CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
Head off from Charleston, West Virginia, and prices plummet to astonishingly low levels
To many, West Virginia remains a hardscrabble state scraped raw in the quest to transform coal into money, a place where miners cough up black dust and farmers break plows on rock-embedded fields. This is the popular image and to some extent it is true even today. The coal mines and the rocky farms still exist in pockets and patches, along with the people who work them. The difference now is that visitors must search to see the truly impoverished face of West Virginia. Nevertheless, it should come as little surprise that West Virginia is one of the cheapest places on earth. Though desperate poverty seems relatively uncommon these days, the state lags behind the national average in weekly wages, dramatically in some industries: more than 38 percent in computer programming services, for example, and more than 27 percent in millwork. The coal business that had been West Virginia's economic backbone is alive but struggling, fiercely battling to overturn a 1999 Federal ruling that drastically restricts the strip mining technique accurately called "mountaintop removal." All this results in amazingly low prices for lodging and food (if you avoid the national chains), free tourist attractions for the most part, and nominal admissions for the places that do charge.
Getting there and around
You can fly into Charleston's compact, convenient Yeager Airport, but you'll need a rental car to get around the state. The cheaper alternative for residents of the eastern United States is simply to drive - and it's a quick trip for millions of people. West Virginia is just two hours by automobile from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, only a slightly longer haul from Richmond, Cincinnati, and Charlotte. Chicago is seven hours away.
West Virginia isn't as tiny as many people may imagine: It's more than three times the size of New Jersey. But the state is small enough that you can tour much of it comfortably in five days. Though the interstates connect major regions, many of the best sights are accessible only on the narrow, twisting roads that thread through the mountains and hollows. These are great fun if you enjoy driving, miserable if you don't. Still, the native motorists seem mostly cautious and polite. And you can console yourself with the knowledge that you'll probably be very safe whenever you get where you're going - West Virginia has had the lowest crime rate in the nation for 24 consecutive years.
The state's top tourist lures
There are far more reasons to visit West Virginia than any magazine article can name. One of the best is the state's natural beauty - a landscape that seems a hybrid of Colorado and Vermont, with jagged outcroppings of rock among round, wooded mountaintops. Many of the residents seem as rugged as their mountains, but they also are pleasant and unpretentious. Together, the scenery and people lend vacations here a down-home, welcoming feel.
Outdoor enthusiasts can white-water raft, ski, bicycle, fish, hunt - even parachute into a nearly 900-foot-deep gorge. And less adventurous travelers will find more than enough reasons to park the car often while touring West Virginia's roadways.
Some may want to begin their visit in Charleston, the capital. Located on the Kanawha River (pronounced "kan-AW" by locals), the city feels old and industrial, with red-brick construction and one-way streets everywhere. Because of the road system, getting around town isn't easy. Still it's worth the effort to enjoy some of Charleston's sights and sounds.
For starters, visit the impressive state capital, where the broad limestone building rises to a gold dome towering 293 feet-taller than the U.S. Capitol dome. Tours are free every day (304/558-0220). Nearby sits the historic East End, a lovely National Register of Historic Places neighborhood where you can take a walking tour past homes that look much as they did in the teens and 1920's (304/342-7676 or call the Charleston convention and Visitor's Bureau, 304-344-5075).
If you're in town on Sunday, you may be able to get into a taping of the West Virginia Public Radio's popular program, "Mountain Stage." The internationally broadcast show features top musicians performing in a vast array of musical styles and includes big-name stars of blues, alternative, and bluegrass music. Ticket prices vary but are always modest, from only $5.50 to about $12 (304/556-4900).
Malden and Parkersburg
Just 20 minutes from Charleston, the tiny valley town of Malden cradles among its surrounding hills one of the nation's last quilting co-ops. Cabin Creek Quilts was formed in the early 1970s, gaining fame partly through purchases by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Today, the quilts still are handmade in the homes of Malden-area women. You can view the intricate handiwork for free at their shop - or buy anything from a $6.50 potholder to $985 quilts (304/925-9499).