Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Mountain Getaway: Wild and Wonderful Style

For the first 44 years of my life, I called the Mountain State of West Virginia my home. Since moving to the Lowcountry of South Carolina I have a whole new perspective on my home state, the natural beauty, the adventure and the true "wild and wonderful" nature of "Almost Heaven." Don't get me wrong, I am loving where I am now living, but I am always amazed to meet new friends and neighbors who have never been to West Virginia or who have only enjoyed the beauty and wonder of the state through the windows of their vehicle as they travel along one of the interstate highways that pass through the state.

Recently Michelle and I had to make an unplanned trip back to our old home-town of Elkins, West Virginia. I suppose that maybe since four years have passed from when we called ourselves residents of this mountain hamlet we readily noticed the changes that had been taking place in the area. Elkins, the lovely little town that has always been "on the road" to Snowshoe Mountain, is slowly becoming a year-round entertainment destination.

For several years prior to our decision to leave the high-country and whitewater and move to the lowcountry and saltwater, the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad Company operated a scenic train on several miles of rail around Elkins on track previously abandoned by CSX (the metamorphesis of the B&O, C&O, & Western Maryland rail companies). For the better part of ten years, the Durbin and Greenbrier scenic train excursions slowly gained popularity attracting rail fans and tourists who were looking for a unique way to enjoy some of the mountain scenery of North Central West Virginia. I can't say that hordes of tourists were flocking to the Elkins area just to ride the trains but it was an attraction, albeit, in it's infancy. The town of Elkins as a destination was for the most part a hidden gem. Thanks to the Randolph County Development Authority who had the foresight to see the potential, the area of town surrounding the old railyard became the focus of a re-development and revitalization project and now the previously abandoned rail yard space is home to a nationally acclaimed "Branson-style" theatre, a restaurant, hotel, and historic train depot that serves as the headquarters for the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad and it's various scenic train excursions. It is apparent by the steady stream of tour busses that we witnessed during our recent visit, as well as the no vacancy signs at area inns, motels and hotels, Elkins has indeed become a tourist destination.

The Durbin and Greenbrier River RR features five different excursion trains. The New Tygart Flyer departs the depot in downtown Elkins enroute along a mountain railway through a 1500 foot canyon to the High Falls of The Cheat River, a beautiful and pristine 18 foot high waterfall that generates miles of whitewater down stream along the Cheat River. A buffet lunch is included in the price of a ticket and you can also purchase an advanced reservation for seating in the parlor car of a 1920's style Pullman Palace Car.

If you are looking for a little bit more backcountry, try the Castaway Caboose, 2 Wabash RR cabooses that have been remodeled as comfortable suites accomodating up to six people for overnight stay in a remote location along a rushing mountain stream. Your caboose will piggyback on to the steam powered Durbin Rocket until you reach your remote destination, then you will be dropped off for pick up by the same train on the next day. We are talking real remote highland back-country, no cell phone service available, the firewood for your campfire is included in the deal, sounds dreamy, doesn't it.

The D&GV RR also offers a special train ride that caters to those who enjoy the finer things in life, like gourmet food. The Mountain Explorer Dinner Train departs from the Elkins Depot several times each season providing a return to the great dining car era of days gone by. During your scenic ride enjoy a four-course gourmet meal, prepared enroute. The recipes for the menu items come from the golden era of rail travel when fine dining and train transportation were a way of life for the privileged class of travelers.

In addition, throughout the season there are many special events including murder/mystery trips and for the holiday season, the Polar Express leaves the Elkins Depot traveling to the North Pole with a train full of children in pajamas.

If the adventure of scenic train rides isn't enough to entice you into a mountain getaway, how about not one, but two "Branson-Style" theatres with top flight variety entertainment. The American Mountain Theatre, a 13,000 square foot state of the art auditorium with seating for 527 guests opened it's doors in July 2007 and since that time the AMT has developed a reputation for providing top quality family style entertainment with shows from April to December featuring country, pop, and bluegrass music infused with lots of comedy and impersonations. This past year the theatre has attracted over 500 tour bus groups with current year sales figures already indicating a record year.

As of this month, Elkins is now home to yet a second Branson Style auditorium, The Gandy Dancer Theatre and Conference Center recently opened in a brand new 11,000 square foot building with seating for over 400. The Gandy Dancer will offer dinner theatre and present entertainment on par with what you would find in Pigeon Forge, Branson or Myrtle Beach.

The mountains, forests and streams surrounding Elkins, West Virginia have always been popular destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. From the snow ski resorts in the winter to hiking, mountain biking, camping and fishing in the summer months, but now there are entertainment options for those looking for lower impact adventures. Overnight accomodations range from the convenience of at least two national hotel/motel chain franchises to mountain-side cabins and lodges. One of my favorites, The Cheat River Lodge offers several options including some great riverside cabins with hot tubs and decks overlooking the beautiful Cheat River.

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