I was incredibly lazy last week. Every night I thought about writing, I really did, but then I thought about sitting on the couch watching TV after the baby went to bed. The latter won. Everyday. And the best part was I was totally fine with it.
To really bring home the fact of how lazy I was, I only had a four day work week. My mom came into town Friday and we spent the weekend exploring my second favorite North Carolina city (to Charlotte), Asheville.
Asheville is a quirky little town in the blue ridge mountains, about 4 hours from Charleston. The town has grown outwards from the downtown city center, with sprawling mansions, golf courses and seasonal cabins tucked into the surrounding hills, but the downtown area is still rich in history, from remnants of the civil war to beautiful Art Deco buildings. At one point the third largest city in North Carolina, Asheville was one of the hardest hit cities in the nation during the Great Depression, with the highest per capita debt in the country. The residual effects of the crisis led to long periods of little growth, until more recently, when Asheville became a tourist hub for everyone from the ultra outdoorsy to old hippies to the president of the United States himself.
My mom is an old hippy, so I knew I had to take her to Asheville while we’re still in the South.
We set out mid-Saturday morning for the long drive on tree lined highways, through Columbia, past small towns and into North Carolina. The weather had cooled significantly when we arrived in Asheville around 3pm, it was crisp, slightly overcast and the mountain air felt incredible compared to the dense Charleston humidity.
John booked us at the new Hyatt Place downtown, slightly on the outskirts of the busy shopping and restaurant district, but less than a half mile walk into town. The hotel was beautiful, with an expansive view of the mountains to the west and the city to east. We quickly settled in and headed out, walking to our first stop, French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
John and I have been to Asheville twice, and both times we’ve tried to go the the FBCL, but it’s been packed. Line out the door packed. We did very little research for our first trip to Asheville because we weren’t actually staying downtown, so when we asked a waiter what to try on the dessert menu and he said, skip it, walk to FBCL, we knew we would have to go there.
My mom, the baby, 50 pounds of gear that I had pushed up the hills in the stroller, and I had perfect timing. We were part of a small pre-dinner dessert crowd enjoying the cool, late afternoon. The French Broad has two shops, a full service side with coffee, pastries, cake and chocolate, and a smaller shop selling truffles, chocolate bars, ice cream and drinks. They’re known for their liquid truffles, but, trying not to ruin dinner, my mom opted for a small scoop lavender honey ice cream and I got a packet of their chocolate wafers and 12 truffles to share with John when I got back to Charleston.
Asheville reads like a mix of a tourist and college town–it’s a little seedy, but there are lots of expensive local shops, a huge emphasis on locally grown food and a large number of breweries. We skipped the breweries this time (last trip we ate at Wicked Wheat after the ARX Half Marathon, the food, and the one sip of beer I had before an epic diaper catastrophe, was delicious), and instead rolled up and down the hills, stopping to pick up some more baby supplies from a tiny local co-op and window shopping all of the boutique clothing shops.
At that point, my phone had 1% battery, and I had no ideas where we should eat dinner. We decided to just walk around until we found something that didn’t need a reservation (unfortunately, my first pick did, a snobby hostess said we could sit at the high tables with no high chair). We walked past Mellow Mushroom, a pizza chain similar to Pizza Port in San Diego, and my mouth started watering for a huge slice of cheesy pizza. I resisted for a whole block, thinking we should find something local, before my mom convinced me that she was fine with just pizza.
The Asheville Mellow Mushroom is huge. A large patio overlooks the street, with laughter and conversations carrying up and down the block, but the real experience begins on the inside, where it’s Chuck-e-Cheese on acid. The restaurant is decked out in Alice in Wonderland scenes, arcade games, giant bears–it’s a trip even if all you order is the water.
The food never disappoints, and the baby was completely taken with all of the statues, chandeliers, flashing lights, and the overwhelming amount of other kids there. I was glad we weren’t the only table throwing half their food on the floor. Even though it was a chain, the restaurant had an incredibly fun, and authentic, Asheville vibe. And the pizza, the veggie, was delicious.
We woke up early Sunday (baby alarm clock) and I took the baby on a hilly run through town while my mom walked around taking in the old buildings and history. We stopped by another chain (we were very basic this trip), Tupelo Honey Café, for breakfast, before heading up to the Biltmore estate. (If you’re ever in the south–VA, TN, NC, SC–eat breakfast at Tupelo Honey and order the sweet potato pancake. It’s as big as a plate and as delicious as sweet potato pie).
The Biltmore Estate was built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt, heir to the shipping and railroad fortune (and relative of Gloria and thus Anderson Cooper), as a country retreat. It’s America’s Versailles. The Biltmore is nothing short of grand–a castle sitting proud on 8,000 acres, with sweeping views of the blue ridge mountains. The estate has a winery, farms, a huge garden, mountain biking and horseback riding trails, a greenhouse and an impressive tour through the preserved rooms of the mansion.
John and I visited two years ago in the fall. It was a place I had never even heard of until moving to the South, and it’s rich history was fascinating, even more than Versailles itself, as the history happened only in the last century. The tour begins in the spacious, open, indoor garden, weaving through parlors, a vast dining hall, sitting rooms and a library, up to the second floor where George and his wife has separate bedrooms, changing rooms and a common area. The entire house is decorated in authentic furniture, priceless artwork, handwoven tapestry’s, vintage books, decorations and games worthy of a museum. It truly is an incredible experience. And a well known one–it’s always packed with tourists.
We paid extra for valet parking near the front, which was worth skipping the bus ride from the parking lot with a stroller, and entered a tour. The baby and I made it up to the second floor in the mansion’s still operating, original elevator, that gave a great, if a little claustrophobic, view of the brick lining the inner walls of the estate. There was so elevator to the third floor or down to the basement, so the baby and I let my mom have a tour of the guests quarters and the staff rooms, kitchen, indoor bowling alley and pool while we sat in the old stables, now cafeteria.
Next was a walk through the gardens. The gardens stand in three tiers, grassy paths leading down to the greenhouse. The baby and I played in the middle section while my mom explored.
The Biltmore is a must see for anyone traveling to North Carolina, and there’s so much to take in it’s even worth a second trip. We were in awe of the sheer beauty of the land driving out, past people riding bikes and horses along the trails and up to the village where tourists have a last stop for dinner, wine and souvenirs.
But we kept going, headed to Greenville for the night, a town an hour-ish away from Asheville in South Carolina, that cuts the next day’s drive significantly. Our Greenville itinerary was simple, eat, sleep, eat, leave. When we arrived I was too hungry to deal with the hotel, so we headed to a tiny organic restaurant, Everyday Organic, a couple miles from downtown. The restaurant was a huge find, although it took us an extra 15 minutes of following the GPS directions of “turn left” to find it, almost invisible next to a movie theater in a run down strip mall. The inside was beautiful in a very crisp, southern way, with grays, whites and mason jars, and the food was fresh, healthy and filling. Our next stop was Whole Foods to replace the baby’s cup that we had left at Tupelo Honey.
Our hotel, the Aloft in the heart of downtown, was one of the hippest, least baby friendly, hotels I’ve ever been to. The entire building was dog themed–which the baby loved–but, combined with the club music and intense spa smell, made for a very confusing experience. We were still full from the café, so, instead of getting dinner we walked around and grabbed a scoop of ice cream at Marble Slab Creamery.
Greenville is a really interesting place, with a fun nightlife vibe that’s classy and clean. The main street is mostly restaurants and shops, with lots of people out on date nights and with their families. The weather was still warm, so we walked around until the baby started getting sleepy, stopping to read the stories of statues of first settlers and beautiful old buildings, taking in the rich history and vibrancy of southern culture.