My legs pump, my heart pounds, and sweat drips down my flushed face. I shift my bicycle into low gear, but this climb up a long Blue Ridge foothill on the outskirts of Little Washington, Virginia, isn’t getting any easier.
With 20 miles to go, I’m wondering if I’ll top the first hill of the day.
Then a hand rests on the small of my back. John MacPherson, host of Tour d’Epicure, has pulled alongside to offer a steady push. With the help of this former bike racer, my speed increases and I catch my breath.
Talk about your full-service innkeeper.
Another incentive to keep going: the upcoming deck luncheon and winetasting at Rappahannock Cellars. Crisp Seyval Blanc, its award-winning Viognier, accompanies grilled yellowtail with asparagus and mango salsa.
The area’s wineries and the beautiful rolling countryside are what lured John and Diane MacPherson from corporate California two years ago. Their Foster Harris House in Little Washington, an elegant, century-old inn with five guestrooms, is base camp for two- to five-day gourmet cycling tours. Four-course breakfasts begin each day. You bike to lunch at a winery, have dinner at a nearby restaurant. Tours conclude with a feast at the Inn at Little Washington.
The first day begins with an easy, 11-mile “shakedown” ride.
“You can ride fast, ride slow, or stop and take pictures,” John says as he adjusts my bike seat.
Participants run the gamut from twentysomething triathletes who bring their own bikes to baby-boomer beginners who use the Giant road bikes and helmets provided. There’s 20 to 50 miles of cycling a day, depending on the group, which never exceeds ten people. Hopping into the truck with Diane, who accompanies rides as support, is always an option.
Outside the historic village begins an almost imperceptible climb along a trickling stream misnamed Rush River. Lazy black cows stand in contrast to the changing foliage.
A pickup driver gives a toot and waves as he passes. The sky is crystal blue; the temperature a perfect 68 degrees. My husband points out Mount Marshall and the Peak, two mountains we’ve hiked in Shenandoah National Park.
Harris Hollow, at the base of a steep ascent, seems the perfect spot to turn around. Only then do we realize how much we’ve climbed. We coast past cows, farms, and stream, the rushing air cooling our skin.
“Cycling is the closest thing to flying,” John calls out. “It’s like being a kid again.”
Back on the inn’s deck, a bottle of Argentinean Malbec accompanies an international sampling of cheese: Irish Dubliner, Derby sage, and Boucheron (goat inside, cow out). Stella, the inn’s yellow Lab, brings a Frisbee to play.
From the bay windows of our antique-filled suite, the top of Jenkins Mountain is on fire from the rising sun. I smell coffee brewing and know the day will begin with four carefully constructed small courses.
Clearly inspired by their neighbors, our self-taught chefs have a pipeline into deliveries of the same fine ingredients used at the Inn at Little Washington up the street.
Diane posts the menu on a small blackboard: fresh berries in vanilla custard; warm ginger scones; goat cheese, leek, and sage omelets; French toast in a bourbon-spiked vanilla-peach sauce. My favorite touch is a tiny pastry purse atop the omelet filled with risotto truffle.
It’s not only pretty but fuel for a 19-mile Skyline Drive ride from Thornton Gap to lunch at Big Meadows Lodge. The distance isn’t daunting, but the roller-coaster climbs and descents are relentless, as are the Shenandoah views.
Our whirlpool tub will be put to good use tonight, and so will the calories consumed during a sumptuous dinner at the famous inn. After carpaccio, foie gras, lobster, and chocolate, we toast the ride, new friends, and our sense of accomplishment.
If You Go
The Tour d’Epicure starts at $699 a person depending on length of tour and room chosen and includes bike rental. The rate also includes all wine and meals, including dinner at the Inn at Little Washington. Without the package, bike rental is $25 a day.
Or choose a tailor-made adventure: Rooms range from $195 to $335. For details, contact the Foster Harris House at 800-874-1153 or see tourdepicure.com.
This article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of The Washingtonian.