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Heavenly getaway: Shopping, rafting, hiking and history only a day's drive away

LEWISBURG, W.Va. - When Atlantans think of West Virginia, they usually pinpoint Snowshoe Mountain ski resort or the fabulous Greenbrier resort and spa. About an eight-hour drive from Gwinnett County or an hour by air, West Virginia stands somewhat undiscovered by Georgians. It's a strikingly beautiful place and moderately priced with plenty of comfortable lodging, good food and outdoor activities - a place John Denver termed "almost heaven."

Mountainous West Virginia is a paradise for outdoor vacations. Someone once said that if you held your thumb above the state and mashed it flat, it would be the size of Texas.

I love West Virginia. It's my momma's home and most of her family still lives in the Greenbrier Valley. A true border state, its Southern, gentrified elegance blends with the clipped speech and tire-chain winters of the North.

West Virginia's Division of Tourism officials could have let it devolve into a cheesy mix of attractions with names like Hillbilly Heaven Cafe or Coal Boy's Antique Swappin'. They didn't, and the state has retained its dignity and a comfortable ambiance.

West Virginia holds a number of record-breaking, or nearly so, attractions - the second-oldest waterway in the world after the Nile (New River), the oldest continuously operating church west of the Allegheny Mountains (Old Stone Presbyterian Church, circa 1796, in Lewisburg), the highest vehicular bridge in the Americas and the second-highest in the world (New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville), the second-largest cave on the East Coast (Organ Cave in Ronceverte), the nation's first established golf club (Oakhurst Links, circa 1884, in White Sulfur Springs, where sheep graze freely on the greens) and the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope (Green Bank).

In a lifetime of visits, I still haven't seen or done everything available. A good place to start is to drive north on U.S. Highway 219 from Lewisburg, a gateway into West Virginia.

Keeping cool around

historic Lewisburg

I recommend dinner and an overnight stay at the General Lewis Inn in Lewisburg. Built in 1834 on the site of a Civil War battle, the inn houses one of the finest restaurants anywhere and an impressive collection of antiques. Employees and guests have reported spooky happenings for decades, like falling plates and pictures, doors opening and closing by themselves, and visits by a transparent young girl.

Some visitors request rooms 206 or 208, where ghost sightings are most often reported (they don't charge extra for a room with a ghost). The inn's staff invites guests to record any paranormal experiences in a special book, which they will gladly show to anyone interested. Just ask at the front desk.

The inn stands at the heart of historic Lewisburg, voted in 2004 as one of 12 best small towns in America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Visitors can spend a day touring its downtown historic district, which includes public buildings from 1796, a Confederate cemetery, privately owned Civil War-era homes, upscale dining and lots of neat, locally owned bakeries, book stores, dress shops and art studios.

Greenbrier County's two caves, Lost World Caverns in Lewisburg and Organ Cave in Ronceverte, offer cool retreats from summer's afternoon heat - temperatures can rise into the 80s.

Another cooling, underground adventure is the Greenbrier Bunker Tour, also known as the Cold War Government Relocation Facility. Its existence was a local open secret until 1992. The bunker would house U.S. officials in the event of a national emergency. The cost to tour the bunker is $20.

For a really cool day, remember that most whitewater rafting companies offer two-for-one Tuesdays on the New River.

Heading north on U.S. 219

A drive north on U.S. 219 takes visitors from the Greenbrier Valley into the high mountain country. Travelers notice a change in climate and vegetation as they climb. The first stop is my favorite, the 107-acre Beartown State Park on the eastern summit of Droop Mountain. A boardwalk leads visitors on about a one-hour walk through, over and under Beartown's unusual rock formations.

Massive boulders, overhanging cliffs, eroded pits and deep crevasses were created by water wearing away the soft sandstone. Everything is covered by a soft layer of moss. In the summertime, with the sun filtering through green leaves and reflecting off the moss, a walk through Beartown is like passing through an emerald. Park admission is free.

Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park stands a few miles up the road and is the site of West Virginia's last significant Civil War battle. A lookout monument and children's park situated on the highest peak offers an impressive view of Hillsboro, the Greenbrier Valley and taller mountains to the north. Eight hiking trails wind around the mountain, which is said to be haunted. Admission is free.

Look for the Country Roads Cafe on the right as you enter Hillsboro. The cafe occupies an old store and is stocked with antiques, giving it the feel of a living museum. A reasonably priced menu offers good food and a respectable beer and wine list, and Country Roads hosts live music on Friday nights.

Drive another mile and you'll see the stately Pearl S. Buck Home on the left. The house was built in about 1892. Buck, a child of West Virginia's two most privileged families, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1938 for her novel "The Good Earth" and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the next year. She was the first American woman to earn both awards. Admission is $6.

Continue north on U.S. 219 and turn left onto W.Va. Route 39/150 to find the 750-acre Cranberry Glades, West Virginia's largest peat bog and home to plant life normally found in Canada. A half-mile boardwalk directs visitors through the bogs, which produce a natural tannic acid used to tan hides. The bogs occasionally offer up a mummified animal that wandered in too far. Admission is free.

From here, you can leave U.S. 219 and head farther north to the radio telescope at Green Bank and Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state. Also check out Seneca Rock and Black Water Falls, only a few miles from the Maryland border. Numerous state parks, lakes, hiking trails and the remnants of West Virginia's elite glass industry wait along the way.