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).
About 1 hour north is Parkersburg, known as "the town that oil built." This Ohio River city offers its own free walking tour through history, with buildings along brick-paved Ann Street dating as far back as the 1825 Cookhouse(304/428-1130). There's also the Oil & Gas Museum, where for $2 ($1 for kids) you can learn about the rich background of this oil-soaked region (304/485-5446). Or for $6 ($5 for children) take a stern-wheeler boat to the Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park (304/420-4800). Visit the reconstructed mansion filled with eighteenth-century furnishings for another $3, hop a narrated horse-drawn wagon ride for $4, or check out the museum for a $2.
Williamstown and Monongahela National Forest
Another 20-minute drive north brings you to Williamstown, home of world-famous Fenton Art Glass (304/375-7772). Don't miss it. The company's museum displays an extensive exhibit of fine glass from 1880 through 1980, and there's a 25-minute film in the adjoining theater. Or take the 45-minute guided tour, where you'll see the entire glassmaking process at close range, including the designing, molding, and painting of these prized pieces. Best of all, everything is free.
Drive southeast a few hours to Monongahela National Forest, where you'll find some of the state's most spectacular scenic attractions. Be sure to include Canaan Valley, Cranberry Backcountry, and Seneca Rocks, a dramatic natural sculpture of gray quartzite that juts almost 900 feet high. You can hike trails from the Seneca Rocks visitor center - or for $25, ride horseback to the top mid-April to November.
Anyone with even a vague interest in the cosmos should stop by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (304/456-2011) at Green Bank, about 45 miles southwest of Seneca Rocks. It is among the elite astronomical research sites on earth, with the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope: the Green Bank Telescope, taller than the Statue of Liberty (daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, and weekends in September and October). Take a free guided tour of the array of scopes that search for clues to such things as how stars form, the age of the universe-and whether extraterrestrial life exists.
Civil War sites
Continuing southwest about 40 miles, make time for visits at two free state parks overseen by the same delightful superintendent, native West Virginian Michael Smith (304/653-4254). He's a natural storyteller who gladly recounts detailed stories of Civil War battles fought at what is now Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, a bluff where Federal forces effectively drove outnumbered Confederate troops from the just-established state. Walk the grounds with Smith and savor the history lesson. Then drive to nearby Beartown State Park. This 107-acre natural area has one of the most unusual boardwalks anywhere, with dozens of steps that wind through enchanting natural sandstone rock formations - crevasses, cliffs, and boulders all set among a thick forest.
Lewisburg, Beckley's Coal Mine, and New River Gorge
Next, tour historic Lewisburg (800/833-2068) about 30 minutes away, a community restored to become one of the state's most charming towns. You can walk through the Old Stone Church that was built in 1796, look over a slave graveyard, or take a walking tour of the many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings. It's all free.
Then jump on Interstate 64 to Beckley for this unique part of a West Virginia vacation: the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine (304/256-1747). Open April to November, the mine began in the late 1800s as a "low seam" operation, meaning miners literally crawled inside a 30-inch high shaft to dig coal. Today, the full-size mine operates for tourists, who ride more than 1,000 feet inside the earth in coal cars, guided by a veteran miner. It's not for the claustrophobic, but the visit is safe and engrossing - your guide makes frequent stops, demonstrating equipment and explaining mining techniques. Adults pay $8, seniors $7, kids 4-12 cost $5, and younger children are free.
At least one more sight shouldn't be missed in West Virginia: the impressive New River Gorge National River at Fayetteville. Supervised by the National Park Service, this narrow canyon lies about 30 minutes north of Beckley and costs nothing to enjoy. The visitor center affords photographic views of the world's longest single-arch bridge, rising 876 feet above the New River. You can drive across the New River Gorge Bridge, but once each autumn it's closed to traffic for the slightly mad enjoyment of skydivers and rappellers. The gorge also has lots of hiking trails and the area is a white-water rafting mecca.
The budget lodging available in West Virginia is alone enough to qualify this as one of the world's cheapest places - as low as $15 a night. You'll nearly always find the best bargains by sticking with locally owned motels. And they're spread nicely around the state so you can ramble from night to night, rather than limit yourself to a single home base.
To ensure a great deal, drop by one of nine spots that give out free coupon books providing substantial savings on accommodations - nearly 20 percent in some cases. You'll find the booklets at official state "welcome centers" located in Harper's Ferry or along the interstates near Huntington, White Sulfur Springs, Valley Grove, Mineral Wells, Morgantown, Falling Waters, and Inwood. Tamarack, the popular arts and crafts center in Beckley, also has coupons. Dial 800/CALL-WVA for more information.
One other tip: you can make toll-free reservations through these welcome centers. Because of their relationship with local owners, center staffers nearly always nail down the cheapest possible rates.
Fairmont, near I-79 in north central West Virginia, is a perfect first-night stopover for anyone driving from Pennsylvania, Maryland, or other points north. And it offers a profusion of good, low-priced motels. The two-story Country Club Motor Lodge (304/366-4141) looks more contemporary than the others. It's AAA-rated and all rooms are $26.95. There's also the Avenue Motel (304/366-4960), where the $30 rooms are newly carpeted and wallpapered, with nice bedspreads and drapes. And the Fairmont Motor Lodge (304/363-0100) is the kind of place you hope to find in small-town America. It even has a lobby that resembles a living room, complete with fresh coffee, home-baked cookies, and jigsaw puzzles. Built in 1956 and still operated by the Schmidt family, the hotel offers spotlessly clean rooms with excellent personal service. Room rates vary somewhat seasonally, but go as low as $29.95.
In Elkins, bordering the Monongahela Forest, the Four Seasons Motel (800/367-7130) provides a pleasant haven, especially for senior citizens. Its perma-stone 1960s appearance is misleading; all rooms were completely renovated in 1999, some with king-size beds. Plus there's an unusually friendly touch upon check-in: Guests get a free three-minute phone call home to let family members know they've arrived safely. A single room is $34, but with an AARP discount two can stay for $32.
Some fine bargains can be found in and around Marlinton, a quaint town well-located for skiers at nearby Snowshoe Mountain or tourists at Monongahela National Forest, Droop Mountain, or the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Linwood Lodge (304/572-BUNK) rests at the mountain's foot and is popular with the college ski crowd. You probably won't find a cheaper place to sleep outside the developing world. This 600-square-foot home has been turned into a bunkhouse, where you get a bunk bed for $15 weeknights, $18 weekends. Bring your own linens and towels or pay a $5 one-time charge for theirs. It's bare-bones but clean, with a white pine exterior, and wood loors inside. Eight can sleep here in three bunk beds and a pullout couch.
Four miles south of Marlinton is Graham's Motel (304/799-4291), a homey place with rocking chairs on the porch and eight rooms, each decorated differently. Some have cherry four-poster beds. A single goes for $30, a double for $35. For families, consider the Old Clark Inn (304/799-6377), a folksy B&B that feels like staying in a private home-including the presence of two young, well-behaved children. Prices may seem outside budget range: $45 for shared bath, $55 with private bath $10 more, during ski season. But the room comes with a sumptuous breakfast worth perhaps $15.
Lewisburg, Beckley, and Fayetteville
Enjoy Lewisburg's charm without its high prices by staying at The Embassy Inn (800/260-8641), where you can sack out for as little as $29 with a coupon. The motel has modern rooms with new beds and carpets. Juice, coffee, and pastries are free in the morning. Mention this article for the lowest seasonal rate, owner Arthur Dodson recently told us.
Farther west in Beckley, there are plenty of budget options. At the Greenbank Motel (304/253-3355) rooms in the 1940's block building go for $35 and up. Several miles away, the Patriot Motor Inn (304/253-3395) will put you up for the same price, with a coupon. The rooms are on the dark side, but their enamel paint shines under the lights. You may find some of that enamel peeling a bit, though the exterior looks fine and the rooms are adequate. Beckley's Honey In The Rock Motel (304/252-7391) is another possibility, where a double bed is $35 in winter. The rooms are enormous and clean, with an old-motel feel that may appeal to veteran bargain-hunters.
The Fayetteville area's funky choices include the Midland Trail Motel (304/658-5065) in Ansted, with its hand-painted outdoor sign and clean, standard rooms that come as cheap as $35 for two people. The New River Lodge (304/632-2121) in Gauley Bridge is funkier yet, built in 1932 and showing its age. Still, the lobby is especially pleasant, the bathroom floors are old-fashioned black-and-white tile, and the price is $29.95/single, $35/double.
Back in Charleston, your best bet is Cutlip's Motor Inn (304/345-3500), where $33.95 gets you a good double bed in a typical motel room. But locals know Cutlip's as a family-run place with a strong reputation for cleanliness and safety. Or you can pick the Budget Host Inn (304/925-2592), where some rooms overlook the Kanawha River. Rates are seasonal but bottom out at $27.95 for one person, $34.95 for two. Then there's the Days Inn in St. Albans (304/766-6231), just seven miles west of the city. It offers clean rooms, white and teal walls, and decent prices starting at $26.95 for a single, $36.95 for a double. Finally, up north near Parkersburg try Microtel Inn (304/489-3892), built in 1998. Standard rooms with two queen beds go for $34.95.
West Virginia's most interesting cuisine is essentially Southern country-style. Brown beans and corn bread, country ham, and mountain trout are among the local dishes worth sampling. As with lodgings, you should stay away from big chains when you can. This is easy enough. Many places tucked along back roads promise "Good Home Cookin'" - and often deliver.
These are among specific choices for a good meal at a good price. In Charleston try Joey's (304/343-8004), with three locally famous joints that serve West Virginia barbecue. For $8.95 you get ribs or chicken, baked beans or green beans, and a roll. If you're in the mood for Mexican, Azteca's (304/344-3660) is the place to get lots of food, fast service - and a small check. An example: a bean burrito, bean tostada, cheese enchilada, and nacho cheese costs $6.99.
In Parkersburg, The Crystal Cafe (304/428-5680) makes a great spot for breakfast or lunch. Two eggs with bacon or sausage are $2.80, coffee 85 cents Or try the unlimited soup bar with tossed salad and homemade sourdough bread for $3.99.
On the way to Monongahela National Forest, stop in Clarksburg for the laid-back CyberPerks Internet Cafe (304/622-5770). Customers can surf the Internet at four computer workstations while downing a ham-and-egg croissant with cheese for $2.35.
For meals as for accommodations, Marlinton again has some of the best values. The River Place Restaurant (304/799-7233) beside the free-flowing Greenbrier River is a true find. An exceptionally bright, clean place, this restaurant serves plenty of delicious food for next to nothing. Two eggs with grits and a hotcake cost $2.95. Most sandwiches are in the $2-$3 range, and a filling helping of brown beans and fabulous sweet corn bread is $2.25. For dinner, rainbow trout is $9.95, country ham $8.95, and baked ham $6.95 - and they come with potato, coleslaw or applesauce, and rolls.
Lewisburg's historic General Lewis Inn (304/645-2600) is a country guesthouse that's outside the budget range for rooms, but very affordable for breakfast or lunch, offering Belgian waffles with pure maple syrup and spiced apples for $3.95 or fine sandwiches with potato salad and pickles for around $3-$4. After eating, you can also enjoy the lovely common areas, with antiques everywhere, a wood-beamed ceiling, and pleasant fireplace.
Finally, make certain you visit Tamarack (888/262-7225), that intriguing place in Beckley offering what is surely the best bargain-priced food in West Virginia. The architecturally modern building is designed in the round, presenting work from the state's finest artists and craftspeople. These pieces are for sale, and prices run the gamut from cheap to exorbitant. Tamarack also shows free films about the state and offers crafts demonstrations and performing arts. Its cafeteria-style restaurant is managed by The Greenbrier, a luxurious resort that has attracted the wealthy for more than a century, but here the excellent food costs very little. An Appalachian egg biscuit with country ham, fried green tomato, and Swiss cheese is $1.95. The Italian sausage and roasted-pepper pizza goes for $3.95. And a West Virginia rainbow trout fillet costs $6.50, fresh vegetables $1.25, country-fried potatoes $1.25. Stroll around the exhibits, buy a keepsake if you want, but by all means stay for a meal. Tamarack's food is so good and so cheap that you'll likely want to relish it more than once - much like West Virginia itself.