By Paris Wolfe, as seen in The News-Herald

I spent three days eating and drinking my way through Virginia’s southern Shenandoah Valley. And I would have appreciated more time to sample the area’s culinary wealth. Fortunately for my body mass index, the region’s culinary wealth is matched by opportunities for outdoor adventure. My Fitbit worked overtime.

Geographically, the Shenandoah Valley stretches 200 miles through northwestern Virginia, across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains and below the Mason-Dixon line. Heading to the southern end of the valley, my first destination was Staunton (pronounced “stan-ten”).

Staunton city skyline
Once a southern hub Staunton, Va., combines historic charm with modern entertainment and culinary attractions.

The once-thriving, historic business center (population 24,000) is, according to Google Maps, a bit more than 400 miles and a six-and-a-half-hour drive. With connections and layovers, travel time via American Airlines was about eight hours. It may be easier and cheaper to drive from Northeast Ohio, especially if taking family on the trip.

Stop one was The Blackburn Inn, a four-story 1828 brick structure that started as a mental hospital transformed into a correctional center and abandoned in the early 2000s. In the past year it has been transformed into a 49-room hotel with vintage details and modern amenities. Despite its colorful inmates, professional ghost hunters once visited and found no evidence of occupying spirits.

Blackburn Inn

After a solid night’s sleep, the standard continental breakfast was good … until I tried the croissants. This wasn’t just any flaky pastry, but a French-inspired, almond-paste revelation made by Bryan Hollar, chef-owner of Reunion Bakery & Espresso, just 10 minutes away in downtown Staunton. It was so good I skipped the free breakfast on day two and went directly to Reunion for latte and pastry.

Two of Staunton’s best outdoor sites are Natural Chimneys, 120-foot limestone formations that resemble chimneys, and Grand Caverns, the longest continuously operating show cave in the United States. After a hike at the chimneys, I caught up with a group of fourth-graders taking the mile-long trek through Grand Caverns. I enjoyed the kids’ quirky questions and observations.

Discovered by a curious teen in 1804, the caverns opened to the public in 1806. The chambers are filled with stalactites, stalagmites and columns, but, most impressively, the cavern is one of the few with the “shield” formation. Shields look like flat plates hanging from a cave ceiling

In the afternoon, I followed a dirt road far from the beaten path to the legendary — in sustainable-farming circles — Polyface Farms, owned and operated by the Salatin family. Visitors can tour the livestock operation on their own at any time or reserve a spot on the twice-monthly Saturday tours to learn more about pastured animals and permaculture practices.

After seeing free-roaming chickens, I had to taste test. Are they truly yummier than the factory-farmed, low-priced supermarket bird? The kitchen at Zynodoa (rhymes with Shenandoah) in Staunton brines a Polyface Farms chicken breast in sweet tea before roasting and serves it with ham-braised collard greens, pimento cheese White Nighting grits and chicken jus. The result is divine. But who gets credit … farmer or chef? Both! Paired with a signature, bruleed cornbread presented in a small cast-iron skillet, this modern interpretation of Southern cooking is sublime.

The next morning, I tied on hiking boots for a sample of the Appalachian Trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway
The Appalachian Trail offers stunning vistas through the trees. Photo by Paris Wolfe

Just six miles into the Blue Ridge Parkway, a parking lot offers access to both Humpback Rocks, a strenuous uphill climb to a stunning overlook; and Glass Hollow Overlook, a gentle meander to another viewpoint. I chose the 2.7-mile loop that overlaps the Appalachian Trail through wildflower-rich wooded areas to Glass Hollow. Sunscreen and insect repellent are essential here.

Hike of Virginia’s Humpback Rocks proves to be challenge worth conquering

Hiking balanced a calorie-rich afternoon. At Basic City Beer Co. and Hops Kitchen — the latter resides inside the former — in nearby Waynesboro, I did a little beer-and-food sampling. Then, perhaps, a little more sampling. Co-founder and Zymurgy Synergist (read: owner and brewer) Bart Lanman has a heavy hand with hops and makes IPAs that are citrusy or piney. Take your pick.

Lanman’s restaurant partner, Mentor native Michael Pustai, started serving food from a tent in June 2015. By November, the same year he had maneuvered a truck into position as a permanent kitchen at the brewery. Beer-friendly food includes nachos covered with pulled pork, bacon jam and crispy jalapenos and buffalo-sauced, fried cauliflower. Several appetizers inspired by his Philippines-born wife pair well with beer.

Five minutes away is another beverage innovator, Blue Ridge Bucha. Founded in 2010 by husband-and-wife team Ethan and Kate Zuckerman, the company makes and bottles kombucha, a naturally carbonated, fermented tea that originated more than 2,000 years ago. A non-alcoholic beverage, it is high in probiotics and considered healthy for the digestive system.

Blue Ridge Bucha
Blue Ridge Bucha takes kombucha to a new level with a number of flavors. The product is now available at Whole Foods Market locations in Ohio. Photo by Paris Wolfe

Blue Ridge Bucha’s taproom has several fresh beverages on tap — ginger, elderflower sunrise, black raspberry and jasmine grape. Seasonal flavors such as juniper berry are part of a well-balanced lineup. The products are available in Whole Foods Markets in Ohio.

By 3 p.m., the food part of my day was only half over. The next stop, Wade’s Mill in Raphine, is like Fowler’s Mill in Geauga County. Except Wade’s Mill, which started in 1750, claims to be the oldest continuously operating commercial grist mill in the United States. For comparison, Fowler’s Mill originated in 1835.

Wade's Mill
The oldest continuously operating commercial grist mill in the Shenandoah Valley, Wade’s Mill has been stone-grinding local grains since the 1750s. Photo by Paris Wolfe

Owners John and Karen Siegfried source local corn and grains that they sell as single products or mixes. I was most interested in their stone-ground pastry flour and three varieties of grits. Previous experience has demonstrated that stone-ground pastry flour makes the finest pie crusts. I’ll be testing the Siegfrieds’ products. And my family, like it or not, will comparison taste the grits.

By dinner time, I had traveled south about 20 minutes to Lexington. The evening meal started with creamy spinach-artichoke dip and craft cocktails at Rocca Bar Ristorante, on the second floor of the Robert E. Lee Hotel, overlooking historic Main St. in Lexington, and continued with locally sourced entrees at Haywood’s Piano Bar, across the street on the first floor of The Georges Inn. Scallops got the Southern treatment, lined up atop cheesy Bloody Butcher grits from, again, Wade’s Mill. After dinner, emboldened by a second craft cocktail, I joined my tablemates and the restaurant’s piano player singing Leonard Cohen’s haunting Hallelujah.

The rainy night ended at the Hampton Inn Col Alto, Manor House, the only Hampton Inn I’ve encountered in a historic building. Ten restored rooms are available in the 1827 manor house with another 76 in the main hotel.