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.
Bummer about the Biltmore. We were there in the summer, so luckily no Christmas prep. It was crowded, but not crazy. We, too, loved the gardens. The little shopping area with the winery was nice as well. It is pricey so I definitely recommend to anyone who plans to go to spend the entire day there to feel you got your money’s worth. The rest of Asheville is awesome! It reminds me a lot of Burlington, VT with the artsy vibe and great food. Nice selfie attempts with Thor ????????. The mountains and foliage were pretty, albeit short lived.
That is definitely true – if people are going to spring for the ticket, they may as well make a day of it. Under normal circumstances, we would have hiked some of the trails, checked out the winery, and stayed for lunch or dinner. We were just pretty tired, in general, and fed up with the crowds that day, so we headed out after checking out the mansion and gardens. But for the price, people should definitely stick around.
I’ve always heard the Christmas decorations at Biltmore are exceptional, but never really thought about how long it takes to put up so many decorative items in so many rooms. Also, just from the small glimpse of Christmas stuff that you showed, plus the crowds, I am pretty sure my inner Grinch would come out after experiencing about 5 rooms of that.
Also, bummer about the crowds and bad weather at the Smokies. Your leaf photos are gorgeous! But then I realized they were all from one day. 🙁 Hey, at least you had one good day there. The crowds are one thing that we are not looking forward to as we head east. We visited the Smokies in spring 2018 and it was not very crowded at all, but it was also snowing part of the time. So pick your poison, I guess.
I think seeing the mansion completely decorated, especially at night when it’s all lit up, would be spectacular. It is certainly a gorgeous building and the decorations are all classy and fitting for the space. But yeah, the process of getting it all done is lengthy and involved and certainly didn’t add to our experience.
As for the Smokies, yeah – that was one long day! Fortunately, we knew the bad weather was coming, so we just made the most of the time we had. It would have REALLY sucked if we hadn’t had that one day because by the time the rain moved out, everything was looking pretty brown.
I’m starting to think the best time to visit this particular park is late spring, right before the kids get out of school. Everything is alive and green, but the summer crowds haven’t descended and it’s not 400 degrees outside. Oh well… The East is tough….
Can’t win them all I guess! I would have been grumbling the entire time if I had paid that much to tour the Biltmore and had to deal with all the “holiday construction”. Discounts should have been given! We visited The Great Smoky Mountains National Park many years ago and it didn’t leave much of an impression on me either – trees, trees, trees. Rainy, cold weather and crowds of people will definitely dim one’s experience.
But, on a positive note, you did have patatas bravas!
Not only did we not get a discount, the prices were some of the highest of the year because it was Fall and they consider that high season there! Jerks. As for the Smokies, I think there could be some good hikes with mountain views, but yeah, overall, when compared to some of the scenery we’ve seen in other parts of the country, it’s just not all that exciting.
Fun fact: I could eat nothing but patatas bravas for the rest of my earthly existence and be completely content. 🙂
Bummer about your experience at the Biltmore, we’ve enjoyed the tour there. You’d think they’d discount the tickets if the experience was going to be diminished by all the activity in the rooms. The grounds there are spectacular-at least they were when we visited.
I imagine my brother was at SMNP with a photography group during that same time. We’ve enjoyed a few visits there a few times, the scenery was breathtaking. Always nice to spend time with good friends.
I think that’s why we were so frustrated with the Christmas decorating – not only did they impact everything, but we were paying super high prices because it was the Fall and that’s one of their high seasons. The least they could have done was waited a week or two when the prices would naturally drop a bit, and do the decorations then. Unfortunately, we paid more to get get less. Ah well, live and learn.
I absolutely agree about the grounds. It’s not just the formal gardens that are beautiful, but the entire property – which is huge. I know there are hiking trails throughout the area that would have been nice to check out as well.
A $79 deal. Yeow. I thought $40 was a lot when we were there.
I remember hearing about this place years ago and the tickets were like $40. Then it became $60. Now it’s 4 million bucks and a kidney… and still, people keep showing up. I guess that’s why the price just goes up and up and up…. Crazy!
Wow, those herds of people at the Biltmore! That’s crazy…it wasn’t at all like that when we were there in the spring a couple of years ago. Which is exactly what you DON’T want to hear. But even worse was all of the pre-Christmas work taking place during your visit. They really should have offered you a hefty discount. Or at least warned you!
It looks like your visit to Asheville was saved by having good friends to enjoy it with. Love the photos of you guys having fun together (in your natural habitat, LOL) and that photo roll of Kevin is hilarious! So glad you enjoyed Curate.
I think we got the worst of all world – high season in the area because of the Fall colors, and messy rooms because of Christmas decorating. We were also looking forward to replicating your experience in talking to the many docents and learning more about the property. Sadly, though, either because of the crowds or the decorating, there were very few available. We only encountered two during our entire time there, and they were surrounded by tons of people. We had the one interesting conversation about the process of refurbishing that one room, but otherwise, we didn’t get to ask many questions. The whole place was just a zoo. Ah well, such is life…
And yes, Curate was fabulous! Thanks for the recommendation!
Always a lot of fun reading your blogs. Thank you for sharing your pictures and being “you”. Shawnna and Brian.
Thank you so much! I appreciate you reading my ramblings!
The Thor selfie pics are hilarious! As well as Kevin’s. 🙂 We went to the Biltmore when it was decorated for Christmas and it is gorgeous! I wouldn’t want to hit it while they are decorating though. I get so tired of all the crowds. Where can we go and see beautiful things where there are no people?? 🙂
Ughhh, tell me about it. I feel like we’re constantly battling that issue lately. Everywhere we go is just overrun with people. I think a lot of it has to do with social media. Anything worth seeing is blasted all over social media and, suddenly, everyone else wants to see it too. There aren’t many secrets anymore. 🙁
When I looked at the first picture of The Biltmore I thought that is really pretty except for that stupid ugly tree in the middle of the lawn … and then I kept reading ☺ I guess it might turn into a nice Christmas tree but I’m having a hard time visualizing it.
If those were muted colours in Smoky Mountain Park I can’t wait to see it when they have had a rainy summer, those were beautiful pictures. But OMG that was a lot of traffic!
And where is Jen’s number? I’m sure I will need it to get a spot in that RV Park which really looked very nice … to bad you lost all the pretty leaves while you were there.
I actually did a google image search for pictures of the Biltmore at Christmas and, when the tree is all completed (and surrounded by smaller trees), it is definitely very beautiful… But still… it blocks the whole view! It’s really pretty dumb.
I would really love to see those mountains in a normal year! Our campground owner told us the leaves usually start turning much earlier than they did this year, and are much brighter. I think we pretty much hit the exact peak of the colors, which lasted only about a week. Hopefully, you’ll have better luck whenever you see it.
As for Jen, I am pretty sure she would murder me if I actually gave out her number. Obviously, the guy must answer his phone sometimes because there were plenty of people camped there while we were there, but who knows? It’s a weird place!
You could go in January and take photos of the reverse process of un-decorating The place!
HA! Hell, I would love to HELP take it all down! (Then, tell them to get the hell out of the way so I can get better pictures. 🙂 )
We also enjoyed the gardens at the Biltmore much more than the tour of the house. So sorry for such a bad experience at the Smokey’s. Having grown up in Georgia, it was often a go to place for a long weekend. I think it is much more crowded now than then. Love the selfies! Gay
I think it’s more crowded everywhere these days, but the places that have always been crowded are even more crazy. We also happened to be there at a particularly popular time of year, with the Fall colors and all. We didn’t do that on purpose, but it ended up that way. Anyway, we’re still glad we got to see what we saw. It’s certainly very pretty!
Ah, Asheville, one of my happy places as far as Southern cities go! I’ve not stayed at Wilson’s, but did Mama Gerties (not really close to town at all!) and Powhatan (which is really close to a great shoe outlet, which may or may not matter to you…). Agree about the big dumb tree, when I saw the photo, I was like “what, that wasn’t there last October?!?” and it sure wasn’t. I went to the last weekend of Chihuly in the Gardens there and it was kind of the outdoor version of your indoor decorations madness as far as crowding goes, but still good. I skipped the whole house tour of rooms because it was literally standing room only everywhere, ugh. Next year is 3 days at SMNP, guess we’ll run the gauntlet of tourists, but check that NP off the list 🙂
Mama Gertie’s came highly recommended by our friend, Laurel. I actually called them when I couldn’t get Wilson’s to pick up their phone, but they had a recording saying they were booked for all of October (and I was calling several months before). I know they are very popular in the Fall and it sounds like a great spot. Anyway, that’s how we ended up reserving at the KOA. I’ve also heard great things about Powhatan, but no one had mentioned shoes!! Even better!!
It’s funny, Biltmore must just go from one special event to another. They were advertising some upcoming exhibit about the Downton Abbey TV show while we were there. Sounds like no matter when you go, there will always be something going on, bringing even more people in. Crazy.
As for SMNP, you might get lucky and avoid the crowds if you time it right… it’s just hard to actually do in practice. My sense is, late spring and late summer/early fall might be best. Either way though, gotta check that box!! 🙂
Holy Hell, $79?! Speaking of unreasonable amounts of money, yowza! You should have put your trespassing skills to work there. They really should have warned you about all the decorating obstruction, though. You’d think they could do that when it’s closed. I saw the ugly tree, but thought you were referencing the buses and crowds messing up the picture. I hate all the modern signs and vehicles in places like that. If we go to places like that, which we don’t because Holy Hell $79?!
It’s too bad about your limited visit to Smoky, especially the nasty weather. As you know, we’ll be there around the same time next year, and I’m not looking forward to the throngs of people. We’re staying inside the park though, so hopefully, that will help a bit with maneuvering.
That was super nice of the Nealys to help you out with all they did, especially that strange RV park situation. Bizarre! (but I kind of liked the trail in the middle)
HA! You are right! We definitely should have just snuck in. It’s not like they’re really gonna be looking for people sneaking into a giant, historic mansion, right? Because, like, criminals really don’t care about touring 19th century mansions… “No Officer, I swear, I wasn’t trying to steal any priceless pieces of historic artwork from the Vanderbilts. I just wanted a free tour!”
I also agree about all the people and buses in the front. It really ruins the whole effect of the place. They should set it up so people enter from the back or sides so it’s not so chaotic there.
As for the Smokies, as crowded as they may be, we found it to be similar to other National Parks in the hiking department. In other words, had we had time to hike, we would have had the trails to ourselves. We stopped at the VC and asked our usual questions about the best trails and the staff member directed us to 2 named trails – the same named trails that are in my National Geographic guide to national parks. And when we drove by the trailheads for those two trails, there were a good amount of cars parked. But everywhere else? We saw no hikers. And yet, there are 850 miles of trails in the park, including a good chunk of the Appalachian Trail. The bottom line is, if you know where to go, I think you’ll find plenty of empty trails. It just didn’t work out for us this time.
Totally agree! Loved Asheville but the Biltmore is highly overrated and crazy-expensive and ridiculously crowded. There was a great State Park on the river which was mostly empty but the volunteer couple running it wouldn’t let us in. Great city though!
They wouldn’t let you in? I’m starting to wonder if it’s an Asheville thing… It is crazy how many people feel this way about the Biltmore and yet, everyone keeps going! I wonder how high the prices will have to be before they start seeing a reduction in visitors.
Loved your info about the Biltmore and SMNP, but my fav was the selfie pics. Too funny!
The last time I saw a photo roll like that was when my nephew, who was maybe 5 years old at the time, got hold of my brother’s cell phone and started taking tons of selfies. Not that I’m saying Kevin is like a 5 year old. I’m not saying that at all…. 😉
Interesting note in the comments about prices going up. Gulf Shores monthly is sub $1K now which we might be able to afford if you keep spending your money to show us the touristy stuff ????
Love the Kevin pics.
Haha… glad we can help! The endlessly increasing popularity of RV living in conjunction with the explosion of tourism anywhere and everywhere, is certainly having an impact on all our lives. We’re seeing it everywhere we go these days. We seem to pay more to get less…. and are surrounded by others who are happy to do the same… which just causes prices to rise more. 🙁
Love that Kevin got your phone and did the whole selfie thing…so grown up! Haha! Glad you met up with Deas and Jen in Ashville. It’s always great to have a local for suggestions. We’ve yet to meet them. We skipped the Biltmore. We just weren’t that into it to spend that kind of money. You had a massive crowd! John and the crowd would never have worked. I was wondering about the crowds in SMNP when I saw your photo of the beautiful fall colored trees and no cars on the road. Just a very lucky moment. Your other photos show what I’ve heard the park is like with fall. The colors may have been muted but they were still spectacular. Glad you arrived when you did. Boy, your photos of Day 1 to Day 5 is unbelievable. Love Nashville! Can’t wait to see what you found.
Yes, that one photo of the road inside the National Park came after I stood there for several minutes waiting for a break in the traffic. There was a consistent flow of cars most of the day. Overall, as annoying as the timing was, I am glad we got what we got with regard to fall colors. If we had arrived the week after, it would have been even more disappointing, so that was a good call. And I definitely think you made the right decision with the Biltmore. There are certainly enough photos of it online that you can get an idea of what it’s like without having to spend the absurd amounts of money they charge. It’s simply not worth all that.
How did I miss this post? Anyhow,
OMG so many people at the Biltmore and SMNP! I can understand how you were unhappy with your tour of the big house. Holy Crap, that was too crowded! I went back to my post when we were there in June 2013 and it seems the visitors have quadrupled. I don’t think we paid $79 then 🙁
Beautiful fall pictures of the Fall leaves at the Smokies, too bad, the weather caught up with you again for yes there are a number of great hikes over there.
Tell Kevin he is so cute and funny!
I really think our experience at the Biltmore was bad because of the time of year. We were there when prices were the highest and crowds were the larges. Though, I guess Christmastime would also be very busy. I’d like to think it we were there later in the winter or early spring, it wouldn’t be so bad. But who knows? I don’t think we’ll be going back to try again either way. I had used your blog posts about SMNP to make our original plans for our visit there (including several hikes), but, unfortunately, everything went out the window with the bad weather. Oh well. I’m glad you posted lots of pretty pictures of it!
I’ve never had much desire to visit the Biltmore. I’ve been in the area many times and have always skipped it. I wouldn’t like the crowds at all! As for SMNP, I agree, late spring before school is out is probably the best time to visit.
If we ever make it back that way, that’s when we’ll go. The park really has serious downsides the rest of the year. Crazy crowds in Fall, nothing interesting to look at in Winter (just bare trees), hotter than hell in summer…. Crowds, crowds, crowds… Yeah. I’m thinking late April/early May is our best bet.