I usually post something about our travels. This one is way overdue as in late September we took a 2,400 mile road trip catching up with old friends and revisiting favorite places, but also experiencing some very delightful times, unique to this trip.
We started out by having a dinner in Savannah with friends who we first met while boating in Connecticut, Suzanne and George, reminiscing about old times and philosophical discussions about the randomness of life which brought us to Florida and they to Savannah. In spite of changes, health challenges we’ve managed to stay in touch and to be emotionally close.
This was an overnight stop on the way to our initial destination, Asheville, NC; staying first at a condo we once rented 15 or 16 years ago in the Asheville Racquet Club. Very neat and clean, we shopped a little for breakfast stuff as we were very familiar with the whole neighborhood. But where there was once a cow pasture opposite the condo there are now apartments. In fact, the entire area south of Asheville has been built up, new neighborhoods and condos galore. Traffic was a nightmare, although we were there before the peak fall season.
We called our old friends Irene and Pete who live in Flatrock to confirm lunch sometime during the week. We spent our first Sunday walking all over downtown Asheville, grabbing a bite at Early Girl Cafe, having a cappuccino in our favorite bookstore, Malaprop, and just enjoying a town we had come to love. It’s become even more gentrified on the one hand, with pricey shops, restaurants, and an arts district, but still a destination for a hippie population of young people, reminding me of my days in the East Village of NY.
I’ve always made it a point when we’re in Asheville to buy a hardcover book from Malaprop, usually a signed edition, this time Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte. The problem with purchasing a signed hardcover with a jacket is trying to keep it in pristine condition, so no notations and careful handling to preserve the cover in its original condition. It’s the publisher in me that appreciates the physical attributes of a book, but not the book reviewer. Nonetheless, I’ll have something to say about it as I make my way through it. So many interruptions now, as I am finally getting things back together after the summer.
One day we took a familiar drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway up into the Pisgah National Forest and enjoyed a delicious luncheon at the Pisgah Inn with breathtaking views. Everyone who has ever visited us while we rented previous years here, George and Suzanne and our son, Jon, were all treated to the views and food here.
Vacations often allow us a special treat, like going to the movies! So one afternoon, we found a nearby theatre, so close in fact; we could have walked there to see the newly released movie, Downton Abbey. We’ve been stalwart devotees of the series and we totally loved a movie that seemed to tie up some loose ends. We were in a comfortable condo, so between dinners at some of Asheville’s “hot” restaurants, we ran out for soups, sandwiches and salads sometimes. We were very “homey”.
Time, time, time, what has it done to us? We met our friends Irene and Peter for lunch mid week and unfortunately Pete has neuropathy in both feet and can no longer walk without a cane and aid. Irene thankfully is in good health and had hardly changed. We picked right up where we left off. We saw them again our last night in Asheville at a fabulous Greek Restaurant right on the grounds of our hotel, The Golden Fleece in Grovewood Village (more on that site below).
It may seem strange that after our condo stay, we packed up and departed for a nearby hotel which we originally booked when we conjured up this road trip. But this isn’t just any Hotel. It is the iconic Grove Park Inn, where we have talked about staying during our other visits to Asheville. Although it was 9:00AM in the morning when we checked in, luckily they had our room ready for us. There was a method to our madness as on no other occasion would we show up so early and expect to check in. No it was because Ann had her heart set on spending the day in their world class Spa and in order to do that, we needed to show up, together and ready to enter the Spa at 10:00AM to purchase the very scarce Spa Day Passes.
Lucked out again, getting our passes and changing into our suits and with spa robes and slippers met in the pool area. Nothing electronic is allowed, only a book or magazine and library voices. We swam in the mineral pools, sat under waterfalls, went outside on a beautiful sunny day and enjoyed an enormous heated pool with jets, lounged on the chaises, enjoyed lobster salads al fresco in front of a roaring fireplace while Ann drank icy Prosecco. We swam and relaxed and were there the entire day. By the time we showered, shampooed and dressed, we were totally waterlogged! Then we rested a bit as our dinner wasn’t until 8:15PM on the magnificent Terrace Restaurant overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountain Range. Ann had a fantastic piece of Chilean Sea bass cooked to perfection.
The next morning, upon awakening in such an historic and magnificent Hotel, where 10 Presidents going back to Calvin Coolidge have stayed, including Obama, who visited twice in fact, plus thousands of luminaries from famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, inventors like Edison, artists, actors, industrialists, athletes etc., we decided to spend a good part of the day simply exploring the hotel and all the historical artifacts, portraits and photographs, many of the actual excavation and construction of this unusual stone edifice.
In fact, that weekend the Hotel was honoring F. Scott Fitzgerald who occupied rooms 441 and 443 in the original Inn during two summers while his wife Zelda was convalescing in Asheville. Those rooms were opened to the public, with memorabilia appropriate for those years, imagining how it might have looked, his desk, his bed, but the view out the window and down the hall are of course the same. Fitzgerald thought he’d pick up enough gossip at the Inn to write a number of short stories, but he mostly lounged and drank. He even invited “women of the night” to his rooms, while the Inn made an unsuccessful effort to cut off his drinking and even philandering, all to no avail. Fitzgerald, the charmer, was a generous tipper so the help managed to smuggle in all the gin and other things he wanted.
The next morning, we agreed to experience something very extravagant and special, the Grove Park Inn famous Blue Ridge Breakfast Buffet. It is almost impossible to describe the cavernous rooms with an enormous variety of breakfast food of every description, including an omelet/waffle station and 15 or 20 heated casseroles containing eggs and meats of every description including a spinach frittata. There was an enormous array of homemade breads and pastries, southern biscuits, pots of fresh whipped butter and jams and jellies. Tons of gravlax and lox and smoked fish with bagels and all the accoutrements plus of course every hot cereal imaginable as well as an entire area devoted to cold cereals with fresh fruits and a large variety of yogurts and sauces.
We had a table next to large beautiful windows overlooking the exquisite grounds as well as the omnipresent majestic mountain range. Our waiter, Stan, an actual Ashevillian, continually refilled our coffee cups every 30 seconds. Totally self indulgent. We waddled away. The best part, we skipped lunch.
Frequently overlooked is one of Asheville's hidden gems, which is adjacent to the Grove Park Inn: Grovewood Village, an historic site which once housed the weaving and woodworking operations of Biltmore Industries. Here we spent an entire afternoon touring working artist studios, the Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum, a very large gift shop filled with unimaginably beautiful hand crafts from woven goods to jewelry to large pieces of furniture, all hand rendered. And then there was Asheville’s only antique car museum, which had a wide range of antique cars (although, some, cars of my youth). We were lucky enough to have a docent lead us around and even admit us into the cavernous building which once, long ago, housed the looming business, not set up for visitors but I appreciated the way it once was, the way it was left.
Their website explains the fascinating history: “Biltmore Industries, a noteworthy enterprise in the history of American Craft and textiles founded by Edith Vanderbilt and two inspired teachers, Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale. At the height of its success in the late 1920s – under the direction of Fred Loring Seely – Biltmore Industries had a total of 40 looms in steady operation producing bolts of some of the finest hand-woven wool fabric in the country. Orders were shipped as far as China and Uruguay, and customers such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Helen Keller, and several U.S. presidents and first ladies.”
At this point, I need to introduce some serendipity. Ann’s lovely friend, Joyce, has a daughter Terri, who Ann met once briefly. She, along with husband Bryan, built a contemporary house up a steep mountainside in a little town just on the outskirts of Asheville. When Joyce heard we were going there for nine days, she told Terri who immediately invited us to dinner. How awfully nice to have total strangers over for dinner!
Terri is a professional “food stylist” – those lovely pictures you see in gourmet magazines don’t happen by accident. She is also a French trained cook and she and her husband have lived in Tuscany (did I mention Bryan is fluent in a number of languages?), and her other guests, a gay couple who have a house in walking distance on the same mountain and a condo in downtown Asheville contributed exotic hors d'oeuvres.
It was a long, festive night, with a delicious dinner and homemade chocolate chip cookies to end a perfect meal and when time came to leave, the wisdom of my-forward-thinking when we first arrived paid off. When we drove up the narrow mountain road and squeezed into their driveway, I thought there is no way I would be able to turn around in the dark to go back down the mountain, unless I back into the driveway while I can still see it. So, as we emerged into the blackness of the night, I was feeling pretty good about the decision until I realized that one could hardly find the car. Their neighborhood association has a no light policy at night so those beautiful dark skies squeeze out every drop of starlight and/or moon light, but the moon was not up. So we carefully made our way to our car until I heard one of our hosts say, “if you hear a sound, it’s probably one of the bears in the area” (seriously). It was as if we had rockets on our shoes from that moment to get into the car. Mountain living would appeal to me, but this old salt is shipwrecked at water’s edge.
We left Asheville for an overnight in Cary, NC, near one of my best friends, Ron. He and Barbara, like Ann and I, come from publishing roots. Ron and I worked together since 1986 when the company he was working for, Praeger, was acquired by mine, Greenwood Publishing Group. He and I forged a strong professional and personal bond. When later he received an offer to run the Naval Institute Press I advised him to take it, knowing full well the loss to us and to me personally not seeing him day to day. Barbara had worked for Oxford University Press and Ann before becoming a Mom in her mid thirties, worked for a division of Academic Press, so we all have a professional life in common as well as similar politics, interest in travel, and let’s not forget food as Barbara made a delicious salmon dinner, our second homemade meal. It was so welcome to spend a night with good friends, and not at a restaurant.
Ron, like me, was a baseball player as a kid. And he’s a lefty too, so I promised to bring my mitt which I stuck in the car before we left. I last threw a baseball with my elderly neighbor (who in the 1950s faced Herb Score in high school, and got a hit!) but it’s been years. So the questions were a) could these septuagenarians still throw a ball and b) could they do so without having their arms in slings afterwards? I’ve always wondered watching old timer games, seeing ex MLB pitchers having trouble even getting the ball to home plate from the mound. Well, Ron and I found we could still bring it. We probably threw for about 20 minutes, tosses of course, not heat (no heat left), but we felt pretty good about it and the next day nothing hurt. Now that NY has lost the ALCS, I’m not expecting an immediate call up, but maybe for spring training?
The next morning we left for the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conference, this one “200 Years of Northanger Abbey: ‘Real, Solemn History,’” which fittingly took place in our nation’s colonial capital, Williamsburg, VA. Now in the interests of full disclosure this is one Jane Austen novel I’ve never read (Ann has and it is her least favorite). But that did not ruin it for us as between the plenary and breakout sessions there was lots of lively talk and presentations from scholars all over the world. As Jane said “My idea of good company...is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
The conference allowed us to see other old friends, including Betty and her daughter Claudia, both Janites, who drove down from Connecticut. We shared a dinner on our one free night. Also, the evening of the ball is always fun, many dressed in their finest costumes of the Regency Period.
The best part was the location. We wanted to take in Colonial Williamsburg and scheduled two whole days of sightseeing before the Conference officially began. However, the weather was uncooperative, 98 degrees with a heat index of 107. Yikes! Also, our hotel was a couple of miles away from the conference center, and a long walk into town. There is a bus which circles the area, every ten or fifteen minutes for which we bought a pass.
How we could have put a visit to Williamsburg on the back burner all these years traveling between Florida and Connecticut is unconscionable, and I tried to make up for that one morning, striking out on my own, by foot and taking in every bit of history I could.
One of my main objectives was to visit the campus of William and Mary the oldest university in the American South and the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson. It is right at the base of the Duke of Gloucester Street which is the main street. I walked much of the W&M campus, classes were changing and I walked among the students, so different than when I went to college holding books and notebooks under my arm. Now, there are just small knapsacks to hold one’s notebook computer or iPad, and snacks. I guess they looked at me as one of the old professors, or didn’t notice me at all. That’s ok. I drank in every bit of architecture and greenery I could, having gone to a city school which had none of those attributes.
I thought much of my friend Ron, who I had just visited and thrown a ball with. W&M is his alma mater and it made me feel closer to him on the one hand and wistful on the other as unlike his father who encouraged him to go there, I had a family who just wanted me to go into the army and the Signal Corps to learn photography and then join my father’s photography business. No, this campus life was never meant to be for me.
As you probably know, this is a pedestrian only area and people in the town are dressed as they would have been in the 18th century, practicing their trades in real time. We took in the printer and bindery, the courthouse, the wig maker, the weaver, the shoemaker, among other sites. At the peak of the hottest day we visited their beautiful Art Museum, which is being expanded, showcasing furniture, weapons, silver, ceramics, paintings, toys, & folk art. They also have a nice little restaurant.
And, needless to say, we had to have a colonial meal at King’s Arms Tavern where Ann had their house specialty, the peanut soup. This is made from peanut butter and has the consistency of pea soup. Delicious.
On the streets we saw ministers of the time, and even George and Martha Washington riding by. Town’s people dressed in 18th century costumes were moving up and down the streets. One could spend a week here and not see everything. We will come back, but maybe in the spring, not summer!
So, after five days and nights there we drove home, made an overnight stop for sleep as a 14 hour straight drive with pit stops would have been too much. Finally, home once again and as usual, trying to catch up!