It’s hard to believe, but summer is just days away. No matter how old (or how young) you are there is just a certain something about summertime. Just ask Olaf. Or the Fresh Prince. Freedom, adventure and relaxation. Sigh. For many families (including mine) that means hitting the road for vacation. The beach is a popular destination, but maybe your budget doesn’t allow for a big trip. Or maybe finding time is the problem. And who doesn’t love being trapped in a car with children for hours? My husband, two-year-old daughter Madeline and I have thrown caution to the wind. We’ve gone Griswold. Our quest for family adventure has taken us on amazing road trips that are affordable, close and fun! In this special Knoxville Moms’ series, I’m highlighting three of our favorites. I’ve already shared about our wonderful weekends in Birmingham, Alabama and Cincinnati, Ohio. Now, our road trip to my hometown. So, in the words of Will Smith “put your car on cruise and lay back ’cause this is summer time.”
Abingdon is sometimes overshadowed by its bigger neighbor Bristol. But this small town is seriously cool and just over two hours from Knoxville. Yes, I’m biased. But USA Today agrees with me. Abingdon was just named one of the 2016 10 best Southern small towns. There is a thriving arts community, rich history, gourmet food and the gorgeous Virginia Highlands. Thousands of visitors each year come to enjoy all those charms and more. If it sounds like I’m trying to convince you I am! After all, I did spend summers working at the Abingdon Convention and Visitors Bureau during high school and college. Something tells me once you check out this list my work here will be done!
Barter Theatre: The Barter Theatre has the grand distinction of being the state theater of Virginia. Since 1933, its marquee has been lighting up Main Street. Many stars got their start on the Barter stage including Gregory Peck, Kevin Spacey and Knoxville’s own Patricia Neal. You can see shows ranging from Shakespeare to musicals to children’s performances like Charlotte’s Web. Truly, something for everyone!
Virginia Creeper Trail: This award-winning trail runs 34 miles from the heart of Abingdon to the North Carolina border. It’s part of the rails-to-trails program that turns old railroad tracks into well cared for paths for bicycling, hiking and horseback riding. The Abingdon Virginia Creeper sections are particularly scenic taking you through farmland and over huge train trestles. You can BYOB (bring your own bike) or rent one. My favorite ride is down White Top Mountain, the second highest peak in Virginia. (White Top is technically right outside of Abingdon.) There are plenty of shuttle services to cart you and your bike up to the top. Then you can coast down and enjoy the views.
William King Museum of Art: FREE! Did that get your attention? It costs absolutely nothing to explore this art museum (though donations are appreciated). The well-curated exhibits are aimed at people of all ages. William King offers a really cool and unique way to engage your children. Just stop by the front desk for scavenger hunts of the arts center. One of this summer’s exhibits on weird and wacky roadside attractions, including King Kong and Frankenchicken, will be a definite hit with your family.
Martha Washington Inn: This historic hotel called “The Martha” by locals is sumptuous and grand. Probably not what you would expect in a family travel blog. While this AAA four-diamond establishment may not be in your hotel budget, it’s absolutely free to sit on its stately porch and rock a spell. You can also explore the lobby with its incredible architecture and art. Sit down at Sisters American Grill for lunch or a small plate. If you want to splurge, go to the spa. Its Ahhh-mazing! Even indulging in one treatment gives you access to the hot tub, sauna, and the salt water heated pool. Did I mention the soft, plush robes? Calgon, take me away!
Dreamland Alpacas: You and your family can get up close and personal with these gentle creatures at Dreamland Alpacas. The farm is in Meadowview just a short drive from Abingdon. The owners offer free tours and it’s clear they’re passionate about their award-winning alpacas. My two-year-old daughter Madeline is still talking about the ‘pacas, so they made quite an impression! Check out the farm store before you leave for incredibly soft blankets, socks and adorable finger puppets all made from alpaca fur. While you’re in Meadowview, go to Harvest Table Restaurant for a true farm to fork experience. The restaurant describes its food as neo-Appalachian. I call it delicious!
My parents don’t run a bed and breakfast (otherwise I would tell you to stay at their house!). But there are plenty of true bed and breakfasts in Abingdon, along with chain hotels. My pick would be the lovingly restored historic homes that are available on the website Vacation Rental By Owner. Most are a short walk or bicycle ride from all the things I’ve mentioned. Maybe our next visit we’ll check in and drop Madeline off at grandma and grandpa’s house…
Wolf Hills Brewery: Wolf Hills is young by Abingdon standards. This craft brewing company began in 2009. It’s quickly become a favorite for locals and visitors alike. Wolf Hills also has some serious street cred in the craft beer industry. What makes this place great for families is the laid-back atmosphere. There is a large outdoor area with picnic tables and lawn games (a favorite spot for kids and folks with dogs). You can often find live music and a food truck, too. When you go, have a White Blaze Honey Cream Ale for me!
Ellis Soda Shoppe & Grille: The folks at Ellis say some things never got out of style, including this truly authentic drugstore soda fountain. I would have to agree! You can enjoy soup, sandwiches, salads and more at Ellis Soda Shoppe & Grille. Emphasis on the more! Be sure to save room for a shake (or other ice cream concoction.) President Obama made an unexpected campaign stop here back in 2012. He had a vanilla shake, but I would recommend the chocolate (I had one before I walked down the aisle on my wedding day)!
Political Dogs: Consider this place “the hot dog leader of the free world.” These gourmet hot dogs come with a side of politics, but in the best way possible. There is lots of cool memorabilia at Political Dogs from local, state and presidential elections. Each dog is named for a political leader. This is one place where bipartisanship really works. We can all agree the food is yummy!
The Tavern: The Tavern is the oldest building in Abingdon dating back to 1779. You can sense the history once you walk in the door. The cozy dining rooms with low ceilings and the patio prove some things stand the test of time. The Tavern menu offers intercontinental fare, including lots of tasty German dishes. Dinner reservations are recommended. Children are welcome in this friendly and informal spot proving history doesn’t have to be stuffy.
Moon Dog Brick Oven: This hip restaurant delivers piping hot brick oven pizzas to your table. The pizza crust, bread, breadsticks and buns at Moon Dog are made fresh every day. There are classic pizzas like pepperoni, but a local favorite is the Syrian. It has garlic butter, instead of a red sauce, tons of mozzarella, onions and black pepper. My mouth is watering!
One of the best times to visit Abingdon is during the Virginia Highlands Festival. It highlights the art and culture of the region and brings incredible artists, musicians and events to town. There are crafts, antiques, outdoor recreational activities and a children’s area with special programming. This year the Virginia Highlands Festival runs from July 29th to August 7th. Whether or not your family vacation leads you to my hometown this summer, I hope Clark Griswold’s words ring true and you have so much fun you’ll need plastic surgery to remove your smiles.