Monday, April 23, 2012

Brief Spring Break Getaway – Asheville (NC) and Chattanooga (TN)

A short drive (3.5 hours or so) NW out of Atlanta, nested within the Blue Ridge Mountains lies the quaint city of Asheville – a veritable mecca for arts & crafts and outdoor activities, among other things…  And smack dab in the middle of it, the Biltmore Estate – a 250-room château built in the late 1800’s by the Vanderbilt family.  A veritable work of art (and National Historic Landmark), very well preserved and still owned today by one of George Vanderbilt’s great-grandson.  The actual estate covers about 8,000 acres (if that doesn’t “translate”, it’s 23 km2) and it includes lush landscaping, a farm and a winery, but the pièce de résistance is the majestic mansion, with its surrounding gardens.  I can’t do it justice with words, no matter how hard I’d try, so just enjoy these pictures:

… too bad that indoor photography is prohibited; the first two are pics that we were able to "sneak"… the rest are actual postcards…

A "chandelier" hanging over 3 stories in the main staircase
The dining hall - with 6 fireplaces and big enough [if not bigger] for a basketball court
The Library and the "Winter Garden"
 In conclusion, it’s definitely worth the visit; just check online for discounts and promotions, otherwise, the regular admission price ranges around $50-70, depending on the season or day of the week…

The other must-see “attraction” is also a historic landmark: The Grove Park Inn – a massive granite hotel opened in 1913 which houses one of the best Spas in the world [#13 according to Travel + Leisure in a recent poll].  The subterranean Spa alone came with a hefty price tag of $44 million… which explains why a facial or an 80-minute massage can set you back as much as $270, depending on the season...  What can I tell you?  Prestige does not come cheap … Nonetheless, for Laura this was like a pilgrimage to a sacred place …

Yep... the actual fireplace in the lobby...
Wrapping up an action-packed day, was a quick stroll and window-shopping foray through the downtown area, followed by dinner at a French bistro [yep, it is a foodie town as well].  The area reminded me of Haight-Ashbury [in San Francisco] with traces of “hippie” blending in among art galleries, trendy shops, bars, restaurants, and the obligatory “pipe” shops.  “Street artist” and various levels of “freak” made for an interesting people-watching experience.

The next day was all about enjoying nature in its purest form.  Yes, I’m talking about a 2 hour horseback trip through some of the most amazing scenery you could imagine.  Nothing more relaxing than the “sound” of tranquility accompanied by birds happily chirping in the bright-green foliage and week-old lambs chasing after their mothers in the meadows… Again, another “picture” that can’t be described with words… not even these pics can do it justice…

There were some days-old lambs in that valley... with Easter in another week, they looked "delicious"

From North Carolina, off to Tennessee for a quick stop to visit the local attractions in Chattanooga.  Specifically, the Aquarium [biggest fresh-water kind in the world, allegedly], Ruby Falls, and Lookout Mountain/Rock City.

This was not the first visit to the aquarium, and I must admit – I was not as impressed as the first time.  Some of it had to do with the fact that the one in Atlanta is so much bigger and better, but I think mostly because it needs a face-lift and a good “scrub”.  Although some exhibits were still interesting, for the most part the tanks looked dirty; some were “under construction” and others looked like “stuff” was just thrown in, willy-nilly… I would recommend it if you’ve never been, but personally I doubt I’d want to go back.

Next, off to Lookout Mountain – Rock City to be exact; a very nice walk though woods and giant rock formations, culminating into a plateau [Lover’s Leap] that claims to offer views of 7 different states!  Nice panorama, indeed, but when you realize that Mt. Pinnacle (KY and VA) is 150 miles away, the Smoky Mountains (NC) about 50, and SC 80 or so, then all you really see is TN, GA and AL… unless, of course you’re using some NASA-grade scope that can “see” around the curvature of the earth past the 8-10 mile that the naked eye can reach… Nonetheless, this was worth the trip to the top.

What’s not worth the time is the ride on the Incline Railway.  You can drive up and admire the view from the top (or nearby historic site park) but skip the ride.  It’s long (both the ride and the wait) and the tall trees on either side of the tracks block the view.

But just down the hill there’s another natural wonder – namely Ruby Falls.  Again, not the first time here either, which lessened the excitement… or was it the fact that morons have been vandalizing the stalactites and stalagmites for “souvenirs” to the point where there’s barely any left in the place? Still, for a first-timer, the imposing 145-feet high underground waterfall at the end of the mile-long trek through the heart of the mountain is jaw-dropping.  Definitely worth it!

And before you say good bye to the Tennessee River valley, take a stroll along the Riverwalk, or stop by the old [terminal] railway-station-turned-hotel: The Chattanooga Choo-Choo.  For most it’s a nice museum piece; for those of us hailing from the old Eastern Block, just another ol’ railway station [to me it looked like Gara de Nord in Bucharest, on a slightly smaller scale… or Focşani; Paşcani, maybe…]

With all that said, go ahead and rush home after that... there really isn't anything else in Chattanooga...

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