berry sorbet, caramel-soaked French toast, blooming egg baked in bacon, and baby potatoes. “Everything is so fancy,” Ross said, “and everyone is so nice.”
Well fortified, we took a stroll down to the river along a well-kept path. I liked Strasburg, and after our walk, as we drove around a bit, I admired the cozy homes and farmsteads and dreamed about a simpler life in the mountains. I’m not the only one. Lots of folks are choosing Shenandoah County for their retirement, due partly to its close proximity to D.C., which is only 75 minutes away.
I was itching to go on a good hike, but for some reason, the idea didn’t appeal to Ross. He reluctantly agreed to join me, but I began to wonder whether I would enjoy myself if Ross chose to grumble the whole time. Our destination was a trail we’d learned about the day before from the friendly proprietor of Junk in the Trunk, a secondhand store in Woodstock. “It’s an easy hike and not too far away,” she said.
As we drove along, the road turned to gravel and we passed cabins with “No trespassing” signs posted. I wasn’t sure if I’d gone too far or not far enough.
“Let’s turn around,” Ross said.
“Let’s go a little further,” I told him. The road traveled through a deep old-growth forest, climbing ever so slightly, while to our right, a cascading mountain stream meandered on an unknown journey to points below.
We arrived at a small parking area and saw a dirt road with a chain across it. “This must be it,” I said. I was happy to see a couple of other cars parked there because we were really in the middle of nowhere, it seemed.
Turns out it was well worth the drive for this was a magical place. Tall trees dressed in bright green finery provided cool shade as we followed a level trail along the mountain stream. We passed a couple men fly-fishing in the stream who told us they weren’t catching much. Nevertheless, they seemed content wading in the water, casting their lines languidly as they meditated on the tranquility of the moment.
We came upon a large dam behind which spread the Woodstock Reservoir, a peaceful body of water whose surface reflected the clear blue sky overhead. Soon the reservoir morphed back into a meandering stream. At one point huge boulders blocked the trail, so we had to ford the stream, carefully stepping on rocks and hoping we wouldn’t land in the cold mountain water. We happened upon an open area that had been used as a campsite. Ross and I conjectured that college kids—perhaps from nearby JMU—hung out in these isolated woods on weekends. They must have fallen under the spell, too.
ON THE BATTLEFIELD
After our hike we headed to North Mountain Vineyard, a picturesque winery with a pretty deck that offers scenic views. Ross and I enjoyed a boxed lunch, which Donna had provided, while I tasted some of North Mountain’s bounty.
Our next activity was one both Ross and I had been looking forward to: a zip-line adventure at Bryce Resort. I had zip-lined once before in Mexico, but this was Ross’ first experience. He loved the thrill of zipping through the trees from platform to platform. The young men who assisted us were super friendly, and all the participants enjoyed the experience. Bryce Resort offers lots of other summer activities including grass skiing, mountain tubing, fly fishing, and golf. After our zip-line adventure, Ross and I ate dinner at Bryce’s Copper Kettle Bar and Lounge, where we tried something new—crispy fried green beans—and shared delicious slow-cooked ribs.
Our final stop the next day was the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, which tells the story of the brave VMI cadets who fought for the Confederacy in the waning days of the Civil War. As my son and I walked through the museum and ventured out onto the battlefield, I realized the young soldiers who fought bravely that day weren’t much older than Ross. I was glad to have scheduled the time to enjoy this mountain getaway with my youngest son since I know from experience that kids don’t stay kids for long. While Ross in typical teen fashion grumbled at times as we walked across the battlefield, overall I think he appreciated our weekend together. I know I did.
For more information, call 888-367-3965 or visit shenandoahtravel.org.