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The Mining Towns of Southern West Virginia

By Laurie Kuntz
June 9, 2005
New River Gorge Bridge
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Black Coal may have built these parts, but today it's the Blue rivers that lure the adventurous crowds—and keep them coming back for more.

John Denver immortalized West Virginia's country roads with the song that's become the de facto state anthem, one that even visitors know by heart. My colleague Moira, who's riding shotgun and taking photographs, and I belt out the lyrics repeatedly during the course of our trip. South of Charleston, country roads crisscross raging rivers, bisect towns too small to show up on a map, and roll over the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The triangle between Charleston, Beckley, and Lewisburg is almost heaven (as Denver croons and the state's license plates advertise), and not just because of the pleasant driving. There's also enough history to keep us intrigued, enough adventure to keep us active, and enough kitsch to keep us entertained every mile of the way.

Day 1: Charleston to Beckley

After landing in Charleston midmorning, we head straight for Beckley, home to Tamarack, a 60,000-square-foot circular mall dedicated to West Virginia arts and crafts. Though architecturally bizarre--its roofline resembles the Statue of Liberty's crown, painted fire-engine red--half a million visitors a year come to buy crafts (blown glass, quilts, and wood carvings), listen to musicians, and watch the artists-in-residence work in their glass-walled studios. Our loop through the building ends at the buffet restaurant, where Moira and I fill up on fried-green-tomato sandwiches and pan-seared locally farmed trout before hitting Coal Country.

By the 1880s, the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads had brought thousands of miners to southern West Virginia. Beckley is the gateway to what's now known as the Coal Heritage Trail, a 100-mile stretch of boom-and-bust towns reaching south to the Virginia border. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine museum--a working mine from 1890 to 1910--we hop a battery-powered tram and venture 1,500 dark feet into the mountain, past mossy walls and under a dripping ceiling.

Our guide, Joe Norkevitz, who worked for various local coal companies for 40 years, explains that Beckley miners spent their 16-hour shifts on their knees or backs, as the average coal deposits were only waist high. I start to feel claustrophobic, and it only gets worse as he goes on to explain the dangers of collapses and methane gas explosions. Above ground, a walk through the museum and coal camp provides a look at the stark life miners lived outside of the mountain. A simple stove, desk, and a narrow single bed somehow fit in a tiny shanty, no more than six feet wide by nine feet long. At the Country Inn & Suites nearby, Moira and I have a renewed appreciation for our standard room's size.

Day One

Lodging

  • Country Inn & Suites2120 Harper Rd., Beckley, 800/456-4000, countryinns.com, from $75

Attractions

  • Tamarack OneTamarack Place, Beckley, 888/262-7225
  • Beckley Coal MineNew River Park, Beckley, 304/256-1747, open April-October, $15

Resources

  • Southern West VirginiaCVB 221 George St., Beckley, 304/252-2244, visitwv.com

Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg

Today's plan is to take scenic Route 3 toward Lewisburg. At White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays, in Shady Spring, manager Joe Clinebell shows us the proper handling of a 12-gauge shotgun. Shooting clay targets is the fastest growing gun sport in the country, says Clinebell, who describes it as "golf with a shotgun." We walk through the woods from station to station, firing at targets that, depending on how they're launched, simulate the movement of rabbits, ducks, or pheasant. Moira has never picked up a gun before but still manages to hit a few. I don't do much better even though I've shot skeet several times recently. Clinebell suggests that keeping my eyes open as I pull the trigger would help my aim.

Using up our 50 rounds takes about two hours. By then, we're good and ready to move on to Hinton, a railroad town founded in 1873 at the point where the Greenbrier, Bluestone, and New Rivers meet. On the outskirts, we stop for lunch at Kirk's. The restaurant proper isn't much to look at, but the view from the back deck--it juts out over the New River--is spectacular. Ducks float by below us, and the water churns near the rocky shore. I've heard that Kirk's has the best hot dogs around, and I'm not disappointed--the bun is perfectly toasted, and there's a heap of fries on the side. On Temple Street, the Railroad Museum--which displays old signals, pieces of track, and Pullman uniforms--doubles as a vistors center. We pick up a map and explore the many Victorian buildings that have put Hinton on the National Register of Historic Places. Ten miles past Hinton, we drive over the 6,500-foot Big Bend Tunnel, which John Henry helped construct in the early 1870s. There's an eight-foot bronze statue of him--bare-chested, with a steel-driving hammer in hand--at a turnoff just before Route 3 dives into Talcott.

The road continues to meander through the Greenbrier Valley, famous in the early 1900s for its natural mineral springs and exclusive spas. The sulfur-rich water was thought to cure tuberculosis, and trains brought the wealthy and ailing from as far as New York City. We drive past the Pence Springs Resort, formerly the Grand Hotel, which was once one of the area's most luxurious spas. Following the Depression, the place did time as a girls' school and then as a women's prison before reopening in 1987 as a hotel.

We cruise into Lewisburg by late afternoon. During the Civil War, the city was a Confederate stronghold until Union forces defeated the Confederate Army here in 1862. A walking tour of the historic district leads us from the Confederate Cemetery to the boutiques and antiques shops on Washington Street. That night, a well-known Lewisburg band called the Manhattan Jazz Quartet is playing at the Sweet Shoppe, a bar where the beer is cheap and there's never a cover. Moira and I listen to the final set before we call it a night at the Hampton Inn.

Day Two

Lodging

  • Hampton Inn30 Coleman Dr., Lewisburg, 800/426-7866, hamptoninn.com, from $84

Food

  • Kirk's Family RestaurantRte. 3, Hinton, 304/466-4600, hot dog $1.75
  • Sweet Shoppe125 W. Washington St., Lewisburg, 304/645-3214, beer $2

Attractions

  • White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays2350 Hinton Rd. (Rte. 3), Shady Spring, 304/763-5266, $50 for gun rental and 50 target rounds
  • Hinton Railroad Museum206 Temple St., Hinton, 304/466-5420, summerscvb.com, free

Resources

  • Greenbrier CountyCVB 540 N. Jefferson St., Lewisburg, 800/833-2068, greenbrierwv.com

Day 3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville

We're on the road early because we have to get to Class VI River Runners by 10 a.m. First-timers probably aren't inclined to choose a run that includes Class V rapids, but Moira and I have only one shot at the New River so we decide to make the most of it. (Actually, I insist we make the most of it.) An old school bus takes us the 15 miles to the put-in. As we switchback down a sickeningly steep mountainside to the river's edge, trip leader Eric Cormack goes over his safety spiel. I feel Moira's increasingly nervous glare burning a hole into the side of my face. "If you fall out of the raft, and some of you will," Eric warns, "don't panic, remember to face downriver, and keep your feet up." There are thousands of submerged boulders (the very things that create the white water). "You don't want to get stuck up under there," Eric says succinctly.

As it turns out, the bus ride is the scariest part of the day. Our five-hour run along 13 miles of river includes stops for swimming and a picnic lunch. The rapids--with names like Surprise, Pinball, and (ahem) Bloody Nose--are exhilarating, but there's plenty of gentle drifting, too. Just before the pick-up spot, we pass underneath the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's second-longest single-span steel arch.

Back at Class VI headquarters, everyone goes to Chetty's Pub to watch the video footage from our trip. (A videographer paddled alongside us in a kayak, taping every scream, spill, and high five.) I catch a glimpse of my face as our raft dropped over one of the more challenging rapids: I look positively deranged--scared out of my mind and loving every minute of it. I happily shell out $14 for a still photo of the moment.

Moira and I go back over the bridge to Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit. Co-owner Connie Taylor tells us Dirty Ernie was the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking original owner. Crunching across peanut shells customers have tossed on the cement floor, we head to a booth near the jukebox. A plate of barbecued pork ribs and a cold beer is the perfect end to the day.

Day Three

Operators

  • Class VI River Runnersoff U.S. 19, near Fayetteville, 800/252-7784, classvi.com, from $89

Food

  • Chetty's Pubabove Class VI River Runners, Fayetteville, 800/252-7784
  • Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit310 Keller Ave., Fayetteville, 304/574-4822, open late April--mid Oct., ribs from $12

Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston

Leaving Fayetteville, we drive south to a small part of the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River park. The town of Thurmond--or what's left of it--consists of a couple of abandoned storefronts and a railroad depot. It's hard to picture it as one of the busiest places around at the turn of the century, when there were 26 mines in the area. But Prohibition, competing rail lines, and the Depression took their toll, and by 1940, it was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. The restored Thurmond Depot is now a visitors center and museum, and it's here that we learn one of the town's most colorful tales. The Dunglen Hotel, also known as "Little Monte Carlo," hosted the world's longest continually running poker game. It lasted 14 years and ended only when neighbors from the other side of the river lost their patience and burned the place to the ground in 1930.

If Thurmond is the New River's past, Fayetteville is its future. It's become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Every third Saturday in October, a quarter of a million people flock to the area for Bridge Day, when hundreds of base jumpers parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. In town, we walk down Church Street to the Cathedral Café, in a deconsecrated Methodist church. Sunlight streams in through stained-glass windows as we eat grilled panini--smoked turkey and avocado for me, three cheese for Moira.

Back on the Midland Trail, the road clings to the mountain high above the gorge in a series of stomach-wrenching turns. Just past the entrance to Hawk's Nest State Park, one of the turns reveals a wildly painted Volkswagen beetle crashed into the side of a rusty corrugated trailer. It's called the Mystery Hole. Owner Will Morrison makes us promise not to tell what we see on the 10-minute underground tour, and he's the kind of guy you don't cross. Moira gets so discombobulated by the strange happenings (and perhaps my driving) that she ditches me for the parking lot.

On our way to the airport, we give our favorite song another go: "Drivin' down the road, I get a feelin' that I should have been home yesterday." But as I look back and catch my last glimpse of the Kanawha River, I can't help wishing we had another day.

Day Four

Food

  • Cathedral Café134 S. Court St., Fayetteville, 304/574-0202, panini $6.25

Attractions

  • Thurmond Depot Visitor CenterRte. 25 past Glen Jean, 304/465-0508
  • Mystery HoleU.S. 60, at mile marker 44, 304/658-9101, mysteryhole.com, $4

Resources

Finding Your Way

Continental, Delta, and US Airways all fly into Charleston's Yeager Airport. For a midsize car, expect to pay about $100 for four days. Before you leave home, pick up a copy of Far Appalachia, in which Noah Adams (former host of NPR's All Things Considered) recounts his journey by jeep, bike, foot, and raft from the New River's source in North Carolina to its mouth at the Gauley Bridge.

Day 1: Charleston to Beckley, 60 miles Yeager Airport Road becomes Greenbrier Street/Route 114. Follow signs for I-64 east/I-77 south (also called the West Virginia Turnpike). There are two $1.25 tolls. Take exit 45 for Tamarack; it's visible from the interstate. The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is off exit 44. Head east on Route 3 (Harper Road) for a mile and a half and make a left onto Ewart Avenue. After about a mile, you'll see the New River Park entrance on the right.

Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg, 58 miles Follow Route 19 south from Beckley to Shady Spring, then Route 3 east toward Hinton. White Oak Mountain is four miles up on the right. Continue east on Route 3 through Hinton, Talcott, and Pence Springs. At Alderson turn onto Route 63, and at Roncevert, take U.S. 219 four miles into Lewisburg.

Day3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville, 57 miles Take I-64 west from Lewisburg and exit at U.S. 60 west, also known as the Midland Trail. At the junction with U.S. 19, head south toward the New River Gorge Bridge. Exit right at Ames Heights Road for Class VI River Runners. If you actually cross the bridge, you've gone too far. Warning: There are lots of cops on U.S. 19; observe the speed limit carefully. After rafting, get back on U.S. 19 south and cross the bridge. Fayetteville is on the other side of the New River.

Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston, 60 miles To reach Thurmond, take U.S. 19 south 12 miles to the Glen Jean exit. Follow the signs about seven miles down narrow Route 25 (no RVs). Backtrack to Fayetteville on U.S. 19. Cross the New River Gorge Bridge one last time and take U.S. 60/Midland Trail heading west to Charleston.

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Inspiration

The Civil War in Under a Week

Onward came the Confederates, an experienced and disciplined army of 12,000 soldiers striding my way across an open field. Flags flying, their battle line stretched for a mile in perfect alignment. I could see their determined faces - would they detect my trembling fear? - as I stood on Cemetery Ridge. A foot soldier, I was part of a strong Union force that had taken a defensive position on high, rocky ground just outside the little Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg. It was July 3, 1863, a momentous day. History books would call it the turning point of the Civil War. No, of course I wasn't really there that day. But I could easily imagine I waited - steadfast but frightened - to thwart the famous attack that became known as Pickett's Charge. Again and again, the Civil War comes vividly alive like this as I walk over the very ground where great battles were fought. I can see the fields, woods, ridges, and gullies that determined how generals plotted their strategies. And I begin to understand the challenge facing the troops ordered to carry them out. How would I have fared? It's a question surely every Gettysburg visitor must ponder, as I have. You, too, can step back into the past on a budget-priced drive into the heart of the Civil War. It will give you intimate glimpses into the life (and, so very often, the death) of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the tragic four-year conflict between North and South. Amidst the horrible carnage, incredible tales of courage on both sides stir the soul. Our nation was shaped by the Civil War, and its ramifications are still with us. I grew up never having to fight in a war. Our national Civil War battlefields, the only ones I know, help me better appreciate the sacrifices of those who did. A Civil War buff, I've plotted a practical, six-day, 600-mile auto tour from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks, where many of the bloodiest and most crucial clashes were waged. On this four-state drive, you will eat and sleep cheaply and well - and see the greatest number of sites (small entrance fees) in the fewest miles (to keep gas costs down). If time is short, spend a day at one or two of the parks. Each is a good introduction to the war. Why Washington, D.C.? Except for Appomattox (last stop on the drive), the parks are all less than 120 miles away. And, as important, two of the city's trio of airports - Washington-Dulles and Baltimore-Washington - are served by low-cost airlines. The drive takes you through lovely pastoral countryside only little changed since the nineteenth century. Count on stopping at one of Virginia's many wineries to sample (free) a fine vintage. In summer, go for a swim (small fee) at a state park lake. And stroll the inviting old streets (no charge) of each of the towns in which you'll stay. You will need a car. Among nationally known rental companies, Rent-A-Wreck (202/408-9828) often offers the lowest rates locally at $175 a week. But free mileage is limited to 100 miles a day, and you'll have to take an airport bus ($16) into the city. In summer, when business travel is slack, look for a better bargain at a major rental agency with airport pickup. For an August rental this year, Budget (800/572-0700) quoted an economy car rate at Baltimore-Washington airport of just $188 a week with unlimited mileage. The very dramatic prelude Let me set the scene before I send you on your way: Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Confederate capital, is located just 100 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Northern capital. The proximity of the two enemy cities turned the landscape between them blood red in a series of horrendous battles marked by courageous charges and catastrophic blunders. The North's basic strategy was to capture Richmond and end the war. The South, realizing its military strength was limited, sought to punch and poke at the North - holding on until the Union wearied of the fighting and granted the Confederacy independence. The story unfolds chapter by chapter at the battlefield parks. (The per-night lodging rates I cite below are for two adults in summer high season. Fall and spring are cheaper, and in winter, prices at many motels drop to as low as $30 to $35. Children usually stay free.) Day 1: Gettysburg National Military Park If you can visit only one Civil War site on this trip, make it Gettysburg National Military Park (717/334-1124) in Pennsylvania. Before Gettysburg, the South seemed headed for victory; after the battle, a terrible loss for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy was doomed - although the war staggered on for two more years. In exhibits here, you get a good overview of the war. Stand in the well-marked Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, as I did, and look across the slender valley of green fields and pastures below to Seminary Ridge, which sheltered Lee's troops. For three sun-baked days, the opposing armies watched each other from these rocky perches separated only by a mile. Today, on the two ridge tops, imposing equestrian statues of the commanders - Gen. George Meade for the North and Lee for the South - still maintain a vigil across the valley in easy view of each other. On this site, where Pickett's troops marched to disaster, you can sense the terror the poor foot soldiers must have experienced as their world exploded around them. That they fought so valiantly makes me wonder at the sometimes incredible strength of the human spirit. Admission to the park is free. But to understand the battle, catch the 30-minute electric map presentation (adults, $3) in the visitor center. The map recreates the battlefield landscape and its significant landmarks in miniature, and colored lights mark the movement of the armies. Also in the visitor center is the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War (free), where room after room details a soldier's hard, dangerous life. At this point, consider yourself ready to take the park's 18-mile auto tour (free), which follows the path of the three-day battle chronologically. To see it as the soldiers did, walk at least partway. Catch a free ranger-led talk or living-history encampment here at Gettysburg or at the other parks (schedules at www.civil wartraveler.com). And relax and swim at Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park, Thurmont, Maryland, about 20 minutes south ($3). Getting thereI-70 from Baltimore or I-270 from Washington north to U.S. Route 15 north, about 80 miles. Where to stayGettysburg offers a choice of reasonably priced motels and cafes - although they're a bit more expensive here than elsewhere on this drive. Within a five-minute walk of the visitor center, the 30-room Three Crowns Motor Lodge (800/729-6564), $50 weekdays/$65 weekends, tempts with a large swimming pool. Nearby are the 25-room Colton Motel (800/262-0317), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends, also with a pool, and the 40-room Home Sweet Home Motel (717/334-3916), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends. A mile from the park, the 25-room Perfect Rest Motel (800/336-1345), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends, with pool and morning coffee, enjoys a quiet country setting. Where to eatA few steps from the in-town motels, Gettysburg Eddie's is a Victorian-style charmer. It looks fancy, but prices are right. An entree of grilled chicken breast, lightly seasoned with lemon pepper and served with a salad and wild rice, is $9.95. Take $2 off all dinners Monday through Thursday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Up the street, General Pickett's Buffet Restaurant charges $9.95 for a full dinner, which includes an entree (meat loaf, for example), a large salad bar, and a sinfully tempting dessert bar. Day 2: Antietam National Battlefield Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Today, Antietam National Battlefield (301/432-5124, $2 per person) in little Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the prettiest of the Civil War parks. Beneath a wooded hillside, Burnside Bridge, a stone arch, leaps Antietam Creek so gracefully it has starred in countless tourist snaps. Yet ironically, it is here that the horror of the war seems most evident. On a single day, September 17, 1862-the bloodiest of the war - 23,000 men were killed or wounded, partly because of the blunders of their commanders. Attempting to invade the North, Lee was halted at Antietam. Union troops failed to pursue Lee's army, and he would march north again a year later at Gettysburg. At the visitor center, watch the movie; tour the museum, which puts a human face on the battle, and then take the nine-mile auto tour of the battle sites. To stretch your legs, hike the Snavely Ford Trail, a 2.5-mile wooded path along Antietam Creek where Union troops outflanked their enemy. Afterwards, head for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (304/535-6223, $5 per car) in West Virginia. Strategically located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the little mountain town - a munitions manufacturer at the war's outset - switched hands time and again. Earlier in 1859, abolitionist John Brown was captured in Harpers Ferry after he seized the federal arsenal in a move to arm slaves. Many of the town's original buildings are preserved as part of the park, and they have been turned into small museums telling the story of Brown and the war. In warm weather, rafters tackling the Shenandoah rapids splash past in laughing groups. Getting thereTo reach Antietam, about 50 miles distant, retrace your route south on U.S. 15 to Frederick, Maryland, home of the fascinatingly gruesome National Museum of Civil War Medicine (adults, $6.50). Pick up U.S. 40 Alternate West to Maryland 34 south. Pack a picnic lunch, because food options are limited. To continue on to Harpers Ferry, follow back roads south along the Potomac River, about 15 miles. Where to stayFor the cheapest lodgings on the drive ($16 per person), check into Harpers Ferry Hostel (301/834-7652), a 39-bed Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel property in Knoxville, Maryland, a few miles from the park. (I sit on the board of directors that manages the hostel.) The rambling frame house perches near a ledge overlooking the Potomac. Hike the Appalachian Trail alongside the river into Harpers Ferry. Up the road in a scenic country setting is the 23-room Hillside Motel (301/834-8144), $50 daily. For a city setting, double back to Frederick to the 72-room Red Horse Motor Inn (301/662-0281), $67 daily. Where to eatAcross from the Hillside Motel, Cindy Dee's Restaurant is a friendly family eatery where a plate of liver and onions, mashed potatoes, and corn goes for $6. In Frederick, the Red Lobster ($9.99 for Santa Fe chicken) is near the Red Horse Motor Inn (above). Day 3: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Midway between Washington and Richmond, the old colonial river port of Fredericksburg, Virginia, earned the dubious nickname of "battlefield city." Four major battles were fought here - two (Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863) in which Lee was triumphant and the final two (the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, in May 1864) in which he was forced to withdraw south when hard-charging Gen. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to outflank him. All four battles are commemorated at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (540/373-6122, $3 per person), and the park distributes a free auto tour map. On the route is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the famed Confederate leader died of wounds accidentally inflicted by his own men at Chancellorsville. The most unsettling of the park's sites is the still partially standing stone wall behind which Lee's troops sheltered during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union troops, charging the high ground, were slaughtered in masses. Getting thereU.S. 340 south to U.S. 17 south, 110 miles. The route passes through the heart of Virginia's wine country. Outside Fredericksburg, catch the beach at Lake Anna State Park (adults, $6). Where to stayYou'll find a cluster of well-priced motels at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), $48 weekdays/$62 weekends, with pool and continental breakfast; the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), $50 weekdays/$55 weekends; or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443), $38 weekdays/$49 weekends. Where to eatNear the motels, the cheery-looking Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features menus in the "down-home Southern tradition." With buttermilk biscuits, "Pam's Fish 'n Chips" is $8.99. Day 4: Petersburg National Battlefield In June 1864, Grant trapped Lee's forces in Petersburg, Virginia, but for nine-and-a-half harrowing months, Lee held out. Partially encircling the old city, the Petersburg National Battlefield (804/732-3531, $5 per person) preserves Northern and Southern earthworks and the Crater, a massive hole created by a blast set off from a tunnel beneath Confederate lines. A four-mile auto tour leads to the Crater. The civilian side of the story - the lives of the 18,000 residents who endured hunger and cannon bombardment - is found in the Siege Museum ($3) in the historic district. They kept up their spirits at "starvation balls" - lots of dancing but no food. Getting thereI-95 south to Route 36 east, about 85 miles. Where to staySeveral budget motels are located at the intersection of I-295 and U.S. 460, about a mile from the park's entrance. They include the 120-room American Inn (804/733-2800), $45 daily, with pool; the 48-room Budget Motor Inn (804/732-1646), $40 daily; and the 32-room California Inn (804/732-5500), $40 weekdays/$46 weekends. Where to eatAll the motels recommend Roma's Italian Restaurant just up the highway. The place bustles, and the aromas are rich. Spaghetti with mushrooms is $4.50, or go for the veal cutlet parmigiana with a salad ($8.50). Day 5: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park The other Civil War battle sites commemorate the violent clash of armies. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (804/352-8987, $4 per car) in Virginia is a place of peace, a memorial to the dignity, honor, and generosity of the combatants in the final days of conflict. Here on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his tattered army to Grant. He had broken free from Petersburg and was attempting to escape into the Carolinas. At this tiny village, Grant blocked his way. Today the restored village looks much as it must have at the surrender. A tavern, the general store, the courthouse, and the jail are clustered atop a grass-covered hill ringed by acres of rolling farmland. In the McLean House - the finest home in the village - Grant and Lee met in the parlor to sign the surrender. A formal ceremony, the stacking of arms, took place three days later. The Confederates filed uphill between Union ranks to lay down their arms for the last time. No jeers assaulted them; the victors stood silently in respect. As Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who was there, later wrote: "On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead." Getting thereHead west on U.S. 460, about 90 miles. Or take "Lee's Retreat," a historical route with signposts pointing the way on country roads that follow Lee's flight more closely. Phone 800/6-RETREAT for a detailed map. Stop for a swim at Holliday Lake State Park (admission $1 per car, swimming $3 per adult). Where to stayTwo fine motels are located about a mile from the park in contemporary Appomattox: the 20-room Budget Inn (804/352-7451), $45 daily, and the 45-room Super 8 (804/352-2339), $50 weekdays/$56 weekends with breakfast pastry, juice, and coffee. Where to eatClose to both motels, the Homeland Cafeteria can't be beat for its prices. A full dinner - fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad, rolls, and dessert - costs just $5.99, $5.49 before 4 p.m. Day 6: Closing the loop Return to Washington via U.S. 29 and I-66 north. Remember, on this drive you've seen only the highlights of the Civil War. More battlefields, monuments, and museums await another visit.

Inspiration

Arizona the Way It Was

The heat is like a slap in the face. When my husband and I left the East Coast it was 40 degrees and raining; here in Tucson the temperature is above 90, even though it's late October. Not that Jason and I are complaining. The rental car has A/C and we haven't seen the sun in weeks. The southeast corner of Arizona is a land of extremes: mountains that top 9,000 feet and are covered in Douglas firs; dry, dusty basins that sprout cacti and seemingly little else. The flavor is a wild mix of the Old West and Old Mexico--from the architecture (wooden ranch houses and adobe casitas) to the food (mesquite-grilled steak and carne asada). Toss in quirky attractions and a 75 mph speed limit and you have a road-tripper's nirvana. Day one: Tucson Even though it's Arizona's second-largest city (after Phoenix), Tucson doesn't feel all that big. With a few exceptions, the things you'll want to see are concentrated in and around downtown. We land mid-morning and head straight to Mission San Xavier del Bac. Completed in 1797 and still the center of a functioning Roman Catholic parish, the enormous adobe church can be seen for miles around. Its blinding exterior leaves no mystery as to why it's called the White Dove of the Desert. Upon entering, I'm struck by the serenity: Worshipers and tourists stand in quiet awe, marveling at the colorful murals and statues that adorn each wall, all recently restored to their original beauty. Back in the car, we head to Pico de Gallo, a little taquería in South Tucson. It isn't much to look at, but the soft corn tortillas are amazing. The namesake dish isn't what you'd expect--instead of watery salsa, you get spears of mango, pineapple, coconut, and jicama served in a Dixie cup and topped with red chili powder and salt. It sounds odd but tastes heavenly. Nearby in the Barrio Histórico is El Tiradito, a small wishing shrine dating from the 1870s. The ground around it is littered with colorful candles--evidence of the hundreds of prayers offered here in recent weeks. This remnant of the late 19th century stands in stark contrast to the modern convention center a block away. Downtown Tucson is a warren of one-way streets; you'll want a good map. We circle the Hotel Congress a few times before figuring out there's parking in back. Built in 1919, the hotel served as a high-class rest stop for ranchers and mining tycoons, maintaining its genteel reputation until John Dillinger and his gang rolled into town. They were holed up here in 1934 when a fire broke out. Firefighters recognized Dillinger, and he was captured nearby. The rooms haven't changed much since. They're small, a bit ragged, and the door hits the toilet as you enter the bathroom. But they have character, with vintage beds and rotary phones. Ask for a room far from the popular nightclub or you'll feel the booming music until 1 a.m. No matter where your room is, you'll hear the cargo trains. I found the noise soothing; you might not. From the hotel it's a short walk to the 4th Avenue shopping district. There are enough thrift stores and import shops to keep you busy for hours. Don't dally too long. Up in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas is the late Ettore "Ted" De Grazia's Gallery in the Sun. Best known for his paintings of children and landscapes, De Grazia created a unique space to show his work: The adobe gallery is decorated with colorful murals, brightly painted tin flowers, and a cholla cactus walkway. We head over to the El Presidio Historic District for dinner at the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in the country, El Charro Café. We come for the famouscarne secaplate and aren't disappointed. The beef is perfectly spiced with lime, garlic, and green chilies, and dried outdoors for several days. Shredded and served with fresh tortillas, it's unlike anything I've ever tasted. Except maybe beef jerky, but thecarne secais much better. Day one Lodging Hotel Congress311 E. Congress St., 520/622-8848, hotelcongress.com/, double $39-$72 Food Taquería Pico de Gallo2618 S. 6th Ave., 520/623-8775, taco $1.25 El Charro Café311 N. Court Ave., 520/622-1922, carne seca $11.95 Mission San Xavier del Bac1950 W. San Xavier Blvd., 520/294-2624, donations welcome Gallery in the Sun6300 N. Swan Rd., 800/545-2185, free Day two As you drive southeast on I-10, the ubiquitous saguaros and mesquite give way to willowy cottonwoods--you're crossing the San Pedro River. After so many miles of highway, the Ghost Town Trail comes as a shock. This unpaved road from Pearce to Tombstone is quite rutted in places and so isolated that you'll be tempted to turn back. Stick with it and you'll pass through remnants of once-booming copper-mining villages. The best reason to take this route: John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts. John and Sandy Weber are self-described rattlesnake hunters whose wallets and jewelry are on display in an old trailer. The shop is self-serve--if you find something you like (and I defy you not to), drop some money in the mailbox outside. Compared with the real ghost towns of Courtland and Gleeson, Tombstone is a circus. Packed with tourists and people dressed in period costume, the Town Too Tough to Die is worth only a quick visit. Stop by Boothill Graveyard to see the famous grave markers, then stroll Allen Street and have lunch at the Longhorn Restaurant. The Mule Mountain Pass into Bisbee is vertiginous--it's a mile above sea level and the highway twists and turns--but the view is spectacular. The town is nestled in a canyon, with clapboard houses stacked on top of one another; it looks as though one good rain will wash all the buildings away. Now a magnet for artists and retirees, Bisbee was once the heart of copper mining in the area, producing nearly 3 million ounces of gold and 8 billion pounds of copper. At the turn of the century, it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. See proof at the Mining & Historical Museum. Explore the mine as the miners did--with a hard hat and lantern--on the one-hour underground tour of the Queen Mine. Claustrophobes will prefer to peer into the giant crater that is the Lavender Open Pit instead.Pick up an illustrated map at the visitor center on Subway Street and look for signs of the town's rough-and-tumble history. They're everywhere, from the big houses on Quality Hill (where the bankers and lawyers lived) to the saloons in Brewery Gulch (once home to gamblers and prostitutes). The center of town is now full of art galleries and boutiques, but the facades still scream Old West.We decide to try the new Harlequin Restaurant at the bottom of Brewery Gulch. Chef and co-owner Scott Edelen has turned what was once the town pharmacy into a first-class restaurant. The menu is small--two entrées--but it changes nightly and incorporates fresh local ingredients. Jason swears the steak is the best he's eaten (it's blackened and served with a red-curry coconut-cream sauce).As we make our way downhill, the car turns into a time machine, hurtling us from the early 1900s to the 1950s. Welcome to the Shady Dell. Alongside its regular RV hookups, the Shady Dell rents out eight meticulously restored aluminum trailers as rooms. We chose the granddaddy, a 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion. I can't take it all in fast enough: the lustrous blond-wood interior with leopard-print carpeting; the Frigidaire in the kitchen, along with vintage martini glasses; the phonograph and 78 rpm records ranging from doo-wop to polka. After I squeal, "Oh my God, look at this!" for the hundredth time, we settle onto the couch to watch the grainy black-and-white Setchell-Carlson TV. It's hooked up to a hidden VCR, with a dozen films to choose from. We stay up late watching Rawhide and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Day two Lodging Shady Dell 1 Douglas Rd., 520/432-3567, theshadydell.com, $35-$75 Food Longhorn Restaurant 501 E. Allen St., 520/457-3405, burger $6 Harlequin Restaurant 1 Howell Ave., 520/432-1832, entrée $16.95 Attractions Queen Mine Tours off Hwy. 80, 866/432-2071, $13 Bisbee Mining Museum Copper Queen Plaza, 520/432-7071, $4 John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts Gleeson Rd., 520/642-9207 Day three We're off after a late breakfast at Dot's Diner--a 1957, 10-stool wonder, itself worth a trip to the Shady Dell. By late morning we're in Patagonia, another boom-and-bust mining town that has found new life as a mecca for tourists and weekenders from Tucson. The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve has over two miles of trail paralleling Sonoita Creek. It's a nice, flat walk under a canopy of trees--a bird-watcher's paradise. More than 300 species have been identified here. Lunch is at Velvet Elvis: incredible homemade soups, large gourmet pizzas with names like "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly," and limonada rosa, lemonade flavored with hibiscus and lime. Past Nogales is the village of Tubac, Arizona's oldest European settlement, dating from 1752. The Spanish built a presidio here that's now a state historic park, but most people come for the art galleries and pottery shops.We're lucky enough to have our own guide--Bill Spater, a family friend who has lived in the area for years. After a driving tour of Nogales's Crawford Street Historic District--on a hill above town, with old mansions and an extraordinary view of the spotlit wall separating the U.S. from Mexico--we "walk across the line." (The border is so porous here that people cross back and forth daily: Arizonans and tourists head over to Sonora for dinner; Mexicans visit Arizona to shop at Wal-Mart.) It's another world: narrow streets lined with shops and bars, people everywhere. We head down a small side street to Regis, Bill's favorite watering hole. It's packed with locals watching TV. A waiter quickly finds us a place to sit down, adding chairs to a table already occupied by two men. One of them asks me in Spanish who I'm rooting for. They're watching Game Six of the World Series--and Jason and I, lifelong Yankees fans, are surrounded by rowdy Marlins fans. We have dinner at La Roca, or "The Rock"--a beautiful restaurant literally built into the side of a cliff above town. A mariachi band serenades us with "Guantanamera" as we dig into an enormous platter of grilled shrimp, spiced beef, and roasted chilies. Day four: Tubac to Tucson Tumacácori is about three miles south of Tubac. A national historical park surrounds the ruins of a Jesuit frontier church built in 1757. It's only a short drive back to Tucson, and as we try to figure out exactly how far we are from the airport, we realize that I-19 is signed in metric. Another Arizona quirk to end a memorable trip through the Old West. Days three and four Lodging Country Inn 13 Burruel St., 520/398-3178, tubaccountryinn.com, double $85-$155 Secret Garden Inn 13 Placita de Anza, 520/398-9371, tubacaz.com/secretgarden, double $95-$105 Food Dot's Diner Shady Dell, 520/432-5885, breakfast $4.20 Velvet Elvis 292 Naugle Ave., 520/394-2102, pizza $17.99 Regis Calle Juárez 34, 011-52/631-31-25181, margarita $1 La Roca Restaurant & Bar Calle Elias 91, 011-52/631-31-20891, entrée $8 Attractions Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve nature.org/ for directions, admission $5 Tubac Presidio State Historic Park off Tubac Rd., 520/398-2252, admission $3 Tumacácori National Historical Park exit 29 off I-19, 520/398-2341, admission $3

Inspiration

We Usually Avoid Chains, But...

When it comes to chain stores, sameness rules. But visiting a foreign chain can give you a real sense of just how unique a place can be. Nowhere is this more true than Canada, where restaurants slather their fries in gravy and hockey gear takes up half a floor at department stores. Even the coffee tastes different--in the wonderfully same way. Shopping Canadian retail begins with the huge department store the Bay, part of the Hudson's Bay Company, a massive chain with multiple floors (hbc.ca/bay, 98 locations). It sells Canada's must-have souvenir, the woolen Hudson's Bay Company blanket, similar to the ones the first explorers traded (from $205). Winners is Canada's answer to Ross: designer clothes for the entire family, at bargain prices (winners.ca, 168 locations). Laura Canada features upscale women's clothes; check here for the London Fog coat of your dreams (laura.ca, 141 locations). And make your yoga class gasp with envy after your trip to Lululemon Athletica for earthy, flattering gear and workout clothes (lululemon.com, 14 locations). There are two names to know for books and records: Chapters, Canada's answer to Borders, with British titles added to the mix and an extensive magazine selection (chapters.indigo.ca, 72 locations). And A&B Sound is a record store staffed by the types who can list the B sides of every hit single from the last 50 years (absound.ca, 22 locations). Food For cheap and tasty coffee and doughnuts, locals head to Tim Hortons (timhortons.com, over 2,400 locations). U.S.-owned Wendy's bought the chain in 1995--and there are a growing number of locations in the States--but it remains a Canadian breakfast institution. Eggspectation's Eggwhat? Breakfast (yes, that's the name) will fill you up: corned beef hash, eggs, potatoes (eggspectation.ca, nine locations in the eastern provinces). For lunch, White Spot's fish-and-chips is only $7 (whitespot.ca, 57 locations, western provinces); or try Earls for its famous cedar-planked salmon (earls.ca, 50 locations in the western provinces). And prime rib at The Keg Steakhouse & Bar provides the making of a nice evening out (kegsteakhouse.com, 72 locations). Thanks to their British roots and cold climate, Canadians truly understand and value the importance of a good cup of coffee or tea, as Murchie's demonstrates (murchies.com, five locations, western provinces). Its Golden Jubilee tea was blended specially for the Queen (50 bags $9). Hotels Canada lacks large nationwide hotel chains, but it does have some fine local mini-chains. British Columbia's Accent Inns have big rooms in three-diamond properties with the kind of thoughtful touches--drawer of business supplies, nice bathroom amenities--you'd expect in hotels twice the price (accentinns.com, five locations). Stay close to downtown Victoria and Vancouver for as low as $64, or head to their property in the Okanagan Valley (Canada's Napa), which offers winery tour packages. In the east, string together stays at Coastal Inns for a family-friendly Atlantic Canada road trip (coastalinns.com, seven locations). Think of it as a Best Western with all the sports channels showing hockey. Or treat yourself to a night at Rodd Hotels & Resorts: 13 eastern locations, with a suite in a four-star property starting at $161 (rodd-hotels.ca). How does VAT work? Visitors to Canada can get a partial refund on GST/HST sales taxes, or value added taxes (VAT), on most purchases and accommodations. Here's how it works: If you spend more than CAD $200 and leave the country within 60 days, hang on to your receipts and have them stamped at the departure airport or border. (The refund only covers items over CAD $50.) Submit them with form GST176 (available from banks and tourist-info centers, or download it from cra-arc.gc.ca). It may take up to six weeks to get your refund, but the 7 percent discount is worth it.

Inspiration

Suddenly Sonoma

Forget Napa. These days, it's all about Sonoma. This magical wine-producing valley sits to the west of the Mayacamas Mountains an hour north of San Francisco, and shines like a beacon to those seeking excellent and unusual wines, awe-inspiring landscapes, and good old-fashioned peace and quiet. Even though Napa is a short, half-hour drive away, it's worlds apart, less crowded, and much more affordable. Unlike its corporate-owned neighbor, many of Sonoma's wineries are smaller and family owned. You're guaranteed to see more pick-up trucks than Hummers in Sonoma, and blue jeans not baubles are the norm. "While Napa was busy becoming the wine capital of California, Sonoma's smaller vineyards were quietly vinting away, making great wines but just not shouting as loud about it," says Katharine English a wine collector and former Bay Area resident. "I've always preferred going to Sonoma." Sonoma Valley makes an ideal getaway for lovebirds, true escape artists and all those smitten by the grape. It's even worth traveling cross-country for a long indulgent weekend among the vines, or the redwoods. Because Sonoma and its elevations range between 800 to 1,200 feet, it's possible to travel through fog, sun, forest and valley meadow in just a few short miles. The region's cooler micro-climes have served well for producing certain varietals, especially pinot noirs. Harvest time (September and October) is when Sonoma kicks into high gear, but the truth is, it's beautiful any time of year. Springtime is still considered "off season" but it's an excellent time to visit. Not only are plum trees, quince, and yellow wild mustard flowers in bloom, you're almost certain to land a good deal at an area hotel. And there's plenty to do year-round. Like sister its regions in Spain and Italy, Mediterranean-like Sonoma also produces olive oil. The Olive Press (14301 Arnold Road in Glen Ellen) is a terrific spot to learn about the pressing process (and to sample the goods). The recently renovated Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (551 Broadway, Sonoma) shows works in a variety of mediums by locals and world-renowned artists. And, Bacchus Glass (21707 Eighth St, Sonoma), which uses traditional glass-blowing methods from Italy, is worth a stop, if only to watch a nail-biting studio demonstration. It's quite a colorful spectacle. And then there are spas, many of which take advantage of local hot springs and veins of therapeutic mineral waters that flow underground. Sonoma's annual film festival is in its eighth year. Scheduled to take place on the near horizon--from March 31 - April 3, it celebrates indie film, food, and wine. Not surprisingly, it was named one of the "Top Vacation Festivals" by the Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. This year Aidan Quinn and James Woods are among the tribute honorees. (Visit Cinemaepicuria.org for the lowdown on festival passes and details about special festival lodging and restaurant promotions.) For more information on the valley's best attractions and goings-on, stop by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, housed in the Carnegie Library on Sonoma plaza (open daily from 9am to 5pm). The bustling town of Sonoma is one of the valley's most popular enclaves, and reminiscent of small-town Mexico. Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who oversaw the town in the mid-1800s, made sure of that. A picturesque central plaza ringed with historic sights, boutiques, tasting rooms, and gourmet food shops drives home the Old World feel. Pick up a Sonoma Walking Tour map (available for $2.75 at the Mission) and set out on foot to take the town in. Where to dine, inside and out Ask anyone where to eat in the valley, and you'll surely get one consistent response--the Girl & the Fig. It's conveniently located right in downtown Sonoma, and serves California country cuisine dressed up with French accents. Black mission figs are well-represented (warm fig and thyme crisp with port ice cream, anyone?), along with garden-fresh vegetables and local meats. Dinners run $30 per person (without wine), and its passionate owner, Sondra Bernstein, makes expert wine suggestions. If you want to keep it casual, head to the Black Bear Diner in Sonoma--in addition to its heaping portion and affordable prices, there's a jukebox chock full of oldies. Another valley favorite is the welcoming and more upscale Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant. Its wine cellar is stocked with 550 bottles from Sonoma and Napa valleys. Picnicking is one of Sonoma's favorite pastimes, so if the sun is shining, grab a basket (or ample-size bag) and load up on gourmet provisions and head to Sonoma's plaza, the 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park, or a winery, and settle in for lunch this bucolic corner of the world. Few things are more enjoyable than sipping a good wine and nibbling on stinky cheese and crusty bread among the grapes in a sun-dappled vineyard. There are numerous places to stock up on edibles, and they're ready-made for hungry picnickers. Sonoma Cheese Factory (home to Sonoma jack cheese, and it also sells hearty deli sandwiches to go) is a good bet and located on the plaza. (Just a word of note: Lines at the Sonoma Cheese Factory can snake out the door, so be sure to grab a number before you shop.) Alternately, try the Cheesemaker's Daughter or Vella Cheese (in business since 1931), and Artisan Bakers for chewy sourdough baguettes and other breadstuffs. Near the southern gate to the Sonoma Valley (Arnold Drive) sits Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace, another ideal stop for lunch provisions. It sells all kinds of Tuscan treats, including homemade focaccia. Where to wine Everyone loves the Gundlach Bundschu Winery. This old (and legendary) winery is located just a few miles from downtown Sonoma, and in the free spirit of Sonoma, its staff pours without pretension (its reds are best, try its 1995 Cab Franc), and more than a few rowdy sippers have been known to ignite impromptu parties in the tasting room. Its vineyard is laced with paths for strolling, and there are ample spots for picnics. There's a welcome trend in Sonoma to make sampling and learning about wine fun. Charles Creek Vineyards has a tasting room right on the historic Sonoma plaza (483 First St; open daily from 11am - 5pm) that, in addition to some terrific vintages, also features a rotating exhibit of works by local artists. And Castle Vineyards (122 West Spain St. in Sonoma) invites visitors to play pétanque in its garden while they sip a pinot. Roshambo Winery (in Healdsburg, in Sonoma County) also pairs art and award-winning wines, and its conceptual contemporary art exhibits are anything but run-of-the-mill. It even once featured a Shrinky Dink installation. Super-friendly, down-home Ravenswood Vineyards (known for its bold zinfandels) allows you to "blend your own no wimpy wine" for $25 and take the bottle home. And, on weekends between Memorial and Labor days is serves up BBQ and live music. End (or begin) your tipple tour of Sonoma by swinging by the Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves for a glass of one of its famed sparkling wines--they've earned over 100 gold medals in the last five years alone. (Note: The price of tasting room pours can range from free to a $5 flight of samples to $15 for four generously filled glasses.) And although it runs counter to common sense, it can often be more expensive to purchase bottles at the winery. It's only worth buying bottles and lugging them home if you've fallen in love with a wine that you know won't be likely to find at your local liquor store. Where to sleep For better or for worse, Sonoma is not over-run with hotels. There seem to be just enough places to stay for those who visit, and enough variety to match. If you'd like to stay in the town of Sonoma, you're your best bet is the charming Sonoma Hotel, perched right on the leafy central square. Housed in an 1880 building, this property smartly blends history with modern amenities. Extra niceties include complimentary coffee and fresh-from-the-oven pastries in the morning, and wine tastings in the evening. Its restaurant, the girl & the fig, is one of the valley's best. Doubles start at $110 in the warmer months, and less in the off-season. Down the road on East Napa street is the Victorian Garden Inn, a B&B that prides itself on its turn-of-the-century touches and springtime blooms. It's cozy and comfortable with an inviting wraparound porch. Rates start at $139, and include a continental breakfast. Finally, just outside of town, lies the Pink Lady, the grand dame of Sonoma accommodations--the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. It's difficult to imagine a visit to sybaritic Sonoma without a splurge or two. If you're looking for a truly special spot to stay, there are two choices that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The Gaige House Inn (in Glen Ellen) and the Kenwood Inn & Spa (in Kenwood) are destinations in and of themselves, however they possess vastly different personalities. Both properties regularly offer promotional packages, but their best rates fall in the off-season--now! The former crash house of Timothy Leary is now an extraordinary B&B. The Gaige House Inn is run by two partners, Ken Burnet and Greg Nemrow, who lovingly restored the structure to its present day elegance. Their fastidious and unpretentious service, chic Asian touches, and creative gourmet breakfasts (artichoke and pistachio blini with home-smoked salmon--you get the idea) are just a few reasons the inn has a reputation as one of wine country's best lodging choices. Just this year, it opened eight new creek-side spa suites with private enclosed gardens and massive granite soaking tubs inspired by ryokan inns of Kyoto and the countryside onsens of Japan. Conversely, the nearby Kenwood Inn & Spa is Italian to the core, and an excellent place to hide away with a special someone for an indulgent weekend. The Mediterranean-style rooms are ready made for romance, and many come with baronial fireplaces. The inn exudes an ultra-casual elegance, and guests mill around in robes, hopping from pool to hot tub to the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa, which incorporates treatments using vine and grapeseed extracts. In California style, robe-clad guests even belly up to the inn's wine bar, which is tended by the inn's affable (and hands-on) owner/manager Terrance Grimm, who pours hard-to-find boutique wines nightly. Weather-permitting, breakfasts are served outdoors around the lush courtyard. If you have to stay a night in San Francisco If you embark on a weekend getaway in Sonoma, chances are you'll have to spend at least one night (probably your first) in San Francisco. The Orchard Hotel, located between Union Square and Nob Hill, is easily the best accommodations value in downtown SF. The stylish boutique property, which consistently gets stellar reviews on Tripadvisor.com, is family-run with much TLC, the staff exceedingly helpful, and incredibly, one of its spacious rooms can be had for as little as $135. What makes the Orchard Hotel especially appealing is that it's within easy striking distance of major attractions, as well as the up-and-coming SoMa area (South of Market St.). Should your plane arrive in the evening, drop off your bags and duck into Oola (860 Folsom Street), one of the city's best new restaurants, and arguably SoMa's hottest nightspot. Try a toothsome late-night burger or the excellent all-natural baby back ribs with ginger soy glaze from its American bistro menu, which celebrates San Francisco cuisine by leaning heavily on local purveyors. Artisanal cheeses, boutique wines, and organic meats and produce are all well-represented. The people-watching's fun too. Right now, the Orchard is also partnering with the Camellia Inn near Healdsburg's historic plaza in Sonoma and offering a "Best of Town and Country" package, which includes two nights at each property (four nights in all), full breakfast, museum and city passes, and more for $725. And here's some more good news: Spring airfares to San Francisco are still affordable. Here's a list of sample airfares from major US gateways for travel the weekend of April 28 - May 1:   $189--Seattle (Alaska Airlines)   $216--Chicago (ATA)   $266--New York City (JetBlue)   $285--Miami (American)   $288--Boston (AirTran)   $297--Denver (Alaska Airlines)   $366--Dallas (Frontier) Want to speak sommelier? Check out this mini-glossary of need-to-know wine terms   Attack The first impression or impact of a wine   Bouquet A wine's aroma or "nose"   Breed Wines made from the best grape varieties   Corked Wine that has a musty smell   Decanting The technique of pouring wine into a second vessel to remove any sediment   Finish A wine's aftertaste   Greeen Describes wines produced with under-ripe fruit   Legs The liquid rivulets on the inside of a glass after the wine is swirled; legs indicate a high concentration of alcohol   Lush An adjective for wines with above-average quantities of sugar   Tannin The bitter taste caused by grapeskins, seeds and stems

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