Category Archives: United States

Asheville, Weaverville and Black Mountain (Western North Carolina)

Asheville is a city for enjoying the outdoors, Appalachian culture and eating!  Its new-age vibe melds well with its mountain past.  A Spring visit provides flowering dogwoods and vibrant green leaves along with smaller crowds than other seasons.

Asheville is home to at least 20 breweries.  (Check here for a list.)  It looks like there is always a party at the New Belgium Brewery.  Patios and greenspace for picnics provide a great place to chill.  Each day there are food trucks cooking up delectables like bao buns, kimchi or gourmet grilled cheese.  

The arts and crafts continue to thrive in Asheville.  The best place for meandering through streets of galleries is the River Arts District. Hundreds of artists are located in its collection of restored buildings along the French Broad River.

While gallery hopping, we found one of the best pizzas we’ve ever eaten at Fresh Wood Fired Pizza.  The Chevre with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red pepper, local goat cheese, mozzarella and fresh basil on a red sauce was expertly cooked in their wood fired oven.  This pizza on their colorful patio made for a delightful lunch!

The Southern Highland Folk Art Center provides traditional craftsmen a beautiful space to showcase their works.  Everything is for sale although it’s also a great place for browsing.  Handmade treasures include colorful quilts, intricate pottery and whimsical furniture.

It’s not a trip to Asheville without some outdoor adventure.  Near Black Mountain (“The Little Town That Rocks”), Catawba Falls Trail rewards with its magnificent cascading waterfalls.  The hike is fairly easy with a wide trail that usually follows alongside the water.  As this is a very popular hike, it’s important to go before 10 a.m. to avoid the crowds.  The last 100 feet are more challenging with some rock scrambling.  To see the entire cascade, the best vantage point is from large rocks in the middle of the water below the falls.

The vendor stalls at WNC Farmers Market showcase fresh produce, canned goods and local crafts.  As part of the farmer’s market, The Moose Cafe offers farm-to-table southern classics for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

On our travels, we often seek out areas designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. He envisioned The North Carolina Arboretum as part of his plan for the Biltmore Estate. While walking through, you can appreciate the insights that went into the design.  Unfortunately, we missed the unique Bonsai tree exhibit by a few weeks.  They were still inside “hibernating” for the winter.  

Read Fine Gardening’s Field Trip to the North Carolina Arboretum for specifics on what to do when visiting the gardens and hiking/biking trails.

Enjoying a beautiful sunset in a spectacular setting is always a perfect way to end a day.  Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, we savored the view from the aptly named Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn.  Walking around the inn was a treat as well.  It’s large stone fireplaces and open great rooms remind you of the amazing National Park lodges of the west.

From this short visit, a few of our favorite local eats: 

Asheville

Bonfire Barbeque – Recommended by an Asheville based friend.  (He tried the Ghost Pepper sauce.  We stayed with the traditional mustard sauce!)  Everything is delicious and the service incredibly hospitable.

The French Broad Chocolate Lounge – Handcrafted ice cream and cold, thick sipping chocolate made our day… but there’s also bonbons, cookies, brownies, cakes, mousse and brulee!

The Hop Ice Cream Cafe – Even on chilly nights, there can still be quite a line waiting for ice cream.  The cafe offers almost as many vegan selections as traditional ice creams.  Can’t help but love their slogan “Happiness through ice cream.”

Weaverville – (Cute small town with a walkable Main Street.) 

Well Bred Bakery – This bakery looks to have won lots of accolades.  We started our Asheville adventure here with a decadent combo – the Petite Eclair and the Lemon Poppyseed Cake.

Twisted Laurel – While there is a downtown location, the Main Street location in Weaverville provides a relaxing, lowkey ambiance. Their varied menu makes it hard to choose.  No regrets with the Greek Platter!

Black Mountain

Black Mountain Doughnut Factory – Made with all natural ingredients, these doughnuts are incredibly light.  Our favorite flavors…Smoked Maple and Orange Twist.

**Extras**

Things we’ve discovered that make us smarter or happier…or both!

Maybe we are interested in the Olmsted landscapes because our area in Lexington is so influenced by him.  A historical marker  gives a good synopsis:

In 1904, descendants of Henry Clay hired famed landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted, to design the Ashland Park neighborhood on the 600-acre estate. Constructed over a 15-year period, development was completed around 1930. The brothers designed U.S. Capitol & White House grounds, and the Chicago World’s Fair 1893.

This landscape design firm from Brookline, Mass. helped design the park system in Louisville and the grounds of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. In Lexington, they consulted on the master plan for the University of Kentucky, Ashland Park & Transylvania Park neighborhoods and Woodland Park.

Read more at Architectural Digest’s 9 Great Frederick Law Olmstead Designs That Aren’t Central Park.

The French Broad River is an ancient river (the 3rd oldest in America and 5th in the world), which winds through Asheville as it runs north to Tennessee.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rivers_by_age

Sometimes you just have to laugh….when the women’s bathroom is out of order and everyone now uses the men’s room….

The Golden Isles – Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, Brunswick, Darien

Warming spring weather provided the perfect opportunity to head south and explore the Golden Isles of Georgia.  Pink, orange and white azalea blossoms signaled the beginning of a great retreat!

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, contains several ponds and other wetland areas to welcome migrating birds. The loud, bellowing sounds of male alligators echoed around the ponds to ensure that everyone knew that this is their territory.  Several visitors toted professional cameras and snapped photos of wood storks and other wading birds.  (Unfortunately, we missed the chance to go to the nearby Old School Diner.)

The streets of the vanished settlement in Ft. Frederica National Monument (St. Simons Island) are now grassy boulevards lined with large oaks.  Signs tell the history of the remaining building foundations.  A small part of the original fort remains near the water where it defended against invasion by the Spanish from St. Augustine.  Next to the park is Christ Church, an Episcopal church established in 1736.  You can walk through the cemetery that was blooming with azaleas when we visited.  Hopefully, the church will soon be open again for visitors to take a peek inside. 

The main commercial area of SSI can be congested.  We did easily find a public parking space close to the beach.  Watching fishermen waiting patiently for a bite on their line and walking by the lighthouse helped us to forget about the crowds.  

One of our favorite experiences on this trip was biking around Jekyll Island.  We rented two bikes from Beachside Bike Rentals ($24 for 4 hours.)  This was plenty of time for a 12 mile loop that was mostly flat and entirely on a bike path.  Most of the time, oak and pine trees separated the bike path from the road traffic.  When stopping at sights, we did not even have to lock up the bikes.  As the rental guy said, “We don’t have any problems with that here.”

At Driftwood Beach we took a short walk among bleached out, massive pieces of driftwood.  Most are entire trees.  If you like taking photographs, this beach is comparable to no other.  At one end of the beach, the entrance has a couple of ponds where you can take a quiet break and watch the birds.

The Jekyll Island Club, where the Morgans, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers gathered, still welcomes vacationers.  The bike path weaves around the club and in and out between their cottages (i.e. mansions) and gardens.  

A turtle hospital is not often on the vacation itinerary.  At the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the staff cares for turtles hit by cars or boats, attacked by other animals or suffering hypothermia.  Several “patients” come from zoos and other nature centers throughout the country.  We watched them care for two turtles and also a baby owl that had fallen out of its nest.  An amazing stop to see the efforts taken to help these animals return to their natural homes.

For a quiet picnic, St. Andrews Beach provides shaded picnic tables and a nearby beach (but not for swimming.)  This is also where you can find a trail commemorating the 1858 landing of The Wanderer, the penultimate slave ship to the United States.  

Brunswick provides the best daily shopping in the area.  Publix offers a larger selection of groceries than the other options.  A Target and Walmart are also available.  The town is laid out with a grid of public squares similar to those in Savannah although on a smaller scale.  (Read here for more info on the efforts to revitalize them.)  On Newcastle Street,  Richland Rum distills the only single estate, single barrel rum in the U.S.  It grows and harvests  its own sugarcane closeby.  After a short tour, take a few sips and decide which expression of rum you like best!  (We went for the unaged Virgen Coastal Rum to share with our patio guests.)

With a quick stop at Fort King George State Historic Park, you can see the interesting design of the oldest remaining English fort on the Georgia coast.

You can learn about rice growing, dairy production and malaria at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation.  The opportunity to walk through paths lined with so many huge, moss-draped oaks is by itself worth the admission. Some of these trees are at least 500 years old!  This plantation story tells more of the struggles encountered by owners and slaves than many other similar sites.  

Where to stay?

The small waterfront town of Darien provides a quiet, small place to truly feel like you’re away from it all while still being a short drive to all of the Golden Isles.  We stayed at the AirBnb Fern Dock River Cottage which was one of the most relaxing rental properties we have stayed at.  Many nights, we cooked dinner on the balcony’s grill while enjoying the sunset over the river and the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area.  A few steps behind the cottage is a dock with a hammock.  There are also fishing poles and tackle boxes for those who like to fish as well as a launching dock if you bring your own kayak.  Hosts Serena and Dwight greeted us and made sure that we had everything that we needed. Serena is an artist too!  Her artwork is displayed in the cottage.  We now have one of her dancing lady paintings in our home.  Art from travel brings joy each day! 

A Few Darien Food Notes:  

Smith & Son’s Seafood offers a small retail shop with fresh shrimp and seafood to prepare at home.  

Skipper’s Fish Camp is a local seafood favorite. The hushpuppies and coleslaw are delicious too!

Spartina Grill opened in 2020.  It has a Happy Hour each day from 4-6 and not only a large outdoor deck but also a large screened porch with heaters.  You can’t go wrong with a Shrimp PoBoy, Red Fish Tacos and excellent service.

Zio Carlo Cafe prepares  incredible hot lattes and cold Chai teas.  The homemade Pecan Biscotti is a must try!

For delicious made-on-site chocolate, caramel and toffee in coastal shapes (think turtle, seahorses and shells) stop by the Sugar Marsh Cottage.

Some of the places we visited are part of the Parks on the Air program that David enjoys.  He activates them communicating with radio operators around the world.  (It’s like a scavenger hunt for parks with awards for completing different challenges!)  Map below shows his 553 contacts from this trip.

Three Bridges Trail in Carter Caves State Park (KY)

We took advantage of 40 degrees and blue skies to hike in Carter Caves State Park.  This park is an hour northeast of Natural Bridge State Park and the Red River Gorge area.  (See our previous post about these areas here.) It shares many of the outstanding rock features of these other parks.  However, while the other parks are more well known and have more visitors, Carter Caves allowed us to have the trail almost to ourselves.

Although Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky is home to the longest cave system known in the world, Carter County has the highest concentration of caves in Kentucky.  We decided to skip the subterranean features this time and enjoy a sunny, crisp hike.  We chose the easy/moderate 3.5 mile Three Bridges Trail.  Although this trail doesn’t take you far from the center of the park, you walk through three natural bridges.  This trail also takes you to the rappelling and rock climbing area which is available by permit.  

We parked in the Welcome Center where we picked up a map.  The trailhead was across the main road and up a few stairs.  We decided to walk the loop trail counterclockwise in order to save the largest bridge for last.  Red trail markers painted on trees helped us to easily navigate and stay on the trail which was usually leaf covered.  

Kentucky’s limestone outcroppings, forests and lakes make for a pretty fabulous place to ride out a pandemic.  Happy trails!

Giant Trolls and Shakers

We are continuing to explore more cultural fusion in some of our favorite Kentucky places.

While walking through the knobs and meadows thirty miles south of Louisville, we’re greeted by trolls from Danish lore.  Artist Thomas Dambo from Denmark created the troll family of Mama Loumari, Little Nis and Little Elina using recycled and repurposed materials.  The three giants in Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest are part of an installation with currently more than forty trolls around the world.  (There is even a troll map to see the locations.) 

To learn more about Dambo’s project and to see photos of his other trolls, read this National Geographic article.

While hiking to find the wooden giants, we also encountered an edible garden, honey bee and bird houses, lakes and an exhibit about Kentucky women suffragists. 

About an hour and 15 minutes east from Bernheim is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. The Shakers were 19th century America’s largest communal society.  Originating in England in 1747, the group sailed for the United States in 1774 and  established various communities such as this one, founded in 1808.  When visiting, you can feel yourself welcomed into the Shakers’ peaceful life that was based upon sustainability and simplicity.

The cool October evening included watching the full moon rise around a crackling fire pit. Chris Sullivan, one of our favorite local musicians, not only played guitar and sang but also shared his personal connection to each song. 

Our outdoor dinner could not have been more comforting…a Kentucky hot brown that was authentic with oven roasted turkey breast,  applewood bacon, slow roasted tomatoes and a smoked gouda mornay sauce yet also spiced up with the use of jalepeño bread.

We stayed in the East Family Dwelling which welcomed us with a delightfully comfortable bed, Keurig coffee and first floor living areas that we had to ourselves for relaxing and reading.

And…other fun and curious sights caught our attention.

Although there is only one active Shaker community that remains in Maine (with two elderly members), their belief in freedom from prejudice, pursuit of simplicity and pride in craftsmanship can continue to be a guide for all of us.

Red River Gorge – Natural Bridge (KY)

As the pandemic continues, we are still appreciating the beauty of the world.  We are just enjoying it closer to home.  Today we traveled east to the Natural BridgeRed River Gorge area, a world-famous climbing destination with sandstone arches and towering cliffs.  This park in the small town of Slade is home to its own unique cultural mix… Appalachian roots meets climbing hip.

Our first stop was the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop.  We were here a few years ago when it was a typical small-town grocery-coffee-souvenir shop.  Today, it’s been transformed into a can’t miss cafe serving regional coffee from Kentucky Mountain Coffee Company and others. Beside coffee, you can enjoy homemade baked goods, vegan wraps and seasonal cocktails.  We ordered a grilled cheese with a local beer cheese, a BLT, and a latte.   Everything was freshly prepared and delicious! The service was fast and provided by servers who appeared to be climbers earning their keep in order to climb during off-hours.

Grateful for wild spaces that provide retreat from the busyness of our daily lives.  Places where we can breathe deeply and be restored.  Places where we can notice the dampness, the reflections and the smells surrounding us.  Places that transport us to simpler times.

Jet Age Elegance at the TWA Hotel

While absentmindedly munching on Lotus Biscoff cookies and contorting our legs between backpacks and underseat space, we must not be the first travelers to dream of a more refined flight experience.  Imagine three course meals, doting flight attendants and ample seats with legroom to spare! These dreams happily came to life when a long layover at JFK Airport allowed us to visit the newly opened TWA Hotel.

The Eero Saarinen designed TWA Flight Center opened in 1962.  After TWA’s sale to American Airlines in 2001, the terminal sat vacant for several years.  Luckily, visionaries proposed a hotel which began construction in 2016 and opened in May 2019.

At JFK, we took the AirTrain to Terminal Five.  When we stepped off of the train, there were red arrows for the TWA Hotel on the floor and we easily followed them out of the building, across the street and down to the hotel.
  
The futuristic exterior and the contours of the lobby beckoned us to explore.  On the first floor we discovered the reception area and a small museum with Jet Age displays.  There’s also the stylish Sunken Lounge with its chili-pepper red carpet and booths as well as the original split-flap departure board.  Here it’s easy to imagine that you’re having a cocktail and chatting with Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn during your layover.

A hallway exhibit a short walk past the lounge displays colorful posters by David Klein.  His illustrations beautifully showcased TWA’s destinations around the world.

Climbing the luxuriously curved staircases, the second floor led us to several restaurants but we weren’t quite ready to eat yet.  Instead, we decided to play awhile at the photo booth and whimsical Twister room. Closeby, a curated walk through TWA uniforms over the years amused us with its mid-century fashion and interesting tidbits about flight attendant job perks and requirements in those days.

Walking through one of the red-carpeted tubes, we discovered a small area that recreates  Saarinen’s studio with his drafting table and plans for the building’s design. For some reason, there is also a recreated living room.  It was fun to see the furniture, lamps and games. We especially liked the original Barbie house and furniture made of cardboard…not plastic!

After exploring inside, we ventured out to the tarmac  to board the restored Lockheed Constellation named Connie.  Inside its chicly designed interior is a groovy bar that serves vintage-inspired cocktails.  This is light-years beyond Lotus Biscoff cookies and bottled water! Now that we’ve had a taste of refined air travel, we can dream of a day where we’re back in the Jet Age!

Take a virtual tour to the TWA hotel with CBS Sunday Morning!

A Quickie to Sultry Chicago

A visa meeting at Chicago’s Spanish consulate provided us with the perfect excuse for a quick trip to the Windy City, which could have been better described as sultry and sticky during the hours we were there.  We reserved an AirBnB in Chinatown since we’d never explored that area of the city. A stroll down the heart of the neighborhood on South Wentworth Avenue left us searching for a quiet place to sit with a latte and chai tea. We found the perfect respite at TBaar. Although it’s a chain, the atmosphere was relaxing and it was fun to watch the servers roll out ice cream to make interesting Sundaes. Later, we arrived just in time to get a seat without reservations at Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings. While waiting for our order of dumplings we were enthralled to watch their video that showed the origins of everything from their porcelain dinnerware to the light fixtures as well as how they locally sourced their ingredients. The dumplings didn’t disappoint!


After dinner, the cooler early evening temps made it the right time to visit Millenium Park. An outdoor movie was playing for a huge audience spread out on blankets and lawn chairs while enjoying picnics with family and friends. Some were even watching the movie! Next, we joined the crowd at Crown Fountain to watch kids from toddlers to teens drench themselves in the water…always watchful for when the large streams of water would pour from the digital faces towering above.

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The following morning, after being amazed at the continually moving line for coffee at Starbucks (and an almost non-moving line at the consulate!), we took a people-watching jaunt along the Riverwalk.  On the lookout for a museum we hadn’t yet visited, we settled on the National Museum of Mexican Art. Although its smaller size with only three galleries could be seen as a negative, it was actually relaxing to not feel rushed.  It’s the perfect size to enjoy art without committing to a whole day at a museum.  (And, it’s free!)

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A short walk from the museum, 5 Rabanitos Restaurante & Taquería provided a delicious lunch of guacamole, tortas, and tacos al pastor in a colorful and friendly setting.

Happy to have had a excuse to visit this fab city again!