After our quick stop in Virginia, we continued south, eventually making our way to Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is one of those places everyone seems to love; an artsy, young, progressive enclave full of interesting businesses, excellent cuisine, and creative breweries, all surrounded by the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. But, in addition to being the kind of place we’re typically drawn to, it’s also home to folks we know, and that made our experience even better.
Way back when we first started traveling, we met our friends, Jen and Deas, in Florida. We had a great time hanging out with them, but since then, haven’t been in the same place at the same time. They are now based in Asheville, so we finally got to catch up. In fact, our entire visit to the city was colored by their presence – from which campground we stayed at, to which restaurants we ate at, to how we spent our time while there.
For starters, there are a couple well known campgrounds close to the downtown area, and several more on the outskirts of town. Jen had recommended that we try to stay at Wilson’s RV Park since it’s the closest in. So, I called, and called, and called, and no one would pick up the phone. I emailed but got an automatic reply saying that I should call. So I called some more, but again, no one would answer. Eventually, I said “to hell with this,” and just booked a KOA about 20 minutes outside town
When Jen later asked where we’d be staying, I told her what had happened and she explained that the guy who owns Wilson’s isn’t always very responsive. She said “I’m just gonna go over there.”
Sure enough, a couple days later, she called to ask me for our RV and contact information. She and Deas had showed up at the park, found the owner, and secured us a spot.
The bottom line is, while the campground is reasonably priced and close in, in order to get a reservation, you’re probably gonna need Jen’s help. So, I’m gonna post her phone number at the bottom of this article and y’all can just call her when you’re ready to book.* (You’re welcome, Jen. Now we’re even.)
The campground itself is very convenient and very odd. We had a riverside site which was nice…
And the campground is located right on the French Broad River Greenway, which is a paved bike trail that runs through several community parks. The greenway provided us a perfect place to take Thor for walks every day…
and gave us easy access to a soccer field to play fetch with him when no one was looking…
(Seriously, for a former prosecutor, I do an enormous amount of trespassing.)
Oddly, however, the greenway apparently came along after the campground was built, and so they built it right through the campground. So while you’re sitting at your site, random people are running or biking through your front yard…
Asheville is home to a number of excellent breweries (New Belgium is the most well known, but there are countless smaller ones), a fantastic restaurant scene, and lots of interesting neighborhoods.
We love murals and there are a ton of great ones in Asheville:
…not all of which make sense.
We enjoyed several excellent meals while in town, but our favorite was at Curate’, a Spanish tapas place. We were celebrating our wedding anniversary and wanted to go somewhere with excellent food but no attitude. We’d heard about Curate’ from several friends and it sounded perfect, however, we were told it was extremely difficult to get a reservation. But, lo and behold, I called and they had availability for two at their open kitchen bar. Dinner and a show. Perfect…
We spent lots of time with Jen and Deas… checking out various local businesses (read: breweries) and catching up. One night, after an evening of supporting these local establishments, I asked Kevin to take a selfie of us…including the dog… which went about as well as you would expect…
However, the best part was what I found on my photo roll the next morning…
Lesson learned: Never hand Kevin your phone when he’s been drinking with the Nealys.
The Biltmore and the Big Dumb Tree
The number one attraction in Asheville is The Biltmore. It’s basically a gigantic French chateau style mansion built by one of the Vanderbuilt kids who had an unreasonable amount of money and thought “Hey! I should build a ridiculous house.” So, he did. Then, he got married, they had a daughter, and, several years later, he up and died. Then, several years after that, the stock market crashed and his heirs were like “Awww, fudge!,” but they didn’t say “fudge,” and started offering tours to defray the cost of maintaining this monstrosity.
It is, unquestionably, impressive – the largest private home in the United States. Built between 1889 and 1895, it is 178,000 square feet of opulence. The mansion boasts 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, a gym, an indoor pool, a bowling alley, multiple kitchens, staff quarters, and all the other stuff on Downton Abbey.
The view from the edge of the front lawn is jaw-dropping. So jaw dropping, in fact, that I intended to take a picture of the imposing mansion and perfect lawn and use it for the header of this blog.
But… when we got there, something was a bit off…
Can you see it?
I tried my best to avoid it, but there it was… no matter where I went.
It looked terrible…
This Big. Dumb. Tree…
What was this eyesore and why was it planted smack dab in the middle of the pristine lawn, wrecking the otherwise enviable view of the magnificent Biltmore?
Alas, we realized it was the mansion’s Christmas tree – cut down, transported, and placed in front of the mansion for a couple weeks each year.
Presumably, several weeks after our visit, the staff would untie the branches and pile on enough lights and ornaments to sink a battleship. When all was said and done, just like Charlie Brown’s tree, it would be lovely. But when we were standing there, it looked like crap. And it was smack dab in the middle of all my pictures.
Unfortunately, the upcoming Christmas holiday put a damper on our entire visit to the mansion (and, to be clear, we were there toward the end of October, so “upcoming” is a relative term.)
While each room featured jaw dropping architectural features, rich fabrics, and ornate decorations (click any photo for full size versions):
the apparently endless Christmas decorating process significantly impacted our ability to appreciate the house.
There were countless staff members throughout the mansion hard at work. They were standing on ladders and scaffolding, moving furniture out of the way, and just generally invading the scenes.
And even in the rooms they weren’t actively decorating, evidence of the massive project was almost always in view. Bright yellow scaffolding, carts and tables overflowing with supplies, and huge trash bins….
Taken in conjunction with the ridiculous crowds jammed into every single room….
and we were left a bit underwhelmed. Especially for the bargain basement price of $79 per person (reduced from $89 because Jen and Deas reserved our tickets with their yearly membership account).
Don’t get me wrong, we understand that it costs a lot of money to run an operation like this. In fact, we had a fascinating discussion with one of the docents about the organization’s recent efforts to refurbish this room:
He told us staff at the Biltmore had found the company in France that originally provided the fabrics that were used to decorate the room in the 1800’s. Incredibly, not only did the company still exist, but it still possessed the original purchase order from when the mansion was built. Using that purchase order, the company was able to reproduce the exact fabrics for the remodeling project. All of which is pretty incredible and, obviously, not cheap.
And, in general, we don’t mind paying for that level of effort and authenticity, but the combination of massive crowds and wrecked scenes left us a bit disappointed.
We enjoyed the mansion’s grounds and gardens a bit more. There was plenty of space to explore and a limitless variety of beautiful views.
Smoky Mountain National Park
After leaving Asheville, we traveled about an hour west to Cherokee, North Carolina, which gave us access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I originally assumed I’d be writing an entire post about our explorations of this mountainous wonderland, but, for better or worse, we only went into the park once, and so, there’s not really all that much to write about.
We stayed in Cherokee, which is on the southern side of the park, because we wanted to avoid the very touristy towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg located on the northern side. The park is bisected by Route 441 which goes from north to south, and there’s a visitor’s center at each end, so it really just depends what you’re looking for.
Anyway, we lucked out in that our visit coincided with the very end of peak leaf season.
However, the colors were more muted than usual this year after a very dry summer.
Not that it was ugly…
And, in fact, we were blown away by some of the mountain scenery…
More disappointing was the fact we really only had one good weather day.
After our first day – which was gorgeous – a storm front rolled through, bringing several days of miserable rain and cold, followed by just cold.
And all that rain took down most of the leaves.
Day 1 at our campground in Cherokee:
Day 5 at our campground in Cherokee:
And, honestly, while we could have gone back at the end of the week, we just weren’t feeling it. SMNP is the busiest park in the entire National Park system, not because it’s more impressive than the others, but, rather, because of its close proximity to numerous population centers on the East Coast. And it felt like it – we had to hunt for parking at the visitor center, we were surrounded by people at the overlooks, and we actually begged off in the middle of a scenic drive because there were just too many cars (full of people stopping on the side of the road to take pictures of every damned squirrel within a 3 mile radius).
Between the cold weather, leafless trees, and ridiculous crowds, we just couldn’t get motivated to go back. In the end, we were happy to spend a couple days at home before moving on to Nashville… More on that soon.
Where we stayed:
Wilson’s Riverfront RV Park, Asheville, NC
Flaming Arrow Campground, Cherokee, NC
*Did you really scroll all the way down here to see if I posted Jen’s number? Wow. No faith.