Escapes: Monterey, Virginia's 'Little Switzerland'
Friday, October 8, 2010
Pre-dawn light drenching a landscape of smoky blue and green ridges. A soft wind stirring through the trees. It doesn't get much better than this.
Watching the sun rise from a bed-and-breakfast with a 180-degree view of Highland County, Va., was heavenly.
About two miles to the west was Monterey, the county seat that mostly serves as a fueling stop for folks headed to nearby West Virginia. Which is a shame, as there's plenty to see around Monterey, advertised as the "Little Switzerland" of Virginia's western highlands. At 2,900 feet elevation, it has temperatures that stay cool and refreshing even when it's sweltering at lower altitudes.
When I drove there with my 5-year-old daughter at the beginning of one of Washington's steamier summer weekends, we kept hopping out of the car to enjoy the spectacular views. The best was 20 miles west of Staunton, atop Shenandoah Mountain at a spot known as the Confederate Breastworks Interpretive Trail. This delightful half-mile walk at 2,875 feet memorializes the hilltop's occupation by the Confederate Army in the spring of 1862.
Driving over three more mountain passes, we coasted into Monterey, population 158. It was originally known as Bell's Place in the late 1700s, but the name was changed in 1848 after the Mexican town of Monterrey, the scene of a major victory for U.S. forces in the Mexican-American War.
The 96-year-old Highland Inn, an imposing two-story Victorian structure, dominates the town. We had crab quesadillas in the sparsely occupied formal dining room. The service could have been a bit perkier, but the fresh bread was worth the wait. Afterward, we clambered up the stairs to peek into one of the Victorian-furnished bedrooms and relax in the rocking chairs on the hotel porch.
The Highland Inn houses a visitors center, which could use a good county road map. I cobbled together two maps that I found on various brochures to guide me on scenic drives, but both were incomplete. And because of the restrictions from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's huge radio telescope just across the state line in Green Bank, W.Va., only one cellphone tower exists in the county, and cellphone service is sparse.
"We think of that as a plus," said Carolyn Pohowsky, executive director of the county's chamber of commerce. "Highland County is where you come to leave all those things behind. Visiting Monterey is a little like stepping back in time."
We spent our nights at Laurel Point Retreat just east of Monterey, a stunner of a lodge with vistas to die for. Folks in town told me that the views are the best in the county, and I believe them. Proprietors Jim and Lorraine White bought 104 acres atop Jack Mountain in 1989, then spent seven years building their inn. The brick veranda was surrounded by huge clumps of yellow daisies and purple petunias. Nearby is a large field with the couple's long-horned Scottish highland cattle and a large vegetable garden, both a source of delight for my daughter.
The next morning, we drove six miles to the village of Blue Grass and wandered into a service at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a tiny building with a bright red door and friendly congregants.
From there we drove 30 miles south to the Jefferson Pools (a hot spring spa dating back to 1761 named for Thomas Jefferson, who visited there around 1818), which my daughter didn't want to leave. We took in a concert at the Garth Newel Music Center, which offers esoteric chamber music concerts on Sunday afternoons. We came home by way of the Bullpasture Valley, a 14-mile scenic stretch of bucolic farmland.
The next day we ended up at Lake Moomaw, about 30 miles to the southwest. The limpid mountain lake is surrounded by green hills and the George Washington National Forest, and we were virtually the only ones there.