Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of online travel stories based on a recent trip to Roanoke, Va. and the Blue Ridge Mountains area. An overview feature on what the area has to offer, will also be featured in the print travel section of the Osceola News-Gazette in the near future.
By Peter Covino
The Walton’s certainly got one thing right: They picked one of the most beautiful places on the planet to settle down way back when, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
The popular TV show (so many goodnight, John Boys) really did not do the area justice with its comparatively drab Southern California mountains, filling in for the actual scenic Blue Ridge.
There is a lot to do here, so much so, that the recent four-day media trip stay, was just little more than getting your feet wet, when you actually will want a really good soaking.
Let’s start with the airport (the area has a good network of roads if you decide to road trip, all decidedly much easier to get around than the urban snarl of Orlando). Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport is very commuter friendly, but its small size means you almost assuredly will be flying into a larger airport first before connecting into Roanoke.
A rental car is a must to get around the city and all else that awaits in nearby Franklin and Botetourt counties.
Once you’ve got your wheels, if the day is sunny, the first thing on the agenda is to make the short trip to the Roanoke Star.
This illuminated light, the largest, free-standing, man-made illuminated star in the world, is an icon to everyone in the area. But if you are not from Western Virginia, chances are, you have never heard of it.
And that’s a good reason to check it off the list of things to do, right off. Plus, the star sits atop Mill Mountain, and offers some great views of the city, the surrounding valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The star has a great history. Our media group was fortunate enough to have a great city historian talk about that history, Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea. If you don’t happen to have the mayor riding along in your rental, here are some of the facts of this icon.
The Roanoke Star was constructed in 1949 by city merchants who wanted a giant Christmas decoration to celebrate the holiday shopping season. It proved so popular, they never took it down and it became a year-round attraction and a beacon in the night over the city.
The star, it is actually three stars in one, stands 88.5 feet tall and weighs about 10,000 pounds with a height above sea level of 1,045 feet. It has 2,000 feet of neon tubing and is visible from the air for some 60 miles. Usually, it casts a bright white light, but the colors also can include red, white and blue for special occasions.
Want your friends to be jealous of your trip to the Roanoke Star? There is a web cam mounted on the star (Starcam as it were). You can check out the current view at http://www.roanokeva.gov/1687/StarCam.
Mill Mountain is also home to many popular hiking and biking paths and trails.
Note: Roanoke is lucky enough to have a few other neon icons, that will become instantly familiar to anyone who visits the city for at least a day. The H&C Coffee Sign can be found in downtown Roanoke, right next to the iconic Dr. Pepper neon sign.
A restoration project of the citizens of Roanoke Valley, the H&C Coffee company (started in Roanoke in 1927) erected the sign in 1946. After nonfunctioning for a decade, it was restored and moved to a more central location in 2005. And yes, it works beautifully. The nearby Dr Pepper sign, the classic Dr. Pepper clock with its “10, 2 and 4” illuminated numerals, can be captured in one nice neon photo.