Three Days in Northern Piedmont
John Hagarty is an author for DW&S Magazine that blends Virginia history and his love for craft beverages and food. Looking around the site, you will find his stories on the history of Virginia wine, beer, spirits and even the history of Virginia taverns and pubs. For this edition, John tells us about Virginia’s Northern Piedmont. Sit back and read about a long Summer weekend with John in a favorite region of Virginia. Once again, he blends Virginia history and the Commonwealth’s food and beverage culture. Enjoy…
Magical might best describe Virginia.
Arguably no state possesses a more graceful landscape and rich, storied past. The Commonwealth is a cornucopia of life’s finer pleasures.
When traveling countries as divergent as British Columbia and Ireland, my wife and I have encountered comments from the locals such as, “You’re from Virginia? It’s so beautiful there!”
How did they know? Everyone does.
The Blue Ridge Mountains. The Shenandoah Valley. The Chesapeake Bay. The Piedmont region. The landscape is legendary.
The beauty of the Northern Piedmont springs from its rolling, lush landscapes, dense forests, open farmland, and sparkling streams. All backdropped by the famed Blue Ridge.
A Visit to Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties
This is the region we call home. Specifically, it encompasses Fauquier and Rappahannock counties. To highlight its popularity over 1.5 million motorists visit the Shenandoah National Park each year.
But there is so much more to see than just the sweeping views from Skyline Drive. Join us as we take a three-day tour of select lodging, restaurants, historical venues, shops, social lubricant establishments and more.
Let’s create some memories.
From whatever direction you enter Fauquier County you will intuitively know relaxation awaits. For starters, there are 26 wineries, four breweries and two meaderies scattered over its 651 square miles.
But the libation cornucopia must wait until later in the day. Our first stop is the county seat, Warrenton.
The historical area on Main Street is where we’ll head first. Specifically, the Old Jail.
The original four-cell jail was built in 1808 and converted into a house for the jailer when a larger hoosegow was built to the rear of it in 1823. As you enter the jail the “warden” or more accurately, docent, will give you a brief overview of the building’s history then set you off for a self-guided tour of the two-story structure.
What you will experience is one of the most well-preserved old jails in the state. To roam the second floor and see prisoner cells as they existed in the past will reinforce why breaking bad in the good old days came with a high price tag; cramped discomfort.
The jail’s museum includes a collection of artifacts representing the county’s history from Native Americans, to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II eras. The exploits of local Confederate legend, Colonel John S. Mosby, or the “The Gray Ghost, is also highlighted. Mosby was known for his lightning-quick raids and ability to elude Union Army pursuers.
The 45-minute tour costs $10 for adults and $5 for children under twelve. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Having served your “sentence,” you will be paroled to explore the four block Old Town district.
Numerous shops will beckon as you casually stroll south down the right side of Main Street and back up the left.
Along the way, you will pass gift shops, a book shop, jewelers, art shops, a bakery, a bike shop, and restaurants among other quaint boutiques. Since midday hunger pangs will be starting to stir, consider dining at either Denim & Pearls, the Black Bear Bistro or Molly’s Irish Pub.
After lunch head back to the car and drive east on Route 29 for nine miles to Vint Hill, a “suburb” of Warrenton, to visit the Cold War Museum.
Founded in 1996 by Francis Gary Powers Jr., the son of legendary U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, the museum preserves and honors Cold War veterans.
The museum has over $3 million worth of artifacts in its collections. Holdings include items from the Berlin Airlift, the suitcase Gary Powers carried when he was exchanged for Rudolf Abel, a 5,000-square-foot display on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet and American Nike missiles and spy satellites.
It also has the largest collection of civil defense items in America. A donation of $10 is requested part of which can go to the purchase of items from its gift shop.
As you leave the museum consider stopping by Old Bust Head Brewery for a cold draft. It’s just a two-minute drive and an ideal winding down spot to end your day’s sightseeing.
Strapped back in your chariot your lodging destination for the day is, Airlie, a short five-mile drive back west on Route 29.
The original estate was built in 1899 by Philadelphia native Harry C. Groome who named it after a castle in Scotland. The home was destroyed by fire in 1924 and Groome rebuilt it on its original foundation.
In 1956 a new owner transformed the property into one of the first conference facilities in the country. Today Airlie offers a variety of value-added packages for couples and business groups including farm-to-table dinners, special amenities and more.
With onsite dining available you’ll be tempted to call it a day at this luxurious estate resort. But if your “explorer genes” are still humming, freshen up and head back into Warrenton for the 10-minute drive to Claire’s at the Depot in the historic district.
The dining establishment is considered one of the best in Fauquier County. Its setting is elegantly casual, and no less a restaurant critic than The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema said, “…the restaurant is in a former train depot and is a charmer.”
The charm includes dinners such as Atlantic salmon, sea scallops, blackened scallops, veal scallopini, double stuffed pork chops, farmed raised half chicken, char-grilled steaks and more. Its discerning wine list will not disappoint.
It’s been voted the “Best of Warrenton” for seven out of the last eight years.
After dinner, you might be tempted to drop in at Wort Hog Brewing Company diagonally across the street from Claire’s for a sudsy nightcap.
But then again, maybe we shouldn’t push it. Your call. A luxurious room at Airlie awaits.
A leisurely morning breakfast at Airlie will start the second day of your adventure. Drive back through Warrenton on Broadview Avenue and turn right onto Route 211 west. You are about to enter one of the most unique counties in the country 11 miles distant.
Rappahannock County is sparsely settled with a population of 7,300. That’s some 2,500 fewer souls than in 1850. It has no stoplights, no shopping malls, no fast food restaurants and gives new meaning to the words “laid back.”
What it does possess is beauty in abundance.
As you drive west into the county, you will be traveling on the Skyline Wine Trail. You won’t need hiking boots to explore this trail later in the day.
The trail encompasses nine wineries, two breweries, one meadery, one distillery, eight restaurants, 13 lodging establishments, and 14 shops and galleries scattered like diamonds on a rolling landscape of verdant fields and dense forests.
Our destination this morning is the town of Little Washington.
A precocious 17 year-surveyor laid out the town’s 51 half acre plats in 1749. His name was George Washington. Today, the town has about the same number of home sites. Growth is not embraced in Rappahannock.
As you enter the village head to the post office that is located diagonally across from the famed Inn at Little Washington. There is parking behind the post office that will set you free to roam the village’s jewelry, art, and antique shops and to explore the historical Gay Street area.
As lunchtime approaches slide behind the steering wheel and travel west to the intersections of Route 211 and Route 522 and go north three miles to the Griffin Tavern located in the even smaller village of Flint Hill.
A selection of draft beers and quality wines make for a nice companion to a lunch of fish and chips, a local favorite. But the menu has depth so take your time in ordering.
If you elect to sit in the bar, you may be pulled into the friendly conversation as the bartender, ensconced in a rectangular bar at the center of the room, takes orders and links one conversation with another. Yes, it’s as fun as visiting a British pub whose ambiance it replicates.
With lunch over the “Rappahannock Dilemma” emerges, where to go next?
Perhaps the best answer is to have no agenda but simply cruise the backcountry roads of this bucolic region, snapping photos and banking memories.
With the Skyline Wine Trail to fall back on, there will be ample opportunity to secure a glass of afternoon wine or draft beer. Even a tour of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville is a distinct possibility. You’ve got an imagination so be sure use it.
As late afternoon settles on the region, it’s time to check into the night’s lodging. Our choice is the Foster Harris House.
At Foster Harris, guests indulge in the luxurious feel of a five-diamond resort surrounded by the irresistible charm of an intimate, historic home. After you settle in and take a rest, head back out to Flint Hill for dinner at The Blue Door.
The restaurant is new having opened two years ago. The owners brought their dining bona fides from Northern Virginia where they ran the acclaimed Villa Mozart.
The menu fuses old world Italian cuisine with modern technique and flair and includes slow-cooked sauces and handmade pastas and pastries. Prices are moderate.
On your return visit to Rappahannock County—and yes, you will be back—consider dining at the newest upscale dining spot The Three Blacksmiths in the village of Sperryville. Accolades have poured in since its opening so reservations can be difficult to secure. But don’t give up. It’s worth the wait.
If it’s a clear night, after dinner as you drive back to the Foster Harris House to bed down, take note of the starry sky. Another Rappahannock treat is its night skies, a prized benefit of traveling in a lightly populated region.
After a night of Rappahannock dreaming, you’ll awake to the aroma of a four-course gourmet breakfast being prepared by your hosts. We hope you left some room in the tummy from last night’s repast.
As you bid adieu to your hosts, your final day in northern Piedmont is all yours. By now you’ve gotten a feel for the delights available countywide. Pick your options carefully because this final day will fly by faster than a county Red-tailed Hawk.
As you set course for home in the afternoon, the one downside of spending three days in northern Piedmont becomes increasingly apparent. You don’t want to leave.
But fear not, your return is a given. It takes more than one excursion to embrace all the delights of Fauquier and Rappahannock counties.
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