Just before going on an outdoor-focused trip to the Roanoke Valley, in Virginia, I twisted my ankle. Only one pair of shoes comfortably fit over my swollen foot—a cute but obnoxious pair of hot pink leopard spotted Adidas. They’d be fine for biking and kayaking. But dare I test the leniency of Blue Ridge restaurant dress codes? It turned out that the outdoor activities were fun, and the casual restaurants I visited were welcoming, even to a vegan in hot pink sneakers.
People come to the Roanoke Valley, and nearby Franklin and Botetourt counties, to bike, fish, raft, kayak, canoe and tube. Some pass through on the Appalachian Trail. One local compared Roanoke’s outdoor focus to western towns like Bend, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado. These towns attract folks who want to hike or mountain bike after work.
I spent one morning kayaking the James River with Twin River Outfitters. We left from the little town of Buchanan (pop 1200) in Botetourt County. Our guide, Kevin, cut through the water like a shark, making sure we survived the class 1 or 2 rapids. These rapids were tiny to look at, but plenty of excitement for a novice like me.
Twin River also offers multi-day rentals where they send you out with a canoe, a big dry bag for your food, and a map of primitive campsites along the way. I’m not quite ready for that adventure.
Philpott Lake in Franklin County provides a quiet getaway with campsites tucked under trees, leaving the 100 miles of coastline undisturbed. Craig “Rocky” Rockwell, Philpott Lake’s operations project manager, piloted us around the lake in a pontoon boat. A devoted nature lover, he regularly sees deer and bear swimming in the peaceful lake. And he waxed poetic about the smells of the lake and the local critters: “I think fireflies are God’s little Christmas ornaments,” he told us.
Bikes are another popular way to get around. I took a leisurely 12-mile ride on the Roanoke Valley Greenway. The wide, paved path follows the Roanoke River, passing through city parks and providing lots of river and a few downtown views. You can rent bikes from Underdog Bikes or Roanoke Mountain Adventures, which also offers guided biking, tubing, and other outdoorsy trips.
Roanoke considers itself the mountain bike capital of the east. Mountain bikers can explore multiple trail systems. Roanoke is applying for “ride center status” with the International Mountain Biking Association. If approved, mountain bikers from around the world will swarm the Roanoke Valley.
Roanoke is excited about developments at the nearby Explore Park too. The county just acquired this 1,200-acre park three years ago and is busy developing it into the area’s go-to place for outdoor education. Right now, you can hike, bike and fish there, and they offer educational programs for kids. But they envision zip lines, mountaineering instruction, water craft rental, cabins, and a whole host of goodies in the next few years.
While not a veg hot spot, non-carnivores won’t starve in the Roanoke Valley. In smaller towns, a couple of servers looked mystified by terms like “vegan” and “vegetarian.” But I found several restaurants with vegetarian options on the menu, and a few selections that were even vegan or easily customizable to be so.
Wildflour Restaurant and Bakery in Roanoke is an excellent bet. This restaurant in a quiet neighborhood has been open for more than 25 years. Vegetarian options include vegan red beans and rice, house-made millet grain burgers, burritos, veggie lasagna and spinach ricotta pie. I vouch that the red beans and rice are top-notch.
Ippy’s in Rocky Mount traces its roots way back to 1919. The dinner menu has a vegetarian section with four items, including sautéed veggies over rice and a veg kabob. The lunch menu is not good for vegetarians, but if you ask nicely, they might prepare the sautéed vegetable and rice dish. I showed my appreciation by eating every bite.
Wasena City Tap Room in Roanoke is right off the Greenway. It’s known for its brick oven, hard wood grill, 31 beers on tap, and casual foods like tacos, hot dogs, and burgers. Vegetarians can get veg versions of burritos, tacos, and taco salads. Tuesday nights they offer a non-competitive three or five-mile out-and-back fun run. Runners get specials on food and beer.
Fortunato is Roanoke’s traditional Italian kitchen specializing in Neapolitan style pizzas. They had a lot of choices for vegetarians and vegans and I ate way too much here. Vegan pizza options include a marinara pie with garlic, oregano, olive oil, tomato sauce, and sea salt. The Vegano supplements the same base with dabs of cashew ricotta and a heap of arugula. I tried several salads and sides, too. My favorites were the fava beans with lemon and Cipollini onions, and the roasted castelvetrano olives with orange and rosemary. The olives came in a hot little skillet. The chef even made me a vegan cannoli, which is not on the menu. Try calling ahead and he might make you one, too.
The Town Center Tap House in Daleville attracts people of all ages, from babies to seniors. This lively sports bar is equipped with big screen TVs and pool tables. Veg options included vegan chili, taco salad, veggie wraps and garden burgers. I recommend the chili, packed with fresh zucchini.
One of the owners, Shannon D. Cox, Esquire, tried careers in construction and law before investing in this Virginia sports bar. He’s happy with the casual, outdoors-focused lifestyle of the Roanoke Valley, and welcomes hikers taking a break from the Appalachian Trail to get a meal and a beer. Locals are friendlier in Daleville than other stops along the trail, he says. “A lot of towns are like, ‘dirty, stinky hikers.’ They do smell. But I love them.”
It turned out I had no need to worry about my obnoxious pink sneakers. No formal dress was required at the tap house, or anywhere I visited in the Roanoke Valley.
Cox said he’s always relieved to get back to the Blue Ridge when business takes him away for extended periods. “I feel like I’ve been touched by God when I see my mountains for the first time,” he says. “I’ve got chills, see?” He points to his goosebumps. “There’s something magical, something spiritual about this place.” — by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor