Winter is prime time for a spelunking-centered vacay
As winter sets in, caves offer surprisingly balmy adventures. With interior temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, a subterranean visit to local caverns provides hours of active outdoor fun sans the extreme cold. From leisurely walking tours to rigorous guided explorations through wild caverns, the following resources will help you take advantage of the upper Shenandoah Valley’s unparalleled spelunking opportunities.
Skyline Caverns, Front Royal.
Opened to the public in 1939, Skyline Caverns is one of the few caves in the world where you can view anthodites. Made of calcite, the rare clusters of perfect, six-sided crystals blossom like sea-urchins from the cave’s ceiling. Tours are offered daily and feature about 1.8 miles of subterranean walking. $22.
Shenandoah Caverns, Shenandoah.
This hour-long walking tour takes you on a one-mile trek through 17 spectacular rooms. Inside, you’ll see the so-called “Diamond Cascade,” a massive tiered wall of pristinely glistening milk-white columns and stalactites hundreds of thousands of years old. Also, the one-of-a-kind “Breakfast Bacon” formations, the bizarreness of which landed them in the pages of National Geographic. Other draws include psychedelic light shows at “Rainbow Lake” — something you’re guaranteed to experience nowhere else, ever. $24. www.shenandoahcaverns.com
Luray Caverns, Luray.
Discovered in 1878, Luray constitutes the largest series of caverns on the East Coast and is the granddaddy of American grottos. With massive speleothems like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, mudflows, flowstone, and mirrored pools, a 1.5-mile hike through the caves offers eye-candy galore. A personal favorite is the smaller basins of water which, due to an excess of carbonic acid, feature crystal beds and translucent ice-like sheets over their surfaces. A much-heralded draw is the Great Stalactite Organ, a manmade lithophone that taps stalactites of various sizes to produce tones similar to those of xylophones, tuning forks, and bells. Performances are both eerie and oddly moving. $27. www.luraycaverns.com
Endless Caverns, New Market.
Located 3 miles south of New Market at the southern foot of Massanutten Mountain, at 6 miles long, Endless Caverns is the world’s 120th largest system. Fascinatingly, much of the cave still remains unexplored. Tours are 75 minutes long and include an imagination-inspiring uphill stroll through the Yosemite Room, and an exquisitely creepy cauldron-like formation that, while technically created by tens-of-thousands of years of dripping water, have the look of something designed by Macbeth’s Weird Sisters. www.endlesscaverns.com
STAY, EAT, EXPLORE
L’Auberge Provencale Bed & Breakfast / La Table Restaurant, White Post— The crowning culinary jewel of both Route 340 and the greater Shenandoah Valley, La Table is housed within a renovated stone manor dating to the dominion of Lord Fairfax, in 1753. “We have a AAA four-diamond rating and were founded in 1981 by a fourth-generation French chef, Alain Borel, whom, among a very long list of accolades, was named a Great Country Inn Chef by the James Beard Foundation in the early 90s,” prides concierge Christian Bentley.
With all the enveloping warmth and charm of a traditional French countryside inn — there are antique furnishings and wall ornaments throughout such as heirloom 19th-century copper cookware from Avignon, France — and NYC culinary guru Eric Ripert’s former right-hand man Richard Wright helming the kitchen, L’Auberge is nothing short of a food-lover’s wonderland. Rooms from $199. Chef’s tasting menu with wine pairing, $135 and $89, respectively. www.laubergeprovencale.com
Article by Eric J. Wallace
Photos by Jessica Monte