In 1878, a group of Luray, Virginia residents were exploring a sinkhole on the edge of town when they noticed that cold air was blowing out of it. They realized that the air must be coming from an underground cave and decided to do some digging. What they found was a series of huge underground caves, covered in stalagmites and stalatites and other limestone formations. Those caves, now called Luray Caverns, became Luray’s main tourist attraction.
I’d seen television commercials for Luray Caverns for most of my life and thought of it as one huge, cheesy tourist trap. But there really wasn’t that much to do in Luray and it was the sort of geologic point-of-interest that, if it turned out not to be cheeseballs, would make Mr. History Tourist happy. So we gave it a shot.
To enter, we started in a long Disney-esque tourist line and went past a tacky gift shop. Things don’t look hopeful. But the line went quickly and soon we were in the caverns. It turned out that my impressions from the television commercials were wrong (so hint to the Luray PR people: you need to do something about your commercials). It was truly spectacular.
Those are stalactites reflected in a lake.
There’s some evidence that people lived in the caves at some point (human bone, coal and flint embedded in formations). There was also a fairly recent (a few hundred year old) skeleton found in the cave. They think that a grave from a burial site above sunk through and the body dropped into the cave.
The man who owned the property under which the caves existed was in debt, so the guys who discovered the caves took the opportunity to buy the land, without telling anyone about their discovery. Once everyone found out, however, the land became part of a long legal battle. Eventually, the Supreme Court of Virginia declared that the purchase had been accomplished by fraud, and the original owner regained his property. It went through several hands before settling with T.C. Northcott’s Luray Caverns Corporation in 1905. They still own it.
The Caverns are part of a large tourist complex that includes a history museum and a car museum, both included in the price of the caverns, and a maze and a ropes course, which are extra. The history museum includes a 19th century village with buildings moved to the site from their original locations.
The history museum didn’t allow photos. But here are a couple from the car museum. I’m not much into cars – as long as they get me from point A to point B safely, I’m happy — but the early 20th century ones were spectacular.
That’s the hood of a 1935 Hispano Suiza, which originally cost $20,000. The silver colored parts of the car are actual silver. I’m in love with the hood ornament. Just what I need on my Nissan.
This 1932 Rolls Royce was built as a hunting wagon: a car to haul shooting parties and their equipment around. It’s made of Honduran and African mahogany and originally cost $15,800. The sign said that they also hauled game, but I don’t see anyone putting a dead, bleeding animal anywhere near this thing.
After the caverns, we went to dinner at the Speakeasy Bar and Restaurant, at the Mimslyn Inn, less than 5 minutes away. The 1931 Mimsyn Inn is the nicest hotel in Luray and its restaurant is a prohibition-themed space with basic Southern fare, upscaled slightly. I had a bean burger, which was okay but nothing special. In Luray, you have three dinner choices: fast food, diners, or the Speakeasy. So if you want a tablecloth restaurant, the Speakeasy it is.