Sometimes the spirit of a place seeps under your skin and stays there long after you leave. This happened to me the first time I saw the rolling hills of Virginia’s Loudoun County, a bucolic region about an hour west of D.C. It was more than thirty years ago, yet even today I remember the way I was touched its tranquility.On a sultry day in June my husband, Peter, and I left the broiling beach behind for a brief sojourn north. With our three young children in tow, we planned to visit friends who lived in Purcellville, a small town near Leesburg. Until this trip, I’d never heard of Loudoun County, but once there, I felt as if I’d found an old friend.
As we drove through the rural landscape, we passed patchwork fields lined by tidy brown fencing, scenes that reminded me of storybooks and simpler times when farming was what America did for a living. The road wound past mountains thick with old-growth trees, sentinels of days gone by when Native Americans cut trails along ridge tops and later Civil War soldiers found refuge from lusty battles among proud oaks and tall chestnuts in full leaf.
Through the car window, we admired centuries-old stone houses that suggested a sense of history and permanence. I wanted to stop and feel the cool round stones, to touch the past and connect to its secrets.
For Loudoun County has a deep past, rooted in history and peopled by early settlers who knew a prime location when they saw it. Nestled in Virginia’s topmost corner, the county—shaped like a tilted L—borders Maryland and West Virginia. Catoctin and Bull Run Mountains bisect the region, providing a picturesque backdrop and views that deserve an artist’s paintbrush. There among Loudoun’s verdant valleys, residents lived peaceful lives, somehow managing to escape notice while cities and towns closer to our nation’s capital exploded with growth and swelled with newcomers.
Its obscurity was too good to last, however, and in recent years, Loudoun County has been named America’s fastest growing county. But in spite of its growth and development, the region retains much of its rural beauty and an alluring quality of life.
I try to visit as often as possible, and each time I go, I see the region with new eyes. For couples looking for a romantic getaway, families seeking a chance to explore nature, oenophiles interested in sampling wines from the area’s numerous wineries, or girlfriends who want to eat, shop, and be merry, Loudoun County is a one-size-fits-all kind of place. Here’s a peek at some of the reasons why the area remains one of my favorite places to hang out.
Bluemont Vineyard Promises Panoramic Views
Take a Hike at Double 8 Alpaca Ranch
On a recent visit to this lovely corner of Virginia, I meet up with a gal I’ve known for decades, my friend Mugsy. We backpacked through Europe together in our 20s, and though we don’t see each other often, we pick up where we left off each time we’re together. After I arrive and stretch my legs on a short hike, Mugsy and I head to Bluemont Vineyard, a cozy winery owned by the Zurschmeide family, which offers expansive views of Loudoun Valley from its oversized patio. Bluemont is the perfect place to enjoy a glass or two of Farm Table Red and catch up with my pal as the sun sets slowly in the west.
Next Mugsy and I drive to Purcellville to dine in one of Loudoun’s newest restaurants, Bia Kitchen. Located in a former metalsmith shop, the cheerful restaurant oozes charm. We sit in the bar area downstairs at a table by the window and enjoy people watching inside and out. The upstairs dining room is a bit more stately, but we like the casual bar vibe, perfect for noshing on a tasty fresh salad and Bia’s signature fish and chips. Chef Shane O’Connor hails from Ireland, and the restaurant’s menu and décor have a European feel.
I say goodbye to Mugsy and head to the picturesque B&B near the historic town of Waterford where I’m staying. Surrounded by verdant pasturelands, Blue Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast welcomes overnight guests and serves as a setting for weddings and special events. I meet the owners, Waldo and Shirley Tibbetts, and we talk about how Loudoun has grown in recent years, yet still manages to maintain its rural lifestyle. Housing prices, as you might imagine, are crazy here especially since Loudoun County is so near our nation’s capital. But D.C. feels far, far away from Blue Hill Farm, and I love my cozy room with big windows that reveal pastoral views.
The next day, the sun beams down from a bright blue sky—perfect weather for a visit to Double 8 Alpaca and Llama Ranch in Purcellville, where I learn about alpacas from owners Doug and Bonnie Kittrell. They welcome visitors by appointment to their 32-acre ranch, where they offer tours and up-close and personal encounters with alpacas and llamas, including the opportunity to go on a hike with them.
On a peaceful trail, I lead Elkton, a white alpaca, alongside pastures at the edge of the woods. It’s quiet in the country except for the sound of birds rustling in the trees and my footsteps on the carpet of fallen leaves. I can feel my blood pressure dropping as a sense of harmony comes over me. This is why I love Loudoun County.
Check Out Vintage Décor at Old Luckett’s Store
Join a Tasting Tour at Catoctin Distillery
North of Leesburg near the little town of Lucketts, fans of country living will love the Old Lucketts Store, once a general store dating to the 1800s and today home to a wide variety of antiques and vintage décor. The store was restored and brought back to life in 1996 by owner Suzanne Eblen, her husband, and countless friends and workmen.
In its nooks and crannies you’ll find 35+ dealers showing off their vintage finds and just plain cool stuff. In fact, the store’s mantra is “Enjoy the hunt.” It reminds me of being in my grandmother’s attic, complete with a dusty smell at times, but I love poking around and finding surprises everywhere I look.
For lunch I head to nearby Roots 657 Café and Market, helmed by celebrity chef Rich Rosendal. Known for its fabulous BBQ, the sandwich shop is also home to a variety of locally produced products and wine. I order a pulled pork sandwich with creamy slaw served on a toasted jalapeño-cheddar roll and sit outside on the patio, happily munching on my mega-sized sandwich and sipping a local craft beer.
That afternoon I join a tour of Catoctin Distillery in Purcelville, which was founded in 2009 by Becky and Scott Harris as the first legal distillery in Loudoun County since before Prohibition. The distillery offers tours on the hour for $12.50, which includes a tasting flight of their spirits.
My guide is distiller Rich Klein, who shows me how the magic happens. He heaps praise on Becky, Catoctin’s master distiller with a background as a chemical engineer, and credits her with the amazing products they make, including Virginia’s most awarded whisky: Roundstone Rye, created from 100 percent rye.
I settle in at the horseshoe-shaped bar and taste the Roundstone (80 proof) and find it smooth with caramel and almond notes and a touch of banana nut bread. Next I try the Distiller’s Cut (92 proof), which is also super smooth and tastes a bit sweeter and spicier (think peppery) than the Roundstone. Next I sample their gin, which has lovely botanicals, and a peach brandy that would make a refreshing summer cocktail. I relax and enjoy my spirits as I gaze out large windows that overlook the sleepy town of Purcelville.
Dining Choices Abound in Downtown Leesburg
Try the Firecracker Shrimp at Sidebar
In the evening I meet my sister-in-law, Judy, for dinner. We absolutely love Shoe’s Cup and Cork in downtown Leesburg, an eclectic eatery with a “secret” outdoor garden in the back, but unfortunately it’s closed. So we try Sidebar, a casual restaurant also on King Street with an outdoor patio in back.
As Judy and I catch up, we share an order of firecracker shrimp, which is spicy and good, and a bottle of wine. I love it when I travel places and get to enjoy the company of friends, like Judy and Mugsy. Instead of feeling like a stranger, as you sometimes do on trips, you get a feeling of being home.
Whether you choose to visit Loudoun County to enjoy its nature, history, shopping, farms, or epicurean offerings, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a hidden gem on Virginia’s north side. There friendly folks, lush landscapes, and, most importantly, a sense of tranquility await.