In our first exploration in Roanoke, Va.–located at the southern tip of the Shenandoah Valley–we took a little time to grasp its early history, the lay of the land and a bit of its African-American history.
The first full day here, we hit the ground running! First, I want to share my experience as a guest at the Sheraton Roanoke Hotel & Conference Center. Newly designed with a recent $18 million renovation, the hotel is an oasis of comfort and down-to-earth style, featuring a very warm and welcoming staff, beautiful open relaxation and dining areas, spacious and comfortable rooms, a great fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools and lush foliage all about the property. It is a wonderful place to start and end the day, whether traveling for business or pleasure.
For breakfast, we ate at the aptly named the Roanoker Restaurant, a staple in the city since 1941 and recently named by Southern Living magazine as one of Virginia’s five best breakfast spots. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, you’ll find a wealth of sumptuous homemade and Southern specialties with a bit of Southern and Virginia flair, including their famous Roanoker breads, including biscuits and rolls.
Next, we took off to visit the city’s literal star attraction: the Roanoke Star and Overlook. Located on Mill Mountain some 1,045 feet above the city, it is over 88 feet tall, weighs 10,000 pounds and is currently the world’s largest freestanding illuminated manmade star. Originally installed in 1949 as a seasonal Christmas decoration, it is actually three stars in one illuminated by 2,000 feet of neon tubing, making it visible for 60 miles. The panoramic views of the city and beyond from the Star are stunning, and you can check them out via their Starcam.
Other attractions on Mill Mountain include the Discovery Center, offering exhibits, activities and more that highlight the distinctive natural environment of the hundreds of acres of rugged forests surrounding it; the Mill Mountain Zoo, home to more than 175 animals, including several endangered species; and wonderful trails and walkways for walkers, cyclists and others who enjoy the mountain ambiance.
Back in Town
Popping back downtown to the Historic Market District–in addition to another leisurely walk through the Historic Roanoke City Market–we got a sneak peak at the expansion and re-invention of Center in the Square (opening spring 2013). Entities here will encompass the Mill Mountain Theatre, presenting high-quality theater productions; the History Museum of Western Virginia, which, through a wide array of permanent and traveling exhibits, offers the largest repository of material devoted to tracing the human history of Western Virginia; and the Science Museum of Western Virginia, providing hands-on, interactive exhibits that engage the senses and stimulate curiosity for learning about science and technology, among other entities.
Just a short stroll from there is the historic spot well worth the visit–the city’s David R. and Susan S. Goode Railwalk, a unique, half-mile outdoor museum walk paralleling train tracks, featuring historical signage and memorabilia such as displays, whistles and other elements that detail the history of the railroad in Roanoke up to the present day.
After crossing the railroad tracks via the Market Square Walkway, you will come to the O. Winston Link Museum, which also plays an integral role in the city’s railroad history. The museum is an homage to its namesake, Winston Link (1914-2001), a prolific photographer and photo editor who made his mark during WWII for his dramatic images of locomotives, industrial interiors, factories and related entities that expertly impart the rich culture and heritage of the Norfolk & Western Railway, the last major steam railroad in the country.
Across the street, you can’t help but notice the majestic Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center. The hotel itself, built in 1882, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and originally nicknamed “The Grand Old Lady,” is an elegant, Tudor-style, 331-guest room and 19-suite hotel that exudes period opulence and luxury at every turn. It features soaring vaulted ceilings, awe-inspiring frescoes, Florentine marble floors and other grand details and stylings. While there, we enjoyed a sumptuous meal in the Regency Room, which serves a lunch buffet that is absolutely to die for! Be sure to try their renowned spoon bread and peanut soup offerings.
Another wonderful place to get a good grasp of the city’s railroad history is at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. I have to say that even if you think trains are not really your thing, this is a fascinating attraction, which is home to the largest collection of diesel and steam locomotives in the country, and boasts an expansive collection also encompassing over 2,500 aviation, automotive and transit artifacts. The museum yard here is amazing as well, where you get a real sense of the power and significance of these massive vehicles from standing next to them.
Bridging the Gap
Although the demographics in Roanoke today are 66 percent white and 28 percent Black, it was not always like that; segregation was a distinct way of life here. One of those demarcations of color was starkly evident at the First Street Bridge, which separated the Black and white neighborhoods, neither of whom were encouraged–and in some ways permitted–to cross over.
But in recent years, there have been many Roanokans, both white and Black, who desired to make amends for this former divisiveness and chose to come together to celebrate the diversity and inclusiveness that the city enjoys today by honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a renaming of the bridge and the addition of a statue of his likeness.
What you find today is the renovated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge and an extraordinary, life-sized bronze statue of King set atop an approximately six-foot tall pedestal with a bronze street scene representing King and the various people of this nation, for whom he represented justice and liberty for all. On several sides there are also benches with audio presentations of snippets of his various speeches. It is a very moving tribute that must be experienced.
Artist Jeff Artis, who played an integral role in the creation and development of the memorial and bridge renovation, also created a Black history tour designed to share the experiences of African-Americans in Roanoke through words and pictures.
Next week, Our last exploration of the Roanoke area takes us along the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway!
- History Museum of Western Virginia, 540-342-5770, www.vahistorymuseum.org
- Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, www.hotelroanoke.com
- Jeff Artis Black History Tour, www.jeffartis.com
- Mill Mountain Zoo, 540-343-3241, www.mmzoo.org
- O. Winston Link Museum, 540-982-5465, www.linkmuseum.org
- Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-635-5535, 540-342-6025, www.visitvablueridge.com
- Science Museum of Western Virginia, 540-342-5710, www.smwv.org
- The Roanoker Restaurant, 540-344-7746, www.theroanokerrestaurant.com
- The Roanoke Star and Overlook, www.roanokeva.gov/starcam
- The Virginia Museum of Transportation, 540-342-5670, www.vmt.org