STAUNTON, Va. - My husband and I knew we weren't in Washington anymore when we pulled up the tree-lined drive at midnight, parked, ran to the front porch of the pillared 19th-century house, and let ourselves in without a key. But then this is Staunton (pronounced Stanton), Va., a quaint town in the Shenandoah Valley, only three hours from Washington but a long way from K Street.
"It just still has that small-town atmosphere, and it's really friendly for everyone," said Caroline Keller, who, with her husband, Dick Chamberlain, runs Ashton Country House Bed and Breakfast, where we stayed.
Staunton is not cute or fancy, chic or hip. And that's what drew me to it three years ago when I was looking for a simple honeymoon escape. I looked at Charlottesville, but my small college town had become too cool for me, what with the restaurant write-ups, the elegant furniture stores, and the trendy downtown mall. I wanted something a little more laid-back, a little more real, with a little - well, style.
The town closes down early and wakes up late. But that's not to say it doesn't have a lot to offer. Take, for example, the Staunton Grocery, an unassuming, relaxed restaurant where meals are fresh and inventive. (If you're the slightest bit of a chocolate lover, you must order the chocolate soup for dessert.)
Beverley Street runs through town, highlighted with steep hills on either end, which made us feel nestled into Staunton as we walked down the street. Victorian architecture dominates, with many buildings of historical importance. There is the modern Staunton, too, such as the women's shop Design @ Nine She Salon on Beverley Street and Byers Street Bistro, where we grabbed an after-dinner drink at the bar. Like any respectable town, Staunton offers more than one independent coffee shop.
As we meandered through the streets that weekend, we caught Doug Sheridan blowing glass at Sunspots Studios, ate chili outside at MugShots, and toured the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Wilson lived in Staunton for only a couple of years as a baby, but Stauntonians are still proud of him.
My husband and I also took some time to spook ourselves with a walk to the former site of the Western State Hospital, once called the Western State Lunatic Asylum. Thomas Blackburn, who helped design the University of Virginia, designed the building. When it closed, it became a prison. And now Stauntonians can buy a condo on the 80-acre campus. (Conveniently, the brochure mentions nothing of its creepy past.)
Staunton, so close to Skyline Drive, is also a great place for picnickers, hikers, and cyclists. "The good thing about Staunton is it's such a small town, you can ride four miles and be out on the back roads," said James Burris, who, as co-owner of Staunton's Black Dog Bikes, can help visitors map out a route. Wineries are also nearby, including Cross Keys Vineyards, Barren Ridge Vineyards, Veritas Vineyard, and Afton Mountain Vineyards.
As with any weekend getaway, it's important to find a bed-and-breakfast that suits your personality. Ashton Country House sits outside town and feels more like visiting friends than anything. My husband and I came downstairs late for breakfast only to find Keller in the front yard, with her dog, Beau, by her side. Ashton allows dogs and kids in the house. That gives the place a homey vibe; it's a beautiful home with canopy beds and homemade breakfast every morning. (Keller taught cooking classes for Williams-Sonoma for five years, expertise we could taste in her eggs Florentine.)
Visitors can take one of Keller's picnics up the hill behind the B&B, or just spend time on the front or back porch, or in the front-yard hammock.
A different option is the Miller House, built in 1896 and now owned by Ray Cubbage and Pam Robbins. The house, in town, is a big Queen Anne Victorian with a wraparound porch and a grand staircase. It's beautiful, impressive, and much more formal than Ashton.
At breakfast at the Miller House, Homer Boushey, a professor from California, said he'd seen a play at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse the night before. The playhouse, according to the Staunton city Web site, is "the world's only re-creation of Shakespeare's indoor theater."
Staunton is definitely no Charlottesville. Just a quiet weekend with good company, fresh air, and, really, just enough style for me.
For a Stay in Staunton
Staunton, Va., is 296 miles from Philadelphia. Take I-95 south to Exit 49, I-66; to I-81 toward Roanoke, Exit 225 to SR 275, left to US 11 and US 11 Bus.
Where to stay
Ashton Country House Bed and Breakfast (1205 Middlebrook Ave., 540-885-3001 or 877-885-3001, www.ashtonhousebnb.com) has rooms for $125 to $215 per night.
What to do
See a Shakespeare play at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse (10 S. Market St., 540-851-1733 or 877-682-4236, www.americanshakespearecenter.com). Sunspots Studios (202 S. Lewis St., 540-885-0678) has glassblowing demonstrations Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Nearby vineyards include Cross Keys Vineyards (6011 E. Timber Ridge Rd., Mount Crawford, 540-234-0505, www.crosskeysvineyards. com), and Barren Ridge Vineyards (984 Barren Ridge Rd., Fishersville, 540-248-3300, www.barrenridgevineyards.com). North Mountain Outfitter Western-style horseback riding (709 North Mountain Rd., Swoope, Va., 540-886-7768, www.northmtnoutfitter.com) charges $90 for a half-day ride and $150 for a full day. The Staunton Farmers Market, at Byers and Johnson Streets, is open Saturdays until Nov. 22.
The Staunton Grocery (105 W. Beverley St., 540-886-6880, www.stauntongrocery.com) is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-9 p.m., Sunday 5-8 p.m. Lunch Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Call for a reservation. Byers Street Bistro (18 Byers St., 540-887-6100, www.byersstreetbistro.com) is open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-midnight, Saturday-Sunday 4 p.m.-midnight. MugShots (32 S. New St., 540-887-0005) and the Pampered Palate Cafe (26-28 E. Beverley St., 540-886-9463, www.thepamperedpalatecafe.com) are great for breakfast and lunch. The Pampered Palate will also prepare a picnic basket for you.
Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau,800-342-7982, www.visitstaunton.com.
- Moira E. McLaughlin