Asheville

In 1784 Colonel Samuel Davidson redeemed a soldier’s land grant and became the first person to settle West of the mountains of North Carolina. The Colonel, son of General John Davidson, who fought with George Washington in the French and Indian war, built a log cabin at the foot of Jones Mountain and brought his family to the Swannanoa Valley. It was an adventurous move, and one that ended up costing him his life when a band of Cherokee hunters lured him into the woods and killed him. I could only hope that the Bear Team would fare better on our first trip to the mountain town of Asheville.

I’d wanted to visit Asheville for years, though potential visits had always been abandoned due to one circumstance or another. But when I suddenly found myself with a four day weekend, which coincided with the 12th anniversary of the formation of the Bear Team, conditions were perfect for a little getaway. So away we went!

Well, not exactly. Due mostly to the fact that we stayed up until well after midnight on the eve of the trip, our planned departure time of 11:00am came and went as preparations slowed to a snails pace. Finally, at around noon, we were ready. But before we could leave, we had to say goodbye to our cats. No problem, right? Well, it wouldn’t have been, had Pip not pulled one of his legendary disappearing acts just as we were about to walk out the door.

You’d think there would be no way that a cat could disappear in a small, three bedroom house, and you would be wrong. For better than half an hour, I literally tore the house apart looking for Pip. I opened every cabinet door, checked every closet, and looked under every piece of furniture, but still, no Pip. I was just about to give up when he came strolling out of my office to see what all the commotion was about.

We finally hit the road at around 1:00pm, quickly abandoning our planned highway route in favor of the interstate. Soon we were high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, climbing toward our destination. The road wound through rock walls and deep green trees. At just after 4:00, we rounded one last curve and found that we’d made it.

While “Land of the Sky” is Asheville’s official nickname, the city is known by a number of others, including “new freak capital of the U.S.,” new age Mecca,” “beer city USA,”” hippie capital of the South,” and “one of the top ten most beautiful places in the USA.” Any and all of these names ring true, as there is nowhere else quite like this mountain town.

On our first night in Asheville, we headed downtown for dinner (*I’ve decided to save all restaurant reviews for later in the article). After grabbing some grub, we walked around the city, taking in the art deco architecture and wandering among the people, which in and of themselves, are a sight to see. In the two hours we spent downtown, we encountered the following: two shirtless old men in a pickup truck, a three person band which included a washboard player, a silver “statue” girl playing a drum, a woman playing a flute while, in the tradition of Sue Ellen Mischke of Seinfeld fame, wearing just a bra for a top, and the Amazing Pubcylce, on which groups of 10-12 people  (I swear) peddle a mutated bike while chugging beers.

*Absolutely true face #1: Asheville has, per capita, the highest number of buskers of any city in the world. Seriously, you can’t take a step in any direction without bumping into someone playing, singing, or both. Though we avoided giving money to most, we did shell out a little for the seven person group Midnight Snack and a lone guitarist who broke into the G ‘N R classic “Patience” as we passed.

Eventually we retired to our room, where we enjoyed a peaceful slumber for approximately fifteen minutes before the first of a number of trains passed by just outside the motel. Believe it or not, tons and tons of steel rumbling through the night tends to disturb a person’s rest. If you have doubts, just ask me or Joe Pesci.

The next morning we awoke to birds chirping, a breeze rustling the leaves of the trees which lined the parking lot, and the LOUD conversation of a group of men I immediately dubbed the three cycleteers. The cycleteers were three motorcyclists whom I’ll call Don, John, and Gary. I’ll call them this because these are their names.  I learned them during their morning planning sessions, which for some reason they insisted on holding just outside our room. The usual conversation went something like this:

Don: I’LL RIDE UP FRONT!

John: YOU’RE RIDING UP FRONT?

Don: YEAH! I’LL RIDE UP FRONT!

John: ARE WE GOING TO GET BREAKFAST?

Don: YEAH! THEN WE’LL GO TO HOT SPRINGS!

John: I’M GOING TO GET MY WALLET FROM MY ROOM!

Don: GOOD IDEA! I’LL GO WITH YOU! THEN I’LL RIDE UP FRONT!

Gary: WHO’S RIDING UP FRONT?

Since we were awake anyway, we decided to head back to downtown. We drove into the city, pausing at every intersection to allow large roving groups of hippies to cross the street.

*Absolutely true fact #2: Pedestrians do not stop for traffic in Asheville. Seriously. Whether the sign says Walk or Don’t Walk, they walk. Sometimes you’ll sit through an entire green light waiting for them.

After finding a place to park, which is an adventure in and of itself, we had brunch. Before resuming our exploration of Asheville, I headed for the restroom, which lay down a hallway. The waitress had assured me that there would be a key hanging near the door, which I would need for access. But when I arrived at the door, no key. I looked around, but didn’t see anything. I walked back to the entrance to the hallway, passing an older man headed the other way. Finally I found the keys, which were attached to oversized spoons and hanging on the wall. I grabbed one and went back to the restroom, where I found the older man holding a similar key and looking puzzled. Eventually we figured out how the keys worked, but not without exhausting every bit of our collective ingenuity.

Our first stop after leaving the restaurant was Mast General Store, where nothing has changed since the store opened in 1883. Well, except the prices. The store had good stuff, but man was it expensive. I immediately removed myself from any consideration of buying anything and began looking around for something interesting. Eventually I found myself in a little alcove, reading a pamphlet about bears. The pamphlet, which featured bear dos and don’ts, also boasted, I swear, bear doos. That’s right, there were a series of photos of bear dung, each captioned with the type of bear from which it originated.

After leaving Mast (mercifully empty handed) we visited Double D’s Coffee and Deserts, which is a coffee shop unlike any other. Double D’s is housed in an old double- Decker bus, which began life as public transportation in Bristol, England in the 1960’s and 70’s. The bus eventually found its way to Atlanta, where it earned a reputation as a party bus. In 1999, the bus arrived in Asheville and became a fixture on Biltmore Avenue.

We ordered coffee and immediately headed for the top deck. We enjoyed our drinks while looking down on the city and listening to the eclectic music which spilled from the speakers. The atmosphere is awesome, both inside the bus and on the patio outside. In fact, it is so cool that Dena has designated Double D’s as her personal favorite place in the world!

After dinner, it was time for an event so thrilling, so huge, so important, that we abandoned downtown and hightailed it back to our room. I’m speaking, of course, of the latest episode of our favorite show, HBO’s Game of Thrones. Longtime readers will remember my affinity for the show, which somehow manages to inspire joy, sorrow, anger, excitement, fear, and disgust, sometimes in the same episode! We settled down just in time to catch the opening minutes. As always, the show didn’t disappoint.

During the sixty minute episode, we witnessed ***SPOILER ALERT*** one of the most disturbing moments in the history of the series when wannabe king Stannis Baratheon allowed his own daughter, Shereen, to be burned at the stake in order to further his chances at winning the throne. Absolutely shocking. Fortunately we were also treated to the sight of one of my favorite characters, Daenerys Stormborn, flying away from trouble on the back of her long lost dragon Drogon. It was a scene so touching it moved at least one member of the Bear Team to tears. Which one, you ask? That is classified.

The next morning we slept in, waking up just in time to get a cup of lukewarm coffee from the lobby. We sat sipping our drinks and trying to decide what to do on our last full day in Asheville.

Me: What would you like to do today?

Dena: We could go to Biltmore Estate.

Me: Sounds good.

Don: I’LL RIDE UP FRONT!

Biltmore Estate is one of Asheville’s most prominent attractions. Among acres and acres of gardens, forests, a winery, and various buildings and structures stands the centerpiece of the estate, Biltmore House. The house, built by George Vanderbilt from 1889-1895, is simply remarkable. Being something of an architecture buff, I couldn’t wait to check out the house, which was built in  the  Châteauesque style, using French Renaissance Chateaus as inspiration. But first there was the matter of the tickets to contend with.

We had a pair of tickets Dena had received from her employer. The only possible issue was that they’d been given to her in 1994! That’s right, twenty-one year old tickets. They were the old stamped style of ticket; the type of ticket you’d line up outside the local record store at 6:00am to try to get. They had no barcode, no security code, no account number of any kind. But they also had no expiration date, which led us to believe we might have a chance.

We arrived at the estate and drove down the loooong access road to the house. We stopped at the ticket office and presented one of the clerks with the ancient tickets. I half expected them to turn to dust in her hands. But after a quick consult with a supervisor, she accepted the tickets. Since the current price of admission stands at $60.00 per person, I breathed a sigh of relief as we made our way to the front doors.

From the outside, the house is awe-inspiring. From the inside, it is downright incredible. There are rooms upon rooms of any and all kinds: bedrooms, sitting rooms, dens, dining rooms, libraries, music rooms, I’m the richest man in the universe rooms; all filled with priceless works of art and antique furniture. Even the servants quarters were nicer than 99% of the homes in the country.

*Absolutely true fact #3: Biltmore is massive. With 135,280 square feet of living space, the house is the largest privately owned house in the United States. The entire estate covers over 8,000 acres. By contrast, Central Park in New York sits on a mere 843 acres. Incredible.

After touring the house, including the breathtaking view of the mountains from every window, we headed out into the gardens. We walked among the blooming flowers and vine-covered arbors before passing through a series of greenhouses filled with every type of plant you can imagine. We were almost back to the house when the first bolt of thunder crashed overhead.

The rain, which we’d successfully dodged all weekend, held off until we’d navigated the several mile long road which led to the exit. When it finally came, it was quite a downpour, though by the time we made it back to downtown, it had slowed to a sprinkle. We walked along Biltmore Avenue, arm in arm beneath a big umbrella. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

After dinner, we returned to Double D’s for coffee before heading back to the motel. The next day we would be leaving Asheville to return to our everyday lives, but for the moment, we were able to relax and enjoy being in a place that is so different from anywhere else.

The next morning we slept in again, due mostly to the appearance of a fire truck just outside our room in the middle of the night. I sat by the window as it sat idling in the parking lot, watching to see what was going on, but never saw anything happen. I can only assume that it was some sort of medical emergency, but have no way of knowing who or what it may have been.

When I finally woke up in the morning, I lay in bed for a while, reflecting on the awesome weekend we’d just wrapped up, and our twelve years as a married couple. There is nothing like having someone to share your life with, someone who is always on your side. I reached over and squeezed Dena’s hand. Without opening her eyes, she returned my squeeze, and we lay there together, listening to the three cycleteers, who were trying to figure out, once and for all, just who was going to ride up front.

Our trip to Asheville was great. Between the views, architecture, and unique people, there was so much to see. But any account of a vacation wouldn’t be complete without a review of my favorite part of any trip: the food. Here are a few words on the best dining establishments we visited:

Restaurant: Tupelo Honey Café
Dish ordered: Hickory Nut Gap Farm beef and bacon meatloaf with French green beans and kale and carrot slaw; Nutty fried chicken and gravy with southern greens and baked mac and cheese.
Atmosphere: Casual dining with a variety of decorations and quirks. Very cool.
Interesting fact: While Tupelo Honey also has a number of other locations in places like Greenville, Knoxville, Virginia Beach, and Raleigh, the downtown Asheville location is the original.
Overall thoughts: The food was delicious (prepare yourself, this will be a common theme in all my reviews. The food in Asheville is wonderful).  My meatloaf was different from any I’ve had elsewhere, though it did remind me a bit of the stuffed meatloaf that Five Star Day Café in Athens used to serve. Dena’s chicken was also unique, and the sides were very high quality. The only downside of the experience was the seating, which was a bit crowded for my taste. It seems that they’ve tried to fit too many tables in the dining area, though to be fair, the high volume of customers likely forced their hand.

 

Restaurant: Early Girl Eatery
Dishes Ordered: Porky breakfast bowl; biscuit with herb cream gravy and a house salad.
Atmosphere: Casual, bright and colorful, with hanging plants and walls painted in a variety of colors.
Interesting fact: Early Girl is a “farm to table” style of restaurant, where the ingredients they use are purchased locally. The quick turn around results in better tasting food.
Overall thoughts: The porky breakfast bowl was the best thing I ate in Asheville. When dining at a new place, I usually opt for either a house specialty, or something unique. This dish fit both categories. BBQ pork, home fries, eggs, and local cheese curd smothered in smoky bacon gravy; out of this world.

 

Restaurant: The Lobster Trap
Dishes ordered: Maine lobster roll; lobster Newburg.
Atmosphere: Laid back, though a bit more upscale that anywhere else we ate. Interesting fact: Owner and founder Amy Beard is a Maine native, and her childhood friend, Captain Tom Martin, supplies the lobsters.
Overall thoughts: The lobster roll, which consists of chilled lobster on a brioche bun with mayo, was fantastic. Dena’s lobster Newburg was equally tasty. The prices are a bit on the high side, but if you want really good seafood, you must be willing to pay for it.

 

Restaurant: Jerusalem Garden Café
Dishes Ordered: Lamb shawarma; Kafta meshwi kabobs
Atmosphere: Relaxing and quiet. The back room is awesome, with tapestry covered walls and eastern music.
Interesting fact: Owner Farouk Badr inherited many of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern recipes on the menu from his family in Jordan.
Overall thoughts: This place has the best atmosphere of any place we visited. The food was delicious, as was the Highland Pale Ale from a local brewery.

 

Restaurant: Rosetta’s Kitchen
Dishes ordered: Bellyful; Grilled portabella plate
Atmosphere: Casual, order at the counter style dining with a focus on recycling, sustainability, and community.
Interesting fact: Rosetta’s is an organic, vegetarian restaurant which has developed a remarkable program entitled “everybody eats.” The program consists of an entrée, the beans and rice plate, which is priced at $6.00. If you can’t afford that much, you may pay $2.00-$5.00. If even $2.00 is out of range, you may ask for a voucher for a free meal. By contrast, if you can afford to pay more than $6.00, you are encouraged to do so. This extra money helps to pay for those in need in the community.
Overall thoughts: The bellyful, which consists of brown rice, tofu, beans, and salsa on a bed of lettuce, was good, though a bit under seasoned for my taste. Dean’s portabella place with mashed potatoes and gravy was very good. I was very impressed with the everybody eats program.

Well, that about wraps it up. But before I go, a few interesting tidbits about Asheville that I discovered while researching for this blog:

-The official motto for Asheville is “Quality of service, quality of life.”

-Hernando de Soto was the first European visitor to the area, which at the time was a part of the Cherokee Nation.

-Thomas Wolfe based the fictional town of Altamont, Catawba, which is the setting for his novel “Look Homeward Angel,” on Asheville.

-Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph was arraigned in Asheville after his capture in Murphy, NC in 2003.

-The movie “The Hunger Games,” was largely filmed in the area.

-Famous people from Asheville include Harry Anderson (Night Court), singer Roberta Flack, MLB player Cameron Maybin (currently of my Atlanta Braves), and former NBA player Brad Daugherty.

-Legendary short story writer O’Henry is buried at Riverside Cemetery, and Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, died in a fire at Highland hospital in 1948.

Once again we’ve come to the end, though not for long. I’ll be back before you know it with another completely useless batch of thoughts and observations on the endless saga that is the Adventures of the Bear Team. As always, thanks for reading. Until next time…

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