Renee Sklarew is a DC-based writer and photographer specializing in travel stories. It’s an understatement to say she’s travelled widely, and one of her favorite regions to explore is the Shenandoah Valley. We got in touch with Renee to get a travel writer’s perspective on visiting the Shenandoah Valley – with a region this big, there are so many places to love.
Q: Is there one small town in the Shenandoah Valley that stands out to you?
A: Lexington. I adore the elegant accommodations at The Georges. It was the oldest structure in Lexington and was transformed into a world-class luxury inn. I like to dine at Southern Inn or TAPS. Lexington has sophisticated shops, and you can find lovely handmade gifts at Artists in Cahoots. For an overview of the city’s history and architecture, I recommend taking a horse and buggy ride with Lexington Carriage Company. The narrated tour clip-clops through the campuses of Washington & Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, and Lexington’s 19th century residential district. You learn a lot, and it’s fun.
Q: What town has the widest variety of activities?
A: Shepherdstown checks all the boxes. As someone who relishes the outdoors, Shepherdstown offers easy access to kayaking the Potomac River, or cycling the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath. It’s also a college town, with vibrant cafes and shops along German Street. My favorite is Maria’s Taqueria and German Street Coffee & Candlery for its Appalachian Mountain products. I always stay at The Bavarian Inn Resort. The restaurants serve German cuisine, and I like hanging out at Bavarian Brothers Beer Garden overlooking the Potomac. Shepherdstown is fifteen minutes from two national parks – Antietam National Battlefield, the bloodiest one-day encounter of the Civil War, and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, where Abolitionist John Brown took his famous stand. For a history-geek like me, it’s nirvana.
Q: What Shenandoah Valley city has the best downtown?
A: While there are many charming downtown centers, Old Town Winchester is a standout. I love strolling the pedestrian mall, shopping for crafts at Handworks and eating homemade pasta at Violino’s. The city has repurposed its 18th and 19th century architecture, like the Winchester Courthouse that’s now the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum. I always stay at the lovely and ideally located George Washington Hotel. Winchester has a new attraction – the Art Trails at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV). I never miss visiting the MSV, especially the Glen Burnie House & Gardens.
Q: What SV town is under the radar, but you’d like people know about?
A: Woodstock is a hidden gem. The town is surrounded by fertile farmland which has contributed to its burgeoning dining culture. My favorite is Woodstock Brewhouse, located inside a former denim factory. The restored building offers a picture of the town’s roots as a maker space. It’s great for wine drinkers too, because they serve vintages from two local wineries – Cave Ridge and Muse Vineyards. As the author of a book on hiking, I must recommend climbing Woodstock Tower for the spectacular mountain vistas. It’s a two-mile hike, but if you’re short on time, you can drive up. Afterward, check out Woodstock Café for a fresh take on comfort food or the Woodstock Garden Café at Fort Valley Nursery.
Q: What SV town is full of surprises?
A: If you love street art, you should visit Strasburg. Through the Staufferstadt Mural Project, the town commissions new artists each year to add to the contemporary artwork adorning its historic buildings. You wouldn’t expect to see so many murals of this caliber in a small town. My favorite is Alice Mizrachi’s Poetry in Motion, which speaks to the Valley’s embrace of diversity and family. Strasburg is minutes from Belle Grove National Historic Park, a restored 1787 manor house offering public tours. After a busy day, I relax at Strasburg’s Box Office Brewery where the flights of beer and cider are served in old film reels.
Q: Does your family have a favorite town in the Shenandoah Valley?
A: Everybody loves Staunton, including my family. We find this architecturally stunning city dazzling when the streetlights are aglow against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge. We begin our day at Reunion Bakery & Espresso for those irresistible croissants. For dinner, it’s Shenandoah Pizza & Tap House. My 20-something daughters are fans of the politically themed merchandise at Made; By the People; For the People and like meeting vendors at Staunton Farmers Market. While Staunton has excellent places to stay, the Blackburn Inn is special. The beautifully restored boutique hotel used to be a mental health hospital. The city is only 20 minutes from Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, so we make it our home base for hiking and scenic drives.
Q: If a friend told you she was going to the Valley for a spring weekend, and asked, “What are two things I have to see or do?” What would you say?
A: If it’s late spring, I would encourage them to visit the White Oak Lavender Farm & Purple Wolf Vineyard. The fields of lavender are a gorgeous sight to see, but there’s also a lot to do there. Take the tour to learn how lavender is grown and harvested, see the adorable farm animals, sample some wine and ice cream, and maybe buy products to take home. I would also encourage them to visit one of the Shenandoah Valley underground caverns. Each is different, but I’m always gob smacked by the stunning natural formations. The temperature inside hovers around 54 degrees year-round, so it’s warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Don’t leave without trying a bag of Route 11 Potato Chips, the SV’s hometown snack!
Renee Sklarew is the author of two guidebooks, The Unofficial Guide to Washington D.C. and 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Washington D.C. She also contributes travel articles and original photographs to newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post, Virginia Living, Boston Globe, Northern Virginia Magazine and AAA World. Renee is an avid home-cook and reports on food culture and food trends for FoodieTravelUSA.com. You’ll find her insights and images featured on travel websites like Destination DC, Visit Fauquier County, Visit Southwest Virginia, Visit Rockingham County and Visit Arlington. Follow her @TravelandDish on Instagram and Twitter.
Banner photo: Travel writer Renee Sklarew singled out Lexington as one small that really stands out for her. Photo by Sarah Hauser/VTC