In and Around Harrisonburg, Virginia
By Bob Tagert
Heading out for a road trip in the winter doesn’t lend itself to very many good photo ops since everything is brown and gray but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go on one. One of our favorite destinations during the other seasons has been Route 11 in the Shenandoah Valley. We have visited Strasburg, Thoms Brook, Woodstock, Edinburg and Mt. Jackson. We have written about these towns and shared our adventures of the countryside, wineries and the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. This time we decided to take a longer trip down the Valley Turnpike to Harrisonburg.
The Valley Turnpike or Valley Pike is the traditional name given for the Indian trail and roadway which now is U.S. Route 11 in the Shenandoah Valley. Before the arrival of the English colonists, Native Americans of the Delaware and Catawba tribes used this well-watered path as a migratory route and hunting grounds, moving between what is now Georgia and Canada. In the 1730’s Scotch, Irish and German immigrants coming from Pennsylvania began to move up (south to the higher elevations) the valley and establish settlements. The Valley Pike was given the U.S. Route 11 designation in 1926, and remained the major north-south highway thoroughfare for the Shenandoah Valley until Interstate 81 was built beginning in the 1960s.
After a nice drive down Route 11 we arrived at Harrisonburg, home of James Madison University (JMU). Although the city has no historical association with President James Madison, JMU was nonetheless named in his honor as Madison College in 1938 and renamed as James Madison University in 1977.
The city has come to represent a large community of ethnic and linguistic diversity in recent years. Over 1,900 refugees have been settled in Harrisonburg since 2002. As of 2014, Hispanics and Latinos of any race make up 19% of the city’s population. Harrisonburg City Public Schools students speak 55 languages in addition to English, with Spanish, Arabic and Kurdish being the most common secondary languages spoken. Over one-third of students are English as a second language learners. Language learning software company Rosetta Stone was founded in Harrisonburg in 1992, and the multilingual “Welcome Your Neighbor” yard sign originated in Harrisonburg in 2016.
Much like Old Town Alexandria, the Harrisonburg community discussed the possibility of creating a pedestrian mall downtown. Public meetings were held to discuss the merits and drawbacks of pursuing such a plan. Ultimately, the community decided to keep its Main Street open to traffic. From these discussions a strong voice emerged from the community in support of downtown revitalization. In 2004, downtown was designated as the Harrisonburg Downtown Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Virginia Main Street Community, with the neighboring Old Town Historic District residential community gaining historic district status in 2007.
The main intersecting roads in Harrisonburg are, as aforementioned, Route 11 or South Main St. which runs north and south and Route 33, or east Market Street, which runs east west. Obviously, I-81 which lies a little east of Route 11 is a very major artery going north south. All three of these routes can get you from Alexandria to Harrisonburg with just a few connections.
The ethnic diversity of Harrisonburg is also found in their restaurants. There are many fine restaurants to choose from in this town. The restaurants range from the BoBoKo Indonesian Cafe, the Joshua Wilton House, a fine dining establishment featuring Pan Seared Sea Scallops, Filet Mignon, or the Faroe Island Salmon, to the ultimate farm-to-table restaurant Rocktown Kitchen. Also close by is the Local Chop and Grille House, Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint, Bella Luna Wood -Fired Pizza and Vito’s Italian Kitchen. To be fair, this is just a drop in the bucket to what the entire foodie scene is in this Burg.
Upon our arrival we met with the tourism contact Jennifer Bell and walked a few blocks for lunch at Jimmy Madison’s. This was our kind of place. A rooftop bar, a blend of soulful music, delicious modern southern cuisine, and premium whiskeys all in one roof. That is Jimmy Madison’s. Unfortunately, it was cold so we had a nice lunch in the renovated warehouse dining room. Located near JMU this is partly a college destination but works very well for everyone. Unfortunately, our choice for dinner wasn’t as expected but our breakfast at the Heritage Bakery & Café was a winner. This little place is located in the same building in the heart of town that houses the Visitors Center. The waffles looked amazing but we chose the breakfast croissants – one bacon and one prosciutto, both with havarti cheese, egg souffle and greens. The Broad Porch coffee was superb and the orange juice is freshly squeezed every day. You have to get to this place early on a Saturday morning if you want any pastries to take home.
There are many accommodation choices for a couple of days stay in town. We stayed two nights at the brand new Hyatt Place on a bluff overlooking the town. From our room on the fifth floor we had a beautiful view west of the mountains. The hotel had only been open for three weeks and like most Hyatt’s, they have everything you need – workout room, pool, breakfast, lobby bar, etc. but the really nice feature at this one is the Ridge Room bar on the fifth floor. This place was a real treat. Not only open for the guests but the locals as well. This room faced west toward the mountains and had an extended balcony across the front for outside sipping and taking in the mountain air. Our room was what you would expect, very comfortable, great queen size bed next to the window and no wasted space. I would recommend this “Place” anytime…you have a great room in a hotel very close to downtown with a great view of the mountains. Also, you have what seems your own bar right down the hall. Then when I found out they had Copper Fox Single Malt Rye, my favorite, I knew we were in the right place.
If you are looking for a place with a more “local” feel, the Hotel Madison is the place to stay. It is located right in the Old Town area of the city within walking distance of all of the shops and many restaurants. Our plan is to spend a night or two there the next time we are in Harrisonburg.
For those looking for some outdoor activity this time of year, in addition to several hiking trails in the area, the Massanutten Ski Resort is open. When I learned to ski back in my early 30’s, Massanutten was one of the first mountains I skied. The Resort features 6,000 acres of mountain at its very best. Unique in both its size, variety, and outstanding condo and hotel accommodations, Massanutten has secured is spot as one of the premier all-seasons resort destinations on the East Coast.
When we were there the temperatures were in the mid 20’s and the mountain was making snow. With the excitement of having weather cold enough to make snow and expecting an actual snowstorm, the line for ski rentals and lift tickets was wrapped around the lodge into the parking lot and was about a football field in length at 11 am. When we left Harrisonburg on Sunday a snow storm was only an hour behind us which promised to turn the whole mountain white.
The Shenandoah Valley is noted for its fine wineries, so we decided to visit three of the best on the Shenandoah Wine Trail – all of which have been featured in the Grapevine column over the years. Our first stop was at CrossKeys Vineyard. First of all, the Shenandoah Valley is just a beautiful setting for any winery. Rolling hills create good drainage for the air that drifts down from the mountains. CrossKeys is only 15 minutes from Harrisonburg and is a family owned 125-acre estate winery and produces award-winning wines. Their Tuscan-style villa and gourmet onsite Bistro offer beautiful panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and an easy to love setting for weddings, private events, or a quick weekend escape.
The next winery was Brix and Columns Vineyards. Owners Steve and Stephanie Pence both grew up in a farming world. Steve helped his grandparents on their family farm, and Stephanie was an avid horse rider who welcomed the responsibility that came with raising and riding horses. In 2003, they found the perfect property just miles from both of their childhood homes. The panoramic mountain views were the icing on the cake of this 160 acre farm.
The third winery we visited was Bluestone Vineyard, a family owned and operated vineyard and winery, committed to crafting small-batch wines from locally sourced and estate grown fruit that showcase the very best in each varietal and each vintage. Curt and Jackie Hartman have lived west of Bridgewater (a few miles from Harrisonburg) on the hill above Jordan Stretch since 1995. With their friends Phil and Lois Kreider (Misty Ray Winery), they began planting grapes on the hill in 2003 to make wine for personal use. In 2007 they decided to make the vineyard a business and with advice from the researchers at Virginia Tech they laid out the vineyard, tested the soils, and chose the grapes to plant. With the help of friends and family, four thousand red grape vines were planted on the south side of the hill in 2008, and the rest they say, is history.
Depending on which route you take to get to Harrisonburg the drive time will be anywhere from 3 hours to a little over two hours. This is not a day trip so plan to spend one or two nights. There is a lot to see on the trip as well as in town. If you go in February or March, check the weather…we made it back a half hour before the snow!