Country singer John Denver certainly liked this lesser-known US state, and Jeannine Williamson is inclined to agree.
West Virginia is off the radar for the majority of Brits who head to Orlando’s theme parks, the Big Apple, neon lights of Vegas and other big-hitting US destinations. But as it gets ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Mountain State is set to get its own share of the spotlight.
SELL: WILD AND WONDERFUL
Country crooner John Denver gave the state its unofficial anthem when he sang ‘Almost heaven, West Virginia’ in the song Country Roads. However, for the British market its charms are relatively undiscovered.
The only American state to be born out of the Civil War, when it broke away from Virginia, West Virginia is raising its profile in 2013 with a marketing campaign linked to its 150th anniversary. It also promotes itself under the tagline ‘Wild and Wonderful’ and relies on its natural and historic charms rather than man-made attractions.
The eastern border of West Virginia is only an hour’s drive from Washington DC, making it a perfect fit for a fly-drive holiday or twin-centre break, and there are daily internal flights to the capital Charleston in the west. Recommend it to repeat visitors, outdoor enthusiasts – there are excellent hiking trails and skiing in winter – and anyone who wants to enjoy a less manufactured side of America.
“West Virginia is rich in Civil War heritage and history buffs will find much to interest them here,” says Betty Carver, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Tourism. “For instance, the first campaign of the war was waged in West Virginia and the Civil War-era towns and battlefield cemeteries are a popular itinerary for driving tours.”
There’s also a distinctive artistic heritage that can be heard through Appalachian music performed live in many restaurants and clubs and, in complete contrast to all-American fast-food chains, there are numerous independent eateries serving regional and often organic produce and a host of micro-breweries and distilleries, such as Smooth Ambler Spirits outside Lewisburg, which offers tours and tastings.
The tourist board is marketing the state as an affordable and diverse destination with spectacular scenery. To find out more, go to Wvtourism.com.
STAY: LOG CABINS AND LUXURY
For couples there are family-run B&Bs in atmospheric buildings that are old by American standards. Thomas Shepherd Inn, in Shepherdstown in the Shenandoah Valley, has six very comfortable individually-decorated rooms and is high on charm, conveniently situated on the main street and close to good restaurants. The lounge has tea, coffee and snacks on tap along with a decanter of sherry and amazing breakfasts featuring novelties such as hot apple soup.
A grand dame property is the huge 710-room Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. With bold, idiosyncratic decor inspired by 1920s interior designer Dorothy Draper, it’s a luxurious retreat with a large spa, excellent restaurant and casino, where free champagne is handed out to guests each night as resident dancers waltz to Greenbrier’s signature tune.
It’s also home to a unique attraction – a cavernous underground Cold War bunker built to protect US politicians and kept secret for more than 30 years. Today there are tours for hotel guests and non-residents.
A good choice for families who enjoy the great outdoors are the self-catering wooden cabins in Blackwater Falls State Park. Situated in woodland, the 39 cabins include 13 deluxe four-bedroom properties and rooms in the main lodge where meals can be taken.
This is the type of place where visitors might be rewarded with a glimpse of the state animal, the black bear. Similarly, the 4,100-acre Resort at Glade Springs, near the Appalachian Mountains, has a wide range of flexible accommodation to suit families and groups, and fantastic facilities including three golf courses and a riding school.
SEE: HERITAGE AND THE GREAT OUTDOORS
In West Virginia the ultimate white-knuckle thrill comes courtesy of a bridge rather than a theme park big dipper. At 1,700ft the New River Gorge Bridge is the longest steel arch bridge in the western hemisphere and visitors can follow a guide along the catwalk to look down at the river 876ft below.
More down-to-earth draws include attractive towns with great individual shops and galleries such as Berkeley Springs, with its wealth of day spas; chic Lewisburg, which was voted the coolest small town in America; and Thomas, which boasts a good live music scene.
The state capital and largest city is Charleston, with its own capitol building and the State Museum, which really brings the region to life through a series of imaginative themed areas reached by following a changing pattern of footprints on the floor.
Historic highlights include Harpers Ferry, the easternmost town in West Virginia, which played a strategic role in the Civil War and will be a key site for commemorative events in 2013. Best known for a raid on the arsenal in 1859 by anti-slavery campaigner John Brown, interpretive guides are available and visitors can wander around original buildings that now house museums, exhibits and shops.
Steaming ahead to its 50th anniversary as a tourist attraction in 2013 is the Cass Scenic Railroad, in the state park of the same name. The train line was built in 1901 to haul timber to the mill in Cass, which closed in 1960, and the locomotives provide a nostalgic trip back in time.
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