Weekend getaways keep me sane. There’s something liberating about throwing clothes in a bag and skipping town, saying goodbye to the office, to bushes that need trimming, to the mail pile I’ve ignored for weeks and, within a few hours, finding myself in a totally different space.
Often that space is west of my Alexandria townhouse. I drive past the D.C. metro’s long arm, out where roads get curvy and the land rises up. Brave hills defy Virginia’s Piedmont and make way for true mountains, which is where I’m usually going.
I’m no fan of motels. Those land gobbling, cookie-cutter eyesores just rile me, so before heading out, I usually find a good vacation rental. Over the years, I’ve stayed in cabins, bungalows, converted barns, and farm houses. Some are people’s residences, vacated in a rush with little hints about them left behind like family photos, clothes, and toiletries. In other houses, every last drawer is empty.
Personal belongings or not, I feel the same—transported, immersed in an actual home where I can make a pot of coffee and pour whiskey into a real glass, where I can admire the landscape from a porch or patio or second story window. At dawn or dusk, I’ll stare across rolling blue silhouettes and pretend that I again live among the mountains.
This rustic charmer is both affordable and secluded. Owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, it’s a third of a mile from the nearest road. Reaching it requires a hike past barns and stone fences through what was once a mountainside farm. By the time you see the cabin itself, you feel decades away from the modern world. Inside, the newest amenities are electricity and hot water. No telephone. No internet. No mobile service. At Vining, you’re left to enjoy unspoiled views and imagine the people who plateaued its steep hillside, old timers who downed chestnut trees by hand to construct their home more than a hundred years ago, carving a farm from this wilderness, one you can still enjoy today.
Not all mountain retreats are rural. This charming little bungalow rests on a quiet West Asheville street where cars are infrequent and big porches are the norm. Since North Carolina is a longer haul, I stayed for a week, cooking old family recipes like wild rabbit hash and lounging in the hammock out back. Arts and craft touches like wide posts and vertical-paned windows reflect a period when working class Americans could still buy a quality, thoughtfully designed home, knowing it would bring pleasure for generations.
I wrote this post here, alternating between the house’s sunny front porch and a tufted leather sofa. This remodeled farmhouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, serves as a beautiful example of Appalachia’s sophisticated side. With double parlors decorated in lush patterns, shining floral wallpaper in one and fake fur throws in the other, it reminds visitors that mountain folk can clean up real good. Though it has shimmering touches, including one magnificent gold ceiling, the house remains country at its core. Bailed hay is within sight of every window and wood is still hauled from the paint-chipped shed in a rusty wheelbarrow.
Most people like to visit Appalachia in spring, summer, or fall, but I’m also a fan of wintertime mountains. Harpers Ferry is uniquely pretty with a dusting of snow, and you can’t get a better view than from the charming Bed n Biskit. This hillside house overlooks tin rooftops and brick storefronts, which stretch to the trestle-crossed Potomac. I suspect its stone patio would be a lovely place to sit on warmer days, but snow kept me inside, sipping whiskey and catching up with friends by the fire.
Some years ago, I spent Thanksgiving at this 1920s cabin. Nestled in one of Virginia’s most charming counties, it fronts a wide creek and is surrounded by pastureland. With a stone fireplace large enough to stand inside, it was warm and inviting, the perfect spot for a celebration. In addition to a generous patio and shelves filled with books, it sports an unusual feature. The ceiling fans atop its soaring main room are mounted through long, rustic tree limbs, a design quirk that makes it feel like you’ve rented not just a cabin but an entire lodge.
Situated on Appalachia’s eastern edge, Charlottesville tends to eschew the hardscrabble ways of mountaineers for the more aristocratic air of Virginia’s Piedmont, but in the Belmont neighborhood, the town’s mountain ties are undeniable. Chickens cluck there, and you can eat a meal sourced from mountain farms at The Local, a popular restaurant. You can also stay in a big old house, one that mixes vintage finds and modern furnishings. The space is at once classic and funky, down-home and sophisticated. Whether you’re knitting in this house or reading Nietzsche, you’re bound to feel right at home.