Staunton, Va.: Charm Without The Pretense

Laid-back Staunton, Va., offers something for history lovers: the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum.
Laid-back Staunton, Va., offers something for history lovers: the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. (Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library)
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

My husband and I knew we weren't in Washington anymore when we pulled up the tree-lined drive at midnight, parked, ran to the front porch of the 19th-century pillared house and let ourselves in without a key. But then this is Staunton (pronounced Stanton), Va., a quaint town in the Shenandoah Valley, only three hours from Washington but a long way from the K Street suits and the Adams Morgan hipsters.

"It just still has that small-town atmosphere, and it's really friendly for everyone," said Caroline Keller who, with her husband, Dick Chamberlain, runs Ashton Country House Bed and Breakfast, whose portico sheltered us from the pouring rain one night in September.

Staunton is not cute or fancy, chic or hip. And that's what drew me to it three years ago when I was looking for a simple honeymoon escape. I looked at Charlottesville but thought that my small college town had become too cool for me, what with the restaurant write-ups, the elegant furniture stores and the now-trendy downtown mall. I was looking for something a little more laid-back, a little more real and with a little less . . . well, style.

Staunton provided. The town closes down early and wakes up late. But that's not to say it doesn't have a lot to offer. Take for example, the Staunton Grocery, a restaurant whose meals are fresh and inventive, even as the restaurant is unassuming and relaxed. You may just as easily see the chef, Ian Boden, picking his greens at the Staunton farmers market on Saturdays, as you would through the big glass window into his kitchen. (If you're the slightest bit of a chocolate lover, you must order the chocolate soup for dessert. I could have eaten whole vats of it.)

Beverley Street runs through the town, highlighted with steep hills on either end, which made us feel sort of nestled into Staunton as we walked down the street. Victorian architecture is rampant, and plaques on many of the buildings note their historical importance.

There is the modern Staunton, too, such as the trendy women's shop Design Nine on Beverley Street and Byers Street Bistro, where we grabbed an after-dinner drink at the bar. And even if the buildings are old, the coffee shops are decidedly 2008. Like any respectable town, Staunton offers more than one independent coffee shop. Unlike some downtowns (sorry, C'ville), no Starbucks here.

As we meandered slowly through the streets on this recent weekend, we caught Doug Sheridan blowing glass at Sunspot Studios, we ate chili outside at Mugshots and we toured the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. (That's right, Staunton even has a little something for the history buff.) Even though Wilson lived in Staunton for only a couple of years as a baby, Stauntonians are very proud of their president.

My husband and I also took some time to spook ourselves with a walk to the Western State Lunatic Asylum. We noted that it looks like the University of Virginia, which, it turns out, was right on. Thomas Blackburn, who helped design U-Va., designed the building. When it closed, it became a prison. And now Stauntonians can buy a condo on the 80-acre campus. (Conveniently, the brochure mentions nothing of its creepy past.)

Staunton, so close to Skyline Drive, is also a great place for picnickers, hikers and cyclists. "The good thing about Staunton is it's such a small town, you can ride four miles and be out on the back roads," said James Burris, who, as co-owner of Staunton's Black Dog Bikes, can help visitors map out a bike route. Wineries are also nearby, and locals recommended Cross Keys Vineyards, Barren Ridge Vineyards, Veritas Vineyard and Afton Mountain Vineyards.

As for any weekend getaway, it's important to find a bed-and-breakfast that suits your personality. Ashton Country House sits outside town and feels more like visiting friends than anything. My husband and I came downstairs late for breakfast only to find Keller in the front yard, her dog, Beau, a German shorthaired pointer, by her side and her grandson's pacifier in her hand.

Open a year, Ashton allows dogs and kids in the house. That gives the place a homey vibe; it's a beautiful home with canopy beds and homemade breakfast every morning. (Keller taught cooking classes for Williams-Sonoma for five years, and we could taste the expertise in her eggs Florentine.) Visitors can take one of Keller's picnics up the hill behind the B&B, or just spend time on the front porch, the back porch or in the front-yard hammock.

A different B&B option is the Miller House, built in 1896, and now owned by Ray Cubbage and Pam Robbins. The house, in town, is a big Queen Anne Victorian and heavily ornamented, with a wraparound porch and a grand staircase. It's beautiful and impressive and much more formal than Ashton.

At breakfast at the Miller House, Homer Boushey, a professor from California, called Staunton charming. He, his wife and their friends from Blacksburg had attended a play at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse the night before. The playhouse, according to the Staunton city Web site, is "the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater." It's a big draw for many tourists.

As we walked down sleepy Beverley Street on Sunday afternoon, we passed a few vacant shops. We stopped at a tea cafe that was about to close. Pickup trucks drove down the one-way street every now and then, but the drivers didn't seem to be in too much of a hurry. Nope, Staunton is definitely no Charlottesville: no Dave Matthews sightings, no crowded sidewalks or preppy-looking students here. Just a quiet weekend with good company, fresh air and, really, just enough style for me.

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