Once upon a time, Interstate 81 -- that great, slanting artery through Virginia's western reaches -- was a top-notch cruising highway. Every year, when Thanksgiving rolled around, my husband and I would load our three children in the station wagon with a basket of sandwiches, pick up I-81 in the southwest corner of Virginia and know we would arrive at the grandparents' house near Washington, D.C., precisely seven hours later.

The road was smooth and uncrowded, traffic moved at steady clip and the scenery was fine.

The scenery is still fine, but in the dozen years we've been using I-81 as the route from our home in western North Carolina to our families in the Washington area, the press of traffic has become intense. On many days the road is a bumper-to-bumper speedway. Even in icy conditions no one seems to slow down -- unless there's holiday gridlock all along the East Coast (like last Thanksgiving), and then I-81 simply doesn't move.

Nowadays I call it the White Knuckle Turnpike, and it's no fun at all.

In an effort to inject a bit of sanity into our twice-yearly trips to Washington, my husband, Saul, and I decided recently to look for an alternative that would get us to our destination without shredded nerves.

We found one in U.S. 11, the original route of the interstate that runs from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. Route 11 plays hide-and-seek with I-81, passing over and under the larger road frequently, but it's a world apart: There's almost no traffic, and the old towns along the way are lovely and uncongested. There are splendid parks and Civil War monuments, good restaurants and interesting shops.

Best of all: no stress.

For us, the older highway is a way to get from here to there. For Washington residents, it also offers a number of enticing weekend destinations in historic western Virginia.

Last year, Saul and I had to make an unexpected trip to Washington just after Christmas, so we committed a few extra hours each way and made most of the trip on Route 11. Away from the interstate, we found the pleasant drive to be a mini-vacation in itself. And we discovered plenty of diversions along the way, including Virginia's wondrous Natural Bridge (known to us previously as just a billboard blurb from I-81), the lovely town of Lexington and a fascinating work-in-progress called the Museum of American Frontier Culture in Staunton. Some of the towns along Route 11 date back more than 200 years, and there's a passion for preservation. Indeed, each town we rode through seemed to have its own architectural specialty, friendly diner and quaint skyline.

Starting mid-morning from our home in Boone, N.C., we took our usual shortcut through a corner of Tennessee and hooked up with Route 11 in the rocky farm country near Chilhowie, Va. Our first stop, after driving north for a tranquil hour, was Wytheville (pronounced WITH-ville), a solid old town with a Revolutionary War-era log house on Main Street.

Today Wytheville, near the intersection of I-81 and I-77, is a thriving center for business and tourism. Its beginnings, though, go back to the quiet days of 1757, when Col. John Chiswell discovered lead and zinc deposits in a cave near where he was hiding from Cherokee Indians. In 1775, residents of the growing village signed the Fincastle Resolutions, precursor to the Declaration of Independence.

The town's location on a plateau with an elevation of about 2,300 feet gives it lovely views from downtown out over the Virginia Highlands. During our short stroll on Main Street, we discovered that the log house is a restaurant called, of course, Log House 1776; its owners also operate an eight-room inn, the Boxwood Inn, two doors away. And we discovered what must sure be one of the world's largest model pencils: a giant No. 2 installed over an office supply store on Main Street.

Just north of Wytheville, Route 11 and I-81 are one and the same for about 20 miles before 11 takes its own way again near Radford. We stayed on the interstate long enough to get clear of Roanoke, then rejoined Route 11 on a lovely stretch along the James River. Buchanan is the main town here, with a storybook main street and a long, creaking footbridge over the James.

But we went on to Natural Bridge before stopping. Route 11 passes right over this monumental (and privately owned) stone arch and hides it from view.

As it turned out, Natural Bridge was well worth a look, and it's a great place to stop and stretch your legs on an all-day drive. Visitors descend on foot or by shuttle bus from the parking area into a wooded gorge that runs for a mile along Cedar Creek. The natural bridge itself is a twisting limestone arch 215 feet high -- an impressive sight, and quite a surprise in the midst of such gentle countryside.

I could see how Thomas Jefferson, who once owned the property, was attracted to the hidden world in the shadow of the arch. Today, a wide footpath leads under the arch, past an old saltpeter mine and a mysterious hidden creek, to a small waterfall.

By now it was early afternoon and we hadn't had lunch, so we drove into Lexington, 15 miles north.

We should have planned a full day for this gorgeous old town, home to Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, famous generals and anonymous merchants. The beautifully restored downtown is a feast for the eyes, even in the repose of winter -- like Charleston, S.C., rendered in brick. Unfortunately, on the day after Christmas, the landmark restaurants and shops were closed, so we just cruised the streets and gawked at the buildings.

There were the grand homes of the gentry, set in spacious yards with towering oaks and neat boxwood hedges, and there were the tiny houses of the one-time servant class crowded onto narrow alleys. It all looked so authentic to me, but in fact few of the original downtown buildings from the mid-1770s survived a disastrous fire in 1796, so much of the construction is slightly newer. What has endured through more than two centuries of American history is the pride of the founding fathers. Washington and Lee University, founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy, and VMI, founded in 1839, dominate the town. The presence of VMI brought down the wrath of the Union Army during the Civil War, and the school was shelled; today, cadets conduct tours for visitors. Generals George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and George C. Marshall have all left their mark.

Among all the Route 11 towns we passed through, Lexington got highest marks for a less-hurried return visit. For students of American history, the town is a must.

By the time we finished our short motor of the town, Saul and I were really hungry. We were lucky enough to find Salerno's Subs & Pizza Deli open, where the stout chef grilled us a big Italian sausage sub dripping with juices from onions, green peppers and tomatoes. First-class.

Then the day wore out fast, with dusk coming on before we were ready. We sped along Route 11 for another 20 miles or so before rejoining I-81 -- through tiny Fairfield,through Mint Spring with its Stagecoach Road and Avenue of Trees, through the holiday landscape of wreaths and red ribbons, through countryside as golden and smooth as the flanks of a cougar.

A few days later, we began our return trip just inside the Capital Beltway, connecting with Route 11 at Strasburg via I-66. Strasburg is full of small shops, and the main street is lined with second-story porches jutting out over the sidewalks -- not the typical American scene. In fact, the town was first settled by Germans in the mid 1700s who thought the countryside resembled their native Bavaria. For a while Strasburg was known as Pot Town because of its six potteries. For most of the 20th century, however, the town has relied on other sources of income, today mainly auto parts manufacturing and printing.

With its scattering of antique and other shops, Strasburg looked like a great place to wander -- but we weren't ready to stop yet. On we went, over rolling ridges and past signs advertising wineries and taxidermists in about equal numbers. This is also cavern country. The whole Blue Ridge region in Virginia is dotted with caverns -- Luray Caverns, Skyline Caverns, Endless Caverns, Dixie Caverns, Grand Caverns, Shenandoah Caverns -- but many of them require a considerable detour from Route 11.

On we drove, past Maurertown with its gingerbread houses, Woodstock with its weathered prosperity, Mount Jackson with its 1825 Union Church in a tiny grove of trees right downtown. Between the towns, huge old farmhouses -- wooden palaces -- marked the miles.

Harrisonburg definitely merited a detour on I-81, but unfortunately we made the mistake of following Route 11 through town and then past the unattractive sprawl that sets it apart from the other towns in this region. We were headed another 25 miles south to bustling Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton), which had been settled in the early 1700s and which mainly escaped the ravages of the Civil War.

We took half an hour to drive around Staunton's hilly and wonderfully jumbled old downtown. This district had a more solid, commercial feel than some of the Blue Ridge towns we saw, and the reason may have to do with Staunton's early role as the capital for vast region called Augusta County (which in the early 1700s encompassed what is now Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, and some of Pittsburgh); when Virginia's General Assembly fled the British during the Revolutionary War, Staunton served briefly as the state capital. The town was the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, and of course has a commemorative museum.

Our first stop, though, was Mrs. Rowe's Family Restaurant, which a friend had told us was required on any Staunton visit. And indeed it was: a good old-fashioned eatery offering hearty meat-and-two-vegetable lunches accompanied by freshly baked rolls, and homemade pies for dessert. Service is leisurely, and it was mid-afternoon by the time we made it to the Museum of American Frontier Culture, just southeast of downtown.

This living history museum, which opened in 1988, offers an interesting approach to American history: Three very old European farmsteads were dismantled in the Old Country and reassembled on this 78-acre tract to show the evolution, through early trans-Atlantic migration, into uniquely American farms. There's a tiny German house (lived in from 1688 until 1983) with a handsome barn; a 19th-century farmhouse from Northern Ireland with a dirt floor, outbuildings and a blacksmith forge; a pink half-timbered English house dating from the early 17th century; and an 1830s Virginia farm. Each is staffed with costumed interpreters and still functions as a working farm, using the distinctive national techniques.

The museum, staffed with dedicated history buffs, is doing much to show visitors how the Old World and the New World met on the Virginia frontier of the 1700s and early 1800s. City children especially can enjoy getting close to farm animals and seeing how farm families lived day-to-day without electricity or running water. The warmer months are filled with hands-on educational activities.

Alas, since we still had 200 miles to travel, we got back on thundering I-81 for the rest of our trip. But now we're hooked on Route 11 -- in large doses or small.

Take the short stretch from Abingdon to Bristol, which sits on the Tennessee border. How remote Abingdon must have seemed from "civilization" when it was founded in 1778, yet today sophisticated big-city visitors flock there to the famed Barter Theatre and for the highly regarded folk and craft festivals.

When I went exploring there one day last January, I parked right on Route 11, which runs through the historic district, and in the post-Christmas lull had the town all to myself. And what was there to do? I walked -- for blocks and blocks through the old part of town; Mainstreet Books, warm and friendly, has a fine selection of local and regional authors. And I stopped in at a number of bed-and-breakfasts to see the rooms and the prices (the Victoria & Albert Inn was a bit too fussy for my taste, the Gables a little funky, and the Summerfield Inn just right, with a huge living room and comfortable contemporary furniture).

The diminutive Barter Theatre was dark, but a number of plaques outside commemorated its unusual origin. Founded by two dozen Broadway actors during the Depression, the Barter originally took food in trade for admission; Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine and Hume Cronyn were among the stars who got their starts here.

Across the street, I peeked inside the Martha Washington Inn. This was a private residence when it was built in 1832 and today is an inn on a grand scale. Down the street, the Tavern restaurant's cozy sitting room is a pleasant place to relax with a hot drink.

South of Abingdon, Route 11 runs out of charm fast. By the time I got to industrial Bristol, the 20th century had crowded in with a flurry of strip malls and unappealing commercial messages. As soon as I saw the sign marking the Tennessee border I headed back to I-81, full speed.

Nan K. Chase is a freelance writer in Boone, N.C. CAPTION: WAYS & MEANS

Among the stops along Virginia's Route 11:

Strasburg is known for its antiques shops and for Belle Grove (540-869-2028), a mansion built in 1794 and used as Union headquarters during the Battle of Cedar Creek. A re-enactment of the battle is held every October. The mansion is open for tours daily April through October; admission is $5 for adults.

New Market is the site of one of the Civil War's most important battlefields, to which young Confederate boys marched 80 miles in four days to help hold the lines. The New Market Battlefield Historical Park (540-740-3102) commemorates the Battle of New Market, and there is a re-enactment every May. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day; admission is $5. Also near New Market are Endless Caverns (1-800-544-2283), Shenandoah Caverns (540-477-3115) and Luray Caverns (540-743-6551). Contact the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association (P.O. Box 1040, New Market, Va. 22844, 540-740-3132) for information on New Market and other attractions within the valley.

Staunton, the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, offers self-guided tours through the downtown district; for information contact the Staunton Travel Information Center, 1303 Richmond Ave., Staunton, Va. 24401, 540-332-3972. The Museum of American Frontier Culture (on Route 250 east of downtown, 540-332-7850) is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Dec. 1 to March 15. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Adult admission is $7. Mrs. Rowe's Family Restaurant is located near the entrance to this museum on Route 250.

Lexington, home of the Stonewall Jackson House, Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute, has self-guided tours of the historic district. For brochures, contact the Lexington Visitor Center, 106 E. Washington St., Lexington, Va. 24450, 540-463-3777. Salerno's Subs and Pizza Deli is at 800 N. Main St.

Natural Bridge (P.O. Box 57, Natural Bridge, Va. 24578, 1-800-533-1410) includes the limestone arch itself, as well as caverns and a wax museum, lodging and dining. Admission is $8 for a single attraction, $12 for two and $15 for three. A nightly sound-and-light show is $8.

Abingdon is home to the Barter Theatre (1-800-368-3240), the country's oldest, longest-running professional repertory theater, started during the Depression by out-of-work actors. Performances are given year-round. For a schedule of cultural events in Abingdon and a lodging guide, contact the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, 179 E. Main St., Abingdon, Va. 24210, 540-628-8141.

Finally, a note about the Blue Ridge Parkway: Don't be tempted to use it as a direct alternative to I-81, even though it covers most of the same territory. The parkway is a park, not a highway, and the 45-mph speed limit is strictly enforced by federal officials. What's more, the gentle, back-and-forth curves of the parkway south of Roanoke can induce serious drowsiness.

There is an exceptionally scenic stretch of road, though, on U.S. 221 from Roanoke south to U.S. 58 and then west to I-81 near Abingdon. Just south of Roanoke, it's possible to see wild turkey on this route.

-- Nan K. Chase CAPTION: The stone arch of Natural Bridge. CAPTION: The Washington County Courthouse in historic Abingdon, Va. CAPTION: A Kerry cow being fed on the mid-19th-century Irish Farm in Staunton's Museum of American Frontier Culture, top; and downtown Lexington, Va., from the crest of Main Street.