Thursday, September 13, 2007

Asheville, Day 2...

We spent our second day in Asheville in tourist-mode, and consequently we were at Biltmore for a large portion of the day. It's billed as the nation's largest private residence, and it is indeed very large. I was really impressed by Biltmore, both the house proper and the grounds.
The house was interesting, principally for the Gilded Age perspective it provided. Every room in the residence was large, overdecorated (to my tastes), and extravagant. By contrast, the servants' quarters were quite spartan. In the basement, there was a pool, bowling alley, weight room, the whole nine yards. It really brought home the divide between rich and poor that existed back then.

The really striking part of Biltmore, for me, is the grounds. The landscaping was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park and the landscaping for the Chicago World's Fair. I doubt that Central Park was as elaborately designed as Biltmore, and it's probably not a faithful representation of Olmstead's vision by now anyway (I've never been to Chicago, but I'd be willing to bet that if anything remains of the White City, it probably doesn't represent his vision anymore either). I feel pretty confident, though, that Biltmore does remain faithful to his vision to a large extent, and it's a really good opportunity to see how good of a landscape architect he was, especially for his time.
I'm not sure how much earth-moving equipment was around back then. I guess labor was cheap enough that you could just throw labor at a problem.

After several hours at the main residence (and after serious sticker-shock over the prices for food and souvenirs), we decided to head over to the winery that they have. We were lucky, in that we showed up just in time for the "behind-the-scenes" tour. If you're ever at a winery, and you have the chance to take a tour like that, I highly recommend it. It's interesting to see how something as common as wine is made, and especially how industrialized the process is. In the back of my mind, I always had this vision of a very rustic enterprise, with a bunch of nuns stomping on grapes in the back room. I knew that wasn't realistic, but I certainly didn't expect a factory, with gigantic stainless steel fermentation vessels and the like.

Anyway, after the tour, we tasted some wine. My only comments with respect to wine would be, it seemed only so-so. I think you can get better wine for the same price, or cheaper, pretty easily. At the price point Biltmore appears to be at (~$10-$15, it seemed), you can get a better California wine, and for less, you can certainly find good (and better) South American wines.
But, I suppose they get some business from the name, and some from the local connection, and people at the winery are probably also buying for the souvenir value.

To close the book on Biltmore, I thought it was pretty cool. The only thing I really didn't care for was the cost of everything. I understand that it's a private enterprise, and a house that size certainly costs money to keep up, but sheesh, the prices for everything were high, and the naked capitalism really kind of clashed with the elegance of the estate. Although, I guess it shouldn't, since it's in keeping with the Gilded Age.

After Biltmore, we went driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking for Mt Mitchell. We didn't make it there, but we did decide to go hiking on a trail we found at the Craggy Garden (I think that was the name of it) picnic ground. It was a fun trail, and at the top was a beautiful view.

When we got back to Asheville, it was getting close to dinner time. So, after a short rest, we headed out to Salsa's, a mexican/caribbean restaurant that Liz had read about on the internet. We had ceviche and chips with an avocado-tomatillo salsa to start. For the main course, I had lamb enchilada's, and Liz had an empanada. We didn't have anything for dessert, because we were stuffed by that point. Overall, if you're looking for a good meal, it's a good bet. (Even though they have a limited selection of micro-brews).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Back from Asheville

So my wife Liz and I went to Asheville for a getaway this weekend, with my mother-in-law watching the kids. It was a wonderful time, and I wish that I wasn't back home already!
(even though I did miss our daughters).

Anyway, we drove up on a Sunday, arriving around 2:30ish, which was just in time to check into our hotel, the Haywood Park Hotel. I believe it used to be a department store. All this really signifies is that the rooms are pretty good size, and our room, which was pretty reasonably priced, was huge, with a large sitting area and a bay window overlooking the street.
After we got settled, we decided to go check out Asheville proper. Since we were right in the middle of town, this was easy to do. First we crossed the street to the Woolworth Walk, which is an art market in a converted Woolworth's department store. The website says 150 artists, and I can believe it. I picked up a really cool picture of a dragonfly that's going on my reading room wall, once I get a frame for it. As luck would have it, we also noticed an ad for the "LAAFF" (Lexington Ave Arts and Fun Festival). After walking around downtown a little bit, mainly scouting out locations for dinner (and checking out the Jack of the Wood, which serves Green Man beers, although I didn't get the chance to try one), we headed over to the LAAFF.
It turns out it was a street festival along what I guess you'd describe as a "hipster street". They had juggling, music, arts, jewelry, etc, and a very high "alternative" factor. I joked to Liz that if we ever moved to Asheville, I'd have to get tattooed and she'd have to quit shaving her legs.
It was actually pretty cool, though, and everyone I saw seemed to be having a good time, which is the most important part.

After hanging out for awhile, we were getting parched, so we stopped at the Old Europe Bistro (on Lexington Avenue) to people-watch and enjoy a cold beer. We decided to go local, and get Highland Gaelic Ales (from Highland Brewery, of course). I'm not sure if there's really a Gaelic Ale style or not, but I'd describe it as mildly hopped, and nicely malty. It went down really well.

We then proceeded back to our hotel for a quick regroup, and then headed down to the Biergarden. They boasted Western NC's largest selection of beers, so that clinched it for me, of course. The food was ok, I guess. We had wings to start with, which were very good, and the wing sauce was hot, vinegary, and appeared to be homemade. The burger I had for a main course was kind of "meh", though. We also had several beers. I had a Pisgah Pale Ale, which I really liked. It was quite hoppy, and very smooth. The Pisgah Brewing Company claims to be all-organic. I don't really care about organic beer, but it was pretty good.
I followed with a French Broad Wee Heavy-er, (French Broad Brewery) which was kind of like the Gaelic I had earlier, but heavier (and maltier). I'm not really sure how to describe it.

Of the three beers I had, I'd have to vote for the Pisgah Pale. It was pretty much everything I look for in a beer. Nice and hoppy, smooth, and not super sweet or malty.

Tomorrow, I'll write about our second day, which included a trip to Biltmore, and some other stuff.