Something that I had missed this year was going on an annual trip with Amy and to say that we had cabin fever would be an understatement as most of our travel plans this year were cancelled due to COVID, but that didn’t stop us to plan and scheme a safe trip somewhere. While Amy and I had made plans in the past, most of our trips were canceled at the last minute due to COVID (I’m looking at you Rehoboth Beach), therefore we never really had a chance to go anywhere other than little day trips.
The same thing almost happened to our trip to Asheville, North Carolina.
I’ve been researching a good amount on the current state of affairs in this small mountain town through Reddit and their official website. Apparently the locals were pretty vocal about their displeasure of tourists that completely ignored wearing their face masks around town and after seeing it in person over the weekend, I have to agree that Asheville has issues with people following safety protocols and I’ll get to that later in the essay. Despite the negative feedbacks I’ve received from the locals, Amy and I decided against canceling another trip and we were fully committed as we drove for seven hours deep inside the Blue Ridge Mountains. After spending a couple of days in town, I’m happy to say that it was worth the trip.
Asheville, North Carolina
I vividly remember visiting the little mountain town back in August 2015 during a bachelor’s party trip and it was one of most underrated trips I’ve ever been on. The gorgeous scenery deep within the Blue Ridge Mountains, the amazing food and the hole in the wall shops bring life and charm to this mostly touristy town (services industry). Downtown is a comparatively small town with only a population of just over 90,000 people, but the region itself has over 424,000 residents as of 2010 and currently the third largest city in the state, behind Wilmington and Charlotte.
Most of the energy and vibes is of course, downtown, but the interesting thing about downtown Asheville was that everything was within 1-2 mile from the center of town, therefore everything was relatively easy to walk to. From the shops to the bustling micro-breweries all over the perimeter of downtown, you could leave your hotel room or AirBNB and you could find something within a stone throw away. We strategically stayed at the famous Cambria hotel in the middle of downtown, which proved to be a wise choice as there were several occasions when Amy and I had to go back to our hotel room to either use the restroom, take a break and recharge before our next adventure.
What their official site and travel brochures do not tell you, however, is that there is a large number of poverty in the town as small as Asheville. You can walk for blocks and every block has a homeless person sitting in front of an empty store that was hit hard due to the lack of foot traffic from tourists as COVID had hit this town pretty hard.
Despite the hardships of the town folks, their attitude showed anything but negativity as the natives of the town were some of the nicest people we’ve ever met. We were always greeted with a friendly smile and hospitality that you would expect in the South.
The Food Scene
It wouldn’t be much of a Amy and Tae adventure if we didn’t talk about the food and drinks of every place that we visit, and if you love both, then Asheville has your covered as the town is absolutely loaded with independent restaurants and breweries to keep you (and your stomach) busy. From small coffee shops, donut, bagels, biscuits and gravy to candy stores, there is no shortage of weight gaining opportunities that await.
Detour: Twin Leaf Brewery
After a seven hour drive from home, Amy and I were famished and thirsty for drinks. We walked down toward the Southern Slope of downtown Asheville and noticed that there were no shortages of breweries within half a miles from our hotel. Unfortunately due to COVID, all the breweries were at half capacity, therefore there were long lines for those thirsty customers that need to sip on some delicious sweet nectar from the gods.
The first one that we had visited was Twin Leaf Brewery, located…well pretty much next to all the other breweries on the street that span for several blocks.
The thing about breweries in general, is that they all do the same thing, but you go in for what makes them original. Otherwise, they’re just glorified bars with overpriced beers. I’m please to say that Asheville had some of the best beers I’ve ever had and if you’re a beer lover, a couple of days in town is not enough to visit every brewery that the town has to offer.
Twin Leaf Brewery was actually a our “holding pattern” brewery as Amy and I had reservations at the Wicked Weed Funkatorium across the street for dinner, but we do plan on return to Twin Leaf Brewery again.
Looking Glass Falls
Looking Glass Falls is one numerous waterfalls you can visit in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it also happens to be one of the most popular in North Carolina. As it’s less than an hour drive from downtown Asheville, it’s also one of the most accessible since it doesn’t require a long hike to reach the falls. Located deep inside the Pigsah National Forest, the name “Looking Glass” comes from Looking Glass Rock, where water freezes on its sides in the winter and then glistens in the sunlight like a mirror or looking glass, which I’ve only seen in photos but I don’t doubt that it’s beautiful to see during the winter season.
Behind the Scenes
To take advantage of the drive out here and to take photos of this beautiful scenery, I took a lot of risk carrying my Leica M10-P paired with the Summilux-M 35mm FLE through the slippery rocks. I eventually took my shoes off completely and left them on one of the river rocks while I stowed Amy’s hiking shoes securely onto my backpack. I then trekked barefoot through the shallow (albeit cold) waters to find a composition that didn’t have random people in the frame.
This was quite nerve wracking when you have over $14,000 worth of camera gear slung across your neck with a 30 pound backpack loaded with miscellaneous travel gear.
I know Leica cameras are legendary for their robust gear, but I would still take the fall (pun intended) and sacrifice getting wet over dunking my camera in the water, or worse, fall on the rocks.
The part of the falls was very packed with tourists and locals alike and if I had to do it all over again, I would go earlier in the day when there are less people because the one wooden staircase leading down to the waterfall was very narrow. This made it a little tricky to navigate between the crowd, whom were completely not aware of their surrounding and most were not wearing masks.
Food and Shopping
I was actually pretty impressed that we didn’t do a lot of shopping as I had expected during our stay, but then again, food and beer takes precedence over anything else – that is something both Amy and I agree on when we visit new places. What was charming about the food scene was that while the food and beer were excellent (I don’t think we actually had less than ‘excellent’ dishes), but the people at these establishments mimic what I said earlier about the culture in this town and how everyone is so friendly.
One specific restaurant of note is Tupelo Honey, located downtown (I wasn’t kidding when everything was within walking distance downtown). They consider themselves a revival of southern food with food made from scratch using simple ingredients sourced from local farms that is in season.
Simply put: the food was incredible.
Right away we ordered the Crispy Brussel, an appetizer topped with topped with fresh herbs, lemon zest & chopped bacon, served with garlic buttermilk ranch dipping sauce. After my first bite, I was floored that it wasn’t seasoned with truffle oil because it tasted just like it. We then continued our fat-assery by ordering their famous fried chicken, which were brined for over 18 hours with honey sprinkled with their signature “bee dust”.
It was also quite incredible and probably the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.
Unfortunately I didn’t take photos of the food, but I did share them on my Instagram stories (I was distracted from shoveling my face). There are additional photos and videos on there not mentioned in this blog, so be sure to follow.
The Biltmore Estate
One of the major cornerstones in Asheville’s history is the old country home of the Vanderbilt family, built by George Vanderbilt. George Vanderbilt first visits Asheville in 1887, where he considered the area as a possible location for his future country home. A second visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains with his mother in 1888 sealed the deal for him, therefore he begins purchasing land for what will become Biltmore.
In 1889, the construction of the Biltmore House begins and Vanderbilt’s construction of the 250-room French Renaissance chateau is a true marvel, the largest undertaking in residential architecture. Over a six-year period, an entire community of craftsmen comes together to create what was known as the largest privately owned estate in the country.
It wasn’t until 1895 when George Vanderbilt officially opens the house to friends and family. The finished home contains over four acres of floor space, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces.
After George Vanderbilt passed away in 1914 at the age of 51, his wife Edith continued his husband’s love for philanthropy and sold approximately 87,000 acres of the estate to the United States Forest Service for less than $5 an acre.
It wasn’t until 1930 when both George Vanderbilt’s daughter, Cornelia and her husband John Cecil, opened the Biltmore House to the public to help increase tourism during the Great Depression, therefore generating income to preserve the estate.
- 1942 – During World War II, the house stored priceless works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
- 1971 – William Cecil (son of Cornelia and John Cecil), plants his first vines at the Biltmore and creates his first successful wine. It wasn’t until 1983, that the Biltmore Estate Wine Company was established and opened to the public in 1985.
Traveling During COVID
It doesn’t take a genius to know that it can be risky to travel during COVID, but what we’ve witnessed in Asheville gave us a new perspective that there are people that seriously just doesn’t care to protect themselves or others. I’ve lost count on how many people on the streets of downtown Asheville would completely ignore their face masks and I’m going to assume that most of them are tourists, therefore I feel that the anger the locals have against tourists are justified as they not only endanger themselves, but the economy that depends on tourism. The town itself was hit pretty hard as unemployment and shop were shutdown due to the reduction of tourism. All it takes is another spike in cases for the town to shut down again and we as individuals need to take responsibility of our safety and others.
Despite these issues, it didn’t deter us from enjoying ourselves and wearing face masks or social distancing was not an inconvenience for us as we were still able to enjoy most of what the town had to offer. If you readers are close to the East Coast and want to take a weekend trip somewhere, I highly recommend this beautiful town known as the “Paris of the South” and take in what Asheville has to offer.
Additional Photos: Flickr
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