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Trip Report Sparkling Asheville weekend: trip report

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The protracted drought meant gloriously clear weather all weekend, from 45 at night to 81 by day, with an occasional, refreshing breeze. You could see forever, including a wonderful moonrise..

Lodging: Stayed at the impressive Albemarle Inn, a large Georgian mansion, once used as a rooming house where Bartok stayed and wrote his "Asheville Concerto," now an upscale B&B. http://www.albemarleinn.com/ Its garden is lovely. and the location is in the historic area skirting the august (and sometimes over-the-top) Grove Park Inn. FYI: You can walk from the Albemarle up to the Grove Park Inn if you know the 'back way' -- it's an uphill walk of about 15 minutes you don't want to do in the dark without sidewalks, but it's pleasant enough by day.

The Albemarle rooms are exhaustively decorated, as you can see from the website, and the overall impression is elegant, although in a few areas we discovered some slightly 'cut corners' with details like shades and lamps. We were in Bartok's Retreat, on the third floor, one of the only 2 rooms with 2 beds -- there's a little alcove with just enough room for a twin bed and teeny night table, which was fine for me. The bathroom is challenging, as the innkeeper had warned at the time of booking. The shower ceiling slopes from about 5' to 5'10", with the controls buried under billows of fancy shower curtains, and apparently it's on the end of the hot-water line. If you're the last to shower before the breakfast hour, you're going to find it tepid at best. The mirror over the sink is too low to shave in, the mirror over the vanity table is too high for a seated person to see into. Nonetheless, there's a nice view of mountains beyond trees from the third floor, while the second-floor rooms are a tad better appointed.

Breakfasts are a congenial time on a lovely sun porch that was just a tad nippy on a chilly morning, but still very pleasant. They are generally good if filling, a different (fixed) menu every day. We missed their trademark eggs in potato baskets but had stuffed French Toast (Sat.) and frittata (Sun.) They actually do best with the fruit preparations before the main "entree."

Next time: Will try one of the other B&Bs for variety, esp. the ones up in the Montford area, OR spend less to stay in a standard motel so we can really have the freedom to enjoy the downtown breakfasts. FYI: Albermarle's prices are, at least for us, well up in the 'special occasion' realm, reflecting its 'select registry' status.

Restaurants: We had dinner Fri. at Bouchon, a French bistro downtown, which was slow and came up a little short, although the appetizer fondue was perfect and should have been all we ordered. The soup (supposedly a garlic-vegetable) was half-heated and with just a memory of garlic. Etc. Think you're best off eating at the bar with a glass of nice wine and one or two appetizers there. Next time: we'll try Table, Limones, or Zambra, based on recommendations from other B&B guests.

Sat. dinner at Horizons at Grove Park Inn. This is their fine dining-and-intimidation restaurant, where one is supposed to genuflect (wearing jacket and tie or the family diamonds), but I will say the view was spectacular -- we watched the sunset from our table. They'd lost our reservation (made 6 wks. ahead in detail, mentioning an important occasion, date and time verified twice, but not, it turns out, directly with the restaurant; so be forewarned: if you call for a reservation and get switched to the general reservations number, rather than the restaurant, the information may get dropped before it gets to the restaurant). The menu holds you to a priz-fixe four-course dinner, and as often happens in ultra-fine-dining places, the appetizers and desserts outclass the entrees. All was in the very-good range or better, but the prices definitely fall into the 'surcharge for name and location' category. Next time: we'll eat on the Sunset Terrace, pay less, eat a a la carte, and get the same view.

Activities/sights: Started Sat. morning at the don't-miss Folk Art Center ca. mile marker 380 on the Blue Ridge Pkway, right near the access from rte. 70 ' excellent quality crafts, esp. wood, weaving, and ceramics, not exactly cheap but all in all a better value that some of the shops in Biltmore Village or downtown. Drove then about 23 miles up the increasingly scenic stretch of the Parkway to Craggy Garden lookouts and climbed ' puff puff puff ' to the top of the lookout there, via .7 mile 'moderate' trail through rhododendrons. That's about like .7 mi. going up stairs, but the 360-degree view is unarguably spectacular. Then we drove back down the Pkway past Asheville to the exit for the NC Arboretum and were blown away by the bonsai exhibit there ' worth the drive and the $6. admission! Otherwise, it was a matter of puttering around the downtown area, getting coffee, tea or chocolate at Izzie's, brunch at one of the great places tucked among the streets, poking through second-hand bookstores and antique shops, and admiring the life of this university-tourist-historic-business city.

(About Biltmore: we've "done" it at Thanksgiving but would have liked to visit the gardens or eat at the Inn this time, but nooooooo, you still have to pay the full $49/pp admission fee just to get in the gate, whether or not you enter the house. Nope.)

I repeat, I think Fodors gives short shrift to this lovely, lively city in its on-line guides.

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