North Carolina Wild
If you would have told me before I started this blog that someday I’d be driving solo through the mountains en route to North Carolina, I would have called you a liar for two reasons. 1.) Growing up in Small Town, IL with only rural roads did not turn me into a strong highway driver. 2.) Even now, after completing the drive (there and back again), it still seems like a daunting task. Despite those facts, I still rented a car and made my way to Asheville, North Carolina on my own. It was a beautiful drive, and with no real setbacks (minus the time I took a ramp too fast, almost flipping the car in the process). I had rented a zippy little Kia Rio for the trip and it performed beautifully. I arrived in Asheville at 6:45pm EST and checked into Sweet Peas Hostel. The hostel suited my needs perfectly as it was located right in center of the downtown area. They set me up for my two-night stay with clean towels and bed linens in my private room, complete with double bed, sink, chair and bedside table. Once I had washed my face and changed from my road trip shirt, I set out to explore. From what I saw, Asheville is chock-full of unique restaurants and bars, and cute/quirky shops. Every time I turned a corner, I was sure it would lead to a boring, office-lined street, but was surprised to see yet more shops and restaurants to gawk at. The sidewalks were dotted with buskers, and there was a lingering smell of Nag Champa and cigars. I stopped in The Southern for dinner and tried their “famous” Mac n Cheese, with a White Zombie Ale (Catawba Brewing Co.) to wash it down. I made it my personal mission to only drink local beers whilst I was in NC. The food was good enough to satiate my post long drive hunger and the beer was delicious. Soon I was back to wandering; there was a lot to take in. I stopped in to Lexington Avenue Brewery for a 1st Gear Ale (Lexington Avenue Brewery), which was also delicious. I loved the vibe in the brewery, mostly because the music went from The Temptations, to The White Stripes and then Pixies (all my favorites). I called it an early night in order to start early the next day. I woke up sans alarm, and showered in the shared bathroom, which was very tidy. I decided to grab breakfast at the highly recommended Early Girl Eatery. I was not disappointed. I had the biscuits and herb gravy with a side of THE BEST BACON I HAVE EVER TASTED. And I’m somewhat of a bacon connoisseur. After I finished every last bite, I drove to the Biltmore Estate (less than 10 minutes away from downtown). The sprawling landscape was accessible after purchasing a $60 day pass, which was a little steep for me, but acceptable due to the beauty of the driveway alone. I drove along the winding road to one of the many parking lots, and took a shuttle to the mansion. I had opted out of the audio tour, and followed the sweaty crowd through the gorgeous house.
The pamphlet that was doled out to me with my day pass went in the same order of the rooms, giving brief descriptions of each one. The tour circled around through an indoor garden, multiple dining rooms and salons, the library, the bedrooms and lounges upstairs, and the bowling alley, pool, kitchens and employee rooms in the basement. Once the inside tour was over, I took it upon myself to tour the gardens outside. I walked out onto the patio, which gave spectacular views of the mountains. All of the surrounding gardens had names, like “The Italian Garden”, “The Spring Garden”, “The Azalea Garden” and so on. I meandered through a few of them, enchanted most by the walled rose garden that gave way to the Conservatory. I shuttled back to the car and drove towards the Antler Hill Village, where the winery and my free wine tastings called to me. The brochures recommend spending two days exploring the property and I can absolutely see why. I passed outdoor activities on all sides as I drove, including kayaking, horseback riding and biking. I enjoyed my complimentary wine tastings (I tried the White Zinfandel and the Sauvignon Blanc), and browsed the stores in Antler Hill Village. Once I returned to the hostel, I grabbed my umbrella to protect me from the sudden downpour and set off again. I found myself at aSHEVille Museum, an interactive Feminist Manifesto. The museum featured portraits and stories from women around the world and various exhibits revering women in their accomplishments and denouncing sexism in the name of equality. I enjoyed the museum and purchased a bracelet from the wonderfully friendly store keeper. From there, I walked over to the Battery Park Book Exchange, which is in the Grove Arcade. The Book Exchange is my new favorite bar, ever. It’s a two-tiered book store with a coffee and booze bar on the first floor. You can sip your drink and browse the shelves, and even add a book to your tab! The shelves are spread out upstairs and down with little hidden alcoves with table and chair sets to sit and read. The staff were nice enough to help me pick a dinner spot and recommend other local eateries for later. The restaurant they spoke the highest of was closed that day, so I wound up at Bouchon, a French Restaurant. I sat at the bar and ordered Moules Frites a la Paris-Born Redneck (cooked with PBR) with a Pisgah Pale Ale (Pisgah Brewing Co.). So far the Asheville brewed brews were really hitting the mark. It felt very Parisian, to be sitting at the bar, eating Moules Frites and watching the rain; brooding, because as it turns out, I don’t really enjoy mussels. I did, however, enjoy the bartender there, who was also from Illinois, and advised me where to hike the next day. I walked to 5 Walnut after dinner, drawn in by their live music. The Band, Siamese Jazz Club (with Caromio), was fantastic. I downed a Mother Trucker Pale Ale (Catawba Brewing Co.) and enjoyed the happy atmosphere at the bar. Everyone was jamming to the band and dancing alongside their tables. From there, I moved on to The Thirsty Monk for a night cap, where I met a nice couple, who I proceeded to give Asheville Tourism advice to. Drink enough of these local brews and you’ll start to act like one, I guess. Soon, I was taking my slightly tipsy butt to bed. The next morning, I went to the famed Tupelo Honey Café for breakfast al fresco. I had their Tupelo Breakfast Plate, sans eggs and plus a biscuit, and cheese grits and bacon. The food was excellent and the weather was perfect, which lent to a wonderful dining experience. I walked around downtown Asheville one last time before heading back to the car and driving to Chimney Rock State Park. It wasn’t a terribly long drive, but the drive up the mountain and to the State Park entrance was a doozy. The switchbacks in the road were something I’d never handled and I took them slowly. It’s usually $15 to enter the park, but that day there was a reduced fair due to the elevator to the top being out of service. That was my first clue that I was in for a lot of stairs. I parked by the gift shop and started the hike up to Chimney Rock, which is almost 100% stairs. There were many lookouts on the way up, but I had my eye on the prize. I made it to the top, panting and wheezing, and marveled at the beautiful view. It was almost a 360 degree view of the gorgeous landscape below. I sat up there for a while, sipping my water and trying to catch my breath. Once I was ready, I overheard talk of a waterfall, and decided to do that hike too. The Hickory Nut Falls trail was back down the stairs, and then down some more stairs for good measure. The trail to the waterfall was nice and shady, and not too long.
After about twenty minutes, I was climbing down rocks to the base of the waterfall to put my feet in. The cool water was heavenly on my sweaty, sore feet. I could have sat there all day. But I didn’t. I hiked back up to the gift shop (I’m a sucker for gift shops) and asked one of the employees if Lake Lure was worth stopping by. She kindly explained that it was only a mile up the road from the entrance to the park, so I drove back down the treacherous mountain and to the Lake Lure Welcome Center. I was hoping for a full on Dirty Dancing homage (the movie was filmed there), and was a little disappointed to see that only a small corner was dedicated to the masterpiece. I walked around the lake a bit, which was surrounded by resorts and featured a populated beach, before returning to Chimney Rock Village. The village is lined with tourist shops and restaurant to explore. As I made my way to my next hotel in Black Mountain, it started to rain. In between Chimney Rock and my destination, there is a small town called Bat Cave, NC. Just past the town line is a rather ominous looking roadside market that sells produce, jellies and Bat Cave t-shirts, hats and magnets. I did a U-turn on the mountain road to stop there and buy my Batman-obsessed boyfriend a Bat Cave gift. The proprietor and employees there were happy to give me some fun facts about the area, including how there is an actual Bat Cave, which is now full of snakes. Like Indiana Jones, I hate snakes, so I thanked them for their time and high-tailed it out of there. I was back en route to the Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain, down Highway 9, when my cell phone service turned non-existent, effectively shutting down the GPS. The serpentine roads wound through abandoned hills; I hardly passed any cars or buildings. I had a moment of panic thinking that I was lost without contact in the wild of North Carolina, before continuing on and eventually regaining the previously taken for granted power of GPS. I made it to the hotel, and checked into a beautiful room in the new wing of the building. To be honest, I was just happy to have my own, private bathroom. I showered and exited the hotel to explore my new surroundings. Most of the stores around Black Mountain were already closed for the evening (at 5:30pm), but the ones that were open featured local crafts and kitschy mountain gifts. I went to the Trailhead for dinner and their special for the day: a fried chicken salad with Gouda cheese and local blackberries and heirloom tomatoes. It was unexpectedly yummy. After I settled the bill, I waltzed over to the Black Mountain Ale House for a Black Mountain IPA (Lookout Brewing Co.). The Trivia Night promised on the sign outside never began, so I moved on to the White Horse Black Mountain bar down the street. It featured live Irish Music from 6:30-8:30pm and Open Mic night after that. The proprietor, Bob, was such a gentleman and put up with me asking too many questions about local beers. With his help, I chose Noble Hard Cider first and Green Man ESB second, both were so good. He also took the time to explain what ESB stood for (Extra Special Bitter) and where it originated (Great Britain). I nursed my beers and enjoyed the music, before leaving the cozy yet cavernous bar and heading back to the hotel. I had a glass of wine on the Monte Vista porch and wrote a bit. The summer night was balmy, but the humidity had left with the sun and the current climate was perfect. I went inside to return my wine glass at the bar, and wound up talking to the General Manager, Tony, of the hotel for a while about hotel life, Chicago, North Carolina and travel in general. It was a great way to end the evening. The next morning I roused myself early to catch the continental breakfast of fruit, yogurt, cereal, coffee and juice. The dining room is equal parts rustic and modern with dark wood furniture, local art on the walls and vases of wildflowers on each table. Soon it was time to check out and head home to Chicago. With road construction all along the route home, I had plenty of time to reflect on the trip. It was my first solo road trip, and I am so happy I chose Asheville. It’s friendly inhabitants and beautiful scenery made the long drive completely worth it. There were things I missed and would happy to make the trip for again. Thanks for the hospitality NC, you were perfect.