A Separate Peace
Small-town Sperryville provides the perfect antidote to stressful city life: great hiking, antiques, single-malt whiskey-plus an internationally acclaimed restaurant nearby
Seekers of rural pleasures will find that the placid farm village of Sperryville, Va., owes much of its appeal to a man and a mountain.
In 1972, in a well-weathered farmhouse just south of town, a budding chef opened a catering business, relying on a wood-burning stove and an electric fry pan as his principal kitchen equipment.
Directly across the road from the chef’s fledgling operation lay the trailhead for one of the most popular uphill climbs in the mid-Atlantic region. That would be Old Rag Mountain Trail, a strenuous, rock-hopping and often crowded, nine-mile circuit hike with exceptional vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, which draws more than 50,000 hikers each year.
And the chef? He’s none other than Patrick O’Connell, proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington, located six miles from Sperryville in the precious town of Washington, which is now an internationally acclaimed, farm-to-table dining destination with luxury accommodations.
But there’s more to the area than foie gras and blistered heels. When the hungry hikers finish their treks, and O’Connell’s pampered diners seek more affordable (or available) rooms for the night—and perhaps a little antiques shopping, or a farm or winery tour—humble Sperryville is the perfect base for further exploration. On the banks of the Thornton River, there is every reason to rusticate.
It was the town’s proximity to the park, the open space, the quirky mix of artists, farmers and escapist urban professionals, and yes, O’Connell’s famed Inn that lured me to Sperryville more than 25 years ago. I found the perfect property in a deep, forested hollow near town and have been driving down on weekends ever since.
The bucolic lifestyle is a welcome change of pace from the hustle and bustle of D.C. Locals take pride in the fact that Rappahannock County hasn’t a single stoplight or fast-food franchise. To keep it that way, a growing number of landowners are embracing conservation easements and preserving the area’s farming heritage.
There’s an endearing character to the place, which whispers of days past. On a walk into the hills, I find the occasional stone chimney or farm implement marking a homestead where generations of mountain men and their families once lived, many relying on income from the nuts and bark of American chestnut trees prior to the killing blight of the 1930s. Sealing their fate, the federal government in 1939 relocated 465 families beyond the boundaries of today’s Shenandoah National Park. Many of their kin now call Sperryville home.
Originally founded in 1820 as a stagecoach crossroads and pit stop, Sperryville provided access to the cross-mountain road through nearby Thornton Gap, cementing the area’s importance for travelers.
Nearly 200 years later, the town’s businesses still rely on visitors for their livelihood. Spring and fall are the busiest times, but regardless of the season, this little hamlet packs some worthy diversions.
In every direction, there are repurposed remnants of what was once a booming apple industry—one that prompted the town to be nicknamed the “Little Apple.” In the newly named River District, a former cold-storage warehouse spanning 30,000 square feet is now home to Copper Fox Antiques, a purveyor of all things vintage, from ornate mirrors and Craftsman-style furniture to antique cash registers and cutlery sets made from stag antlers.
You’ll find the studios and work of more than a dozen local artists in a 1930s post-and-beam apple packinghouse (an artists’ collective now known as River District Arts). And a onetime apple juice factory has since been resurrected as Copper Fox Distillery, the maker of fine sipping Wasmund’s single-malt whiskey.
Whether or not you touch the stuff, be sure to make your way to the distillery’s massive double doors. Owner Rick Wasmund, with an eye for unusual antique furnishings and art, has transformed his warehouse into a woodsy retreat. On a typical summer Saturday, 200 to 300 people take the on-the-hour tour, which starts in the barley aging room, moves to the chamber for apple and cherry wood smoking of the grains, and then continues on to fermentation, aging and bottling.
The aromas throughout are, well, intoxicating.
Wasmund keeps the tour lively, with hands-on knowledge of spirit distillery and his own brand of humor. He’s ever ready to answer the inevitable “How did you get into this business?”—at which point, out comes the deadpan tale of his recruitment by aliens, who were threatened with the destruction of their planet, Maltos. His salvation, he explains, is that he was able to provide the perfect place for pot-stilling the greatest whiskey in the universe. Up next is his current project in motion: Wasmund’s gin.
Out on the two-lane highway that passes through town, funky (and mostly derelict) roadside stands—some still selling local fruit and the occasional velveteen wall-hangings of “The King”—give Route 211 the look of an apple-centric Appalachian souk. With no nod to consistency in between the hovels, there’s a terrific coffee roaster with free tastings of select bean brews and a relatively arcane gluten-free bakery, stocked with exceptional carrot cupcakes. I pop into both after picking up the morning newspaper at the more than 150-year-old Corner Store—a pivot point in the center of town for the latest local gossip.
Much of the credit for the renewal of Sperryville’s two-block-long Main Street goes to the Thompson family, who bought the Corner Store in 2001. With both visitors and locals in mind, the new owners gently restored and expanded the original store, leaving shelf space for Spam while making way for cases of imported and local cheeses, above-average grab-and-go sandwiches and more than 180 craft beers. Then up went two additions, bringing to the mix a tiny pizza parlor and a stellar, full-service restaurant.
The Thompsons’ cozy Thornton River Grille is now a favorite spot. I occasionally join neighbors there for, say, an exchange on the growing menace of stinkbugs, followed by my account of recurring visits from black bears, who are destroying my evergreen landscaping. For lunch, I recommend the bargain-priced garlicky mussels, hand-cut french fries and a crisp Caesar salad.
When evening comes, Chef Tom Nash’s fresh seafood specials never disappoint. (I often question the freshness of fish in small inland towns, but not at the Grille in Sperryville. The same fish purveyor delivers pristine goods to Patrick O’Connell’s five-star Inn down the road.)
Headed for an Old Rag morning hike? My advice: Spend the night before in a local bed-and-breakfast. I could comfortably kick off my boots at Hopkins Ordinary in the center of town. Built in the 1820s as a tavern and inn for travelers, it provides wraparound porches on two levels that give every guest an outside space for a morning cup of coffee or a glass of wine as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge.
Or, for a truly agrarian experience, make a reservation at the nearby Inn at Mount Vernon Farm. Built in 1827 and still owned by the Miller family, the brick, Victorian-style inn stands as the centerpiece of the family’s holistically managed, 840-acre working farm. There, you can take a tour and learn about the advantages of rotating pastures for cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens—and later take home grass-fed beef, lamb, pork and free-range eggs, all of which are available in the farm store.
Each room in the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm has its own personality, with fine heirloom furnishings, natural stone baths, Italian linens and commanding portraits of ancestors presiding over fireplace mantels. My favorite is the very masculine “Brief Room.” It’s named in honor of the owner’s great-great-grandfather, the undergarment manufacturer Pleasant Henderson Hanes. (After all, “Gentlemen prefer Hanes.”)
Rested and ready, without the stress of a long morning drive, you can hit the Old Rag trail by 7 a.m. At that hour, you’re sure to grab a coveted spot in the trailhead parking lot before the crowds find their way to Sperryville.