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TRAVEL: Touring Asheville and Enjoying the Glorious Fall Foliage in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Posted on | November 14, 2017 | No Comments

Great Getaway for Nearby Virginians

By Saul Schwartz

Alexandria residents, Fern and Saul Schwartz, enjoying the glorious fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Taking advantage of Allegiant Airlines’ discount flights from Baltimore Washington Airport to Asheville, North Carolina, my wife Fern and I spent an active weekend in Asheville and the surrounding area.  During the first weekend of November, the leaves were spectacular, as we saw trees with orange, red and yellow leaves of various shades.  We rented a jeep, which seemed well-suited to the mountain terrain.  We spent one full day at the Biltmore, one day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and two evenings in downtown Asheville.    

The Beauty of a Biltmore Autumn

Biltmore House, in Asheville, NC is a Châteauesque-style mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895 and is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet of living area. Still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age. (Photo by Saul Schwartz)

In the morning, we visited the 250 room Biltmore House, America’s largest residential home.  You can’t go to Asheville without touring this French Renaissance chateau. After six years of construction, in 1895, George Vanderbilt officially opened Biltmore as an escape from everyday life for his family and for entertaining friends.  George was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his fortune with railroads.  George Vanderbilt’s heirs first opened the family home to the public in 1930.  This decision generated income for the estate and increased tourism in Asheville during the depression.  Day-to-day estate operations are now managed by Vanderbilt descendants.

Our tour included three floors of the house, with a fine representation out of the 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces and 3 kitchens, as well as the indoor bowling alley and 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool.  The 8000 acre grounds of the estate were aflame with colorful trees.  The self-guided audio tour by Biltmore curators was very informative and helped us explore the house.  The extra fee for the audio guide was well worth the price.  The décor includes many treasures collected by the Vanderbilt’s, such as 16th century Flemish tapestries, Ming Dynasty porcelain bowls and original paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent.  The Christmas decorations were amazing!

Fern and Saul Schwartz inside the Biltmore, already laden with holiday decorations.

Later we had a fabulous and relaxing lunch at the Bistro, with an exceptional cheese platter and a very tasty salad.  The Bistro features contemporary American cuisine and is located in Antler Hill Village, a five mile drive away from the Biltmore House.  After lunch we enjoyed the complimentary wine tastings at the Biltmore Winery in Antler Hill Village, the nation’s most visited winery.  Established in 1985, the Biltmore wine collection is large and we tasted several white, red and rose wines, some of which are exclusively available at Biltmore.   The wine host was very knowledgeable and she answered all of our questions.  We learned that the Asheville area is not particularly suitable for the growing of grapes, so most of Biltmore’s wines are from other vineyards.   Guests are allowed to taste up to twenty wines.

Inside the Biltmore Winery with Saul and Fern Schwartz.

In the afternoon, we took in the stunning beauty of the estate with a stroll through the extensive botanical gardens, designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (the famed creator of Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco).  The seventy five acres of formal gardens include classical statuary, walking paths and a conservatory.  

Scenic Fall Color in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The next morning we entered the park’s southern entrance near Cherokee, North Carolina, at the Oconaluffee Visitor Center.  To our surprise, there was no entrance fee into this wilderness sanctuary.  The park was created in 1934 to protect the southern Appalachian forest, which had been virtually eliminated by logging and fires.  Smoky Mountains has become the most visited national park in the United States.

The park is one of the largest protected areas in the Eastern United States.  Most of its 800 square miles and one-half million acres are forested stretching over gentle blue ridges from most view points to the horizon.  At this time of year, the leaves were extremely beautiful with all shades of colors ranging from bright yellows, orange and reds to dark greens and browns.  At lower elevations in the park, leaves typically change color between mid-October and early November.  Park roads were well maintained and were only crowded near park entrances and exits.

We went on a short hike and viewed several remaining weathered structures from the days when the park was established by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  We crossed a narrow foot bridge over mountain streams and through lush forests with spectacular fall colors, while we heard the rush of rapids underfoot.

We drove on the 7 mile Clingmans Dome Road to the park’s highest peak at 6643 feet.  Unfortunately, as is common, visibility at the third highest peak in the Eastern United States was not good at the top due to clouds, rain and bluish smoky mists.  At the higher elevation, the temperature was about fifteen degrees cooler than during our hike.  We were able to see majestic mountain views and the evergreen spruce-fir forest on both sides of the road.  A park ranger told us that the mountain was named for explorer and civil war general Thomas Lanier Clingman.  We learned that this road was closed one week earlier due to four inches of snow (and is always closed in winter).

Later in the day we traveled into Tennessee on the 32 mile long Newfoundland Gap Road to the park’s northern entrance, by the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.  We stopped at or viewed numerous overlooks with mountain views over various forests.  In the evening, Fern and I had a fabulous trout dinner in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  We ate at the Smoky Mountain Trout House, where the menu offered fresh rainbow trout from the Smokies prepared in many styles.

Evenings on Patton Avenue

Blue grass music in downtown Asheville. (Photo by Saul Schwartz)

Asheville’s downtown features a wide array of restaurants, art galleries and music venues.  The downtown is pretty vibrant and easily walkable from end to end.  We felt a funky, artsy vibe, along the lines of a smaller homey Nashville.  I didn’t feel too out of place even though I was often the only guy around without a beard!

We had extremely tasty vegan burgers and sweet potato fries at Farm Burger.  After diner, we indulged at the gourmet chocolate shop French Broad Chocolates.  The dessert restaurant features an entire menu of drinking chocolates, including the signature liquid truffles!  All of the restaurant’s chocolates are made in their factory, so they advertise as “bean to bar.”  Finally, we enjoyed live blue grass music while having a drink at Jack in the Wood on Patton.

Lodging

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville.  The resort’s downtown Asheville shuttle allowed us to leave our car at the hotel and not worry about finding a spot downtown, where parking is limited.  A stay at the resort allowed us to use the large fitness center, including exceptional daily fitness classes.  The spin class was particularly challenging, even after we started to understand the twang of the two instructors and the country music blasting during the sixty minute session!

Although Asheville’s population is under 85,000, the city manages to combine the feel of a small mountain town with a trendier hip scene than we had anticipated.  As a result, our weekend went by all too quickly!

Saul Schwartz is a freelance writer and Alexandria resident who travels frequently with his family.

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