2020, Personal, Travel

Riley Goes to North Carolina Day 1: Charlotte to Asheville, February 28, 2020

We went to Asheville, North Carolina this weekend. A lot of people, both in Toronto and in North Carolina, have asked me why. My answer is usually “beer”.

If you didn’t know, Asheville, NC is one of the premier craft beer destinations in the United States, along with Portland, Denver and a number of other cities. The difference with Asheville just might be the density for such a small city: there are upwards of 50 breweries in a city of 92,000 or so. (Though the metro, in which some of them are located, is closer to 450,000 people.) Compare this to Toronto’s 100 or so breweries; something is clearly happening in Asheville.

The other reason is that we were trying to use points and we were limited in our choices of destination to use these points. Charlotte was one of the places we could fly to.

This was technically my fourth trip to North Carolina and third to Charlotte:

  • As a child I had to switch flights in Charlotte but most people think airport stays don’t count;
  • In 2007 or so I woke up in Virginia, ate breakfast off the Interstate in Charlotte and left the state shortly thereafter;
  • The next year I spent the night in Rocky Mount on my way to Charleston.

Obviously all of these trips were quite brief so this would be my first real experience of the State.

We got to the airport only to see possibly the longest security line I have ever seen at Pearson. We usually give ourselves slightly over 2 hours but I guess something about traveling on a Friday morning to the US necessitates going earlier.

Fortunately the airport really had a handle on this: they were pulling people out of line with over an hour to go before flights, which is the earliest I can remember seeing that. We made it through most of the security line before we were pulled out and put in the Nexus line.

We were sort of wondering why they were pulling us out so early until we saw the US customs line: not as long as the security line by any means, but still long enough if you have less than an hour before your flight. We travel to the US a couple of times a year and we’ve never had any issues, so we flew through customs once we got to it. It was a good trip for customs experiences for us.

However, it wasn’t a good customs experience for our one and only flight attendant. For reasons we could only guess at, our flight attendant was detained in customs for nearly an hour, and so our flight was delayed despite clear skies. I’m sure this has happened to be before but I don’t recall ever being told this was the explicit reason and it was weird. I thought crew get expedited through customs?

It’s a quick flight to Charlotte: without including taxiing it is about an hour and fifteen minutes, maybe an hour and twenty. (Though both directions there was a lot of taxiing and a lot of waiting for gates.) So we still got to Charlotte at a reasonable time, or so I thought.

In Charlotte Douglas the rental car companies are in a different building which feels weird at first. But it’s actually part of a pretty efficient rental car system which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere. It took a while to get out of the garage, but only because seemingly everyone had rented a car for around noon. Everything else about the process is incredibly streamlined: tell them your reference number, get upsold on insurance, go to your space, show the gate your driver’s license, and go. It’s even easier coming back.

As usual I had printed off directions but they were confusing. Fortunately Jenn looked at the signs and we soon found ourselves on I-85 heading towards South Carolina.

Whenever I drive in the States I try to avoid Interstates unless time is an issue. One of the things I enjoy most about driving in the US is seeing all the little towns and the sometimes strange and wonderful signage along the way. Fortunately the most direct way to Asheville is not by Interstate.

We got off the Interstate at King’s Mountain and started looking for food. We picked Shelby, a city of about 20,000 with a picturesque downtown.

We at at the Shelby Cafe and had standard US diner fair, which included some pretty excellent gravy and southern-style dressing. (The kind they bake in a casserole dish.) Because it was a diner in the US, it was pretty cheap, even with the conversion.

It was also the first of many sweet teas. I hadn’t been to the South in about a decade so I had forgotten that all you need to do is order “tea” and you get sweet tea. Its’ sweeter than I like things now, but when in Rome…

Sometime after leaving Shelby we saw our first glimpse of the mountains, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachians that run from Georgia to Pennsylvania. Maybe it’s because of where I live, or maybe it’s because I’m a skier, but I really, really enjoy driving into the mountains, any mountains.

We weren’t driving straight to Asheville, though, because I had done some investigating as to things to do on the way. So, around a town called Mill Spring, we turned north to head to Lake Lure.

Lake Lure is like every other mountain town with a lake. (Jenn and I have long realized that all mountain towns are essentially the same.) It reminds me a bit of Lake George and at times even Lake Placid, albeit without the skiing. It is picturesque and full of gorgeous mansions on the shores. It’s so picturesque, and so reminiscent of New York State, that it was the filming location for the infamous water scene in Dirty Dancing. And, honestly, even physically being there it’s hard to tell you’re not in New York (or some other state more known for its mountains than North Carolina is).

The road in and around Lake Lure is one of the more twisty roads I’ve been on. (And if you read this, you know I’ve driven on some insane roads.) It didn’t help that it rained briefly and later snowed. I was in a car rented from a place where they don’t get snow so I was a little concerned but there no issues, and it drove really well. Anyway, the road was so twisty that I didn’t get that much time to admire the incredible views. Fortunately our destination solved that.

Chimney Rock State Park

I have done a fair degree of traveling over the eastern seaboard of North America, but I have encountered few views as incredible as that of Chimney Rock, a rock (surprisingly) sticking out of the side of a mountain facing away from the mountains around it, i.e. overlooking much of the state of North Carolina. We were told the view is 70 miles on a good day. It wasn’t that good a day, but still:

Chimney Rock with Lake Lure (the Dirty Dancing lake) in the distance.

For some reason, State Parks don’t get the kind of attention National Parks do. (I am thinking, for example, of the wonderful Letchworth State Park in New York that, though less than 3 hours from Toronto, nobody in Toronto knows about.) Chimney Rock should be famous outside of the region, but I’d never heard of it until I started looking for places to hike. It is one of the most spectacular places I’ve been to in eastern North America. Have you ever heard of it?

In typical US fashion, the par is a little bizarre. There is literally elevator inside the mountain which takes you up to the rock. Only in the US in the 1940s could preservationists decide the best way to preserve something was to build an elevator inside the mountain. There is also a trail to walk up to the rock but we got to the park way too late to walk up the trail. I blame the flight attendant. (I’m kidding.)

We were there off-season, of course, which was a good thing and a bad thing. The bad news was that the top trails were closed due to ice. The good news is that there was nobody there. At one point we were the only people we could see, which added to the experience.

A must-visit if you are ever in this part of the Appalachians.

(PS: It’s also where the climax of The Last of the Mohicans was filmed, if you care about such things.)

The road from Lake Lure was a little less windy but still windy enough, especially once it started snowing. The temperature absolutely plummeted the higher we got and soon the snow looked like it would actually stay. Fortunately, once we reached the top of the pass and started heading down it warmed up and we got some sun. (The descent on the west side is also much quicker.) I kept taking off and putting on my sunglasses as the weather changed constantly. But once we descended into the valley it normalized.

At this point my usually reliable sense of direction failed me for the third time this day and I hopped on the Interstate because I was convinced we had to get on one to get to the hotel. The plus side of this mistake meant that we actually drove through Asheville to the hotel, so we got some idea of the city looked like. (Our hotel was located on one side of the city.)

The hotel’s driveway was possibly the most confusing driveway I’ve encountered personally driving to hotels. And at least one of our Lyft drivers commented on it later in the weekend. There was one small sign and one tiny one at a light a hundred plus minutes away from the actual hotel. t’s sort of at the end of a “road” that just leads to parking lots, the last of which is the hotel’s (which is entirely unclear from the road.). It’s hard to explain, but it was bizarre. (You really didn’t need to know that, but it really was a bizarre layout.)

When we arrived at the hotel we learned that the pool was under construction. This is what happens when you travel in the off season.

We chose our hotel because all the hotels and AirBnBs in downtown Asheville will priced as if they were in Manhattan, or at least Brooklyn. I’m serious. We couldn’t figure out why but downtown hotel rooms were double or more what we ended up paying and AirBnB places ranged from USD$250 a night to thousands. (My guess about the AirBnBs: they are trying to attract groups.)

So we ended up staying on the edge of town in a hotel undergoing renovations. But it wasn’t actually that far (5 minutes by car). It felt like the edge of town because it was next to the beltway but also because it was on the other side of a tunnel. Much like the Don in Toronto, this tunnel seems to convince everyone living on the downtown side of it that the other side of it is farther away than reality.

But the good thing was that the hotel actually provides a free shuttle into downtown between 4 and 10 each night. So once we collected ourselves we were able to head downtown in no time.

White Duck Taco

It was past dinner time, for us, at this point. We headed to a taco place Jenn had read about. The tacos were excellent and unconventional but it was also our first introduction to the fact that Asheville is an expensive place. The prices were Toronto prices before conversion. But they were very tasty. (It’s crazy to me that a chain like this can succeed in North Carolina where I presume salaries are not what they are in, say, New York.)

After our small dinner we headed further down the street to where we believed most of the breweries were. Though there are over 50, I had been recommended somewhere between 10-15, a few of which were too far outside the downtown to even cab to. (It is the US and everyone drinks and drives.) We headed to a cluster of some of them.

The first one we saw was Wicked Weed, which is basically the Bellwoods of Asheville, only if Bellwoods had three times the seating. We could find no place to sit on either floor and refused to sit on the patio. (Because it was freezing!) We didn’t yet know whether or not the beer was any good but it sure felt as though it was mentioned on every travel site.

Bhramari Brewing Company

So instead we headed literally around the corner to the next one on the list. What we found was something akin to what I imagine Dogfish Head was in the ’90s and early ’00s: a brewery that refuses to acknowledge there are rules about adjuncts. Bhramari’s brewers have not found an adjunct they don’t like; they are adjunct crazy. Normally I find this off-putting.

We split two flights, covering close to 2/3rds of the available beer and I must say that, on the whole, they were pretty good. For example, they had a “golden” sour with jalapenos where the jalapenos really came through but without any spice. (Like the vegetal flavour of the pepper came through, not the spice. It reminded me of Blood Brothers, not in terms of flavour but in terms of the huge amount of adjunct the must have used to get such pronounced flavour.) I had one sour wherein I experienced all four flavours separately in a row, which was really impressive. I don’t even remember it’s name because the keg is gone.

These guys appear to have no loyalty to most of their experiments. The beer list has already drastically changed since Friday. Moreover, the men’s washroom is decorated with the corpses of their old tap lists. (And that’s where you really get the idea of how insane they are. If I had remembered my camera, I might have taken a picture of the wall.) Most of the beers on tap have not been added to RateBeer. So your experience likely depends upon when you go and how many successful experiments they have on. Sure was interesting though.

Green Man Brewery

We walked a few blocks down to Green Man, a massive brewery (for a microbrewery) just one street over from Brahmari. Maybe everyone else is brewing their stuff off site but Green Man sure seemed the most successful brewery based on brewing space alone. (If the brew pubs are separate from the breweries, that is obviously not true.)

After visiting Brahmari, Green Man felt like they were from another world: IPAs and, weirdly, British styles. (Like 1/3 of the taplist was devoted to British styles!) Few adjuncts anywhere. We must have hit them at the wrong time because a historical list of their beers is full of fun and weird stuff. But when we were there they felt like the most conservative brewery in town. (I am basing this on 4 breweries, which is hardly fair.)

We did a flight of IPAs. The coffee IPA was good. One other was weird but good. The other two were very run-of-the-mill. It would be a decent brewery in some cities but in Asheville, after experiencing just one other, it felt pretty ordinary.

So I really think we missed something here, because this place came highly recommended and it looks like they have made some really interesting beers. Just the wrong time of year, I guess.

Burial Beer Co.

We saved Burial for “not first” because basically everyone had told me it was the best in the city. I didn’t want to go here and ruin the other breweries for us.

I’m not the drinker I used to be and so one flight at Burial was all we could handle. We also tried to order food but found the kitchen closed. It closed at 9. (More on that in a moment.) Because we were doing only one flight we ended up ordering some of the weirder – or at least less popular beers – so our initial impression of Burial was not “best in the city” but rather “good”. A couple of the beers we had were just really on-style versions of not the most popular styles.

I should also point out that we had a brett beer here and we had one at Bhramari (I want to say) and it was disappointing. At least this first night it felt like nobody in town could figure out how to brew a good funky but not sour beer. (Or my preferred version thereof.) I am very picky when it comes to farmhouse/saison and adjacent stuff so maybe I’m just a tough critic but the brett IPA at Burial and the farmhouse at Bhramari were my least favourite of the night. So that was a disappointment.

We still hadn’t had enough food so we headed back to the main drag and started looking for food. But we couldn’t find any. Before 11PM on a Friday night. Most of the restaurants were closed, except the fancy ones (weirdly). And most of the bars’ kitchens had long closed. Maybe we were in the wrong neighbourhood but we were right downtown, in the heart of the tourist area.

Eventually we found a cafe full of under-21s trying to do something at night without their parents. We were able to find food there. But still, it was weird to be in such a popular place with so little food so early. As I said, we must have been in the wrong neighbourhood.

On our way back to the hotel our cabbie was listening to death metal. He said he was so happy to hear we had come from Canada to drink beer in Asheville. I don’t remember if he was the first person to say it, but he wasn’t the last.

| Day 2 >>>

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