Rappahannock County is a kick-back, enjoy-the-moment kind of place that harkens to a gentler time. A pastoral paradise 75 miles west and worlds away from Washington, D.C. crazies and Capitol Hill pork barrel shenanigans, Rappahannock County (pop. 7,000) is part of the Virginia Piedmont, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Traveling west from Washington, as urban sprawl disappears and the mountains come into view, worries melt away. And, after spending the day in the country, the kids will be begging for bedtime.
Rappahannock's bucolic hamlets are reached via roads snaking through rolling hills, past fields of wildflowers, grazing cows, fruit orchards, and wineries. It's a short drive to the Luray, Va., entrance to Shenandoah National Park, with opportunities for hiking, nature walks, birding, horseback riding, camping in hardwood forests and scenic travels along Skyline Drive.
In towns such as "Little Washington," Flint Hill, and Sperryville, cars are almost an endangered species. How refreshing is that? And locals are fond of crowing about the dearth of traffic lights: there are none. (Nobody counts the lone blinker.) Little wonder that the area is a haven for farmers, artists, craftsmen, writers and big-city dropouts.
For current info, visit Rappahannock County's visitor's guide (www.rappcova.com) and the Washington Hospitality & Visitors Association (tel. 540/675-3128; www.town.washington.va.us). Brochures are available at most local businesses and the kiosk outside the P.O., catty-corner to the Inn at Little Washington, Main and Middle Streets. For info on galleries and studios, refer to Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (tel. 540/675-3193; www.rrac.org). For special events, pick up a copy of the Rappahannock News (www.rappnews.com).
What to See & Do
Take to the outdoors! Spring through fall (and on many winter days, too), take a hike in Shenandoah National Park (3655 US Highway 211 E, Luray, VA; tel. 540/635-5258; www.shenandoah.national-park.com). Don't expect to cover all 300 square miles in a single visit. Park Rangers lead hikes of one to 1.5 miles and give informal talks on a regular basis. Kids 7 and up can participate in Junior Ranger Programs. Bring field glasses and a guidebook and go birdwatching. Or saddle up and form a family posse (May through October).
Pack old clothes for fruit- and berry-picking, a pleasing pursuit spring through fall at a dozen or so farms and orchards. This is apple country and several family-owned farms, such as Jenkins Orchard, boast up to 16 types of apples (355 Yancey Rd., Woodville; tel. 540/897-8192) September into mid-November. Several more orchards and farms are listed at www.rappahannock.com/farms. If you don't want to get your hands dirty, load up on farmer-picked fresh produce, homemade jam, honey and baked goods.
More than two dozen artists open their studios and galleries to the public at the annual Rappahannock Artists Annual Studio and Gallery Tour the first weekend of November (Nov. 1-2, 2008). Kids 12 and older are welcome (with their families) to meet more than two dozen of the county's nationally and internationally recognized residents on a self-guided tour. What makes this extra-special, you will catch some of them in the act (of creating). At the Geneva Welch Gallery (341 Main St., Washington) introduce the kids to the soulful cows painted by the artist/gallery owner. Notice how the bovine's gaze seems to follow you. If the kids have mastered "look, don't touch" head to award-winning potter and artist Jeanne Drevas who lives in a modern-day tree house on -- where else? -- (Potters Ridge Lane, Sperryville, tel. 540/987-3113; www.jeannedrevas.com). There she turns out installations, pottery and baskets with natural materials, most of which she finds on the property. At White Oak Forge, Ltd., (31 Shootz Hollow Rd., Huntly), the studio of ironwork artist (and master storyteller) Nol Putnam, pull up a stool and chat with the artist who created the three gates to the Columbarium at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The "job" took him 1,200 hours.
Poke around Washington, the Gotham of Rappahannock County (www.thefirstwashington.com). It was established in 1796, making it the first town called Washington out of the 28 so named in the U.S. Take a self-guided walking tour through the burg that George Washington laid out as a 5- block by 2-block grid when he was a 17-year-old surveyor -- before he moved on to bigger and better things. Once a trading post, the town escaped large-scale commercialization when the railroad was built in a more hospitable area north of town. If you're here on a weekday, go inside the beautifully restored town hall at 485 Gay St. Built in 1850 as a church, it will soon be added to the town register of historic buildings. Don't tell them I said to, but please peek inside the award-winning Inn at Little Washington, where rooms are booked up to a year in advance and the restaurant prix-fixe dinners fetch upwards of $150 per person. Not for nothing has this inn won top awards for accommodations and dining. While this is clearly not a kid magnet, if you can swing it, I suggest coming back sometime without them. Special events take place around major holidays -- in a scene worthy of Currier & Ives, the town gets gussied up in garlands, candles and lights over the Christmas and there is a holiday parade the first Sunday of December.
Where to Dine
Slip into the pubby Griffin Tavern (659 Zachary Taylor Highway, Flint Hill; tel. 540/675-3227; www.griffintavern.com) for homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, ribs, BBQ, and excellent fish and chips. Locals (and this visitor) rave about Rae's (20 Main St., Sperryville; tel. 540/987-3335; www.eatatraes.com), a no-frills place where the food is beyond delish. Dig into any of the wonderful soups, burgers, vegetarian dishes, dinner specials, or desserts. Rudy's Pizza (3710 Sperryville Pike/Intersection of Rtes 522/211, Sperryville; tel. 540/987-9494; www.thorntonrivergrille.com) serves hand-tossed pizzas, calzones, and focaccia sandwiches. In the same building is the Thornton River Grille (3710 Sperryville Pike; tel. 540/987-8790; www.thorntonrivergrille.com). If your kids appreciate fine "American" food in a casual setting, by all means, come here. It's open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, brunch only on Sunday, closed Monday. Pick up picnic fixings at the Sperryville Corner Store (3710 Sperryville Pike, Sperryville; tel. 540/987-8185) where you find groceries, snacks, prime meats, deli, wine and beer. Open daily.
Where to Stay
The House on Water Street (14 Water St., Sperryville; tel. 540/987-9706; www.thehouseonwaterstreet.com) was made for families. Stay in a lovingly restored century-old farmhouse that has all the bells and whistles: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, fully equipped kitchen/dining area, living room with (propane) log stove, garden and outdoor seating, porta-a-crib, and high chair. Walk to restaurants, or dine in the comfort of your very own house.
When to Go
Rappahannock County is a beauty year-round. My favorite season is fall when the foliage paints an impressionistic canvas of gold, orange, and crimson. Most years the leaves hang around until the second week of November. Pull over and watch the sun set behind Old Rag Mountain: In a cinematic moment film directors would kill for, the sun slips behind the mountains and casts a multicolor glow. Winter affords the clearest skies and best opportunities for wildlife viewing. The tradeoff, of course, can be chilly, damp weather with occasional snow and ice. Gamblers take note: Spring can last for a season or 20 minutes. Snow melt-off and spring rains spell M-U-D (b ring your Wellies just in case). The local flora and fauna spring to life late April to early June, and from late spring through summer, weather is optimal (albeit a tad toasty and humid for some).
Getting There & Getting Around
You need a car to get here -- and to get around. From Washington, D.C. take Route 66 West from the Beltway (495) to Route 29 South to Warrenton, then 211 West for 25 miles to the town of Washington, centrally located in the heart of Rappahannock County. From there, other destinations in the county are 10 minutes to than half an hour's drive.