Asheville has been calling me for a while but not because of the ad campaign. I have not been able to get out of town for a while and I am desperate for a mountain fix. I need a change of scenery and a day trip is just what my inner travel junkie negotiated with my wallet.
What those people calling from Asheville want is for everybody to take the budget busting tour of the majestic house and gardens at the Biltmore (some will know it was the mansion in the Peter Sellers movie “Being There”) or spending a spa day at the Grove Park Inn. Been there. Done that. No money for it right now. Instead, I’ll rustle up a less pricey, less touristy, more local experience.
It’s a foggy morning as my husband Mike and I leave Charlotte for the easy 2-hour drive. There are at least 4 ways we can go. This time we decide to take I-85 to U.S. 74 to I-26 with a brief coda along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Most times trips to western NC take a detour through the upstate of South Carolina because the gas taxes are significantly cheaper in SC. But now that we have a fuel sipping Toyota Prius we can bypass that. The trip used to suck down almost a full tank in my old Honda Element. Our elegant Blue Bombshell, however, cuts the consumption in half.
The fog finally starts to lift just in time for our approach to the Blue Ridge Parkway. With the new car, we purged our old-school paper maps. High tech is great. Until we lose our Internet connection. For technophiles, it’s a jolt up here in the hills where the cell tower connection can disappear around the next bend of a mountain road.
There are no signs to guide us. WTF? But we know the general direction we’re headed. Our meandering along the French Broad River (which is REALLY broad) brings us successfully (phew!) to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stop to walk out on a bridge to get a bird’s eye view of the river far below.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a movement in a crack in the sidewalk pavement. A bat pokes his head out and quickly ducks down into the hole. I am patient. I will get a shot of him on the way back to the car.
The French Broad runs swiftly: been a lot of rain lately. Since it’s a weekday in early May, rafting and tubing is still a few weeks away. After a few minutes of the soothing music of the rushing river we head back to the car.
This stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway is two lanes of pavement embraced by a thick stand of trees that block out civilization (and cell tower signals.) The fog is gone and the sun peeps through the tree canopy. We do a little daydreaming about what it would be like to do a motorcycle trip for the 469-mile length of the parkway.
It’s about 11 am when we arrive at the Moog Music Factory. There are free 40-minute tours but they run at 10 am and 3 pm. As we hem and haw about coming back at 3, we are offered a 5-minute quickie, which we pounce on. Another man joins us a few minutes later and our tour pretty much ends up being about 40 minutes.
Robert “Bob” Moog (pronounced with a long ō, not the commonly mispronounced oo) passed away in 2005 but his legacy lives on in this factory in Asheville. Our guide gives us the Cliff Notes version of Bob’s life and the Moog synthesizers that found fans in Beatle George Harrison and Keith Emerson of the band Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The Moog synthesizer revolutionized music because it gave musical groups access to a whole new range of sounds performed through a single keyboard.
In this digital world, the Moog synthesizers are analog and built by hand. They still can only play one note at a time. Moog was proud to keep the business in the United States with as many of the materials as possible resourced locally. In addition to the Moog synthesizer, Minimoogs, Moogerfoogers, Phattys and Theremins are made in the back room by a just few people.
Theremins are the funky instruments that make the scary ooo-weee-ooo sounds in horror flicks. They look even weirder than they sound. I almost blew out my eardrums playing with one in the showroom. Léon Theremin, allegedly a Russian spy was for sure a gifted inventor. Our guide compares him to the inventors who make gadgets for 007. He also figured out how to interlace pictures in the 1920s, which is the basis of how TVs work.
Outside, there is a huge mural of Bob Moog painted on the side of a building. My muse Mike steps into his armpit and I get some great shots of my favorite musician (Mike not Bob). Now it’s time to eat.
I want to try something different so I opt for “mindblasting” Indian Street Food at Chai Pani. How can anyone pass up a tagline like that? It’s getting hot reviews including a write-up in the New York Times. Mike and I agree that Indian food is probably our favorite variation of ethnic food. But this isn’t the usual curry house. This is street food. My eyes are wide and my stomach is empty and I want to try everything.
I’ve narrowed it down to 3 things:
The Kathi Kabab Roll. It’s an Indian Wrap filled Ashley Farms chicken seared with onions, cilantro & tandoori spices with rice, roasted lentils and tamarind & green chutneys in a griddled wrap (a wheat tortilla brushed with egg) served with masala fries and a homemade ketchup and the yoghurt-based sauce called riata. ($8.99)
The non-vegetarian Thali daily special which is Malabar Chicken, the closest thing to Northern Indian cuisine and what is served in standard Indian restaurants in this country. ($9.00)
The Masala Potato Uttapam, a savory crepe made from rice & lentil batter – the one I want is topped with a savory potato hash, masala & chutneys and served with Sambar – a spicy, tangy vegetable stew. ($8.99)
And then the guy behind the counter throws another tantalizer into the mix.
This is a really hard choice. He convinces us that if we want to try something different we should ix-nay the Thali special since we can get something similar almost anywhere. Done. Malabar Chicken is out of the mix.
Mike and I decide to split everything. I think we should just get the remaining 3 choices so we can graze but counter guy says it will be way too much food because we’d be ordering 3 entrees. We go with his suggestion of the Corn Behl and have him halve the wrap. At the last second I start to swap the corn for the crepe but stop and stick with the original decision. Mike smartly stands by while I twist and turn.
All I can say about lunch is that we both want more! It is simply delicious. A crepe came to a nearby table and I know that next time – and there WILL be a next time – I will try that AND have that wrap again.
What made the lunch even better is that next to our outside table is a couple with a 125-pound, 8-month old Irish wolfhound puppy. When he stands, he can look me in the eye. I have always wanted an Irish wolfhound but could never bring myself to get one because of their very short lifespan of 6 to 10 years.
Imagine my delight when the owners tell us that there are about 200 more wolfhounds at a dog show a couple miles away. That immediately goes on our to-do list but we still have time on our parking meter and want to check out the Woolworth Walk.
Woolworth Walk is Asheville’s largest gallery displaying the work of local artists. As the name says, guess what, it’s in a refurbished Woolworth’s. The artwork is eclectic. Each stall is a different medium. I am drawn to Steebo Designs‘ giant rusty metal faces and a wooden head sculpture called Chief Four Moons that resembles Mr. Potato Head.
The Walk even has an old-fashioned soda fountain built to resemble the original Woolworth Luncheonette. Established in 1938 and restored in 2001, they serve a lot of the original menu items. Think club sandwiches, egg creams and ice cream sodas. After the lunch we just had, it’s not even a temptation.
Outside, there are several choices for street music. In front of Woolworth Walk is a guy with a hammered dulcimer but he’s too busy yakking with someone to play. Across the street is an interesting looking bluegrass group. Along with the guy playing banjo is another one playing spoons, a young girl playing a tiny washboard and a woman dancing with hoops. I am immediately transported back to the hippie dippy 70’s. Gotta love Asheville.
Meter time is up and I want to see the doggies so we head over to the Crowne Plaza Resort. We find the Irish Wolfhound Club of America Dog Show on the back lawn of the hotel but there is a break in the action and most dogs are lazing around in makeshift pens. We walk around the grounds and see hundreds of pounds of dog sleeping on beds in many of the ground floor hotel rooms.
Next stop is the Spanish Renaissance-style Basilica St. Lawrence. Completed in 1909, it was designed by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino. Its claim to fame is the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America.
The last time we were in Asheville we discovered the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Stepping into the Chocolate Lounge is like stepping into Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory only for the adult palate. Cakes and cookies and truffles. Oh my! This decision is much easier once I spot the ice cream list. I dive into a chocolate shake made with 2 scoops of Belgian dark chocolate and 1 scoop of Madagascar vanilla bean ($6). It’s silky smooth and goes down in nearly a single slurp.
Mike orders a chocolate ginger cookie ($2.75) and washes it down with a double shot of mocha espresso ($3). This chocolaty coffee is so much more complex than it sounds. The dunk of chocolate on the ginger cookie put it over the top on the orgasmic meter.
Feeling like the kid who fell into Wonka’s chocolate river, I’m happy that the only open parking spot we found was a few blocks away. I need to walk that scrumptious shake off before we get in the car for another couple of hours. Even with four hours of the day spent driving, we are still home by 6:00. Our only wish is that there was a Chai Pani nearby because we would definitely be having that for dinner.