Tag Archives: Asheville

Asheville: the Vanderbilt Estate

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Thanks to my conference’s organisers, R and I were able to get about $20 off price of entry each, otherwise we probably wouldn’t have visited Biltmore House, the home of the Vanderbilts – the normal entry price is $50 per adult.

As with a number of historic houses in the US, they allocate ticket-holders time slots in which you can view the house. We had enough time before our slot to check out the grounds, but there were also restaurants where you could have spent the time – or the estate also includes a winery, in an area called ‘Antler Village’, where you can also find accommodation. The whole estate is 125,000 acres, so it’s best to visit by car – take care to read the signs for directions to the house, or you might find yourself headed the wrong way on a one-way system of slow estate roads…

Anyway, we eventually made it to the parking lot for the house and gardens, and went for a wander. While we were visiting in what was still pretty much winter, there were some things to see in the gardens.

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It took us about an hour to while our way down to the Bass pond and back to the Italian Garden and South Terrace, walking through the Shrub Garden, the Spring Garden, the Azalea Garden, the Walled Garden, the Rose Garden and the Conservatory.

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While the azaleas and roses weren’t out, there were plenty of Spring flowers in evidence, and some beautiful magnolia trees. We also saw Cypress Tree ‘knees’ for the first time! Of course, the Conservatory had plenty of flowering plants in its tropical-house atmosphere; it was clearly designed to display wealth – I’ve never seen so many orchids in one place.

As we walked up to the South Terrace and Italian Garden we began to appreciate the beauty of Biltmore’s setting. Asheville is located on the western Blue Ridge Mountains, but its also just to the east of the Great Smoky Mountains. Biltmore has panoramic mountain views, and some lovely terraces from which to enjoy them.

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The house itself is a sight to see. We had been told that it was ‘crazy’, but we thought that might be in part because Americans are less used to stately homes. Biltmore is the largest privately owned house in America, at 178,926 square feet (thank you Wikipedia), but R and I respectively grew up near Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and Penrhyn Castle in Bangor.

But it’s true. Biltmore is crazy. As we walked along the South Terrace we encountered the almost French Chateau style towers, with their strange diagonal windows, its Tudor chimneys, and Gothic crenelations, and then we walked through the Italian garden with its faux Roman/Greek statues. It was a bit bewildering.

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As we followed the self-guided tour around the house we became confirmed in our view that this place is really a monument to a family with a lot of money and no taste. We couldn’t help but compare this palace to the modest homes of Washington and Jefferson. Biltmore was just crammed with as much treasure as could be seized from the Old World as possible. The thing that most amazed me was that one of the ceilings had been painted by a Renaissance Italian painter – they had transported the entire thing from Italy! They also had Napolean’s chess set…

The Vanderbilt who commissioned the house was not the famous industrialist and ship builder, Cornelius Vanderbilt, but his grandson, George. Born into the Vanderbilt fortune, his brothers managed the family business while he whiled away his time in study, building this house, and the pursuits of a country gentleman. We found it very strange that the dining room of Biltmore was decorated with flags from the war of independence, for this family that seemed to be intent on reproducing the British class system in the new Republic.

Apart from the sheer amount of treasure, the house did just seem like a turn-of-the-century British stately home; American fans of Downton Abbey must love it. The things that stood out for us though were the expensive modern touches that British families hadn’t been able to afford in the early twentieth century as war, social change and economic downturns altered their way of life. At Biltmore, in this period, the Vanderbilts and their other rich friends had plenty of fun. There was a games room with not one, but two billiard tables, a bowling alley, and an indoor swimming pool and gym complex, complete with changing rooms!

It took us about an hour to tour the house, and by the end we were a little shell-shocked, and in need of our beer and oysters (see my last post). Overall I found Biltmore a little much. But I certainly wouldn’t have minded waking up to those views every day.

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Asheville road trip: eating and drinking in Asheville

Asheville is a great town in which to spend a weekend – especially if you have some weather like we had.

When people had told us about Asheville they had talked about the craft breweries, the arty/hipster vibe of the town and the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore House and Estate. Luckily it turned out that it was possible to experience all of these in just a few days, and in fact we fit most of our sightseeing and pub-crawling into just one day, as I was actually attending my conference the rest of the time(!)

So here’s a run down of where we ate and drank over the three days we had in Asheville.

Brews

Wicked Weed: Our first night in Asheville we managed to find the Wicked Weed Brewing pub/restaurant. They specialise in West Coast-style hoppy IPAs and they did not disappoint. This is my kind of beer, so I was pretty happy. Their burgers were also amazing, including one topped with pancetta and pork rinds and a bison burger with hoi sin sauce and blue cheese coleslaw. I liked the complimentary pretzels with mustard dip. Some of the beers are rather strong, and some are a bit experimental – mango guava gose anyone? – but I’d rather have a place that misses from time to time than one that isn’t interested in trying stuff out.The pub has a large garden area and is able to open most of its frontage to the open air, so you feel like you’re eating outside even when you’re inside. They also have a downstairs tasting room and a yard area that gets busy on a weekend evening, with long tables, loud music and games of corn hole. We ended up here for a late night drink the next night…

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Lexington Avenue Brewery: On Friday we started here, closer in to the center of town. This place has a nice variety of beers, and I was able to find a nice session beer to start the evening with. No free snacks here, but we ordered some really great soft pretzels. Although this place does not have a garden, if you can get seats at the front you can lean on the large window ledges and enjoy the open air of the square outside. This was also a really friendly place – we got some good recommendations for other breweries from the other patrons here.

Oysterhouse Brewing Company:

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We stopped here for a mid-afternoon snack after going round Biltmore. On first sight it looks just like a nice cafe-bar on a corner. There’s a few tables out front, the frontage opens to the street, and there’s a nice bar with oyster shells embedded in the top. If you go to the bathroom though, you come across the brewery! We had a really great stout here, along with some excellent oysters. I didn’t expect to find good seafood in the mountains, but these were fresh from New England, and delicious.

The Wedge:

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This was probably our favourite brewery in Asheville. Based in a few old buildings by the railway, in the Asheville Arts District, this place has a large amount of outside space for people to enjoy, and free mini-pretzels and a Korean barbecue food truck in case you get hungry. We sat in the sunshine, at a picnic table which we ended up sharing with a group of hikers who had just finished a hike in the mountains. They were interested to find out how we’d found the Wedge, and what people had told us about Asheville, and were very happy to give us some recommendations for where else to drink, and eat, and hear some music. As can happen when you find that perfect beer and a sunny place to enjoy it in, time rather got away from us at this brewery, and we ended up heading back to the hotel sunburnt and sleepy.

The Thirsty Monk: We came here for a beer while we waited for a table at Tupelo Honey. It was a cool pub, decorated with signs from breweries from around the US, and the beer was good, Belgian style beer.

Food

Tupelo Honey: Although this is a chain, we decided it was worth eating here while we were in Asheville. And it was good. First came pickled and fried vegetables with ranch dressing, and fried green tomatoes with grits. I must admit, I just don’t get fried green tomatoes. The grits were great, but the tomatoes were just acidic. For mains we decided to go with the meals that included a choice of two sides, as a Southerner once told us that Southern-style food is all about the sides. I had the Carolina pan-seared trout along with mac and cheese and basil fried green beans, which was just perfect, while R went the whole hog and had fried chicken with gravy, sweet potatoes and okra – very Southern!

Biscuit Head:

I cannot recommend this place highly enough. We went here on the way out to Biltmore for breakfast/brunch and it was a revelation in biscuits. Here we were introduced to the Cat head biscuit – biscuits literally as big as a cat’s head – smothered in various breakfasty toppings and sauces. This is probably the only place in the world you can get a flight of gravies to go with your biscuit. We had a go at sharing both the pulled pork biscuit (which comes with maple syrup, pimento, bacon and a poached egg) and the country ham biscuit (which comes with cheese, scrambled egg, fried green tomato and espresso gravy). It’s a lovely place too, with space in and out, and friendly staff. You queue to order and then find somewhere to sit – it doesn’t take as long as you might fear from the length of the queue, and while we were queuing they brought out refreshing testers of iced chai. You also get unmatched proper mugs for your coffee, which I thought was a nice touch.

Getting Around

While Asheville has a nice and compact downtown area, and you can just about walk to the downtown arts district – which is around where the Wedge is – we found that it was helpful to have a car, especially to get to Biscuit Head and the Oysterhouse.

Locals’ Recommendations

We didn’t manage to check these places out, but we were told good things about them. One thing we noticed about Asheville was that its restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisines – if we hadn’t been so looking forward to Southern food and Brew-pub snacks, we would have been spoiled for choice. (Some of these might require reservations)

  • Zambra: tapas restaurant
  • Table: modern American restaurant
  • Limones: Californian/Mexican restaurant
  • Early Girl Eatery: brunch place
  • Catawba: brewery
  • Green Man: brewery
  • The Moth Light: music venue
  • Asheville Music Hall/One Stop Deli and Bar: food, drink and music

 

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Conference in Asheville? Roadtrip!

My travel blog and my academic blog are colliding!

This weekend I’m engaging in what I have heard derided as ‘academic tourism’. While I am committed to the conference’s mission of bringing together people from different, though related, disciplines to talk about the nineteenth century, the fact that it’s being held in Asheville, NC, might have been the decisive factor that made me apply.

Asheville is one of those places that everyone has told us to visit. It’s apparently an interesting, hipster town, full of art and craft breweries. Sadly I don’t think New Belgium has fully opened their new Asheville plant yet, but it doesn’t look like we will be short of alternatives.

I looked into a few travel options, but the cheapest by far was to hire a car and drive. It’s only about 7 hours from DC(!) Luckily it didn’t take much to convince R to join me, so we can share the driving. We’re also taking a slightly longer, scenic route so we can check out some of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way. There might also be a stop at Chik fil A…

I’m looking forward to this conference, and we’re both looking forward to being back on the road again!

Read the next instalment of this road trip blog: Asheville road trip: the Blue Ridge Mountains