With its sprawling James Madison University campus and other educational institutions, you might expect Harrisonburg, Va., to be full of chain fast food and hotel establishments. But the city is full of surprises with a downtown renaissance that earned it the distinction of Virginia’s first culinary district. And, just over a year ago, a 230-room distinctive independent hotel opened on the edge of the university campus.
While there are chain burgers, barbecue and hotel rooms just off I-81, the experience downtown is different.
“I’ve talked with people who’ve moved here from major cities like Miami and Washington who say you can get a great meal and a big city dining experience without traffic, high costs, and other big city problems,” said Erin Smith of the Downtown Renaissance organization. “You’ll find traditional American, Indian, Indonesian, Asian fusion and even a farm to table Italian restaurant that sources a lot from its own farm.”
As for barbecue, Union Station (it really was a railroad station) has smokers visible from the parking lot and the selections are first rate. The dining experience is first rate as well with plenty of non-barbeque selections.
Just a brisk walk down Main Street, the Hotel Madison recently marked its first anniversary. The independent property is the “official hotel” of James Madison University, but is ideally located for visitors to enjoy Harrisonburg’s culinary offerings and its attractions.
“We’re a full service hotel with valet, indoor pool, business center, fitness center, Montpelier Restaurant, a coffee bar, and 21,000 square feet of meeting and event space with complete catering,” said the hotel’s Jennifer Sodikoff.
The hotel’s Montpelier Restaurant anchors one end of the culinary district and is named for James and Dolley Madison’s home.
“Dolley was famous for her hospitality and we want to emulate that spirit with a farm to table experience,” said Sodikoff. “We also took over the Rocktown Bites food tours that explore the culinary district each Saturday.”
The hotel has a loyalty program for JMU parents that offers discounts and perks. It’s a good way to take advantage of all Harrisonburg has to offer on those trips to the college.
A short walk or ride up Main Street presents a ton of dining and shopping opportunities and attractions.
“There are lots of interesting collaborations among the businesses and live music somewhere most every night,” Smith said. “There’s a Downtown magazine in rooms at the Hotel Madison with great information and a calendar, and anyone can find out what’s happening at visitharrisonburgva.com.”
Friendly City Fourth
“When the students are mostly gone, Harrisonburg seems more like a town than a small city,” Smith said.
That’s the vibe of the “Friendly City Fourth” Independence Day celebrations with free live music, fireworks, activities for kids and adults alike, a classic car cruise-in and a beer garden featuring local breweries.
“There are art markets, fitness activities, $5 showings at the Court Square Theater, and even a reading of the Declaration of Independence — a tradition for more than 30 years,” Smith noted.
Fun on the Farm
For summertime fun, check out the animals and fun activities at Back Home on the Farm, The animals love the attention they get from visitors and there are more than 30 farm-themed activities for kids. Adults can enjoy the pickles, jams, jellies and bakery items (try an apple cider slushie along with a Whoopie pie, homemade cookies, or fudge). And everyone can enjoy the Enchanted Glen, filled with butterflies, fairy gardens, and wondrous plants.
Insider tip: For a special treat, check out the uniquely themed Country Teas on the tea calendar at backhome-onthefarm.com.
Red Wing Roots Music Festival
“Great music, great outdoors” is the most succinct description of the Red Wing Roots Music Festival (redwingroots.com) that takes place July 12-14 at the Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon, Va., south of Harrisonburg.
The Steel Wheels band and booking agent Jeremiah Jenkins wanted to bring a great music festival to the mid-Shenandoah Valley and started the Red Wing Roots event in 2012.
“The Natural Chimneys Park was an important part of the decision,” said Jenkins. “It has services and amenities to make a great event with the dramatic limestone cliffs and even a history that includes performance in the 1940s and 50s by the likes of Roy Acuff and Patsy Cline.”
Jenkins described the festival experience as a calm, beautiful, family friendly experience celebrating the past and present of Americana music. Children 12 and under are admitted free and there are lots of activities for kids in the Shady Grove and the Toddler areas.
There’s also a Red Wing Academy the week prior to the festival and the 100 children who participate get to perform on the first night of the festival. “Kids absolutely love it,” Jenkins said, “But it’s truly a multi-generational festival.”
Camping is available and sites usually sell out, but lots of attendees stay in B&Bs and nearby hotels
Virginia Wine & Oyster Festival
On Sunny Slope Farm (onsunnyslopefarm.com) is a major area wedding venue, but oysters and wine take center stage Aug. 2-4, at the second annual Virginia Wine & Oyster Festival. The weekend kicks off with an Oyster Shucking Workshop Friday that includes a shucking lesson taught by Virginia’s champion shucker, Deborah Pratt, as a dozen oysters to shuck and enjoy, beverages, and a shucking knife and glove.
On Saturday, Aug. 3, 11:00am-5:00pm, Coastal Virginia wineries pair their vintages with oysters for a unique Shenandoah Valley “Merroir to Terroir” experience, all to the tunes of jazz and folk artists. The festival will introduce “High Five,” a showcase of five Virginia oyster preparations: raw, roasted, fried, stewed, and baked.
Sunday, Aug. 4, brings a “Valley Meets Bay” Sunday Brunch combining the bounty of Virginia’s traditional agricultural farms with the oysters that are farmed year-round in the state’s coastal waters.
All festival attendees will be entered to win an oyster trail weekend getaway.