For at least a couple of centuries now, Front Royal has been a popular jumping-off point for treks into the greater unknown.

In the 19th century, the town--built where a lovely high pass through the Blue Ridge descends to a major fork in the Shenandoah River--was both a natural rest stop and inevitable Civil War hot spot. Today, Front Royal is Virginia's official "canoe capital" and gateway to Skyline Drive, which begins its winding route south through Shenandoah National Park on the outskirts of town.

The news, however, is that Front Royal has quietly become an excellent jumping-back-on point.

It might just be I-66 that you're jumping back on, but that would be a shame. To begin with, you would miss Stokes General Store.

Unlike the canoeing or hiking or resting-up opportunities that bring so many others to town, especially in warmer months, Stokes is what first brought my wife, and then me, to Front Royal. Actually, it was a combination of bad directions and an urgent midwinter need for new boots, overalls, a propane stove and a strange-looking hand tool that rolls logs (yes, we live a ways outside the Beltway).

Charmaine made a left turn too early, and instead of the sought-for hardware store, happened upon Stokes--a vast, high-shelved country store on the edge of old-town Front Royal--and found it had everything we needed. Actually, since opening in 1944, Stokes has traditionally had much more than any one family needs: hunting and outdoors gear, tools, boots and hats, knives, ammo belts, giant frying pans and even larger, less explicable wheels of hard cheddar. Plus, the store carries most everything made by Carhartt, the working-duds company (which has, incidentally, somehow become a Thing among the young and callous-free; in Manhattan recently, we saw more Carhartt than we've seen in all of Virginia cattle country).

We returned together the next day. Afterward, just up Main Street, we walked over to the month-old Seasons Coffee Gallery, where we had lattes (we weren't yet wearing any Carhartt, so as far as we know we broke no Virginia laws). Seasons also has creative sandwiches, soups, pastries--and several murals by locally renowned Front Royal realist Patricia Windrow. (The one I like is a window painted large on a windowless wall; in the foreground peering in, kind of wondering what's up with all these humans and their espresso, is a life-size llama.)

Windrow's own gallery--and many of her indoor and outdoor murals and oils, which appear all over the historic district--is right behind Seasons. Out the front door is the distinctive copper-roofed gazebo of the village commons, bracketed by a row of low-key, highly varied antiques, craft and thrift shops; a lone red caboose sitting on the few remaining feet of Southern Railroad track left in town; a very large, very accurate sundial designed by Windrow and forged locally; and the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber's visitors center.

The visitors center is a bright yellow clapboard shed--the restored former train station that welcomed five or six passenger trains a day at its early-1900s peak. Behind it, in the former town feed mill once fed by daily freight trains, is the Main Street Mill, a restaurant and bar with steaks, pasta and the NFL on satellite.

The visitors center had closed for the day; on my next visit, I found it to be one of the most well-stocked and user-friendly visitors centers I'd seen. Behind the counter, an amiable former Fairfax County resident carefully marked restaurants and places to stay on a two-sided map I could take with me, and sold me a discounted ticket to the ever-wondrous tour (if you don't mind a surprise sermon in the mount or two) at Skyline Caverns down the road. I asked lots of questions; he had good answers for all of them.

Let's just say that Front Royal--a brawling frontier burg nicknamed Helltown in the 18th century and a nose-wrinkling, Superfund-inspiring factory town for much of the 20th--has changed somewhat.

Front Royal retains many of its quirky, small-town charms. The Royal Dairy diner--where milkshakes still come with the half-full stainless container on the side--comes to mind. Likewise the pleasant clutter of the Royal Oaks used bookstore; the chatter that comes from families at Bing Crosby Field for the college league Cardinals' short summer season; the valley-spanning view from the front lawn at Randolph-Macon Academy; and the way the locals consistently smile and look you in the eye, hardly holding you at fault for those occasional relapses into Yankee-ness.

It has its chain hotels and mom-and-pop motels along U.S. 340, 522 and 55, but Front Royal also harbors a solid handful of elegant B&Bs. (Expensive but well worth it for the view, the self-service Irish pub, the private baths with whirlpools and seemingly effortless attentiveness of innkeeper Susan O'Kelly: Killahevlin, a five-room, two-suite B&B in the north end of town.) It also has an increasing number of good restaurants.

By the time the former owners finish their $63 million cleanup of the old Avtex Fibers plant in a half-dozen years--some want to make it into a golf course and a park for light industry--Front Royal may very well look even more 21st-century-like.

I hope not. These overalls will just about be broken in by then.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Front Royal, Va., is about 75 minutes from the Beltway via I-66 to Exit 6.

BEING THERE: The north and south forks of the Shenandoah River converge in Front Royal; not far from the historic district are countless outdoors opportunities, including Shenandoah National Park and its 105-mile backbone, Skyline Drive, 540-999-3500; the hiker-, equestrian- and boater-friendly new Shenandoah River State Park, 540-622-6840; the underground streams, stage-lit anthodites (a k a "cave flowers") and miniature train rides at Skyline Caverns, 1-800-296-4545. Warm-weather canoe, kayak and raft outfitters include Front Royal Canoe Co. (1-800-270-8808) and Downriver Canoe Co. (1-800-338-1963). A walking tour of Chester Street and the downtown area (a brochure with map is available at the visitors center) reveals much of Front Royal's history, including its part in the Civil War. You can visit the Belle Boyd Cottage (540-869-2028), named for the Confederate spy who helped Gen. Stonewall Jackson take Front Royal's sought-after high ground from the federals; a monument to Mosby's Raiders, seven of whom were executed in Front Royal; and the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum (540-636-6982, open until April by appointment only).

WHERE TO STAY: Killahevlin (1-800-847-6132 or www.vairish.com, doubles $125-$225) is an Edwardian mansion whose five carefully updated but recklessly luxurious rooms and two suites each have fireplaces and private baths with whirlpools. Atop a hill northeast of town, Killahevlin also has its own small, self-serve Irish pub and a large gazebo that gets immeasurable help from Mother Nature every clear day around sunset. Also recommended: the in-town comforts of Chester House (1-800-621-0441, www.chesterhouse.com, $70 to $210, reopens Feb. 1) and the down-home hospitality, terrific skip-a-lunch breakfasts and equally digestible rates at Woodward House (1-800-635-7011, www.acountryhome.com, $85-$115). Lots more choices at the visitors center.

WHERE TO EAT: Choices run from the elegant new 14th Street Bistro to casually elegant, veteran J's Gourmet; reliable and reasonable Villa Giuseppe and the no-pretense, Rockwellian charms and hearty fare of Royal Dairy and Fox Diner.

DETAILS: Contact the Front Royal Visitors Center at 1-800-338-2576 or www.front royalchamber.com.

The Escapist

Three for the road

For letting us in on his own Top Three Escapes, this week we dispatch a fresh copy of the Washington Post's "Escape Plans" getaway guide to Paul Hostetler of Charlottesville whose list is . . .

1. Watoga State Park, Marlinton, W.Va. (1-800-225-5982): Rustic CCC cabins in deep rhododendron-lined valleys; near Pearl S. Buck birthplace, Greenbrier River Trail, Beartown Rocks, National Radio Astronomy Observatory and more.

2. Bluefield to Beckley, W.Va. (1-800-847-4892). From Eastern Region Coal Archives in Bluefield to coal baron mansions at Bramwell and the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine (304-256-1747, daily tours resume April 1).

3. Page County, Va.: Towns of Stanley, Shenandoah, Luray and the Shenandoah Iron Works district (540-743-3915, www.co.page.va.us)

AND YOUR ROUTES?

If we choose to publish your own Top Three Escapes list, we'll send you a copy of "Escape Plans" ($9.95 at area bookstores). Send your list via e-mail to escapist@washpost.com or by U.S. mail to Escapes, The Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Keep your list to roughly 75 words, and have it to us by Friday, Jan. 28.