Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Southern Virginia Garden Fresh Tomato Sandwiches - Is there anything better?

I have eaten four tomato sandwiches this week. Four. Fresh from the Southern Virginia vine. Still warm from the sun. Salt and peppered. Only Duke's will do. Tomato sandwiches.
My friend Ann makes the best, most delicious tomato sandwiches. She bakes loaves of sourdough bread and spreads pesto on each slice, homemade from fresh basil she grows in her herb garden. She then tops the bread, topped with the basil pesto, with her juicy home grown tomatoes. Hers are the best. Mine are a close second.
I love standing at my kitchen sink and seeing my tomato vines just beside the patio. It is even more enjoyable to saunter outside and twist a fresh tomato right off the vine. Carrington, my Southern Virginia Beau, is growing seven varieties of peppers - red, orange, green, yellow, and purple bells, plus mild jalapenos and sweet peppers. Miss Courtie is growing berries and watermelons, though the melons haven't yet graced us with their presence. My squash leaves are huge. My herbs are fragrant. My mint is out of control, but I like it like that. Mojitos, anyone? I do use my mint to make this wonderful Mediterranean orange salad. I will be happy to post my recipe and to share my mint if anyone would like to try it.   
Are you growing anything this year? What are your favorites from the garden? If you have any great recipes or favorite ways to eat your veggies, please let me know. Right now I am experimenting with growing lemon trees from seeds, and I would love to make some raised garden beds for fall planting. Suggestions are welcomed! I'll probably be on Pinterest the rest of the night searching for ideas, but I'll leave you with this picture of Cary and his itty-bitty jalapenos. Can't wait to make peach mango salsa with these little bits of spicy green goodness! It would make sense for me to post a photo of my tomato sandwiches, but they are long gone! Maybe next time...
xoxo, Erin
Southern Virginia Mom

White Water Rafting on the Pigeon River with Smoky Mountain Outdoors

Our family just returned from a Tennessee Family Adventure Vacation that was nothing short of wonderful. In the words of my eight-year-old son, "It was Epic!" We had so much fun ziplining, enjoying Dollywood and Splash Country, hiking and driving through the Smoky Mountains, bonding in the cabin with family over foosball, board games, and ice cream, and this! White water rafting was hands down everyone's favorite adventure.  
There are numerous companies who offer white rafting excursions down the Pigeon River, and each seem to have similar programs. We went with Smoky Mountain Outdoors, which, like the others, offers two rafting options. There are two parts of the Pigeon River to raft. The harder, more adventurous of the two is the Upper Pigeon River, a two hour rafting trip with Class 3 and 4 rapids. We chose the Upper Pigeon rafting trip... and here we go!

We weren't in the rapids the entire two hours. Part of the trip is very leisurely and scenic, and in fact, the children twice got into the water and swam around the raft. The minimum age for the Upper Pigeon River trip is 8 years old. My son was scared the first half of this rafting trip. He got down in the bottom of the raft and waited out the most difficult parts. However, after the first half of the trip, our guide Dane let Carrington sit on the back of the raft with him and call out instructions. I think that gave Carrington a sense of security and he felt free to have fun after that. When the water was calm, Carrington moved to the front of the boat to get a great view of the mountains, water, and trees ahead of us. In the end, he enjoyed the experience. My ten year old daughter loved it, though! She was such a natural and loves the water. This was a great experience for her, as you can tell from her expression below.  
My Southern Virginia Belle Navigating the Class 3 and 4 rapids of the Upper Pigeon River
The other rafting option is a more leisurely rafting trip down the Lower Pigeon River. The minimum age for this trip is 3 years, with Class 1 and 2 rapids. If we had had time, I would have loved to do this trip, as well. Someone in our family said they would be bored on this trip after having rafted the harder rapids, but I would not have been bored at all. As great as the thrill and excitement of the Class 3 and 4 rapids were, the scenery and more relaxing trip on the water would have been appreciated. Mark and I have already decided that next time (I hope there is a next time) we are doing both!
When we arrived, we were greeted at the entrance with paperwork to complete. We paid and left the completed paperwork and car keys in the office/store.  We left everything else in the car. We waited for our party's name to be called while we sat on a large covered porch with picnic tables and a snack bar and grill. There is a maximum of 7 guests per raft, plus the guide, for a total of 8 people per raft. When your name is called, your party is introduced to your guide. We had Dane - he was so nice and helpful and turned Carrington's scary experience into a delightful one.  Our guide helped get us suited up. He even turned my helmet around to the correct side so that I would not resemble a storm trooper.  We boarded a bus with several other rafting groups and headed to the access point on the Pigeon River. As for the rest, the pictures above say it all! 
Tip: If you are planning on taking this or a similar trip, don't take your camera or phone or anything else that you don't want to get soaking wet. Unless you have zipper pockets on your pants, I wouldn't take anything you don't want to fly out of the raft, either. It gets pretty wild. You can leave your keys at the desk. They will attach your name and raft trip number, and you pick those up when you leave. 
Also, wear water friendly clothing and shoes. There are lots of water shoes available online, like these. You can always buy them there, but they'll cost more. This advance purchase will save you some cash that you can spend on the photo CD, souvenir t-shirt, and tip for your guide.  
Thanks so much to Dane and Smoky Mountain Outdoors for giving our family a memorable trip down the Upper Pigeon River! This is one of our family's favorite trips, definitely one for the books!
Are you planning on rafting or visiting Tennessee this summer? Let me know all about it!  Whether you're on the river, in the mountains, or sitting with your toes in the sand, I wish you and your family summer fun and adventure, with a little rest and relaxation sprinkled throughout.  Be safe, stay cool, and enjoy summer!  
xoxo, Erin
Southern Virginia Mom

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Shangrila Guest Ranch Cowgirl Retreat, South Boston, Virginia

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. ~Albert Einstein 
Shangrila Guest Ranch, a working guest ranch located in South Boston, offers a week long trail riding retreat for women, yet from the moment you arrive at this biannual Cowgirl Retreat, you quickly discover that you’re in for so much more.  I was fortunate to attend two evenings of a Cowgirl Retreat as a guest of owners Gary and Julie Holmes, and it was every bit magical! Women from near and far attend this retreat each spring and fall, where they are treated to massages, trail riding, open air dining, wagon rides, and campfires with new and old friends alike, in the serene pastoral setting beloved by guests of Shangrila Guest Ranch. 
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. ~William Shakespeare 
Though words cannot adequately convey what an enjoyable experience the Cowgirl Retreat Week was for me, I can offer a glimpse of the retreat through my eyes, and hopefully you will take advantage of the opportunity to experience it for yourself. I arrived on one particular afternoon to two certified massage therapists setting up massage tables inside of a rustic style cabin, surrounded by a large rustic wooden porch.  The cowgirls, who had spent the earlier part of the day on the trails, were in for relaxing full body massages prior to their evening trail rides. Following the late afternoon massages, the group gathered together on the wide cabin porch and settled into comfortable wooden rocking chairs. Sandy McPherson of Hunting Creek Vineyards, a local vineyard and winery in Nathalie, poured wine and educated us about their local vineyard, grapes, wine making processes, and even discussed how each wine got its name.  Red and white checkered tablecloths covered porch tables, as an assortment of cheeses and crackers awaited to be paired with the various wines, with names such as Temptation, Repentance, Decadence, and Pure Luck. We cowgirls rested and rocked in those wooden chairs just long enough to get our fill of the evening breeze wafting through the early evening porch, share stories and laughter, and begin to form the sort of friendship that can only be forged through mutual adventure and a shared experience.    

There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse. ~John Lubbock, "Recreation," The Use of Life, 1894 
Following the wine talk and tasting, ranch hands led us out to the barn where we were paired with our horses.  The other cowgirls assured me that even though they rode all morning, they were ready to mount again for an evening ride into the sunset, and that’s just what we did. After all, they did come to ride horses. We rode off in a group, and as the path began to narrow, the horses made their way one in front of the other through the winding wooded path. The evening sun shone through the opening in the trees above us, as it illuminated the lush green tree tops as well as the old tobacco barns along the trail.  We talked and laughed as we rode, and at times we rode in silence, giving ourselves an opportunity to fully appreciate the natural unspoiled beauty of this special place. 
We rode together until we emptied into an open field, in which there stood Chef Stephen Schopen of Molasses Grill, donning his chef apron, grilling utensil in one hand, and steak seasons in the other. He seasoned our steaks over an open air grill, while the group gathered round the campfire to listen to Halifax County’s native singer/songwriter Matt Boswell sing and play his guitar. We continued to taste wines, listen to Matt Boswell strum his guitar while he serenaded the group, and smell the aroma of Chef Schopen’s steaks on the grill. It was one of those evenings that you wish would last forever.  
The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears.  ~Arabian Proverb 
We savored our dinner, our campfire, and every song as the sun lazily set behind the trees around us. Late at night, long after the sky was dark, we mounted our horses to head back through the trails. I was nervous riding a horse in the dark, but the ranch hands promised me that horses have a sixth sense and could easily make their way home even in the dark. There was something that felt daring, yet freeing about riding through the woods in the dark, putting your confidences in the horse and relying entirely on its instincts instead of your own. The group made its way safely back to stables and cabins, and I left Shangrila wanting to soon return. The time I spent there that week, as well as during my day visits, has left an indelible impression on me. 

No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.  ~Winston Churchill 
The Cowgirl Retreat Week was certainly a special treat, but you don't have to attend the week long retreat to still take advantage of Shangrila. When our lives get a little too hectic and we need to reconnect, our family loves to head to the horses for quality family time in this relaxing natural setting.  Shangrila offers something for everyone, such as sitting by the stocked pond with a good book or fishing, feeding the ducks and other farm animals, volleyball, horseshoes, walking trails, and children love gathering the eggs from the chickens, roasting marshmallows by the campfire, or simply stargazing.   In addition to the Cowgirl Retreat Week, Shangrila offers all-inclusive riding packages, family vacation and reunion packages, girlfriend getaways, and hourly and day trail riding opportunities, in which you are welcome to use their horses or bring your own. Whether you are a first timer or a seasoned rider, you will have the opportunity to ride some of the most beautiful trails in Southern Virginia. 
If rest and relaxation is what you crave, if a horse adventure is what you like, or if you need time to reconnect with yourself or family, reach out to Gary and Julie at Shangrila.  You'll be in for the time of your life... time to slow down, time to enjoy life, time to unplug, time to reconnect with yourself or your family, and time to make memories for a lifetime! 
Shangrila Guest Ranch is conveniently located near Hwy 501 and Hwy 58 in South Boston, Virginia, just minutes from Virginia International Raceway, downtown South Boston, and just minutes from the Town of Halifax, state parks, and the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway.  For a more detailed description of the property and to learn more about the ranch and its owners Gary and Julie Holmes, please visit www.shangrilaguestranch.com. Please call (434)-517-0888 for reservations.
Have you seen this post somewhere before? I originally wrote this article for the May 2015 issue of Southern Virginia Perspective Magazine. Much love and many thanks to Shangrila for including me in this, and thanks to Southern Virginia Perspective Magazine for letting me share this special place in Southern Virginia with its readers. 
xoxo, Erin
Southern Virginia Mom