Time flies, and after four marvelous weeks in Big Sandy Mush, Asheville, and surrounding areas, it was time to leave this appealing region and move to our second rental of the summer in Winston-Salem. We definitely did not run out of things to do, although for our final week in the area we mixed in some familiar destinations including return visits to the Arboretum and some of the artist studios we loved. A few highlights of the new stuff we did:
Grove Park Inn and Grovewood Galleries
One novel destination on this week’s itinerary was the historic Grove Park Inn, located a few miles north of downtown Asheville and perched on a west-facing slope for maximum Blue Ridge views. This property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its soaring lobby and restaurants share the grandeur and keen sense of place that we enjoyed in the historic lodges in many national parks. Though the decor was different, the ambiance reminded me of El Tovar at the Grand Canyon or the Jackson Lake Lodge at Grand Teton National Park. And unlike the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, this place doesn’t charge $10 to see the lobby.
Around the corner from the historic inn is Grovewood Village, a collection of galleries, studios, and museums housed in historic structures that were built for the weaving and woodworking operations of Biltmore Industries. Like several great American houses that were occupied in the early 20th century, Biltmore Estate was supported by a large community of workers who were housed in a model village just outside the gates of the estate. Biltmore Village was subsidized by the Vanderbilt family, including through their support of the Episcopal Church in the village. What began as a children’s craft project run by missionaries visiting the church turned into a full-fledged training program in wood carving, furniture-making, and eventually weaving. After the death of George Washington Vanderbilt in 1914, the enterprise was sold to the operator of the Grove Park Inn; he moved Biltmore Industries to his hotel, where it flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Hotel guests were natural customers, and there was a thriving mail order business. Today, the artists working and displaying in the Grovewood Galleries are excellent heirs to this historic enterprise. We loved the exquisite hand-made furniture and lamps, the pottery, and especially the metalwork sculptures. We also enjoyed seeing the charming Craftsman style homes in the neighborhood surrounding the Inn.
French Broad Chocolate Factory Tour
We really didn’t have enough time to eat our way across Asheville — there are far too many places to try in a month! — but we made sure to schedule a stop at the factory location of French Broad Chocolates. The owners have what we’ve come to see as a very typical Asheville story: an idealistic couple dropped out of grad school, traveled to Costa Rica in a converted school bus powered by vegetable oil and solar panels, opened a cafe, bought an abandoned cacao plantation, learned about chocolate from bean to bar, and decided to return to the US to become “chocolate missionaries.” Starting from a home kitchen operation that sold products at farmers’ markets, the owners have built a business that now includes a downtown chocolate lounge, a creamery, and a substantial factory. It should come as no surprise that their chocolate is absolutely delicious.
Our factory tour included a presentation about the life cycle of chocolate – from the cacao tree bloom to the seed pod to the fermentation of the fruit to prepare the seeds (beans). We tasted a freshly roasted bean, which was bursting with natural nuttiness and bitterness, followed by three different types of bar chocolate. The biggest surprise was the marked difference between single-origin chocolates from Peru and Guatemala. It turns out that chocolate has “terrior” just like wine! We finished off with a bon bon filled with caramel made from local wildflower honey, which just might be the most sumptuous single bite I have ever eaten. After the tasting we had the chance to peer through the glass walls of the production facility to observe all the steps we had just learned about. We of course loved everything, from the company origin story to their responsible sourcing and use of organic and local ingredients. My only regret is that, because we booked our tasting and tour in the morning, the craft ginger beer place in the next building over (Ginger’s Revenge) wasn’t open yet. Our hosts absolutely raved about their creative and delicious beverages.
Botanical Gardens Galore
Before our chocolate factory visit, we made a quick stop at the nearby Botanical Gardens at Asheville on the campus of UNC-Asheville. This garden is tiny (we made two circuits in under an hour) but serves as a peaceful oasis in an otherwise busy area. The mixed hardwood forest is so representative of the local forests that I was astonished to read on the website that the land was acquired in 1959 as “partly-eroded, cut-over timberland, filled with high weeds, dead limbs and trees, invasive vines, and poison ivy, and adorned with mountains of trash.” It’s a remarkable testament to the power of conservation efforts to restore native habitat. In addition to the towering forests, the garden includes some fun architectural features like a photogenic bridge over a burbling stream and a historic mountain cabin donated by the widow of noted author, folklorist, and festival promoter Hubert Hayes.
We also couldn’t resist one more visit to the NC Arboretum, especially since this one had the promise of more time with friends. Friends Eric and Laurel joined us for a stroll from the formal gardens over to nearby Lake Powhatan. We’re so glad they could make time to meet with us again, especially since their busy week included closing on their fabulous new tiny house.
Checking Out of Our Mountain Paradise
We made the most of our last week at our rental property, taking several hikes on the property — one of which I even remembered to record! As you can see from the AllTrails recording below, we had some pretty extreme incline (the red is >20% grade) so it was definitely a workout each time we hiked the route, despite the relatively short distance. Finally, it was time to wrap up our stay and say goodbye to Ruth Ann, Rusty James, Zelda, Isabella, the fireflies, and of course our lovely hosts Kevin and Linda. While staying in an unfamiliar place is always a little jarring, we were truly impressed by our hosts’ kindness and thoughtfulness in preparing the rental space and in sharing their remarkable property with us. We obviously give them 5 stars, and would recommend a visit to either of the two rentals on their large and inviting property:
- Unique Barn on an Organic Farm – the converted goat barn where we stayed
- Artesia – another incredible example of Kevin’s skill and artistry, this place has two bedrooms, is all on one level, and is inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright
Taking the Scenic Route
The trip east from Asheville to Winston-Salem takes just over two hours when traveling by I-40, but we were in no rush to arrive. So we decided to savor the trip by traveling up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville and north of Blowing Rock before heading east toward Winston-Salem. The parkway is well-engineered for a perfectly pleasant ride at around 40-45 mph — it’s much easier to drive than the twisty mountain roads that led to our rental — but the combination of blind curves and frequently coming upon bicyclists does require a serious amount of concentration. I’m glad we decided to split up our driving on the Parkway so we could each enjoy the views for part of the time.
We stopped at several overlooks, took short (<1 mile) hikes, and even explored the underpinnings of the famous Linn Cove Viaduct. This engineering marvel allowed the final 7 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway to be completed for full through-travel beginning in 1987. The viaduct was built to minimize the impact of the Parkway on geologically sensitive Grandfather Mountain, and the clever construction process protected the mountain from heavy machinery. Other than drilling the footings for the piers, all construction work for this massive roadway was done by machinery located on already-completed sections of the bridge, keeping the face of the mountain relatively pristine.
Next up: We just arrived in Winston-Salem, and once we get settled we’ll begin urban exploration.