In my mind I’m going to Carolina

“Dark and silent late last night,
I think I might have heard the highway calling.
Geese in flight and dogs that bite.
And signs that might be omens say I’m going, going,
going to Carolina in my mind.”
“Carolina in My Mind”, James Taylor, 1968

Okay, I have a thing for North Carolina which is probably a result of playing that first James Taylor album repeatedly when I was a teenager. I hear the words “North Carolina” and I feel the sunshine, smell the green, see the rolling hills.

We flew from Albuquerque to Atlanta on Thursday for a 10 day trip to North Carolina and Virginia. The three and a half hour flight went quickly because we both plugged into my iPod and watched the first three episodes of season two of Weeds.

When I planned our flights I thought the Atlanta airport was north of the city – arrive at 4pm, get a rental car, be on the road by 5pm and not dealing with rush hour. However, the airport is south of the city, so we hit rush hour. We took a highway that loops around Atlanta, so we did not have to drive through the center of town, but the traffic was thick. It was a four hour drive to Asheville. They had a big storm this week and we got the tail end of it on the drive.

We were booked at the Inn at Biltmore, on the Biltmore Estate on the south side of town. We got to Asheville at 9pm and went straight to a Chinese restaurant that I had found online in listings for vegetarian friendly restaurants. Picked up some takeout food and drove onto the estate (China Palace South on Hendersonville Road – good quality food, good vegetarian options). We do not have good Chinese restaurants in Santa Fe, so when we are somewhere else we head straight for the Chinese restaurants.

Walking along a strip mall, while waiting for our food to be made, I thought that maybe what I like about traveling is the emotional upheaval. The excitement – isn’t this great?; look at the moon rising; look at those mountains. The unknown – will we find restaurants we like?; will the hotel be nice?; will I have fun here? The fear – why am I taking a trip and leaving my house that I love where I have all my support systems and my cat?

The Biltmore Estate is huge; 8,000 acres I think (but I heard other numbers). We drove in the pitch black on narrow winding roads to the hotel. It is a big hotel with rooms that are nice but not worth the price (over $300/night). What is worth the price is the service (for example, the valet gets you bottles of water for the car when you set out for the day!) and being on the Biltmore Estate. My only complaint is that you hear every door on your floor opening and closing, but even I forgave that because of the location. (Don’t book rooms 273 or 275 – they are right across from the administrative offices and that door opens and closes nonstop.)

On Friday morning we had breakfast at the hotel, then took their shuttle bus to the Biltmore House. You get a good tour of the estate on the shuttle bus and it seems like the house is 10 miles from the hotel, but on Saturday we walked and it is only a 1 ½ hour walk (as the crow walks). Friday was sunny but a bit cool. The big storm that hit the area earlier in the week had finally moved off.

Detail from the Biltmore House
Detail from the Biltmore House

We dislike “typical tourist sites” and frequently avoid them. That was what we did when we were in Asheville 20 years ago. But this time we went straight to the major site of the area and loved it. The Biltmore house is amazing. It is like touring an English manor house. The house is huge – four acres of floor space on four floors. We did the audio tour in about half the recommended time (how many pretty bedrooms do you really need to look at?). The part where we took our time was the basement with the huge kitchens, laundry rooms, indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley! This house was built in the late 1800s and was the first in the area to have indoor plumbing and electricity.

The estate grounds are even more wonderful than the house. When George Vanderbilt bought the land, it had been logged and there were no trees. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, to design the grounds. They planted forests, created meadows and created gardens. With the narrow roads and the picturesque hillsides dotted with huge trees, you feel like you are in the Cotswolds in England, not the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Cotswolds or Blue Ridge?
Cotswolds or Blue Ridge?

Friday night was part one of a two part Slow Travel Get Together (GTG). This was the reason for the trip. We drove to the nearby town of Brevard and spent a wonderful evening with a group of regular Slow Travelers at Linda and John’s house. Some we had met before, but some we were meeting for the first time. We spent hours talking, had a nice catered dinner, watched some fun group performances, then talked some more. Linda had homemade limoncello that was the best I have ever had (she used the recipe from a Frances Mayes book).

On Saturday we planned to go for a walk on the estate and then go into Asheville. The sun was out and the day was warm (in the low 70s). We did a three hour walk from the Inn to the Biltmore House via the Lagoon and back.

Trail along the French Broad River
Trail along the French Broad River on the Biltmore Estate

We stopped at the Winery, which is just below the hotel, and had lunch at the Arbor Grill. The food was very good and we sat outside. I was happy that there were several vegetarian options because the restaurant at the Biltmore House had only one (boring) vegetarian entrée. By the time we were done with the walk and lunch, there was only time for a nap and a shower before heading back to Brevard. No Asheville visit!

The Saturday night GTG was fun. We met again at Linda and John’s house and visited for an hour and a half. Steve taught Kathy and Charley’s daughter Kelly how to juggle! We all went to a restaurant in Brevard – the Hob Nob – for a nice dinner. There were about 30 in our group and we had three tables in the upstairs area of the restaurant.

It was sad leaving everyone after dinner and on the way back to the hotel Steve said “Now it is just us”. And the vacation begins. It begins by me changing our plans.

We were supposed to leave for Charlottesville on Sunday morning, but decided to spend an extra day here and see Asheville! We had been here for three nights and had not gone into Asheville. One of the reasons for this vacation is to check out three towns that were on our shortlist of places to live 20 years ago when we picked Santa Fe: Asheville, Charlottesville, Chapel Hill. We think it might be time to leave Santa Fe and we are trying to make a plan. We considered California and Arizona, but then crossed them off the list. Now we are looking in the east.

On Sunday we drove all around Asheville (it is small), walked around the downtown area (it is small) and had Sunday brunch at a great vegetarian restaurant – Laughing Seed. We both had eggs, sausage, potatoes and biscuits with gravy – a Southern breakfast, vegetarian style!! Soy sausage, biscuits with no lard, vegetarian gravy (which, of course, is not really gravy but a sauce). It reminded of us Café Flora in Seattle, where we lived 12 years ago. We used to go there for Sunday brunch most weekends.

It is funny how traveling can start the memories flooding back. Something new triggers the memory of something old and familiar. I get very emotional when I travel. Plus, every place we go, we are always thinking “should we move here?” Maybe it is just the thought of moving that makes me emotional.

I grew up in the east, so the landscape here feels familiar and the air feels like England, a place that I love. I like the town and the neighborhoods with historic houses. There are several good natural foods stores and a few vegetarian restaurants. I think Asheville is smaller than Santa Fe (which is 70,000), but there are more towns close by so it feels more populated here. The only thing that seems to be lacking, and I may be wrong, is a good walking area in town. You can drive out to good trails in the mountains, but I like to have a good place to walk in town. I was spoiled by Stanley Park in Vancouver, where you could walk for miles along the water or through the forests, but you were right beside the downtown area.

Still Asheville is pretty nice and is at the top of the shortlist right now. At the GTG, Jan said “Santa Fe is a little unreal, isn’t it?” Yes it is. I think we picked the most un-American place to land when we moved to the US. Not un-American as in not patriotic, but un-American in that Santa Fe is not your typical town. Adobe houses on dirt roads, no high buildings, certainly not in the center of things. Asheville feels more familiar. It reminds me of Bellingham, Washington or some of the towns in northern California.

But, tomorrow we drive to Charlottesville. And once again I have stayed up too late. Why do I never adjust to a new time zone!!!?

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.