Last time we visited the Tar Heel state it was 2011 and we spent one night watching Nascar (Josh got REALLY excited about seeing the world’s HD largest television and Hannah whinged on about being too cold) and we had a tiny glimpse at some of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We knew that we liked what we saw but that we were hungry for more.
This time around we decided to focus our trip on Asheville (a city consistently voted as one of the top places to visit, home to the friendliest people and one of the most “liveable” places in the United States) and to swing by the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Asheville is known for its art deco architecture, mountain scenery and outdoor activities. It’s got a laid-back, liberal population that dig good beer and good food; so naturally we loved it there. We checked into to our first ever AirBnB (I know, I know, what took us so long?!) and were delighted at how cute this house was, loved that it was so central and pretty much instantly wished we had longer to hang out there and pretend this was our home-town
Asheville isn’t super-showy and there weren’t a bunch of must-see sights on our itinerary but it’s very attractive, very walkable and also has… a Pinball Museum. Now this is a museum, in the fact that it has over 75 pinball and classic video games, but it’s also a legit-arcade in the fact that once you’ve paid your admission ($15 per adult) you can play on all of the machines/games without any quarters or tokens. So much fun! Turns out being really good at Pinball is really hard, but we loved trying our hand at X-Files-themed pinball from the 90s and Beatles-themed pinball from the 60s, in particular. Everyone was friendly and we could have played for hours – highly recommended.
If all that pinball exertion sounds like hard work, fear not. Asheville is blessed with more breweries per capita than any U.S. city. Roughly 100 local beers can be enjoyed in Asheville and with Josh being a beer-nut he was keen to sample as many of them as possible. Each brewery we dropped by had a different vibe. Burial was one of our favourites: serving stonkingly good beer like the Hawkbill IPA, the taproom has around 10 taps, outdoor seating and a somewhat surreal mural of Tom Selleck and sloth, from the Goonies. Oskar Blues Brewery had a very laid-back vibe with indoors-and outdoors seating and served very nice beer including the passionfruit variant of their famous Pinner IPA.
Nothing had quite prepared us for Sierra Nevada. Living and drinking beer in London, lots of our breweries are tucked away under railway arches or in corners of slightly grubby industrial estates, but Sierra Nevada’s operations were housed in a massive, handsome building surrounded by a beautiful forest. After choosing one of the 23 beer on tap there are big comfy chairs outside, pit fires, festoon lighting amongst the trees…this was next-level brewery realness! New Belgium Brewing also had a ludicrously charming location, alongside a river, with plenty of place to sunbathe as you drink your delicious Citradelic tangerine IPA or their Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale. The only slight downer we had was visiting Wicked Weed, which despite high hopes was a little bit meh, with the sour beers being a little underwhelming.
If Asheville was a delight for the beer-nerd in Josh it also wooed Hannah, the vegan. This came together beautifully at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company: a micro-brewery, $3 movie theater and fun pizza restaurant that stocks Daiya Vegan Cheese all in one! More culinary delights were found at Chai Pani: a stylish downtown Indian restaurant serving delicious meat and veggie curries, lovely breads and the most delectable kale pakoras. Hannah had wanted to go to Plant: a 100% vegan restaurant for yonks and the seitan chile con queso with coriander mojo and pink pickled onions was well and truly worth the wait! Not least as there was a nearby Trader Joe’s where we got to mooch about before our dinner reservation: we LOVE Trader Joe’s. We also really liked the coffee and cakes we had one breakfast at High Five Coffee before our hike in the Blue Ridge Parkway. You could spend weeks eating your way around Asheville, it seems, and have a very happy tummy by the end of it!
After all that food, beer and excess we decided to stretch our legs at the Chimney Rock State Park. When researching this blogpost we noticed that the Chimney Rock State Park’s website says: “You may know The Rock as WWE wrestling legend and star of HBO’s “Ballers,” Dwayne Johnson. And if you do, well, you’re certainly up on your pop culture references! However, in no way does our Park have a relationship with him, just so we can state it for the record.” Oh no, we alas didn’t get to hang out with potential 2020 Presidential contender Dwayne The Rock Johnson, rather we were exploring the 535-million-year-old monolith with 75-mile panoramic views of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. You can hike to the top of this towering 315-foot granite outcropping located on the very edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We got about a half, maybe two-thirds of the way, before wheezingly concluding we’re badly out of shape. We still enjoyed the stunning fall views.
Our time in Asheville had come to end but we marked it with a cruise along the Skyline Drive at sunrise, which was absolutely magical. We also managed to squeeze in a visit to Linn Cove Viaduct: built into the side of a mountain at an elevation of 4,100 feet, the 1,234 foot long S-curve road, an engineering wonder, is an iconic view which has graced many a USA travel-guide. The Blue Ridge Parkway is very busy – it’s known as America’s Favourite Drive – but it’s easy to see why: beautiful vistas, incredible leaf-peeping opportunities and fun stops along the way abound
Another great stop in North Carolina was at small-town Winstom-Salem where they have the last Shell Oil clamshell. Having closed in the 1950s, in 1976 it became the first gas station in America to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was is so cute! We also drove past cool motel signs at the Pioneer Inn and visited a MASSIVE Whole Foods, which we will do at any opportunity. We are very simple creatures!
Finally, we stopped by Greensboro to learn more about the Lunch Counter sit-in. Racial segregation was still legal in the United States on February 1, 1960, when four African American college students – Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond – sat down at a Woolworth counter in Greensboro. Politely asking for service at this “whites only” counter, their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their sit-in drew national attention. Hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the community joined in a six-month-long protest. Their action led to the desegregation of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960 and helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge inequality throughout the South. Visiting the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro was an honour. We learnt more about nonviolent protests for civil rights in a way which was both emotional and inspirational.
It was great getting to spend more time in North Carolina. Asheville doesn’t have the glitz of New York City or the architecture of Chicago, but it is a welcoming, laidback, happy place to hang out. The forests are lush and we enjoyed seeing quirky roadside attractions alongside moving civil rights history. North Carolina has a lot to offer!
Rate the State
Good for: Petrol heads, BBQ lovers, leaf peepers, craft beer fans, scenic byway enthusiasts, vegan foodies.
Bad for: Not a lot really!