Highland County is Virginia's little pocket of the unexpected. For starters, there's a touch of the Pacific Northwest in the farm-raised trout hatched from Washington State eggs. And then there's a hint of New England in an annual maple syrup festival.

But, this one's strictly home-grown. Hundreds of miles from Vermont, traditional center of America's maple syrup industry, Highland County is a geographical pocket at an altitude that provides the weather conditions sugar maples need.

So, this weekend and next, for the 28th year, Highland County will welcome visitors on Saturday and Sunday who want to celebrate Virginia's maple sugaring tradition -- and perhaps eat some trout, too. While maple sugaring is more of a diversion than a full-time profession here, several cp,9.6,10.2 local families have been tapping trees and boiling the sweet sap down for generations.

This year during the Highland Maple Festival, two sugarbushes will be open for view, and the contrast between them is striking. It's the contrast between old-time tradition and high-tech innovation on the farm.

At Rexrode's, old-time buckets hang on the trees. The sap is hauled down to the rough-hewed sugar shack and boiled away over roaring fires, the way it was way back when. At Puffenbarger's, just up the road, mechanical suction from a transformed milking machine pulls sap through plastic tubing and into an oil-fired evaporator. At both sugarbushes, maple farmers will be on hand to answer questions and sell syrup and candy.

A book about the maple sugaring tradition in Virginia, written by local resident Alice Vance, is available at Vance's Country Store on Route 678 south of McDowell, or by mail for $2.50 from Vance's Country Store, McDowell, Va. 24458. "Sugar-in' Off in the Bullpasture Valley" includes tales and reminiscences (plus plenty of maple recipes) from four generations of Vances, all of whom tapped maple trees. In years past, the Vance Sugar Bush was open to the public. This year Hurricane Gloria brought 2 1/2 feet of rocks up around the base of the maple trees. No one was hurt, says Vance, but the rocks make it a lot harder to get to the trees.

Buckwheat cakes with local syrup will be served at several different places, both in the town of Monterey itself and also in neighboring Blue Grass, Midway and McDowell. Mountain trout will also be served in Monterey and McDowell. Start your self-conducted tour in the town of Monterey, where you can pick up a map and a brochure listing activities and locations.

Maple sap has already started flowing but the weather is holding cold, so there should be plenty of this year's syrup for sale.

From Washington take I-66 to I-81, then continue south to Staunton. At Staunton, take Route 250 west into Monterey. Accommodations in Monterey itself have been booked for months. Motels in neighboring Franklin and Warm Springs may still have rooms available. For those who want to go deluxe, the Homestead is only 40 miles south of Monterey in Hot Springs, Va.

For further information on the festival and accommodations, call the Highland County Chamber of Commerce at (703)468-2550.