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The Mining Towns of Southern West Virginia

By Laurie Kuntz
January 12, 2022
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

Chattanooga, Tenn.

My senior prom was at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. This piece of personal trivia never ceases to amuse people who haven't been to Chattanooga--a town of 160,000 in the hilly southeast corner of Tennessee. After asking me what it was like to have a prom at a train station (it was like any other prom circa 1988, where the girls wore taffeta in terrible colors--plus trains), they'll usually activate their jazz hands and launch into the Glenn Miller tune inspired by our famous locomotive: "Pardon me boys..." I actually grew up about 30 miles north of Chattanooga, in a small town called Cleveland. Both sides of my parents' families have been there for more than a century. Even today, the tallest building in Cleveland is only eight stories, so Chattanooga was our downtown. At night, driving over Missionary Ridge, I was entranced by the brightly lit sign atop the Choo Choo. Thanks to the careful synchronization of blinking lightbulbs, the train's wheels "moved" and smoke "billowed." It was thrilling. Missionary Ridge and two mountains--Lookout and Signal--form a boundary around Chattanooga. There are some snooty Chattanoogans who don't call moneyed Lookout Mountain by its full name: They call it The Mountain (pronounced "thee"). Signal Mountain is also well-to-do, though it has nothing on the old money of its imperious neighbor. Therefore, it's called The--"thuh"--Mountain. Meanwhile, Elder Mountain, southwest of town, is relegated to the lowest status of A Mountain. I've driven over the mountains into Chattanooga 25 dozen times in the past 10 years, but I can't remember if the wheels still roll on the Choo Choo's sign. It seems that the older and busier you get, the more likely you are to cease noticing things like that. It kind of sums up my relationship with Chattanooga: I never really saw what a great city it is until I became an adult. As a kid, I was too busy comparing Chattanooga to Atlanta, two hours south. And to my mind, Atlanta had the serious edge--if only because it's where Duran Duran played in concert. When I learned to drive, my attitude changed a bit. There was cool in Chattanooga; you just had to know where to look. Outdoor festivals weren't just a great way to see live music, but also a place where my underage friends and I could buy beer from clueless refreshment stand attendants. We never missed the Bessie Smith Strut, a blues festival named to honor one of Chattanooga's famous natives (the guy who played the principal on Saved by the Bell is a lesser-known local luminary). By the time I was a senior in high school, the city had started to rehabilitate the scuzzy downtown. When I returned after college to take my first newspaper job, it was a totally different place. There was even a brew pub. Yet soon enough, I began feeling a growing big-city itch, one that the occasional shopping trip to Atlanta couldn't help satisfy. So in 1995, I moved to New York City, where I eventually became the fashion editor at the New York Post. Two years ago, my sister Millie bought a cute one-bedroom bungalow in North Chattanooga, a favorite neighborhood among 20- and 30-somethings who flock there for the mid-century architecture. It was the kind of place I imagined myself living if I ever moved back home. It's artsy but not pretentious, and populated by all types, from elderly couples to young, single first-time homeowners. And it's cozy. Millie is greeted like a close friend at Pearls, a gallery that sells locally made jewelry, paintings, and outsider art. For years, my family has been going to The Mudpie, a coffeehouse with a thoughtfully wacky, thrift-shop-blew-up-in-here decorating scheme. The scrambled eggs with cheese are served over a homemade cathead biscuit. The name is old-school Southern slang that comes from the biscuits' heft and shape. I started missing stuff like that more and more. After nine years of playing Carrie Bradshaw--I too was a writer who spent an inordinate amount of money on shoes--I longed for a more slowish pace and a more smallish place. A year and a half ago, I made a mental list of sub-Mason-Dixon Line cities that would offer the calm I craved, but that also had a certain amount of sophistication. Charlotte and Birmingham were out: Neither has ever impressed me much. Miami, Atlanta? I was tired of concrete. And then--for a few serious minutes--I thought about coming home to Chattanooga. The moment passed. At 35 and well into my career in newspaper journalism, I'm still not ready for a town quite as slowish and smallish as Chattanooga. So instead I moved to Nashville, about 100 miles northwest. Now I make the trip to Chattanooga a couple times a month to visit Millie and my parents. And when I come to town, the fashion editor in me still has an outlet. I always make a point to hit a boutique in North Chattanooga called Susannas, where I can find trendy labels such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, Rebecca Taylor, and Citizens for Humanity. And I score random Lilly Pulitzer pieces at the Junior League Bargain Mart. Millie and I go for drinks at the North Chatt Cat, a hole-in-the-wall with Formica tables and scruffy regulars who could be truly starving artists or slumming millionaires. Sometimes my parents will come down on Saturday night and treat me and Millie to dinner at St. John's Restaurant, where we order foie gras and good wine that we can't afford to buy ourselves. But overall, my favorite spot is Chad's Records, the town's best indie music store. I once found a photo disc of Heart's Dreamboat Annie in Chad's stacks and I treasure it: There's nothing like watching Ann and Nancy Wilson's faces going round and round. Truth be told, though, the real reason to go to Chad's is to run into Chad himself, a 30-something indie rock guy. Women I know who don't even have turntables have spent hours in there flipping through records, just to see him smile. Lodging   Sheraton Read House Hotel 827 Broad St., 423/266-4121, from $109 Food   St. John's Restaurant 1278 Market St., 423/266-4400, foiegras $16   The Mudpie 12 Frazier Ave., 423/267-9043, biscuit $6.75   North Chatt Cat 346 Frazier Ave., 423/266-9466 Attractions   Chattanooga Choo Choo 1400 Market St., 423/266-5000, trolley ride $2 Shopping   Pearls Folk Art 202 Tremont St., 423/267-6779   Junior League Bargain Mart 3935 Hixon Pike, 423/870-9686   Susannas 921 Barton Ave., 423/265-4777   Chad's Records 326 Vine St., 423/756-7563

Inspiration

Maine's Mid-Coast

I've always hated lobster. My memories of childhood vacations in Maine are clouded by recollections of sitting grumpily at the picnic table of lobster shacks, morosely longing for a hamburger. My girlfriend, Frances, was of another mind. She prepared for our drive up Maine's Mid-Coast--from Portland to Penobscot Bay--by trying to work out ways to incorporate lobster into every meal, including breakfast. I was far more eager to revisit the Maine I loved from my past: offshore islands, Victorian fishing villages, the gargantuan L.L. Bean flagship store, and meandering drives along the narrow peninsulas. As for my feelings about lobster, I have to admit I became a begrudging convert: By the end of our trip it was me--claw cracker in one hand, plastic cup of Maine microbrew in the other--eyeing the largest guy in the tank. Day 1: Portland to Westport Island Our first order of business heading north out of Portland on Route 1 was a visit to DeLorme headquarters in Yarmouth. I had borrowed my dad's DeLorme map of the state. He'd highlighted his favorite drives, circled memorable towns, and scrawled notes all over. It was as good a resource as any guidebook, but this was to be my trip, and I wanted my own blank slate. DeLorme's lobby houses the world's largest spinning globe--130 feet around, over 41 feet high. At one-millionth scale, the massive globe has all the world's topographical information, but leaves out political borders. It's Earth as the astronauts see it--all I could think was how huge the Pacific Ocean actually is. We stopped next at the Desert of Maine, a kitschy 40-acre plot of miniature sand dunes. The site formed in the 1880s when over-farming depleted the soil covering a glacial sand deposit. Along with the striking dunes, the Desert of Maine complex has a train to cart you around, plastic camels for photo-ops, and a nature trail through a pine forest that promised remarkable wildlife wonders such as "trees and birds." In Freeport, I got to business trying on travel slacks at L.L. Bean. The town is one of the nation's most popular outlet shopping villages, with more than 150 stores. And it all started in 1917 when avid outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean opened his shop, now a 140,000-square-foot flagship. Frances had to drag me out of a dressing room to find lunch. Half a block down Main Street, we grabbed a table on the brick patio of the Lobster Cooker, a homespun version of a fast-food joint. It was my first lobster roll of the trip, and it was better than I remembered them to be. The soft, chewy bun and the mayonnaisey lobster were delicious. Squire Tarbox Inn, a 1763 farmhouse turned B&B, was so secluded that to find it we had to stop twice to consult the map. Owner Roni De Pietro, a retired flight attendant, showed us around the building and up an outdoor staircase to our room. Rough wooden beams lined the ceiling, and there was a lovely view over gardens sloping to a meadow with a pond. After settling in, we returned downstairs to the inn's little living room to snack on goat cheese, crackers, olives, and red wine from the honor bar, where we noted what we drank for our bill. Squire Tarbox is as well known for its meals as its rooms. Roni's Swiss husband, Mario--a veteran of top New York kitchens including The Four Seasons restaurant--prepared a dinner of chicken curry soup, grilled salmon, and potato-crusted haddock with a side of glazed carrots from the inn's organic garden. Back in our room, I left the door open awhile to take in the quiet and the darkness. A fluffy cat sauntered in, hopped up onto the bed's duvet, and settled down with us for the night. Day One Lodging Squire Tarbox Inn1181 Main Rd., Westport Island, 207/882-7693, squiretarboxinn.com, rooms from $99, dinner from $32.50 Food Lobster Cooker39 Main St., Freeport, 207/865-4349, lobster roll $14 Attractions DeLorme 2 DeLorme Dr., Yarmouth, 207/846-7100 Desert of Maine 95 Desert Rd., Freeport, 207/865-6962, $7.75 Shopping L.L. Bean 95 Main St., Freeport, 800/559-0747 Day 2: Westport Island to Waldoboro To say the town of Bath (pop. 9,266) is in the shipbuilding industry is a bit of an understatement; nearly half of the employees at Bath Iron Works are from the greater Bath area. And during the past 117 years, BIW has built more than 400 big boats, from tugs to missile destroyers. Down the road from BIW, the defunct Percy & Small Shipyard has been turned into the Maine Maritime Museum. I expected it to be dull, but was proven wrong by an intriguing mix of seafaring lore and shipbuilding secrets. An exhibit on lobstermen listed some common superstitions: They will not paint their boats blue, wear black, turn baskets or barrels upside down, or say the word "pig" while on board. Maine's Mid-Coast looks somewhat like a stumpy hand with more than a dozen long, scraggly fingers. The fingers are peninsulas and islands, most of which are connected by bridges. From Bath, we drove down one peninsula and onto Bailey Island, a small fishing village. At the docks, Cook's Lobster House was a near-perfect lobster shack. I had baked lobster stuffed with Ritz crackers. The baking dried out the lobster meat, but copious amounts of melted butter went a long way to making up for it. At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, we visited the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, a collection of Arctic arcana. (Did you know caribou hair is hollow?) The place was named for two alumni explorers, the more famous of whom--Robert Edwin Peary--became the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909. We retraced our way south to Georgetown Island with one goal: to take a picture of me next to the sign for Reid State Park. After a lifetime of searching in vain for my name on a miniature license plate, this was something of a victory. The park also won me over with one of Maine's best beaches--a mile and a half of wide sand backed by marshy tide pools and a freshwater pond. Though summer temperatures around here average in the mid-70s, the water in the ocean never rises much past 60 degrees. Only the hardiest swimmers opt for the ocean, and it was too cold for us to contemplate either. In Waldoboro, a neon sign welcomed us to Moody's Diner, a classic joint with two neat rows of white clapboard cabins on a hill behind it. We relaxed for a few moments on our little screened porch before hopping back in the car to backtrack down Rte. 1 for dinner in Damariscotta. The town, which curls around a harbor, has a white church steeple poking above the trees. At King Eider's Pub, we had cold pints of local microbrew Kennebec River Magic Hole IPA, along with fresh, meaty river oysters and a hunter's soup of beef, sausage, potatoes, and veggies in a spicy broth. It warmed us up nicely. Day Two Lodging Moody's MotelRoute 1, Waldoboro, 207/832-5362, $43 Food Cook's Lobster HouseBailey Island, 207/833-2818, lobster $25 King Eider's Pub2 Elm St., Damariscotta, 207/563-6008, half-dozen river oysters $11 Attractions Maine Maritime Museum243 Washington St., Bath, 207/443-1316, $10 Peary-MacMillan Arctic MuseumHubbard Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, 207/725-3416 Reid State Park375 Seguinland Rd., Georgetown, 207/371-2303, $4.50 Day 3: Waldoboro to Vinalhaven We fortified ourselves for the day with eggs, pancakes, and bacon at Moody's Diner before visiting Pemaquid Point. There's a real land's-end feel to the protruding finger of granite, which is eroded in the most gorgeous way. An 1827 lighthouse at the top of the outcropping is the same one pictured on the back of Maine's state quarters. Frances and I whiled away two hours scrambling over the rocks, peering at tiny crabs in tide pools. Just up the road we found a place that beat Cook's Lobster House, at least in terms of atmosphere. Shaw's Fish & Lobster Wharf is a one-room outfit with a sunny deck built out over a cove bobbing with boats. It was quiet accompaniment to yet another delicious lobster. The oddest souvenir shop I've ever seen, the Maine State Prison Showroom near Rockland, is stocked with woodwork made by inmates from the state pen up the road in Warren. Prices are low: oak bookcases for $139, intricate ship models from $55. I'm still kicking myself for not buying a Maine State Prison birdhouse resembling a jail, with little bars on the windows. It was a bit disconcerting, however, to browse a store staffed by convicts (plus a guard). Moving higher up the art scale, we stopped at the Farnsworth Art Museum in downtown Rockland to admire the work of 19th-century American painters, including Thomas Eakins and the Wyeth clan. Andrew Wyeth's father, N.C., started the family's habit of summering in Maine in the 1930s in nearby Port Clyde. After taking our sweet time at the museum, we parked down by the docks and boarded the ferry for the 75-minute ride to Vinalhaven Island. In the center of town, the Tidewater Motel is built right on top of a fast, narrow tidal channel. Our room opened onto a small deck over the water. From the window, we could look at the harbor, flecked with dozens of white boats. Owner Phil Crossman lent us a couple of bikes, and we rode a few miles out of town to Booths Quarry, a popular swimming hole. It was sunny but chilly, and the water felt freezing. Some teenage girls were splashing around, so I tried--unsuccessfully--to convince Frances to jump in with me. What I failed to consider was that these girls had been tempered by Maine winters. The second I hit the water, I catapulted back out of it with a yelp and sprinted back along the surface to shore. Frances found this hilarious. We biked back for dinner at the Harbor Gawker, an unpretentious restaurant looking out on a pond. The crab roll and clam chowder were simple and just right. Day Three Lodging Tidewater MotelVinalhaven, 207/863-4618, tidewatermotel.com, from $72 Food Shaw's Fish & Lobster WharfRoute 32, New Harbor, 207/ 677-2200, lobster $14 Harbor GawkerMain St., Vinalhaven, 207/863-9365, crab roll and clam chowder $10.75 Attractions Pemaquid Point207/563-6246, parking $2 Farnsworth Art Museum16 Museum St., Rockland, 207/596-6457, $9 Shopping Maine State Prison Showroom358 Main St. (Rte. 1), Thomaston, 207/354-9237 Transportation Maine State Ferry ServiceRockland, 207/596-2202, round-trip $12 Day 4: Vinalhaven to Portland In a little shopping center next to the docks, a back deck leads to the Surfside, a restaurant popular with fishermen, who roll in for breakfast as early as 4 a.m. Well after that hour, I wolfed down two eggs with kielbasa, crispy home fries, and thick slices of bread made from cornmeal and molasses, and Frances had blueberry pancakes. All the while, owner Donna Webster and her staff teased the other clients--friends who had come in to discuss The Bold & the Beautiful, and skateboarders declaring the food "wicked good." A ferry to the mainland dropped us back at our car, and we took a quick drive north to Camden. Giant old Victorians line the streets, a little river spills over a waterfall into the harbor, and fun shops fill brick buildings along Chestnut, Main, and Elm Streets. It all felt very Norman Rockwell. Camden was the end of the road for us. But before shooting back down to Portland, we picked up some turkey sandwiches at the Camden Deli for one more activity, a mile-and-a-half climb to the top of Mount Battie, outside of town. Just below the mountaintop, we found a sunny boulder to sit on, and pulled out our picnic. We took turns reading to each other from "Renascence," the 1912 poem that launched the literary career of local high school student Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem was evidently inspired by this very view of Camden, the perfect Maine town, overlooking the perfect island-dotted harbor. Day Four Food Surfside RestaurantWest Main St., Vinalhaven, 207/863-2767 Camden Deli37 Main St., Camden, 207/236-8343 Attractions Mount BattieCamden Hills State Park, 280 Belfast Rd., Camden, 207/236-3109 Finding Your Way The ideal time for this trip is in high summer, when temperatures reach the mid-70s, and everything's sure to be open. Driving these parts requires a lot of jogging up and down Route 1; the goal isn't to get from Point A to Point B, but to detour into all the inlets. The exits on Interstates 295 and 95 were renumbered in Maine in early 2004, so be sure to use 2005 guidebooks and maps. A few notes: 1) The Squire Tarbox Inn is easy to miss. From Bath on Route 1, Route 144 sneaks up after the Montsweag brook crossing. 2) The ferry to Vinalhaven leaves out of Rockland. 3) The fastest route back to Portland from Camden is inland, via Route 90 to Route 17 to Augusta, then I-95 to I-295 south.

Inspiration

Secret Hotels of Tuscany

La Rignana A long way from the main roads in Chianti wine country, the refined retreat of Cosimo Gericke and Sveva Rocco di Torrepadula has two old guesthouses. The Fattoria, enlarged in the 18th century, is based on a structure more than 1,000 years old. It contains seven rooms with rustic furnishings and sloping brick ceilings laced with wooden beams. The rooms lack TVs, telephones, and A/C, though there is a common area with a stone fireplace that has satellite television and a modem hookup. The other guest building is the two-floor Villa Stella: eight rooms with plank floors and frescoes that are available on a nightly basis only in April, May, September, and October. (At other times of year, you must rent an entire floor by the week as a single unit--four rooms, each with its own bathroom, with a common kitchen and fireplace.) The Villa is open year-round, the Fattoria from late March to mid-November. There is a horizon pool amid the olive trees, with views of the rolling hills. The restaurant, in another cluster of farm buildings and under separate management, has tables on a patio and serves traditional Tuscan fare, including wide papardelle pasta with wild boar sauce, and delectable involtini (thin veal slices wrapped around cheese and prosciutto) stewed with zucchini disks. Doubles in the Fattoria $109--$122, with breakfast; Villa doubles $154, with breakfast; four-room apartment $3,846 per week. Near Greve in Chianti, 011-39/055-852-065, rignana.it. Podere Terreno Roberto Melosi left a promising hotel career at London's Savoy to become chef and host of an agriturismo--an inn on a working farm in Italy. His Paris-born wife, Marie-Sylvie Haniez, who had owned a modern art gallery in Florence, decided the only proper way to run an agriturismo was to share communal dinners with their guests in the French table d'hôte style. Together, they manage a restored 16th-century farmhouse, which has seven country-comfy rooms furnished with a hodgepodge of painted metal bedsteads, carved wood vanities, and worn terra-cotta floors. Credit for the vineyard's light, organic Chianti Classico goes to Marie-Sylvie's adult son, Pier Francesco, who gave up dirt bike racing to study viticulture and enology at the University of Florence. Wine obviously means a lot to the family: Vineyards encircle the house, and each guest room is named for a local grape. Malvasia, Trebbiano, Vernaccia, and Ciliegiolo are all on the east side of the house, which has the best vineyard views. In summer, guests enjoy that same view from the patio during three-hour family-style dinners that may include lasagne, steaks, and stuffed tomatoes. Roberto and Marie-Sylvie sit at either end of the long wooden table and do their best to keep the conversation lively, in multiple languages if necessary. On cooler days, dinner moves inside to a common room, where copper pots dangle from thick wood beams and the stone walls are decorated with oil paintings, ceramics, and Marie-Sylvie's collection of sun icons. The room's seven-foot fireplace, which dates back to the 14th century, is surrounded by armchairs and a sofa that Athena (Roberto and Marie-Sylvie's miniature schnauzer) is happy to share. In the spring of 2004, Podere Terreno's simple operation got a bit swankier, inaugurating a wine-tasting cantina and a tiny spa with a Jacuzzi and massage table. Doubles $231, with breakfast and dinner. Near Radda in Chianti, 011-39/0577-738-312, podereterreno.it. Castello Ripa d'Orcia Once you settle into a cavernous room in this medieval castle village three miles down a curving, bumpy dirt lane, the only contact with the outside world is the pay phone in the restaurant. Accommodations are gorgeous in an antique, minimalist sort of way: very rustic, with massive ceiling beams, thrilling countryside views, and no TVs to disturb the calm--just birdsong in the mornings and the chirping of cicadas on hot summer afternoons. There's a long, narrow garden with a fountain and sunning chairs, battlements once patrolled by soldiers (now guarded by flowerpots) that make for a nice stroll, and an old granary lined with books, gaming tables, and a fireplace for guests. The owner, Countess Laura Aluffi Pentini, is part of the Piccolomini family. They're a well-known clan in these parts: Several Renaissance popes came from the family, and the Piccolominis have owned the property since 1483 (the castle itself dates back to 1218). The Countess lives in the castle, but is only guaranteed to be around during check-in time (2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), which adds to the feeling that, in passing through the tower gate, you've stepped out of the modern world and its frenetic pace. Doubles $147--$180, with breakfast, two-night minimum, open mid-March--October. About five miles south of San Quírico d'Orcia, 011-39/0577-897-376, castelloripadorcia.com. Fattoria di Vagli After two miles of dirt road winding through dense woods, a cypress-lined driveway leads to a 17th-century farmhouse surrounded by fields of corn, sunflowers, wheat, grapevines, and farro. The Vagli farm is a family operation, with Carla Ferri in charge. Her father tends the crops, her uncles shepherd the free-range pigs, cows, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and pigeons, and her mother works in the kitchen curing meats, making marmalades, and cooking for guests and the family ($23 for three courses plus dessert, without wine). Carla, meanwhile, looks after guests and the 10 rooms, furnished in a simple country style with hand-painted headboards and rough wooden beams. The rooms on the ground floor have exposed stone walls and are a bit smaller, but the abundance of light from large windows makes them feel airy. The suite with a fireplace costs $13 more, while the two units that share a bathroom cost $17 less--though those two also interconnect, so they're perfect for families. There are four free bikes for guests, and the dining room walls are lined with topographical maps to help you plan hikes and rides throughout the region--or just within the woodlands that cover most of Vagli's 800 acres. The grounds are so extensive, some guests never realize that there's a pool hidden in the fruit orchard. Once a week, a member of the family takes guests on a tour of the farming operation, which produces figs, olives, dried pork, and more. Carla also arranges guided hikes in the Castelvecchio nature reserve, which overlaps with the farm and includes the ruins of a medieval castle and village. Doubles $94, with breakfast. In Libbiano, north of San Gimignano, 011-39/0577-946-025, naturaesalute.it. Giovanni da Verrazzano Saturday is market day in the village of Greve in Chianti, when the main piazza is buzzing with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, porchetta (pork) sandwiches, and everyday necessities. The stalls are arranged around the statue of local sailor Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to discover New York Harbor. For the past 800 years, the hotel now named in this hometown hero's honor has watched over daily life on the triangular piazza. The 10 guest rooms are basic--some but not all come with a private bathroom, though modern terrazzo floors and painted metal bedsteads are standard. The location and the views are what set the hotel apart. The front rooms overlook the bustling square, while those in the back (nos. 4--7) have little private terraces with vistas over lichen-spotted roof tiles to the vast hills beyond. A larger room upstairs (no. 10), with its sloping ceilings and Persian rugs, claims similar views over the hills but no balcony. The restaurant, on a terrace atop one of the piazza's arcades, has fed hungry visitors to Greve since 1200. Doubles $127--$135, with breakfast. Piazza Giacomo Matteotti 28, 011-39/055-853-189, verrazzano.it. Castello di Gargonza On the crest of a mountain enveloped by forest sits a fairy-tale castle, with a 13th-century hamlet curled around the base of a crenellated tower. The hilltop village is Gargonza, fought over for centuries by the Florentines and Sienese, host to an exiled Dante in the early 1300s--and now entirely for rent. Gargonza's 27 houses, which like the castle are built of pale stone, serve as apartments and come with working fireplaces, kitchenettes, and 17th-century-style furnishings. There are also seven simple doubles (no kitchens or fireplaces) in one of the larger buildings. Converting the place into lodging for tourists was the only way Count Roberto Guicciardini--whose ancestors have been lords of the castle since 1700--could save the decaying village after the last of its farmers and artisans abandoned Gargonza in the 1960s. The central courtyard, with an old well and geraniums spilling from arcaded balconies, is a sort of open-air living room for guests. Likewise, the old olive press building functions these days as a common room with sofas, TV, and the breakfast buffet. Just outside the town's medieval walls is a swimming pool surrounded by fragrant rosemary and olive and cypress trees, and the excellent restaurant. Owner Neri Guicciardini, one of the count's sons, adds innovative flair to Tuscan classics. Doubles $130--$141 in B&B; $147--$232 in apartments. Off the SS73 west of Monte San Savino, 011-39/0575-847-021, gargonza.it. Villa Rosa in Boscorotondo Sabina Avuri, tall and thin with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, is one of the owners of this elegant and secluded dusty-pink villa on the twisting main road through the Chianti region. Her husband, Giancarlo, is a Tuscan straight from central casting, complete with open-necked shirts, trimmed moustache, wavy gray hair swept back from a proud forehead, precise facial expressions, and a thick Florentine accent. He spends his days managing their wine bar in Florence before making the half-hour drive home to help his wife prepare four-course dinners served on the back patio ($30). The villa was built by a French expat in the early 1900s, and many of the original elements remain: octagonal red and black stone floor tiles, little sitting rooms, and terra-cotta stoves that once warmed the rooms. The Avuris have added their own touches, including TV sets here and there, canopied beds under high ceilings, funky lamps and sconces made by a local design company, and a swimming pool on the hillside under a neighbor's grapevines. Rooms 2 and 4 have French doors that open onto massive terraces with views of the forested hills across the road. No. 7, on the top floor, has vaulted beams on the ceiling, soft blue washed walls, and small windows. In spring and fall, breakfast moves from the patio to the sunken cellars that once held barrels of vin santo, Tuscany's "holy wine," so sweet it's served for dessert. Doubles $115; $141 with terrace, with breakfast, open Easter--mid-November. On the main SR 222 road south of Panzano in Chianti, en route to Radda. 011-39/055-852-577, resortvillarosa.it. Il Poderuccio Don't be alarmed if there's no one around when you stroll across the lawn to the check-in desk. Chances are owner Giorgio Girardi is in the back tinkering with the tractor, while his wife, Renate, is in the gardens. Il Poderuccio lies just down the road from Sant'Angelo in Colle, a hilltop medieval village in the heart of Brunello wine country. Giorgio left an international banking career to restore this abandoned farm, and is proud to have strung vines along only half of his available acreage. Locals think he's crazy to limit his production of one of Italy's most famous--and famously expensive--red wines, but Giorgio prefers keeping the operation small enough to run single-handedly. Renate has filled six large guest rooms with thoughtful touches, such as mosquito screens (rare in Italy), plenty of towels (rare everywhere), and garlands of dried lavender perched on windowsills. There are pretty nooks throughout the property--benches under shade trees, a swimming pool in the olive grove, perfect stacks of wood. Breakfast is served in the sunny front porch in cool weather and during the summer shifts to the back patio with views straight out of a Renaissance painting--distant mountains above green and gold fields striped with vines and spiked with cypress trees. Doubles $109, with breakfast, open Easter--November. Near Montalcino, 011-39/0577-844-052. Six More Secret Hotels: For When You Want the City Experience If "countryside retreat" sounds to you like "stranded amid the vineyards," here are some great hotels in popular Tuscan towns. Il Giglio, Montalcino Rooms come with wrought-iron bed frames, beamed ceilings, and fabulous countryside views, all in the heart of the hilltown that serves as capital of the Brunello region. The best wine-tasting enoteca is in the crag-top castle just around the corner. Doubles $109, $126 with breakfast. Via Saloni 5, 011-39/0577-848-167, gigliohotel.com. La Cisterna, San Gimignano A series of ivy-clad stone buildings, backed by a piazza and its ancient well, hold 49 rooms, the best of which have views of the town's iconic towers and the rolling countryside. Doubles $105--$156, with breakfast. Piazza della Cisterna 23, 011-39/0577-940-328, hotelcisterna.it. Le Cannelle, Fiesole In an Etruscan hilltown 20 minutes from Florence by bus, Sara Corsi rents airy rooms with sleigh beds in an 18th-century convent restored by her father. Doubles $146, with breakfast. Via Gramsci 52, 54, 56, Fiesole. 011-39/0555-978-336, lecannelle.com. Mueblé Il Riccio, Montepulciano Modern rooms with minibars and A/C are 50 feet from the town's main Piazza Grande, which is lined with Renaissance palaces and wine-tasting cellars. Owners Giorgio and Ivana Caroti are inveterate travelers themselves; ask about countryside tours in one of Giorgio's classic cars. Doubles $109, breakfast $10 extra. Via Talosa 21, 011-39/0578-757-713, ilriccio.net. Piccolo Hotel Etruria, Siena The Etruria's rooms are rather bland yet functional, with A/C and the best location of any hotel in town: on a side alley a mere 164 feet from Siena's central Piazza del Campo. Doubles $103, breakfast $6 extra. Via delle Donzelle 3, 011-39/0577-288-088, hoteletruria.com. Piccolo Hotel Puccini, Lucca Owner Paolo Moncini is friendly and helpful, and his hotel has cozy rooms that are remarkably cheap considering they're across the street from Puccini's birthplace and half a block from the main piazza. Doubles $109, breakfast $5 extra. Via di Poggio 9, 011-39/0583-55-421, hotelpuccini.com.

Inspiration

Reno, Nevada

After too many 80-hour weeks at a San Francisco technology firm, Meredith Tanzer was ready for a change. On regular skiing trips to Lake Tahoe, she'd started exploring the surrounding area, including the city of Reno, Nev., 40 miles away. Reno was just what she'd been looking for: It was smaller than San Francisco, but with some of the same appealing vibe. When she came upon the annual Great Reno Balloon Race, when hundreds of hot-air pilots play bizarre racing games in the sky, she knew she'd found her new home. In 2003, Tanzer and her partner, Dawn Lewis, opened La Bussola, a boutique selling craftsy objets and shabby chic furniture. "My family and friends practically disowned me," she recalls. "They said, 'You're moving where?!' " It's hard to blame them: Reno had always been known as The Biggest Little City in the World, a place where divorcées bided their time waiting for the papers to clear. And the home of the National Bowling Stadium, of course. But while Vegas was being reinvented every year, an explosion at a time, Reno stayed off most people's radar--and like an archaeological cache, it benefited by being ignored. Many of the city's great thrift stores, dive bars, and casinos remain intact. In one of the cocktail lounges at the Peppermill, a casino awash in blue neon, young couples on dates congregate around a bubbling firepit-- a fountain with flames shooting out of it. At Mr. O's, a quintessential dive bar that's open 24 hours, the jukebox is heavy on Rat Pack favorites. The Liberty Belle Saloon, which fights for the title of Reno's oldest restaurant, serves mean prime rib platters. Even better, it's an informal--and free--gallery of vintage slot machines: Owner Marshall Fey, whose grandfather invented the classic three-reel slot machine, has a collection of slots upstairs, including one that pays out in packs of gum. Reno's population--now 200,000--has swelled by 30 percent in the past decade; according to census data, 10,220 residents moved to the area in 2003 alone. Whether folks are coming for affordable living or the fantastic old-time kitsch, they're coming--and bringing businesses with them. Tanzer used to get the cold shoulder when she'd put out calls to artists, trying to stock up her store. "They figured their stuff would be sold in a barn or from the back of a truck," she remembers. Now, she says, she's more likely to hear, "Oh my god, I love Reno!" Around the same time that Tanzer opened La Bussola, Tara Fisher, another San Francisco transplant, opened a boutique called The Attic, where she sells designer denim, handmade jewelry, and clutches. And there's a thriving art scene--one that the city is eager to encourage. In 2003, an arts commission dedicated $20,000 to install Kinetic Banners--60 steel pinwheels that spin around streetlamps downtown. This month marks the 10th anniversary of Artown, an annual festival held each July. When the first one was planned, organizers never would have dreamed of getting Mikhail Baryshnikov and Branford Marsalis, who've both recently been on the bill. Before Tim Healion opened the town's first coffeehouse, Deux Gros Nez, in 1985, the restaurants tended to be all-you-can-eat buffets. "Dining wasn't an experience," he says. "You went in, got your food, and left." That's just fine at a hangover clinic like Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs, known for its massive skillet breakfasts. But the new arrivals wanted the gourmet foodstuffs they had grown accustomed to, and now they can find crème fraîche and mâche on supermarket shelves. Naturally, wine culture has made inroads. The third Saturday of every month, the Wine Walk leads people along a footpath on the Truckee River; participants stop at more than 20 boutiques, cafés, and galleries to refill their glasses. There's no organized Beer Walk, but there should be, given the recent crop of hip bars. Two years ago, Jessica Kleiderman and Noel Judal were drawn to town from California--anyone sense a trend?-- for the nearby snowboarding. Bummed by the lack of chic nightlife, the two friends created a retro lounge, Satellite, for emerging indie bands. "There was nothing like it," says Kleiderman. "Now it's not so unique." The Green Room is a bar with a 1950s-style rec room in front and a performance space in back. On Tuesdays, arthouse movies are screened for free, and on other nights, jazz combos perform. They're getting more competition all the time: The Chocolate Bar, a modern cocktail and dessert lounge, opened in April. Embedded in the bar are sleek LCD screens showing Charlie Chaplin films and Betty Boop cartoons-- a witty, contemporary-yet-retro nod to a more familiar Reno staple: video poker screens. Lodging   Peppermill Hotel Casino 2707 S. Virginia St., 866/821-9996, from $80 Food   The Liberty Belle Saloon 4250 S. Virginia St., 775/825-1776, prime rib special $12   Deux Gros Nez 249 California Ave., 775/786-9400   Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs 420 S. Sierra St., 775/329-2600, bacon and eggs $7 Nightlife   Mr. O's 1495 S. Virginia St., 775/323-4244   Satellite 188 California Ave., 775/786-3536   The Green Room 144 West St., 775/324-1224   Chocolate Bar 475 S. Arlington Ave., 775/337-1122 Attractions   Great Reno Balloon Race 775/826-1181, renoballoon.com   Truckee River Wine Walk 775/348-8858, renoriver.org, $10, includes map and glass   Artown 775/322-1538 renoisartown.com, most events free Shopping   La Bussola 211 W. 1st St., 775/348-8858   The Attic 542 Plumas St., 775/337-8999