Trip report -- Asheville, NC

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Nov 28th, 2018, 05:02 AM
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Trip report -- Asheville, NC

One day

Spent nearly the whole day at the Biltmore Estate, which truth be told is the only major reason to make the city of Asheville a sightseeing stop. It is reportedly the largest private residence in North America, and after traipsing up and down and all around this huge place, it comes as no surprise. It's modeled on a French chateau, riotously filled with ornamental and decorative touches both inside and out -- only the most florid Newport RI mansions such as The Breakers and Marble House approach its splendor. Decided to go full tilt on the tours here, signing up for the enhanced main house tour with handheld set commentary as well as the Upstairs/Downstairs and Rooftop tours. If you do this, be prepared for a lot of stair climbing, as there's only limited elevator service between the first and second floors.

You see scads of rooms on the main tour, including a large indoor winter garden, gigantic banquet hall complete with working organ (which was being played during the tour), breakfast room, salon, music room, library, tapestry gallery, second floor living hall, sitting room, billiard room, smoking room, gun room, and a bumper crop of sumptuous bedrooms including huge ones for Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, master and mistress of the home. The basement is given over to a mix of fun pastimes and work areas: a bowling alley, large indoor pool, gymnasium, and dressing rooms as well as servant bedrooms and dining room, a kitchen with adjacent storage and refrigeration space, and a large laundry. There are a lot of ancient tapestries, prints, porcelain, fancy furnishings, and artwork that includes items by Renoir and Sargent -- all amazing stuff. One thing this mansion has that most others lack is a stunning view of the mountainous countryside, visible from any room or porch area that faces out back.

The Upstairs/Downstairs tour was very interesting, showing lots of servant areas such as a butler's pantry and sewing room along with several other impressive guest bedrooms you don't see on the regular tour. Surprisingly, even the servant's areas had crown molding and similar little touches. The guide was excellent, full of interesting stories focusing on both the family and servants in some detail. Also well worth taking was the Rooftop Tour, allowing you to get up close and personal to ornamental and structural things in the house outside, including gargoyles, slate shingles, and copper edging (featuring Vanderbilt's initials on them) as well as structural underpinning (brick and metal beams under the limestone exterior) and plenty of information on the main grand staircase and the huge chandelier it wraps around; there's even a model of the house that the builders used for reference as well as more of the wonderful views one gets here.

The gardens are extensive, featuring a vine-covered Library and gravelly South Terrace, the pond- and lawn-studded Italian Garden, the woody Shrub Garden, the by this time of year mostly past-it Rose, Azalea, and Spring Gardens, the gorgeously flower-filled Walled Garden, and a large glassed-in Conservatory loaded with palms, cacti, poinsettias, and orchids.

Much as I enjoyed the visit, there are two unfortunate oddities about this place. They will allow taxis on site (and you do need transportation of some sort once you get inside the gates, as it's a couple miles worth of winding road before you even reach a parking lot area, never mind the mansion) but not hotel shuttles. There is also no shuttle that runs between the mansion and the Antler Village complex, though from what I've read it pretty much consists only of restaurants and shopping. Oh well, their loss not mine.

Was also able to visit the nearby little Cathedral of All Souls, all brick and concrete outside with an impressive interior of wood and brick with nice stained glass and large metal chandeliers. Well worth the pop-in.

Another day

There isn't a lot else to see in Asheville as I found out. The Basilica of St. Lawrence is an attractive enough church of some size located downtown. It comes across as a touch of old Spain or Mexico, its double spire and brick exterior looking very south-of-the-border. It's quite nice inside as well, with loads of hanging lanterns, statuary, and some stained glass. The altar is rather fancy, featuring a fair bit of carved wood and stone.

The Thomas Wolfe Boarding House and Memorial salutes the author of "Look Homeward Angel" and other novels; he's a native son of Asheville. The visitor center has a film on his life and a small exhibit on the author and his work, with several personal effects such as furnishings for his mom's boarding house, his dad's stone cutting business, and a couple of his New York City residences. The tour of the boarding house he grew up in (called "My Old Kentucky Home") works as both an excellent family memorabilia collection (much of the furnishings and effects are original) and a look at a typical boarding house from a century or so ago. The tour guide was both informative and very funny, with no shortage of witty asides and clever jokes.

The Grovewood Gallery is located a little bit north of downtown and is home to two tiny museums. The North Carolina Homespun Museum takes up a single room and commemorates Biltmore Industries, producers of textiles and woodwork. There are thumbnail descriptions of both trades plus a few artifacts (looms, time clock, cash register, cloth and dye samples). The Estes-Winn Memorial Auto Museum is also not large, but does have a few interesting old automobiles, most dating from the 20s, 30s, and 50s.

The local art museum is closed for renovation (represented only by what looked like a very small gift shop dominated outpost downtown), and I decided not to go to the science museum at Pack Place or the Pinball Museum. Other attractions such as the Riverside Cemetery are not easily reached by public transportation, so I passed on these as well.

A couple things in addition. Public transportation is okay, covering the downtown area, Biltmore Village, and a few other spots of interest. You can't get a day bus pass, but it’s cheap to ride (only $1) and they’re generous with transfers. The city is also very hilly, much like Atlanta or San Francisco, so wear good shoes if you're going to walk around much.

Food

There's a pretty lively food scene here, reportedly quite good for a city of its size. I mostly just grazed from spot to spot.

-Rosetta’s Kitchen. A vegetarian restaurant in the Lexington Park neighborhood. Got a plate of peanut tofu, mashed potatoes, and kale, all excellent (including the kale, which was tender and tasty).
-Cafe 64. A breakfast and lunch spot a step or so above a diner. Had a very good breakfast of smoked salmon scramble with grits, juice, and coffee.
-Tupelo Honey. A very popular place that serves meals throughout the day. Opted for a spinach salad, which was fresh and delicious.
-White Duck Taco. First rate of its kind, had one each of a tofu and duck meat soft taco. Splendidly yummy and very reasonably priced.
-Farm Burger. Decided not to get their specialty as suggested in the restaurant's name, but did well here anyway. Got an order of greens and hush puppies, both very sophisticated takes on these basic Southern staples.

Last edited by bachslunch; Nov 28th, 2018 at 05:12 AM.
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Nov 28th, 2018, 10:34 AM
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Very detailed report on Biltmore and the auxiliary tours available, which I've never taken. It's definitely worth checking out if you're in the area and have never been. One restaurant I would add to your list is Curate, an excellent tapas spot with an award-winning chef. It's a really fun place to enjoy some small plates and a pitcher of the house sangria.
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Nov 29th, 2018, 09:37 AM
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Sorry, but I disagree that Biltmore is the only reason to go to Asheville
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Nov 29th, 2018, 09:55 AM
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Originally Posted by Dukey1 View Post
Sorry, but I disagree that Biltmore is the only reason to go to Asheville
I guess it depends on your interests, but then again I'm neither a Thomas Wolfe devotee nor a big enough fan of pinball to attend a museum on the subject. I also looked through the art museum's collection online and didn't see anything that caught my attention. The two churches I visited were nice, but not in and of themselves something I would have gone out of my way to see otherwise, and the Greenwood Gallery was not especially compelling.

Loved the Biltmore Estate, though.

YMMV.
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Nov 29th, 2018, 11:37 AM
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Thanks for this, bachslunch. My late DH and I visited his college roomie and wife there many years ago and we visited Bitmore. I vaguely remember a dairy and vineyard and lots of modern things in the house--like an intercom, real plumbing?? Apparently, the art/craft colony vibe occurred later?
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Nov 29th, 2018, 05:28 PM
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I think bachslunch visitied the area in a very different way than ANY one else I could conceive of--without a car. And I commend his/her intrepidness in going on to Cherokee without one.
BUT I have to say that visiting Asheville in search of churches and museums would not be even on my radar as a lover of Asheville for many years. It is now a "happening'' place of restaurants. Biltmore is even a relative newcomer thanks to the Cecil/Biltmore family in bringing that castle to its fullsomeness and back to its glory..
Asheville is IMO now an artists' town, good food, galleries.
I knew it LONG ago when the only thing there was the Grove Park Inn--still not to be sneezed at.
But it ain't Charleston--churches, history. It is a little mountain town that is now a destination for day trips from a LOT of the southeast. Its a laid back good times place. I know of NO history!! So you go with the flow!! LOL
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Nov 29th, 2018, 07:07 PM
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Perhaps surprisingly, I got the impression that Asheville would be a pleasant city to live in as opposed to just visit. It seemed large enough to have interesting everyday things to do but not a huge, dirty metropolis either, and there’s a lot to be said for that. The downtown appeared to have lots of interesting restaurants and a lively local arts scene, and the city in general seems to have an almost West Coast crunchy-granola laid back feel that’s quite appealing. You could probably get by without a car if you’re living near downtown and near a bus route. And you’ll certainly stay in shape trekking up and down all those hills.

Not that I’m in the market to relocate, but I suspect one could choose far worse cities to settle down in.
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Nov 30th, 2018, 04:08 AM
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Well, you HAVE hit it--it is a retirement mecca for a number of years now.
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Dec 3rd, 2018, 06:40 AM
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A lot of people stop in Asheville while driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, for which, obviously, you need a car. Without one you also miss the excellent Folk Art gallery on the Parkway, and opportunities to hike.

See: https://www.southernhighlandguild.org/folk-art-center/

https://www.blueridgeparkway.org/hiking/
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Dec 3rd, 2018, 08:48 AM
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The southern highland guild shop would have been worth a taxi ride to it!!
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