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Trip Report Asheville weekend - hidden gem cafe, odd motel, brunch hints

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Just spent a quick weekend in Asheville.

1. We were introduced a charming cafe that's rather hidden, probably on purpose. The Grovewood Cafe is tucked just beyond the sprawling Grove Park Inn facilities on the same roadway, right next to the Grovewood Gallery. Signage is sparse and you have to have quick eyes and the courage of your conviction to press on down the drive between various parking lots and the Grove Park sports center to get to the gallery and the cafe (not owned by Grove Park stuff), as well as a small auto museum). It's worth it. The cafe food is lovely and local, carefully prepared, and the menu changes frequently, I'm told. The setting, especially if it's nice enough to eat outside, is really lovely - amid sculptures and garden with a distant view between the trees. Reservations are often nec. http://www.grovewoodcafe.com/

2. Because it was last-minute and we're on a post-crash budget, we chose to stay at the new, independent Brookstone Lodge at exit 51 off Rte. 40. Its banner-ad is that "we're new; we're clean." It's a welcoming place with strong pro's and some odd con's. No question that the owners are working overtime to build clientele, but ... well, here goes:
Pros: extremely convenient to I-40 - effectively on one of the ramps. Quite convenient to Biltmore and Biltmore Village; less convenient to get downtown but not bad if you figure out the 240 exits (which are confusing). It is clean as far as we could tell. Breakfast is equivalent to some of the chains' - DIY waffles, cereal, a chafing-dish with eggs or whatever, bagels, etc. but all cups, plates, etc. are small, as if you were at a kids' tea party. Rooms are basic, comfortable if not especially roomy, equipped with microwave, coffee maker, and small refrigerator. If you like "family fun," the Asheville Fun Depot is right next door - more a con than a pro, IMO.

Cons: Location is good but setting is VERY odd - building is oriented so that one side overlooks a major road and the lights for the interstate ramps, and the other side looks across to the Fun Depot - resembling a sprawling and garishly painted concrete factory. You do get highway noise on the highway side. The only hills visible are to the south above the Case Equipment yard next to the hotel - and only the two rooms at the far end of that hall have windows in that direction. Their website's photos can't begin to show this, but if the aesthetics of the setting matter to you, this isn't the place for you. In the room, lighting was limited; the only cups were the hotcups for the coffee set - not great for brushing teeth or sharing drinks; only one small disk of soap was provided; pictures on the wall are somewhat amateurish sentimental photos of local scenes -- okay, but two were slipping down out of their matting. The overall feel is like staying inside a piece of just-assembled Ikea furniture.

Weekday prices are fine and make it a decent value for budget travel - esp. if you get whatever discount (AAA or .. ) you can. Weekend prices are substantially higher and begin to feel like a pinch for what you get. I'd like to see them stay in business as an indie alternative to the chains, but I can't imagine what they were thinking regarding the orientation of the building - even a 90-degree rotation would have improved it.

3. We were directed to the Tupelo Honey Cafe for brunch on Sunday - and it was very good, well recommended, but it was good we got there early (ca. 10 am) because by noon the waiting lines were long. We did not expect the level of activity around the Grove Arcade - street vendors, etc. - even though not all the stores in the Arcade are open on Sunday. Asheville's downtown is already quite active by 11 am on Sundays - a surprise - and I recommend skipping Biltmore Village and heading downtown for your brunch.

The number of downtown and near-downtown hotels is rising, which is a Good Thing, but I'm guessing the rates are inflated. If you survived the economic downturn unscathed, enjoy them. Otherwise, you can do quite well elsewhere.

4. Have to revise my opinion of Biltmore Village (the cluster of upscale stores and restaurants across from the entrance to the Biltmore Estate) -- a downgrade since a few years ago. The chains are moving in, the independent boutiques and galleries are disappearing, the tourist-gew-gaw index is rising, there is NO bookstore, and there are no restrooms available other than those in restaurants. Bellagio, Blue, and a couple of galleries are worth poking into just to appreciate the handiwork (Bellagio has "wearable art" that's beautiful but extremely pricey). The church is a work of art. Otherwise, you're better off downtown, at Grovewood Gallery, or at the Folk Art Center on the Parkway. The handful of places offering Sunday brunch open late and close early - 11 -2:30 is typical.

We also went to Chimney Rock. Sure, go there for the views and trails and history and glorious vistas, although lots more winding mountain roads to get there. Just don't do what I did -- bring two right Reeboks and have to cope with sandals instead!

One last blanket cheer to Asheville - the artists are great, particularly in glass and weaving - and the spirit is lively. They even have more than one non-chain bookstore! Always worth a visit!

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