Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Decadence: Asheville, NC (Part 2)

Picture Perfect: Pinot Grigio and Chocolate
Creme Brulee
I left off Part 1 of my trip to Western North Carolina with quite the cliffhanger.  My husband and I were just about to enter the famed "bean to bar" French Broad Chocolate Lounge.  This converted warehouse turned dessert bar is a must for chocolate-philes, and really, who isn't one of those? On our first visit, we sampled the Turtle truffle, chocolate creme brulee, and dark chocolate ice cream.  I could have happily remained ensconced on the brown leather couch in a chocolate coma for the rest of the evening.  Before we had even ventured back out into the snowy night air, my husband declared, "We are coming back here."  And we did.  Our last night in Asheville after a laid back dinner of pesto pizza at local eatery Marco's Pizzeria, we returned to French Broad for a slice of their Quintessential Chocolate Cake - a cake so rich and decadent that we couldn't even finish our slice.  Creamy chocolate ganache is layered between moist chocolate cake and topped with thick, dark frosting.  It is positively sinful.  Rob has already promised to order me a slice of cake, or at least a box of truffles, for my birthday.  (Ah, yes, he's the perfect man...)

This beauty was in the outdoor hot-house.
Despite the fame of the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, no trip to Asheville is complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate.  My parents had taken my sisters and me years ago, but Rob had never been.  It took some arm-twisting to get him to look past the price tag,* but in the end, we really enjoyed our day spent touring the opulent home and wandering the grounds.  Rob and I arrived as soon as the home opened at 9:00 a.m., which I recommend to anyone who wants to get a jump on the student tours.  The long, winding driveway cut through a forest of tall trees was designed for visitors to anticipate the house at every turn, and it succeeds.  By the time we parked, we were dying to get a full view of the house.  Although there is a shuttle from the parking lots to the home's front entrance, Rob and I opted to trek the little woodland footpath in the brisk air and were rewarded with a panoramic view of this massive estate as a snow flurry began.  Inside the home, we were immediately ushered into a winter garden bursting with orchids of every color and variety.  Pictures are not allowed in the home; otherwise, I would be showing you my new floral reading nook.  General admission purchases a self-guided tour of the home, and the staff has put together an easy to follow directional guide that creates a fluid flow of traffic throughout the home's many rooms.  In addition to the winter garden, my favorite room is the library which houses thousands of volumes - equating to only a third or so of the Vanderbilt's collection - and has a frescoed ceiling imported from Italy!  The second floor master bedrooms have recently undergone a thorough and historically accurate renovation, and the colors and fabrics are a sight to behold.  The rooms are so rich in texture and atmosphere.  It is hard to imagine living amid such vibrant furnishings.  What remains shocking to me is the grandeur witnessed as part of a regular tour is merely a tenth of the house's rooms.  The Biltmore offers more in-depth tours of the home and grounds, for an additional fee of course, if you are interested.  One that Rob and I really wished we had taken was the Legacy of the Land tour, a shuttle tour of the estate's extensive woodland property.  It was only $19.00 per person, and the tour lasts about an hour and half; however, it was full by the time we inquired about it.  Book additional tours early!
*The Biltmore is a bit pricey, but if you order tickets online at least a week in advance of your visit, they knock $15.00 off the admission price.

Alligator in the wild
After a thorough tour of the home, Rob and I wandered through the Biltmore's famed gardens, barren due to the freezing weather.  However, we stumbled upon a conservatory hot house where we were met with exotic, colorful blooms of all types.  The warm, damp air delivered a welcome taste of spring.  Around every corner was a new, exciting find, such as the room with nothing but cacti and this guy to the left!  Once we warmed up, we were starving, so we headed back towards the estate for lunch at the Stable Cafe.  This restaurant used to be the Biltmore's horse barn, but it was converted into a modern, full-fledged eatery.  Each booth used to be a horse's stall, and the iron-work and flooring are all original.  It is very atmospheric, and the food is fantastic.  Rob and I split a bean burger with sweet-potato fries.  I was surprised that my husband actually conceded to a vegetarian entree (he's a strictly meat and potatoes kind of guy), but I was shocked by how much he loved it.  He could not stop raving about how spicy and filling the burger was.  In fact, if you asked him, he'd probably say that is one of his favorite meals we ate while in Asheville.  Refreshed and recharged, we hopped in the car and followed the inconspicuously carved estate path past gorgeous pasture, woodland, and lakes to Antler Hill village, which used to house the estate's dairy but is now a winery.  A free tour or the winery, where they also make champagne, as well as a free tasting is included with the estate's general admission fee.  Rob and I had fun sampling the different vinos aged and bottled on the premises before finally settling on our favorite - the classic Pinot Grigio.  We toured the new legacy exhibit chronicling the Vanderbilt family's illustrious history, visited a few shops, and the farm before returning to the hotel for a dip in the hot tub and an afternoon nap.  It's exhausting to live like a Vanderbilt!    

Our last day in Asheville was very laid back.  We had reservations for a couple's massage at the Spa in Biltmore Village, a picturesque set of shops and restaurants outside the entrance to the Biltmore's grounds.  I highly recommend this Spa for its location, friendly staff, and surprising amenities.  Rob and I were treated to foot soaks, hot neck wraps, and a cup of delicious Russian tea before our massages.  Not wanting to break our tranquil mood after the massage, we had lunch at Zoe's Kitchen, a chain that specializes in fresh, Greek inspired dishes, before hopping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  If you have never driven the Blue Ridge Parkway, you must go.  It is so beautiful and peaceful.  There are several lookout stops that allow you to drink in panoramic views of the Blue Ridge mountains like the one below.  Because of the snowy conditions, part of the Parkway was closed, but we still got to drive a couple of miles before we were detoured into the tiny town of Weaverville with its picturesque homes set into the mountainside and holler. 

A panoramic shot of the Blue Ridge Mountains dusted with snow

Our restful culinary vacation finally came to an end, but we broke up our trip home by stopping in my other favorite Western North Carolina town, Black Mountain.  Less than 20 miles from Asheville, Black Mountain is full of southern charm and style.  It boasts some of the most unique arts and crafts stores on its downtown streets and several delicious restaurants.  We went off the beaten path in search of brunch and found The Morning Glory Cafe.  In addition to delicious organic coffee, we dined on stuffed french toast, grits, bacon, and egg and cheese sliders.  Yum!

Our time in Asheville, uneventful as it was, was punctuated by good food and great conversation.  I highly recommend Asheville, NC and its surrounding areas to any couple looking for a relaxing getaway.

Pssst...Check out the amazing restaurant I forgot to highlight in Part 2 of my vacation recap here.

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