LEESBURG, Va. -- The rolling hills around this historic town and county seat northwest of Washington, D.C., has long been known as horse country. Jackie Kennedy famously rode with the Piedmont Fox Hounds in nearby Middleburg, and even today there are more horses than houses in Loudoun County, which was settled in the mid-1720s and still feels a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the nation's capital.
But times are changing.
While the Colonial rowhouses and Georgian estates still give off an air of old money and fox hunt teas, these days, you're more likely to find the roads around Leesburg teeming with younger, hipper types on the hunt for a different type of animal: wine or beer tastings.
There are more than 40 wineries both large and small on the Loudoun Wine Trail, many of which offer live music and food pairings along with tastings in drop-gorgeous settings. The oldest, Willowcroft Farm Vineyards, dates to 1984 and is situated in a 130-year-old barn with panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- a perfect backdrop for a fall leaf-peeping trip. Or maybe you'd rather drink hard cider while noshing on pulled-pork sandwiches and baked beans with candied bacon from Cork Belly BBQ. Then the tiny family-owned Corcoran Vineyard and Cidery in Waterford would be just the ticket.
For those more interested in the growing craft beer scene, the county's LoCo Ale Trail now counts 23 local breweries to explore. Four are located right downtown, while twice as many are conveniently located right off the Washington & Old Dominion (W & OD) Trail, a 45-mile paved rail trail that runs from Washington, D.C., to Purcellville. As one who bikes, usually hard, there's something to be said for being able to quaff a cold one mid- or post-ride, while the sweat is still rolling down your back. Some call it quenching your thirst; I call it a reward for a job well done.
Then there's Delirium Cafe USA, which just opened on South King Street. It brings to Leesburg's historic main street a heady offering of Belgian and local beers, along with bragging rights. It's the first of the famed beermaker's chain of international cafes to open in the U.S. (the original is in Brussels). Its rotating draft list boasts a dizzying array of choices, including hard-to-find Delirium products along with ales and triples from other renowned Belgian brewers.
But it's not just about liquid entertainment. You don't have to spend a fortune to get a decent meal in Leesburg -- a $3.50 slice of strawberry rhubarb pie at Mom's Apple Pie is one heavenly breakfast, and the killer charcuterie board at Lost Creek Winery feeds two for lunch. If, like me, you can never accumulate too much stuff, Loudoun County also boasts terrific antiquing. We spent the better part of a Saturday cruising Route 15 in and around the tiny hamlet of Lucketts, picking through old junk at five shops in search of lost treasures. Some of the best picking can be done at the Old Lucketts Store, a restored general store dating to 1879. You'd be hard-pressed to walk away without a least one gem in your pocket (I'm now the proud owner of a vintage commercial bread pan) and I also can call claim to a pig crafted out of an old can.
Lucketts also is home to the "Potomac" cluster of wineries that includes the boutique (and pet friendly) Fabbioli Cellars, where you can sample a variety of red, white and port-style wines either under a sun sail overlooking the vineyard, in a windowed tasting room or in the cellar alongside the barrels. (For a printable guide to the region's wineries and tasting rooms, visit tuskieswinetrail.com). If you're planning a picnic, make a pit stop at Farmer John's Market to pick up fruit or maybe a jug of cider for the kids. It's a road stand about 5 miles north of Leesburg on Route 15, and the selections of fresh fruit and vegetables will blow you away. Owner John Whitmore's family has been farming its 700 acres since 1843.
While more wine than you can possibly taste in a week, let alone a weekend, is an obvious attraction, my husband and I actually were drawn to the area because of its bike trails. Visitors have their choice of two stellar paths on which to drink in fall's colors, which this year are expected to peak in early to mid October: The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) canal path that connects to the Great Allegheny Passage in Cumberland, Md., and the paved Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail that climbs from Leesburg over Catoctin Mountain to the quaint town of Purcellville. The latter is paved, so if you own a road bike or just like to go fast, expect an exceptionally smooth ride. Just keep an eye peeled for equestrians on the adjacent horse path and occasional deer darting out from the woods.
That's how we started our Leesburg adventure -- pedaling 10 miles to Purcellville for a lazy if somewhat sweaty lunch at Magnolias at The Mill. (Get the burger. It's fantastic.) It's also how we ended it, with a ride from Point of Rocks, Md., to abolitionist John Brown's Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, where the only thing more amazing than the view from St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church of the town below was that of two crazy kids rappelling down the southern face of Maryland Heights, a 300-foot vertical cliff that towers over the Potomac River.
Purcellville also is home to the county's first (legal) distillery since before prohibition, and it's a beauty. Located in a former car dealership, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company awes with its handsome tasting room, which features exposed brick walls and huge picture windows that offer a glimpse of the distilling process. I'm not a whiskey drinker, but a tasting here -- you can only try one flight on each visit -- almost made me wish I was. If you prefer beer, there's always the IPA at Jack's Run Brewing, a craft microbrewery named for a nearby creek that first appeared on a map way back in 1749.
Other nighttime hotspots are the outdoor patio at the funky Vino9Market in nearby Paeonian Springs (there's barbecue and live music on weekends), and Macdowell Brew Kitchen, which in warm weather has a hopping, popular outdoor "beach" area with sand and fire pits. And of course head to Delirium to get a taste of Belgium's top export. (Traveler's warning: The Delirium Tremens, at 8.5 percent alcohol, must be approached with caution, or at least in the presence of a designated driver.)
IF YOU GO:
-- Where to stay: Leesburg is home to several moderately priced chain hotels, such as Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton, along with a handful of bed-and-breakfasts. There's also the destination AAA Four Diamond Lansdowne Resort & Spa, which offers guests a championship golf course, 12,000-square-foot spa and four restaurants. If you're looking for romance along with a weekend of wine tastings, Goodstone Inn in nearby Middlesburg is one of more than a dozen B&Bs sure to melt your significant other's heart. If you're in the mood for an adventure, accommodations also can be found on Airbnb.com.
-- Food and drink. Dining is as upscale or laid back as you like in and around town. We noshed on some solid wood-fired pizza at Fire Works near the historic Tuscarora Mill (order the Black Sheep); had pit-smoked barbecue Smokehouse Live while listening to live music; and enjoyed a lovely smoked salmon plate at Trinity House Cafe. Be sure to get a slice of pie at Mom's Apple Pie in a converted gas station at the fork in the road between Loudoun Street and Market Street -- the rhubarb strawberry and sour cherry varieties are nothing short of fantastic. For terrific breakfast sandwiches, egg plates and freshly roasted fair-trade coffee, head to Shoes Cup and Cork on North King Street. The scratch kitchen also has a 1920's speakeasy restaurant upstairs and a back patio with a bocce court.
-- Activities: Along with biking and antiquing, Leesburg offers the Civil War's Ball's Bluff Battlefield, which features guided tours from May-October, and two house museums: Marshall House, home of Gen. George C. Marshall, and Oatlands Plantation, a historic house and gardens and National Historic Landmark. If you're into horses, you also can visit the Museum of Hounds and Hunting at Morven Park, the only fox hunting museum in the country.
Wine tastings cost anywhere from $5 to $15 so it's smart to track down a Tuskie's Wine Trail Guide -- it's full of BYGO coupons, and includes a really fun map of the six "clusters" of wineries in Loudoun County. If you plan multiple stops at wineries, it's probably not a bad idea to hire a driver; Point-to-Point Limousines offers winery tour packages that start at $40 per person.
-- Information: www.visitloudoun.org or 1-800-752-6118
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