I had been hearing for years "you HAVE to see Asheville in the fall, it's GORGEOUS." I heard this from friends, saw specials on the Travel Channel, and was hounded by my boyfriend to go check out the colors. Finally, I gave in.
Luckily, it's a short and scenic five hour drive from Lexington. On my drive, I planned out where we would drive to see the colors, where the prime colors may be, and, of course, figured out how we would make time for a visit to the Biltmore Estate (which was actually MY main motivation of going at all). What I hadn't planned for was the culinary caliber I was about to encounter.
As I soon found out, Asheville not only consistently ranks as one of the most beautiful cities in the country, it also is known as a foodie paradise. In fact, TripAdvisor named it as a Top 10 Food & Wine Destination in the United States in 2011. I was ready to find out why.
Shrimp and grits two ways. Tupelo Honey Cafe version on the left and Sunny Point Cafe's take on the right.
The first order of business after driving all afternoon was, of course, food. I had been up all day thanks to my early wake up call for GMK, and I wanted something super tasty that would wake up my taste buds and myself. I had heard about the Tupelo Honey Cafe before getting into town, and the line out the door confirmed the rumors that this was definitely a must-do eatery.
I was taken aback at the one and a half hour wait for a table at 5:30 pm on a Friday, but figured if other people thought it was worth the wait, who was I to argue. We took our pager to a neighboring restaurant and grabbed a couple drinks and then explored a bit of Prichard Park square downtown.
Once at the table, we were starved. I almost ordered a steak dish but at the last minute switched my order to shrimp and grits. Wow, that was the best decision of my life! I had never had shrimp and grits before, so I didn't know what exactly to expect, but I imagine I'll have a hard time beating my first experience. Their goat cheese grits were creamy and perfectly seasoned, then topped with garlic sauteed shrimp, bacon, and roasted red peppers. I had died and gone to heaven.
I actually have been craving those shrimp and grits ever since (I've even looked up recipes to try to replicate the dish), and in an effort to recreate my euphoria, I ordered the chipotle cheese shrimp and grits at the acclaimed Asheville breakfast spot, Sunny Point Cafe, the next morning. They did not quite match the experience, but were tasty nonetheless, and gave me the energy needed for a day of hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Now, these are the vistas I was looking for!
Stopping at the multiple scenic overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Blue Ridge Parkway was the ideal way to see the gorgeous changing colors.
Stopping to hike, and checking out the various flora and fauna.
Lichens and fungi, oh my!
Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall is also an Asheville must-do. It's only a 15 minute drive from downtown to hop on the parkway, then it's up to you which way to go. We tossed a coin and headed south. We visited in late October as the vibrant reds and yellows were peaking. We stopped at various overlooks to take pictures and at a couple trails to hike a bit. The rest of the time we joined the line of slow moving traffic weaving up the two-lane mountain pass and enjoyed the view.
The Juicy Lucy, a Minnesota legend.
After an afternoon of exploring the great outdoors, my hunger was raging once again. A meaty burger sounded perfect, so with the help of my smart phone, we found Juicy Lucy's. We thought this was a delicacy only known to Minneapolis and the surrounding area, so this was a pleasant and yummy surprise. If you haven't heard, a Juicy Lucy is a cheeseburger where the cheese is stuffed into the burger patty, creating a cheesy pocket that oozes out gooey goodness when you bite into the burger.
The burgers were good, the fries were even better, but the company left something to be desired. Apparently all University of Florida fans in the area decided to use the restaurant as a base of operation for Saturday college football. It was loud to say the least.
The next day, it was on to more refined surroundings...
The standard Biltmore shot. Yes, it's even more breathtaking in person.
All day Sunday was dedicated to the surprisingly expansive Biltmore Estate. I love history and I love architecture, so this was the best day of the trip for me. I only wish I had worn insoles in my shoes. I had no idea how much walking I'd be doing!
Even their patio is amazing.
In case you didn't know, Biltmore is the family home (and I use the term "home" loosely here) of the Vanderbilts, who built their fortune in the shipping and railroad industries in the mid 1800's to early 1900's. Their compound is, in a word, magnificent.
Guests are not allowed to take pictures inside, but that's quite alright. I took far too many just around the outside of the home.
Lovely architectural details.
We took the audio guided tour through the home, which I would highly recommend. It offered so much detail through the various dining halls, residential apartments, and the inner workings of the estate. I made sure to listen to every single audio file to soak up all the history.
The audio tour lasted about an hour and a half, and only took you to about half of the home's 250 rooms. Wow! I was still ready to see more once we reached the end, and vowed to come back again some day to take one of the special behind the scenes tours.
Taking in the view on the veranda, a look at the back of the home, and a statue in the garden faces a side view of the estate.
Once again, we had worked up a mighty appetite, so we headed to the Stable Cafe, just a few steps from where our tour ended. The restaurant is actually housed in the compound's stables. We happily grabbed a booth in one of the horse stalls.
Stable Cafe offers hearty options on their menu that feature local ingredients, including some grown on the estate. Adding to the authenticity was the theme of their offerings. Everything from the rotisserie chicken to the Carolina barbeque, southern fried chicken salad, and bison burgers seemed like menu items the Vanderbilts themselves might have enjoyed for a casual lunch at the Biltmore. After a couple hours of touring, the rotisserie chicken I ordered hit the spot.
The Stable Cafe kitchen and rotisserie; looking down on the horse stall booths.
Above- my rotisserie chicken with seasonal veggies and creamy whipped potatoes. Below-the dessert sampler which was delicious. We did everything short of licking the plate clean.
The Biltmore also had plenty of dining options in their courtyard area, where many families seemed to prefer sitting outside and having the options of a brick oven pizza stand, a sandwich shop, and an ice cream parlor. The courtyard also had loads of shops, which we visited after lunch before taking off to explore more of the grounds.
Folks enjoying their lunch in the courtyard's sunshine; us getting our token "we visited the Biltmore" pic.
If you thought a two hour tour of a 250 room mansion was exhausting, you may want to take an inhaler before you explore the rest of the estate. The Biltmore has acres and acres of gardens and well manicured trails, streams, and fishing holes.
The vibrant harvest colors of the flower gardens matched the fall foliage.
The "Bass Pond", which was actually more of a lake, complete with boat house and multiple bridges spanning it.
The most time-consuming part of touring the grounds was venturing through the wooded walkways trying to find the bass pond. Some fellow walkers told us the bass pond was a short quarter mile walk up the path. Uh, no. I felt like we hiked for miles before we finally found it. Had I known the grounds were so extensive, I would have brought a water bottle, and maybe some walking shoes. I was grumbling, thirsty, and tired by the time we got to the pond, but the beauty we found upon arrival was worth it.
Foliage around the Bass Pond; geese enjoying the late October afternoon.
After all that walking and whining, there was only one thing that would cheer me up. A free wine tasting! When I said this estate was sprawling, I was not exaggerating. Once we got to our car, it took a good 10 minutes to drive to the Antler Hill Village part of the property and it's winery.
Enjoying a tasting tour of the Biltmore wines. All samples were free, we even tried some wines twice.
After stocking up on wine and taking a stroll around the shops at Antler Hill Village, we called it a day. And what a day it was. I was thankful for the hot tub at our hotel so I could soak my tired, blistered feet that night.
Monday meant more walking, but this time we had a guide. We had signed up for a walking food tour through downtown, thinking it'd be a fun thing to do with our last few hours in Asheville. What a pleasant surprise it was! The city let its true gourmet, foodie-friendly colors shine.
A tour guide took us and our small tour group through town to five different locally-owned restaurants, and all were uniquely delicious! We were educated about Indian street food (totally different than your typical Indian buffet) at Chai Pani; feasted on bacon wrapped almonds and sipped wine at Table; sampled fine local chocolates and truffles at The French Broad Chocolate Lounge; visited the first of it's kind Gourmet Chip Company offering sweet and savory varieties of potato, plantain, and taro root chips; and, finally, mixed culinary genius with a sultry, inviting atmosphere at Zambra tapas.
We not only got to eat some amazing dishes on the tour, we got a behind the scenes glimpse at each restaurant and individual attention from the people run them. These folks were truly passionate about what they were offering Asheville and its visitors. It probably helps that we toured on a weekday between the lunch and dinner rush, free from the crowds, which made us feel extra VIP.
Trying out fried okra, a puffed rice salad, and a mango lassi at Chai Pani; sampling a German red wine at Table.
Organic, locally-roasted and produced chocolate at The French Broad; the red sangria at Zambra tasted like "Christmas in a Glass".
Stuffed though we were, I had to stop by the French Broad Chocolate Lounge one more time before we hit the road. I just had to try their "liquid truffle" hot chocolate. I was curious if it would taste like the creamy, thick hot chocolate I had fallen in love with when I visited Spain a few years ago and had not been able to find since. It did not disappoint. The smooth chocolate with the consistency of hot pudding coats your mouth like no other hot chocolate can. I'm glad I made that pit stop!
Our long weekend in Asheville was jam-packed with activities, making it not the most relaxing vacation, but certainly a productive one. I'm glad we were able to see so many aspects of the area in a short amount of time, and I definitely would love to go back. The fall is the busiest time of year for Asheville tourism, so it can be crowded and certainly expensive, but I think well worth it to see those beautiful, multi-colored mountains at least once in your life.
For me, I think a Christmas trip to The Biltmore is in order.
For a comprehensive guide to Asheville, go to www.ExploreAsheville.com.
To start planning your trip to The Biltmore Estate, visit www.Biltmore.com.
If you want to explore Asheville one bite at a time as I did, check out www.EatingAsheville.com.