North Carolina – the state where the mountains are blue: part 2

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the Blue Ridge Mountains

the Blue Ridge Mountains

My initial impressions of North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains were entirely favourable and despite an evening of moonshine – and I don’t mean the kind that shines through your bedroom window – I was ready to continue my explorations of the western parts of the state the following day.

I’d spent the night at Chetola Resort, a vast, but cosy, mountain retreat, near Blowing Rock, a town home to such quirky establishments as “Mellow Mushroom” and “Speckled Trout”, selling I’m not sure what. Moonshine notwithstanding, this area also forms a firm part of the Bible Belt, with every denomination under the sun seemingly represented – never before had I seen churches in such abundance.

the Carsons - founders of the non-profit making A

the Carsons – founders of the non-profit making Altapass Orchard

My first stop for the day, however, was neither church nor distillery, but an orchard – the Altapass Orchard near the settlement of Spruce Pine. The scenery was stunning as ever, the hills a bright shade of green with rhododendron bushes in full bloom along the roadside. Altapass Orchard proved a little gem of a place, selling everything from homemade ciders to barbeque sauces. The current owner, Bill Carson, bought this place 21 years ago when he retired from, would you believe it, rocket science and the creation of the first GPS. Now 77, he loves to spin a yarn and entertained us visitors with stories of old from the area, on his rickety back porch. Most people here do like to spin a yarn and there’s plenty of history and legend to choose from. Even the Spaniards were in the area at one point and this was also the scene of the first U.S. gold rush. Although originally from Indiana, Mr Carson found, upon research, that his own great-great-great-grandfather, five generations ago, hailed from these parts and says he now feels like one of the locals.

As well as shopping and “yarning” options, the orchard organises events, especially in summer and I was sorry to miss out on the evening’s live music – the orchard forms part of the Blue Ridge Heritage Music Trail – but there were places to see and lunches to munch. Driving down the highway, more road signs caught my attention – in fact the road department seemed to have some very “high up people” working for them. One sign, reading “Hey, I still love you. I do,” was signed by Jesus himself! My stop for lunch, and for the night, was the first substantial place I’d seen since landing in Charlotte; Asheville, boasting a population of almost 90,000 was nice and warm after the cool air of the mountains and very pleasant it proved too.

A beautiful spot overlooking the city, excellent for enjoying an al fresco beverage in pleasantly posh surroundings is the Grove Park Inn, northeast of town, where I caught up with a friend for the afternoon. Although posh in pockets, Asheville is more of an alternative city with a very varied arts and music scene, great food and some unusual breweries. The evening seemed a good time to check out a live music venue and I ended up at ISIS Restaurant and Music Hall in West Asheville, listening to musicians Miriam Allen and David Zoll, doing folk tunes in the upstairs dining room. Food was tasty, music was tuneful and the wine wasn’t bad either – a lovely evening was had by all.

the Biltmore

the Biltmore

Asheville has quite a distinct claim to fame – few American cities can boast a location just a stone’s throw from a French chateau. Biltmore, the country’s largest home, also known as the Vanderbilt Mansion, was finished in 1895 and is still owned by the Vanderbilt family. It’s built in the so-called Chateauesque style, modelled on French Renaissance chateaux and rooms on four floors are open to the public. The mansion lies only a short drive outside of Asheville and a guided tour tells the story of the Vanderbilt family, one of the richest in the U.S. As well as the history and house, there are extensive grounds and gardens to visit, and an on-site winery. The library, displaying 10,000 of the 23,000 books contained in the collection, complete with cosy fireplace and exceedingly bright-red furniture, proved my absolute favourite of the lot.

It’s thirsty work, sight-seeing, and what better way to quench said thirst than by having some American sake. Yes, sake, that brew of Japanese fame. Ben’s Tune-Up back in Asheville, is one of few sake breweries in the country and not only that – they also brew their own beer and have some fabulously tasty, locally-sourced meats in their charcuterie and hot dogs. I must admit I’ve never been that keen on brews of the rice wine kind, but by the end of the sake-tasting, I was quite won over. There was standard sake, of course, but also a nice selection of flavoured sake varieties to sample. Although lemon and ginger didn’t quite do it for me, the strawberry and cucumber was wonderfully reminiscent of a summer’s day in the English countryside and with the pineapple and jalapeño I was soon transported to the beaches of Mexico. Needless to say I was sold and there was definitely no need to indulge in moonshine ever again.

mou ntain laurel in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park

mou ntain laurel in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park

Just the one night in Asheville was hardly enough, but there was more to see in the mountains, so after lunch and sake, I continued on my journey, this time to Bryson City. Mostly known in the UK as that place namesake travel writer Bill Bryson wrote a book about, you’ll be forgiven for thinking they’re stretching the definition of “city” somewhat – it has fewer than 1500 souls to its name. Bryson City clings to the outskirts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and herein lies the main reason for visiting. As I was still slightly “sakefied “, a coffee before heading into the national park itself seemed a good idea. I stopped at the Sagebrush Cowboy Café, run by what appeared to be a teetotal cowboy with a big-ass knife, who really knew his coffees. His pool hall at the back may well be one of very few such establishments in the US of A not serving alcohol. Enjoyed a delicious café con leche which perked me right up.

the Looking Glass Falls

the Looking Glass Falls

The afternoon was spent exploring parts of Great Smoky Mountains complete with stunning waterfalls, such as the oddly named Juney Whank Falls (best not to speculate), fast-flowing rivers and mountain laurel in full bloom at every corner, along every trail, adding to the scenic beauty of the area. I did a nice hike along Deep Creek, watching the more adventurous float by in so-called tubes, but I wasn’t up for a spot of tubing. The following day, my last in North Carolina, the opportunity to be more daring myself, presented itself. After a brief stop at Looking Glass Falls – apparently resembling a mirror in winter, when the waters freeze – inside Pisgah national forest, I reached Sliding Falls, which, you’ve guessed it, you’re supposed to clamber up and slide down. As I’ve always been fairly attached to my limbs, I opted out of sliding down this 60-foot rock into a pool of chilly water 8 foot deep, but watching other crazy people joyfully throw themselves down it was the next best thing. Clearly moonshine wasn’t the only slippery slope in the state.

For more information about North Carolina. and Project 543, click on the limks.  

Story and images (except the Carsons): Anna Maria Espsäter

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