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It was July 4 weekend and I craved a proper American road trip. Mercedes-Benz gave me the use of a 2013 ML550 SUV–the ultimate road trip machine–and my wife, Jenn, and I decided to take a scenic drive to test it out properly. And so we left New York in the rear-view mirror and pointed the GPS to Roanoke, Virginia.
"Why Roanoke?" was a question we’d hear frequently during our trip, particularly from people in Roanoke after they found out we’d driven there from New York, and that we weren’t on our way to somewhere else. "What are you doing here?" they’d say. Having fun, man. Lots of fun. We’d heard good things about Roanoke’s pretty location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as its great museums, innovative restaurants, and delicious beer. What else does anybody need? Also, it used to be called Big Lick, because there was a big outcropping of salt nearby that used to draw animals.
The word for the ML550 is chill. Chill, as in the wonderful chill of an air conditioner that welcomes you with a blast of cold on a sweltering 97-degree day in Brooklyn. Chill like the relaxing, well-appointed interior, with leather seats, intuitive controls, and an all-around firmness that silences outside noise with a satisfying slam of the door. Chill like the Chill channel on Sirius-XM radio, which was playing when I first climbed into the drivers seat, pumping out that laidback, downtempo techno reminiscent of Washington, D.C.’s Thievery Corporation, Cafe del Mar in Ibiza, and the Fendi Casa at Biras Creek on Virgin Gorda. Rich people techno. High design music.
It drives chill too, smooth as silk for an SUV that can handle all manner of off-road scenarios, with nice directions from the woman inside the navigation system, who not only guided us to our destinations, but alerted me to traffic jams and suggested alternate routes. Oh yeah: the powered seat that helped me stay comfy in stop-and-go traffic: super chill. The remote-operated lift gate door that both opened and closed with a touch of the key fob: chilly chill.
I can’t really use the word chill for the car’s handling, though. It was quick, agile, and responsive. It zoomed up highway on-ramps without a problem, and the brakes grabbed quickly when someone stopped short in front of me. When we noticed the driver of a Toyota next to us writing out a shopping list with a pen and paper while cruising at 75 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike and drifting dangerously toward us–yes this really happened–that beautiful Mercedes got us the hell out of the way, fast. I loved the car, and can’t imagine a nicer SUV. What else could you add, besides gold and diamonds?
Chill Hotel Room
Okay, the other reason we went to Roanoke is because I had some Starpoints on my SPG American Express Card that I wanted to cash in for a hotel room. So I searched for Starwood hotels in Virginia, came upon the Sheraton Roanoke, and made a phone call. The drive to Roanoke was great: sunny, clear, and marked by Civil War battlefields, farms, and cows. At 4pm we cheerfully checked into our room on the club floor of the Sheraton Roanoke. The A/C was cranked up pretty high–it was a sweltering weekend–and all the furnishings were in mellow earth tones–a perfect spot to chill out. We needed it.
I turned on the TV and the surprisingly-good-for-being-a-nonstop-commercial Starwood Preferred Guest channel greeted us with information about golf outings in Scotland, desert treks in the Middle East, and chef tours with Jose Andres. And it had that music: more of that chilled-out, downbeat techno that all the cool rich people seem to listen to when they wear sunglasses and don’t smile. I love rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s nothing like the chill channel when you’re trying to beat the heat.
And so we began our mini-vacation.
The Sheraton Roanoke is clean, efficient, and well-appointed. It’s not the coolest hotel in the Starwood portfolio (look to the W brand for that), but it’s not entirely dorky either. We popped into Shula’s restaurant for appetizers and drinks, and were impressed by the beer menu. Starwood hotels seem to understand the importance of good beer to travelers like us. We ordered Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, which is rated 99 by the brothers of Beer Advocate.
We weren’t sure what to make of Roanoke at first. Downtown seemed kind of dead for the 4th of July, and lots of places were closed, but we parked the car and walked around and found ourselves bending elbows in Jack Browne’s Beer & Burger Joint and watching Joey Chestnut crush the competition at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest back in New York. (He downed 69 dogs.) We drank weird beers (Fraoch Heather Ale, among others) and ate a well-made burger with sweet potato fries. The place was tight, the music was pumping, the crowd was laid back, friendly, and cool, and we made ourselves comfortable for a while. It’s the kind of place where the decor consists mostly of license plates, bumper stickers, and bras, and we liked it.
We could see fireworks on our drive back to the hotel (I was sober) and caught the rest of them from our balcony.
Friday morning we drove up Mill Mountain to The Star, the largest freestanding illuminated man-made star in the world. The Roanoke Star is one of the city’s claims to fame, and it’s fun and easy to visit. There are nature trails and picnic tables and two viewing platforms. The view of the city and its surrounding mountains is impressive. It’s a good place to appreciate those lower, older east coast mountains, if you’re used to jagged western peaks. Yes, our mountains are shorter, but they have wisdom.
After a grueling quarter-mile hike, we had a flight of beers and some salads at Fork in the Market in town, which was exactly what we were hoping for. Friendly waitress, good food, great beer, and awesome air conditioning. I wrote down the names of the beers we sampled: Starr Hill The Love, Breckenridge Avalanche, Breckenridge Summer Bright, and Devil’s BackBone Vienna Lager. When you have an opportunity to order a flight of beers, you should always do it. Everything should come in flight form.
Culturally, Roanoke rocks. There are a bunch of museums in town, with many exhibits dedicated to the railroad industry, since locomotives and rail cars were once built here. It was a visit to the Taubman Museum of Art, though, that made me realize that Roanoke punches well above its weight in culture. The Taubman occupies a $66 million building that looks like the Guggenheim Bilbao, which makes sense because its architect, Randall Stout, worked for Frank. O. Gehry and Associates. So it’s a really funky-looking place, and it’s filled with world class art.
Its focus is on American art, particularly artists from Western Virginia and the Appalachian region, and has works by Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer on display. Even the most critical art snob will love it. It felt like we were visiting the MoMA, but with far fewer people bumping into us. And admission is free, courtesy of Advance Auto Parts (everything in Roanoke is sponsored by somebody). If you want to drop some money in one of the donation boxes, use the one near the entrance so the staff can appreciate your benevolence and you can bask in their admiring glow.
We bought some granola cookies from a dude at the outdoor farmers market. We don’t know if he was actually a farmer, but the cookies were good.
We went to Center in the Square, a multi-use cultural center in the middle of town, complete with theater, museums, and aquarium. A docent there asked us where we were from, and what we were doing there. We chatted for a while, and he told us to go up to the roof, so we did. The roof was awesome, with benches, a garden, a koi pond with a waterfall, and 360-degree views of the mountains, railroad, town, and massive Wells Fargo building. If it was in New York it would be a $15 million roof. Nicely done, Roanoke roof renovators.
That afternoon I kicked around in the hotel swimming pool as Jenn sat in the sun and read Time Out New York‘s Chinatown issue. There were lots of kids in the pool. I made sure to shower before dinner.
We didn’t eat at every restaurant in town, but I’m still confident in saying Local Roots is one of the best. It serves S.O.L.E. food: Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical, and it’s big on the farm-to-table concept. It was so good that I’m surprised some New York Times reporter hasn’t already swooped in and made it the next big thing, like the Catbird Seat in Nashville. The atmosphere at Local Roots is rustic and nice, with lots of wood and plenty of local art, but the food’s just amazing. Jenn and I agreed that you could really taste the farm freshness, especially in the chilled pea soup I ordered. The peas just popped, like POW, in my mouth. The "textures of beats" appetizer was sublime, and looked nothing like we expected–it was stacked like a Big Mac. For mains, Jenn ordered farm-raised Virginia Pompano, while I got the Samnana Farm St. Croix Lamb Pasta. And so, road tripping foodies from New York and beyond, set your GPS for 1314 Grandin Rd. SW, Roanoke. You’ll totally dig it. Great beers too.
We had a great time in Roanoke, and while it’s probably not on every New Yorker’s road trip fantasy list, it should be. It’s easy to get to, and there are plenty of cushy amenities for those who can’t live without high-threadcount sheets and good coffee. It would be worth it just for the trifecta of Jack Browne’s, the Taubman Museum, and Local Roots. But even just for wandering, the downtown area has a great mix of historical and modern, and the people are awfully friendly. If I didn’t have to return the car we might have stayed longer, but it’s healthy to push away from the table while you’re still a little hungry. We’ll be back again someday, Roanoke.