Carolinas on My Mind
Our adventure began as a road trip to see the fall foliage. It turned into something much more.
Just our luck: My wife and I decided to venture to the Carolina mountains for a few days in mid-October to take in the brilliant fall foliage. But wouldn’t you know that this year, record warm temperatures and windy conditions would put a damper on Mother Nature’s show.
Disappointed? Hardly. The mountains don’t need autumn colors to be gorgeous. Our road trip to North and South Carolina had many stops—from a 535-million-year-old granite monolith that’s been a tourist attraction for over a century to the peaceful home of one of America’s most famous writers. Meanwhile, excursions into the downtowns of Asheville (N.C.) and Greenville (S.C.) provided dazzling accommodations and cuisine.
Word is the late-arriving, subdued show of leaves is finally being staged this week. But the following recommendations are good any time. Our random itinerary involved skirting Greenville on the way north, going through the mountains to Asheville, then looping back to Greenville. Although you’ll need to make reservations for the hotels and the trendiest restaurants, most of the stops are a matter of simply pulling off the road and/or walking right in. It’s less than 8 hours by car from Orlando to Greenville (via I-95, I-26 and I-385), with Asheville 75 minutes farther. In the “Along the Way’’ section at the bottom you’ll find notable places to stop between here and the mountains.
Go forth and enjoy!
A Magnificent Introduction
U.S. Highway 276 is a scenic winding road leading out of Greenville through the bucolic town of Travelers Rest, toward Caesars Head State Park, where you can pull off at the visitors center, walk a short trail, and take in stunning views. The next must stop is Looking Glass Falls, one of North Carolina’s most popular waterfalls. A few miles up the road is the Cradle of Forestry in America, where Dr. Carl Schenck established the first forestry school in the U.S. in 1898 and managed the forests of George Vanderbilt’s nearby Biltmore Estate. There’s a series of peaceful trails leading from the informative visitors’ center with stops at both original and reconstructed buildings of the school. Continue on 276 until you hit the Blue Ridge Parkway and head to Asheville, taking advantage of the various overlooks and hiking trails along the way.
AC Hotel Asheville Downtown
This sleek, stylish hotel, opened just over two years ago, features 132 rooms, plenty of public spaces, an abundance of artwork from local and regional artists, and a ninth floor that boasts a rooftop bar, Capella on 9. There you can enjoy handcrafted cocktails, tapas and a daily breakfast. AC is in the middle of downtown Asheville so you’re just steps from art galleries, culinary hotspots and craft cocktail bars. In the winter there are drink specials that revolve around cocktails like hot toddies, mulled wine and hot chai lattes. Check out the hotel website by clicking here.
Drinks, Dining and Art
Just around the corner from the AC is Sovereign Remedies, a downtown charmer that gives new meaning to the words “drink’’ and “bartender.’’ Because what’s served here are spirited creations, carefully assembled by a talented mixologist. The person on duty the Sunday afternoon we stopped by was Casey, a personable twentysomething sporting a handlebar moustache. And one drink quickly became two. That’s the “Moon Over Brooklyn” pictured above, which consists of Old Overholt Rye, Dolin blanc, Cynar, Luna Amara, orange bitters and an Islay rinse. There’s a great artisanal cheese board with house-made focaccia (also seen at top), light bites like crispy pig ears, bone marrow tater tots and a full dinner menu. Also near the hotel is the top-rated
Cúrate (pronounced COO-rah-tay), the Spanish tapas paradise created by James Beard Award-nominated chef Katie Button. That photo immediately above is of the scrumptious pimientos de piquillo rellenos, which are piquillo peppers stuffed with Spanish goat cheese. A morsel of advice: Call weeks ahead for a reservation. Before drinks and dinner, spend an hour—or two—at the fabulous Blue Spiral 1 gallery, with its three floors of breathtaking artworks representing nearly 100 artists, in addition to more than 15 shows annually.
Heading back south is Chimney Rock, a huge granite outcropping that offers magnificent views of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. Access the parking area via a three-mile winding road, then choose how to ascend to the rock itself—either by elevator, or the 499-step Outcroppings Trail staircase. Unless you have some physical limitations, choose the staircase; sure, you’ll be tired but it’s a good tired. If you’re really worn out at the top you can always take the elevator back down. Or (gulp!) you can venture even higher via another, 300-step staircase. All in all, Chimney Rock is well worth the price of admission of $15 adults/$7 kids ages 5-15. Then, move down U.S. 64, where approaching Hendersonville is the not-to-be-missed Grandad's Apples N' Such. Those who enter the big red barn will find more than 20 varieties of apples raised on the adjoining 80-acre family farm, from Braeburn and Golden Delicious to Pink Lady and Winecrisp. There’s also apple butter and, best of all, apple cider slushies. Open late July through mid-November. And finally, just outside Hendersonville is the home of populist poet, writer and editor Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). Choose the house tour, or simply walk the pastoral grounds and reflect. Be sure to say hello to the friendly resident herd of goats, descendants of the hundreds raised by Sandburg's wife, Lillian.
Aloft Greenville Downtown
One of many reasons to love this three-year-old hotel in the heart of downtown: its foster dog program. Like its Orlando counterpart, Aloft partners with a local rescue organization and houses one dog at a time that can be adopted by hotel guests and locals. At last count the hotel had found homes for more than 70 dogs. Need we say that this place is dog-friendly? For humans, the offerings are 144 rooms and a selection of suites, including six poolside cabana rooms. On the fourth floor is the W XYZ bar, which opens up to The Ledge, overlooking ONE City Plaza. The hotel displays works by local and regional artists (dig that doghouse above) and showcases local musicians on Friday and Saturday nights. Get hotel details by clicking here.
The dining choices are abundant but you can't go wrong with these two (and could they be any different?). First, there's Basil Thai, a fantastic upscale casual spot right next to Aloft. Pictured are the chicken pad prik (basil, peppers and onion) and the vegetable fried rice. Even the wonton soup is special, dipped from a heated pot brought to the table. Then, up the road a piece from downtown, we have the down-home Stax's Original, where the servers call you "sweetheart'' and "honey.'' There are delicious pancakes and the standard eggs/ham/grits plates that I expected. What I didn't expect was gravy and biscuits that tasted like my mom's. You can't pass up this place.
Along the Way
Going to and from the mountains, check out the following spots in Florida and Georgia:
* Gilbert's Social, the Jacksonville barbecue restaurant created by Chef Kenny Gilbert. Be adventurous and try Kenny's Southern Bowl, with garlic rice, field peas, braised turnip and mustard greens, crumbled social drop biscuit and your choice of meat.
* St. Marys Seafood & More, an unpretentious seafood spot off I-95 in the town of St. Marys, Ga., on the Florida border. Magnificent platters at a nice price.
* The Hyatt Regency Savannah, right along the riverfront and its myriad shops, bars and restaurants. Get a room that overlooks the river, or enjoy a drink in the lobby while watching the cargo ships and their accompanying tugs chug by.