Friday, May 8, 2015

Asheville, N. C.: Proof there is no place like home

The front entrance to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. It is also known as "America's Castle"  (wikipedia)
 ASHEVILLEN.C. Asheville has long been a cultural oasis in the state of North Carolina. In fact, Condé Nast Traveler once ranked it among the 20 “friendliest” cities in the world.

Asheville is an ideal spot for a base to visit the famed Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and immerse in a diverse selection of historic homes. It’s  Americana at its best, running the gamut from a Native American village to the glory days of turn-of-the-20th century industrial entrepreneurism.

Omini Grove Park Inn with its natural stone charm  (wikipedia)
Begin at the century-old Omni Grove Park Inn, which has been visited by no less than ten presidents. The 44,000-square-foot resort with its subterranean spa was inspired by Edwin Wiley Grove who was known as the “Father of Modern Asheville.”

Grove, a Civil War veteran, purchased a pharmaceutical company in his mid-20s. He believed the climate in Western North Carolina would have health benefits and serve as an ideal location for a resort.

The original property opened in 1913 with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan delivering the keynote address to more than 400 distinguished southern gentlemen.

Though expanded several times, the favorite rooms are still in the original building with its over-sized fireplaces at each end of the lobby and the outdoor balcony overlooking a jagged expanse of bluish-gray mountains.

Cherokee tells the history of the original tribe (wikipedia)
About an hour away is Cherokee, home of the original Cherokee nation and the starting point for “Trail of Tears” in 1838. At that time Cherokees controlled over 140,000 square miles covering what is today part of eight states.

The drive is beautiful any time of year, but during the fall season it is especially vibrant with its myriad palette of rust oranges, buttery yellows and candy apple reds.

Historians date the ancient civilizations in the area more than 11,000 years ago, to the end of the last Ice Age. Europeans arrived in the territory in 1540 in search of gold and other riches.
Scene from Unto These Hills, Cherokee's outdoor drama about the Trail of Tears  (wikipedia)
Today, Oconaluftee Indian Village takes visitors 250 years into the past to demonstrate Cherokee life as it existed in the mid-1700s. Serpentine pathways guide travelers into the past through ancient homes, and through demonstrations of basket weaving, canoe making and dart blowing and lectures about Cherokee myths and legends.

For non-historians, the Harrah’s Casino at the outskirts of Cherokee offers a contemporary alternative.
Moving forward to the 1800s, head north out of town along the winding road that hugs a rushing stream leading into Cades Cove. Preserved by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the site features original pioneer homes, farms, barns and pastures as they were more than two centuries ago.

Carl Sandburg home in Flat Rock, NC  (Wikipedia)
Another day trip from Asheville is Flat Rock and historic Connemara Farms. It’s a name that immediately garners more attention when you learn it was the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg required peace and solitude for his writing, so he moved to his 30-acre North Carolina home in 1945.

Sandburg’s wife, Lillian, also needed extensive pastureland for her award winning dairy goats. The goats remain and are a favorite with visitors. In summer, live readings of Sandburg’s works and excerpts from the play about his life are performed in the amphitheater at the park. Sandburg spent the last 22 years of his life at Connemara.

Thomas Wolfe house in Asheville  (wikipedia)
Complete the Asheville “homecoming” visit with a tour of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Though severely damaged by fire in 1998, the Old Kentucky Home boarding house, which Wolfe described extensively in Look Homeward, Angel, re-opened for tours in 2004.
The picturesque serpentine beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway -- take your time this is no Interstate highway (wikipedia)
Wolfe was strongly influenced by his hometown of Asheville. He died at the age of 38 writing four novels in his all too brief lifetime.

Last stop: the famed Biltmore Estate of George Vanderbilt. The Chateau-style mansion took just six years to build, opening on Christmas day in 1895.

Vuew of Biltmore Estate from the south (wikipedia)
Still in the family, it is owned and operated by William A.V. Cecil, Sr., one of Vanderbilt’s descendants. The estate has become a major national attraction, the setting for several movies and has undergone considerable renovations to open more of the property to the public.

Sometimes known as “America’s Castle” and said to be the largest private home in the country, Biltmore Estate covers nearly 180,000 square feet with 250 rooms.

The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also did Central Park in New York City. The gardens at one side of the chateau are always a treat as is the winery. There are also other enjoyable food and beverage concessions on site and an inn.

North Carolina’s mountains are proof positive that Thomas Wolfe was wrong, “you really can go home again.”