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Trip Report A Winter Hop to Asheville and Montreat, NC

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Three days after Christmas my mother, daughter, and I drove from the Atlanta area to western North Carolina. Our purpose was two-fold: to see my nephews in Montreat and to see if the three of us could get along enough to make a longer trip to New York. :D

The drive up to Montreat lasted about 4 hours. Those who "do" it in less time, including my own dear mother, are either mistaken about the time, not stopping for any reason, or are greatly exceeding the speed limit at every opportunity. The drive was very pleasant and familiar. I've been driving my kids up to that area for summer camp for many years, and DD attended the same one I had. No traffic, no worries midday on a Thursday. Our start was a late one because the night before I hit a puppy with my car on the highway and spent the morning at the vet's working out details of her care while I would be out of town. Needless to say, I was shaken up and pretty angry at the dog's owners.

In North Carolina we witnessed the aftermath of two very bad wrecks. One wreck involved a single passenger car evidently trying to corner a curve too fast. The car was up on its side in the inside lane around the outside of a curve. The bottom of the car was up along the mountain and the top of the car presented to passing cars. It looked as if a giant had picked it up and set it on its side. All occupants had been taken away by ambulance by the time we saw it. The second wreck involved a tractor-trailer truck that had similarly missed a curve in the road and had plunged down the space between the east and westbound lanes that formed an overpass. It hung there oddly, the back of the truck up in the air and some of the cab down on the street below. A good bit of its cargo had dropped out of the container part and was causing havoc at around 5 pm. That was the sort of wreck that would make you throw up if you had a very good imagination.

We went through Black Mountain on the way to Montreat. Little zoning existed when the town was building up and consequently there are nice homes side by side with broken-down singlewides. Going under the arches into Montreat ("hold your breath and look Presbyterian," is one elderly friend's advice) the scenery changes drastically. Although the homes are not all beautiful, big, or new, they are all well-cared for family homes and the setting is picturesque.

Montreat comprises about 550 homes, a Presbyterian conference center and a liberal arts college of the same name that has ties to the Presbyterian church. The college is small--in fact, everything is on a very compact scale. It is ideal for children who can ride bikes to the park or play freely throughout the community. Many of the homes are summer residences only (the homes have no heat), and the town's population increases greatly each May.

My former sister-in-law (my late brother's wife), her architect husband and my two nephews live in his tiny bachelor residence while they are building their family home in Montreat. The current house has no proper kitchen, a fact much lamented by the SIL who (given the tools and space) is an excellent cook. With only two burners, a microwave and a toaster oven she manages to produce a wonderful meal of baked ham, potato salad, baked beans, and a vegetable salad. Dessert is homemade chocolate chip cookies and Christmas fudge. She is a trooper!

The town's elevation means some snow is still on the ground, especially on the baseball field. We take a short tour of Montreat and visit with her new relatives. Everyone is nice and many people there have some tie to the Presbyterian church. We are told that houses rarely come up on the open market, but rather are sold within the community and to friends of friends instead.

In Ashville we check into the Haywood Park Hotel. The one-way streets and name changes are very confusing to me and to "Jane," my car's GPS system. We eventually flag down a policeman who tells me to go the wrong way down a one-way street, proving that the arrangement is confusing to everyone :) The hotel is rather poorly marked but we find it and check in with one of the friendliest, most professional concierge/reception clerk I've ever encountered. Parking is valet only, but with no charge except tips. Each time we order the car it is at the front door within a few minutes, driven by nice young people who are polite and receive the tip with sincere thanks.

Our room is spacious, well-decorated if somewhat dated, and well laid out. We got the last room available and it is a "master king," with one king bed and a queen-sized sleeper sofa. The room is at least 550 square feet, with a wet bar behind a door, nice furniture, and a very large marble bathroom.

DD is pleased with the lighted makeup mirror and ceiling-mounted tv in the bathroom. The room is spotless. On each floor (4 floors) there is a central sitting area with a big sofa, cocktail table, chairs, live trees and plants, etc. One morning I have an early breakfast out there instead of room service, to avoid waking the others. Our nightly rate is $185. The hotel has no restaurant per se, but a continental breakfast is available delivered to the rooms. It is a bit pricey, but we do it the first morning for breakfast and the second for coffee.

Biltmore: we have all been to the Biltmore House before. However, none of us has seen it decorated for Christmas. I purchased tickets online, but we had to stop just inside the gates to get a timed entry pass. Dec. 29 is one of the busiest days of the year. When I presented our printout for tickets and timed passes, I mentioned that one of our party had not been able to come. The clerk immediately changed one of the tickets into a gift certificate of equal value when she found we were from out of town, as the ticket was valid only until the end of the month and we wouldn't be able to use it. I was able to use the certificate at the gift shop to purchase gourmet goodies such as pecan conserve and various envelopes of magic that turn ordinary cream cheese into wonderful sweet cheese balls for shortbread cookies. (My favorite so far is Key Lime, with Tiramisu running a close second.) This is a nice sweet for cocktail parties.

We drove further to parking, rode a shuttle to the house, and waited for our entry time. This is all extremely well-regulated but I was glad the weather was fair. I'm not sure where all those people wait if it is raining. :(

The house was as beautiful as ever, with 38 decorated Christmas trees and wonderful heirloom decorations throughout. The tree in the Great Hall was enormous, about 25 feet tall with full-size, beautifully wrapped packages hanging from its branches. My favorite tree was decorated with feathers and natural materials, and I liked one with antique children's toys, too. The scale was tremendous, and the decorating had started months in advance of Thanksgiving. The Italian ceramic Nativity scene was large, and arranged on a table with moss in hilly formations and live plants that made it look like a desert oasis.

DD loved seeing the basement floor where the kitchens and laundries were located. Having recently taken a sociology course in which various forms of oppression of the underclass were discussed and read about, she was quite indignant about it until I pointed out to her that the Vanderbilt servants lived in relative luxury compared to those serving other families.

Back to Ashville to lunch at the Flying Frog, featuring German, French and Indian cuisines (according to the menu). DD and DM had chicken tortilla soup (good, but too spicy) and sandwiches. I had a roast beef and horseradish sandwich that was barely acceptable. The tea was good and we went to a bakery across the street for cookies afterwards.

There are many nice shops in downtown Ashville, many catering to college students but with a few higher-end stores. There were lots of people about and that gave the place a lively air. We were a few blocks away from the Civic Center, a venue that is consistently in the red because of poor operating policies and the fact that it was built in a manner that prevents many big acts from appearing there. It hosts concerts that appeal to the many college students at Montreat, UNC-Asheville, and another college in the area.

Dinner in Black Mountain at the Bistro. This is an eclectic restaurant we chose for its family-friendly ability to absorb small boys. Our orders ranged from salmon salad to prime rib to BLT, and varied in both portion size and quality. My former SIL's DH had the beef, which was so obviously poor that the waitress took it off the bill without being asked. My BLT had fried green tomatoes instead of the regular ones, and it was delicious, with locally smoked bacon. Everyone else was at least satisfied with their meal, if nothing else. I had an undistinguished glass of cabernet that was typical of the whole experience.

Breakfast the next day at Tupelo Honey was the best breakfast meal I've had in years. We had standard breakfast fare: eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon, etc. The raspberry jam was locally made and deliciously tangy. The biscuits were divine, and the grits were "real"---creamy and hot.

A bit more shopping at the artists' cooperative in the old Woolworth's building (that still maintains its lunch counter), a quick stop at an internet cafe to check email, and some very successful post-Christmas decoration shopping finished the morning. Checkout was at noon--it was nice to have that extra hour.

The drive back to Atlanta was terrible, horrible, and made me wish I was in a helicopter. There were multiple slow-downs caused by accidents, police pulling people over, and several miles-long bottlenecks for seemingly no reason. As usual, driving into Atlanta makes you wonder why anyone would ever actually live there. (I grew up there and work there, often wondering the same thing.)

It was a nice couple of days away while the Boys went skiing, and we proved we could get along for at least that long. Plans for NYC are in the making.:)

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