The Shenandoah Valley, between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, was America's western frontier in the mid-18th Century. It was a beautiful and fertile stretch of rolling countryside settled by hard-working farming families.
The first homestead was built in 1732 near here, and Staunton's official founding in 1747 makes it the valley's oldest town. Although it was largely spared during the American Revolution and Civil War, there were a few anxious moments.
Then-Gov. Thomas Jefferson and the state's General Assembly used the town's parish church as Virginia's capital for 17 days in 1781 as they fled from British troops, with delegate Patrick Henry losing a boot in his haste.
Thirty-five miles to the south lies the pretty little town of Lexington, where Stonewall Jackson was born and is buried. Staunton's Stuart Hall School, one of many renowned educational institutions in the valley, had Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's widow as a headmistress.
With the coming of the railroad in 1854, Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) began to blossom into a remarkably beautiful town of Greek Revival, Georgian, Gothic, Renaissance and Victorian homes, where the number of antique, craft and collectibles shops seems to outnumber the 25,000 population.
Getting here: Fly American, USAir, United, Delta or Eastern to Richmond. From there it's about an hour's drive along Interstate 64 to Staunton. USAir and United also have flights into Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, 15 minutes from Staunton.
How long/how much? Seeing more than 60 period homes, churches and beautifully restored buildings in the downtown area would require at least two days of walking tours. Using Staunton as a base, you might want to take a day's drive along Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Shenandoah National Park. Lodging and dining costs in the Shenandoah are very moderate.
A few fast facts: Come here any time between spring and October foliage, which is spectacular in the mountains. You won't need a car in Staunton, but you should have one for getting to nearby towns.
Getting settled in: The Belle-Grae Inn (515 W. Frederick St.; $55 to $80 double, with full breakfasts, $10 less on weekdays), circa 1870, is basically Federal in design, with strong Victorian and Italianate overtones. Within there are fireplaces at every turn, a handsome dining room and cozy lounges.
Thornrose House (531 Thornrose Ave.; $45-$55 B&B; double) is a modified, turn-of-the-century Georgian with wraparound veranda but only three guest rooms. You'll find a working fireplace in the living room along with Oriental rugs and a grand piano. The breakfasts are true English-inn affairs, with fresh-baked oat cakes and everything else but the cold toast.
Kenwood (235 E. Beverly St.; $60 B&B; double, $50 with shared bath) is another turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival with original wooden floors and gigantic staircase at entry, family furniture throughout, and enough books and magazines to outfit a library. Breakfast at Kenwood is also generous, and it's served with the owners' sterling.
Regional food and drink: The Shenandoah Valley was the breadbasket of the Confederacy, and you'll still find just about any kind of produce here. The peanut, used as hog feed to give color and texture to Smithfield hams, came from South America by way of Africa and slave ships, and Virginia's peanut soup is a treat not to be missed.
To the traditional Southern table of fried chicken, country ham, wild game, yams, cornbread and biscuits, just add Virginia spoon bread, Sally Lund (a delicate English bun) and the delicious baked goods of a large Mennonite population, and you have a good sampling of Shenandoah food.
Twenty Three Beverly (its address) is still known by some locals as Cafe Leon, one of the finest French restaurants we've visited in a small U.S. town. It's simply decorated with dramatic posters and paintings on white walls. But the imaginative use of regional foods with a Gallic touch is what gets your attention fast. Try the braised rabbit with a cassoulet-like mix of lima beans, Virginia ham and fresh thyme, or pheasant roasted with a smoked-tomato puree. All this is helped along by a well-chosen wine list.
The Beverly (12 E. Beverly St.) is just about the friendliest place you'll find in Virginia, with owners Janet and Paul Thomas going out of their way to make sure you have enough of everything at afternoon tea, a twice-weekly local occasion where a dozen of Paul's home-baked cakes and pastries cover one large table, finger sandwiches another. Feast on Scottish short bread, cream puffs, carrot cake, trifle, coconut pound cake and miniature cheese cakes, all the equal of anything in the finest European patisserie. The cost is just $3.50 per person, about what you'd pay for one pastry at most restaurants.
McCormick's (41 N. Agusta St.) is in the old YMCA building, the ground floor having been converted into an informal pub and restaurant. The menu spans everything from nachos to kielbasa (Polish sausage) to smoked scallops to Sichuan chicken. The lineup of domestic and foreign beers is just as diversified.
The Pampered Palate (28 E. Beverly St.) is always crowded with locals at lunch (open only from 10 to 5:30). Soups, salads, sandwiches and sweets are about it on the menu, plus "pampered potatoes" stuffed with roast beef and Brie, ham and Swiss, corned beef, provolone and sauerkraut.
On your own: After one or more of the walking tours, get in a little antique hunting at the 100-plus shops in and around town. Be sure to visit the area near the old Chesapeake and Ohio train station and former White Star flour mill, the latter now home to a pottery gallery displaying the marvelous work of local Jim Hanger.
The Museum of American Frontier Culture, just outside town, is a living memorial to the founding farm families of the Shenandoah. A mid-19th-Century Scots-Irish farm has been brought from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, and an Appalachian farm of the same period has been moved here, both peopled by farm folk going about their chores in period costumes. Still to be finished are an 18th-Century farm brought from the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany, and the reconstruction of a 17th-Century farm from England's West Sussex.
Everyone is in character at the museum, explaining what they're doing as they cook simple meals over a peat fire, make farm implements from wood, work with the animals, weave and churn butter.
Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, and our 28th President's home, a Greek Revival mansion built by the congreation for his Presbyterian-pastor father, has been restored and is open to the public. It's well worth a brief visit.
Sojourns from Staunton might include a visit to Lexington and the historic Virginia Military Institute (1839) and Washington & Lee (1796) universities. Stonewall Jackson was a professor at VMI, Robert E. Lee president of Washington and Lee when it was just Washington.
For more information: Call the Staunton Travel Information Center at (703) 885-8504, or write (1303 Richmond Ave., Staunton, Va. 24401) for a Staunton brochure with city map, restaurant and accommodations guide. Ask for the Staunton package.