Over the course of my adult life, I have been privileged to drive the full length of Virginia’s Interstate-81 (from Winchester to Bristol) probably hundreds of times, and in my opinion, the Great Valley presents one of the most beautiful and soothing landscapes on the entire planet – the millions of acres of fertile farmland, majestic mountains and rolling hills all make this one of the most enjoyable and scenic highway drives of America’s East Coast.
With this being said, I’m ashamed to say that though I had passed by its exits a countless number of times, I had never before taken a break from the Interstate and explored the downtown area of Staunton, Virginia, and boy do I ever regret having waited so long!
With a three-day weekend and no plans on the horizon, Allison and I pointed the tourist-wagon east and soon found ourselves in a traveler’s paradise: The City of Staunton, Virginia.
If Virginia is for lovers, then this part of Virginia is for history lovers, as Augusta County, Virginia, boasts of once upon a time serving as America’s largest county, with its territory extending from Michigan to the Mississippi River, totally encompassing most of what is now West Virginia as well as the whole of Kentucky; however, it is what the region offers modern visitors that should earn this All-American City a notch on your “must visit bucket list”.
Far from being a backwards and unsophisticated mountain town, Staunton is a progressively charming and active community that has been serving as a trendsetter for American towns for well over a century. In 1908, the city created the first city-manager form of government and hired the nation’s first city manager, an act that would soon be followed by just about every incorporated town in the nation over the next hundred years.
Yet even with all of its forward thinking, the bedroom community of the University of Virginia has somehow managed to retain its Victorian-era sophistication and allure.
Arriving in the heart of the Downtown district of Staunton, Allison and I followed the robotic voice on my cell phone toward our first destination, the place we would be sleeping that night.
Driving up the steep hill of S. Coalter St., our faces slightly darkened by the shadows cast by the turn-of-the-century mansions lining either side of the road, our minds were quickly transported to a long-forgotten world where children safely played alongside the streets and architecture incorporated both function and fanciness.
At the intersection of Beverley St., we were greeted by the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and then, just before reaching the top of the tree-lined hill, our destination for the night appeared to our right: The Berkeley House Bed & Breakfast, located at 303 Berkeley Place.
As we approached the historic home, walking alongside the “old brick” haw haw wall that separated the mansion’s yard from the sidewalk down below, the awestruck farm boy who still resides deep inside my soul was doing his very best to keep his level of excitement in-check!
“We’re going to be staying straight across the street from Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace,” I exclaimed to my wife, whose full attention was focused entirely upon the three-story home we were nearing, “This place is beautiful.”
As we made our way to the spacious wrap around porch, we were greeted by our host Jeff Ribman, who along with his wife Bonnie, are responsible for restoring this home back to its original splendor. Over the next several hours, we would come to love and appreciate this couple’s incredible story, which began on the far side of the globe.
“Welcome to the Berkeley House,” greeted Jeff with a warm smile, as he showed us into the foyer of the elegant 120-year-old house.
As a travel writer, I have been fortunate to have stayed in a number of top of the line destinations throughout the nation, however, I can say without any shadow of a doubt, that Staunton’s Berkeley House is second to none when it comes to authentic “true to era” antiques… Most houses and inns are a hodgepodge of whatever item the owners came across while waiting for their tires to be rotated at the local Wal-Mart, but not the Berkeley House – every item in every room was splendidly and thoughtfully placed in its spot, further transporting one’s senses from the concerns of 2017 America to the golden era of luxury and class.
After showing us around the house, we settled into our room. No television will be found in the rooms of this mansion, this experience is all about stepping back in time with your significant other, without the distractions produced by a chatter box… Complimentary WiFi is available to all guests, however.
We stayed in the Catlett Chamber, a spacious and elegant room that offers guests a dual-bathroom sink and roomy walk-in shower.
Named for the family responsible for building the house, the Catlett Chamber offers, in my opinion, the greatest view of all the rooms in the house – in addition to overlooking the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, Downtown Staunton’s E. Frederick St. (main street) forms just outside this room’s window, offering a Norman Rockwell-type vista to the room’s guests.
Settling in beneath the high ceilings of our chamber, it soon became clear that everything about this room spoke of elegance and refining charm.
Following a longer than expected nap (the pillows are exceptional… for what it’s worth!) we opted to head out for an evening exploring the town.
The great thing about Staunton is that guests to this Virginia gem enjoy a walkable community – in less than a quarter-mile from their bedrooms visitors to the Berkeley House can be in the city’s downtown, enjoying authentic restaurants ranging from American cheeseburgers to gourmet and even contemporary venues.
A few highlights of the downtown restaurants include Taste of India (A classic Indian menu & lunch buffet offered in a warm, relaxed space with a tin ceiling & full bar), Aioli Restaurant (Mediterranean tapas & entrees presented in an elegant setting with exposed brick walls), Emilio’s Italian Restaurant (Refined Italian fare is the draw at this polished fixture with a rooftop patio and romantic ambiance), and Zynodoa Restaurant (Modern, farm-to-table Southern eatery & bar with upscale urban decor in a historic building).
These are only a few dining options, other restaurants include the Split Banana, Baja Bean Co., Clocktower Restaurant & Bar, Cranberry’s Grocery & Eatery, and several more.
After dinner, we recommend guests to check out the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse (only a five minute walk from the Berkeley House).
The American Shakespeare Center is a self-described, “internationally recognized home for the study of Shakespeare’s works using their original staging conditions — with a focus on the language, using a stage unimpeded by sets, and with the audience sharing the same light as the actors.”
Sadly, in what seemed like a matter of moments, the hour had become very late and it was time to call it an evening.
The following morning, we awoke and made our way down the stairs into the dining room where our hosts had prepared an exceptionally delicious breakfast – homemade fruit crepes!
After breakfast, we bid farewell to our new found friends and stopped by the Woodrow Wilson Library then made our way to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello… less than 45 minutes away!
A few other Staunton locations deserving of a nod include Frontier Culture Museum, Bruce A. Elder Antique and Classic Automobiles Museum, R.R. Smith Center for History & Art, Visuelite Theater, and Sunspots Studios & Glassblowing.
The bottom line is this — you need to add Staunton, Virginia, to your list of must visit Virginia localities!
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