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Trip Report 1420 NC miles Nantahala, Bryson City, Smokies, Asheville,Raleigh,Wilmington

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We travelled across NC at the end of August / beginning of September last year and as I am a big fan of Fodors (I need an additional bookcase..!) and having picked up such good tips on-line, posting my trip report has been on my to-list for a fair few months now. I have finally got round to doing it hopefully it will help anyone currently planning a vacation this year.

After months of planning and hours of research on-line the day finally came when I was to have my first two week vacation for more years than I care to total up! We flew into Raleigh which was to be our starting point and collected the car from Hertz with no problems (although the lady almost upgraded us to a Corvette because T was so enthusiastic about the one out the front despite him not actually having a driving license…(you don’t need a car where we live)! Because it was a long flight and we had came from somewhere cold we checked into the airport Hyatt and immediately jumped into the pool. Later we had dinner at the Capital City Chop House which was conveniently located opposite, before retiring for the evening. The next day the vacation began with earnest and as we set off early to miss the rush hour traffic and in order to get some practice of driving on the 'wrong' side of the car on the 'wrong' side of the road before the traffic grew.

We were heading to Bryson City to see the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and to refresh at Soda Pops an authentic '40's and '50's soda fountain shop which was delicious and much needed in the heat! http://www.sodapops.us/. After grabbing supplies we headed a further 30 mins to Nantahala where we had rented a cabin in the Smoky mountains. There are many cabins but we rented from http://www.nvnc.com/thevillage.php because they had such high quality cabins and provided a central base of contact in case we ran into difficulties. After collecting the keys our cabin was a further 18 (!) miles along the highway pass the beautiful river and along the windy mountain roads, I was certainly use to driving on the left by now! The cabin was beautiful, even exceeding our high expectations and had its own hot-tub, grill, river creek and game room whilst being immaculately clean. That evening we went back to the Nantahala village and ate at the wonderful 13 Moons restaurant outside on the back deck as the sunset behind the Smoky Mountains, with a local musician playing, truly a once in a lifetime moment. It was one of the few times that the food lived up to its location.
Whilst in Nantahala we drove Newfound Gap Road (US 441) through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which confused the GPS with its double, then triple loops and bends up at 6,500 feet (certainly comfortable with the driving by now!!), we visited Cherokee, Dollywood, went hiking at Deep Creek, and explored Bryson City. We didn't unfortunately have time to go rafting or tubing but many people did and it looked great fun and well organized at Nantahala Gorge. Being in the Smoky Mountains at this time was wonderful, there was a magical air in the atmosphere before Mother Nature was beginning the start of fall.

It was now time to move on to Asheville, where we were going to spend the next two nights. T's mouth was salivating at going to the famous 12 Bones BBQ where we queuing along with what felt like the rest of Asheville at 11.30am (if you go make sure you get there early all the car parking spaces are gone before 12pm) and of course we got the t-shirt.
We were staying at the Black Walnut Inn, which was easy to locate as it was one of the first sights of the Asheville Historical Tour - I urge everyone to go on this tour. We arrived at the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau (ample free parking) and hopped on a trolley that was leaving shortly. The lady at the center said we had the most popular lady and she was so funny and knowledgeable of the area it was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. We took in Montford Historic District (where The Black Walnut is located), Grove Park Inn, Biltmore and Biltmore village, downtown Asheville, Riverside (prompting another drool from T at 12 Bones) and sang on Broadway! http://graylineasheville.com/.

After the tour ended we headed downtown to browse the bookshops and other gift shops, Grove Arcade (which was disappointing) and stopped in the Old F.W. Woolworth building which is now the largest art gallery in Asheville featuring many local artists and a soda fountain.

We headed back to the Inn to check in and enjoyed iced tea with hor’s douvres and homemade pastries whilst reading on the porch... mmmm getting used to the Southern afternoon tea! That evening we went to Fiddlin' Pig which had a fantastic local bluegrass band was playing. The next day was of course devoted to Biltmore. We had prebooked our time slot to visit the house on-line which I'm not sure was any cheaper but it took all the pressure out of it. We arrived about 45 mins early (they recommend at least 30 mins as some of the car parking can be quite a walk or you may have to wait for the transfer bus), but as it was middle of the week it was quieter and so this gave us enough time to have a quick look at the gift shops, the flower carpet exhibition and take some external photos. Some-one had recommended spending the extra $10 per person to get the headset once you arrived at the house; this really enhanced our viewing pleasure and allowed you to zone out from the hoards of other guests! We particularly enjoyed looking at estate's extensive kitchen area. After a quick visit around the gardens (it was not really high flowering season for the gardens) we drove over to the nearby Village to indulge in some retail therapy before heading back to read on the porch with another Southern afternoon tea.

Extensive planning meant that T and I had covered all the main highlights that we wanted to see in two days, we next headed back over to Raleigh. This gave us a good stop over point after 4 hours of driving before our final destination of Wilmington. I wanted to see the Capital and the surrounding Triangle area anyway and provided us with a comfortable buffer away from Hurricane Earl who was heading towards the coast at this point. In Raleigh we toured the Oakwood Historical District, NC Capital State, Governor’s Mansion and then headed over to the mall to view all the US shops that we don't have yet back at home! Raleigh is a wonderful city for restaurants, that evening we headed out to Sullivan's Steakhouse.
For our final day in Raleigh we headed out to Duke University where we participated in a campus tour to take in the beautiful campus, its chapel and of course the famous basketball court! That evening we had one of the best meals of the vacation at 42nd Street Oyster Bar http://www.42ndstoysterbar.com/, opened since 1931. T and I highly recommend the snow crab legs appetizer which I still dream about, followed by another delicious steak. We had a very knowledgeable waitress who recommended a delicious wine and did not rush us at all, which impressed me as it was Friday of Labor Day weekend and they were very busy.

On the Saturday we made our way down I-40 for the two hour drive to Wilmington, the final leg of the vacation. Being Labor Day Saturday the drive was not as busy as I had anticipated and we checked into the famous Graystone Inn early just before mid-day. Immediately, we walked down to the waterfront and saw a trolley tour just departing where a very kind man took us through the extensive history and sights of Wilmington in 90 degrees plus heat. The trolley dropped us back at the same point which enabled us to fully explore the spectacularly pretty waterfront. http://www.wilmingtontrolley.com/.

A late lunch at The Pilot House (http://www.pilothouserest.com/) over-looking the riverfront resulted in T proclaiming that the chargrilled burger with bacon the best he has ever had and I had the most delicious salad with over 10 toppings which was divine! Afterwards we walked off the lunch by taking in the sights on the waterfront and saw the Henrietta III steamboat depart for a cruise; we went to admire the Belllamy mansion up-close. Dinner was at Elijah's, owned by the same people as The Pilot House and next door on the waterfront and it offered a spectacular view of the sun setting over the Cape Fear river. A highlight was feasting on the shared entrée; a hot mixed seafood bucket, mmmmm (http://elijahs.com/index.php)!

Wilmington is famous for being the Hollywood of the East so the next day was spent taking in some of the recognizable sights from Dawson's Creek (yes it has been off the air for a long time, but I grew up loving that programme) and it was amazing how much of Wilmington had featured in Dawson's Creek and other films & TV programmes. We rounded off the nostalgic trip by lunch at Hell's Kitchen that was originally build as a bar for the final series and converted into a real restaurant and bar retaining the same name. It provided a relaxed location whilst catching up on the sports and we tried our best to finish the huge portions! In the afternoon, we took the boat transfer ($4 per person return) across the river to USS North Carolina which we both really enjoyed.

I was disappointed with The Cotton Exchange a mesh of some stores and cafes on the riverfront; one of the areas had rescue dogs locked up in very small cages (which I again saw at Wrightsville beach) for re-homing. I felt that the cages were far too small, they were made to just crouch in one position, and wondered if they were legal, and surely the dogs would have a better chance of being rehomed if they had the ability to stretch and walk free and display natural behaviours?

The restaurant for that evening was Riverfront Landing (http://www.riverboatlanding.com) which is located further up the waterfront and recognizable from being the pale blue building, where if you are very lucky (and reserve) you may get to eat out on one of the nine two-person private balconies. You can look out at the USS North Carolina and waterfront activity, whilst eating delicious modern southern dishes, this is the most romantic restaurant in Wilmington and very reasonably priced.

The final couple of days of our vacation were spent relaxing at Wrightsville beach (gorgeous but hard to find a lunch that isn't a hot dog!). The final evening we spent dining at Portland Grille which was magnificent and very relaxing (ttp://www.portlandgrille.com/). I would definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone in the Wilmington/ Wrightsville areas. T still talks about his Lobster slider rolls months on, and oh my, their truffle fries were heavenly! There seemed to be quite a few nice shops & restaurants in this area just off the main road called Lumina Station. Sadly, we didn't have time to visit Airlie Gardens as we were having too much fun on the beach before our return to the normal never-ending cold & grey at home....I will have to return…and will look for any excuse to sample those truffle fries and kind North Carolina hospitality again :)

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