9/19/2011 - Road Trip! Destination: Asheville, N.C.
by Susan Jones, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Always welcome in the Mountains of Western North Carolina!
When you head toward the mountains of western North Carolina, you're following a path that tourists have been traveling for more than 100 years.
After the railroad reached Asheville in the late 1800s, the city became a mecca for wealthy Southerners to escape the summer heat. And it still retains some of that turn-of-the-century charm, mixed with modern amenities and a thriving arts community. It also serves as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A trip to Asheville is a terrific three- or four-day getaway, especially as the leaves start to change this fall.
One of Asheville's wealthiest residents built what has become one of the most famous houses in the world. George Vanderbilt II's Biltmore Estate, built in 1895, still is the largest privately owned home in the United States, with 250 rooms, including 34 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms, along with a swimming pool, gymnasium and bowling alley. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of 44 of these rooms, including the bedrooms of Vanderbilt and his wife. Definitely pick up the audio guide for an additional fee. It's informative without being overwhelming. And if you go when it's warm, remember there were no air conditioners in 1895. After you tour the house, you can walk down to the nearby gardens. The estate includes the Antler Hill Village and Winery, with shops, restaurants and a museum that currently offers a Tiffany exhibit. The village houses the Outdoor Adventure Center, where you can sign up, for a price, for biking, carriage rides, fly-fishing, hiking, horseback riding, Land Rover driving school, river-float trips, Segway tours and sporting clays, all taking place on the 8,000-acre estate. You can stay on the grounds at the 10-year-old Inn on Biltmore Estates, but you might need to be a Vanderbilt. Weekend rates start at more than $300 per night. Just outside the estate gates, Historic Biltmore Village offers a variety of national and local retailers in a quaint setting to match the period in which the house was built. Details: 800-411-3812 or www.biltmore.com.
Grove Park Inn
If you didn't get enough of how the other half lives at the Biltmore, check out the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa. The inn, built from granite boulders, opened in 1913. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the summers of 1934 and '35 at the inn. It has hosted 10 presidents from William Howard Taft to Barack Obama. The rustic lobby has two fireplaces that each could fit small cars. Even if you can't afford to stay here, it's worth getting dinner or a drink at the Sunset Terrace, while you enjoy the view of downtown Asheville, the verdant valley it sits in and the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains. Details: 800-438-5800 or www.groveparkinn.com.
In a walkable area of downtown Asheville, visitors can find an eclectic mix of food, art, clothing, books and more. Park the car and take it all in. The Grove Arcade (1 Page Ave.), with its interior architecture reminiscent of Pittsburgh's former Jenkins Arcade, has a variety of shops including Enter the Earth, specializing in fine minerals and fossils, and the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, a maze of bookshelves that lead back to a warm, inviting bar area. There are more than 30 galleries scattered throughout downtown, but for more concentrated art appreciation, head to the Woolworth Walk (26 Haywood St.). More than 150 artists display their work in an old Woolworth store. And don't miss Malaprops Bookstore & Cafe (55 Haywood St.). Besides having an excellent selection, the store also hosts writer events regularly. Upcoming visitors include singer and novelist Josh Ritter, Oct. 6, and Charles Frazier ("Cold Mountain"), Oct. 21. Details: www.exploreasheville.com.
Thomas Wolfe House
For the literary-minded, a stop at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a must. The site, on the edge of downtown (52 North Market St.), honors the landmark early 20th-century author of classics such as "Look Homeward, Angel," and "You Can't Go Home Again." It is situated in the historic Old Kentucky Home boarding house that Wolfe's mother ran and where he lived for 10 years. Details: 828-253-8304 or www.wolfememoria l.com.
Where to eat
For a relatively small city, the number and variety of places to eat is fairly impressive. Two casual and fun restaurants are a few doorways apart on College Street in downtown. Tupelo Honey Cafe (www.tupelohoneycafe.com) offers new Southern cooking, like Appalachian Egg Rolls, with pulled pork tossed in smoked-jalapeno BBQ sauce rolled with braised greens, pickled onions and shredded carrots, and Marinated Chargrilled Bone-In Peachy Pork Chops. Just down the street, Mayfel's (www.mayfels.org) offers more of a New Orleans feel, with French Market Beignets and Muffulettas. It also serves breakfast and various forms of Benedicts all day.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Asheville is a great place to jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The nation's longest and skinniest national park, it connects the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just to the southwest of Asheville. Parkway attractions in western North Carolina that are worth checking out include: Grandfather Mountain at Milepost 305, Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center at Milepost 384, North Carolina Arboretum at Milepost 393.6, Folk Art Center at Milepost 382, Mt. Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi at Milepost 355.4 and Pisgah Inn at Milepost 408.7. Details: www.blueridgeparkway.org or www.nps.gov/blri.