Wednesday, June 07, 2017

[Travel] Rainy Days in Asheville

The plan was to run a 15k race through the famed Biltmore Estate then spend a couple of days exploring. I had heard a lot about Asheville and its combination arty, hipster vibe and backwoods setting. That checks out. Asheville is in fact very similar to Ann Arbor, but with mountains. And better weather in the winter. You can verify it's hipster legitimacy by the foodie/locavore scene. And the stunningly green mountains are just like in the pictures. Sadly, though, it rained for close to the entire duration of my trip.

I flew into Asheville's small regional airport that reminded me how much I love flying into small regional airports. It required a plane change in Atlanta that resulted in me being sat next to a very sweet and polite Asian woman who happened to have an infant in her lap. A screaming, crying infant. In the past that would have bothered me, but no more. Now I make faces and goofy noises or do whatever I can to try to help. It' a baby after all, it's not like she can reason with it, and besides, it is quite probable that at some point in my life, I was the screaming baby. From the airport it was a quick car rental and short 20 minute drive to my hotel.

Asheville seems to be a collection of a few neighborhood areas that try to be walkable and have personalities. Not a half mile walk from my hotel was Biltmore Village (formerly called Best Village). It is peppered with fairly high end boutiques and a couple of very good restaurants. It is clearly designed as a walkable outdoor shopping center, sort of an anti-mall mall. It's very nice and convenient, if nothing all that special; certainly not a destination in itself.

Then there is the River Arts District, which is a paradigmatic artist enclave with galleries in old, repurposed factories and warehouses, and of course, the requisite character filled restaurants.

There is Biltmore Forest, which is a famed residential area. Time was your couldn't build a house here unless one of the Vanderbilt family (founders of the Biltmore Estate) approved. Now that Asheville has become a spot where celebrities can go to feel rustic but luxurious, it's the neighborhood where they build -- they say Harrison Ford is building a property now.

Lastly there is downtown which is hipster trendy -- brewpubs, art galleries, tapas bars, etc. It's a pretty cool place to wander about. Very Ann Arbor-ish, if a bit smaller and with more hills.

My personal experience with Asheville was a very wet. It rained to no small extent every day I was there. The 15k race was rained on start to finish. After the race I headed downtown to refuel and spent the bulk of my time under an umbrella. I did managed an informative visit to the Lexington Glassworks to see the rather fascinating glassblowing in action. Lunch was a mouthwateringly delicious burger at Foggy Bottom Brewery. But let's face it, I'm from Ann Arbor so I know my way around a hipster town. Nice as it was, there were no surprises for me downtown, so I didn't dawdle.

The following day I took a drive south along the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. I stopped at several overlooks and managed to down a bit further south to famed Looking Glass Falls. It is as beautiful as advertised -- the old, worn, rolling mountains of Appalachia covered in a thick verdant carpet of foliage. There is a real sense of being in the deep eternal woods, the roads and towns like oases in the endless forest. I can see how a certain stripe of people would be quite happy with a cabin in the woods, self-sufficient and far from civilization, and vow to defend it against the onslaught of progress, viz., people like me.

My last day I revisited the Biltmore Estate -- this time spending the day and taking the tours. As someone who has seen historic estates across the country, Biltmore is at the top of the list. The grounds are sprawling and astonishingly beautiful. Designed by the same fellow who designed Central Park, Frederick Olmstead, it is riddled with gardens and managed horticulture all with an eye to long term structure -- much of the landscaping came to fruition after the death of the designer. It is a tribute to the ability of flora and natural settings to affect emotional tone and general attitude.

The house itself, while impressive from the outside in a Welcome-to-Hell-House kind of way, is more pedestrian inside, notable mostly for its scope -- it contains 43 bathrooms, after all. It's presentation is rather poor, mostly due to the inexplicably low level of lighting. Honestly, is some rooms, you can barely make out the far walls.

Again it's the estate proper that is the source of entertainment. A working farm and winery. Two luxury hotels and a small village are all contained on the 8000 acres. It would be perfect for a day of cycling the paths and photography, if it wasn't pouring rain.

Even in the rain, though, Asheville had its charms. I wasn't totally enamoured, but I was charmed enough to give it another shot -- maybe in the fall for the colors and with the hope of sunshine. There is much left to explore here.