The Smokies are still smokin’

As I write, we are spending our last night in the Smokies. We are in another lovely B&B, the Charleston Inn in Bryson City – which is not, of course, a city but a rather charming small town. Our room is called the Treehouse because it’s two flights up and has a balcony overlooking a walnut tree. Excellent for the drinking of beer after a hard day, as you can see.

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We also have this lovely lily pond just outside our building.

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Yesterday, on our way over, we hiked a trail called Chimney Tops. It wasn’t the best choice, because the guide book we had didn’t warn us about the rock climb at the end. John made it some way up but was impeded by a large group of tourists who were taking their time (and lots of photographs) – and also by my anxious face peering up from below. It’s harder than it looks, so we missed the best views.

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Today, however, has been the best day’s hiking so far. There are two entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Bryson City and we explored both. In the morning, we visited the Deep Creek area which was very busy – not with hikers, but with people going tubing. This looked great fun. However, we did the Loop Trail which took in three waterfalls: Juney Whank, Tom’s Branch and Indian Creek.

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After a picnic lunch, we moved on to the Lakeview Drive, known to locals as the Road to Nowhere. As part of FDR’s New Deal, a dam was built to create Lake Fontana and, to replace a road flooded in the process, Lakeview Drive was promised. That was 1943 and it has never been completed. It ends within the park at a 1200 foot tunnel, now only accessible on foot, and through that are various trails. We did the Goldmine Loop which took us down to the lake and back up – a stiff climb which left us needing those beers. In contrast to the morning, we didn’t see a single other person on this walk so, apart from worrying about meeting a bear, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think we’ve done 8 or 9 miles today.

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As you might have gathered, I am fascinated by the variety of fungi here and today we saw several new kinds.

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As I said, Bryson City is a pleasant little town. Last night, we ate in Trip Advisor’s number one recommendation, the Cork and Bean, a wine bar / coffee bar combination which also does wonderful crepes. On the way home, we spotted a Chinese restaurant and went in to see if their menu was suitable for vegetarians – this is a frustration with this country, they don’t have to display a menu at the door. Anyway, the staff were friendly and it looked fine and I was ridiculously excited all day about going there – there have been some definite culinary highlights so far, but a lot of pasta and veggie burgers too. In the end, it was very good – despite the staff who were on tonight not having such good English as last night, any misgivings were unfounded and the veggie meal turned out to be completely veggie. Kung Po tofu with cashew nuts was particularly good.

So, last words on Bryson City – it’s a pretty little mountain town….

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……which post-dates the Civil War and therefore has a statue of a 1WW soldier instead of the usual Confederate…..

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…..and best of all, takes pride in encouraging its kids to read:

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This has been a long post but there was a lot to fit in. Tomorrow, we head back into Georgia to a cabin on Blood Mountain. No wi-fi and probably no phone signal, so might not be online again until we get home. Ciao.

Asheville and around

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Is this the prettiest B&B yet? Maybe. Beaufort House in Asheville is certainly lovely.We’ve had 4 nights here. As well as the Biltmore visit I wrote about earlier, we have also been to Chimney Rock Park. This is a view looking down on the rock as we climbed another 200 feet to the highest place in the park, Exclamation Point.

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It was an extremely hot day so, to recover, we also did a cooler and less strenuous trail to Hickory Nut Falls. The next day was quite different. We drove south on the Blue Ridge Parkway (which actually had better views than the more northern parts we did previously) intending to climb Mount Pisgah. About half a mile from the trail head, we were alarmed to see that all the vehicles coming towards us had their headlamps on and, sure enough, we drove into a terrible rainstorm. We sat in the car for a while to see if it would clear, and eventually set off when the rain diminished to a light shower – but, you’ve guessed it, ten minutes later the heavens opened again. We completed the climb but ended up like drowned rats covered in mud. It did clear a bit at the top – the view was quite atmospheric, but doesn’t look much in the pictures. This one at least gives the impression of the waves of blue mountains receding into the distance.

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Asheville is a great place for eating and downtown always seems to be buzzing. We tried Tupelo Honey for real Southern fare. The choice for vegetarians wasn’t huge, but what I had was lovely – a bowl of goat cheese grits, black beans, spinach, tomatoes and loads of other stuff I’ve forgotten. Asheville is also noted for its microbreweries – the one we went to was LAB (Lexington Avenue Brewey) where the food was basic but the beer was great. There are at least two completely vegetarian restaurants, bliss for me. The Laughing Seed was fantastic, not only the food but the cocktails. John had a basil and ginseng martini which looked like a salad in a glass- basil leaves and a baby tomato instead of an olive – and tasted of pesto. It made my mint julep almost seem dull but I believe that is the thing to drink in the South! We went back there for our last evening in Asheville and tried the chocolate ginger martini instead of dessert, then had a stroll round downtown which was even busier than usual, full of young people out on a Friday night. I love being able to go out with no jacket and sit outside to eat.

Tomorrow, we are driving through the Smokies into Tennessee.

We have lunch at the Vanderbilts’……

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…….well, as paying guests anyway! George W. Vanderbilt built this beautiful home for himself in Asheville, the town where we are now staying, in1895. Biltmore House looks like a Loire chateau but was fitted out with all mod cons for the time. Hardly anyone had electricity then, for example, but GWV even had underwater lights in his swimming pool. The house and gardens have been open to the public since 1930 to bring in money to preserve the estate, but are still owned by the Vanderbilt family. Prices are eye-watering. We booked online in advance to SAVE $15 per ticket, but it’s a must-see in the area so we gritted our teeth and paid up. However, in the end I felt we did get our money’s worth as we arrived about 11am and didn’t leave till after 7pm, having had a fabulous time.

We toured the house first and blew most of the savings we made on admission by hiring audio guides ($10 each) but they were really good and told you more than the booklet you could pick up free on the way in. We were in the house over two hours! As well as some of the public rooms and the Vanderbilts’ bedrooms, we saw the aforementioned pool and other leisure facilities – he also had a gym and a bowling alley. The kitchens and servants’ quarters gave a realistic perspective of the work involved in running a house like that and were very comfortable for the time so he was probably quite a good employer.

The Stables Cafe is great for lunch – I had a roast veg, smoked cheese and pesto sandwich which was absolutely delicious. Then we braved the sun to wander round the gardens for another couple of hours. Finally, we visited an area where they have converted old farm buildings into a winery and display area. We toured the winery and got to taste some of its products (not bad, but not great) and saw an exhibition of Tiffany lampshades. All in all, an excellent day. Here are a few more shots of the house and grounds.

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Blue Ridge Parkway

I’ve wanted to travel the Blue Ridge Parkway for many years, and yesterday we did the Boone to Asheville section of it. It was very scenic with lush greenery and, well, the blue ridges of the mountains. I think I’d have been disappointed though if we hadn’t already done the Skyline Drive in Virginia, which runs into it, a few years ago. I had the impression that both would be roads running along ridges with the ground falling away at the sides and views all around. Neither is like that (though we did travel a road in Utah last year that was – scarily so.) We stopped at Linville Falls, Linville Caverns and Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the Eastern USA. As Mitchell was my maiden name, I was pleased to have my photograph taken with the sign! It was a bit misty to get much of a view but there was a lovely nature trail at the top with a fascinating number of different kinds of mushroom. Well, we liked them anyway. On the way down, the mist rolled in and it started to pour, so for many miles visibility was almost non-existent. Not the best thing on a mountain road, but we got here.

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Boone and bears

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On Sunday, we drove through South Carolina to get to Boone in North Carolina. The drive was quite dull, all freeway, and it rained just as we got here so it wasn’t a great day. However, the place we had chosen to stay, Lovill House Inn, is absolutely lovely (I know how to pick ’em), and being received with a glass of wine definitely helped cheer us up. The first night, all the rooms were taken and it was quite sociable, but the second night we had the place to ourselves. We’d been told Boone wasn’t a very pretty town, though the reason I selected it wasn’t for its looks but to act as a gateway to the mountain part of our holiday. Actually, we really liked it. True, the road in was the usual strip of fast food chains and motels but the “Old Downtown” area was much more attractive with a good range of restaurants (always the most important thing). We ate in Hob Nob Farm Cafe which was the second place I’ve been spoilt for choice (after the Jepson Cafe in Savannah). As a vegetarian I’m used to just having one or two options and I almost don’t know how to pick when I can eat almost everything on the menu.

We visited Grandfather Mountain (see above). Part way up, there is a wildlife preserve. I’m not in favour of animals in captivity, but these were creatures who had been injured or were otherwise incapable of surviving in the wild. The highlight was this beautiful bear, below. We have seen bears in the wild but (thankfully) not up this close, so it was a wonderful experience.

Below, you can also see me looking intrepid further up on one of the peaks. Of course, the cheat is you drive almost all the way and get to this rocky part over the Mile High Bridge. There are rugged trails up the peak you can see beyond the bridge, but it looks very steep and those bare, rocky parts are navigated by ropes and ladders, so I decided that definitely wasn’t for me. Instead, we found another trail, the Boone Fork Loop, a 5 mile walk alongside a creek (which we crossed and recrossed many times) which was very muddy. Just like home.

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