When Shakespeare penned his famous quote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, he probably wouldn’t have imagined that four hundred and twenty-five years later one of his actual stages would be located 6,000 kilometres across the ocean in the town of Staunton, Virginia. But it is here that you can find the world’s only re-creation of the 17th century Blackfriars Playhouse of London England, the famous theatre that served as the indoor performing venue for the King’s Men – the acting company in which William Shakespeare was a playwright.
What Henk and I never would have imagined is that we would end up as players ON that Shakespearean stage in Virginia, for a performance of As You Like It, the play from which that quote is taken. But that’s exactly what happened and it turned out to be one of the best things to do in Staunton, Virginia. It also set the stage for a memorable visit to this part of the State’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley.
Staunton’s Blackfriar’s Playhouse
Henk and I were visiting Staunton as part of a week-long visit to Virginia and the town of Staunton was to be our base from which we could access the Blue Ridge Parkway and explore some of the Shenandoah Valley’s natural and cultural attractions.
What came as a complete surprise to both Henk and I was that this town of 25,000 is home to the only existing replica of the Blackfriars Playhouse and the American Shakespeare Center. It all began here in 1988 with a travelling troupe of Shakespearean actors called the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. The troupe played in churches and college venues around the country, gradually gaining such a stellar reputation that they eventually took their show on the road internationally as well. Following this success, the group made their permanent home in Staunton in 1999 where they began fundraising to build the Blackfriars Playhouse.
Extensive research went into the recreation of the theatre that was designed by the late architect Tom McLaughlin. There was little visual reference to work from since the original theatre in London, England had burned to the ground in 1666. So McLaughlin had to base his reconstruction on any documentary evidence he could find, as well as studying surviving Elizabethan and Jacobean houses in England and referencing architectural drawings by 17th century builders.
In 2001 and at a cost of $3.7 million dollars, the Blackfriars Playhouse opened its doors, and kudos have to go to McLaughlin for constructing an amazing building. Taking in a performance here is like stepping back in time, and just being in the theatre transports you to the Elizabethan era with the theatre’s upper balcony, wooden details and raftered ceiling. Even the chandeliers suspended over the stage and the seats themselves look like they belong inside a 16th century castle and help to put the audience into a Shakespearean mindset.
The Audience is Part of the Play
True to the original performance style, once the play begins, the house lights at the Blackfriars Playhouse don’t go down. This helps to create a connection between the actors and the audience, something that Shakespeare liked to do to better immerse the audience in the storyline. Another way this was done was to have some of the audience actually sit on the stage, something Henk and I discovered when we showed up for a performance of As You Like It. When we were offered the opportunity to actually BE on the Blackfriars stage, I couldn’t resist, and we were shown seats that were literally stage left.
Fortunately we didn’t have to say any actual lines (since my memory of Shakespeare has been reduced to about 4 famous quotes), but we were expected to react to the players who occasionally used us as animated ‘props’ during their performance. It definitely kept us engaged beyond the normal theatre experience, and after the performance ended, there was even an on-stage Q&A with the actors, all of which made for a truly memorable interactive evening.
Explore The Beverly Historic District in Downtown Staunton
There is more to Staunton than just the Blackfriars Playhouse, of course, and after exploring the downtown area, it’s hard to disagree with its description as “one of the prettiest towns in Virginia”. The Beverley Street Historic District boasts 11 blocks of well-preserved architecture, interesting boutiques, antique stores, cafes and great restaurants. Weekends are a particularly good time to visit, because the downtown closes to all traffic and becomes a pedestrian mall starting on Friday and running right through the weekend.
Strolling Beverly Street, Henk and I popped into a few boutiques that featured local artisan-made goods, including The Foundry, a cooperative popup where different artisans share retail space to display and sell their pieces.
At Bonfire Begonia, I was taken with the decorative tiaras in the window (who doesn’t love a tiara!) as well as the personable artist, Susan Weeks, and I couldn’t resist buying one of her quirky Day of the Dead Christmas tree ornaments.
Things to do Near Staunton: Virginia’s Natural Bridge State Park
One of the natural wonders of Virginia lies only about 45 minutes from Staunton: the Natural Bridge State Park. It’s here that you will find a towering 200-foot tall stone arch that is one of the country’s National Historic Landmarks.
What makes this so great for visitors is how easily accessible this hidden gem is: there’s no need to hike for hours to reach the arch because it’s literally a short walk down a set of stairs next to the Visitor Centre. There are 137 of those steps, however, and the return trip means climbing them, so be prepared and wear the proper footwear. But once at the bottom, there’s a flat pathway that runs along Cedar Creek and takes you under the impressive arch.
For those who want to do a little more exploring beyond the Arch, continue walking along that same trail that follows the creek to a small waterfall at the end. It’s a pleasant walk with little gain in elevation and you are likely to see birds and wildlife along the way, (we even spotted a snapping turtle lounging in the creek).
NOTE: The Park offers special events throughout the year including self-guided Dark Sky Nights, Sunset Hikes and Illumination Nights when the Bridge is bathed in colourful lights. Check with the Natural Bridge State Park’s website for more information about these events
Enter the Surreal Subterranean World of Luray Caverns
If you are visiting this part of Virginia, you don’t want to miss the spectacular Luray Caverns, an hour north of Staunton. This series of underground caves is nothing short of magical with its huge stalactite and stalagmite formations and an underground reflecting ‘lake’ that looks like something out of Alice’s Wonderland. This place is so impressive it deserves its own article, but to give a sense of its surreal landscape, here are just a few photos.
Take a Spectacular Drive on Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway – or Both!
Staunton is located just 15 minutes’ drive west of Rockfish Gap, known as “Mile Zero’ where the 469-mile long Blue Ridge Parkway begins its route south through Virginia and into North Carolina. But this is also the southern end of Skyline Drive, a 105 mile-long drive that runs north from here along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the only road that runs through Shenandoah National Park. Both routes are widely recognized as the best scenic drives in the United States and this was one of the reasons why Henk and I wanted to visit this part of Virginia.
Whether you decide to drive north into Shenandoah Park on Skyline Drive, or south along a piece of the Blue Ridge Parkway, taking a drive along either road is an absolutely must-do, because the views from both are nothing short of breathtaking.
This road trip is not about the destination, but definitely about the journey and you’ll want to allow a good half day even to do a small part of either drive: there are 70 pullouts and overlooks on Skyline Drive alone, and 280 on the Parkway!
If you want to do a little hiking along the way, which we would highly recommend, you can easily spend an entire day just covering even a small distance. (Henk and I did a bit of both highways, bracketing the day with a hike at the beginning and the end and it took us the better part of a day.)
TIP: The Blue Ridge Parkway is toll-free to drive. But because Skyline Drive runs through a National Park, there is a $30 fee to drive on it (but that vehicle pass is valid for 6 days).
Shakespeare, Small Town Charm and Scenic Drives
Whether you are a fan of the Bard, love to explore pretty small towns, or are looking for a well-situated base for discovering some of Virginia’s most beautiful natural attractions, Staunton is a great choice for visitors. With both culture and nature within easy reach, this small Virginia town has everything you could want in a grownup getaway.
Just one more reason to #LoveVa.
TIP: If you don’t want to get pegged as a visitor, make sure you pronounce Staunton with a flat ‘a’, like ‘Stanton’. (You might want to throw in a ‘y’all’ from time to time, too, if you are really trying to fit in!)
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR STAUNTON
Where to Stay in Staunton, Virginia: the Storied Blackburn Inn
If you like to stay in unusual or quirky accommodations that come with an interesting story (and luxurious amenities, of course), Staunton has a property just a few steps from downtown that is definitely worth checking out: the historic Blackburn Inn. This boutique hotel and conference centre is set on 80 acres of pretty treed grounds with a welcoming driveway that leads guests up to the hotel’s columned facade, making for an elegant first impression. That impression only gets better once you are inside the high-ceilinged foyer with its arched doorways and grand staircase.
And when you take that staircase up one floor, a real gem greets you: a wooden spiral staircase leading up to the rooftop cupola where a walkaround deck offers 360-degree views of the surrounding property, its other buildings and the town.
But there is more to the Blackburn Inn than meets the eye, and this is what makes it such an unusual place to stay…
“Q” as in Quirky
From the moment Henk and I met the manager at reception, we knew we had found our kind of place: the first thing we noticed was that her name tag simply had a ‘Q’ on it. When I asked what it stood for, she said “Nothing, just Q. That’s my full name”.
“Like the character in Star Trek?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but I don’t mind being compared to an omnipotent being!”
As it turns out, Q’s mother wasn’t a Trekker, but rather a James Bond fan, and she named her daughter after the gadget-guru quartermaster known as Q.
When it comes to quirky, we had to admit it doesn’t get much better than having a hotel manager named Q.
Q may have had me at Hello with the story behind her unusual name, but the Blackburn had some interesting history of its own: we learned that the property had served several functions during its almost 200 year-old lifetime, including as a medium-security prison as recently as the year 2000. Going back further, some stories suggest that it may have served as a ‘popup’ hospital during the Civil War to treat wounded soldiers like so many other estate homes and properties in Virginia. But what is known for certain is the property’s original purpose for which it was built: it opened in 1836 as the Western State Hospital of Virginia – a mental hospital, to be precise.
Yes, Henk and I were staying in a former lunatic asylum. Quirky yes, but this was actually the second time we had stayed in a former mental institution, having visited a similar property in Buffalo a few years ago. What was particularly interesting is that contrary to what you might imagine, both of these properties were designed with the actual wellness of the patient in mind: the building’s airy design, lofty ceilings and wide hallways felt anything but confining, and the beautiful gardens and grounds were designed to promote better mental health in the patients. The elegant architecture didn’t hurt either, and can be attributed to its builder, Thomas Blackburn, who studied under Thomas Jefferson, and obviously embraced his mentor’s love of classical architecture.
Today’s Blackburn Inn bears little evidence of its institutional past (other than a few surviving doors with little ‘hatches’ that give visitors a hint).
The property was completely reimagined in 2018 as a luxury boutique hotel, and the guest rooms are elegant, peaceful and understated, with original wood floors and architectural details like fireplaces and deep window sills. Of course the amenities are all 21st century, with modern soaker tubs and glass showers in the bathrooms, and luxurious beds and linens to sink into in the guest room itself.
There’s also a spa on-site, a mini art gallery with works from the local Co-Art Gallery on Beverley Street, and the Second Draft Bistro, a sun-filled room that is a great place to enjoy breakfast before heading out to explore the Shenandoah Valley.
Where to Eat in Staunton
If the crowd is any indication, The Yelping Dog is THE place where grownups relax with a drink or grab an elevated snack after a bit of exploring downtown Staunton. This wine bar serves up charcuterie platters and plenty of wines by the glass, and is obviously a popular Friday destination for both locals and visitors.
Zynodoa offers elevated farm-to-table plates and is a great option whether you make it your first stop before taking in a performance at the Playhouse, or as a dinner destination for an evening out. Definitely consider ordering the skillet corn bread, and the English Pea Risotto (with added scallops): both were delicious!
The Mill Street Grill (located in the historic White Star Mill) is another popular option that was recommended to us by locals and serves up American Bistro fare like steaks, chicken and seafood.
For a more casual steakhouse set in a funky historic location, Henk and I hit up the former train station called the Depot Grille located in what was once the freight depot for Staunton Station. The steaks and desserts are huge and tasty, but the real star here is the ambiance which includes salvaged wooden church pews, antiques, and a 40-foot long ornately carved wooden bar from a Victorian-era luxury hotel. Be sure to allow enough time to enjoy a drink here before dinner if only to admire the decor.
For breakfasts, Kathy’s is definitely the place. This casual family restaurant has been a Staunton staple since 1986 and is consistently voted by locals as the best place for serving up favourites like bacon, eggs and biscuits and gravy. Come hungry.
Special thanks to Virginia Tourism who hosted Henk on our visit.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.