Would it surprise you to learn that Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is the third “best” tourist attraction in Virginia? Ahead of Monticello? Ahead of Mount Vernon? You can see the complete list here but Poplar Forest, a National Historic Landmark, was indeed chosen third by a panel of travel writers and readers who voted in USA Today’s 10Best Reader’s Choice survey for 2018.
Located about 18 miles east of Bedford, Poplar Forest is one of just two homes Thomas Jefferson designed for his own personal use. He began construction in 1806 on what may have been the first octagonal house in the country. Modern restoration efforts are driven by an absolute commitment to use early 19-century construction techniques whenever possible, and materials are exhaustively researched for authenticity to the era and the site.
Bedford is in the southern part of the Valley, a bit off I-81 between Roanoke and Lynchburg. It offers tourists a diverse array of pursuits.
“With events taking place throughout Bedford during May and June, it’s a great time to visit,” said Nicole Johnson, Bedford’s Director of Tourism. “On Mother’s Day, the Peaks of Otter Lodge is hosting a special brunch and Poplar Forest is offering free admission for mothers all day! The National D-Day Memorial will hold its 5th Annual Armed Forces Day 5K on May 19, and then host a concert and special Memorial Day ceremony at the end of the month–all leading up to the 74th Anniversary of D-Day Commemoration to take place on June 6.
“Our historic Big Otter Mill,” Johnson continued, “will host its annual Spring Festival on May 19 with free tours of the Mill, live music, BBQ and a silent auction. This is a great family-friendly event and admission is free. The annual Artisan Fair at the Sedalia Center takes place on June 2 and features artisan vendors from across the region.”
Still another May event is the Appalachian Power Smith Mountain Lake Triathlon, May 5. It involves a 750-meter swim, 20K cycle and 5K run. With 500 miles of shoreline, multiple water sports, and prolific vacation rentals, Smith Mountain Lake is arguably the most popular lake in Virginia with vacationers.
Outside of events and historical attractions, Bedford is home to a progressive arts culture as well. One example is the Bower Center for the Arts The Bower Center has a far-reaching aim, combining visual and performing arts, education and community engagement. Exhibits, classes, events, and artist opportunities are all offered. Coming up this month (May 22 – June 30) is their 6th Annual National Juried Exhibition, showcasing works of photography, mosaics, painting, fabric, and glass.
Executive Director Kimberly Soerensen said, “The Bower Center for the Arts is the social and cultural center of the Downtown Bedford community. We are renowned for excellence in collaborative programming between artists, visitors and citizens through exhibits, concerts and other cultural events celebrating the cultural narrative of our region.
“The Bower Center houses two galleries with ongoing exhibits,” Soerensen went on, “a pottery studio with three wheels and kiln, an extensive music venue, and is also home to nine individual artist studios, allowing visitors to engage actively with artists and the process of creating art. Our exhibitions are always free, allowing all to engage and experience stimulating art–and with that contribute to a vibrant, thriving Bedford.”
Go to the Bower’s website to sign up for their media news blast and keep abreast of upcoming classes, events and concerts. The Bower Center is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; admission is free and open to the public.
Of course, no Shenandoah Valley journey is complete without a visit to a winery. Johnson told us, “The Bedford Wine Trail recently received the Certificate of Excellence Award by the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce for Agri-Business of the Year. Six wineries make up the Wine Trail and we encourage visitors to pick up a Wine Trail Passport at the Bedford Area Welcome Center, collect a stamp from each winery, and receive a free souvenir wine glass.”
Johnson also mentioned a brand new event series taking place in Bedford this year. She said, “Taste of the Trails is a chance for runners and bikers of all skill levels to experience the trail system across four Bedford County Parks.” Beale’s Brewery is the lead sponsor of the event, and will hold an after party.
Photo courtesy Poplar Forest