By Debi Lander
Travelers often find unexpected joys, fewer crowds, and budget-friendly prices in smaller cities. I recently discovered these advantages in Wytheville, located in Southwest Virginia, at the intersection of highways Interstate-81 and Interstate-77, not far from the Tennessee border. Wytheville’s population numbers just 8,500, but there’s plenty to see and do.
My first stroll down Main Street brought me to the Edith Bolling Wilson Museum. Who? Edith Boiling, a child born and raised in Wytheville, became the first lady when she married Woodrow Wilson in 1915, during his first term as President. (I can only imagine the media frenzy that would cause today.) When Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, Edith actually made many presidential decisions on his behalf.
Her birthplace sits next door to the museum. The house has yet to be restored, but the near-empty rooms speak loudly of the past. I was fascinated by Edith and her place in American history. (She was born during the Civil War Reconstruction and has a 10th generation link to Pocahontas.)
The Thomas A. Boyd Museum focuses on Wytheville’s history, including a reasonably recent, but sad, chapter. In 1950, Wytheville had more polio cases than any other city in the state. The year became known as the Summer Without Children. Accounts say it was as if the Pied Piper spirited all the children out of town. Parents would not permit the kids to play outdoors. Several iron lungs of various sizes are displayed, a poignant reminder of how polio victims were affected and treated at this time.
Today’s outdoor enthusiasts will find a variety of hiking, biking, horseback riding, and boating options among Big Walker Mountain Trail, New River State Park, and Crystal Springs. Drive up to Big Walker Mountain Lookout (elevation of 3,405 feet) and climb the 100-foot tower for endless views of beautiful Appalachian Mountains. Motorcycle riders find the epicenter of the “Claw of the Dragon” in Wytheville, a 200-mile scenic trail running through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Fort Chiswell Animal Park grew from the childhood dream of Jeff Arches. The 45-acre safari park features animals from six continents, mostly rescued animals. You ride along with windows open on an old school bus, and exotic animals come up to the vehicle. The guide tells you how you can feed them. I turned my back, and a camel pushed his head in the window and stole the entire bag of animal feed off the seat. He enjoyed quite a feast while we all laughed. The attraction runs on an abundance of love and care. It’s a happy place that I feel comfortable recommending, especially if traveling with children.
As far as food and beverage, Wytheville’s got it covered. The West Wind Farm Winery does everything from grape to glass by hand. They hand-pick, crush, bottle and label wines from the five-acre vineyard. Wytheville welcomes beer enthusiasts to two trendy craft breweries.
The Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre presents musicals to 50,000 guests per year in a 250-seat arena. With those numbers, you know they must be doing something right. The three-course meal and the show were excellent. Another night, I suggest dining at the atmospheric Log House 1776 Restaurant. Plan to stay and browse the gardens, antique, and gift shops in outer buildings.
Wytheville draws a crowd to its annual Chautauqua Festival and Balloon Rally, an eight-day family-oriented music and arts festival from the third to the fourth Saturday every June. The spectacular evening balloon glow earns rave reviews. Balloon rides are available the next morning.
Lodging choices include many of the popular chain hotels, the boutique-style Bolling Wilson Hotel and the Trinkle Mansion, winner of the Best in Virginia Bed and Breakfast. Splurge and stay for a romantic getaway, after all — Virginia is for Lovers. Owner Patti Pizinger, the sweetest lady, will welcome you warmly.
For more information: www.visitwytheville.com.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
Wytheville Main Street.