Carolina On My Mind: Blue Ridge to the Coast
OUR MAY ARMCHAIR TRIP:
CAROLINA ON MY MIND:
BLUE RIDGE TO THE COAST
By Carolee Duckworth, NABBW’s Independent Travel Associate
Ahhh. It’s May. And we’re back to all the green and bright colors of late Spring. So, for this next armchair trip, let’s head for Carolina blue skies and Mountain sunsets, followed by the sounds of surf and white sandy beaches. We can have it all in lovely North Carolina, from Blue Ridge peaks to the sparkling Atlantic coast.
Traveling West, we’ll climb up and up into the Blue Ridge mountains for three days in eclectic Asheville. This arty and ever-intriguing town grew up around the idyllic spot George Washington Vanderbilt picked for his imitation 19th-century French Renaissance Castle, built during the Gilded Age of the 1880s, a colossal 178,926 square feet of floor space, with his own railroad line to bring in all the supplies, sculptures and art this massive project required. We’ll feel like royalty when we visit GW’s mountain retreat, imagining what it was like to awaken each day so perfectly immersed in elegance and natural beauty.
After 3 days looking down from the mountain tops, eating brilliantly, shopping for mountain-made crafts, gazing at stunning sunsets, and experiencing the delights of this friendly, walkable city, we will head east, down and down until we are about to land in the ocean. Our second destination will be Carolina Beach, most of the way to the end of Pleasure Island, where we’ll race to kick off our shoes and bury our feet in soft, white sand, then happily splash into the cool, clean sea.
So, find your comfy chair, fire up your imagination, and let’s be off on another wonderful trip.
MONDAY: TO ASHEVILLE, VIA THE SCENIC ROUTE
We will board a plane to Charlotte, NC on a Monday in May. When we arrive, we’ll pick up our rental car and head up into the mountains. We’ll cruise along the high ridges of the Blue Ridge Parkway, then shift over, driving through expansive valleys until we reach Asheville.
We will be entering the mountains on their eastern end, driving North up Highway 321 to the lovely little town of Blowing Rock, where we’ll stop for lunch and a walk-about before continuing on to the Parkway entrance closest to Grandfather Mountain.
Lunch at the Mellow Mushroom in Blowing Rock
After a somewhat thrilling climb, surrounded by walls of rock and holding our breath for the final few miles, we’ll reach the top and slowly navigate down Blowing Rock’s tiny Main Street. This will be our first chance to take a deep breath of fresh mountain air and leave all our stresses and anxieties behind. We’re on “Mountain Time” now. So, we’re not in any hurry.
On our way through this charming little town, we’ll spot some of the shops we may want to return to after lunch. And we’ll locate the lovely, flowery park on the left where we’ll meet up after our shopping time, across the street from the ice cream shop with many magical flavors where we may decide to indulge in a delayed dessert.
Lunch will be a welcome break after a morning of airports, planes and driving. We’ll find parking as best we can, and walk to the 1920s stone building that now houses the delightful Mellow Mushroom Restaurant.
If our appetites so demand, we may want to order a couple “Munchies” to stave off hunger while we await the main feature here…wildly creative pizza.
If we choose to get the “mushroom theme” going early, let’s go for Portobello Mushrooms, stuffed with artichoke hearts, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and mozzarella, baked and drizzled with a balsamic glaze and served on a bed of spring mix tossed with an herb vinaigrette dressing. Ahhhh! We are “saved!!”
For our pizza course, we’ll plan to select a pizza for each of us. We’ll have a fridge in our room when we get to Asheville, so we’ll want some good leftovers to take along. To continue with the mushroom theme, I’ll be picking the “Magical Mystery Tour” ($13.75)—a Pesto base, with button and portobello mushrooms, spinach, feta and mozzarella cheeses, on a pesto basted crust.
After lunch, we’ll leave our car where we parked it and wander along Main Street, window shopping and browsing through the many inviting shops. It will be worth our while to stop at Fig Leaf LTD (1131 Main) to browse its creative women’s clothing and possibly pick out for a few pieces that we’ll wear often and enjoy greatly.
For hats, we’ll stop by Sunset Tee’s & Hattery (1117 Main) to try on a few choice options and select a favorite. Cowboy hat? Greek sailor cap? Golf cap? Panama with a band?
We’ll stop at Main Street Gallery (960 Main Street), a co-op featuring local artists: pottery, jewelry, basketry, paintings, woodworking, and other traditional and contemporary hand crafted art.
We’ll window shop the antiques and collectibles and step into the fascinating Cross Trade International (1087-2 Main Street) to admire the hand-woven jewelry, boxes and bowls made from glowing Golden Grass that grows naturally in Jalapão, Brazil, crafted using methods first taught to local inhabitants by the Xerente tribe, then passed down for generations. Any purchases we make here will partially help support the South American artisans who created them.
At our pre-agreed meet up time, we’ll head back to the park, where the first to arrive will have claimed a people-watching bench. We may pick up a sweet, creamy, crunchy praline ice cream cone from across the street at Kilwin’s Chocolates, Fudge and Ice Cream to bring along and enjoy in the sun.
Now UP to the Blue Ridge Parkway
It will be a short hop from Blowing Rock to an entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This celebrated roadway was constructed along the snaking tippy top ridge of the Appalachian Mountain chain, spanning 469 miles in Virginia and North Carolina, linking Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, starting in the 1930s. As a first impression, we’ll regard this crazily winding route with awe, wondering how on earth it got here, and at what cost.
Building started in 1935, during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and reached completion in 1966, with one notable exception. The 7.7 mile “missing link” around Grandfather Mountain that is now precipitously traversed by the Linn Cove Viaduct was finally opened in 1987 when technology had advanced enough to make its construction a possibility.
As we drive the Parkway, we’ll stop at scenic lookouts along the way. Progress will be slow, with a 45 MPH speed limit, strictly enforced. But speed will not be our object for now.
Over to 19E at Linville, and on to Asheville
After taking our time to experience the Parkway and its views, we’ll exit it at Linville and travel the rest of the way to Asheville on 19E, a speedier, though still winding, route. We’ll still be surrounded by beautiful countryside, but without all the breath-stopping drop offs and “King of the Mountain” vistas.
In Asheville, we’ll be staying downtown at the Cambria Hotel, in the heart of it all. This will put us across from Grove Arcade, close to College Street, with its restaurants and music venues, and near tiny Wall Street, with its shops and cafés. We’ll be just a 3-minute walk to shows at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and only minutes from Pritchard Park and Pack Square, Asheville’s “front yard.”
We won’t be needing our car again until we head out to Biltmore House tomorrow and up to Grove Park Inn on Wednesday for a sunset dinner on the terrace overlooking town.
A Walk-About of Our Asheville Neighborhood
Once we’ve checked in, we’ll take a short walk-about to get our bearings. We’ll cross over to the Grove Arcade, constructed in the 1920’s by E.W. Grove, who made his fortune inventing a tasteless Quinine “Chill Tonic” that “sold more than Coca-Cola” and was said to “relieve the chills of Malaria.”
Before Grove built Grove Arcade, he had recently completed the Grove Park Inn that overlooks Asheville, where we’ll be dining on the terrace Wednesday evening. Grove’s vision for Grove Arcade was as a “palace of dining and shopping enchantment.”
For now, we’ll just glance around the arcade, checking out our many options here. We can think of this mecca of possibility as “our neighborhood,” and plan to return here repeatedly during our stay across the street at the Cambria, starting tomorrow morning when we’ll begin our day here for a breakfast of beignets and great coffee at Babette’s, a New Orleans style coffeeshop. On Wednesday we’ll spend several hours here for some all-important “retail therapy.”
Dinner on the Hotel’s Rooftop for Sunset
For dinner, we will have made reservations at the 4th-floor restaurant of our hotel, Hemingway’s Cuba. This will be the perfect spot to sip a Chocolate Martini, dine on Empanadas de Pollo followed by flan, and experience a glowing sunset, surrounded by magnificent mountain views. And as evening falls, the lights of the city will come on and we’ll know that we have “arrived.”
If we were lucky enough to snag tickets to a performance at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, a short 3-minute walk from our hotel, we may opt to break away from this peaceful time, lulled by these views of ancient mountains, to head off to a spirited performance of Riverdance, or whatever is currently playing, vowing to return here later for after-show cognac and dessert!
TUESDAY: CASTLE DAY
If we felt like “King of the Mountain” as we cruised the Blue Ridge Parkway, we’ll build on that feeling today as “King/Queen for a Day.” There is no place better to feel like visiting royalty than the Biltmore House mansion and gardens.
Today, as we meander through Vanderbuilt’s domain, using day passes we purchased well in advance, we’ll gape at the palatial interiors and stroll the luxuriant gardens. We’ll also have tickets to the resident multimedia experience: Monet & Friends. And to top all this off, we’ll have an included winetasting at Biltmore Wineries.
Biltmore Mansion and Gardens
We’ll arrive at the entrance 15-minutes before our assigned time to pick up our audio guide, then proceed through the mansion at our own pace. The audio will share stories that bring to life this pretentious but fascinating private home.
It won’t take us long to grasp that we could just as easily be walking through one of the decadently lush French châteaux in the Loire Valley, where the French kings escaped Paris to hunt and dance, carouse and play.
The mansion’s dining hall fireplaces will loom over us, with intricately carved facades, and hearths large enough to stand up in. The vast table could easily serve as a bowling alley, and the surrounding walls are covered in priceless tapestries.
We may wonder: Did the blazes from these massive fireplaces feel almost alarming? How long did it take to serve the umpteen courses to the dozens of guests gathered around this table? How many hours would I have had to sit and sit here waiting for this dining spectacle to be over at last?
We’ll imagine what it would have been like to spend hours every day in the phenomenal two-story library, or sipping tea in the Winter Garden, with its high glass dome and luxuriant plantings.
- Which bedroom would we have selected for the best views and the loveliest decor?
- Where would we have chosen to have our family meals served?
- Which rooms had our favorite color schemes and wallcoverings?
- How often would we have used the indoor swimming pool or the bowling alley?
As we meander through room after room, we’ll remind ourselves to peer out the towering windows to check the views. We’ll contemplate how much time we would have spent each day out on the terrace or perched in a comfy window seat or armchair looking out across the surrounding hills.
For a slightly different experience, we may try out the kids’ audio guide as well as the adult one, since it features the Vanderbilts’ Saint Bernard, Cedric, as he shares stories about the family and what it was like to live (or work) here in this gargantuan home.
When we at last escape the maze of this impossibly massive house, we’ll walk for a while through the acres and acres of perpetually blooming gardens. A quick check of the “Bloom Report” before our trip will tell us what blooms to expect while we’re here.
Since it’s May, spring annuals will dominate. Pansies. Snapdragons. Rhododendrons along the approach road. Climbing hydrangeas. Wisteria. Lilacs. Blue Iris. Azaleas – lavender, fuchsia, white, and flame. And we will step into the conservatory to see the orchids and the Calla Lilies and the Flamingo Flowers.
Monet & Friends Multimedia Show, after a Snack at Cedric’s Tavern
Then it will be time to head over to the Antler Hill area of the estate for the Monet & Friends 3-D experience. If we have some time before our scheduled Monet experience, we may opt to catch a quick bite at Cedric’s Tavern, perhaps sharing a Reuben or a Pub Burger or an order of Fish & Chips, accompanied by cider or ale. Then we’ll immerse ourselves in Monet.
As we leave the Monet experience, we’ll have the option of a wine tasting at Biltmore Wineries. This could be our opportunity to try out a few very nice wines for future reference. But, if time is short, we may pass this up and just cross on over to Biltmore Village.
Biltmore Village to Look Around New Morning Gallery, then Chill Over Sangria at La Cantina
Across the way from the estate, is the charming “Biltmore Village,” home to the numerous brilliant artisans imported here from Europe in the 1880’s to create this French Renaissance chateau in the mountains, with all its carvings and sculptings, woodworkings and glasswork.
We’ll start by wandering about in the delightful New Morning Gallery, then browse through a few of the other village shops in search of “wearable art” and other unique treasures. New Morning Gallery is the perfect place for locating the ultimate gift. If we already have pulled together our birthday and possibly our Christmas shopping lists, we’ll be able to make some great finds at this remarkable gallery and elsewhere in this artisan mecca of a shopping village.
Drinks and Dinner Outdoors on the Terrace of La Cantina
We already will have booked an outdoor table for drinks and dinner at La Cantina in the village. We’ll ease into our seats with a happy sign of exhaustion, and order a pitcher of red or white sangria. And we may decide to share an order of nachos while we consider where to go from here.
For certain, we will have much to discuss as we chill out and make the La Cantina terrace our “special place.” We may decide to return here for brunch on Thursday on our way out of town, for one last moment of mountain peace.
WEDNESDAY: ASHEVILLE TOWN IMMERSION
Today we’ll start by walking over to Babette’s for coffee and beignets. Or, if we’re feeling up to a more masterful breakfast, we’ll venture a bit further to The Med on College Street for a full Southern breakfast feast, complete with biscuits and gravy, sausage, eggs, and grits. We’ll ask for a “to go” box when we admit to defeat half way through eating it all.
After breakfast, we’ll take a few hours to immerse ourselves in the shops at the Grove Arcade. It is now time to give vent to all those unresolved shopping urges we’ve had since we first walked over there the afternoon we arrived in town. And we will find ourselves happily surrounded by possibility! Grove knew what he was doing when he designed this glass-domed haven of shopping delights.
At the arcade, we’ll probably want to split up for a while so we can wander at will through shops without feeling any time pressure. Our “Meet-up” spot will be the Battery Park Book Exchange, where the first to arrive can locate a comfy hangout spot, then text the other enough info for her to come find him, or some other way around.
If there’s a perfect bookshop in the world, the Book Exchange is it. Here we can enjoy a glass of champagne or a coffee and pastry and find a cozy spot inside. Or we can purchase a few literary treasures to dig into at a table outside.
If we were organized enough to bring along a few books to trade, we’ll be able to cover part of our expenses here since this shop is as much about trading books as selling them. Given the considerable reading knowledge of the shopkeepers and owners, the collections on the shelves only get richer over time. Bring a book, pick a book, swap a book. Perfection!
While we immerse ourselves in the arcade, we certainly will want to spend some time at the Mountain Made shop, admiring work of North Carolina artists, and perhaps selecting a few favorites to take home. Then we’ll check out Asheville NC Home Crafts, followed by Caravan’s Boutique, for wearable art from around the world. Enter the Earth Gallery will have intriguing jewelry and gifts. And there’s an outdoor Artist’s Market open daily from 10:30 AM to 10 PM.
For lunch, we’ll pick an outdoor table under a brightly colored umbrella at a French-style outdoor table in one of the plentiful restaurants along “Restaurant Row,” surrounding the arcade. Carmel’s Kitchen. Noni’s Rotisserie Chicken. Baba Nahm Mediterranean. Modesto Italian. Huli Sue’s Hawaiian-style BBQ. Here we’ll indulge in a leisurely lunch, watch the people going by and share stories of our day so far.
After lunch, we’ll walk across the street to the delightful Pinball Museum for a return to our youth and to have lots of fun. Given that this is called a “museum,” we may be expecting quiet surroundings, with dusty displays and lots of plaques to read. But we’ll be pleasantly surprised!
The wristband we purchase will entitle us to play any of the 30+ functioning machines here for as long as we’d like. So, we’ll set ourselves loose. Although some of the newer, glossier machines may look appealing, we’ll start with the machines of our youth, and try to remember how to avoid putting the machine on “tilt” and causing our turn to grind to a halt.
We’ll also find some fascinating pinball history and memorabilia at the museum. Did you know that pinball machines were outlawed as a “menace to society” in the 1940s, with arcade owners carted off in handcuffs and machines smashed to pieces? This was because the early machines included betting and payouts, with awards of free games, gum, jewelry and even chinaware!
We’ll want to pair up so one of us can watch the innards of the machine through the clear plexiglass cover on the back while the other one plays. This will take us “behind the wizard’s curtain” where all the intricate mechanisms are at work.
When we’ve had our fill at the Pinball Museum, we’ll take a stroll around other interesting parts of Asheville. This is a compact town, so we can wander at will without much danger of getting lost. We’ll check out Asheville’s version of “Wall Street”—not quite what we have in mind from picturing Wall Street in NYC, but much more charming. Then there’s Prichard Park, with its checker and chess boards and fountain, and occasionally a street fair.
We’ll walk over to Pack Square Park, passing by Pack’s Tavern, across from the courthouse, admiring the sculptures and finding a place to sit to people watch. This is Asheville’s “front yard,” and a venue for festivals and events as well as for public enjoyment.
If all this walking begins to take its toll on our feet, we can always call in a reservation to Wake back at Grove Arcade, a “foot sanctuary” that offers foot massages as well as other massage services. There we can make our feet happy as we enjoy a soothing cup of vanilla tea.
This Evening, Sunset Dinner on the Terrace of Grove Park Inn
We will have made reservations for dinner this evening at the Terrace Restaurant of the Grove Park Inn, looking out across Asheville to the surrounding mountains at sunset. This will be the culmination of our visit to Ashville. So, we’ll make this meal extra special to mark the moment.
THURSDAY: HEAD EAST TO THE OCEAN
For breakfast we may stop again at La Cantina in Biltmore Village for brunch before hitting the road across the state to the coast. Our destination today will be Carolina Beach, one beach up from Kure Beach and Fort Fisher, where the Cape Fear River meets the ocean.
This will be a day of contrasts… ending with oysters. Morning at high altitudes… And by late afternoon… shoes off and our feet in the ocean.
We’ll stop part way to break up the drive for a seafood feast at Dale’s Seafood, with views overlooking Lake Waccamaw (100 Lakeshore Drive; 919-646-4466). Oh my! How will we ever pick? Oysters, scallops, shrimp, catfish, clams (or several of these combined)?
We’ll call ahead for reservations as soon as we know our ETA. We’ll want to order enough extra food at Dale’s to have plenty of great leftovers to take along. Tonight, we’ll be dining on our own balcony overlooking the ocean, reheating our remaining plunder from Dale’s for a casual evening meal with our shoes off, watching as the beach empties and darkness falls and the moon rises to light up the water.
In Carolina Beach, we’ll be staying at the ocean-front Hampton Inn & Suites (1 Harper Avenue; Carolina Beach; 910-707-1770), with the ocean in our front yard, right next to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk.
We’ll have a balcony room, with sitting area, fridge and microwave, as well as complimentary breakfast and parking. This will be the perfect place to stay, exactly where we’ll want to be.
We’ll have a loose plan of activities while we’re here at the beach. But we will keep in mind that we will be AT THE BEACH. So, we’ll reserve the right to veer off course whenever we so choose to just relax and soak this in, splitting our time between swimming in the ocean-side pool, bobbing or boogie boarding in the surf, walking the beach or lounging in the sun, reading a good book.
After all our time today sitting in the car, our first priority will be to get out to the boardwalk in front of our hotel for a nice long walk and to check out our surroundings. We’ll turn left and walk north, then turn back the other way and walk south, making note of everything we pass that we’ll want to return to later.
When we spot an empty swing along the boardwalk, we’ll claim it and “set a spell.” This will be the perfect time to share a story or two. About our first time at the beach… Or our best time… Or our most recent time… Or the time we’ll never forget… Porch swings demand storytelling! And we’ll need to tell the “long version” of our stories! And sit and swing and watch for dolphins!
As the beach becomes less crowded, we’ll walk out past our hotel’s Tiki Hut(where we may want return later), and down to the beach to the surf. From here our options will be simple… Turn left or turn right… And tomorrow we’ll plan to do the opposite.
FRIDAY: BOARDWALK, BEACH & SOUNDS OF THE SURF
Today we’ll awaken to the sounds of the surf outside our windows, and a complimentary breakfast to enjoy before we even need to leave our hotel. Given that our room is situated right on the beach, with the boardwalk right outside our front door, why bother with the car today? We’ll take today to just “be where we are,” venturing out no further than our feet can carry us…the 2-minute walks to the beach, the pool, the boardwalk, the shops, the food.
Within a short walking range, we’ll have gift shops and an arcade, gelato and bike rentals, where we can opt for a 2-rider buggy with a surrey on top! We’ll have beachwear shops for anything we neglected to bring with us, and surf shops where we can pick up an inexpensive boogie board to use while we’re here, then pass on before we head to the airport in a few days. Immediately around us we’ll have great food options… Carolina Smokehouse for terrific BBQ. Cross-Eyed Crab Bar & Grill for crab balls, crab rolls, and crab dip.
For our beach time, we’ll treat ourselves to renting two comfy beach chairs and an umbrella from Pleasure Island Rentals, who for $30 will set up our beach gear at our choice of location (by 9 AM) and come back to retrieve it all at 5 PM. So, when we hit the beach, we’ll only need to hunt down the chairs and umbrellas labeled with our names, and we’ll be all set.
SATURDAY: ACQUARIUM & FORT FISHER
Today we’ll head to Kure Beach, then walk out the pier to watch the fishermen, and peer into their buckets to ooh and aah at their catch. We may wade in the water next to the pier or find a bench in the park. Or we may continue on towards the island’s end and past the Aquarium to walk along the water.
North Carolina Aquarium
We’ll take a few hours to visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. This is a fascinating aquarium, with up-close glass views of sea creatures and amphibians including alligators, jelly fish, Asian small-clawed otters, sharks, eels, sea stars and a wild assortment of colorful fish.
We may take some time at the small but illuminating Fort Fisher Museum, where we’ll learn how the port of Wilmington stayed open until the last few months of the Civil War, allowing blockade-runners to supply necessary goods to Confederate armies inland. By 1865, the supply line through Wilmington was the last remaining supply route open to Robert E. Lee’s Army.
We’ll view the animated diorama dramatizing the massive Federal amphibious assault on January 15, 1865, where Fort Fisher was overtaken after a valiant struggle. When Fort Fisher fell, its defeat helped seal the fate of the Confederacy.
Stop by Mermaid Castle Gifts
As our final shopping opportunity, we’ll stop on our drive back to our hotel at Mermaid Castle Gifts, a shop that is entirely unique, founded by Dave Castle (now deceased) and Terri Maria, his fiancé, to be a “magical experiential shopping destination.” Every item here is hand-picked by the fascinating and artistic Terri Maria, with many one-of-a-kind pieces.
Dinner Out in Our Personal “Top Pick” Place…
Tonight, we’ll treat ourselves to our final seafood feast at Jack Mackerel’s Island Grill on the covered patio. Maybe stuffed flounder with pasta. Or a seafood trio with flounder, shrimp and oysters. Or fresh lump crab. Or Scallops. And we’ll finish up by sharing a slice of the Godiva Chocolate Cake.
Then Back to Our Balcony…
This evening, we’ll sit for awhile on our balcony, watching the moon on the water and listening to the calming sounds of the surf. Tomorrow we’ll be flying home. But we’ll leave a bit of our hearts here in sweet Carolina.