The Mountains of North Carolina

 

          Lila and I wanted to get away for a few days this summer...somewhere cool and a destination where we would drive rather than fly.  For some time we were thinking of heading toward Canada...somewhere cool, but had no real destination in mind.  In fact, we had made no plans whatsoever.   While this was not our usual practice...we usually plan our visits so that we can select the accommodations that most interest us.  But this time, well, we had not accomplished any planning at all.   Maybe it meant that we were not really keen on a trip to Canada possibly because we had previously been to the places we were thinking about visiting.  

             About a week before our planned departure date, Lila suggested that we head to the western part of North Carolina...down to Asheville via the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We had talked about seeing the Biltmore Estate for some time, but have never made it happen.  It sounded great...a place we had never been before and an opportunity to be in the North Carolina mountains where the weather is almost always cool...really, that is what everybody has always told me.   Any you all know just how much I like the cool weather.

             Well, it was a plan...and we immediately made some reservations on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Ashville, but more important it gave us a long desired opportunity to visit Bea and Harold, our longtime friends who were staying in the mountains for the summer and also, to visit Marjorie and Ron, who have been asking us to visit them in Waynesville, North Carolina for some years and had about given up on getting us to ever do so.  So with reservations in hand and acknowledgements and directions from our friends we set off for North Carolina. 

             On the way down we hit a huge and extended thunder storm along Interstate 81 just south of Front Royal which kept our trip very interesting for almost an hour.  Traffic was backed up at times what with three accidents that we passed on our journey.   But after about five hours we drove onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and started our trip on the Parkway.  I had last been there some fifty years ago, when my family was returning from a trip to Florida via the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It looked the same as the image I had retained in memory...a two-lane road curving through the most beautiful countryside one could wish for.  Mountains in the distance and beautiful green trees and plants flush along the parkway borders. 

             A short distance from where we entered the park, we reached the Peaks of Otter Lodge just off the parkway.  Situated adjacent to Abbot Lake, the lodge offered rooms and meals for their guests.  Otherwise, it was at least a ten mile trip into the nearby city of Bedford, Virginia for any other accommodations or restaurants.  Always true to the park facilities, we had our meals at the lodge, even though park food is generally basic and uninteresting.  But, being immersed in the environs and enjoying the evening solitude when the day visitors leave, makes staying in the park very special. 

             It was still quite warm and while, we hiked about three miles on our free day, the humidity and rising temperatures made more extensive hikes much less desirable.  There were many trails and some interesting places to go...well, maybe another time.  One evening we sat in on lecture given by a Park Ranger, who had recently returned from fighting fires in Utah.  Educational and entertaining, the talk was great as we gained an in-depth appreciation for park management and the extent that the Park Service goes to keep the national park system open to the public.  Having recently returned from a visit to the national parks in southern Utah, Lila and I had a extraordinary admiration for what the Park Service Rangers and volunteers do for the visitors.

            

            The Peaks of Otter Lodge (Tel: 540-586-1081) was of more recent vintage than the lodges that we had recently visited in the western parks, having been built in 1965 and explains why I had no recollection of such facilities on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There were other lodges located further south on the parkway, but some did not have air-conditioned rooms (certainly not a concern of mine...sure).  After two days at the Lodge, we headed south to Banner Elk, North Carolina, just about ten miles south of Boone, North Carolina, to visit Bea and Harold. 

 

            

             Bea and Harold visit the mountains of North Carolina for the cool summers from their home in Boca Raton, Florida.  We have been friends with them for almost forty years and visiting them was real treat.  Up in the mountains of Banner Elk, their summer residence was not air conditioned, nor did it have to be....it went down into the fifties overnight and we had a great view of the well-known Grandfather Mountain from their deck.

 

             

             Just relaxing with Bea and Harold, talking about our many visits together and learning about this area of North Carolina provided a wonderful facet of our trip.  Spending time with Bea and Harold has always been fun and this visit was no different. 

             But, then it was time to move on, so we headed south to Asheville driving from Banner Elk on the Blue Ridge Parkway...it is a slow, but visually rewarding trip as the scenery just keeps getting better and better.  At about 35 miles/hour, we did not make much headway, but pulling into the roadside viewpoints kept us constantly looking at the surrounding mountains and valleys below.    As we drop down into the valley where Asheville is located the temperature kept creeping up until it reached about 98oF...not any cooler than back home.   Needless to say I was not a happy camper.

             The thermometer installed in vehicles is a great way for me to remain fully engaged with the outside air temperature and this time was no exception as it enabled me to get aggravated as the readings increased well into the nineties as we were leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed into Asheville.  With me looking at the thermometer and Lila navigating (oops, who was driving..., who cares) we found our way to the Colby House (http://www.colbyhouse.com) in the old historic part of the city. 

 With full length doors from each of the front rooms opening onto patios, Colby House is a beautifully restored Dutch Tudor house built around 1924.   Its four rooms and a cottage offer excellent accommodations an excellent counterpart to the beautifully appointed common areas.  Morning breakfast was elegantly served in the dining room and afternoon cocktails in the living room or sitting room enabling guests to relax before dinner.   Lila and I unquestionably recommend Colby House to all who visit the Asheville area.

Our first afternoon we walked around town...but it was too damn hot, just too damn hot!  At the B&B, the innkeepers, Peter and Bonnie soon came to fully understand my unhappiness with the heat, and yet it surprises me that anyone else would even be able to detect my predisposition to cool weather.   Well, the next morning, after breakfast at the B&B, Lila and I headed over to the Biltmore Mansion for our tour of the grounds and the mansion itself. 

Building started in 1889 and was completed by George Vanderbilt, grandson of the patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1895.  George had already been collecting paintings, tapestries and many other objects d’art for years during his travels abroad long before construction had even begun.  Selecting 25,000 acres in the mountains of North Carolina, known for its cool weather and beautiful scenery all year long, George built this 250 room French Renaissance “bungalow”.  But George had all the money anyone could ever hope to have and he could build any type of home that he desired.  So he created a home that reflected what he had experienced in his travels....an estate that marveled the best of the castles and the mansions of Europe. 

George Vanderbilt had the most exquisite gardens, lakes, stables and horses and all the amenities that technologically existed at that time, but were not economically available to the general public.  He had electrical elevators, intercom systems, heating, central hot water, electric lights, but not air conditioning.  Well, that is not exactly true, for the landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmstead (landscape architect for New York’s Central Park), who was selected to build the estate immediately realized that the cool air flowing from the Blue Ridge Mountains provided breezes that acted just like air conditioning.   With visitors who would stay for extended periods, especially during the summers; the estate would support in excess of 150 people, including the staff, who no doubt outnumbered the family and guests.  In fact, guests often brought their own servants to attend to their needs during the visit. 

 

We toured the rooms that the “upstairs” people (the family and guests) would use during their stay at the mansion, in addition to the rooms used by the “downstairs” people (or servants) for their work as well as their living quarters.  There was also a gymnasium, swimming pool room, supply rooms, power room, etc.  The opulence of the “upstairs” rooms was fascinating and granted a picture as to how kings and queens must have lived once upon a time and how the wealthy lived in this country during that era, drawing from what they had experienced and had the means to create. 

I know of no other mansion in this country that better portrays what riches have bought for those select few able to create the unimaginable lavishness and inimitable grandeur.  The estate today is situated on 8,000 acres which also includes a winery and the newly constructed Biltmore Inn and is still privately owned by George Vanderbilt’s grandson.  A must visit for all who visit the area.

            

 

Our stay in Asheville also took us to Chimney Rock...a rock on the edge of a cliff some 26 stories above the ground that visitors are able to walk onto and see exceptional vistas.  An elevator buried in the rock formation of the cliff whisks you up to the top or you can walk up in 95oF weather as this crazy writer did.  Otherwise, Chimney Rock is definitely a tourist event that you can avoid without much loss of excitement.  Lila and I also visited the Grove Park Inn which is a well known expensive landmark hotel in Asheville.  The main hotel was constructed of granite in 1913.  Many famous people have been guests, including Presidents, Cabinet members and old-time Hollywood stars.

There are many restaurants in Asheville supporting the many tourists who come to visit during almost ten months of the year, including the ever significant foliage season.  One restaurant, The Market Place on Wall Street in Asheville was exceptional for the uniqueness of its fare, the presentation of its dishes and service for their guests.   Asheville is a city in progress as it works very hard to modernize its infrastructure, while it attempts to retain its historic charm.

 

We next planned to visit Ron and Marjorie in Waynesville, North Carolina about a forty-five minute ride southwest of Asheville.  Ron and I worked together for many years, before he decided to retire to the mountains about eleven years ago.  As I indicated above, Ron and Marjorie had been urging us to visit them for some years, but it just did not happen, so the opportunity to see each other again after so many years was quite a treat. 

 

Ron was a programmer with the rare talent that you could tell him what you needed the computer to do and without notes or plans he could translate your ideas or needs into a reality...a program that would perform the desired task.   He understood your words and converted them to a computer program that worked every time.  Why was that so amazing?   Well nobody else could make it seem that easy and not in the time period that Ron could do it.  Together we worked for many years...side by side creating the tools that the Navy used in critical applications aboard ship. We had fun and we actually accomplished something. 

And so it was with great excitement, that we could be together again and I could also gain a sense of the life that Ron and Marjorie have in the mountains of Waynesville.  They do not have the severe heat that seems to plague so many of us today (that certainly does not include me), nor the traffic and congestion of the big cities.   It was an absolute joy to be their guests and to renew a friendship that was always special to me. 

 From Waynesville, we headed toward home using the interstate highways planning to stop along the way for the night.  But with the heat and terribly bad thunderstorms, we decided to continue on our way home.