It is thought that once the word gets out about a hidden gem, it loses its luster. However, it would be downright selfish to not share my most recent small-town Virginia find. So, with the passing of my moment of hesitation, I give you Lovingston, Virginia. Although my latest trip to Lovingston was on perhaps one of the coldest, wettest days of 2018, the winter weather advisory could do nothing to dampen the warmth that I experienced with each of the wonderful, down-to-earth people whose paths I crossed.
I discovered Lovingston while singing for a wedding event at Orchard House Bed & Breakfast. During that weekend, I crammed in a wedding performance, a cidery visit, a camping trip at a winery, antique shopping, a hike up Crabtree Falls, and more. The vast options offered in Lovingston and the surrounding Nelson County area are easily varied enough for a day trip, a weekend – or as I discovered to be entirely possible, even a week.
A little history: Nelson County was formed in 1807, and named for Thomas Nelson, Jr., the third governor of Virginia. The county seat is Lovingston, which is technically a village – not a town, since Nelson County has no incorporated towns or cities. In the 1930s, Earl Hamner, Jr. chronicled his experiences growing up here during the Depression era. These writings were the basis of “The Waltons” TV series, and the Walton’s Mountain Museum still brings a steady flow of John Boy fans to the area. In 1969, Hurricane Camille caused devastating flooding to the county, but it has rebuilt in a huge way, including the Wintergreen Resort development, and extensive tourism growth caused by the growing numbers of wineries, breweries, and orchards in the area. “I think what has happened with Lovingston and Nelson County in general, is that we have realized the value of tourism and being attractive to visitors,” Al Weed tells me. And he should know. Al is the owner of Virginia’s oldest winery – Mountain Cove Vineyards (formerly known as La Abra Farm and Winery) in Lovingston – and he has lived in the area since 1973. My first visit to Lovingston led me to Mountain Cove, when searching for an RV site in town. Although Mountain Cove hadn’t previously accommodated RV campers, my visit gave them the opportunity to try out the concept, a successful experience which led them to now offer that as an option. And a perfect one it is – winding-road views of rolling hills on the way in, bright stars in a sky untouched by city lights at night, and perfect rows of gorgeous grapevines.
Since November camping wasn’t a great option, I decided to stay Orchard House Bed & Breakfast for my return trip to Lovingston – this time as a guest of their beautiful property. Going to Orchard House is like going home – but better. Not only are you surrounded by the coziness of immaculate bed-and-breakfast accommodations, you are warmly welcomed by Deb and Mike Verplank, who left the corporate world in Pittsburg and moved South in April 2016 to realize their dream of owning a B&B. “This lifestyle is so different from the Northern corporate world,” Deb tells me. “From the beginning, this community has always been there for us.” After being seated in the dining room by a window shadowed by a majestic 150-year-old silver maple, I was served a magnificent breakfast of granola and fruit-topped yogurt, homemade streusel, bacon, farm-fresh eggs, and Belgian waffles topped with baked local apples – all prepared by Mike. For someone who has only lived in the area a couple of years, Deb’s knowledge of the town’s history and passion for what Lovingston has to offer were apparent. “Many of our guests come from Richmond or Charlottesville, but we also have guests from all over the country, and even international guests,” she tells me, citing Monticello and Walton’s Mountain Museum as popular local attractions. In fact, the Orchard House property was featured in an episode of The Waltons.
The Orchard House was built as a summer house in 1874 by Thomas Horsley, a judge from Richmond, and in 1910, the farm house was added. The property features a total of nine gorgeously appointed rooms, a salt-water pool, a one-mile hiking trail, a fire pit, and a modernized red event barn. The beautiful scenery of the mountainside B&B has also made it a popular wedding venue, with a gazebo overlooking a one-acre vineyard, which supplies grapes to nearby wineries.
There are many great restaurants in the area, but based on its perfect lunch menu, I couldn’t resist visiting Basic Necessities, a cozy cottage-turned-café with a wine and cheese shop in front. Every detail of this tiny wonder screams French countryside, and I was truly transported while there. It was opened in 1997 by Kay Pfaltz, who after spending over a decade in France, realized that the “Basic Necessities” (selections of good bread, wine, cheese and chocolate) were lacking in the area. She joined forces with fellow owners Sallie Justice and Rosie Gantt to bring what many call “a taste of Europe in the Blue Ridge Mountains.” From the fireplace to the exquisitely mismatched china and French Provençal linens, no detail is missed in this little jewel. They focus on non-GMO organic and local selections. “It’s a cross between Cheers and Mayberry here,” says Marie Kelly, who has been on staff for almost 18 years, while telling stories about the tight-knit bond the staff shares. It’s clear that this little family of forward-thinkers has rightly earned their many followers, from locals and cold-weather Wintergreen visitors to traveling foodies and wine-lovers.
Brewery, winery, cidery, and distillery options are in no shortage in Nelson County. Between the Route 29 corridor and Route 151 (Rockfish Valley Highway – aka Alcohol Alley), there are nine wineries, six breweries, three cideries, and three distilleries. Since Blue Mountain Brewery was the first in Nelson County (opened by Taylor and Mandi Smack in 2007), it was worth visiting for dinner. All of their ales and lagers are brewed on site, and they also grow the hops used in their signature Full Nelson pale ale (my favorite of the hoppy choices) and other seasonal offerings, including my favorite – the Mountain Mule Coffee Stout. Their customer base, although close to Charlottesville colleges, is still comprised largely of tourists. “Besides our beer selection and unique small-batch IPAs, I believe the view from our location really sets us apart,” says manager Matt Regan, who has been with Blue Mountain for five years. In fact, of their 600 seats, 400 of them are outdoors, with seating, a stage, and food trucks in high season. Their pizza is one of their best sellers, and it was obvious why – perfectly thin crust, flavorful ingredients, and huge portions.
Bold Rock Cidery was a stop on both Lovingston trips. As a cider fan, I can’t resist a flight of Apple, Draft, Pear, and Seasonal, but they kicked it up a notch with a charcuterie board that is a cut above your typical pub food. It was interesting and educational to tour the facility and watch from above the production line as the cider was bottled below.
Outdoor and hiking options in Nelson County are vast – and personally topped by my childhood favorite, Crabtree Falls. Options in Nellysford include the Montebello Nature Trail and the Rockfish Valley Loop Trail. Lovingston’s Fortune’s Cove Nature Preserve has a 5.3 mile hiking trail with viewpoints and a stream, and 25 miles of the Appalachian Trail wind through Nelson County.
Before you leave town, stop at Home Remedies Mercantile, a treasure hidden in the middle of “downtown” Lovingston. Opened in March 2018 by Luke and Adrienne Ramsey, this quaint little shop offers eco-friendly options for healthy eating and living. This former firehouse evokes feelings of an old country store, but with all the organic, non-GMO, gluten-free options that today’s savvy consumer is looking for. Their mantra – “keeping the old ways and skills alive” – is evidenced by the décor – a delightful mix of antique tools and detailed historical maps drawn by local Lovingston artist Mike Crabill depicting the original land patients and grants in Nelson County. They also offer a number of local craft brews and fresh-ground coffees – including Lovingston’s own Trager Brothers Coffee. They are also hard at work on a new café, scheduled to open early this year.
Whether this reads as an exact itinerary for your Valentine’s getaway (you’re welcome!) or you choose your own adventure for a weekend trip, if you have half the feel-good that I did when heading back East on I-64, I know you’ll return again and again!